This financial crisis is more than what it appears.
It is symptomatic of a society that sometime over the last 30 years lost its way by seeking not the road less traveled, but instead the quickest route.
It is the culmination of a mindset that increasingly became interested in pursuing immediate gratification at any cost.
Look around you. In every area of modern life, the shortcut has become the rule, not the exception.
In sports, we substituted medicine for athleticism as steroids offered the quickest path to success (And I cheered as Mark McGwire belted homer after homer chasing down Maris’ record).
In entertainment, we substituted notoriety for talent as reality television offered the quickest path to fame (And I lapped it up as Richard Hatch ‘survived’ an island and dozens of out-of-control women wooed Flavor Flav).
In war, we substituted power for strategy as shock and awe offered the quickest path to victory (And I couldn’t pull my eyes away as CNN aired its little war video game, the pinball-like sights and sounds of buildings being destroyed and people getting killed).
In friendship, we substituted technology for intimacy as tweets and status updates offered the quickest path to communication (And I blog away, making facile analogies as dreams of writing the Great American Novel slip away).
It goes on and on and on.
We wanted it big, we wanted it all, we wanted it now.
Cheating, if not encouraged, was at least ignored. Just pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
So is it really any surprise that in business, too, we fell prey to the same phenomenon? In hindsight, it almost seems inevitable that we indulged in this financial alchemy, pursuing policies and practices to make the quick buck while conveniently ignoring the potential long-term negative consequences of our actions. The no-doc loans, the credit default swaps, the collateralized debt obligations belong in the same metaphorical bucket as the anabolic steroid, Omarosa and gastric bypass surgery.
The funny thing is, the issue isn’t due to a loss of work ethic. Most of the bankers who concocted these weapons of mass destruction worked insanely hard at their jobs, just as our medically enhanced athletes put in long hours at the gym, just as our most vacuous reality stars went to incredible lengths to promote themselves (and just as I am spending way too much time trying to fine-tune this post).
And I’m not about to suggest that this eagerness to seek the shortcut is an entirely new development. People have of course always found ways to cheat or exploit the system – it’s just that in the past, the tools were more rudimentary and thus less dangerous (e.g. the spitball and the corked bat just can’t wreak the same havoc as the human growth hormone).
We became too smart and too powerful for our own good. We acquired knowledge and technology, but not the wisdom to use them productively, or to realize that sometimes we should refrain from using them at all.
And unfortunately, our primary solutions to this crisis so far – the stimulus plans, the bailouts, the monetary injections – offer more of the same. We are still seeking the quick, easy way out. Wanting it all, and wanting it now. Not willing to deal with the consequences of our actions.
Which of course makes perfect sense. In a world where man ultimately controls so little, including the time and manner in which he will depart it, how can we be surprised when he believes he has figured out a better way of accomplishing a goal and overplays his hand.
We have gotten what we deserved.
We have somehow lost our way.
We better find it back.