Action — Meet Consequence! Why Our Decisions Matter

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There is a profound disconnect between what some people understand as their ability or right to take action (or fail to, equally powerful in many cases) — and the very real, direct, life-altering consequences of those choices on others.

Doctors know it. Teachers live it. Mechanics see it. Builders create it.

But for too many people, their actions are invisible, while their consequences wreak utter, public havoc.

Two U.S. national news stories make this (again) clear, the ongoing recession (partly caused by much greed and recklessness of Wall Street professionals) and the Penn State abuse scandal now making headlines:

This is not a case about football, it’s not a case about universities, it’s a case about children who’ve had their innocence stolen from them and a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others,” Frank Noonan said.

“What happened here was ‘grooming,’ where these predators identify a child, become mentors … then give them gifts, establish trust, initiate physical contact, which eventually leads to sexual contact,” Noonan said.

Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator on the college’s storied football team, faces charges that he abused eight boys. A grand jury’s report details his alleged sexual assaults of children as young as 10 in his home and in the team’s locker room showers.

In a recent issue of The New York Times, economist Nassim Taleb argues that bankers should not receive bonuses, as they reward excessive risk-taking — whose consequences the actors never directly feel:

The promise of “no more bailouts,” enshrined in last year’s Wall Street reform law, is just that — a promise. The financiers (and their lawyers) will always stay one step ahead of the regulators. No one really knows what will happen the next time a giant bank goes bust because of its misunderstanding of risk.

Instead, it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed, should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

Critics like the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators decry the bonus system for its lack of fairness and its contribution to widening inequality. But the greater problem is that it provides an incentive to take risks. The asymmetric nature of the bonus (an incentive for success without a corresponding disincentive for failure) causes hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster. This violates the fundamental rules of capitalism; Adam Smith himself was wary of the effect of limiting liability, a bedrock principle of the modern corporation.

Bonuses are particularly dangerous because they invite bankers to game the system by hiding the risks of rare and hard-to-predict but consequential blow-ups.

I’m exquisitely aware of the effects of my actions as a journalist and author of two non-fiction books.  I know that every single time I turn in an article or a book manuscript, I hold other people’s lives, words and reputations — both personal and professional — in my hands. This is serious stuff! (In the 20 years I’ve been writing for The New York Times, freelance, I’ve never had a correction published.)

When “Malled ” was completed, two lawyers read it over carefully. We excised certain elements, shaded others, and I learned a lot about libel law. I also bought liability insurance in case anyone I wrote about — under the amusing delusion I’m wealthy — decides to come after me.

I recently wrote about a man who runs a wilderness survival program, that I took and described in the Times. I wondered why I hadn’t heard back from him. He was so swamped with new students and interest from across the country that he only wrote this week to thank me. I’m delighted that my skills (and the platform of a major newspaper) have brought his work, skills and passion to a wider audience. This is such a privilege my work affords me!

I’ve known for decades that my actions have consequences, for good (yay!) and for ill.

I wish more people really understood this.

15 thoughts on “Action — Meet Consequence! Why Our Decisions Matter

  1. YES.

    If there was one thing I wish I could pound into the heads of ever single person who comes into the Police Department, it would be the (seemingly obvious) concept of basic cause and effect. Nothing irritates me more than to see someone come into our office arguing that they should be somehow exempt from their action’s consequences. I want to shake them and demand, “Your choices have ripple effects, some that touch other people! Do you really not get this?”

    Where do you think this sense of cosmic immunity, or that they should somehow be immune, comes from? I’ve laid awake at nights trying to work this one out but so far the answer eludes me.

  2. Pingback: Action — Meet Consequence! Why Our Decisions Matter « Broadside | Four Blue Hills (A repository, of sorts)

  3. Marlo Heresco

    Caitlin, this is a most excellent topic and blog! It’s one that I personally find frustrating, and in most instances, infuriating. There are simply too many headlines today of people crying the blues once they’re caught, then attempting to outright flee their consequences.

    Similar to the comment from C., I too have laid awake in bed at night and wondered why these people are ‘mature’ enough to do the action, yet not ‘mature’ enough to endure their own self-inflicted consequences. I also do not have an answer. The only haphazard explanation I can offer is self-entitlement.

    Perhaps highschools should begin a ‘Cause and Effect’ study program for those who truly do not get it, which seems to be many, in an attempt to save the next generation, or maybe it could be the subject of someone’s next book (hint hint).

    I think the bottom line is that we live in a very selfish society and as the population continues to grow, so will this problem. What DO we do?? I suddenly have thoughts to ponder over my next coffee…

    1. I wonder (?) how much of this is cultural…i.e. is is as bad (worse?) in countries beyond the U.S.? I live near NYC, which might be the land of entitlement. I get the feeling here that people think if they have enough money (to move, to hire a good lawyer) they can get away with almost anything.

      1. Marlo Heresco

        You may smirk at what I’m about to share, but my self-entitlement assumption for those with bad behavour is derived from my own dating experiences. I have been left jaw-dropped on more occassions than I care to remember from men, older men, with bad behaviour problems.

        Granted, it’s not comparable to the scale in your bog, however it was still the “I can do / say / act as I please and that’s that.” I’d seen it many times with men in their workplace. I’d seen them exert this thinking onto their friends, of which they had few. I’d seen them do it with legal matters, in their minds being ‘above the law.’

        On a few occassions I managed to stick around long enough to see where this attitude and way of thinking came from and in every instance of my personal experience, it was from being overly mothered. They had been taught that they simply could do no wrong, that they were as close to perfect as perfect comes and that they were an exception to the rules. In essence, blah, blah, blah. When problems occured in their younger lives, mother and / or father bailed them out. As youth, they never suffered consequences. These men carried this with them into adulthood and applied it to all aspects of their lives.

        I’m of the 40 age group and have not dated for many years. I’m quite content with my life the way it is and simply don’t feel the need, nor am I attracted to what seems to be left available to my age group, however when I see these headlines, these stories, these men and women who act so selfishly, I can’t help but wonder…

  4. I’ve seen this as well. Luckily, I’ve never dated a man like this, but I’ve seen this behavior and find it pretty scary. I’ve also seen it in my own family….and have suffered its consequences.

    1. Marlo Heresco

      Thank goodness I’m not looking or I’d be one lonely lady.

      Either way your blog was great. Thanks for replying to the replies. I think more people should read it so I’ve glued to my workpage on Facebook. Here’s hoping my men-friends take notice. 😉

  5. Stone in pond and ripples are made that the results may never be seen, but are surely taking place. This Penn State thing hurts my heart. When the strong abuse the weak, my soul cries. And, to cover up this atrocious action is in itself an atrocious action.

  6. My point exactly…People tend to focus on actions (I didn’t do it!) when NOT taking action means they often complicit in appalling behaviors that hurt many people. Their cowardice and self-interest are as harmful in not stopping such attacks.

  7. This is an incredibly well thought out analogy. I read Maureen Dowd’s column this morning and have been following the Penn State story. Whether on a grand scale, personal scale or criminal scale as you point out all actions have consequences. My father taught me as a young girl that a job is worth losing, but your integrity is not. I am grateful to him for teaching me that lesson early on.

    1. Thanks. I agree.

      Smart journalists learn early to keep a “f**k-you fund” so when — as often happens in the course of a career — your ethics and reputation are about to be sacrificed to your employers’ greed or poor judgment you can walk away and not starve. I think people are less inclined to view their reputation as more important than their paycheck or status, which is sad.

      I never want to do work I’m ashamed of.

  8. Just as in nature: a unballasted predatory model cannot survive, and end up distroying itself and anything in its pass. Anybody too. It is the reason for which no matter how sofisticated societies become, a harmonius economic, social and political life have to coexist. Modern societies cannot be run by private interest at the expense of the rest of the people: that has been clearly proven. Thanks for your “repository” and the fine post you’re entertaining.

  9. Pingback: End Bonuses for Bankers – NYTimes.com « Ye Olde Soapbox

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