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THE MORNING BUZZ: Rethinking Our Idea of Independence

8 Jul, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

The long weekend in observance of Independence Day gave me too much time to think about the state of affairs in our country and what we value.

In our system, independence often correlates directly to money. A lot of people lately, hardworking Americans, have had to give up their present or future independence because of a few people who grew so independent they stopped caring about their employees, their customers, the national economy or anything but themselves.

Since Sept. 11 we've been hypervigilant about foreigners. We view with suspicion activities that never seemed strange before. Newsman Dan Rather recently lamented in a British interview that the national zeal has made it difficult to question any of our government's actions in the name of "the war on terrorism."

Many people are caught up in the idea that everything American is better than anything anywhere else. But is it? While we're fighting to protect ourselves from foreign enemies, we're leaving an awful lot of foxes guarding the henhouse. Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom, Adelphia, the list goes on and on.

Executives at those companies are accused of cooking the books to inflate stock prices, loaning themselves big bucks and, in some cases, vesting their employees' funds in the company they knew they were making worthless. How is ruining thousands of lives to improve a balance sheet not terrorism?

There's another corporate battle on the independence front that has to do with another type of theft from employees. It appears that while Wal-Mart has been out chaining America, it has also been chaining employees to their posts for lots of unpaid overtime. At least that's what a bunch of employees are saying in a huge class action lawsuit. Wal-Mart is, of course, defending itself vigorously against the charges, but it's not the first time. Wal-Mart has had to pay fines and judgments in the past for violating wage and hour laws.

More than one of my colleagues and several letter-writers have lamented in this space that Wal-Mart pushes mom-and-pop shops out of business and homogenizes diverse communities into the same bland, big box landscape. It's a chain that survives on gobbling up independent businesses. Does it also survive by becoming the only employer in a lot of towns, then forcing free work out of employees who have nowhere else to go?

The next evil ripple will be the shock of firing lousy CEOs. Last October Jack Nasser got nearly $28 million to walk away from a Ford he left $4.5 billion in the hole. Jean Marie Messier just got a multimillion-dollar bum's rush out of Vivendi-Universal. These guys have contracts that make it very hard and very expensive to oust them no matter how badly they have performed.

It's a telling point that while we're caught up in a communal patriotic fervor, Americans are bailing out of the stock market in droves. We're pretty gung ho to defend a mercenary capitalist society in which many of us have lost faith.

It's not just foreign terrorism crushing our national spirit. It's a system that rewards not only colossal management failures, but labor abuses, vicious greed and daily disregard for anyone who's not on Mahogany Row. We expect people to run honest companies when they think they're too important to be bothered with using turn signals for lane changes. Even common courtesy has a price tag in our great society.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to get ahead. It's the American way. But at some levels that way has become so convoluted it's counterproductive. It no longer inspires leadership and innovation, just tenure and egotistical maneuvering.

We're proud of the service people overseas fighting an ill-defined "war on terrorism" to protect our country. How much do we think about making them proud of what they're defending and when will that show up in the way we do business?

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