Now that $6 billion has gone down America's red and blue drain in the election, it's time to address other pressing issues. For example, the American economy is speeding toward the looming fiscal cliff. Meanwhile, the stress of recent years apparently hasn't improved many powerful individuals' sense of personal ethics. Go, America.
As pressing as our current problems are, the biggest peril facing America is the lack of strong, ethical, courageous leadership in both the public and private sectors. So-called leaders exhibit lack of willpower and moral compasses gone amok more frequently than ever before.
"Leading" us to the brink
Fiscal cliff fatigue may be going around -- the term is fairly overused -- but that mentally taxing overload's nothing compared to the pain most Americans will feel if $700 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts zap the economy all at once, starting Jan. 1.
The American economy wasn't exactly going like gangbusters to begin with. The current earnings season has already implied a slowdown's under way, and 2013's widely expected to be a stinker. Plenty of companies recently let loose with some ominous forecasts in quarterly results, and some plan mass layoffs. Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) announced 2,300 job cuts last month, for example, and 3M (NYSE:MMM) confirmed the gloom by labeling the current environment the "slow-growth economy."
The 7.9% unemployment rate is still a grim level of joblessness, and many job seekers have simply quit looking. Although some tout glimmers of housing market "recovery," questions remain. Take high levels of shadow inventory in real estate, which could become foreclosures, particularly if the economy takes another hit.
I'm pretty sure most Americans are hoping for a less painful plan than simply nailing the economy with the double whammy of tax hikes and spending cuts delivered in a fiscal shock-and-awe campaign. The middle class can't absorb more strain, and government spending cuts would likely slow things down too, bleeding more jobs and drying up more consumer spending. Like it or not, such changes would have serious impact, and it wouldn't be fun for most.
Despite the controversial (and terrifying) idea of teetering on the edge of such a precipice with a gathering of extremely politicized leaders who aren't known for their abilities to lead, another aspect of leadership has been called into question recently.
The scandal surrounding CIA director David Petraeus' career-busting personal indiscretions has made waves in Washington, but his behavior isn't even all that unusual these days.
It was tempting to wonder if some "memo" had gone out last Friday: "Hey, it's Resign Due to Ethical Issues Day." Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) incoming CEO Christopher Kubasik resigned on the very same day as Petraeus because of an improper relationship with an underling.
Maybe 2012 has also been The Year of Affairs to Remember, given the fact that quite a few corporate heads have been forced to resign because of improper relationships that point to the slippery slope leading to other ethical lapses.
Similar events occurred at Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) and Restoration Hardware (NYSE:RH), the first of which has been struggling mightily with the competitive landscape, and the latter of which decided to go for a second chance in the public markets despite the scandal (and also faces a mighty difficult competitive landscape). Granted, both now have new head honchos, be that as it may.
Fix the (ethical) deficit
People in the highest levels of power in our society should be held to higher standards. Their vaunted titles actually should expose them to a higher level of scrutiny, not to mention responsibility. That responsibility relates to others. For CEOs, that's good stewardship of shareholder -- and, arguably, stakeholder -- capital. For public sector leaders, that's good stewardship of matters affecting the well-being of the American people.
Plus, the "slippery slope" argument underlines a psychological truth: The more someone bends the rules, the more they're tempted to stray. At some point, they may find themselves trying to "get away with" all kinds of failures in duties, or even higher levels of deception and even fraudulent behavior.
Whether it's refusing to try to find orderly ways to deal with America's horrific fiscal problems (you can't spend infinitely, nor spend the way to prosperity by endlessly borrowing) or refusing to put aside the distraction of personal desires, all manner of American leaders are exhibiting a lack of will, political or otherwise.
What we really need amid all this peril is a strong foundation, encouraging ethics, common sense, and the sense that trying to "do the right thing" is particularly expected of those in leadership positions. America has endured too many so-called "leaders" doing the politically or personally expedient things, the things that grant them reelections and gigantic paychecks and all the trappings that allow them to feel powerful, while letting the long-term health of our economy -- and our country -- suffer.
The sense that moral bankruptcy has been all too alive and well in the days before and after the 2008 financial crisis continues today. Given fiscal cliffs, slippery slopes, and other financial perils, hopefully more leaders will summon the courage to always seek to do the right thing for everyone their behavior impacts. We face many deficits these days, but the ethical deficit is worst of all.
Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.