Decency and the Detroit Automakers

Amid all the bad news nowadays, there is a rising sense of decency trying to break through in our society. This emergence is no accident; nor is it the result of pure altruism. Rather, it is being foisted upon us, like it or not, by the jolting reality of an automaker bailout, persistent financial crisis, and growing unemployment. The question is will we seize this moment to make this new sense of decency real, or will we let it slip in-between our fingers. The poster child for "anti-decency" is none other than the three amigos who run the big automakers. Their sheer stupidity of flying private jets to Capitol Hill in search of federal assistance was absolute hubris. Worse yet was their tone deaf public relations people who concocted the brilliant strategy of having them drive cross country to this week's hearings. I'm not sure which antic is more insulting to the American public's intelligence. What's more, after years of incompetence, indecision, and ineptitude, they showed up with their hands out, saying nary a word (until recent whimpers) of their own accountability. Meanwhile, their massive salaries have stayed intact.

In many ways, the earlier financial bailout has similar markings. Recent reports suggest that the $700 billion is not making it to people, but is being used by some banks to purchase new assets, or is sitting idle. Perhaps there is some logic in this approach, but the fact remains that people's homes continue to be foreclosed and their lives upended. Where's the relief?

The relief will come, in part, from our rising sense of decency. Such sentiments usually re-emerge when people feel that what they intrinsically value in society is being betrayed. That moment is fast approaching. There is an indelible line we can locate only when we realize that it might be crossed, that something basic about humanity is being violated. As I listen to the economic debate (and the debate on our two wars, as well), I can't help but have in my mind the following questions about our basic sense of decency:

 *How many people will still be laid off from the auto companies even if the companies receive every last nickel they want from Congress? * Where will these people go, and what will they do to make a living and maintain their dignity? * What will happen to communities like Flint or Detroit, or the countless other locales across the nation, when they plummet into even harder times? * How will we hear the voices of these people and communities once we tie a bow on the economic aid packages and move on to the next issue?

I hear these questions echoed in people's conversations, in workplaces, in the halls of Congress -- indeed, across our land. Underlying these questions is a concern over decency, a heightened consciousness about the nature of the challenges before us and the kinds of solutions we must craft in order to protect and uplift people. Of course, we all recognize that the nation requires strong, robust companies to be the job-producing, economic engines of society. But deep in the recesses of our heart we also know that merely rebuilding these engines is not enough. We must concern ourselves with people and their lives and their futures.

This concern for what is good and decent can easily get lost amid all the political jockeying, financial jargon, endless news coverage, and an urge among us to "move on." The pain of others can be too great to acknowledge and absorb. But we must not succumb to these pressures; rather, now is the time to express the kind of decency we wish to see shape our society. The opening has been made real by a converging set of unfortunate events. But it is here nonetheless. What will we do with it?