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The Trouble with America Is...

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The trouble with America is... Don't you just hate it when a sentence or conversation begins like that? I tend to hear it a lot as I spend a good deal of time in a foreign country, namely Canada. I also spent some time in France this summer and I heard it there too. With American financial problems being seen as the origins of the world's economic problems, it is understandable why people are upset and feel the need to share.

People have said to me that the trouble with America is that we allowed our financial system to get really messed up. They've said that America runs too high a budget deficit and expects the world's savers to just keep on funding it. Americans drive cars that use too much gasoline. Americans don't recycle as they should. Americans, as rich as they are, don't give enough to the world's poor. Americans think they are the center of the Universe. The list is long indeed.

I hate those words even more when the word "you" is there in the place of the word America. The trouble with you is... The words that follow generally represent some "truth" that the messenger is being cosmically forced to deliver. Or maybe it just feels that way. So, with that in mind, what is the trouble with America that is causing me, an otherwise happy and optimistic person, to continually wake up at 4 am?

In truth, there is so much trouble in America that the trouble with me is that I cannot sleep, am fired up, and feel called to action. I am having a marginally negative impact, or so I am told, on my husband, my kids, and perhaps my friends too. They seem to want the old Jacki back, the one that does not spend so much time on a soapbox. But should they?

The last time I remember feeling this fired up was many years ago while working in the executive office at Goldman Sachs, reporting to the two co-presidents and then-CEO Hank Paulson. My role was to "help manage the careers of the firm's managing directors" and specifically the women. One such woman, a managing director who felt her 15+ year career was over, was being pushed around from one job to another. In performance reviews, the higher ups made it seem that everything was OK and yet they slowly stripped away her responsibilities, taking away her confidence, ultimately, too. At the point I got involved, she was walking the halls of Goldman exposed. When I read the story in this Sunday's New York Times, "When Citi Lost Sallie," about Sallie Krawcheck's departure from Citigroup, it sounded like a somewhat similar situation.

How damaged and defeated they allowed the MD at Goldman to become enraged my sense of justice. I will never, ever forget the answer I got from a very senior person at the firm who had the power to do something. "Jacki, he said, the trouble with you is that you care too much." If you are a leader, a manager of your organization and you want to completely demoralize a passionate person who works for you, tell them those four little words. "You care too much."

Isn't the problem at the heart of the trouble with America is that we, as Americans, do not care enough? Back in those days at Goldman I cared so much that at the point when I did not think other people cared enough about what I cared about I had to leave. For me the issue was creating a powerful culture and for Sallie, it seems, it was serving her wealth management clients well. Over and over again these past few months, I have asked myself what headline in the newspaper, what announcement on CNN, what article in what magazine, will it take to get every person in this great country of ours to really start caring?

To be sure, we are, by many accounts, a generous country. Private philanthropy here is among the highest in the world and people give generously of their time in countless ways. We are a country that believes in change, as we have just proved. Some people, many people, out of love, compassion, fear and/or worry are putting themselves out there in ways big and small. To them I say thank you, congratulations, and keep going!

I am inspired by the activism I witness all around me. Last week my son had community service day at school. Instead of having regular classes all the kids in his grade cleaned desks, planted bulbs, and put down mulch. A week ago a friend with an incredible background in investment banking told me she wrote a letter on what she would do to solve some of the big financial problems and sent the letter to a governor she knew, using all the connections she could find to try to get that letter read. Two days ago while attending a conference at Morgan Stanley, I met a woman who lived in Washington who just showed up at Obama's campaign headquarters and said put me to work. There are many who feel similarly called to duty.

But sadly, for every person who is doing something, there are a whole lot of people that are not doing much. Yesterday I called up a friend, one of the smartest people I know in the mortgage market who, for more than a decade, managed the securitization desk of a large investment bank. I called him because I had just heard Larry Fink, the President of Blackrock, tell a group of 300 plus business woman at a conference his idea for solving the problems in the mortgage market. Fink's answer did not make sense to me, and he is actually one of the guys that the government calls upon for advice. My friend agreed that Fink's solution was not realistic and went on to explain very thoughtfully what he would do. His solution made sense so I suggested, well insisted, he put it forth in a public way. He is.

If you are angry and worried about the problems this country is facing, think about what you can do to help and do it. Just do it. Go pick up garbage in your town. Give excess "stuff" you have in your home away to those who may need it. Buy food and take it to the food bank. Lead the effort to get children in your neighborhood to do more community service. Invite someone who just lost their job over for a meal. Cancel your Christmas vacation and instead give that money away. Call your local non-profit and say put me to work. Write a thoughtful op-ed on your area of expertise and get it out there. Post a comment on something you read because it has moved you. Fight for someone that is getting mistreated in your workplace, particularly if that person is from an underrepresented group. Write a letter to your congressperson. Hold gatherings in your home to talk about financial preparedness. Submit your name for one of the thousands of jobs available in Washington. Do something and then keep doing something. Small acts matter. Big acts matter. It all matters.

Here's what may happen if we fail to act: As a country we are already walking around somewhat exposed. We have trillions of dollars of government, agency, municipal, asset-backed, and corporate debt out there that we are relying on the world to continue to finance. If the world does not believe we care enough to do the right things to ensure that debt will get paid back, and not with a massively deflated currency, then we will be in even deeper trouble than we are in now.

So may these troubling headlines, any troubling headline, be your call to action. May the dire circumstances, if not your own but others, serve as a wake-up call to those of us who are simply not doing enough and are capable of doing more. Aren't almost all of us capable of doing more? With the hope of change in the air and the promise of a new administration in Washington, let us, too, on a local level, be the change we wish to see. Look for a problem in the world that you can grab hold of and that drives people to say the trouble with you is. May the trouble with you be, and the problem with American be, we care too much.

*This piece was in part inspired by Rob Bell and his video RICH.