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Tom Matlack Headshot

Did We Learn Anything?

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I was trapped on a transcontinental flight yesterday with nothing better to do but watch Goldman Sachs executives testify before Congress while the ticker for the company itself continued to rise in the lower righthand corner of the screen. As the founder of a foundation called, some would say ironically at this historic moment, "The Good Men Project" I have often been asked about the series of sex scandals which have rocked the public consciousness in recent months. And as both a career venture capitalist and son of Civil Rights activists, I have spent a lot of time trying to balance out how to reconcile the need for economic prosperity and the need for fairness in our society.

As I watched Senators relentlessly attack the investment bankers who packaged mortgages comprised of borrowers who did nothing more than verbally report their income, I finally came to a single question to summarize our era.

In all this pain and suffering, stupidity and tragedy, war and natural disaster, hope and despair...in the final analysis, have we really learned anything?

As my Quaker grandmother told me some years ago after I had made a profound mistake in my life, "It's not how you fall that counts it's how you pick yourself up." How are we as a country going about picking ourselves up from all this reckless abandon?

My generation (I am 45) seems to me be characterized by more decadence and more selfishness than any before in our history. In some ways its less obvious than the LBO days of the 1980s. It runs deeper and is more permanent and more dangerous.

The fact that a billionaire golfer who supposedly stands for all that is right with our country, for our very moral fiber and ability to transform what is possible, along with the banks which are the underpinning of our financial system including the institutions that has always represented the very pinnacle of ethics and team culture, have fallen to the depths of depravity are more signs of the times than the problem in and of themselves.

My many Republican friends, including my wife, often point out that very nearly half (48 percent) of Americans pay no Federal Income tax. I can certainly quibble with the definition but they are in the strictest sense correct. The real question is what that fact means to all of us.

To me it means that almost half our citizens are so damn poor that they fall below threshold we set to pay income tax. It is a profound statement about what has happened to the majority of our citizens.

The problem with Tiger Woods isn't Tiger Woods its the way our country is addicted to sex and pornography as the biggest industry no one is willing to talk about. The consumption of graphic material is exploding even amongst our high school boys.

The problem with Goldman Sachs isn't Goldman Sachs its the way we have allowed greed to overrun our nation's character, providing enormous wealth to a tiny fraction of our citizens and leaving everyone else behind.

Decadence is the word that came to mind on the plane yesterday. We have become a society where sex and wealth are the virtues we all aspire to. We go to war to protect our ability to watch pornography and stockpile money.

When we talk about our national character it actually has to mean something. The tragedies we have been through can't be one more celebrity rehab episode. They actually have to sink into our individual minds as an indictment on us as Americans. We have to look in the mirror rather than continuing to point fingers.

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