WASHINGTON — The new law on corporate responsibility will accomplish nothing without a profound change in American culture. It is this culture that drives people to violate the laws and risk public condemnation, if not prison, to make more money than they could ever possibly use.
Take Martha Stewart, who until recently was a stunning commercial success and a major arbiter of American taste. She was worth an estimated $650 million in 2001, according to Forbes magazine. What could possibly drive her to risk her reputation and fortunes, if not liberty, by going anywhere near the line that separates legal from illegal, in order to make a few more hundred thousand dollars?
Or what could make the founder and former CEO of Adelphia, John Rigas, and his sons, or former ImClone CEO Samuel Waksal or former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski all rich beyond belief engage in acts that led to criminal charges?
I should rush to add that none so far has been convicted of anything. But there is enough smoke (such as plea bargaining and evasive denials by the parties involved) that a reasonable person may assume there is some fire. If one wants to look at those already convicted, look at junk-bond king Michael Milken, who had an annual income not total wealth! of $550 million. He landed in prison after seeking to make a few more million.
Obviously, in the higher income brackets we are not talking about buying a home, sending kids to college, or purchasing a car. Money has become a way to keep score, to figure out who outranks whom. Making more dough has become a cross between a habit and an obsession. Padding expense accounts, paying bribes or kickbacks, and evading taxes become a routine.
Although the focus is on the CEOs and other corporate tycoons, they are hardly the only ones who don't know where to draw the line.
A well-known study asked people at various levels of a corporation, from CEO to receptionist, how much more income they needed to be satisfied. Whatever their income the answer was roughly the same about 20 percent more. Many affluent people feel squeezed, although a closer examination of what they purchase shows that they are hardly products one "needs." Throwing out perfectly good suits, ties, handbags, shoes, and linens is a case in point. The same holds for getting the most recent gadget, whether it is a Palm Pilot, BlackBerry, or SUV.
Maybe one way to begin to turn the culture of insatiable desire is to share with studies of affluent America that show that after a given level of income ($45,000 not a particularly high one) additional income does not purchase contentment.
A study by social scientists Frank Andrews and Stephen Withey found that the level of one's socioeconomic status had meager effects on one's "sense of well-being" and no significant effect on "satisfaction with life as a whole."
Other studies show that while at low incomes the amount of income does correlate strongly with happiness, the correlation soon levels off after a comfortable level of income is attained. Even more to the point, economic growth does not significantly affect happiness. Social psychologist David Myers reports that while after-tax income (adjusted for inflation) almost doubled between 1960 and 1990, nearly the same percentage of Americans were "very happy" during this time (35 percent in 1957 and 32 percent in 1993).
People who understand this phenomenon tend to engage in voluntary simplicity; they scale down consumption, engage in do-good activities in their spare time (which expands as they realize they need not bring home clients and stuffed briefcases), and enjoy families and friends more.
In extreme cases, people quit their high-paying, high-stress jobs, move to the countryside, and pick up carpentry or gardening. In less extreme cases, people cut back on their hours, move to part-time jobs, or retire relatively young. Still others scale down purchases of prestige items.
There is no evidence that those who adopt the voluntary simplicity culture are less prone to commit white-collar crimes; however, so far none of those who were caught include a single one of those postmodern, moderate hippies.
I am not implying that those who truly cannot make ends meet should test the boundaries of the law. But it is easier to understand why an unemployed mother would try to pocket some goods in a department store than why a billionaire would go illegally after a million or two more.
The cure for people who do not have the means to cover their basic needs is to ensure that they can get jobs that pay enough to provide their families a roof above their heads, three meals a day, shoes to go to school, and, above all, health insurance.
The rest of us should take a hard look at our purchases and dealings with the law. Does our sense that we "must" have certain goods drive us to go near the line, if not over it, when we prepare our tax returns, file for reimbursements, and deal with others at work and trade?
The time is right for those of us who have "made it" to reconsider some of the themes raised in an extreme form by the counterculture of the '60s. Less may be more. And more time with those close to us may be much more satisfying than making more money and buying more goods and even risk breaking the law. There may be a bit of Martha Stewart in many of us, but we should resist that path because we have a deeper understanding of what makes for a good life.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at George Washington University and author of 'The Monochrome Society.'