What do Joe Paterno's firing, the state of things in Greece and Occupy Wall Street have in common?
Paterno (in whose name we find the Latin word for "father") failed to respond adequately to personal corruption in his immediate environment. More than that, it was taking place within his specific area of direct responsibility. In the family, you might say. (If you are reacting in a way to defend Paterno, please read the Grand Jury report before making any final judgment on his innocence here.)
Greece has in not so recent years fallen into a state of personal and political corruption best characterized by the failure of a tax and judicial system that holds almost no one accountable for failure to pay, flagrant lying, misrepresentation and virtually all other known forms of evasion. Basically the country is crawling with cheats who are seeking their own advantage and colluding in the advantage-taking of others by turning a blind eye. Why anyone would buy a Greece-backed bond at any interest rate is beyond me - unless you think the Germans will make it good.
Greece has no reliable public book-keeping system nor a functional tax regime nor mechanisms (or will) to enforce laws, which are therefore routinely ignored. For more color and detail here read Michael Lewis' latest book "Boomerang," in which he devotes a very entertaining chapter to the Greece he found when he visited recently. He reports that his sensibility as a journalist seeking illustrative anecdotes was dulled by the sheer repetition of one horrifying example after another.
Occupy Wall Street (or Oakland or Denver or San Francisco or any of the other cities expressing inchoate outrage) is a movement against corruption of these types - the failure of people in high places to do the right thing when it is obvious what needs to be done, or failing to establish and enforce a set of reasonable rules and mechanisms to protect against the darker side of human nature.
That side of human nature is the self-gratification-seeking side that believes the self comes first, and anyone who doesn't play that way is a fool.
At the most grotesque level we have a coach at Penn State sexually exploiting boys as young as 10 years old and not being held accountable by people in a position to intervene once the behavior was known. This story you can find in the Grand Jury report, which should make any reasonable person furious.
At the cultural or state/social level of Greece, we have a kind of moral rot in which citizens of all kinds exploit a system designed by citizens to be exploited. Everyone is in on it, and anyone trying to address it is punished, frozen out, vilified - maybe even scared into shutting up.
Occupy Wall Street and its associated movements are propelled in part by a reaction against corruption at the top, the self-seeking and exploitive behaviors that require collaboration among the elite, but also require participation among those who want to get on or stay on the gravy train, and who don't want to upset their own apple cart (Pardon the mixed food metaphor here.) Congress is fueled by money that pays them to support laws that are not good for the whole but serve the campaign-contributing part.
Years ago at a Harvard seminar I listened to a high-level lawyer experienced in business and government who was asked what was the most important challenge or weakness in the United States? At the time (1983) the country was coming out of 1970s stagflation and worried about the rise of Japan.
His answer was unexpected, at least by me.
"Intellectual dishonesty," he said, "From the highest levels on down." He went on to say that this weakness was often accompanied by collusion and moral cowardice.
Please count me among those who believe Joe Paterno absolutely deserved to be fired, notwithstanding his years of service on the football field and being beloved by many. He failed to uphold the father's first duty - to protect his children - and also to clean house when it was evident that rot had set in. And we might call this rot of the very first order because it violated every child's right to feel safe - and be kept safe - from adults who would exploit them.
Greece will not easily be able to un-corrupt itself because the social/political rot is too pervasive, deep and broad. The country is feeding at the trough of its own making and they have run out of slops.
The corruptions that have insinuated themselves into the US system may be in some ways as difficult to address, as we try to undo some of the self-dealing practices in the financial service and other big-money regulated industries. Let's start by bringing back the Glass Steagall Act, which should never have been repealed. Those in authority knew that well well enough.
To take another example we should also start undoing some of the most extreme retirement packages granted US Senators or other public servants (check your local police retirement package for some scary examples), just as Greece will have to address its "retire-at-50" program. Oh, and all those Californians enjoying absurd property taxes made possible by Proposition 13 will have to give some of that up.
It might seem overwhelming to tackle the breadth and depth of corruptions of these kinds because they take so many forms. So just look around for simple examples close to home, stand up for what you think is right and speak against what you know is wrong.
That might be called government by the people. It should occupy us.