In my spare time, I'm working on my fourth novel, a work of fiction that takes the reader into several alternate realities. Imagining other realities, I'm discovering, is a useful way to look at this one with fresh eyes, and wonder why it is the way it is.
The biggest thing to wonder about, it seems to me, is the huge discrepancy between what we know and what we do. We know, for example, that wars very seldom make a bad situation better and quite often make things much, much worse. We know that the global environment is becoming hotter and the weather is becoming more violent and unpredictable as a result of greenhouse gasses emitted by our civilized activities. We know that we should exercise more and eat better. Closer to home, pretty much everybody who has ever been a consumer would like to be treated, by industries and professionals, in the consumer's best interests, and we know how to create regulations and laws that would make that happen.
Why do all these knowings not produce more action? I think the answer is twofold. First, many of us tend to frame these issues narrowly, and with a bias toward our own self-interest. The wars are far away, only a few of our children are getting maimed or killed in them, and there is no immediate danger to our home and property. Creating a global consensus that we will put aside weapons would be complicated, and inconvenient, and we have a lot of work on our desk at the moment. Lobbying for a reduction in greenhouse gasses might result in eventually paying more for electricity and having to drive a smaller automobile. Who wants that? Someday, when we're less busy, we'll get around to exercising, and the work involved in crafting a fiduciary economy is too daunting for any one person to consider. Even in our profession, very few advisors ever get involved because, well, it would take time and money out of our lives, with no guaranteed return.
The second reason is that there are opponents of these obvious, logical initiatives who make a better living, the wider the gap between what we know and what we do. Weapons manufacturers and, indeed, any Pentagon contractor would wage a ferocious battle against a global ban on warfare and the reduction of weapons. In our profession, the sales entities on Wall Street and elsewhere stand to lose a huge percentage of their profit margins if they were required to put their customers' interests first. In all cases, the profits are so enormous (and, yes, I count the junk food and soda industries in this) that these companies are able to out-lobby and outspend just about any popular effort to close the gap that defines their profit margin.
So what do we do; just give up? I think, first of all, that our obligation to the world–and to our children and grandchildren–is to live with as little gap between what we know and what we do as possible. If the executives at tobacco companies would resign and look for other work, and everybody would refuse to take their place, we would have fewer cigarettes and better health in all sectors of our society. If brokers–especially those who are committed to doing a great job for their clients–would leave the brokerage environment en masse, and others refused to sell for a living under the guise of advice, then the enemies of a fiduciary standard would be weakened by orders of magnitude. If more people made a commitment not to purchase junk food, the industry would be far less profitable.
Beyond that, I think we have an obligation to be vocal about the gap in its various manifestations. If we know this, why are we doing that? Why are our Congressional representatives following the money instead of the welfare of their constituents? Voting against the gap could transform politics from hate-mongering and mud-slinging to something far more productive.
And finally, there is an obligation to spread the word. This could be as simple as talking with your friends and neighbors about the gap between fiduciary and sales, or your concern that we aren't doing anything about climate change when it has the potential to cause massive flooding in our coastal cities. If a consensus is reached that we need to close this or that part of the gap, I have a feeling that somehow, politically or economically, things will change.
In my novel, in an alternate universe, many of these gaps have widened from where they are today, and an individual is sent to try to change a collective mindset of hopelessness, disillusion and despair. Those, it seems to me, are the enemies of our social progress, and the biggest obstacles we face to closing the gap that we can all see, that we all worry about, that should be narrowing but isn't.