Even for someone like me who avoids the news, it has been hard to avoid the recent stories about New York’s ex-governor or current governor (let alone New Jersey’s ex-governor new scandal on top of his ). Each one committed a sexual indiscretion (to put it mildly). and In two of the cases, the governors stepped down; in the most recent, Gov. Paterson will survive although his confession comes a little too close on the heels of his ascension to New York’s executive spot.
I do not care about the morality of what each of those men did. What Eliot Spitzer did with a call girl is a matter for his conscience, frankly. His wife and children and friends have to make their own decisions about whether they will reject him or forgive him, but it has less than nothing to do with anything I might think – although I do have an opinion. But what has bothered me in each case – Spitzer, McGrevey, and Paterson – is the lack of fidelity, and the inability to keep a promise.
“Why are you talking about fidelity and promises in a personal finance blog,” you may ask. Stop interrupting! Let me digress a little bit further and go back to my days as a bright-eyed MBA student, ready to take on the world. One of the courses we were required to take (two semesters, actually) was business law. A huge portion of the courses was devoted to contract law – the study of how contracts are made and when they can be considered to be in force. A contract is a binding agreement between two parties that can be enforced by the law. We make contracts every day. Your house, your telephone, your car, your credit cards are all yours only through a contract. If you are married, you signed a marriage contract. If you drop off dry cleaning, an effective contract has been formed that the dry cleaner will clean and return the clothes for a sum.
I remember a million examples of conditions when a contract was valid and a very, very small number of examples of cases where it wasn’t. If you are drunk you can’t enter into a contract. You can’t contract to do something illegal (because the law couldn’t force a remedy). But the main point is that if you enter a contract, you are promising X in exchange for Y with another party.
Each of these governors had a contract with their wives. Each of them had a contract, in effect, with the citizens of their states, too. Spitzer, a lawyer, had a contract of sorts to uphold the law (and made a contract for illegal services, obviously). Does the fact that these men broke promises – most famously, the promise to stay faithful to their wives – matter? Does it matter that people made a contract to pay XYZ Mortgage Inc. a usurious rate of interest after an initial low-payment period ended matter? And does it matter that the Federal government has promised that $100,000 of deposits in any FDIC-insured financial institution is insured no matter what?
You bet all of that matters. I think the fact that people were more disgusted by the fact that Spitzer slept with a prostitute than broke his vows was telling. I was more bothered that he couldn’t keep a promise he made to his wife. If he had broken his vows with Mary Sue Goodneighbor, his childhood sweetheart and true love, it would have been just as bad. It does not matter that he slept with a prostitute. Adultery is still illegal in New York state so it’s not a question of legality. The ability to keep a promise is a sign of a person of good character; the inability to keep a promise is a sign of bad character. It doesn’t matter so much what the promise IS. I count on elected officials to honor FDIC insurance, for example; but if they can’t keep promises to their wife, why are they going to keep one with me? If I can’t count on my governor to keep a promise that he made before his God (or on his word or to Zeus, or whatever), why can I even vaguely count on him to keep campaign promises, or even uphold the Constitution?
So many aspects of our lives are bound up in contracts that it’s hard to imagine the implications if that system broke down. What if your mortgage company called you up one day and told you they’d met a younger, prettier homeowner and they’d like you to get out of the house so they can give it to them? What if your President told you that despite his promise to uphold the Constitution he had decided to ignore large portions of it?
Anybody who can’t keep a promise is suspect in my eyes, and if you count on politicians, who have almost become a laughable group of philanderers and thieves, to protect your property rights and your money and your investments, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn, and I won’t even make you sign a contract.