does fidelity matter?

no hooking anytime
Creative Commons License photo credit: telethon

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 old scandals). 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.

22 Replies to “does fidelity matter?”

  1. Although I agree that business fidelity matters, in practice, I think there’s very little correlation between marital and business fidelity. I don’t care what someone gets up to in their private lives – I prefer to judge them on their (often limited) ability to do the job.

  2. Leadership is based in trust. If your leader cannot be trusted in his personal life, why should be trust him in his public life? If given the choice, would you chose an “unfaithful” investment banker or a “faithful” investment banker.

    An we have have not even brought up the issues of possible blackmail and undue influence and “sexual lobbying”.

    I believe that one who is not faithful in his personal dealings, should not be trusted in public service. If he is willing to cheat on the mother of his children, why would he not cheat on me?

  3. @plonkee: But I guess I’d say that obviously Spitzer’s private life included breaking some laws, and considering he was (a) New York’s chief executive and (b) a lawyer, he clearly knew he was breaking laws, so his private life overlapped his public life. If he had a kink where he liked to dress up in a French maid’s outfit when he slept with his wife, I agree – I wouldn’t care about THAT. I think his lack of fidelity to his wife, as well as a lack of fidelity to his oath of office (to uphold laws) and even his responsibility for whatever wobbly code of ethics lawyers have, made him overall an unfit person.

  4. @Rocketc: Exactly. I didn’t even get into the question of whether his ability to lead could be compromised by blackmail, etc., but that’s a whole new can of worms…

  5. I’m not sure I put Patterson in the same boat as the other two. From what I can tell he and his wife were having difficulties, both had affairs, then they were able to get back together.

    Now – It seems that we look at politicians these days and almost expect them to lie. There was a time when being president would be a dream for a child. I’ll have to ask my daughter if that’s still the case. We need to hold our elected officials responsible for their actions and their morality. These should be the best people who are our leaders, not just best politician. People really don’t seem to care much about this though. Or maybe we expect so little of our elected officials that it doesn’t bother us so much when they lie. Remember the way Guiliani treated his ex-wife while he was in office? Still, he was seen as a national hero.

    Charles Barkley once stated that he was not a role model. He wanted the public to realize that there are people that should be looked up to besides basketball stars. Who are the role models these days? Not just for us as adults but for the next generation growing up. We need to strive to be the best, not meaning having the most money or power, but being the best people we can be.

    I guess I should have written a post instead!

  6. The broken promise bothers me–but I would have to say that is just being human with all our flaws, this isn’t to me the worst part. People have disappointed me over my lifetime with “broken contracts” even though not, necessarily legal ones. But I understand that, we all make mistakes, and I allow for that. Because we are human.

    What intrigues me about the Spitzer case, however is that he didn’t seem to operate under this allowance for others. He sanctimoniously prosecuted people for things he himself was doing. That’s what bothers me. Hypocrisy. I hold him to a higher standard, not because he has a high profile, but because he MADE his high profile out of going after people that were doing the exact same thing as he wound up doing.

    As to your comment about a fictional president that decides not to uphold parts of the constitution–don’t we already have that?

  7. You’re correct, of course, Steve. I thought you were going to take a slightly different direction and say that the ability to keep a promise is also a key element of financial independence. In particular, you are probably aware of the research that concludes that a successful marriage is highly correlated with financial success (whether or not that leads to financial independence I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader).

    Conversely, failure at marriage is highly correlated with financial difficulties. My wife’s sister saw a divorce lawyer a while back. His advice was that she should not pursue that track, lest she and the children would be reduced to poverty.

  8. I think a person who keeps all their promises is very rare. Every day I have promises that were made to me broken (“I’ll get that to you tomorrow,” “I’ll call you back”) and every week I break a few myself.

    This is not to excuse the politicians you name, all of whom have gone way beyond a few well-meant white lies, but I guess I think the statement, “anybody who can’t keep a promise is suspect in my eyes,” would make you suspicious of a heck of a lot of people.

  9. But can any person say that they’ve never broken a promise? I’m not defending the governors, but I’m saying that it’s not a black and white scenario. It’s not realistic to say that anyone that has broken a promise is implicitly untrustworthy, and that anyone that hasn’t broken a promise is implicitly trustworthy.

  10. @FFB: I only put Paterson in the same boat as the other two for one reason: whether or not you’re having difficulties, etc., you’re still breaking the marriage vow. I may be drawing a ridiculous line in the sand, but I don’t remember “faithful except when you’re fighting with each other” as part of my vows. And as far as whether Charles Barkley should or shouldn’t be a role model – neither he nor Giuliani nor anyone gets to choose to be a role model. WE choose role models – and based on that all of us are guilty of holding up Britney and Giuliani and Clinton and whoever as “role models” instead of people who deserve it.

    @Retired Syd: Spitzer definitely set himself up – just like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, etc. You can’t throw fire and brimstone at people and then expect them to be merciful when you fall. Spitzer was a total hypocrite, and now – in retrospect – clearly somewhat off his rocker to make idiotic choices like that. And I’m glad you caught my dig about the president – I was thinking of a specific president, whom I usually refer to as the “WPE.”

    @Curmudgeon: True. One of the defining characteristics of millionaires in The Millionaire Next Door is “only married once.” Keeping your promises means not defaulting on debts, running a strong business, etc. – so you’re right, I could have gone that way.

    I guess I’ve always looked at divorce this way: if you get to the point where you are married with kids, you need to be ready to wreck your whole life (financially and otherwise) to get divorced. That means there had better be a good, good reason and not just “we don’t like the same TV shows.” Of course abuse would fall in the “good, good reason” category – I don’t mean people aren’t in situations where they should consider it – but marriage is the new “going steady,” – a vague committment easily broken.

    @Elizabeth, @First-time Poster: I break promises all the time – “I’ll take the trash out before I go to sleep,” for example. There is a distinction. I always point out to people that I am a massive and frequent lawbreaker: I jaywalk, I go 5 miles above the speed limit, etc. It is unreasonable and rare to keep all of your promises, but it’s probably a good thing to aspire to – I do. I may not get there (ever) but I’d like to see even marginal improvements in our political leaders. I don’t think asking a sitting governor to keep his promise to his wife, the state, etc. by not transporting a woman across state lines for the purpose of prostitution is too much to ask. Would I be as mad at Spitzer if he got caught speeding? No, but then again, would I be mad at a schoolteacher who repeatedly taught my kids that George Washington’s name was Fred Washington? Yes, because I expect teachers to know their stuff – I expect the people who are charged with upholding our laws (many of whom are lawyers, to boot) to do a better job. It’s all relative, but moral relativism is a slippery slope. If you tell me 10 times you’ll call me back on an important matter, then yeah, I would be suspicious of you the next time I need a call and you tell me you’ll call me back. It’s a small thing, but after a while it matters…

  11. I care that he slept with a prostitute, because in effect he was saying that a human being is nothing more than a hamburger over which he gets to “have it his way.” That is disgusting, half the population of New York state is female, and he’s essentially saying half his state is subhuman and should be up for buying and selling. I don’t want a man like that anywhere *near* in charge of me.

    I also disagree with plonkee that marital fidelity and business fidelity are two different things. I think the personal relationships are the first place a person like this starts acting out because they know they will very likely get away with it; there are fewer laws governing how one must treat one’s relatives than there are governing how one must behave in a business transaction. (This is likely one of the reasons Westerners look askance at other cultures which have strict rules about marriage and family behavior: we have no equivalent institution since Christianity lost most of its teeth in the West.) I think that it’s when a person gets away with mistreating their family that they move on to mistreating other people. Had Spitzer never been caught buying a hooker, who knows what else he might have gotten up to. If his wife doesn’t make a further example of him by dumping him on his butt in the street, he might try it anyway. Not because she made him do it by letting him get away with infidelity, but because people like that think they’ve gotten away with something if they haven’t gotten the worst punishment possible.

    (And I wonder if he would even consider it a punishment to be dumped by his wife. Obviously he doesn’t care about her or he wouldn’t have been off buying hookers.)

    The comments on the prostitute’s MySpace page were unreal (it’s linked from her Wikipedia page, which is linked from Spitzer’s)–all positive comments, which goes without saying on MySpace, but then they acted like *she* was the one put out of joint and kept telling *her* to keep her chin up, and most of them seemed more interested in her music career than anything. Bizarre.

  12. Oh, and as for role models? I think one of the big reasons our kids get so fixated on famous people as role models is because their parents are not around to be those role models for them. My daughter learns more about how to behave by watching me than she does by listening to what I have to say. In short, I am going to be a more effective parent being around to demonstrate how human beings behave than I will be only seeing her for a couple hours in the evening and giving her verbal advice all the time.

    Pretty powerful, if you think about it.

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