Do the right thing: Quit

Paul Suhey, front left, and Paul Silvis, front right, both members of the Penn State board of trustees, leave the Radison Hotel in Scranton, Pa., after the Freeh Report on the Sandusky scandal was released, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Paul Suhey, front left, and Paul Silvis, front right, both members of the Penn State board of trustees, leave the Radison Hotel in Scranton, Pa., after the Freeh Report on the Sandusky scandal was released, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Posted: July 23, 2012

After his government botched the response to last year's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared on television to announce his resignation.

"Under the severe circumstances, I feel I've done everything I can do," he said. "Now I would like to see you choose someone respectable as a new prime minister."

Kan was the fifth Japanese prime minister to step down amid popular criticism in five years. In fact, at all levels of Japanese government, public officials humbly hang their heads and resign as a matter of course. The Japanese culture of shame, or haji, calls for leaders to hold themselves strictly accountable when they fail to live up to their obligations.

Well, we need to find leaders with some haji here, folks. To be sure, Japan can get carried away: The same honor-at-all-costs mind-set contributes to its high suicide rate. But if Japan has an excess of shame, we have a dearth of it.

Can you imagine George W. Bush pulling a Kan and stepping down after Katrina? Or Jamie Dimon, facing as much as $7 billion in losses at JPMorgan Chase, saying the buck doesn't stop with his subordinates? Would Japan have tolerated a candidate for the highest office in the land saying, with a straight face, that he committed adultery because he just loves his country too damn much, as Newt Gingrich did?

Seems like our haji deficit has reached epidemic status. Our leaders use words like responsibility and accountability — often when talking about the poor — but rarely hold themselves to those standards. Pennsylvania officials caught behaving badly prefer to ride out the publicity and hope it blows over; some refuse to resign even after they're indicted (see: DeWeese, William).

So beginning today, let's impose our own Haji Doctrine on our leaders. Here are a few who ought to take a cue from the Japanese by doing the honorable thing and riding off into the sunset:

The Penn State Board of Trustees: Sorry, dudes, but just saying you're responsible doesn't absolve you of your responsibility — not when, of 32 trustees, precisely one expressed concern about Jerry Sandusky to then-university president Graham B. Spanier before the whole sordid mess erupted, according to an investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. The board was asleep at the wheel; if a Penn State student sleeps through an exam, does he get a mulligan for merely acknowledging that he's "responsible" for it?

If Penn State's trustees really want to show responsibility, they will release a statement saying they failed the test of moral leadership, failed the commonwealth, and failed their families, and that the best they can do to restore high-minded purpose to Penn State is to step aside. And then all 32 of them will resign en masse. It would be heroic, and it may be the only way to reverse the university's downward spiral.

The Lower Merion Township commissioners: Democratic commissioners approved an outlandish pay and benefits package last week for Township Manager Douglas Cleland, who will be pulling down $275,000 a year — more than Gov. Corbett or Mayor Nutter — including perks like "a company car plus fuel." Company is the key word, because this is the kind of package that shouldn't exist outside the private sector.

Hey, bureaucrats: It's not your money you're throwing at Cleland, it's the taxpayers'. It's not only wrong to be so generous with your constituents' dollars, it's impractical: If you substantially cut Cleland's pay, where else is the guy going to go? There aren't many townships willing to pay what Lower Merion has been shelling out.

But let's say he bolts. Defenders of the contract say this would be terrible, that Cleland is a great manager and they're lucky to have him. News flash: Lower Merion will survive without him. Trust me. And you will honor your fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers by stepping down.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele: She estimated that the state's voter-ID law would affect just 1 percent of Pennsylvania's voting population. Oops. Turns out it's really 9 percent — 18 percent here in Philly.

Put aside that voter-ID seeks to cure a made-up ill. (Our problem is that too few people vote, not too many.) The fact is that, like the Penn State trustees, Aichele shouldn't get a second chance at baseline competence. She got it wrong, and a bad law, leading to the disenfranchising of some 700,000 citizens, was passed partly as a result. There ought to be consequences for that kind of boneheadedness.

Of course, shame isn't a one-way street. Japanese officials act honorably because their electorate demands it. Maybe you and I need an infusion of haji most of all. Maybe we need to raise our standards and demand accountability.

So let's start a movement. Let's see if politicians and civic leaders will sign on to the Haji Doctrine. We have nothing to lose but our moral lightweights.

Larry Platt's column appears regularly in Currents. He can be reached at larry.platt@gmail.com.

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