‘Our What’s In It For Me’ Society


These are hard times for the United States. Our economy is floundering. Unemployment is high. Bankers and financiers seem to be getting away with immoral and even illegal actions. People are disgruntled and dissatisfied. Our government seems to be unable or unwilling to right the obvious wrongs or to get us out of the morass. There is general malaise.

I believe there is a common thread that underlies our present situation. It is the overarching attitude that behavior in our society is primarily determined by the WIIFM principle or ‘What’s in it for me’.

Let us look at some specific examples. Elected politicians in the executive and legislative branches of our federal government should make decisions on the basis of what is best for society and our country. Unfortunately this consideration is a minor motivation.

Uniformly our President and Congress do what is most likely to get themselves re-elected, i.e., what is best for them personally, not what is best for our country. They are constantly campaigning rather than governing. As a result, actions to support entrepreneurship and private job creation are not taken, and class warfare is encouraged because more votes will be gained than lost.

Attorneys who block tort reform are another example of the WIIFM principle. They must know that the present system is imperfect and costing our society billions of dollars, at least some of which are unjustified. Yet they spend millions supporting the re-election campaigns of legislators to block even a wisp of reform. Both the attorneys and the legislators who are influenced by this legal form of bribery are clearly guided by WIIFM. Society pays and suffers.

Similarly, bankers and others in the financial community, known collectively as Wall Street, guided by the WIIFM principle expend great efforts to preserve a system riddled with opaque derivative securities and other practices which benefit a few clever manipulators and harm our financial system and our society. Financial donations to politicians, again legalized bribery, and unfair executive compensation help to sustain a system in which rewards are far in excess of the value contributed to society.

Labor unions and their leaders are also substantially motivated by WIIFM. Otherwise they might compromise on demands to preserve unsustainable pension and benefit systems that are bankrupting our state and federal governments. The promise of votes and again contribution-associated influence over elected leaders are part of the toxic mix. Once again WIIFM triumphs over what is good for our overall economy and our country. The effort to close the job-creating Boeing plant in South Carolina and the pension preserving battles in Wisconsin and Ohio are glaring examples of the evils of WIIFM.

So also are the efforts of some to block any tax increase. If government waste, spending excesses, and unfair tax loopholes can be sharply diminished, reasonable tax increases can be considered part of a shared sacrifice for the common good of deficit reduction. All must acknowledge that our economic problems can only be solved by the compromise of such shared sacrifice. We will be better off in the long run and so will our progeny.

Physicians can also be motivated by the WIIFM principle. There is the temptation to maintain diminishing incomes at all costs – even by performing procedures that may not be fully indicated or justified, or by spending less than adequate time with individual patients. Our health care system is imperfect in many ways, but physicians too must resist the urge to be guided predominantly by WIIFM.

Finally there is the public at large. Are we guided in our voting by short-term WIIFM? Should we vote for the candidate who will lower our personal taxes the most in the next few years? Or should we vote for the individual who we believe will act in the best interests of our country at-large and its future long-term well-being?

We must all recognize the intrinsic dangers of being motivated excessively by WIIFM. Our country cannot survive and prosper if everyone pursues that motivation. We do not have the resources to do so. We must all display some of the courage, restraint, and spirit of compromise of our forefathers who took huge political and physical risks to found our country. They were motivated by a desire to do what was best for the country at large, to work for the greater good, to do what was right for the whole society. It often required self-denial, shared sacrifice, compromise, altruism, and the responsibility to act for the common good. The WIIFM principle had to be suppressed. The result was a United States of unparalleled greatness.

Today we are drifting away from that greatness. Aside from our military and a few other rare exceptions, the WIIFM principle seems to underlie that drift. Although some self-interest is acceptable and part of the human nature, we must all resist the temptation to make that our predominant motivation. Otherwise our country will decline, and we are doomed to failure.

Clearly, this recognition and movement away from WIIFM, this ‘me-first attitude’, this idea of ‘let someone else sacrifice’ should begin with our key political leaders. They must find the courage to do what is right for our country, and give up their WIIFM motivation of acting solely to get re-elected. If they can start the ball rolling in the right direction, surely other segments of society and indeed all of us should be able to follow.

Dr. Veith is Professor of Surgery at New York University Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic. He is also an associate medical editor for Vascular Specialist.

The ideas and opinions expresssed in Vascular Specialist do not necessarily reflect those of the Society or the Publisher.


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