Ladies and gentlemen, your responses to last week’s column on the subprime mortgage mess were absolutely terrific. The PWB mailbag staff— consisting of four earnest college interns and half a dozen above average capuchin monkeys toiling away in a windowless office—received a record amount of mail from all across the country and overseas.

There were emails from lenders, mortgage brokers, bankers, real estate agents and borrowers… the personal stories, insight and opinions were fascinating.

Frankly, I’d love to devote the next couple of columns to simply reprinting as many of the reader emails as possible related to this latest national display of greed and irresponsibility run amok. However, I suspect the editors would see that as an effort to avoid writing something new, which could lead them to question my intellectual prowess… which inevitably would result in the realization that I ain’t that clever.

Although I did just use the word “amok”.

While the overwhelming majority of responses were positive, we did manage to receive our fair share of angry email from folks who took exception to the idea that you sleep in the bed you make. I know it’s an unpopular concept, particularly when you’re staring at rising mortgage payments, no equity and debt up to your keister, but if you logically, realistically, anyway you slice it, can’t afford something… don’t buy it.

Instant gratification is fine if you’re talking a Slurpee or a donut, maybe even both at the same time. Otherwise, there’s no guaranteed right in this country to keep up with the Joneses.

I will take the time to include one of my favorite responses… a brief note from a fella’ named Michael from parts unknown. Under the title of “Good point, bad presentation” Michael wrote… “Your article addressed an obvious (and often overlooked) truth, and expressed it in the smug, obnoxious, overstated demeanor of a 13 year old.”

Oh yeah? Well, I happen to have a 13 year old kid at home and honestly, I consider myself far more smug, obnoxious and overstated than her or any of her 13-year-old friends. My smugness is easily in the 15 to 16-year-old category… and my ability to be obnoxious knows no bounds. But thank you for your attempt at a compliment.

So we all seem to agree, for the most part, that personal responsibility, common sense and ethics took a holiday for many during the run-up to the current subprime crisis. Holiday actually isn’t the right word. That implies we’ve just taken a temporary break, and soon we’ll get back to living the way we intuitively know we should.

In reality, we obviously didn’t get to this point overnight. There’s been a steady, slow, often ignored erosion of some basic concepts and principles over the years. We’ve just been too busy trying to live the good life, hunting and gathering for McMansions, flat screen televisions and the latest excellent cell phone.

I’m a big believer in keeping things simple, a byproduct of having spent many years at the CIA. Okay, I’ll wait while some of you make the obvious jokes and quietly snicker amongst yourselves. Done? Good. The point being, in designing and carrying out operations, you try to keep it simple… knowing that your plan is likely to fall apart as soon as the whistle blows. Actually, you should almost never start a covert operation by blowing on a whistle...it’s only a saying.

It’s just that major decisions, whether in operational planning or in life, rarely offer a variety of options. You can normally distill down even the most complicated matters to a couple of choices… strip away all the peripheral crap and there’s your simple decision tree… option (a) or option (b). This system works really well with the big picture stuff… tell the truth or don’t tell the truth, live within your means or don’t live within your means, treat others fairly or don’t, admit your mistakes or duck and cover. That sort of thing.

For whatever reason, we seem to have gotten to a point where these simple decisions in our lives seem more challenging than they need to be. Here’s the deal: how tough is it to do the right thing? If you’re a politician, is it really difficult to avoid corruption or even the perception of scandal? How about a corporate executive? If you’re making a really fat salary with extra helpings of stock options and benefits, is it a moral quandary as to whether to screw over your shareholders and employees by engaging in some accounting hijinx? As a consumer, is it rocket science to know you shouldn’t spend more than you make, and that perhaps it’s a good idea to live within your means?

Apparently, the answer to the above is… yes, it is difficult. We’re almost immune to political and corporate scandals, many folks are swimming in consumer debt, people in positions of responsibility refuse to accept responsibility for their words or actions and truth gets kicked to the curb because we’re so concerned with anyone taking offense.

Just look at the headlines over the past week… Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick accepts a plea deal for his role in running a brutal dogfighting ring. Now mind you, it appears that Vick only copped a plea after several of his cohorts began talking to police and prosecutors about Vick’s role. Otherwise, it appears that he would have stuck with his initial comments claiming innocence. So he cops a plea deal and everyone starts applauding that he’s now accepted responsibility for his actions. The media meanwhile is focusing on how soon he can resurrect his football career. Good to keep it all in perspective.

Over on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton decides it’s time to start using the “M” word. For much of the early campaign (hey, only two more years till election day) Clinton held fast against the rampaging left, refusing to say that her vote in 2002 for the Iraq invasion was a mistake. Good for her, at least she was sticking to her decision and not pandering.

But then, lookee’ there, after a huddle with consultants, a slight but important shift… she’s now announced that, well, while she didn’t commit an error, it was in fact “…a mistake to trust George Bush.” Nice. I’m sorry, I was under the impression that as an intelligent and experienced member of the legislative branch, she had listened, read and asked all the questions necessary to make an informed, independent decision. Turns out, she was duped by George Bush. I hadn’t realized how simple it all was.

On the subject of offending people… just this Sunday, over at the New York Times, the Public Editor (he who serves as the readers’ representative) had an extra-smarmy editorial in which he took a Times reporter to task because the reporter’s article provoked angry and upset responses from many readers. The Public Editor wrote that the “… front-page article 11 days ago prompted a flurry of email accusing The Times of playing into what readers said were Bush administration efforts to gin up hostility towards Iran.”

Horror. I thought a newspaper’s responsibility was to present well researched and appropriately sourced reporting regardless of what the readers may think, “… even the highly educated, elite audience of The Times” as the Public Editor called them. Heaven forbid The Times, or any outlet, should upset the highly educated and elite by not pandering to their beliefs.

The Public Editor finished up by saying “I was astonished at the meanness of some of it (the email) and reminded anew of how debased so much of what passes for political discourse has become.” We’ve been saying the same thing here at the PWB for some time, although I’ve yet to slip the word “anew” into my writing.

Speaking of The Times, required reading should be an op-ed published in the Aug. 19 Sunday edition, entitled 'The War as We Saw It,' written by seven active duty soldiers nearing the end of a 15 month deployment. This is a well written piece that will not set well with those looking to defend or extend the current surge in Iraq. Regardless of your position on Iraq, you should take the time to read what these soldiers have to say.

They’ve bypassed the chain of command to be sure. And they wrap up their article, which essentially trashes the military and political efforts in Iraq, with a gimme-my-cake-and-eat-it-too statement that “…as committed soldiers, we will see this mission through." I finished the op-ed somewhat conflicted… respectful of the soldiers for their service, their insight and thoughtful writing, but concerned that we now have active duty personnel publishing their thoughts in the media, essentially thumbing their nose at the chain of command and the White House.

But that’s just my opinion. Till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.