Is the United States a culture of liars, cheats, and thieves?

On Books

January 18, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

There is no shortage of evidence of cynical crimes pervading the institutions of the United States, from the top levels of business, through sports, schools, politics and more. 'Twas ever thus, some may say -- but, almost surely, it was never this thus. In comparable history, venality may never have been so brazen, lucrative and accepted.

Dozens of books and hundreds of newspaper, magazine and journal articles have examined this phenomenon. New ones come out daily. None I have yet seen does it with the anger, vigor and persuasiveness of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, by David Callahan (Harcourt, 368 pages, $26).

"Americans may be bowling alone, as Robert Putnam says," Callahan writes, "but increasingly we are stealing together." He inventories the major offenses -- from corporations to journalism to sports and politics and beyond. He then asserts "Still, there's been very little effort to connect all these dots and see them for what they represent: a profound moral crisis created by deep economic and cultural pathologies in American society." He convincingly provides that connection.

Callahan is director of research and co-founder of Demos, a New York think tank. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton and has written five books, as well as extensive free-lance articles. He did this work at Demos, with two research assistants.

He began the book in the autumn of 2001 when the Enron scandal broke. He had been working on a history of the Harvard Business School class of 1949 -- interviewing mostly retired captains of industry in their late 70s. They would, he writes, "shake their heads in disgust -- disgust at the bloated pay packages, the gilded perks, and most of all the pervasive lying by CEOs." He declares that those men concluded that "Today's business values normalize felonious behavior; yesterday's values were less tolerant."

A chapter titled "Leaner and Meaner" throws the greatest responsibility on management cultures that put primary emphasis on short-term performance of company stock.

He explores Sears' despicable performance from 1995 onward in which demands from the top corporate level produced a company-wide culture of cheating customers. The consequences: Sears paid $62.6 million in 2001 alone to avoid criminal prosecution in deceptions solely on automobile battery sales. After a long history of building consumer confidence, Callahan writes, "during a period of less than fifteen years, Sears squandered public trust, incurred numerous criminal charges and multiple lawsuits and paid fines and settlements that ultimately totaled over $2 billion."

And, he insists, commonplace, nationally accepted top-level company policy caused that all to happen.

Beyond corporate executive suites and boardrooms in the 1980s and 1990s, he writes, there was a revolution in large commercial law firms' policies. This included overbilling clients, exploding clerical charges, vastly increasing the number of hours that young associates had to work and decreasing the possibility of their ever being elevated to partner. "Only car dealers, CEOs, and stockbrokers are trusted less than lawyers," he writes.

Doctors get away somewhat better than lawyers. But Callahan cites from public and court records case after case of physicians operating as "profit centers," touting and prescribing unproven and even demonstrably useless herbs and other spurious medications for large profits.

The press does not fare much better than retailers and lawyers. Callahan attributes the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass scandals in The New York Times and The New Republic to an increasingly greed-driven, "winner-take-all culture" in publishing.

Callahan concludes, and I would say naively, that most people do not want to cheat, but that in the United States today they are driven to by economic inequalities and other insecurities. He goes off balance frequently in laying the decay of ethical and moral values at the feet of conservative influences -- "individual freedoms associated with the free market." The left largely escapes -- though he touches lightly on some of the deceptions institutionalized by affirmative action, grade inflation and the hypocrisies of political correctness.

He builds his central case around a runaway American free-market economy in which the contrast between high executive salaries and everybody else's income is greater than ever in history and growing. This is leaving legions of Americans feeling both under-rewarded and also unsure about their financial lives, growing deeper in debt and more resentful.

On top of that there is widespread and widely recognized cheating -- at hideous, felonious levels -- by top executives of companies that present themselves as valuable corporate citizens. High executives who do get caught and prosecuted get extremely light sentences, and serve them in minimum-security facilities that right have earned the nickname "Club Fed."

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