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Jewish World Review
Oct. 30, 2006
/ 8 Mar-Cheshvan 5766
Our cheating hearts
The possibility that the Detroit Tigers' Kenny Rogers slapped pine tar on his pitching hand to put a little more mustard on his breaking balls in the World Series shows once again how cheating scandals have become an epidemic in America. Just open Pandora's box:
Business: About 60 major corporations have had to restate their earnings after overstating them to juice their stock value-companies whose total value equaled $3 trillion. Along with that, we have illegally backdated stock options at company after company. Then there are the investment banks, guilty of conflicts of interest, that have been forced to give back profits and pay penalties of over a billion dollars. And these numbers don't even account for the actions of the kings of corporate sleaze at places like WorldCom and Enron, where hundreds of millions in market value vanished in a trice. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco, the poster boy of corporate greed, has just begun a 25-year prison term for fraud, his style epitomized by combining farce and fraud: $6,000 spent on a shower curtain, which, incidentally, was purchased for his maid's bathroom.
Sports: We've gotten used to the wiles of football coaches in recruiting and the fudging of rules about academic standards for players. But now we have a rash of athletes alleged to be using performance-enhancing drugs, including Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, three-time Olympic medalist Justin Gatlin, and, of course, baseball's Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. The list goes on and on. Danny Almonte, the Bronx boy who pitched a perfect game during a run-up to the Little League World Series in 2001, actually turned out to be two years older than he said, which would have made him ineligible for Little League ball.
Education: Students with disabilities can receive extra time on their SAT tests without having to be identified to college admission offices as disabled, a defensible practice now distorted by cheating. Some 2.5 million students are recognized as having learning disabilities, and 30,000 more are added to the list each year-a disproportionately large number of whom are from wealthy families who help their kids secure medical diagnoses of disability to get them more time on the SATs and give them an extra edge in their efforts to gain admission to universities. In a major study of both college and high school students by Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity, more than 70 percent of the students surveyed admitted to having cheated at least once on exams in the previous year. Why? If students see others cheating or teachers fail to see it or report it, is it any wonder so many conclude that cheating is essential to remaining competitive? Technological advances have made cheating easier than ever. Photo messaging, for instance, lets students contact friends outside the classroom with copies of exams.
Taxes: Many Americans believe, correctly, that they can get away with tax evasion, especially as investigations and prosecutions by the IRS have fallen off so dramatically. Some 2 million Americans are estimated to have illegal offshore bank accounts. The wealthier you are, the less the IRS goes after you because the wealthy can engage high-priced lawyers and accountants. Remember Leona Helmsley's famous comment, "We don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes"? Tax cheats like her cost the treasury as much as $500 billion a year.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans routinely engage in insurance fraud, cable-TV theft, and software piracy. What's so amazing is that many of these same people see themselves as decent, law-abiding citizens. What does it all mean for our society? David Callahan's book The Cheating Culture argues that Americans are not only cheating more, they're feeling less guilty about it. They think there is more to gain by cheating than to lose. Inflamed by envy-remember the success of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?-they seek to keep up not with the Joneses but with those who are much better off than the Joneses. The amount of money Americans feel necessary to fulfill their dreams has nearly doubled over the past nine years, from $50,000 a year to over $90,000.
Money, quite simply, has become more important to many people than reputation and personal integrity. The worship of success has long pervaded American culture, but this is something else again. Of course, millions of Americans work hard and play by the rules, but too many others cheat and cut corners. Why? Money. Take performance-enhancing drugs. Obviously, there's a clear connection between performance and paychecks.
This calls to mind the difference between shame cultures, where it's bad to get caught cheating, because of public obloquy, and guilt cultures, which rely on an inner voice telling individuals not to do wrong. America has long been a guilt culture. Are we really shifting toward a shame culture today?
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman