That’s a question posed by the publisher of U.S. News & World Report in its current issue. Mort Zuckerman writes:
Is this a nation of cheaters? We seem to be awash with them. Corporate executives cheat; athletes cheat; students cheat, beginning in middle school and extending into high school and college; and even teachers cheat. Are the seeds of adult corruption–for that’s what it is–sown in the early years of schooling? Beginning in the ’80s, there seems to have been a marriage of the me generation with Gordon Gekko’s notion in the movie Wall Street that “greed is good.” Did our admiration of wealth lead us to overlook, even forgive, the means of its attainment?
He reasons that people like beating the system when they think it’s rigged against them: Nearly everyone feels that he or she pays too much in taxes and that others don’t pay enough. The result is cheating on taxes to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Similarly, people watch illegal DVDs because they feel legitimate prices are “a rip-off,” they fudge insurance claims because insurance rates “are sky high . . .”
And it certainly doesn’t help when people hear outrageous stories like the Merrill CEO who spent $1 million on re-decorating his office or Citigroup planning to buy a $50 million jet while taking bailout money or that Wall Street has awarded itself $18 billion in bonuses for 2008.
Zuckerman says there may be an opportunity to improve our culture of cheating if people respond to President Obama’s call for a “new era of responsibility”:
We must find a way to explain to kids how necessary it is to do the right thing and avoid what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down”–that is, lowering the bar on bad behavior to make it acceptable. Young people admire President Obama. Let them heed what he said in such a timely manner.
Let’s hope Zuckerman is on to something here.