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The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead by David Callahan


Rating: (Recommended)


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Each page of David Callahan’s new book, The Cheating Culture, provides an example of cheating in America. Unfortunately for us all, he never ran out of examples. While a reader can imagine Callahan’s waving finger at times, his message is not as heavy handed as it could be. Some of his recommendations for change may be impractical, but we can thank him for laying out the issue and its consequences for public consideration. Early in the book (p. 14) Callahan has this insight: “Americans seem to be using two moral compasses. One directs our behavior when it comes to things like sex, family, drugs, and traditional forms of crime. A second provides us ethical guidance in the realm of career, money, and success.” He goes on to describe how the second compass developed and where it has led us. Callahan makes the compelling case that we are more willing to sacrifice our integrity than our economic security. The results are a culture that’s become rampant with cheating because “everyone does it.” Callahan calls readers to begin the path to integrity by not cheating and offers a range of possible solutions to diminish cheating in America. Here’s a longer excerpt from the end of Chapter 3, “Whatever It Takes” (pp. 91-97):

The fall of trust in the United States over the past forty years has long been discussed and debated. It is well known that Americans trust nearly every institution less than we used to. We’re less trusting of governments less trusting of the media, less trusting of religious institutions, and less trusting of lawyers and other professionals.

The falling trust in various professions is especially notable. Americans are more fearful of being ripped off, misled, or otherwise cheated by people whom are charging us money for services or whom we are relying upon to advise us on key parts of our lives.

Americans have also become less trusting of each other. In 1960, 58 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted:’ By 1998, only 40 percent agreed with this statement. Every few years for the past quarter century, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked hundreds of Americans a telling question about trust: “Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance, or would they try to be faire” When the GSS first started asking this question in the 1970s a large majority of Americans didn’t fear being cheated. But such fears increased during the 1980s, and by the late 1990s, nearly as many Americans thought that most people would try to take advantage as thought that most people would try to be fair. Sixty percent of Americans now say that “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.”

Distrust is obvious fuel for cheating. If you think people are out to cheat you, you’re more apt to believe that rules don’t really matter and that you’ve got to live by your wits as opposed to ethical principles. You may imagine for self-protective reasons that you need to cheat others before they get a chance to cheat you.

For all the talk over many years of rising distrust, only recently have scholars begun to make the link between inequality and distrust. The notion of such a link rests, in part, on common sense. If you don’t see yourself as doing well economically in relative terms and if you think the system is stacked against you, it’s easy to be pessimistic and resentful, in contrast, feelings of trust are associated with optimism about the future and goodwill toward others. In his book The Moral Foundations of Trust, scholar Eric Uslaner used a variety of opinion surveys taken over the past several decades to examine how and why people trust others, He writes:

“If you believe that things are going to get better—and that you have the capacity to control your life—trusting others isn’t so risky. Generalized trusters are happier in their personal lives and believe they are masters of their own fate.”

It’s not easy to feel like you can control your life in America’s postindustrial economy. In a winner-take-all market plagued by stagnating wages, downsizing, and rising prices for key life necessities like health care and housing, many people have good reasons to be pessimistic and resentful, Polling during the boom periods of both the l980s and l990s showed that even as the economy grew by leaps and bounds, many people didn’t believe that their own incomes would rise. More than half of Americans consistently said that they weren’t making enough money to lead the life they wanted, and many didn’t see such money in their future. Instead, large percentages of Americans worried that their own financial situation might well deteriorate and also worried about their childrens prospects. Upward of half of Americans, for example, felt that their children would be worse off than they were.

The prevalence of such views might be understandable during a prolonged recession. But it’s remarkable that so many Americans would feel this way even as the nation as a whole grew wealthier than ever before in history. The vitality of the U.S. economy was among the most celebrated aspects of American life during the late 1990s when the American economic model had conquered the world, when kids in their twenties could make millions of dollars, when unemployment had fallen to a thirty-year low, and when some observers were predicting an end to the business cycle, with its booms and busts. Self-congratulation was the mood of the moment, as it had been in the mid-1980s, when it was “morning again in America:’ And yet up to half of Americans during both of these periods felt they weren’t earning enough money and their kids would be worse off than they were.

Why did so many people believe this? Because it was true. Most of the gains from the boom went to the top 20 percent of households, while many households lost ground. Being a middle-or lower-income American during the ‘80s and ‘90s was akin to sitting through a long and rowdy victory party—when you’re from the losing team.

The divisive effects of inequality have been further aggravated by the way in which large income gaps have pulled American society apart culturally and geographically~ slicing it up into different groups that have little in common. The size of our paychecks determines where we live, what we wear, what we drive, what beer we drink, what kinds of restaurants we choose, what we watch on television, where we work out, where our children go to school, where we vacation, what hobbies we engage in, and much more. All of these features of our lives help shape if not our own class identity, then certainly the class labels that others put on us. Dramatically uneven levels of income result, inevitably, in big disparities in class identities across a society. Since most people feel more comfortable around those who are having a similar life experience, the divisive potential of these disparities are obvious,

Class is nothing new to Americans, even if we’ve tended to deny its existence here, But the intensity of class divisions has waxed and waned over two centuries, along with levels of inequality. Class was a powerful aspect of American life in the Gilded Age, and again in the 1920s, two periods that were characterized by many scandals. The middle decades of the twentieth century saw these divisions fade substantially. The 1940s through the 1960s have been called the “Great Compression;’ because of the dramatic narrowing of income gaps that occurred during this period. During these prosperous decades, all classes of Americans got richer at roughly the same rate, Narrowed income gaps, in turn, produced one of the most socially egalitarian eras in American history (although this was also an era marked by pervasive race and gender discrimination). The nation’s imagination was captured by the ideal of a universal middle class that could, and should, encompass everyone. Identical suburban homes stand as an icon of the early postwar period for good reason.

The egalitarian mood of the day was reflected in the executive suites of corporate America, where top executives understood that they would not be granted salaries that too greatly dwarfed those of average workers, Sociologists and economists speak of the “equity norms” that prevailed in business in the early postwar period. In 1965, CEOs made on average fifty times more than the typical worker. While large, this gap is nothing compared to today, when CEO5 make nearly 300 times what the average worker makes, Before the 1980s, pay gaps were still small enough that many CEOs didn’t imagine themselves as some separate imperial breed of leaders. For example, members of the Harvard Business School Class of 1949, a third of whom became CEOs, exemplified the everyman sensibility of yesterday’s corporate leaders. Most of them lived in comfortable but modest homes and frowned on conspicuous consumption. They drove average-priced cars, and saw themselves as lucky to have the opportunities that they did.

Not surprisingly, the early decades of the postwar period were a time of enormous social solidarity and trust. The early postwar years were also an era of comparatively little cheating in business and other sectors of American society, which makes sense. The middle class perceived that the social contract was delivering on its promise and felt respectfully treated by those higher on the economic ladder. The rich, in turn, were not living radically different lives than the middle class and weren’t able to spin off easily into a separate moral reality governed by its own rules,

That was then. As the income differences among Americans have grown larger in recent decades, so have social differences, The enduring correlation between ethnicity and income aggravates the problem, piling ethnic and cultural differences on top of class differences, Looking at each other across the chasms of class and race, many Americans see little reason to believe that they share each other’s values—and little reason to trust each other, “Trust cannot thrive in an unequal world;’ writes Uslaner, “People at the top will have no reason to trust those below them. , . .And those at the bottom have little reason to believe that they will get a fair shake.”

In the past decade, geographic divisions among Americans by income have become especially noticeable. Many working-class people find themselves priced out of the areas where they grew up, yet their services are still needed in these communities. And so you see car mechanics, garbage collectors, and police officers driving long distances every day to work in towns or cities that used to be affordable to blue-collar people. This kind of thing—residential segregation by income—has deepened as inequality has grown in the past quarter of a century. Much residential segregation is explained by the simple fact that people live where they can afford to rent or buy a place. But more deliberate self-segregation by the affluent is on the rise. Wealthy enclaves have always existed—places like Beverly Hills and Palm Beach and Sutton Place—but they tended be small in size and unusual. Now, homogenous communities of affluent and semi-affluent Americans are both more numerous and larger in scope. In the early 1970s, there were roughly 2,000 private “gated communities” in America where access was restricted to members and visitors, Today, there are more than 50,000 such communities, Some seven million households now live in gated communities, and 40 percent of new homes built in California are in gated communities, “What is the measure of nationhood when the divisions between neighborhoods require guards and fences to keep out other citizens~” ask Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder in their book, Fortress America. “Can the nation fulfill its social contract in the absence of social contact?” Blakely and Snyder, along with many other social observers, answer an emphatic no to this question.


When I first started investigating cheating, my guiding assumption was that nobody wants to cheat, I still think that. No athlete wants to pump his body full of drugs that shrink his testicles, or change the shape of his head, or could turn his blood into molasses and leave him dead halfway through the Tour de France, No stock analyst wants to go on CNBC and hype a stock that every insider knows is a piece of junk. No chief financial officer wants to cook earnings reports, and no accountant wants to rubber-stamp these reports. No journalist wants to make up her sources.

But when you look at the effects of inequality in our society, you can understand why respectable people consistently do all of these things. The winner-take-all economy has loaded up the rewards for those who make it into the Winning Class, and left everyone else with little security and lots of anxiety. Inequality has also pulled us apart, weakening our faith that others follow the same rules that we do.

Unfortunately it gets worse, Two decades of change in American economic life—and a steady string of victories for laissez-faire ideologues—hasn’t just shifted the financial incentives for individuals or the operating strategies of business organizations. It has deeply affected American culture overall, reshaping nearly everyone’s values.

And not for the better.

You may come away from The Cheating Culture with some disagreements about Callahan’s proposed solutions to this problem, but you will certainly be thinking more about the problem, and have some new insights into the impact of cheating on American life.

Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the March 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Cheating Culture.htm


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