Right on the Low Road

The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to
Get Ahead
By David Callahan • Harcourt • 353 pages • $26.00

Few decisions caused George Washington more agony than whether or not to accept some canal-company shares that the Virginia General Assembly offered him in 1784. The gift was perfectly legal, and such signs of appreciation were commonplace in the early republic. Washington was a private citizen at the time (a somewhat cash-strapped one at that) and had always been a great champion of the canal system, but he couldn't abide the thought that his acceptance might be seen as a payoff. He debated for months, writing everyone from Jefferson to Lafayette for advice. In the end, he decided to bequeath the shares to the college that was to become Washington & Lee.

Washington had what might be called an overdeveloped sense of virtue, and in that he has an heir in David Callahan, co-founder of the public-policy center Demos. Callahan's new book, The Cheating Culture, is a catalog of all the ways we fail to live up to the standards set not only by marbleized eminences like Washington but by generations of unremarkably honest Americans. Today, according to Callahan, we are lying about our taxes, padding our résumés, doping, embezzling, plagiarizing, and generally hornswoggling as never before. The cresting wave of corporate scandals and the journalistic betrayals of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were only the most publicized cases in "an epidemic of cheating." Yet for all the perp walks, firings, fines, and suspensions, "[T]here's been very little effort to connect all these dots and see them for what they represent: a profound moral crisis that reflects deep economic and social problems in American society."

Despite his big-picture ambitions, Callahan's style tends toward the anecdotal. The bulk of the book is taken up with describing some of the more egregious scams of our day. Many in the rogue's gallery -- Blair, Jeffrey Skilling, Sammy Sosa, Henry Blodget -- are familiar from yesterday's headlines. Some are less so: Danny Altamonte, whose father and coach lied about his age so he could play in the Little League World Series, thousands of customers of New York's Municipal Credit Union, Ivy League-bound plagiarizers at New York's Horace Mann School, even Callahan's friend Max, who fudges his tax return.

In focusing on questions of character, Callahan, an unabashed liberal, is planting his flag in conservative cultural territory. But the Jeremiahs of the right have, by and large, not listed cheating alongside drug use, casual sex, and rap lyrics as a harbinger of the apocalypse. That's because, Callahan argues, it is conservatives who laid the groundwork for today's cheating culture. For one thing, their evangelical brand of free-market fundamentalism helped undermine traditional codes of professional ethics. Callahan describes how the Sears auto-repair chain, under pressure from investors in the late 1980s, instituted a new compensation system that cut employees' base salaries, forcing them to make up the difference in performance incentives. Mechanics and sales staff had to ensure that a certain number of repairs, necessary or not, were performed to make their quotas. Within a year, complaints of fraudulent billing and dishonesty had mushroomed.

To make things worse, economic success has taken on moral dimensions. Starting in the early 1980s, Callahan writes, "It became not all right in our society to express yourself by altering your consciousness with drugs or getting naked with strangers. But it was all right -- admired, in fact -- to express yourself with a Rolex, a Porsche, or a pedantic mastery of French wines." Getting rich in and of itself was God's work (no talk of a camel fitting through the eye of a needle there), and the details of how one got there began to seem trivial.

Paraphrasing the economist Robert Frank, Callahan describes ours as a "winner-take-all society," where more and more resources go to extravagantly rewarding star performers, whether CEOs or shortstops, leaving only table scraps for everybody else. And as the carrots get bigger, so do the sticks. Again, we have the disciples of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to thank; our increasingly threadbare social safety net makes the consequences of "losing" that much harsher. Egged on by societally sanctioned visions of pharaonic wealth and goaded by the specter of unassisted penury, it's no wonder that people are cheating more.

But are they? Blaming our new national Machiavellianism on the same conservatives who have done so much to make the personal political has a tempting, jujitsu-like elegance, and Callahan has the facts to support it -- up to a point. His case is strongest where it is most straightforward: He notes how the small-government philosophy ascendant over the past 20 years has emboldened cheaters everywhere by undermining the regulatory powers of the state. The correlation is especially striking at the Internal Revenue Service, where, as the agency has seen its funding shrivel, the amount of money lost to unpaid taxes has ballooned from $100 billion in 1990 to $250 billion in 2001 (some outside experts put it as high as $500 billion).

But these are particular cases of enforcement, not questions of culture. When Callahan tries to (as he puts it) connect the dots, to sketch out the whole ugly panorama, he gets ahead of his evidence. At times he admits as much: "While there is no hard evidence that misconduct in journalism has increased in recent years, there are plenty of reasons to think that journalists are facing new pressures on their integrity that stem from a greater focus on the bottom line and bigger pay disparities." If, of course, those new pressures are not leading to more misconduct (and, as recent cases have reminded us, cheating journalists are especially likely to leave hard evidence), Callahan's case remains speculative. Perhaps realizing this weakness in his argument, he sometimes verges on the downright evasive. He notes that "it seems that more doctors are breaking more rules and putting Americans at risk in the process," only to admit in an endnote that, again, "[T]here is little hard evidence of either an increase or decrease in conflicts of interest among doctors."

Cheating is as American as snake-oil salesmen: The American Revolution itself might not have happened if the colonists weren't such brazen tax dodgers (it was their great good fortune to be able to turn what had been routine evasion into an act of political defiance). Nor are declensionist plaints like Callahan's anything new. Within a few years of the Revolution, nearly all of the Founding Fathers were lamenting the unscrupulousness of the newly empowered polity. As even Washington realized, self-interest swept virtue before it: "The few, therefore, who act upon Principles of disinterestedness are, comparatively speaking, no more than a drop in the Ocean."

Strangely enough, nowhere in The Cheating Culture does Callahan define cheating. The closest he comes is in the subtitle, where he seems to equate it with "doing wrong." The definition bears traces of what Richard Hofstadter once described as the "moral absolutism" that handicaps American reform movements. Though his training is in political science, Callahan, like the mugwumps of old, often sounds like a man of the cloth. His closing chapter, where he suggests how we might wean ourselves from our devious ways, opens as a grab bag of favorite progressive solutions -- some, like smart growth and affirmative action, only tenuously related to cheating -- and closes as a sermon. "Be the chump," he exhorts us, "who files an honest tax return."

George Washington would be proud, but even he knew better. Ours, after all, is a cheating culture.