Monday, November 29, 2004

Winner Take All

(For a more theological take on this topic, look for the "Spiritual Shortcuts" editorial in the January issue of Christianity Today.)

Vince Lombardi spoke a lot about winning. "Winning is not a sometime thing," Lombardi once said, "it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit." For his legendary championship teams playing on the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, that meant no cutting corners in preparation or performance. Unfortunately, Americans today have absorbed only half of the lesson. We want to win at all costs, but we’re willing to cut every corner to do it.

From Wall Street to Main Street, from academia to the locker room, America is facing an epidemic of cheating. Consider:

Confronted with disastrous publicity and a possible trial, investing titan Merrill Lynch recently paid a $100-million settlement in New York state. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged that the firm’s “supposedly independent and objective investment advice was tainted and biased,” contributing to $4 trillion in investor losses after the crash of NASDAQ.

Three months after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the Municipal Credit Union of New York faced a $15 million shortfall. ATM users who purposefully overdrew their accounts while the computer tracking system was down had scammed their own credit union.

Celebrity academics such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and Michael Bellesiles have faced public humiliation for plagiarism or falsified research.

Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, and CBS News are just the latest examples of cheating in journalism.

More than 90 percent of college students say they would cheat to get a job. Donald McCabe, founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity, uncovered a 30 to 35 percent jump in some types of cheating among college students in the 1990s. “Over the long haul, there’s certainly been an increase in cheating,” McCabe says.

According to a 2002 study, 44 percent of 2.6 million job applications contained lies.

Rightly or wrongly, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds have seen their prodigious athletic exploits tarnished because of suspicions over corked bats and performance-enhancing drugs. “For the last 20 or 30 years,” says Charles Yesalis, a researcher at Penn State, “we’ve had this idea that there are only a few bad apples in the barrel. But in reality, in many, many different sports, there are only a few good apples.”

Yesalis told WebMD that the problem is widespread. “We’ve got scientists and professors who cheat, journalists who cheat, lawyers who cheat, and CEOs who cheat,” Yesalis says.

What is cheating? Researcher David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, defines it simply as “breaking the rules to get ahead academically, professionally, or financially.” Callahan, co-founder of the Demos public policy center, detects “a pattern of widespread cheating throughout U.S. society.”

We’ve simply internalized a pernicious bumper sticker slogan I first saw in the 1980s: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Unfortunately, in this post-election period of increased emphasis on moral values, cheating, like the angel of death, has visited the churches, too. Affinity frauds are running rampant in the pews, costing the unwary and the greedy billions in pyramid schemes and the like. Many folks have fallen victim not only to the smooth sales pitches of con artists who claim to share their faith, but also to their own foolish desires to get rich quick. Such gullibility isn’t surprising, when you realize that the Barna Group reports that one-third of Christians say money is very important to them.

Cheating even reaches the pulpit. Earlier this fall the prominent pastor of a megachurch in North Carolina resigned after admitting he used material from other preachers without attribution. Another pastor in Missouri stepped down after admitting he plagiarized sermon material via the Internet.

While cheating is not a new problem, it is more widespread and out in the open. Fewer people today, Callahan believes, feel ashamed.

Callahan blames several factors for what he calls “a profound moral crisis that reflects deep economic and social problems.” First is a preoccupation with money in an increasingly materialistic society. Callahan notes that Ronald Reagan was the first president who extolled the virtues of getting rich (which in itself is fine), and that many citizens in the last two decades have done whatever it takes—legal or illegal—to get to the top.

Second, Callahan says, is a large and growing income gap between the Winning Class and the Anxious Class. He says America has become an increasingly “winner-take-all” society, where the rewards for excelling overwhelm traditional roadblocks to dishonesty such as conscience and community standards. The astronomical salaries of a few sports figures, business CEOs, and actors provide a rough guide to the stratification of American society.

Callahan says many people simply can’t cope with the flood of advertising images extolling what is defined as the good life and believe they are entitled to more than they can legitimately earn. There is a lot of pressure to finagle on a tax return or fudge on a resume because the gaps between winners and losers are so great. And often technology–such as the Web–makes cheating much easier than in the past.

Third, Callahan cites a hobbling of government watchdogs. To some extent, he’s right. The still-unfolding mutual fund scandal occurred under the watch of a weakened Securities and Exchange Commission. The market, for all its virtues in rewarding innovation and creating the highest living standards in history, is not completely self-regulating. Just as our highways need safe and courteous drivers to function, they also need external restraints to destructive selfishness, such as stop signs and traffic lights. The same goes for our financial markets and other areas open to the manipulations of selfishness and greed.

Fourth, Callahan cites the decline of traditional American virtues, saying that “individualism and self-reliance have morphed into selfishness and self-absorption.” Financial wags say Wall Street runs on fear and greed—as Gordon Gecko said, “Greed is good.”

Callahan suggests several solutions, some more helpful than others. These include beefing up law enforcement, emphasizing character and skills development over a win-at-all-costs mentality, and reducing social inequalities through higher taxes on the “super-rich” and government spending to provide more opportunities for people lower on the economic scale to move up.

(This last suggestion smacks of communism, which on a practical level sought to make people equally poor. Meanwhile, Callahan skims over the demonstrated failure for four decades of Great Society liberalism to lift people out of poverty. He also apparently ignores the fact that the top 20 percent of wage earners already pay 80 percent of federal taxes.)

Christians need to address not just the moral and structural dimensions of this epidemic, but also the spiritual ones. If the recent election shows we are entering a new era of respect for moral values, then obviously Christians must lead in this realm, too. We cannot just talk the talk, but we must walk the walk. Yet Barna reports that half of all Christians say, regardless of how they feel about it, that money is the main symbol of success in life. While we acknowledge that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, our actions betray who our real master is.

At its heart, cheating involves fear and greed: a lack of contentment with what we have and a coveting of what does not belong to us (greed), and a lack of trust in God to provide for all our needs (fear).

How ironic. Like all sins, cheating delivers far less than it promises. In research for the book You Don’t Have to Be Rich, Jean Sherman Chatzky found that there is little difference in happiness between people who make $50,000 and those who earn over $100,000. Why then do we wear ourselves out, and cheat others, for wealth?

The apostle Paul, whether he had much or nothing, learned the secret of being content—cultivating a living relationship with Jesus Christ, who for our sakes became poor that we might become rich.

Unless we Christians do the same, the cheating epidemic will continue to kill both civil society and us. And we’ll all be the losers for that.


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