Tuesday, March 28, 2006

David Callahan's The Cheating Culture and Elliott Currie: The Road to Whatever

The film (The Perfect Score) from Tollin / Robbins hits the market the same time as the box jellyfish sting book on business ethics and personal character by David Callahan: The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead (New York: Harcourt, 2004, ISBN 0-15-101018-8). Callahan traces the evolution of our own kind of laissez-faire, bottom-line, winner-take-all individualism and the “Trickle Down Corruption” that it generates (“Everybody does it”) ranging from academic cheating, to illegal piracy and copyright infringement on the Internet, to tax cheating, to conflicts of interest, and frank cooking of books and insider trading. The most telling chapter is probably “A Question of Character.” Business and personal ethics and even family values have to get back to a notion of “principled conscience.” A few “fair use” quotes here set the tone. “Before the 1960s, individualism in the United States was largely confined to the political sphere. Freedom for individuals … did not mean freedom to operate outside the norms established by the community, family and religion… Powerful norms of self-sacrifice shaped people’s values in this environment. You existed for your family, and you worked hard to contribute.” Soon Dr. Callahan talks about Social Darwinism, maintaining that America is unique among advanced countries in its commitment to the belief “that individuals have so much control over their destiny,” and its willingness to sacrifice people who “fail” and kick them out of the system, as if they no longer belonged in a meritocracy. Our system, he argues, is especially sadistic in its treatment of “losers” at competition; our culture of personal contempt for “losers” or “the weak” in a meritocratic system is bound to lead to ethical breakdowns. He gives as an example Enron’s “rank and yank” (or “forced-ranking”) system. Mr. Callahan’s remarks have profound implications for the way we think through issues like the “laissez-faire family” (now in conjunction with same-sex marriage), the relative situations of people with kids and those without, the importance (or lack thereof) of measuring people according to their willing to “pay their dues” according to gender norms. Does ethical reform start at the top (the liberal position), or at the bottom (the conservative position)?



I guess my own sin is more that of drawing attention to myself (through self-publishing) without credentials or reportable accountability, without “paying my dues” in a competitive, meritocratic game that places too much emphasis on the short term. Of course, the point of that game used to be to promote family. A bit of irony. Okay, my lifestyle, which neglects having wife and children, could be said to “cheat the system.” Family cuts both ways in the ethics game: within any one social class, it focuses individuals on meeting the needs of others and away from excessive attention to one’s own values, possessions, expression or other experience, but family and especially nepotism also tend to continue the disparities between groups of people—and this supports the author’s contention that many of these problems are collective and not personal. (Look at how wealthy parents “compete” by how they place their kids in private schools and indulge in expensive tutoring programs –“The Perfect Score”--that encourage richer kids to cheat.) The loss of “meaning” for the traditional gender-marriage-based family because of “competition” from the gay community then might have a bearing on excessive individualism. In my case, there is resentment from others around me because I maintain a certain secrecy and dispassionate detachment in my own affairs, and do things that others say I could not do if I were accountable to biological family. This is, it seems, another way to look at the cheating problem.



The long view that Dr. Callahan takes is instructive, however. At the personal level, he have a peculiar, zero-tolerance meritocracy (in the “Consciousness II” sense of Theodore Reich’s The Greening of America), that is willing to kick ordinary people (often in the ghetto) out of the system so they don’t matter. (Remember student deferments and the draft in the 60s?) Once people have “made it” in a quantitatively competitive world measured by numbers (earnings, television ratings, box office receipts, market share, or, yes, won-lost record) we cut them slack. Callahan’s argument is partly that rampant “slack” at the top is a much bigger cause of economic instability and social unrest (especially failure of traditional marriage) than most conservative commentators are willing to admit. Stringent codes of fairness and ethics (and maybe that includes proving you can take care of somebody besides yourself and that you have periods in your life to “pay your dues”) sound like a way to restore both economic stability and the social stability of the family (and elsewhere on this site I argue that gay marriage can fit into that well). But it is easier (especially with informal means) to instill these codes on “average” people than at the top. I’ve heard the idea of universal national service as a way of breaking the ethics lock all the way to the top. In any case, there will have to be real punishments for those caught cheating at the top, and a stint of “Cool Hand Luke” for some of these people is probably in order. Callahan’s argument is an interesting mixture of both conservative and liberal ideas. Now a system that encourages more discipline and “sacrifice” by ordinary people could well backfire, leading to an arrangement suggestive of fascism. Encouraging people to build meaningful ties to others (and probably not just in nuclear family) sounds like an important way to balance the personal pressures caused by such a competitive system well motivated by freedom.

A particularly atrocious example of cheating comes when retail managers, apparently feeling pressured, electronically alter time records of hourly employees to save money for the bottom lines of the individual stores at which they work. Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times reports about this practice on April 4, 2004, “Altering of Worker Time Cards Spurs Growing Number of Suits” at these companies: Kinko’s, Toys “R” Us, Family Dollar, Pep Boys, Wal-Mart, Rentway, and Taco Bell. These companies all say that their policies are to dismiss managers who alter employee records but admit that it is extremely difficult to get perfect legal compliance in large retail companies. Some of the illegal practices are called “shaving time” and “one-minute clock-out”.

What about The Kids? Elliott Currie provides a supplement to the cheating culture over-individualism thesis in The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence (New York: Metropolitan, 2005 ISBN 10-0-8050-6763-9). Currie’s prevents an interleaved account of troubled teenagers, largely white and from middle class or better homes. His thesis is that teen troubles come not just from the breakdown of the family or lack of discipline in the usual sense, but from a hyper-individualized, Darwinian (or Spencerian) value system that encourages parents to throw their kids away when they don’t “make it.” He writes, “… not everybody can beat everybody else: only a few can win even most of the time. Thus, this value system sets up most of its adherents for failure.” (p/ 62). So, if you aren’t the super student or super athlete to make your parents proud, you slide away. Indeed, some parents kick their kids out. Kids caught in this fix may do anything to stand out (including the most outrageous risk taking or drug-related behaviors. Currie faults a fundamental change in our value system—a diminishing of both the importance of family and of an orderly system of social supports and stable jobs. Parents, he says, believe in the new individualism and extreme capitalism (with consumerism more important than production), and do not place the importance even on their own progeny that earlier generations did.

“The rejection of the idea of mutual responsibility, a righteous distaste for offering help, the acceptance or encouragement of a view of life in which a competitive scramble for individual preeminence and comfort is central, the insistence that even the most vulnerable must learn to handle life’s difficulties by themselves and that if they cannot it is no one’s fault but their own—those were not the idiosyncratic views of a few parents but pervasive themes in American society and culture during the past years in which these teenagers were growing up.” (p. 122)

Currie goes on to discuss this tough-it-out approach in the therapy business and especially the school systems, with their zero-tolerance policies of the 90s. Curiously, though, Currie ignores No Child Left Behind, and things are changing.

Currie’s solutions have a lot to do with keeping the social safety net and especially improving parental benefits and universal health care – and he conveniently ignores the balance with flexibility in creating new kinds of jobs quickly and encouraging small business, which can be burdened by “social responsibility.” You get back to thinking through what our virtues should be at the individual level. Caring for others is also an important responsibility for the individual (even if childless), not just “society.” So you have to balance individual merit and accomplishment with community and family virtues, and with the need for equal opportunities. There is some tension among these.

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