Take Back Values
Professional ethics are in terrible shape, too. Overbilling is common in just about any trade where there is billing, from nonprofit consulting to advertising to law. Conflict-of-interest problems are pervasive in medicine. Many doctors, for example, are unethically accepting payments from pharmaceutical companies--a problem highlighted by major government probes recently of Pfizer and AstraZeneca. In sports, steroids and other performance enhancing drugs have penetrated into more areas of competition, notably baseball. Barry Bonds, who recently testified in a grand jury steroids investigation, is among the superstars whose athletic accomplishments have been called into question.
The nerds aren't doing much better than the jocks. Publishing and journalism have seen an unprecedented string of scandals, embroiling leading historians like Stephen Ambrose, but also destroying the careers of ambitious young reporters like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. And, as highlighted in a new book by Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace, the integrity of scientific research in academia is increasingly compromised by conflicts of interest among researchers receiving corporate money.
Last but far from least are the corporate scandals. The past two decades will be remembered as the most corrupt period in business since the Robber Baron era a century ago: insider trading, $400 hammers, S&L looting, massive healthcare scams and then the widespread lying about earnings by companies like WorldCom, Enron and HealthSouth. Beneath these headline scandals lies a vast swamp of smaller crimes by a business community that has turned ever more predatory in recent years.
Add up all the various forms of ethical and legal misconduct and you have a moral crisis of serious dimensions--one that underscores the poverty of today's values debate. America's crisis of ethics is no accidental phenomenon. It is organic to the way of life proselytized by the right. As free-market ideology has triumphed both economically and culturally since the late 1970s, such quintessential American values as fair play and honesty have sunk into decline.
Competition is an unquestioned virtue within market ideology and has been a prime mantra of conservatives for thirty years. It is seen as the foundation not just of maximum prosperity but also of individual greatness. Freedom, in the conservative worldview, is a state of pure competition where there are no checks on individual striving. Taken too far, though, competition is poisonous to people's ethics. And lately, America has taken competition too far.
Americans are under intense pressure to do well academically and professionally, starting at a very young age. High school students believe they must go to a good college if they want to survive in an economy where the best jobs are hard to get and even harder to keep. In a legal profession transformed since the 1970s by a narrow focus on profits, overbilling by lawyers has increased. HMO doctors are easy prey for pharmaceutical companies that offer cash and perks to promote drugs for off-label uses or to push patients into clinical drug trials for which they may be unsuited. Workplace theft has risen at the same time that more businesses cut benefits and job security for their employees. Many companies now rank all their employees once or twice a year; some automatically fire those who fall in the bottom 10 percent. At the very top of the heap, CEOs face competitive pressures that didn't exist thirty years ago--most notably, the imperative to hit quarterly earnings projections and avoid stock market losses.
The growing income gap in America is also harmful to the nation's moral health. While many Americans struggle just to make ends meet, today's winners win bigger than ever before. Sluggers like Alex Rodriguez take home vastly larger paychecks now than they did a decade ago, CEO pay has skyrocketed, partners in law firms make more money than ever and so on. Large inequities within professions have emerged at the same time as broad inequality trends have increased the stakes of getting an education and landing a skilled job. In 1975 workers with advanced degrees earned 1.8 times as much as high school graduates. This gap increased to 2.6 times in 1999.