"The Cheating Culture"

David Callahan explains why Americans lie more now than they did in the '50s, '60s or '70s.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published December 22, 2003 8:11PM (EST)

Does the endless list of deceptions and scandals that have emerged over the last year signal a shift in our standards and ethics as a culture? David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead" (Harcourt, January 2004), talked with us about what happens when the "Me" generation decides "Greed is good."

Do you think that people are worse than they have ever been historically? Surely there have been other periods in history when lying and cheating were just as rampant.

My feeling is that ways of cheating to get ahead tend to come and go. We have these periods in American history where people are more focused on money and success, and there's more license to do whatever it takes to achieve those things. I think that the late 1800s and the robber-baron era was one of those periods, and the 1920s was one of those periods, and I think the '80s and '90s will be remembered as one of those periods. And then there are other periods when we're a little more serious or sober, like the Depression, World War II, when people really pulled together more. And in the '50s and '60s there was a lot of serious concern about things like the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, and it just wasn't a very materialistic, go-go period.

In general, I think America tends to be a country where the ends of wealth are so extolled and valued that basically any means necessary to achieve those ends are considered OK. That national characteristic tends to be more or less intense depending on broader political, economic, and cultural forces at work.

Do you think there's an equal drive to get ahead among the different economic classes?

Yeah, I think that one of the signature aspects of America compared to other industrialized democracies is that it's a country where the promise of affluence is one that is dangled before everybody. This is a nation where everybody is supposed to be able to achieve the American dream. So if you're in the upper classes, you feel like you have the opportunity to become extremely rich. If you're poor, the idea is that you should be able to rise into the middle class. If you're middle-class, maybe you can rise into the ranks of the affluent. But the problem is, of course, that even as everybody is taught from a young age that they can all achieve affluence and economic security, in fact, not everybody can, because we have structural economic conditions where basically the top 20 percent are doing very well, and most other people are just sort of making ends meet or barely keeping their heads above water.

So not everybody can go to college and not everybody can get a law degree or a medical degree, and there are just a lot of people who are basically locked out of the stream of affluence. I think that the gap between expectations and realities is enough to make people feel as though the social contract that's been promised to them hasn't delivered, which can make them feel that it's OK to do whatever it takes to level the playing field, and get the things that have been denied to them. And that's not a new characteristic in the United States -- sociologists have commented about that same phenomenon 60 or 70 years ago.

But does this phenomenon have an economic cause, or is it more of a sociocultural issue? Obviously they're related, but you'd think that the societal norm would play a big part in this.

I make a four-fold argument in my book about why there's a lot of cheating, seemingly more cheating in the last 25 years than in the '40s, '50s and '60s. The argument is that, one, the last quarter-century has seen an intensification of bottom-line pressures. So there's more of a focus on profits in business but also in law and medicine and even nonprofit organizations are more focused on the bottom line, and people are under more pressure to produce. For example, 30 years ago, lawyers didn't turn in billable hours, and to the extent that they did, they weren't expected to work nearly the kinds of hours that they're expected to work now. Now, young lawyers at law firms have to keep track of everything they do during the day, all of their billable hours, and they're accountable to the partners as to how many hours they're billing, their billing expectations are up to 2,200 or 2,400 hours a year, and if they can't meet their quota, then they are the first to be fired during a downturn, or they're less likely to make partner, or they don't get a bonus ...

Well, it makes sense that economic situations would create economic causes for cheating. But in other situations where cheating and lying are removed for an economic outcome, for example, when people have a lot of money and they steal for fun, or when people cheat each other or tell lies simply because they think they can get away with it -- such cases would seem harder to understand.

My book is really more about cheating to get ahead. However, I do think that values come into play. There have been economic changes, there's been government deregulation -- the watchdogs have been anesthetized, whether it's the IRS or the SEC or the local Department of Housing, they're just less on the case -- but I also look at the value changes in American society over the last 25 years, that the society has become more materialistic, more individualistic, and more socially Darwinistic. The individualism of the '60s sort of teamed up with the materialism of the '80s, and many of the more cooperative values of the '60s that went with the individualism initially have sort of fallen away in our society.

So people are more focused on their own personal advancement instead of being focused on the common good.

Right. It's sort of like the "Me" generation meets "Greed is good." We get all these messages that you should look out for yourself, that government can't solve collective problems. People's loss of faith in collectivism and government is really an important part of the story here, because government has always been the outlet for collective aspirations or for collective problem-solving, and if most people don't believe in government and they're told again and again by top politicians that government is the problem, not the solution, then basically you're on your own. This is an economic and political climate where you're on your own, and you have license to do what it takes to make it on your own.

Still, in scapegoating the government, as politicians so often do, what's lost is a message of personal responsibility that has an emphasis on honor -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Some politicians have been saying the government should do more for you. Many other politicians have been saying the government does too much, the government should get out of the way, everybody should take responsibility for themselves. If you look at polling on this subject, the number of Americans who believe that everyone is responsible for their own success -- you're sort of individually the master of your own destiny -- has increased in the '80s and '90s.

That sense, though, could be focused in the direction of honor and personal responsibility. It could be the seed of something positive.

If people could learn to cooperate with others to do that. You know, the other part of the cultural picture here is that we tend to worship the strong. By strong I mean the rich and famous. Our culture is filled, essentially, with these triumphant individuals who have seemingly made their way by themselves. And because we admire the strong and wealthy so much, we tend to be very forgiving of their weaknesses. So that sort of dovetails into this historical tendency in the United States to kind of worship the ends and ignore the means that were achieved to get those ends.

Our culture -- Hollywood, in particular -- also glorifies the renegade who finds some way, whatever means necessary, heedless of laws or moral codes, to get results and make things happen.

Yeah, in every industry. The other part of the picture is that there are a lot of double standards when it comes to personal responsibility and wrongdoing and culpability. Basically over the last 20 years, we've thrown the book at the poor. We have three strikes you're out, we have mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, we have quality of life policing that has turned poor neighborhoods into virtual police states, and yet the middle class and the upper middle class is being coddled more than ever, in terms of their wrongdoing is pretty much accepted and there's not really a Draconian crackdown on middle-class crimes. A lot of these corporate criminals have gotten off the hook in the wake of the scandals.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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