Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Our real crisis: vanishing ethics

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Pat Murphy

Like a giant plume of toxic waste spewing from a sewerage outlet, the United States is being poisoned by a sludge of unethical behavior.

No segment of society, no institution is immune.

This scourge reaches from the White House down to every branch of government, through the clergy, into corporate executive suites, up and down the military chain of command, into public schools and medicine, in athletics.

It's familiar in everyday life: lies, greed, deceit and deception, cover-ups, cheating, theft.

Worse, most Americans seem to expect ethical misconduct. Except for periodic bursts of prosecutorial righteousness, nothing substantial is done to try gouging this rot from the American psyche.

Decaying ethics have led to this curious anomaly—whistleblowers and media that expose wrongdoing are punished and denounced.

Ethics are easily understood—knowing what's right and wrong. Without ethics, society collapses into a jungle of cheating and distrust.

The Coca-Cola executive assistant who tried last week to sell the company's soft drink secrets to Pepsi Cola is as corrupt as Americans who sell military secrets to foreign governments.

A president who declares he's above the law is no better than the CEO who connives to rob shareholders.

Mega-corporations that overcharge taxpayers on military contracts are as morally bankrupt as the clerk who uses the company credit card to pay a lap dancer.

School teachers who help students improve test grades by sharing answers? Corrupt ethically.

No institutions in the land are as ethically corrupt per capita as the U.S. Senate and House, where justifying the ends with any means is a way of life.

With one war hero-Republican congressman in prison for blithely accepting bribes, and more Democrats and Republicans under investigation, an ugly spectacle of greed, avarice and venality unprecedented in recent political history is unfolding for Americans.

How abysmal is unethical political behavior? Consider Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's "Who, me?" denial after FBI agents found $90,000 in bribe money in his home freezer as well as evidence of several hundred thousand more dollars in probable bribes.

"I've done nothing wrong," Jefferson says, as if he believes it.

Jefferson's mistake is that he was clumsier than others.

Other members pad their fortunes by ladling taxpayer dollars into hometown projects or federal contracts for cronies, which in turn yields campaign donations or six-figure lobbying jobs after retirement.

Yes, the Senate and House have ethics committees to deal with this behavior. Only problem: Members of the ethics committees are doing the same.

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