Friday, October 23, 2015

Looking for Excuses

Are ethics becoming more situational?  I occasionally hear someone making a comment about getting something for free because the company is not paying attention or because they have found a way around paying: free cable or extra channels, a new cell phone after intentionally destroying the old one before the insurance runs out, free videos and music, etc.  They justify this by saying that the company is big and probably unethical and takes advantage of customers.  This becomes their personal administration of punishment.

Recently, in response to HBO CEO Richard Pepler’s comment that he doesn’t mind people sharing their logins to watch shows online, Emmys host Andy Samberg decided to share his login on national TV – humorous perhaps, but not exactly in the spirit of honesty.  Many jumped at the opportunity to get something for nothing.  According to Variety, “the account quickly hit login limits and has now been deactivated.”  Accordingly, a Consumer Reports survey found that, “46% of American adults said they shared log-ins for streaming media services with people who were not part of the same household—which is generally against the rules.”  It used to be called stealing, but what the heck.  They are big companies with plenty of money.

The government gets the same treatment.  Polls show that approximately 87 percent believe it is unacceptable to cheat on income taxes, which leaves almost 1 in 7 who think it’s OK.  That’s what they say, but “economists estimate the size of the underground [cash] economy at somewhere between 8 percent and 14 percent of total GDP, which could amount to as much as $2 trillion worth of economic activity.”  This is probably not the same 13% of people.  In addition, I told in May 2013 how 99% of taxpayers neglect to report sales tax on Internet purchases and 30% said they would change their shopping habits if a tax were charged at the time of purchase.  No twinges of conscience nag at ordinary citizens when it comes to shorting Uncle Sam or their state department of revenue.

Meanwhile, politicians and their supporters think an acceptable defense is not that they are innocent, but that others before them did the same or worse.  (In many cases voters just shrug off these excuses as if we don’t expect better.)

When the housing crisis struck several years ago, a prominent economist actually encouraged people to default on their loans.  He argued that a smart economic move of walking away from a house worth less than the amount still owed superseded any ethical constraint.  The government was bailing out big companies, so it wasn’t fair for the little guy to be stuck in an upside-down mortgage situation.  One study found that about 17% agreed with this conclusion, but among those who knew someone who had “strategically defaulted,” 82% were likely to agree.

As the left and the right continue to demonize big business on one hand and the government on the other, are we making it easier to justify cheating?  If it is difficult to do business now – getting loans or qualifying for service – what will it be like in the future if companies cannot trust their customers to live up to commitments or expect the public in general to play by the rules?  This behavior too will have consequences.

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