|I‘ve written before about whistle-blowers. Yesterday, I actually met one, Cynthia Cooper, the internal auditor at WorldCom who uncovered and relentlessly investigated the company’s three billion dollar fraud.
She’s a brilliant and powerful speaker, telling the astonishing story of convoluted deceit, cover-up, intimidation and negligence bluntly and factually. The stress and fame has of course changed her life, but rather than allow the media to make this into a story of eccentric and arrogant greed, she insisted that it be told as what it was: a story of normal, average people who quietly, and terribly easily, crossed the ethical line.
The reality is that WorldCom would probably have gone bankrupt anyway, so the end result for its employees and investors would likely have been the same even if the fraud had not been unearthed. Some of the perpetrators were too proud to admit their incompetence led to a huge corporation’s demise. Some of them were followed orders out of ignorance or blind faith. Some of them, like gambling addicts, were convinced that with a little more of the same unethical activity, things would turn around and they could repay the debts and stop lying to themselves and the world. Most of them believed no one would be hurt by their actions.
Read the news today about all the people who made huge fortunes lending money irresponsibly and recklessly to people who could only repay it if house prices kept rising forever. Know that among these millionaires there are more criminals hoping there is no rare Cynthia Cooper to blow the whistle on them. When the US Fed lowered interest rates 1/2% yesterday, they told the liars and cheats and fraudsters “Relax, we’ll give you a bit more time to get out from under, to cover your tracks”. To do it again. To get in even deeper. But then as Greenspan’s new book shows, the Fed are liars and cover-up artists too.
Pride. Greed. Ego. Following orders. The desire to get ahead. The sense that no one is really being hurt. That everyone cheats or lies, so why shouldn’t they. The fear to tell the terrible truth and the impulse to get in even deeper in the faint hope of getting out. Rationalization. Succumbing to temptation.
All these things can lead us to lie and cheat. It’s very human. So we speed. We cheat on our exams, and then on our taxes, and then on our spouses. It’s not a crime if it’s not discovered, is it? No one is hurt by it (The Tragedy of the Commons argument). We can stop anytime. Everyone does it. It wasn’t our fault.
But of course, it is our fault. We start down the slippery slope before we realize how slippery it is.
A million movies and TV programs tell us what happens next, as comedy or tragedy. Downfall. But we don’t learn. We can’t stop ourselves in time.
And when we discover someone else doing it, do we blow the whistle? Do we tell the teacher about the kids in the class cheating on the tests and copying essay answers from the Internet? Do we tell the wronged spouse about their cheating partner? Do we phone the tax authorities and rat out our friends and neighbours? Do we phone the police to report speeders?
So why should we be surprised that no one is willing to blow the whistle on those a little further along the slippery slope — the corrupt businesspeople, politicians, regulators, and celebrities? It’s dangerous, and what’s the point anyway? They can bribe or buy their way out of trouble anyway, with the money they’ve stolen from other criminal activities. They can get away with murder, or invasion and destruction of a sovereign nation, or genocide, or Bhopal, or Chernobyl, or Valdez, or the poisoning and desolation of the planet enough to bring about the Sixth Great Extinction.
Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
No need to say what the answer is here. It’s the answer to the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s all about taking responsibility. But it only works if enough of us do it, and refuse to let others shirk it, and refuse to let our commons be exploited. We know what to do, and always have. But at some point in our evolution, we forgot, or we just stopped doing it. Now we live with theconsequences. Now we do what we do.
Category: Being Human
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Dave, there are people out there who do not exhibit the normal sense of ethics that you and I and most of the world population do. These people have no feelings of empathy, which helps them to rise to higher positions in organizations. In fact, the only way to rise to the top in many large corporations is to screw others along the way. That is why people without a conscience are so much better at it. I’d be willing to bet that the lives and savings of the victims never even entered the minds of many of the perpetrators of the Worldcom scam. It is hard for those of us with a conscience to believe that others really don’t have one, but just look at leaders like Conrad Black and Dick Cheney.
There are no Victims. Just Perpetrators, Accessories and Ostriches.