Cheating Heart

Does capitalism teach people to break the rules?

The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, by David Callahan, New York: Harcourt, 304 pages, $26

Glen Whitman, an economics professor at California State University, Northridge, is the kind of teacher cheaters dread. Soon after he began teaching, he realized that Scantron tests -- the multiple choice fill-in-the-bubble type -- were especially tempting for unscrupulous students. The tests are graded by machine, seldom scrutinized directly by the teacher. And sometimes an incomplete erasure or a smudge will lead to a right answer being marked wrong, making it easy for a cheater to make a few retroactive "corrections" and plead mistreatment by the grading gadget. But as the first student to try that stunt discovered, to his surprise and horror, Whitman scans or photocopies all his students' tests before returning them.

He's equally hawkish about plagiarism. When he gets that tingle in the back of his head about a paper -- too professional, too erudite, too different from the student's usual style -- he begins punching phrases from the paper into Google, which often turns up the source of student lifting. When that doesn't work, says Whitman, he heads over to Turnitin.com, a site that helps professors identify unoriginal material in papers as easily as students can cut and paste it. Largely because of new technologies, cheating is easier than ever before. But it's hard to know the extent to which students really are cheating more than they used to, partly because it's easier than it ever has been for astute teachers to catch those who do cheat.

This isn't a terribly abstruse point. It's one of a half-dozen theories any academic, asked to explain either the fact or the appearance of more prevalent cheating, would be likely to come up with. You'd expect it -- and the others -- to be discussed in some detail in any 300-page book on the nature of cheating. But as David Callahan proves in The Cheating Culture, you'd be wrong.

Callahan's book comes at a time when Americans are particularly concerned with cheating -- and what to do about it. The avalanche of stories revealing that corporate accounting statements and front-page articles in The New York Times contain more creative fiction than the average issue of McSweeney's has left many of us suspecting that the old '60s slogan "never trust anyone over 30" got it exactly half right. Executives lie about corporate earnings; presidents lie about blowjobs (among other things); even Martha Stewart is no longer above suspicion.

A book that provided a unified field theory of cheating would be especially welcome just now, which makes this ham-fisted effort all the more disappointing. Callahan purports to explain a dizzying range of behaviors. The lawyer who pads his billable hours; the doctor on big pharma's payroll who touts a pricey and unproven drug to trusting patients; the CEO who cooks the books; the taxpayer who fabricates an exemption on his annual return; the teenager who downloads the new Eminem track off BitTorrent or Kazaa -- all are cited as instances of "cheating," with little fuss over any distinctions among them. And all of them, apparently, are Milton Friedman's fault.

Sometime in the late '70s, according to Callahan's narrative, a nefarious cabal of "laissez faire ideologues" began remaking American law and culture along Social Darwinist lines. The ever-increasing disparity between the jackpot rewards for a few winners at the top and the more modest returns to the average professional, as well as managerial pressure on employees to be more productive, increased the incentive to cut corners to get ahead, even as the steely-eyed government watchdogs who had long held cheating in check were declawed. The cheaters soon reached a critical mass, creating a sense that "everyone is doing it," that cheating is positively necessary just to keep up, and eroding the social and professional norms that had hitherto made the average person reluctant to defraud clients and colleagues. Hence the "epidemic" of cheating we see today.

There's probably something to this argument. It certainly will be part of any correct account of why people cheat. But here, like a catchy melody in the hands of Andrew Lloyd Weber, it is so stretched, burdened with a narrative responsibility so far beyond its powers, that it soon grates as badly as the 12th recapitulation of the "Music of the Night" theme.

Although Callahan illustrates his thesis with a series of "ripped from today's headlines" examples, by his own admission he never establishes that cheating really has increased as dramatically as he assumes. In the midst of a discussion of the genuinely unsettling influence of pharmaceutical company dollars on doctors' prescription habits, for instance, Callahan acknowledges in an endnote that "there is little hard evidence of either an increase or decrease in conflicts of interest among doctors. According to some observers, today's conflicts are not necessarily more common than in the past, just different."

One reason cheating is hard to gauge is that, as Glen Whitman's experience at CSU shows, technology and pervasive media make it easier to catch cheaters than ever before, even as the stories of those who are caught get ever wider exposure. This in turn makes us more focused on cheating, and more likely to perceive it as prevalent. It's not likely, after all, that clerical molestation of children is hugely more prevalent now than it was a century ago. The appearance of an "epidemic" stems from our greater awareness of the problem and from increased willingness to speak publicly about it.

Stricter standards may also increase formal "cheating" merely by strengthening our definition of it. Callahan is nostalgic for the days before nasty bottom line pressures led law firms to begin tracking billable hours, a time when "law firms had not yet learned the trick of working to death armies of young associates while reaping all the profits." Among lawyers themselves, hourly billing is a frequent whipping boy: It encourages associates to work hard (or pretend to), but not necessarily efficiently. Like any system of incentives, it's a double-edged sword. But the problem hourly billing was introduced to solve, while harder to pin down than fabricated hours, was no less worrisome to clients: the temptation to do a quick-and-dirty job, or to bill out of proportion to the amount of work required for a task.

Even if we assume we're cheating more today, it's surprising how many of Callahan's hand-picked anecdotes only dubiously support his case. He parrots the notion that California's electricity crisis in 2001 was the result of "deregulation" rather than stupid regulation posing as deregulation. But as many observers have noted, more thoughtfully structured (and more genuine) power deregulation in other states did not produce the shortages seen in the Golden State. The spate of corporate accounting scandals is supposed to fit into Callahan's narrative, a tale of cruel pressures created by ever "leaner and meaner" corporations. Yet these cases actually indicate lax management accountability to boards, encouraged by flush times and poor corporate governance rules. Callahan's prime example of the pernicious influence of big drug companies is the opposition of some doctors to the ban on ephedra -- opposition that's explained at least as well by the weak evidence for the stimulant's lethality as by greed. If anything, many drug companies had reason to celebrate the elimination of an herbal (and therefore unpatentable) competitor. At one point, Callahan even resorts to citing a single article in the campus newspaper of Susquehanna University as proof that our capitalist culture's pundit class wanted to excuse the Enron malefactors.

The only attempt to rebut the free market fanatics who serve as The Cheating Culture's vague villains -- their arguments are never really explained -- comes via the shocking revelation that think tanks supporting deregulation (such as my paymasters at the Reason Foundation) often get money from businesses that would benefit from it. But if the Economic Policy Institute's union funding doesn't prevent Callahan from citing its papers and studies, why does the taint of corporate money make it permissible to glibly dismiss anything coming from a free market think tank?

When it comes time to offer his own policy prescriptions, Callahan serves up a tepid set of center-left talking points, many strikingly disconnected from his argument. For several hundred pages, Callahan's core argument is that cheating results from the wealth gap between the middle class and the super-rich -- well-paid second-string athletes looking up at the top earners, urban writers and academics trying to dress and live like the lawyers in their social circle. In a stunning non sequitur, he then proposes a set of reforms aimed at raising the absolute position of unskilled workers, such as a higher minimum wage. By his own logic, he should be stumping for a maximum wage.

Despite occasional calls for a vaguely defined "new social contract," much of Callahan's analysis is marked by the kind of hyper-economic myopia you'd expect from his Chicago School foes. Consider tax evasion. Callahan adheres to a rational choice model of tax compliance, according to which the answer to cheating is more detection and punishment.

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