What Were They Thinking? – Scandals, Frauds and Cover-Ups

Is it me, or does it seem like there’s more scandals, secrets, frauds and plain stupidities making the headlines than ever before? And yet, especially for individuals and companies in high positions, you’d think they’d never gotten the memo: “Don’t do it! It ain’t worth it! Learn from the mistakes of others!”

We’re living in an age of ubiquitous cameras, hacking, gossip, and internet incriminating information investigations. And, yet, whether out of greed, expediency, hubris, or a reckless drive to be Number 1, they fall, fall, fall.

The Volkswagen emissions subterfuge is one of the latest to “shock” the world… even if shock is increasingly hard to feel. My wife and I have owned used VW Jettas since 2008 and we feel slimed. It’s thought that, in VW’s push to overtake Toyota and GM as the world’s top car companies, their engineers created software in 11 million of their diesel cars which could allow them detect when emissions tests were being administered and automatically adjust the emissions to pass the test; during normal driving the emissions typically were between 10-40 times above EPA limits. But, eventually, suspicions arose and the EPA caught VW. I guess there goes VW’s green car of the year award! Now VW’s got a mess on their hands – their CEO resigned, criminal charges are likely, their stock plummeted by almost 50%, there will be fines, their reputation may be irreparably damaged, and the 11 million VW diesel drivers get the short end of the stick! Oh, now VW will be lucky if it ever breaks into the top 5 car producers.

What were they thinking? Like Enron, are these the “smartest guys in the room” or the dumbest? The most dishonest or the most ambitious? The most creative or the most delusional?

Here’s a dirty dozen list of other frauds and cover-ups in the news by those of supposedly high esteem and status:

1. Tom Brady and Deflate-gate (even if there wasn’t enough hard evidence to find him guilty).

2. GM and their faulty ignition switches which are believed to have lead to nearly 100 traffic deaths and multiple injuries.

3. Bill Cosby and his “50-and-counting” accusers of drug-induced sexual assault.

4. FIFA (soccer) bribery and embezzlement among top management.

5. The 37+ million Ashley Madison dating/cheating website subscribers, recently outed by a hacker.

6. TSA’s terrible track record of catching potential airline threats as discovered by a recent government secret test of the system: TSA missed about 95% of its threats!

7. Rachel Dolezal’s “masquerade” as an African-American (she was born to two caucasian parents) after several years as an NAACP officer in Washington state.

8. Brian Williams is back on TV (doing small bits on MSNBC) after a 7-month unpaid suspension for embellishing stories of his war coverage to look like he was in more danger than he was.

9. Toshiba’s CEO and others resignation in the wake of a $1.5 billion accounting scandal to falsely inflate its value for investors and the stock markets.

10. Teachers caught cheating on their students’ standardized tests by changing answers for better scores to avoid consequences and to receive monetary bonuses.

11. Sports doping.

12. Politicians….. need I say more?

So, what does this all mean? Is humanity as we know it doomed? I hope not. Of course, there are still a lot of good, ethical people out there – we just don’t tend to hear about them in the news. For whatever reason, scandal sells. I know that I have had many ethical lapses in my 50 years and try very hard not to hold myself out as perfect: I’m not. But while we all have our achilles heels, vulnerabilities and temptations, I would hope that we could slow down more – or even come to a complete stop – and “play the tape through” before we commit such terrible mistakes.

As Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt write in their several best-selling “Freakonomics” books, all human behavior can be explained by one word: “incentives.” So, yes, there are more base incentives to cheat, steal, lie, etc., to get ahead, win some reward or avoid defeat or punishment. But aren’t there also higher incentives to “do the right thing” because it keeps our conscience clear, limits the risk of future discovery and crisis, pays in the long run, and builds trust and reputation? Whatever happened to the old saying: your reputation is your most important and valuable asset; without it, you’re nothing.

Many theorists believe that most people aren’t dishonest at heart, nor have been groomed to be dishonest at a young age. Rather, they suggest that it usually takes a certain combination of events to line up that might make even the most ethical person break. If there are certain pressures (financial and/or other), access or opportunity, and a perception of minimal risk of discovery… it’s a coin flip.

As a species, are we becoming greedier, more desperate, more impatient, more unsatisfied with anything but the best? The stats and trends are scary. Our youth are exhibiting more and more dishonest tendencies and, even more troubling, don’t seem to be that concerned about their own ethics. Why do we think that is? Maybe because most of their role models aren’t very good role models? Parents, your kids are watching you!

Some studies have drawn a correlation between creativity and “criminality” in that people who are creative often can’t help but think outside the box and about new ways to do things, including finding shortcuts and loopholes. It’s not that “simple” people are always honest and not all neurotic, intellectual, and complicated people (like me) are always dishonest. I like the 12-Step slogan “keep it simple.” Keeping a code of ethics – don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal – seems like it should be so easy, but, obviously, it isn’t. All we can do is be the change we wish to see in the world. $

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