Values in 2004

The word "values" has moved to center stage again this election year. Democratic candidates John Kerry and John Edwards clearly aspire to recapture the moral high ground from Republicans, and they have spoken about values at nearly every campaign stop. Meanwhile, President Bush and the GOP have done everything they can to maintain the Republican advantage on moral issues that they have held since the Reagan presidency.

A focus on values is healthy for public debate. But, not surprisingly, this year's campaign talk about values has been unproductive. Democrats use the "V-word" as if they learned it yesterday, invoking values so often -- whether talking about health care or the economy or foreign policy -- that the word has little meaning. Republicans stick to their usual script on values, depicting themselves as defenders of faith and family who understand the heartland of America.

Notably missing from the discussion of values is attention from either party to the mounting ethics problems in American society. The recent corporate scandals -- an ethics disaster of colossal dimensions -- are barely mentioned at all on the campaign trail. Nor has there been much talk of rampant academic dishonesty, which has increased significantly in recent years; or the major steroid scandal that has lately been engulfing the sports world; or tax evasion, which has more than doubled in the past decade; or the deplorable state of ethics in many professions, including medicine, law, and journalism.

These problems should be part of any serious conversation about values in America. And for Democrats, widespread ethical misconduct offers an opportunity to move the values debate onto home turf. That is because many of today's ethical problems can be traced to trends that Democrats already deplore -- like the growing gap between winners and losers, a harsher economy that leaves many workers feeling anxious, and lax government regulation.

It is important for scholars and students of American commerce to know that nowhere do such trends play out more perniciously than in business. The rewards for those who get to the top of the business world have soared in the past two decades and created bigger temptations to cut corners. At the same time, intensified competition and a relentless focus on the bottom line leads some in business to believe that cheating is the only way to survive. Bad behavior among executives and managers is further fueled by weak government regulators -- witness the utter failure of an understaffed Securities and Exchange Commission to deter corporate fraud during the boom of the 1990s. Even now, in the wake of the scandals, the SEC remains woefully ill-equipped to police corporations and financial markets.

The factors that propel ethical misconduct in business --bigger rewards at the top, harsh competition, and sleeping watchdogs -- also help explain cheating in other areas, like sports and education. Baseball players on steroids point to the unprecedented financial rewards that now go to sluggers -- and to the lack of effective drug-testing. Students who cheat on exams speak of their fears of being left behind economically -- and about faculty too lazy to enforce school codes on cheating and plagiarism. Ironically, as Americans have become more personally responsible in terms of social issues in recent years -- as evidenced, for example, by falling rates of violent crime and teen pregnancy -- we are distinctly less accountable and upstanding when it comes to getting ahead academically, professionally, and financially. That dichotomy presents an opportunity for Democrats to go on the offensive. It is also an opportunity for universities, and business schools in particular, to put real teeth in their teaching of ethics.

While conservatives will maintain that the radical individualism that arose during the 1960s explains the moral problems in America today, liberals can argue in return that just as large a share of blame lies with changes associated with the money culture of the 1980s and 1990s: rising greed, competition, and materialism -- and a concomitant decline in the emphasis on community, service, and social responsibility. In a dog-eat-dog America that worships winners and is tougher on economic losers, it is no surprise that so many people will cut corners to get ahead.

The terrible state of ethics among Americans did not "just happen." This moral crisis stems from economic and social conditions in U.S. society that we -- politicians, educators, students, and citizens -- have the power to change. The election this fall offers a unique opportunity to spotlight those conditions, and create a new conversation about values that fuses the traditional conservative emphasis on personal responsibility with longstanding liberal concerns about the overreach of market forces in U.S. society.

 

Notably missing from the discussion of values is attention from either party to the mounting ethics problems in American society. The recent corporate scandals -- an ethics disaster of colossal dimensions -- are barely mentioned at all on the campaign trail. Nor has there been much talk of rampant academic dishonesty, which has increased significantly in recent years; or the major steroid scandal that has lately been engulfing the sports world; or tax evasion, which has more than doubled in the past decade; or the deplorable state of ethics in many professions, including medicine, law, and journalism.