The Looter’s Mentality

Why America Doesn’t Work Series

These days, you can hardly open a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing another story about financial scandal or excess. Wall Street traders are hustled off to jail because they traded their investors’ trust for huge dividends for themselves. In the last decade, the government tripled the national debt to three trillion dollars, saddling our children with our debt for generations to come. And on Capitol Hill, the ethics committee is working overtime interrogating congressmen accused of financial improprieties.

What ever happened to “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay?”

As I said yesterday, it all started with the 1960s. The counter-culture undermined traditional values and reduced everything to personal experience. When that philosophy was taken into the marketplace, it produced the excesses of the 80s. As the notorious Ivan Boesky told a group of business students, “Greed is good.”

But when there are no ethical constraints, people don’t just take what they need, they grab whatever they can get–before someone else gets it. On the streets it’s called looting, and during the heyday of the acquisitive 80s a looter’s mentality infected much of American commerce. Fraud and breach of fiduciary duty went out of control–insider trading, junk bonds, and personal use of corporate funds were rampant.

The problem is, looters always have victims. In the case of the Savings & Loan scandals, it was we taxpayers who were left holding the bag–$550 billion worth–that our children will someday have to pay off.

Sometimes corruption finds the most innocent victims. For 10 years, American babies drank Beech-Nut Baby Foods juices, from bottles labeled “100% fruit juice–no sugar added.” Mothers were shocked when it was revealed that the juice was not much more than a concoction of chemicals, dye, and water.

When Beech-Nut was found out in America, it simply shipped the fraudulent juice to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

But corruption is not limited to the rich and powerful. The same mindset pervades all of society. A hotel in Mobile, Alabama, for example, tries to attract business travelers by advertising “Rooms $80; cash rebate $20.” Translation: Check in here, charge your employer eighty dollars on your expense account, and we’ll put twenty dollars into your pocket.

Employees cheat their companies by taking long lunch hours and extra sick days, or by slipping a few office supplies home in a brief case. Or by just not working as hard as they can. A 1982 Gallup poll found that only 16 percent of workers felt they were doing the best job they could at work.

What we are witnessing is the consequence of what Jack Eckerd and I write about in our new book, Why America Doesn’t Work. American workers have been infected with a new attitude toward work based entirely on personal pleasure and satisfaction. There are no moral restraints against stealing, cheating, or skimming off the system.

Integrity, hard work, and self discipline–everything that we know as the Protestant work ethic–are left by the way. If we want to prevent economic collapse, there is no more urgent task than to reinvigorate that traditional ethic.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about yet another scandal: how the government itself prevents some people from working.


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