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“The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are DOING WRONG to Get Ahead” By David Callahan Harcourt Trade Publishers, 384 pages In recent years, anyone who keeps up with the news has seen the same sad parade of stories about executives manipulating their companies’ books, athletes taking performance-enhancing steroids, government officials exaggerating intelligence data, and journalists making up phony quotes. These headlines are cause for serious concern, according to David Callahan. The founder of the left-leaning New York public policy center Demos, he recently came out with “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are DOING WRONG to Get Ahead,” his sixth book on American history, business, and public policy. The subtitle’s capital letters are not a careless slip into “caps lock.” Callahan is outraged at contemporary America’s most pervasive ethical problem — cheating — and he wants nothing less than a social revolution to cure it. In clich�d language that pervades the book, Callahan blames the government and unfettered capitalism for fostering a “winner-take-all society.” The author argues that Americans, faced with more temptation and fewer “checks,” increasingly fall into two groups: winners who cheated their way to the top, and worriers who wonder whether they should take the same shortcuts. Callahan reads the news like the rest of us, but that’s about all he does in this book, which has little original research or fresh insight. He barely addresses the real issues around cheating — why it’s not a problem in some other cultures, and why it’s suddenly become a burgeoning concern in the United States. By skipping these questions, Callahan comes off as a moral zealot, not as a revolutionary thinker. The book starts out strong. Callahan focuses on a September 11, 2001, decision by Thomas Siciliano, general counsel of the Municipal Credit Union of New York. That day, MCU computers — which contained account information for the credit union’s 300,000 members — were damaged in the nearby terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The New York Cash Exchange, operator of the largest number of cash machines in the Northeast, told Siciliano and MCU that it couldn’t verify MCU members’ account balances. The credit union had a dilemma: Should it stop all ATM withdrawals until the problem was fixed, or trust MCU’s members — mostly firemen and policemen — not to take advantage of the glitch? Siciliano listened to his heart and got burned: As many as 4,000 MCU members overdrew their accounts, and the credit union lost about $15 million. At least 170 MCU members have been arrested for the illegal withdrawals, according to recent press reports. What does this episode tell us about our society? Callahan argues that even some of 9/11′s most upstanding heroes — firemen and policemen — will cheat if they think everyone else is doing it. Callahan doesn’t interview any of the ATM thieves, however. He merely repeats news accounts and speculates on their motives. He writes: “They would never have contemplated robbing a bank. But, hey, if a cash machine starts spitting out free money, what are you going to do?” The real question is: Would the MCU members have behaved any differently 50 years ago, or in different culture? But though his book is supposedly about shifting American mores and values, Callahan doesn’t examine this point. Nor does he provide psychological insight into the prominent liars and frauds he writes about, including Henry Blodget, Jeffrey Skilling, Jayson Blair, outside counsel who overbill, auto mechanics who misrepresent car trouble, and college students who illegally download music. Instead, Callahan puts the blame on an economic system in which rewards for success have become more lavish and punishments for failure have become more severe. The author thinks that America can be divided into the “Winning Class,” those who cheat to get ahead and reap the rewards for doing so; and the “Anxious Class,” essentially everyone else. Fearful of falling behind, more members of the Anxious Class are using fuzzy ethical arithmetic to justify their misdeeds. Ultimately, Callahan argues that we need a new social contract in order for Americans to regain their faith in each other. But his prescription is marred by an incomplete diagnosis. The author should have provided a fuller account of what makes a cheater, offered historical insights into the issue, and given a more persuasive explanation of why this is such a uniquely American problem.

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