Friday, March 15, 2019

"Big Money Got a Mean Streak, Big Money Got No Soul"

If you've ever read my blog (and I hope you have), you know that ethics are a big concern of mine. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe honesty is still an important value. I respect anyone who tries to do the right thing, not because they're afraid they'll get caught if they do something wrong, but because they genuinely prefer living an honorable life.  Sad to say, these past few days were a reminder that we're living in a time when some people don't seem to feel that way.

Consider the scandal about those super-wealthy parents who made sure their kids got into college by deception:  handing out bribes to coaches to give their kids athletic scholarships for sports their kids didn't even play; hiring professionals to take their kids' entrance exams; or paying people to change their kids' wrong answers...and making massive donations to the schools their kids were applying to. As these parents saw it, their kids were entitled to get into the elite colleges of their choice (although whether the kids actually chose these schools is unclear-- one kid, who has a career as a "social media influencer," promoting her own line of cosmetics, told her followers she had no interest in studying and mainly wanted to go there to party). The parents who paid millions to make sure their kids got accepted evidently gave little thought to making their kids earn their way. The goal was to get them admitted, by any means necessary, even if it meant a more deserving (and less affluent) student lost out.

Or consider Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for Donald Trump.  For many years, Manafort was a well-known lobbyist, whose clients tended to be brutal dictators and authoritarian regimes.  He was well-paid for his efforts, and lived an extravagant lifestyle.  He also did what he could to avoid paying taxes and to hide his assets.  He was ultimately arrested by the FBI, tried and convicted-- in one trial, for tax fraud, lying about having foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud; and in a second trial, for conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering.  Both judges noted that he showed little remorse.  And although he apologized for his actions, he mainly seemed sorry he had been caught (and that now he would have to spend some time in prison).

What irritated me about the first story was I recall my own experience as a working-class kid trying to get accepted to college. My parents weren't wealthy, and they didn't know any influential people who might get me into an elite university. But then, I didn't expect that.  My parents told me to study hard & get good grades; I then took my own SATs (I did okay, but not well enough to get a scholarship).  Fortunately, I got accepted to the one school my parents could afford; and during the years I attended, I also worked several part-time jobs to help with tuition.  I knew many other kids just like me who did the same thing. What I learned from that experience was if you want to get something, you need to do your part. It won't just be handed to you. Frankly, I think that's a valuable lesson, no matter what social class you come from.

Several things irritated me about the second story, and none of them are political. They have to do with ethics. For one thing, Manafort was willing to lobby on behalf of some of the world's worst dictators; he took money from governments that did horrendous things to their citizens, yet he seemed fine about it as long as he could buy more mansions or cars or expensive clothes. I like to make money as much as anyone does, but I'm not sure I'd work for an autocratic regime or a brutal dictator.  Similarly, I hate paying taxes, but it frustrates me whenever I read about some super-wealthy person or corporation that doesn't pay anything. It doesn't prove they're clever-- it proves they don't want to pay their fair share, which hurts the rest of us.

Those of you who are Rush fans know I quoted some of their lyrics in the title of this post. Of course, money itself is neither good nor bad. It can help people, or hurt people. But I've also quoted St. Paul before, and it's time to do it again-- he was right when he said the love of money is the root of all evil. For too many people, they seem to love money (and power) more than they love ethics. Unfortunately, the love of money can bring out the worst in people. And in a media culture that glorifies the lifestyles of the rich and famous, it's easy for some folks to get the impression that money is all that matters... even when the love of it can have disastrous results.         


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