Editorial: Kids learn from adults

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Make no mistake: It’s dismaying, disheartening even, to have your holiday cheer disrupted by the results of a survey indicating that 30 percent of U.S. high school students have committed theft, and at least double that percentage have cheated on a test.
But is it really any surprise?
Some experts digesting the survey by the Josephson Institute of Los Angeles said that today’s young people probably aren’t less honest than previous generations. They’re just under more pressure to perform academically or fit in socially, the thinking goes, and modern culture offers more temptations. At best, that sounds more like a rubbery rationale than identification of an underlying cause.
Here’s another possibility: The kids are just following the example of their elders.
Don’t think so? Our current economic mess is a prime example of the way that adults lie, cheat, dissemble and deceive out of greed or a simple desire to live beyond their means. You don’t have to be an investment banker, hedge fund operator or even a shifty mortgage applicant to be among the ethically challenged. Consider these ways in which legions of Americans are chronically dishonest:
– Cheating on a spouse: The nature of an extramarital affair makes it difficult to document รณ unless you make the National Enquirer. An oft-cited study conducted a few years ago by the University of California estimated that 24 percent of men and 14 percent of women have had extramarital affairs. Even without irrefutable statistics, we can safely surmise that a large number of adults are guilty of the behavior for which John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton et. al. have been condemned.
– Cheating on taxes: The IRS says the “tax gap,” the difference between what Americans owe in federal income tax and what they actually pay, recently reached $345 billion a year. Tax cheats come disproportionately and overwhelmingly from the ranks of America’s rich. Americans who make between $500,000 and $1 million a year underreport their incomes by 21 percent. That’s triple the 7 percent “misreport” rate of taxpayers who make between $30,000 and $50,000 and well over double the 8 percent cheating rate by taxpayers making between $50,000 and $100,000. (Another survey found that 33 percent of Americans say they would cheat the government by working under the table while receiving unemployment benefits.)
– Cheating at work: Of course, no reader of the Salisbury Post would ever pocket a few minor office supplies or pad an expense account. Others aren’t as scrupulous. Internal theft costs U.S. companies at least $60 billion a year. According to Lousig-Nont and Associates, a pre-employment testing firm in Las Vegas, out of 7,443 people it tested for honesty in 1993, 52 percent admitted to stealing or thinking about stealing regularly or said they would steal if they thought they had a good enough reason. And that doesn’t include stolen hours: The typical American worker wastes up to two hours of work time per day attending to personal business, chatting with colleagues, booking the next vacation or surfing the Internet.
If we really want the younger generation to have higher moral values, we should give them better role models.