right is right and wrong is wrong

who wouldn't let that car pass an emissions test?

That people lie, cheat and steal isn’t newsworthy. It’s human nature, right? If raised properly, then one assesses an ethical dilemma and simply does the right thing. It’s easy. No grey area at all. People with much more time than we have can be bothered with grey areas. We have things to do.

Yet as is so often the case, it’s not that simple. I heard a thing about fraud earlier  on npr (National Public Radio), and it got me thinking. That’s normally when the trouble starts. Here’s the offending piece that got all this started:

Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things

First of all, I’m sure you like the title partially because you think of yourself as a good person. Most of us do. We’re the protagonists of our lives and we sail through vanquishing different forms of questionable behaviour. Well, some of us do.

Don’t believe the scolding press that tells you everyone’s only out for himself. In my experience, most people are trying to do the best they can. I truly believe that. Despite the fact that this position isn’t jaded or weary, I hold to it. People are good. Mostly.

So why do people bend the rules? 

Here the radio programme set it out quite succinctly:

‘Typically when we hear about large frauds, we assume the perpetrators were driven by financial incentives. But psychologists and economists say financial incentives don’t fully explain it. They’re interested in another possible explanation: Human beings commit fraud because human beings like each other.

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.’

That doesn’t seem like such a stretch, does it? Sounds logical to me.

They use the example of emissions testers. A sleek, expensive BMW pulls up coughing out black smoke, and that baby’s going to fail that emissions test. As well it should. However, if a more modest vehicle drives up to be tested, the emissions tester is more likely to identify with that driver and let the car slide.

When the emissions tester commits the fraud, he’s not doing it out of greed. It actually comes down to being nice. In that moment, the bigger picture of that decision doesn’t exist. The researcher goes on:

‘…cognitively, emissions testers can’t appreciate the consequences of their fraud, the costs of the decision that they are making in the moment. The cost is abstract: the global environment. They are literally being asked to weigh the costs to the global environment against the benefits of passing someone who is right there who needs help. We are not cognitively designed to do that.’

Am I the only one who finds this fascinating? I can’t be. The implications are too huge.

We can’t just lump all the people who make unethical decisions into a group and call them ‘bad’. I mean, you can. And many people certainly do without any crisis of conscience. I like how the npr story ends, so I’ll let it speak for itself. It’s a dilemma I don’t brush away lightly:

‘…we could just keep saying what we’ve always said — that right is right, and wrong is wrong, and people should know the difference.’

Contemplating the Continental Breakup

the idea of Europe

I’ve thought quite a bit about how I’d introduce this topic. It’s complicated and nearly impenetrable. Notice I didn’t say impossible. But many Europeans I talk to don’t know where to begin.

Or they’re so overwhelmed with the whole thing that they shy away from even trying to start. Many people simply don’t want to talk about it.

That’s why I was pleased to hear Ira Glass turn his NPR radio show This American Life over to the people at Planet Money, who would very succinctly and understandably explain the European debt crisis.

They ask the question that many people in the US and around the world have been asking themselves since this situation exploded: Do I really need to be concerned about this? Like the story itself, the answer is more complicated than you might think.

Here’s the podcast:

I know it’s nearly an hour, but the whole situation is explained rather well. Go back, click on the link, and let the story wash over you. It is quite impressively made.

The most telling part of the whole piece happens between 27:50 and 29:40. The guy working in the Greek Statistics Office says that the newly-elected government informed the citizenry, ‘The deficit is closer to 13% not 6% (what was stated by an earlier administration),’ The male journalist’s voice explains that the money had been lent to Greece, ‘…based upon very specific information, and suddenly that information turned out to be very, very wrong. And they wanted to know, “How did this happen?”.

Then the female journalist’s voice goes on:

‘And see, it’s a little hard to answer that question. The Greek politicians explained, “The last guys – they lied to you. It was never 6%. We are telling you the truth. The truth is 13%.” (my note: always be wary when anyone says outright, “We are telling you the truth.”)

But when you ask the people at the government’s statistics office – the very people who came up with the numbers – …they say things like this: “Everyone here in Greece said, ‘What number is this? It’s outrageous.'” Instead of the Greek Statistic Office saying, “We messed up. Here’s what went wrong. Here exactly is how we’re going to win back your trust and make sure it never happens again.” 

No. Instead, the workers just kinda shrugged their shoulders. The government worker says, “Nobody knows.” ‘

The female journalist challenges him abruptly, ‘But you guys work in the statistics office…you’re the first people who would know that, because you work here.’He answers, ‘The people here who worked about this matter said, “We did our job very correctly.”‘

That’s part of the story right there. The people who made the mistakes were human and neither want to point fingers at their colleagues nor admit that they actually did anything wrong.

But now here I am. How do I even begin talking about all of it? Well, what’s most interesting to me is the stereotypes and cultural pitfalls that’re inherent in the whole thing. When they were doing the planning to bring Greece into the Euro, no-one wanted to offend the newcomers. Everyone in the room probably knew that the figures (for Greece‘s application to join the Euro) didn’t add up, but everyone’s feelings had to be taken into account.

 

When I was talking to some of my German acquaintances about this, I started by saying something like, ‘The impression is that the vast majority of Greeks make a game of not having to pay their taxes.’

‘No! That’s not an impression-that’s a fact,’ the German said. ‘The fact is that both middle class and even higher class people there do everything to avoid paying taxes.’ Here’s the thing. Here’s the crux of the matter.

Can you imagine paying your taxes fastidiously and then finding out that you’re paying for an untenable situation in other countries? That even if you dump money into that situation, the other countries’ systems will continue to go on as they did before?

The conclusion at the end of the podcast seemed to be that Germany should try being more like other countries. Or be somehow grateful that it has to bail out the others. It’s sort of a weird conclusion, but I think the Germans might be more willing to accept such a plan if it appeared it would even work.

Just because I live here doesn’t mean that I’m going to argue the German perspective. When I don’t agree with a policy or the direction things are going, then I say something. But all the way through this crisis the conventional wisdom is that in the end the Germans are going to pay. The fact that they’ve dragged their heels or questioned whether paying would do any good whatsoever has been met with outrage. Which is also rather curious.

The other thing here is that it’s easy sitting outside of the situation to assume you know what the players should do. The Hatfields and McCoys look ridiculous unless you actually are either a Hatfield or a McCoy.

What’s difficult for someone outside of Germany to comprehend is the blowback that’d occur if the German government were to accept the demands of other European countries to continue to throw money at the problem without stipulations. Without somehow believing that they were somehow setting up a system that’d make sure this didn’t happen again.

Does anyone (except for those on the fringe of Europe) really believe the Common Currency is going to dissolve? It might be talked about theoretically, but the vast majority of people I talk to can’t even comprehend the failure of the grand experiment that is Europe.

And strangely enough…even with the crisis and the cultural differences and all the other problems that are thrown about in the papers and on the television political shows…even with all of that, I tend to agree with my friends who say ‘How could there not be a Europe?’

How indeed.