Why Cynicism is Growing

I’ve been distressed by the growing cynicism of the students I teach–a cynicism about the motives of those in business and public life that has seemed to grow over the past few years. There have always been a few who sneered that “public service” was an oxymoron, who believed that given the chance, everyone would demonstrate greed and disregard for others, but most students were more charitable in their judgments.

Still, as I detailed in my book “Distrust, American Style,” we’ve seen a lot of corrupt institutional behavior over the past couple of decades. Enron, WorldCon, the various scandals in major-league sports, the Catholic Church’s cover-up to protect pedophile priests, the Bush Administration’s assaults on civil liberties and its dishonest case for war in Iraq–there has been plenty of reason for cynicism and distrust. While I’m sure similar examples have existed throughout our history, ¬†the growth of Facebook and Twitter and blogs has brought news of the misbehavior to many more people than might previously have known what was going on.

Student cynicism began to grow more pronounced around the time we headed into the Great Recession, as the public learned much more about the behaviors and compensation levels of the “banksters.” (Rhymes with gangsters….). The widely publicized emergence of SuperPacs funded by corporations intent upon protecting ¬†favorable tax rates and corporate welfare hasn’t helped.

This morning’s news provides two examples, noteworthy only because they’ve become utterly commonplace.

The first example–Brian Bosma’s appointment of a lobbyist with his law firm as parliamentarian–prompted this editorial language from the Indianapolis Star:

Whetstone is coming back to work for Speaker Brian Bosma as the House parliamentarian, even though he will continue to work with the lobbying firm of Krieg DeVault LLP. Whetstone has pledged not to lobby the legislature during his employment as parliamentarian, a job that pays $12,000 a month through the legislative sesion.

Whetstone says Krieg DeVault holds itself to the highest ethical standards. Even so, there’s a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one. As parliamentarian, Whetstone will advise the House Speaker on rules challenges and other procedural questions that arise. What happens if he’s asked to weigh in on a challenge that would affect legislation supported by one of his former clients, or by clients of other lobbyists working for Krieg DeVault?

The second was a report that the executives who took Hostess into bankruptcy and blamed that decision on “greedy unions” unwilling to take yet another round of pay cuts even while those executives tripled their own compensation have petitioned the bankruptcy court to approve the payment of their bonuses as part of the court-supervised demise of the business. (There’s a yiddish word for this: chutzpah.)

When the daily news consists of little but reports of self-dealing and ethical obtuseness, of evidence that politicians continue to put special interests above the national interest, how can I fault the students who assume that the whole world works that way?


  1. I think there’s another aspect to it: the lack of consequences.

    That Star editorial will be the sum total of the consequences to Bosma and Whetstone. And even before news broke this morning that the judge had approved the $1.8 million in bonuses for the Hostess executives, there was little doubt it would happen.

    The same pundits and politicians who lied and misled us into the Iraq war are still given an elevated platform on TV. Heck, even the pundits and talking heads who were dead wrong about the election earlier this month have already moved on to being wrong about the next thing with no consequence. And even with a “record number” of enforcement actions, the penalties handed out by the SEC are only a tiny fraction of the profits to be gained by unethical or even criminal behavior.

    It’s not the immoral or unethical behavior that leads to cynicism. It’s the lack of consequences — and in some cases, even bonuses & rewards — for that behavior.

  2. A brighter note… In NYC a young policeman bought the best winter boots he could for a homeless man with no shoes or socks on a cold night recently. (In Times Square I think) You probably have seen the story by now. It is little acts by each of us that may make the difference. In some measure, our government represents who WE are. (And for the last two generations, One party has taught anyone who will listen that our government IS the problem.)
    I hope I can follow the lead of that wonderful young officer. Cynicism helps nobody. Actions matter. It is not what you think, or how you feel but WHAT did you DO to make a difference. A friend of mine goes under bridges this time of year providing warm socks and gloves and hats to the homeless people who live under there. I think I better give him some help buying some more supplies this year. Oh…my friend is with the police too.

  3. I think BrianK has hit the nail on the head. I heard an interesting discussion about Wall Street. The companies are so big that individuals are not held accountable. The volume of money these companies make is so big that a huge fine represents a day or two of profits and thus is no real incentive to change behavior.

    The disfunction of Congress has made it a joke. The personal attacks on Susan Rice by McCain and Graham and throwing support for Clinton’s replacement to Kerry is a thinly disguised attempt to get Brown elected as a senator from Mass. in a special election.

    Congress is unable to consider the needs of the country as long as the parties are solely concentrating on increasing party power.

    Republicans have appointed no minorities or women as committee chairs. And they continue to act as if they won the presidential election.

    I, too, like the generous act of the NYC policeman. But public servants are way down the chain from policy makers. It seems to me that many policy makers do not have the capacity to act with the kindness of the NYC policeman.

    I applaud you Sheila for continuing to think that one need not be a jerk to be a policy maker. But there is ample evidence to support your students’ cynicism.

  4. Yes, the lack of accountability for self-dealing and ethical misconduct is staggering.

    The huge example you missed was the massive conflict of interest between Governor Mitch Daniels and Purdue in which the Governor violates the spirit, if not the letter of his own ethics laws out of personal self interest and convenience with no intervention by anyone.

    Add me to the cynical group who’s trust in government has been broken and faith lost that justice is served upon the highest level of Indiana state government.

  5. It saddens me to say it, but the cynicism is very justified. Officials from both main political Parties have earned the contempt of all of the people through their malfeasance and the continuing corruption that does nothing but increase with every passing day. While there are good people in government, they are few and far in between, caring only to put more money in the pockets of their financial backers so they keep their jobs rather than doing what makes life better for the citizenry.

    Consider: Children being arrested, handcuffed and jailed with adult offenders over minor incidents, here in Indiana and across the nation. This provides more fodder for the private, for profit prison system that is a menace to our civil liberties. The private prisons contracts with the State. Through lobbying, a lot of money passes hands to influence legislation and/or contracts in the form of campaign contributions. And this is just one of many scenarios that plays out every day.

    Yes, massive cynicism exists and we the people are quite justified in being fed up with it.

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