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?