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Column: Defining ethics changes with landscape


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Once upon a time, Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” Last week, I heard former Congressman Lee Hamilton, “the most trusted man in Indiana,” give a talk on ethics in government.

His audience was drawn from northwest Indiana, but he opened his remarks holding the latest issue of the Bloomington Herald-Times reporting an $800,000 embezzlement by a former employee of that city and two concrete contractors from Bedford.

The scene was the annual meeting of the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission — an ongoing effort to train local and county employees, board and commission members, as well as elected officials, about complex ethical issues. Currently, 10 communities and one county are members of the SEAC program.

I left the session with three questions: Why is such an effort necessary? Why have so few communities chosen to participate? Why was there no mention of the private-sector corruption that often complements public misdeeds?

We might assume that public officials and workers understand the necessity of ethical behavior. However, that is not the case.

Ethical actions are based on cultural norms.

What we regard as a bribe in this country, is, in some other countries, an expression of appreciation for facilitating a transaction. Just as we consider a tip for a waitress, taxi driver, barber, or baggage handler appropriate in most cases, others regard payments to government employees for their rubber stamps of approval to be appropriate as well.

Such payments are given to expedite service where it is widely recognized that public agencies are understaffed and public employees are grossly underpaid.

This “under-the-table” behavior might be officially discouraged, but not often effectively prohibited. In time, some employees see these payments as inherent rights of office.

These conditions also exist in many parts of this country. Although most officials denounce the taking of bribes when discovered, they may have neither the means nor the will to enforce their legal and ethical codes. Therefore, some communities may not join SEAC because it suggests ethical training is needed or it goes counter to community traditions.

Americans, including most Hoosiers, believe strongly in first-come, first-served. That one person or business might “buy” a better place in line is abhorrent according to our norms. We tolerate it more in the private sector than in the public sector. (Think of those who pay a little extra to the maître d’ for a window table or provide a “small gift” for the person assigning tee times on the golf course.)

Corruption is the giving of gifts or bribes by those in the private sector to those in the public sector in return for a favor, information or something else of value, like a contract. The penalties for the public- sector recipient often are more serious than for the private-sector villain.

The snake, it seems to me, was not punished as much as were Adam and Eve.

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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