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The cheating rich

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The dastardly, dishonourable, relentless war against the natural leaders of society continues without pause.

Recently, the Huffington Post carried this headline: "One out of every ten Wall Street employees is a psychopath, say researchers."

That was just the beginning. In February, this very newspaper offered readers its own version: "Cheat, lie, break the law? Chances are, you're rich." The sub-head poured salt into the wound: "Findings from seven studies show upper class more likely to lie in negotiations, steal from others and endorse unethical behavior." The article couldn't have been more twisted:

The wealthy really are different from everyone else: They're more likely to cheat, lie, and break the law.

At least that's the unflattering conclusion of a team of professors from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the University of California, Berkeley, who ran a battery of tests involving more than 1,000 people, seeking to answer the question of whether being rich or poor influenced ethical behaviour.

In results from seven separate studies, they found a consistent tendency among those they termed "upper-class" to be more likely to break the law while driving, take valued goods from others, lie in negotiations, cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize and endorse unethical behaviour at work.

The reason for the ethical difference was simple, according to the paper being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a leading U.S. science journal. Wealthier people are more likely to have an attitude that greed is good.

The question of social class and ethics has long intrigued researchers and has created a lively, if obscure, field of academic research.

At first glance, it might seem more likely that poorer people would be more tempted to cheat or break the law, in order to improve their lot in life. But a growing body of research is coming to the opposite conclusion - that it's people at the top of the income scale for whom honesty, integrity, and generosity seem to be a challenge.

Then the business press itself joined in the assault. Soon Bloomberg, a news services by and for the corporate elite, chimed in. Headed "Self-Interest Spurs Society's 'Elite' to Lie, Cheat on Tasks, Study Finds," its story claimed that "the 'upper class,' as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to raise their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, the research found." Frankly, I don't believe for a moment the Upper Class takes candy from children. Most of the children they employ around the world can't even afford candy.

And catch this little bit that Bloomberg couldn't resist throwing in: "Previous research has shown that students who take economics classes are more likely to describe greed as good." The mind boggles.

The Bloomberg story quotes Arthur Caplan*, director of the center for bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "Support for free-market capitalism will collapse if those who do well don't do good;" "Rapacious, intolerant, non-empathetic capitalism that says lie, cheat, steal, it's only the bottom line that matters - aside from being morally repugnant, it's got a dim future."

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, all of this is pure horse puckies. All these studies merely expose the Marxist-Leninist biases of American universities, as Rick Santorum has grasped. They make me want to throw up too. They ignore good super-rich people like Bill Gates, although it's true Mr. Gates was one of the world's most pugnacious capitalists until he wasn't. And only a misanthropic curmudgeon could believe that the 250 members of the U.S. Congress who are millionaires are all cheaters. Or the 1,226 folks on Forbes' latest billionaires list. Look, for example, at - okay, let me do some more research here and get back to you.

What about those who've become fabulously rich by selling ethical tobacco, asbestos and blood diamonds? What about the Big Men who own the ethical oil business and want to ship Alberta's ethical tar to ethical China?

And what about CSR, eh? Whatever the question, corporate social responsibility is the answer - self-regulated, of course. Look at the mining companies. Sure, some are pillaging African and Latin American natural resources. Sure, some pay trivial taxes and royalties. True, they may be poisoning their environments. Okay, they pay their workers a pittance for working unbearably long hours in inhuman working conditions. Yes, many create conditions where sexual violence toward women is commonplace. And of course many bribe local officials from the president to the local warlord.

But are you even aware that most of them have inspiring codes of CSR, (self-regulated, of course)? You actually can't help weeping when you read them, they're so moving. That's why it's swell that the Harper government is directing Canadian foreign aid away from poverty-reduction and NGOs and church groups (misguided Christians, I fear) and sharing it instead with several hard-pressed Canadian mining companies whose combined net profits in 2010 barely hit $4.6-billion.

And what about similar CSR for all those Wall Street financial institutions that caused the 2008 economic collapse. Check out the code of moral conduct for Goldman Sachs, for example, which controls much of both Washington and Wall Street. Goldman Sachs subscribes to nothing less than the UN's Principles for Responsible Investment! Nothing, but nothing, is more trustworthy than that - self-regulated, of course. Sure, there are bad apples like that Greg Smith, a big macher at Goldman Sachs who betrayed his peers by claiming the company has lost all integrity and only exists to rip off its customers. But this guy is so obviously unstable that he then went and quit his vastly lucrative job.

I know that my reliable critics will point out that most of the 1 per cent who take the sacred CSR pledge also donate vast sums to campaigns for ever-lower corporate taxes, ever-lower taxes on themselves, ever-tighter constraints on public and private sector unions, ever-looser regulations on business, ever-smaller government social entitlements for the vulnerable. But seriously, does that mean they'd take candy from a baby?

* Full disclosure. Prof. Arthur Caplan, University of Pennsylvania, needs to be distinguished from Mr. Arthur Caplan, Toronto realtor and my brother. Mr. Arthur Caplan, alas, has never said such a thing about capitalism.

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail

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