Two scandals – one has gotten intense media coverage and public discussion, and one has gotten briefer discussion in narrower circles.



On the surface, nothing links the egregious behavior of high officials at Penn State University and bankers in London. In one, boys were raped for years while those who should have said something, done something, looked the other way. In the other, those in charge of doing some high-end math every day to objectively set a benchmark for interest rates decided to toggle the numbers to benefit their buddi

Two scandals – one has gotten intense media coverage and public discussion, and one has gotten briefer discussion in narrower circles.

On the surface, nothing links the egregious behavior of high officials at Penn State University and bankers in London. In one, boys were raped for years while those who should have said something, done something, looked the other way. In the other, those in charge of doing some high-end math every day to objectively set a benchmark for interest rates decided to toggle the numbers to benefit their buddies.

A little self-dealing in business? Who cares, right? Happens all the time, right? The difference here is that the benchmark in question, called Libor, potentially affects the interest on your next loan or the taxes you pay to retire bonds for schools or sewers.

The bigger point is that most people in business are honest, they work hard and they bend over backward to abide by the rules. Still, the corner-cutters are always among us.

In my view, what ties these and so many scandals of our time together is a mindset. Part of it is hubris. I won’t get caught. Only losers get caught. The deeper, more corrosive part of it is cynicism: It really doesn’t matter if I follow to the rules. No one will ask, no one will know. Only other people, unknown to me – theoretical people, really – will even potentially be hurt. As long as the department makes its numbers, it’s cool.

It is said that the story of our time is the failure of institutions, from the church to schools to Big Business to Big Media to the financial high-fliers who tried pretty darned hard to crash the world in the mess that came to a head in 2008. These institutions, we are told, do not keep pace with a changing world. This is often true. They put their own status and security ahead of their missions to serve congregants, citizens and customers, we are told, and sometimes they are not above grabbing a fast, perhaps illicit buck if they think no one is looking. That too is true, and it’s the problem.

Do you act as if no one is looking, and likely never will, or as if everyone is looking? That’s the question. We raise our children with a clear answer, but the corner-cutters always find a way.

The sickness at Penn State was surrounded for years by a smug unasking of questions and grievously wrong assumptions about the incorruptible goodness of those in charge. Leave the personalities aside. We know humans don’t work that way. The petty greed in London went on for years despite questions being asked and rebuffed. Rocking the boat, after all, is the original corporate sin.

We know better. Our breezy dismissal of the news – institutions always cover up, you know, and boys will be greedy boys in the back office, you know – reveals our own cynicism, further feeding the problem.