Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winning isn't the only thing, not at Texas Tech

It’s always noteworthy when a University that places high value on its football program opts for good behavior even at the possible cost of a game (or more). That’s why this column made such a fuss over Oregon Ducks football coach Chip Kelly when he suspended his star running back for sucker punching an opposing player who was taunting him after a Ducks loss in their season opener.
Now we want to give three cheers for Texas Tech, who suspended football coach Mike Leach on the eve of Saturday’s big Alamo Bowl Game against Michigan State. Leach is accused of punishing a player who suffered a concussion in practice.
 A source close to the player’s family told ESPN that he sustained a concussion on Dec. 16, was examined on Dec. 17 and told not to practice because of the concussion and an elevated heart rate. The source said Coach Leach called a trainer and directed him to move James "to the darkest place, to clean out the equipment and to make sure that he could not sit or lean. He was confined for three hours." According to the source, Leach told the trainer, two days later, to "put [James] in the darkest, tightest spot. It was in an electrical closet, again, with a guard posted outside."
The suspension will surely be litigated, and we’re not sure yet what all the facts are. What’s clear and indisputable, however, is that Texas Tech, occasionally maligned as a football factory, places player safety and ethical behavior above winning. Here’s hoping their first reward is a win over the Spartans Saturday in the Alamo Bowl.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Heckuva job, Janet

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano just gave Americans the best reason to distrust their government since Bush’s “Heckuva job, Brownie.” Jack Marshall has an excellent analysis of her egregious misstatement about the attempted destruction of the Northwest airliner (“The system worked.”)  on his EthicsAlarms blog, at http://ethicsalarms.com/2009/12/28/napolitano-ethics-heck-of-a-job-janet/comment-page-1/#comment-602
Napolitano later, when correcting herself, said that she had been quoted out of context. Marshall’s article demonstrates that this is another untruth.
It’s the depths of unethical behavior to lie from a position of trust. It’ll take a lot to get people to trust Napolitano again. Worse, her egregious misstatement will confirm for millions their justification for distrusting all government.

A lesson in shame from the Indianapolis Colts

Ethics in sports means trying your best to win while behaving with integrity. Sometimes winning and integrity are at odds, and people have to choose. They can choose honorably, as tennis player Andy Roddick famously did in the 2005 Rome Masters tournament when he corrected an umpire’s wrong call to his own disadvantage and it wound up costing him the match. Or they can choose dishonorably, as gymnast Paul Hamm did in the 2004 Olympics when he kept a gold medal that had been awarded to him on a scorer’s error.
Coach Jim Caldwell chose dishonorably yesterday when he chose to keep his best players healthy as the playoffs approached. His Indianapolis Colts were two wins away from an undefeated 16-0 season, playing a game that was meaningless for them (they already had clinched top seed in the playoffs), but that meant a great deal to their opponents, the New York Jets, who were battling seven other teams for the last two playoff berths in the American Football Conference. It also—presumably—meant something to the Colts’ fans who shelled out big money to see them play.
Caldwell pulled his starters early in the second half, leading 15-10. He replaced all-pro quarterback Peyton Manning with Curtis Painter, a rookie who had never played a down in the NFL. Painter promptly fumbled in his own end zone, handing a touchdown to the Jets, who went on to win, 29-15.
The Colts are now 14-1, their fans are disappointed, and the Jets have an unearned edge in the race for the last playoff spot.
Sport is said to teach us about character. Yesterday it taught us about shame.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Santa Claus, Build-a-Bear, and global warming

Where are the ethical boundaries in videos aimed at children? Is it OK to show a video about Santa and his helpers? We know (shhh) there’s not really a Santa Claus; is it OK to pretend there is to entertain (and mislead) children?
So OK, Santa is a fiction, but writing fiction is ethical. Fiction deals with real life and real issues—life and death, war and peace, love and hate, duty and temptation, and so on. Fiction for children, especially children of an age to want cuddly teddy bears, is more likely to deal with more age-appropriate issues—telling the truth, being a friend, obeying parents.
The Build-a-Bear Company is in the business of selling build-it-yourself bears to children, and along the way, to teach children something about citizenship and helping others. Their website until a couple of days ago had—along with interactive games designed for the 3-5 yr old set—three videos about Santa’s helpers, a penguin, and two cuddly polar bear cubs, all of whom were worrying about global warming and the ongoing melting of the polar icecap. One of the videos had a gross exaggeration—that the polar icecap would disappear before Christmas (i.e., today).
It’s arguable how great a sin it is to exaggerate the degree of icecap melting in a video about Santa. Build-a-Bear should have been more accurate. But apparently the greater sin is to deal with global warming at all. In response to expressions of outrage from global-warming deniers and threats of boycott, Maxine Clark, founder and Chief Executive Bear of Build-a-Bear, apologized and withdrew the offending videos from the Bear website.
             Rather than police what their children do on the computer, some people prefer to shut down the voice of Build-a-Bear, so that nobody can hear it. And shamefully, Build-a-Bear knuckled under to the pressure and gave up on their effort to teach a few children a little about global warming.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The ethics argument for health care reform

The health care debate is too much for any individual to understand completely. That’s why reading a bill on the Senate floor doesn’t contribute to the debate, other than to slow it down. There are persuasive arguments on all sides: doesn’t go far enough, goes too far, costs too much, gives too much to the insurance companies, is unfair to the insurance companies, and on and on.
I only know two things for sure about it, one ethical, one historical.
First, the ethical argument: What kind of society do we want to be a part of? Remember Lincoln asking if we wanted to be part of a nation that was half slave, half free? Remember John Kennedy asking if we wanted to be part of a wealthy nation with millions suffering from hunger. It’s time for Americans to ask ourselves whether we want to be a part of a society that provides its political leaders and most everybody else with health care, but leaves fifty million—one of every six Americans—uninsured, with additional millions worried sick that they’ll lose their insurance.
An ethical person must reject this status quo as unacceptable, a violation of the Golden Rule and of the principles of virtue ethics. So the system needs to be changed.
Now the thing I know about history: Theodore Roosevelt first proposed health care reform in 1912, then Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. All failed. If the current attempt fails we’ll likely go many years before reform is even attempted in the Congress.
So an ethical person must work to pass reform now—not necessarily the House bill, not necessarily the Senate bill, but SOME bill. The ethical person doesn’t want his country to take care of five-sixths and leave the rest to fickle fortune

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Distortions about Senator Whitehouse in the WSJ and Washington Times

                              --and slurs across the political spectrum.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. gave a tough thoughtful speech on the Senate floor Sunday, blasting Republican obstructionism over, not only the health care bill but even against the defense appropriation bill. He asked,
“Why all this discord and discourtesy, all this unprecedented destructive action? All to break the momentum of our new young president. They are desperate to break this president. They have ardent supporters who are nearly hysterical at the very election of President Barack Obama. The birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militia and Aryan support groups, it is unbearable to them that President Barack Obama should exist.
“That is one powerful reason, it is not the only one. The insurance industry one of the most powerful bodies in politics, is another reason.”
It’s perfectly clear that Whitehouse was blasting the unanimous Republican senators. There is no way, however, to construe his remarks like this headline on the Washington Times website does:
Sen. Whitehouse: Foes of health care bill are birthers, right-wing militias, aryan groups
The headline was picked up verbatim by the Wall Street Journal’s website too, and the sense of it was repeated even on the middle-of-the-road Morning Joe show on MSNBC.
Whitehouse clearly did NOT say—or mean—what the headline said. He said that the Republicans had ardent supporters who…etc. But so few Republicans  distance themselves from the fanatics, and so many embrace their bile, that it’s almost tempting to accuse Whitehouse of understatement.
But the WSJ and the Washington Times got his remarks very wrong. Too bad for all of us if their slander goes uncorrected.
The video of the entire 12-1/2 min Whitehouse speech is at http://drblues.wordpress.com/2009/12/22/senator-whitehouse-calls-out-the-paranoid-republicans/. Worth watching and make up your own mind.

Monday, December 21, 2009

So's John McCain

     Thanks to Rachel Maddow for ferreting this out after McCain said he'd never in his twenty years in the Senate seen a senator denied an extra  minute or two to finish his remarks. On October 10, 2002, McCain reacted to the anti-war speech of then-Senator Mark Dayton (D-MN) by objecting to Dayton's request for unanimous consent to speak for an extra minute or two.
      Shame on McCain for his hypocrisy, which exacerbated the Franken-Lieberman brouhaha. You're dragging the Senate down, Senator.

Al Franken is a big fat idiot

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) burnished his reputation as a comedian and made a bundle of money with his 1999 book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, which  The New York Times review called “dreadfully foul.” After he won win a Senate seat a year ago many hoped his manners would be nicer than his book.
So far not so much.
Franken was presiding over the Senate last Thursday when Senator Lieberman was giving a ten-minute speech on health care. Franken interrupted, saying Lieberman’s ten minutes were up. When Lieberman requested unanimous consent for “an additional moment” to finish his speech, Franken refused.
John McCain rose to say that he'd never in his twenty years in the Senate seen a senator denied an extra  minute or two to finish his remarks. saying it. “I don’t know what’s happening here in this body, but I think it’s wrong. It harms the comity of the senate.”
Franken’s rude behavior was matched Sunday by Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) who blocked a similar request by Senator John Cornyn, (R-TX). When Cornyn protested, “I’m looking around — I don’t see any other senator waiting to speak,” Begich relented.
Franken isn’t the only guilty one, nor is all the rudeness Democratic—the Republicans have been giving about as good—or as bad—as they’ve been getting. But the bad behavior on both sides has already shattered the Senate’s reputation as the world’s greatest deliberative body, and is well on the way to ending its ability to do the people’s business.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Who do you trust—the L.A. Times or Pete Carroll?

The Los Angeles Times reports that Joe McKnight, star running back for the USC Trojans, has been driving an SUV belonging to a Trojan booster, Scott Schenter. This would be a violation of NCAA rules that would require McKnight’s disqualification, if true.
The USC athletic program is already under scrutiny by the NCAA for possible illicit payments to Heisman trophy footballer Reggie Bush and to basketball star O. J. Mayo. A scandal involving McKnight would seriously damage what’s left of USC’s reputation for athletic integrity.
The Times article said that Mr. Schenter “has not responded to multiple requests for answers.” Mr Schenter has since written that the car really belongs to McKnight’s girl friend, who works for Schenter—“ I am the owner of the Land Rover because [the girl friend’s] parents couldn't qualify for the loan. It is her car. She makes the payments and she is responsible for insurance.”
The Times has leveled serious charges of corruption at McKnight and USC, apparently without trying very hard to confirm the story. If Mr. Schenter is telling the truth the Times itself is guilty of corruption. If not, then USC has a lot to answer for. Either way, it’s a sad day for ethics in the Southland.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fire poor teachers? It’s unethical NOT to

     Teachers in Los Angeles serve a two-year probationary period, during which they are "at-will" employees who can easily be fired. At the end of the probationary period they automatically get tenure and are, for all practical purposes, impossible to fire.
     An investigation by the Los Angeles Times  has shown that teachers in LA  are routinely given tenure at the end of the two years, without any meaningful evaluation of their performance. Ramon Cortines, the LA superintendent, told the L. A. Times, “This is about to change. We do not owe poor performers a job.”
     Cortines is on solid ethical grounds; it’s not a close call. The Golden Rule requires us to look after the weaker members of our society. Who weaker than schoolchildren? And the responsibility falls especially heavily on people who are paid to look after the weak.
     So why are so many education bigwigs fighting Cortines? A. J. Duffy, head of the teachers union, objects thus: “Administrators are not properly trained to evaluate teachers.” Julie Slayton, a teacher at USC and former head of research and planning for the school district, blasts Cortines for a knee-jerk reaction to outside pressure.
     While we’re sacrificing our children’s futures to poor teaching, too many education professionals are more interested in protecting their turf than in education. This is an ethical failure of the highest order.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ethical affirmative action in the NFL

The Indianapolis Colts beat Denver, 28-16 to bring the Colts’ record to a perfect 13-0. The Colts are coached by Jim Caldwell, in his first year replacing Tony Dungy, who stepped down after seven successful seasons, including a Super Bowl win.
It was worth remarking that none of the announcers thought it worth remarking that Caldwell, like Dungy, is African-American. This all results from the Rooney rule—arguably the most successful affirmative action policy in American sports—perhaps in America, period.
The Rooney rule requires all NFL teams with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. They can hire who they like, but they must interview a minority candidate.
The rule was adopted in 2003 when the NFL owners, prodded by black attorney Johnnie Cochran, looked hard at themselves and didn’t like what they saw. In a league with 70% black players, there were only two black head coaches—six percent of the league’s teams.
They asked themselves the central questions of ethics: “What kind of a person do I want to be?” And “What kind of group do I want to be a part of?” They didn’t want to be a part of a league where nearly all the head coaches were white and nearly all the players were black. So they adopted the Rooney rule.
Today there are, unremarkably, seven black coaches in the 32-team league. Black coaches have reached the pinnacle, winning two Super Bowls, and the depths, being fired from jobs at Kansas City and Cleveland. The most ethical of affirmative action efforts has been successful.
Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steeler owner who chaired an owners committee that came up with the Rooney rule, said he is pleased with the rule, but, "I really feel and hope that we will not need a Rooney Rule very long."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What kind of people are they on Wall Street?

The beginning of ethical behavior is asking yourself, “What kind of a person do I want to be?” Next comes “What kind of group (or company or town or society) do I want to be a part of?”
Lincoln asked if we wanted to be part of a nation that was half slave, half free. John Kennedy asked if we wanted to be part of a wealthy nation with millions suffering from hunger. It’s time for Wall Street leaders to ask themselves whether they want to be part of a society that pays top earners thousands of times as much as it pays ordinary hard workers, and enables the top people to live in 18,000 square foot homes while some ordinary workers live in their cars.
These questions have been posed before—by Spartacus, by Nat Turner, by Marx, by Mao. When the questions came as demands from people on the bottom they always had terrible results—think slave revolt or the “Great Leap Forward.”. But when they were posed by leaders of society they often led to constructive change—think Social Security or the Marshall Plan.
It’s time for Wall Street leaders to lead, or risk provoking our political system into a “cure” that will likely be far worse than the disease.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Notre Dame's new coach a winner both ways

Notre Dame has a winner in just-announced new head football coach Brian Kelly.  Kelly coached the Cincinnati Bearcats to a 12-0 record and an unprecedented (for the Bearcats) #3 ranking among BCS (i.e., major football) schools. His teams at Cincinnati are 34-6 over his three-year tenure.
As impressive as his teams’ won-lost record is the academic record of his players:  a 75 percent NCAA graduation rate, the highest in the BCS top 10. That was undoubtedly as attractive to Notre dame as his won-loss record, because Notre Dame athletes have long had one of the highest rates of graduation of any university in America.
It’s worth reminding people of Notre Dame’s emphasis on academics, especially in light of its reported $18 million-$24 million paid to buyout coach Charlie Weis for the six years remaining on his contract. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dick Cheney, hate monger

U.S. Constitution, Article 3, Section 3. “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Dick Cheney, on last night’s Hannity show on Fox: “I think it [trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York] will give aid and comfort to the enemy.”

Who is Cheney accusing of treason? President Obama? Attorney General Holder? Mayor Bloomberg? What earthly reason could he have for using such language?

Ethics,global warming, and Al Gore

First, do no harm.

Ethically that’s a good place to start. We—you, me, everybody—are doing lots of harm to the earth by our consumption of carbon-based fuels. Al Gore has made it his life cause to combat this damage. His interview with Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast is well worth reading and absorbing.

We all need to be part of the anti-global warming movement.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Baucus affair is an unethical mess

  What’s so bad about Max Baucus recommending his girlfriend for a U. S. Attorney job? Nothing, according to Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who said that Max Baucus is “a good friend and outstanding senator, and he has my full support.”
Even Washington watchdog Melanie Sloan, former prosecutor and head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington defends Baucus.
“Obviously, he showed bad judgment.” Sloan told the New York Daily News. “It certainly tarnishes his image, but I can’t think of what rule he violated.”
Sloan and Reid and other Baucus defenders should think about ethics. As Jack Marshall, who does think about ethics points out, Baucus violated several provisions of the code of ethics for U.S. government employees:

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Et tu, Max? Bye bye, Max

Senator Max Baucus (R-MT) is the President’s lead man on health care reform in the Senate. Politico is reporting that he recommended that Obama nominate his girlfriend to be a United States Attorney.

What was he thinking? His office says she was nominated because of her qualifications, not because she was sleeping with the senator. Yeah, sure. Ever hear of conflict of interest, senator?

It’s behavior like this that’s sparking the rabid anti-government movement in America. Time for the Dems to do the right thing: expel Baucus from the Senate.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Oregon Ducks to win tonight’s “Civil War”

Here’s hoping the Oregon Ducks win tonight’s football game with Oregon State, the traditional season-ender known as the “Civil War.”

It would give Oregon its first Pac 10 Championship since 2001, but more important ethically, it would give the nation reason to pay attention to Chip Kelly, Oregon’s young coach and an exemplar of ethical coaching.

Back in September the Ducks lost their opener to powerful Boise State, and at the end of the game Oregon’s top player, star running back Legarrette Blount sucker punched a Boise State player. Kelly wasted no time suspending his star for the rest of the season. (By comparison, Florida Gator coach Urban Meyer suspended his top defender for one half for attempting to gouge out the eye of an opponent.)

Adding to Kelly’s ethical résumé, he allowed Blount to keep his scholarship, thus preventing Kelly from recruiting a replacement. Kelly reasoned that Blount’s penalty should be losing his place on the team, not his education.

After weeks of good behavior by Blount, and after his substitute, freshman LaMichael James, had unexpectedly performed like a super star, Kelly allowed Blount to rejoin the team.

Sadly America mostly subscribes to Leo Durocher’s dictum, “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” An Oregon win tonight will let America get to know a nice guy who finished first.

Nativity scene at the Courthouse

Let’s go back to allowing a Nativity scene in front of the courthouse, as we did for nearly 200 years. It made Christians feel good and reminded them what Christmas was about. The Right is exorcised about a “war on Christmas,” and they have a point.

The Bill of Rights says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”Allowing Christians to put up a Nativity scene is not establishment of religion, but denying them is interfering with, if not prohibiting, the “free exercise thereof.”

Nativity scenes were on public property in every town until an organization called Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or POAU, was formed in the late 1940’s and began campaigning against any recognition (let alone, "establishment") of religion by any governmental entity, including the public schools. Thus was the war on Christmas born, although, like World War 1, it didn’t get its current name until years later. Bill O’Reilly named it in 2005 and began to fume about it.

Hard for a liberal to admit, but O’Reilly was right. Denying religious groups (Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims) the use of public property is interfering with the free exercise of religion. When we interfere with strongly held beliefs people get angry, and bad things happen. Better to return to the words and meaning of the Bill of Rights.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Happy Holidays…er…

Ah, the holiday season is upon us. Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men. Merry Christmas. Or Happy Holidays. But be VERY careful what you wish people. Some people will respond angrily if you get it wrong.

Let’s see. It’s always ok to say Merry Christmas to a Christian. It’s ok to say Happy Chanukah to a Jew. It’s ok to say Happy Kwanzaa to an African-American, but not if he’s an evangelical Christian. And wish your Muslim friends a Happy Muharram and Hindus a Happy Diwali. And if you’re not sure of the person’s religious beliefs, Happy Holidays covers all. Or Holiday Cheer.

That’s what retailer The Gap thought when it called its campaign Holiday Cheer. But the American Family Association has called for a boycott of Gap, along with Old Navy and Banana Republic for similar sacrileges. It turns out that in our land of religious freedom, you’ve got to watch your mouth.

And your step. Want to put up Christmas decorations? If you’d like to use the village green, or the nice lawn in front of City Hall you’ll risk a law suit from Church-State separation fanatics. And if you’re the music teacher make sure the December choral concert is multi-denominational. Or non-denominational. The only safe route is to hibernate all December. Oops, that’ll get you in trouble with the American Family Association.

What would an ethicist say about all this seasonal Bad Will Toward Men? All religions and secular ethicists teach us to treat others as we’d want to be treated. They all (now) teach tolerance toward people of other beliefs. Let Christians have their mangers and Christmas trees. Let Jews have their menorahs and eight days of presents. Let Muslims have their quiet reflection on the coming year. And let the lawyers take the month off.

As Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?”

Monday, November 30, 2009

Freedom of religion in America but not in Switzerland

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in America, and we have places of worship for every religion here.

We can identify most places of worship by symbols: crosses, stars of David, statues of Moroni, minarets, and so on. These symbols are important to the faithful. Imagine outlawing display of stars of David, or crosses, or minarets. Nope. Unimaginable. Not here.

But in Switzerland, which is five percent Muslim, voters just outlawed the building of minarets. There are now four in the country, and that’ll be all. The largest Swiss party, the Swiss People’s Party, says minarets are a sign of Islamization, and proposed the referendum that passed with 57% of the vote. The SVP's general secretary told the BBC: "This was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power."

I’m thankful we have the First Amendment in our Constitution and in our cultural DNA. From now on, whenever I see a minaret I’ll remember to be thankful for American freedom

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pete Carroll rubs it in to UCLA

You’re leading your cross-town rival, 21-7, and you have the ball with 54 seconds to go. The game is won, so what do you do? You call for your quarterback to take the ball from center and knell—“taking a knee” in football talk.

Your opponent calls time out, honoring the age-old sports imperative to not quit until the final gun. Now there are 52 seconds left. Your opponent still has two time outs remaining. He’ll surely use them.

So if you’re a coach teaching and practicing sportsmanship you call for the quarterback to take a knee again. But if you’re Pete Carroll, coaching the disappointing 7-3 USC Trojans against the UCLA Bruins, you call for the quarterback to fake a running play, then throw a 48-yard touchdown pass. Then you exchange high-fives with players and coaches on the sideline.

My question, Coach, is “What were you celebrating?” You’re better than that, Pete.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Heckuva job, Brownie! Obama’s Katrina? Not quite yet, but stay tuned

To a lifetime Fed like me, the biggest shock of Hurricane Katrina was the colossal failure of the Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the Defense Department. It proved that the Bush administration couldn’t govern. Surely the Dems, and President Obama, would do better. Not so fast, Bob, the Obama administration may not be any better.

But if the Obama administration isn’t up to the task, thank God for Michaele and Tareq Salahi. The Salahis got through the Secret Service security and crashed the White House reception and state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Salahis were just publicity hounds, not killers, and their escapade may well shock the government into fixing the apparent carelessness of the U.S. Secret Service before one of the many potential assassins get through the USSS’s haphazard security.

The recent book by ex-Secret Service man Ronald Kessler warns that the Service is regularly compromising the President’s safety by, for example, not bothering to put everybody who could come close to the President through a metal detector. Contributing to the problem is the Department of Homeland Security, which seems to be starving its USSS subsidiary of funding just like it starved FEMA before Katrina hit.

All this carelessness and failure to get the job done is a huge violation of the U.S. Government’s ethics code, which requires every government person to “ [give] to the performance of his duties his earnest effort and best thought.” The Secretary of Homeland Security and the President need to find and fire those responsible…or else it’ll be clear that they are the ones responsible.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Maybe the NFL isn’t the tobacco industry, after all

The NFL has been compared in congressional hearings to the tobacco industry for its insistence that concussions, like tobacco, aren’t bad for you. My colleague, Jack Marshall has gone so far as to write, harshly but sensibly, that even watching NFL games is unethical.

Now the league is finally starting to take seriously the problem of players returning to action too soon after suffering concussions. Today’s New York Times reports that the NFL will require players who have suffered head injuries to be cleared by an independent neurologist before returning to play. It’s not a complete solution, but it’s an important second step. (The first step was recognizing the league’s own responsibility for the situation.) Perhaps colleges and high schools will begin to do the same.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Unethics in California

Today’s LA Times headline screamed: UC ready to raise student fees by 32%. UC—the University of California—is a great university. It’s the flagship of the huge system of higher education that is widely credited with making California the envy of the world, the pace setter in agriculture, entertainment, aerospace, and information technology. It’s very low in-state tuition has opened the door to advancement to generations of Californians, rich and poor alike, but especially to those who couldn’t otherwise even dream of a quality university education.

Student fees will be over $10,000, tripling in ten years. With other costs a student will have to pay $26,000 to attend for a year. This is the result of gridlock in California politics caused by solid Republican opposition to raising any taxes to pay the costs of running a modern state.

Many, if not most, of these Republican legislators themselves attended UC when it was far cheaper than it is now. Having reaped the benefit they are selfishly denying it to today’s young Californians. By whatever measure you want to use-- refusing to “give back,” refusing to leave things as good as they found them, or refusing to give a hand up to people who need it-- this is profoundly unethical behavior.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Inspector General shooting the wounded--as usual

Today’s papers reported that Tim Geithner, then head of the New York Fed, caved into demands from Goldman Sachs and other “counterparties” of failing insurance giant AIG. As a result taxpayers spent billions to keep Goldman and other Wall Street biggies from losing as AIG failed.

All this according to the report of Neil M. Barofsky, the special Inspector General for TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, last fall’s $700-billion bailout of the financial markets.

In my days at the Defense Department IGs were likened to someone who went over the battlefield after the battle and shot the wounded. Barofsky’s report and the news coverage is in the best tradition of the wounded-shooting IG’s. What’s not in the headlines is that the world financial system was on the verge of collapse—within a few hours, according to Too Big to Fail, a new book about the crisis.

We should be praising Geithner and the entire Fed for rescuing the world, with little time to spare, from a repeat of the Great Depression, not quibbling that he might have done it better. Everyone could have done everything better. Big deal. I’m grateful that he did it effectively, and with no time to spare.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Pete Carroll teaches unsportsmanlike conduct

Sports…sportsmanship. Hmmm. Seems like they should go together. Legendary coach John Wooden taught both at UCLA, today coach Chip Kelly teaches both at Oregon.

I’m a big fan of USC Trojan coach Pete Carroll. He’s arguably the most successful college football coach of recent years, and at the same time he’s been quietly dedicated to helping gang-threatened youth in the rough neighborhood around the university.

But why, Pete, do you encourage your players to strut, to taunt, and to act like they’re more important than the team. USC touchdowns, sacks, and solid plays are often followed by 15-yard penalties. The penalties hurt the Trojans’ field position, but more importantly, the acts teach poor sportsmanship to the legions of kids and adults that follow USC football.

All you have to do is once bench Everson Griffen, Will Harris, or one of your other stars after an egotistical demonstration and the whole team will get the message. It’ll make the Trojans a better team and will make you a better teacher.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ethics, profiling, and Major Hasan

The tragic killings at Fort Hood have again raised the issue of profiling, and of treating people as individuals rather than as part of a group of “others.” The Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, has told Army leaders at all levels to be on the lookout for an anti-Muslim backlash that would hurt Muslim soldiers and damage the Army’s diversity, which he called a great strength.

My friend Jack Marshall has written eloquently in his blog, ethicsalarms.com, about the price of American principles, and about how we must always treat people as individuals and not as members of some group.

I posted a comment on his blog about the human tendency to fear the “other”–Muslims, homeless, African-Americans, cops, people with odd accents, etc. I wrote that our leaders need to constantly remind us of our shared humanity, like Bush did after 9/11 and like Army leaders are doing today. Jack pointed out the real trap to that attitude…

“is when one individual appears to confirm a negative stereotype. Hasan shouldn’t be regarded as any more of an “other” than you are. There were plenty of German-Americans in the forces during WWII (indeed, the commander!), but nobody regarded them as threats…they were Americans. Hasan is a perfect storm of factors leading him to this, and maybe someone should have caught the warning signs earlier. But his religion and nationality were not among them.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

Two cheers for Nancy Pelosi

Ethicists criticize politicians who put re-election and partisanship above doing the work the people elected them to do। Nancy Pelosi has been the legitimate target of such criticism. But we have to admire the way she got the job done over the weekend.

Pelosi is a fierce advocate of women’s right to choose, but she saw that getting the health care bill through the House of Representatives would require yielding to the right-to-lifers among House Dems। So she supported an amendment to block the use of federal subsidies for insurance that covers elective abortions.

That did the trick: pro-life Dems voted yea, and the first health care reform bill ever to pass the house was approved. Pelosi had counted well: the bill passes on a 220-215 vote—just two votes to spare.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

And speaking of ethical sportsmen, here's Joe Girardi

Jack Marshall's excellent ethics blog, http://ethicsalarms.com/, tells the story of Yankee manager Joe Girardi, driving home at 2am hours after winning the World's Series, stopping to help a motorist who had just crashed on New York's heavily traveled Cross County Parkway.
Jack makes Girardi his ethics hero of the month, but remains loyal to his beloved Red Sox. For me, I'll now start rooting for the Yankees (except when they play the Dodgers), and I'll tell people the ethics story that made me a Yankee fan. Similarly, I'll start rooting for coach Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks (except when they play USC), and I'll keep on rooting for my all-time ethical sports hero, Andy Roddick.
Let's just say no to rooting for unethical players or teams, and tell our friends why we've starting rooting for the Yankees, Ducks, Roddick, and others who exemplify ethical behavior.

Florida Gators, Oregon Ducks, and ethics lessons

Sport teaches character. What can we learn from the Florida Gators? The Gators are ranked #1 again this week, likely headed for the national championship game. How do they do it? Play dirty, the dirtier the better.

Like, if the other team’s running back is doing well against you, jump on the pile after he’s been tackled and try to gouge his eye out.

That’s what star Gator linebacker Brandon Spikes did Saturday to Georgia running back Washaun Ealey during Florida 41-17 win over the Bulldogs. Fortunately for Ealey, Spikes couldn’t quite reach the eye through Ealey’s facemask.

Gator coach Urban Meyer doesn’t go for that kind of dirty play, trying to permanently blind an opponent. No, sirree. Meyer suspended Spikes for the first half of this week’s game against a weak Vanderbilt team.

Compare Meyer’s action with that of Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who suspended his top running back for the season for punching an opponent.

When it comes to ethics, score one for Oregon. Big zero for Florida. Go, Ducks!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ethics isn’t Democratic, but…

It’s good news for America that the moderate Democrat, Bill Owens, won today’s special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district. The Republicans had nominated Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a supporter of gay rights, right-to-choose, and the Obama stimulus. That was too much for some conservative Republicans, who broke with the party and got Doug Hoffman on the ballot as a third-party candidate. Scozzafava eventually withdrew and endorsed Owens.

The district voters have been represented by Republicans longer than anyone can remember, going back to the nineteenth century. But Hoffman, with his supporters—Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and many mainstream Republicans—was too much for them to swallow: they elected Owens. The Democratic winner, in his victory statement , said, “The challenges that we face are not Democratic or Republican," he said. "They are not liberal or conservative. They're challenges that Americans face and that we will overcome with American resolve."

Had Hoffman won it would have ratified the Limbaugh-Beck line that there’s no room in the Republican party for any dissent from the far-right line. It likely would have led to massive repudiation of moderates from the party, and probably to one-party (Democratic) government for years to come.

The Owens election strikes a blow for politicians of both parties who believe in working together to solve America’s problems. And for the prospect of ethical governance.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The three tens: Dow 10,000, unemployment 10%, bonuses of $10 million

Thinking about the three tens: Dow Jones at 10,000, unemployment at 10 percent, and Wall Street bonuses at $10 million a head. What’s wrong with this picture?

Our society is growing more and more unequal—more unemployed people at the bottom, more zillionaires at the top, 23% of total national income going to the top 1% of earners. We Americans pride ourselves on America being the land of opportunity. But the promise seems to be slipping further and further away.

The ethical person has to ask himself occasionally, “What kind of person am I? What kind of community am I a part of?” The answer can’t be very comforting. The three tens have to make us pretty uncomfortable.

The left wants to legislate limits on executive pay; the right wants to preserve the ability to gain super wealth without government interference. But what about the people getting the $10 million bonuses. Do they ever ask, “What kind of person am I? What kind of community am I a part of?” They have the ability and the moral authority to change the system. If they ask the question.

The 32 National Football League owners asked the question six years ago and it profoundly changed the league. More about that model in a day or two..

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Colossal failure of government and ethics

Swine flu (H1N1) is coming, maybe big-time, and there’s not enough vaccine to go around. What to do? This flu is unlike the annual “seasonal” flu: it’s dangerous, even deadly, to healthy young adults to whom seasonal flu is just a nuisance. Seniors, who are at serious risk from seasonal flu, seem to be resistant to the disease.

So the CDC, the U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control, recommended that, as long as vaccine was in short supply it be allocated according to these priorities, based on risk:

  1. Pregnant women
  2. Household contacts and caregivers for infants younger than 6 months
  3. Healthcare and emergency medical services
  4. All people from 6 months through 24 years of age
  5. Persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza.

When Los Angeles County set up free clinics to immunize people at highest risk, lots of healthy people over 24 years old—and therefore the least vulnerable population—showed up, got the vaccine, and caused many centers to run out before they could take care of the most vulnerable. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, L.A. County public health director disclaimed responsibility for the screw-up: “What do we say [to people who came a distance with their families]—we’ll do your children but we won’t do you?”

Well, duh! What do you think we have a county public health department for, Dr. Fielding? Orange County, by contrast, refused vaccine to people who didn’t need it. So did Phoenix and Las Vegas, according to the Los Angeles Times.

How about the healthy older adults who got their dose at the expense of someone who could die from H1N1? How ethical is that!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Terrific new book on ethics

When Mick Ukleja and I wrote The Ethics Challenge, we aimed for an easy fun read and practical guide to leading a fuller, more ethical life. We concentrated on stories that illustrated the real-life application of the ethics we all started to learn as children. We thought that theory was rather dull, and relegated it to an appendix.

But now comes a new book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, that goes deep into theory in a fascinating way. If you want to learn more about ethics read Sandel’s book (after ours, of course). And if you want to read a short op-ed that tells you a little more about Justice, read “Giving democracy a dose of clarity,” by Michael Gerson in today’s Washington Post:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Obama calls Bernanke assistant a “K Street whore”

Well, maybe not exactly, but when you praise someone who did just that you’re endorsing the sentiment.

Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Fl) recently criticized Linda Robertson, a Congressional affairs assistant to Ben Bernanke, saying "Here I am the only member of Congress who actually worked as an economist, and this lobbyist, this K Street whore, is trying to teach me about economics."

A month ago Grayson said on the House floor that the Republican health care plan was “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” He was praised for this by Keith Olbermann and Arianna Huffington.

It now appears that Grayson’s behavior is up to the standards of President Obama, who last night acknowledged Grayson at a Florida fundraiser as one of Florida’s “outstanding members of Congress."

Grayson’s behavior has been condemned by several Democratic congressmen, but it appears to be ok with the President. Where’s candidate Obama who promised to change the tone of Washington? We miss him.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ethics wins for Oregon

Sometimes when you do the right thing fate intervenes on your side.

Seven weeks ago this column praised Oregon football coach Chip Kelly for valuing sportsmanship over winning. Kelly had just thrown his best player, running back LeGarrette Blount, off the team for sucker-punching a Boise State player after Boise State defeated Oregon in the season opener. We thought Kelly’s action might cost the Ducks a shot at the Pac 10 championship and a profitable Rose Bowl appearance.

Kelly moved freshman LaMichael James into the starting lineup, and James has merely averaged 131 yards per game in the games he’s started. Oregon’s now won six straight, and is the only Pac 10 team undefeated in conference play.

Virtue rewarded!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dithering and Dick Cheney’s chutzpah

Nobody ever said Dick Cheney lacked chutzpah. He has criticized Obama for taking over the economy, even though the huge flow of cash into Wall Street came under Bush-Cheney (with Obama’s support). He excoriated Obama’s for ending torture, claiming it was making America less safe, even though John McCain, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and many others believe that the Bush-Cheney torture policy created thousands of dedicated, active enemies of America. He blasted Obama for running up huge deficits even though Bush-Cheney turned a budget surplus into the biggest deficit in American history.

But his most vile display of chutzpah and hypocrisy came this week when he said President Obama "seems afraid to make a decision" about General McChrystal’s call for 40,000 more U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"The White House must stop dithering while America's armed forces are in danger," Cheney said in a speech at the Center for Security Policy on Oct. 21.

Dithering, huh? How about when, in mid-2008, General McChrystal’s predecessor in Afghanistan asked for three more combat brigades—about 15,000-20,000 more troops. The request was ignored for the last eight months of Bush-Cheney. Not until February 17, 2009, was the increase approved—not by Bush-Cheney, but by President Obama on his twenty-seventh day in office.

It’s certainly legitimate for the ex-Vice President to criticize President Obama, but the savage and hypocritical carping on serious national security issues is simply ugly politics at our nation’s expense.

Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had the right analysis of Cheney’s criticism. “What Vice President Cheney calls ‘dithering,’ President Obama calls his solemn responsibility to the men and women in uniform and to the American public,” Gibbs said. “I think we’ve all seen what happens when somebody doesn’t take that responsibility seriously.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Little lies to get at big truths

The National Press Club audience was listening Monday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesperson announce the Chamber’s sudden decision to reverse course and support climate change legislation. Suddenly another spokesperson for the Chamber burst into the room and announced that he was the real Chamber spokesperson, and that the whole press conference was a fraud.

The fraud was perpetrated by the Yes Men, a group who, in the words of their leader, “tell little lies to get at bigger truths.” The leader, Igor Vamos, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Meeting pretending to be Mike Bonanno, and regaled host Dylan Ratigan with glories of past frauds, like impersonating Dow Chemical representatives on BBC and announcing that Dow would provide $12 billion compensation to victims of the tragic gas leak at Bhopal, India, which killed nearly 4000 people in 1984. Dow stock plummeted.

Pretty cute, eh?

The Yes Men believe that business is evil and must be brought “in line with our [i.e., the Yes Men’s] moral and ethical sensibilities.” The New York Times praised their movie: “It is great fun to watch them do their dirty work.

You don’t have to like the Chamber to believe that lying to advance one’s “moral and ethical sensibilities” is unethical. And it shouldn’t be great fun to watch.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Ethics Challenge of Health Care

The ethics challenge: daring Democrats and Republicans to find a balanced solution to health care reform
  • The need for reform
  • The kind of reform we need
  • The process of reform

The need for reform of one-sixth of our economy
  • What kind of people are we? Most of us are doing fine, for now, but
  • --40 million of our neighbors have no health insurance
  • --millions more fear losing their jobs and therefore their insurance
  • Health care will break the federal budget within a decade or so, or—more likely—will lead to severe cutbacks in care and big increases in cost
  • Are we satisfied with a system that takes care of us while leaving our neighbor to suffer?

What kind of reform do we need?
An ethical reform means—
  • Giving everyone the chance for affordable coverage
  • Paying for benefits as we use them; not passing down the bills to our children and grandchildren.

What process do we use to get there?
Start with some truth-telling—
  • There are no death panels, Senator Grassley, your grandma is safe.
  • There will be rationing, President Obama. It’s true that there already is rationing—just ask anyone whose treatment has been denied by their insurance company—but there will be more, as forty million people are added to a system while costs are being cut from Medicare.
  • The insurance companies are already telling the truth about costs going through the roof without a powerful mandate requiring healthy people to buy insurance. (Absent such a mandate young healthy people will stay out of the system until they’re sick and need coverage—which all the reform bills prohibit the insurance companies from denying.)

There are good ideas on both sides of the aisle
  • Not matched by much good will on either side of the debate.
  • Too many lines drawn—
  • --no public option (nearly all Republicans)
  • --no bill without a public option (Speaker Pelosi and many Democrats).
  • Members of Congress are choosing up sides rather than working together to meet the ethics challenge. Both sides see danger where there is only difference. Neither seems willing to solve the problems without casting blame.

How to get the nation to real reform?
  • Televise sessions on C-Span, like the President promised during the campaign
  • Democrats commit to an inclusive process that listens to the concerns of the Republicans and the insurance industry
  • Republicans commit to participate in good-faith negotiations
  • Both sides leave ideology behind
  • e.g., the private sector is greedy, immoral, and irresponsible
  • e.g., the government can’t run a two-car funeral
The nation needs the best of both parties.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Reinhold Niebuhr award for Obama

Last week the Reinhold Niebuhr award for bringing good temper and integrity into the political fight* went to John McCain. This week it goes to Barack Obama.

When Obama acknowledged Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal at his New Orleans town hall Thursday, boos rang out.

Obama held up his hand for silence. "No, no, Bob is doing a good job," the president told the crowd. “Hey hey, hold on a sec Hold on.

“Bobby, first of all if it makes you feel any better, I get that all the time," he went on to laughter from the crowd. “More seriously, and the second point is, even though we have our differences politically, one thing I will say is that this person is working hard on behalf of the state, and you gotta give people credit for working hard." The audience, chastened, turned from boos to cheers.


* Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, ‘The temper of and integrity with which the political fight is waged is more important for the health of our society than the outcome of any issue or campaign.’”