Monday, May 21, 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Searching for Clues

I read a good essay yesterday. Written by one of my students, a young man off to U. W. - Madison this fall. Bright kid. Engaging personality. Well- spoken. He represents our school district very well. A young person like him helps me feel hopeful.

So anyway he wrote a "definition essay." This simply means that each student finds a word, or a small phrase, and chases its meaning. One could focus on the history of a word, or the etymology, or the personal connection, or maybe even the manipulation of the word. They have lots of freedom to choose the subject ... and sneakily it teaches (reinforces) an important technique of good writers -- defining the argument/subject of the essay. It is always one of my favorite essays to read and to teach.

However what moved me about his essay wasn't so much the words he wrote himself, but instead the words he quoted from his father's friend -- an engineer, born and raised in Tokyo.

He chose "death" as his word, hoping that his investigation would help him come to terms with his grandmother's death. She was a victim of Alzheimer's. The final years of her life were obviously difficult for all -- especially for a young person experiencing the death of someone (or at least someone close) for the first time. Besides speaking to the death of his grandmother, he also wondered how he could feel so ambivalent about losing his grandmother -- especially when during those last few years she was "only a shell of herself." It was obvious, he was searching for clues.

And then he added the story of his father's friend. When asked about death, Peter revealed his eastern (im)mortality in a story:

 "When a tree first takes in the earth, it fears neither wind nor other force because its roots intertwine with the trees closest to it. As it grows, its children intertwine their roots with it, and then its childrens' children do the same, holding the grandfather tree in place amongst its family. For that reason, the tree cannot be uprooted; it cannot be torn from its family. Then when death finally comes for the tree, it slowly fades away, leaving space for new trees to grow, but its roots remain, protecting and anchoring the rest of its family."

A wonderful metaphor. Not only for those left alive, but also for those who have already left. I feel comfort in those words. I know it doesn't quite fit into the Christian way of seeing death and immortality. But for me there is something very permanent -- very secure, and something very lasting about a big old tree. Especially when it is surrounded by a forest full of healthy trees. It leaves me hopeful.

When asked how many family members and friends he has lost, Peter said, "I have never lost a family or a friend. Not a single one. My grandfather and grandmother have passed away, my best friend in school recently died from a severe sickness, and I have seen many people pass into the void, but I have not lost a single one of them."

Again, comforting words -- wise words. Especially as I get a bit older. Especially as I get ready to send my oldest child off to Austria next year. And especially as I watch my seven-year old run around the cul-de-sac. The metaphors resonate and leave me hopeful. And I also believe that through my student's act of writing, he found some solace ... and maybe a wee bit of understanding.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fraud and the Common Man

On the way home from work tonight, listening to NPR, I caught a fascinating story about the nature of fraud. Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things follows the story of Toby Groves, a seemingly good and ethical businessman who made a promise to his father at age 20 that he would never get into trouble and shame his family's name. Then only a couple decades later he committed a "massive bank fraud involving millions of dollars that drove several companies out of business and resulted in a loss of about 100 jobs."

Yet that alone is not at all fascinating, in fact most of us, at first glance would agree that he got what was coming to him. However as the story takes shape it becomes quite compelling and frightening, mainly because from all indications, Toby Groves spent most of his life trying to live the ethical life. And then, because of a series of bad ethical choices, he found himself and his company so far in debt that he believed he had to create what is called an "air loan" -- a full fledged loan given on a house that doesn't exist. No one bought it. No one sold it. It was never even built. What makes this story so disturbing is that Toby Groves could not pull this off by himself. He needed the help of others.

And that is exactly what he got.

A friend at a title company created a false document. An appraisal on a house that never existed appeared in the files. And someone within his bank approved the loan and transferred the money for a nonexistent home. Groves said that as he talked with these people and asked for their help he admitted to them that he knew he had screwed up. He says he never pressured them and told each of them that if they didn't want to help him that he would understand and they would never hear another word from him. He explained to his colleagues that he would be able to get himself out of financial trouble and save his company -- and he only needed just a little help from his friends. And without hesitation all of them delivered. No questions of the process. No questions of the legality. No questions of the morality or ethics. Each of them willingly participated in Groves's fraud!

What makes the story so interesting is that the reasons people commit fraud might not be what we would normally think. I certainly assumed that people commit fraud because of the desire to get rich -- or at least the desire to get themselves into a better place financially. However the story tells us that  psychologists and economists suggest that it is often not financial incentives that lead someone astray, but rather a more altruistic reason -- because "human beings like each other." Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, discussed emissions testers to make his point. He reports that 20 to 50% of car emissions that should have failed actually passed. Financial reasons right? Not at all, instead it appears that most cars that falsely passed did so because the emissions testers felt empathy for the car owner. Pierce says that BMW or Audi owners usually failed when their emissions were above the accepted levels, but that Toyota or Honda owners tended to pass in the same situations. His conclusion is that the emission testers felt a common bond with the humble car owners and therefore passed them along simply because they liked them and felt for them.

So the scary part to this story is that maybe behaving ethically isn't as easy as it appears. Maybe human nature is able to justify bad behavior when an individual believes what he/she is doing is for the betterment of others ... or for his/her company ... or for his/her country. And if that is the case, then how is that we get people to understand when they are behaving unethically.

Because if we can believe the general conclusions of this story -- and because most of us like our fellow humans -- that given the right situation, many of us will do things to help out our friends and neighbors, even if the actions might not be "right." I mean why else would a bunch of middle class workers help Toby Groves commit massive fraud, especially when it appears they themselves did not receive huge financial rewards.

And if the assumptions from this story are accurate ... then are not all of us capable of committing fraud?