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Intellectual Cul de Sac

It’s astonishing to me that their reputations mean so little to them.

Garry Trudeau [about William Barr and Lindsey Graham]

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau (“third rate cartoonist” according to Trump) devoted multiple strips and books to Trump, with the double whammy of cartoon satire. As often the case, this approach can come closer to truth than the serious analysis of the Washington Post or New York Times. I really like the term he used, “intellectual cul de sac,” and plan to use it again (or repeatedly). It fits in with my earlier blogs on logical fallacies and my review of Paul Krugman’s Arguing with Zombies. Once people enter a Twilight Zone’s intellectual cul de sac, there is no use attempting to reason with them.

Trudeau asks a question I’ve been wrestling with for my current book: why are people willing to put their reputation in jeopardy? The most straight-forward case was 19th century Robber Baron James (“Jubilee Jim”) Fisk. After his attempt to corner the gold market failed in 1869, he refused to honor his contracts, driving his broker into bankruptcy. During later Congressional hearings he cavalierly stated: “nothing lost save honor.” He was soon shot and killed by the competing lover of his mistress—he did not outlive his integrity for long. Open question: did Fisk have any honor to begin with?

I was a licensed certified public accountant with a code of ethics and a sense of duty. Nearly all professionals have these fiduciary responsibilities and ethical standards. The idea of ever putting that on the line seems repugnant, but it happens repeatedly. Apparently, the seduction of money and power is overwhelming to many.

Richard Scrushy, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of HealthSouth, hired five chief financial officers (CFOs) over the years. Every one of them went to jail for fraud in accordance with Scrushy’s schemes. He was a corrupt narcissist, much like Trump, apparently with the charm of a gifted grifter. Scrushy got off, blaming it all on the nasty accountants (later going to jail in another fraud case). He is the obvious crook. I’m more interested in his cronies—especially because they were accountants (with ethical codes and reputations). Aaron Beam was one of those CFOs; he made several presentations at Texas A&M (I went to all I was invited to) and wrote a book about it, The Wagon to Disaster. I don’t recall a satisfactory answer to why he fell into the Scrushy web, except the seductive power and money presented by a charisma champ. The scary question: could that have been me under those circumstances?

Psychology and behavioral economics describe many contributing factors. It turns out that the majority of people are “slightly” dishonest according to Dan Ariely. Early research showed people can be manipulated to perform repugnant tasks like Milgram’s 1960s electric shock experiments and Zimbardo’s 1970s Stanford prison experiment. Tim Levine investigated who and why certain people are expert liars like Bernie Madoff (they are “mismatched”). Cognitive dissonance, anchoring and other quirks help justify irrational perceptions and acts. Asch’s conformity experiments suggest people in a “ethics free” environment (Enron comes to mind) could adapt to those standards; the alternative is to leave.

Trump World seems another example. Trudeau viewed the Trump presidency as a hostile takeover: “Nixon wanted to use the system to accomplish big things, not dismantle it and sell off the parts.” Family, fixers, colleagues and cronies, even some of the government professionals became willing partners in Trump World. I assume the various generals he employed early on were conservative to begin with, but most eventually quit in disgust. Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State is a puzzling exception. As is Barr as Attorney General. Even more so, I think, is Rudy Giuliani, who had a reputation as a federal prosecutor and New York mayor. As Jubilee Jim said: “nothing lost save honor.”

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