The bigger story is that our culture tolerates deceit, especially when profitable. Unethical individuals sleep well at night because they rationalize to themselves that everybody does it, and one would be a chump not to.
There are bigger cheaters; the Madoff-Ponzi schemes that are more common than we want to believe; too-big-to-fail Wall Street corporations that expand their bottom line with complete disregard for whether their gains exceed the damage they wreak on others; too-big-to-jail insider traders who poison markets; too-big-to-compromise politicians who hold Main Street hostage so they can extract minor ideological victories; and those too-much-like-us who do awful things with a presumption of impunity because they see others get away with worse offenses.
Our economy has degenerated to a non-cooperative equilibrium in which some individuals harbor contempt for our collective interest. They rationalize to themselves that others would harm them if they don’t act first.
When the media breaks a cheating story, we sigh in relief that there is someone more notorious than the rest of us. We let ourselves believe that Armstrong’s evil is isolated and not widespread because, if we burst open that can of worms, the story becomes about all of us, what we have come to tolerate, and our prevailing culture, rather than simply about an unethical athlete.
Witnesses of the Armstrong interviews with Oprah Winfrey saw someone who wanted to win at any cost in a sport where dozens of competing athletes were doing the same. His winning attitude made him a hero, and then led to his disgrace. But, if we simply focus on Armstrong and express our collective outrage for 15 minutes, we avoid probing too deeply for ubiquitous unethical behavior.
Armstrong’s terrible transgressions pale compared to billions that Madoff stole from his investors, hundreds of billions America lost because of unethical behavior that caused the Global Financial Meltdown, or tens of trillions of lost wealth globally because we all now feel that financial markets are rigged in favor of insiders. We caught one. Now, there are just thousands or millions to go. And, while more than a thousand Main Street bankers were convicted in the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s, not one Wall Street banker was convicted in the world’s worst financial meltdown, brought about by Wall Street malfeasance.