NPR logo Picketing The Ethics Police

Picketing The Ethics Police


The spitballs are flying in the first counterrevolution to the Obama revolution. The issue is ethical prissiness.

High carping about the ethical inadequacies of political, financial and professional America has been continuous since Watergate. Many if not most presidential candidates vow to change the moral climate of the land, Obama more than most.

Now that Obama is in office and actually trying to put some teeth to his words, some counterrevolutionaries are carping that the whole "we can do better" thing has gone overboard. Talk is one thing; doing is another, and we ought not do anything.

The notion that somehow America's ethical aspirations are suddenly too high is entirely laughable to anyone not related to Tom Daschle, Michael Phelps or an investment banker now subsidized by TARP money. The countercarping is coming from two quarters.

First, the conservatives: They think the reformist impulse is at best quaint and naive. At worst, they think the goody-goody inclination to get money out of politics and big bonuses out of taxpayer-backed "free" enterprise is nothing but the disguised petty resentments of leftie, yuppie brain workers who don't earn as much as top lobbyists, hedge fund managers and celebrities.

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This is the view of David Brooks, who argued in a tongue-in-cheek column that lifestyle standards for the privileged class are set by people who live in Ward 3. Ward 3 is the Northwest Washington area where I live. According to Brooks, who lives, I believe, in Bethesda, Md., "As lawyers, TV producers and senior civil servants, [Ward 3 people] make decent salaries, but 60 percent of their disposable income goes to private school tuition and study abroad trips. They have little left over to spend on themselves, which generates deep and unacknowledged self-pity."

So we complain about Daschle, and he's out; John Thain, and he's out.

Usually it is conservatives who are into moral scolding, for promiscuity, rampant secularism, mangy dress or welfare cheating. But that is a fast fading kind of Burkean conservatism long replaced by modern American mercantilist conservatism: When wealth-producing activities collide with ethic sensitivities, the free market wins. So if Daschle wants to accept the gift of a limo and driver and not pay required taxes on it, only resentful moral prisses would whine.

The other counterrevolutionary forces fighting the Obama prissy putsch are the neorealists. They bemoan that the country has lost the services of the only individual who can deliver health reform onto the land, Daschle. They note that Daschle earned only around $5 million in the four years since he left the Senate. A midlevel bond trader could earn $5 million in a so-so year.

And further, they note, how will financial institutions attract the best and the brightest if their pay is going to be capped at $500,000 a year by petty, resentful Ward 3 feds? Except for one problem: A whole lot of neorealists live in Ward 3 and are sorry to see Daschle go.

As I said, it is laughable to suggest we have become too goody-goody. It is contrarianism without common sense.

It is also true that our ethical outrage tends to focus on the trivial. Wall Street bonuses and hyperperks are trivial compared with the widespread insanity of the financial practices and risks that just crashed the system and the scandalous lack of regulation by government and commercial monitors.

Similarly, Daschle's mooching free limo rides when he was making more than a million a year is unseemly, but its corruptive power pales in comparison with all the lobby-peddling and campaign subsidizing that is perfectly legal.

Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street are not at risk of becoming ethically oversensitive.