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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes. Sound wisdom when Ben Franklin penned those words in 1789, but a growing number of Americans seem determined to prove him wrong. Tax cheating is on the rise.

The IRS estimates that unpaid taxes from individuals, not companies, make up 70 percent of the tax shortfall every year. So, do you do it? Do you know somebody who does? How much and why? Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. No caller ID, we promise. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later on the program, a student who got an F sues the teacher and your letters. But first cheating on taxes. David Cay Johnston has spent the last 12 years covering tax policy for the New York Times. He joins us now from the studios of member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. DAVID CAY JOHNSTON (Reporter, The New York Times): Well thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And how many of us cheat?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Oh, a lot of people, but not generally wage earners. Wage earners really can't cheat because their income is reported independently by their employer. You can't take an exemption for a spouse or a child without a Social Security number, and 70 percent of us file short-form tax returns that are, you know, not much more than a postcard.

CONAN: So 70 percent are out of the equation already. So of that 30 percent eligible to cheat, how many cheat?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Probably quite a few. I mean, we don't know. Here's what we know. The IRS has told Congress that it captures 99 percent of wage income in America but only 70 percent of business income, and that goes to how we have created in America two income-tax systems, separate and unequal.

Congress does not trust wage-earners, so everything about them is reported: how much interest you paid on your mortgage, if you do take deductions, how much your employer paid you, how much you may have gotten in stock dividends.

But if you're a business-owner, a landlord or an investor, then Congress trusts you that you will on your own honestly report what you owe to the government and most of the cheating occurs in that area. The government's official estimate in the area of investors is that there's $11 billion a year of taxes not paid on gains made from the sale of stock and other appreciated assets, principally stock.

There's an excellent study of this by a professor at Rutgers University, a business professor, Jay Soled, and Chuck Davenport, a distinguished tax professor. They estimate the number at about $30 billion.

CONAN: And when you say businesses, that would include people who are self-employed. That would count as a business?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Yes, absolutely. Now there are people at the bottom end who do cheat in a curious and unexpected sort of way. If you are so poor that your income is, let's say, $9,000 and you have two children, if you file what's called a Schedule C return, that's for people who own their own little business - I file one as a writer for my outside writing - and you inflate your income, you claim your income was bigger than it was, you can get a benefit. And that's because the earned income tax credit, that's the negative income tax that Milton Friedman proposed and President Reagan was a champion of because it encourages people to work, pays its greatest benefit to people who make between $10,000 and $14,000.

So if you claim your income was a little higher, you'll get a bigger benefit from the government. And about half of all the individual tax returns the government audits are of people who make less than $25,000, most of them people claiming the negative income tax or earned income tax credit.

CONAN: Now who else are the - presumably there's a fair number of people who under-report their income as well.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Yes, and that's the area of large concern, both under-reporting incomes and over-stating deductions. Those businesspeople who operate on an international scale have an extraordinary number of opportunities to not report income and to hide income, so there's a fair amount of cheating there.

If you're a landlord, and I've been a landlord - anybody who's a landlord knows that a contractor will say to you well gee, you want to put new carpet in your place. We could also, you know, carpet your house and add it to the bill. There's lots of that sort of cheating that goes on in the system.

CONAN: That carpet presumably should have been reported as income.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Yes, or it should've been paid for with after-tax, non-deductible dollars if it's in your house.

CONAN: I see, okay.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Exactly correct.

CONAN: So there are a lot of opportunities, in other words, for people who are, well, in certain kinds of categories, and that includes the very wealthy and also people who are not so wealthy, waiters and waitresses for example.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Yes. The government has a number of programs designed to deal with people, however, at the bottom end. I mean, first of all remember that half of all Americans make less than $31,000 a year. Three-quarters make less than about $52,000. If you are married and have two children, you don't start paying income taxes as a result of President Bush's tax-cut program until you make about $44,000.

So a fair number of people at the bottom, people who run cash businesses, would not be paying much, if anything, in taxes anyway. On the other end of the scale, two years ago the federal government found out on a tip about a fellow who had earned more than $2 billion, not filed tax returns in most years and in a couple of years reported minimal income. They had no idea even though all of his income was reported in the public record because these were publicly traded companies.

The federal government's effort to find tax cheats among the wealthy in America is about on par with its efforts to find Osama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: One more question, then we'll get to some phone calls, and that is what are the chances if you're actually cheating that you'll actually get caught?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, there are 90 million people who will file a tax return this year that owe taxes, and there will be between 700 and 1,400, depending on how you want to count it, prosecutions of people for felony tax crimes in the United States, not even a drop in the bucket.

CONAN: And can you get caught for that just making an honest mistake?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, the system deals with honest mistakes. There's a system of civil penalties for honest mistakes. So if you - on a single occasion, say you bought a stock for $10 and sold it for $20, but in fact the stock had split a bunch of times and its real cost to you was $1, you'll get penalized. And there's a regime for penalties in various degrees from simple mistakes to looks pretty close to criminal.

The rules also in terms of prosecution try to focus on people who've engaged in calculated deceptions. We have a significant number of people who file various kinds of returns promoted by people who deny the legitimacy of the tax system, returns that show zero income, returns that claim I don't have any income taxable in the U.S. or the claim that I have a God-given right to my labor and it's not taxable, only corporate profits are taxable, and other nonsense.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners on the line. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org. Our guest is David Cay Johnston, who covers tax policy for the New York Times. And Cynthia's(ph) calling us, Cynthia on the line with us from Utah.

CYNTHIA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.

CYNTHIA: I've never been on the radio before. This is exciting.

CONAN: Oh, it's no big deal. Go ahead, Cynthia.

CYNTHIA: Well, I've only been married a couple years. My husband is Brazilian, and he just went ahead not thinking this year and filed separately, and I explained to him we can't do that and so I got his taxes. We went to my accountant to do an amended return, and he started looking at it and there was all these dependents that I'd never heard of.

There was people like nephews and nieces and grandchildren, and he just assumes that sometimes he takes care of them that he could just put them all down as dependents. And no one had told him differently and he still does not understand that. He says, well, everyone else does it; all the Mexicans do it.

CONAN: And so he's planning to file that return with all of those extra dependents on it?

CYNTHIA: No. He did and we're amending it now, actually. Which means we're going to have to pay back a lot of money.

CONAN: But you'll be able to sleep at night, too.

CYNTHIA: Yeah, but he has done that evidently for years and no one has caught him and he knows tons of people who do the same thing. They just put all their nieces, nephews, grandchildren, anyone they can think of, and that way they get money back. My husband's big thing is he doesn't like the war. He doesn't want the money to go to all that stuff, so he'll be danged if he's going to send money to the government and they owe him.

CONAN: So his little piece of moral quandary is resolved by his bigger doubts about the morality of what the government might use the money for. David Cay Johnston, we'll get to that second point a little bit later in the program. But first of all, can we really claim the entire nation of Brazil as dependents?

Mr. JOHNSTON: That would be kind of nice, I suppose. Well, no. You can only claim people that you provide more than half the support for. Now that doesn't necessarily have to be your children. Many people in the sandwich generation have parents, for example, that they support and pay more than half their support. But you have to have Social Security numbers and you may be audited to find this. And in the case of somebody like Cynthia, you don't want to sign a joint return that has improper deductions on it because you can end up being liable for the taxes.

There is an innocent spouse provision if you can show you didn't know that your spouse was cheating on the taxes and put the return in front of you to sign or gave you a blank return to sign. But the anguish you will go through to try and exercise innocent spouse rights isn't worth the coin.

CONAN: And that amended return, that's a way of saying oops, I guess we made a mistake here?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Yeah, people file amended returns all the time. I mean, it's not April 15 yet so there shouldn't be any issue at all about filing that amended return.

CONAN: Okay, and it's going to be April 17 this year.

Mr. JOHNSTON: That's right. We have one of those weekend years.

CONAN: Anyway, Cynthia, good luck. I'm sure the IRS will understand.

CYNTHIA: Thank you.

CONAN: Very good. I should also point out - we just have a few seconds before the break, David Cay Johnston, but we're talking about tax cheats and that's what our conversation on. There's also a whole lot of people who don't apply for all of the benefits, the returns they could get.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Yes. Many people pay more in taxes than the law requires. And during their years in the White House, Bill and Hillary Clinton in two years, because of bad tax advice, paid more than twice as much in federal income tax as the law required, despite spending $8,000 or $9,000 a year to have their tax return prepared.

CONAN: A couple of those years it seems to me they could have used that money.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, it was money they promised to give to charity. More would have gone to charity and less would have gone to the government.

CONAN: David Cay Johnston, stay with us. He's with us from the studios of our member station in Rochester, New York, WXXI. We're talking today about taxes, whether you cheat or not. After the break, the Ethicist will weigh in on this. Would you turn someone in for cheating the IRS? 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about tax cheats. Whether you fiddle with the figures or not, how much and why? And if you are one of the many honest filers out there, you might find this year's tax bill a bit bigger than expected courtesy of the Alternative Minimum Tax. You can find out more about the AMT at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. Still with us is David Cay Johnston, who covers tax policy for the New York Times. Of course, we want to hear from you. If you caught someone cheating on their taxes, would you turn them in? Say if you're an accountant or married to somebody or just knew somebody. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. Also with us now is Randy Cohen, who writes the "Ethicist" column for the New York Times and appears regularly on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED WEEKENDS. He joins us from his office in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Columnist, The New York Times): Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And is it ever okay not to pay your taxes as a matter of principle or whatever?

Mr. COHEN: Well, there's certainly people who've declined to pay taxes as matter of civil disobedience. I believe Thoreau is the most famous example, yes.

CONAN: And he - part of civil disobedience, though, is accepting that it is disobedience and you could go to jail for this.

Mr. COHEN: Right. Absolutely so.

CONAN: So in that sense you cannot do it but you shouldn't be really trying to weasel your way out of it, too.

Mr. COHEN: I don't think I've ever heard the word weasel and the word Thoreau used in the same sentence. That's a whole new reading.

CONAN: We'll have to check on the wildlife around Walden Pond, but…

Mr. COHEN: Right. I think the example you were discussing earlier did not involve anything as grand and honorable as an act of civil disobedience. They involved just simply cheating for one's own self-interest.

CONAN: And we've heard - actually we have a caller on this subject. So let's get Christopher(ph) on the line. Christopher's with us from Gainesville in Florida.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER: Hi, how you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I was just curious if I'm among the small minority of citizens in the United States that's aware that the income tax isn't even legal and that according to the - excuse me, I just came in from outside.

CONAN: That's okay.

CHRISTOPHER: And according to the tax code, it's a voluntary - what do they call it - voluntary compliance. And if it were mandatory, why wouldn't it state that it were mandatory? As far as I can understand, there is no law that requires us to pay this income tax. The 16th Amendment, of course, is cited often enough, but that was never properly ratified. And even if it were, the Supreme Court ruled this afforded no new powers of taxation, so…

CONAN: So Christopher, do you act on this belief?

CHRISTOPHER: Yes, of course. Of course I do. You've got to act with your convictions. Otherwise, you're just a talking head, aren't you?

CONAN: Well conviction is a funny word to use in this context, but you don't pay your taxes?

CHRISTOPHER: No.

CONAN: Okay. First of all, as a matter of law, David Cay Johnston, has Christopher got an argument here?

Mr. JOHNSTON: No, absolutely not. He's selectively reading things. The term voluntary compliance - and it is troubling the IRS uses this phrase - is a term of art. What it means is that you voluntarily tell the government by filling out your tax return what you owe. The British used to use the other system, which is the government sent you a bill and said here's your income tax, and if you want to challenge it, fill out the forms. But all voluntary compliance means is that you self-report subject to audit.

If you have misreported and the government accepts your return without auditing it, then you get away with it. But you are absolutely required to pay. The tax code is imminently clear on this point, and not a single tax denier - and that's the group Christopher's in - has been successful ever in the courts. There have been individuals who've been acquitted of individual crimes but, you know, OJ was acquitted of murder. That didn't mean the murder statutes aren't valid.

CHRISTOPHER: Well yeah, that is true, but there are certainly cases where…

Mr. JOHNSTON: Not one, Christopher. Not a single case.

CHRISTOPHER: (Unintelligible) Banister and a number of other…

Mr. JOHNSTON: Joe Banister's…

CHRISTOPHER: (Unintelligible) investigators (unintelligible).

Mr. JOHNSTON: Wrong, wrong, wrong. Joe Banister's a good example of someone where a jury acquitted of a crime of willful intent, but that doesn't challenge the underlying validity of the statues. The batting average after almost a hundred years is zero-zero-zero.

CHRISTOPHER: I'm interested in the law. I'm not interested in what the tax code says. And by the way, what you said is a - this voluntary compliance, that's an issue with dealing with self-incrimination, which we're protected against in the Constitution anyway.

CONAN: Christopher, I think you do have to accept that the courts and the IRS all would disagree with you. So if you got caught, you could face severe penalties.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, but the Supreme Court ruled that the 16th Amendment (unintelligible) taxation.

CONAN: I think the Supreme Court would disagree with you, too.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well no, the Supreme Court did say what he said (unintelligible) new power of taxation. Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution says: The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes.

CONAN: Christopher, good luck and thanks very much for the call.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, okay. But is this how it is with anybody that's got a legitimate point, that we're called kooks or deniers and the point is still valid. You get just kind of railroaded. You get steamrolled into giving up and saying, no, I guess you're right. But it's black and white. It's as clear as day.

CONAN: Well have you taken the government to court on this point, Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER: I've never been audited.

CONAN: No, no, no. You've never been audited but why don't you sue the government if you feel so strongly about it?

CHRISTOPHER: Why don't I sue the government to stop the war, too? I mean, I'm one person. I'm trying to do what I can do. That's what I called your guy's program, is that not right?

CONAN: Yup.

CHRISTOPHER: I mean, you got to do what you got to do. You got to try to make a move and it takes a great deal of courage for anybody…

CONAN: Let me ask you another question, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER: Sure. Sure, sure, sure.

CONAN: Do you use any government services?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, I was a veteran of - you know, I served four years. My veteran's benefits, yes.

CONAN: And currently I assume there's a police department where you live. I assume that you gain the benefits of protection by the other people who are now in the active service in the Army that need to get paid for it.

CHRISTOPHER: If I'm not mistaken, a hundred percent of what was collected in income tax last year goes to pay the debt or the interest made on the loan from the Federal Reserve system…

CONAN: Christopher, there's another word…

CHRISTOPHER: What did we do before…

CONAN: There's another word we're going to use that's called sophistry. And thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. I wanted to bring you in on this, Randy Cohen.

Mr. COHEN: Sorry, I dozed off there for a moment.

CONAN: Yes, I apologize for that. But there are a lot of people - well, more then a few people in Christopher's boat who say, you know, look we don't owe this money.

Mr. COHEN: Yes, but neither law nor ethics protects fools from their folly.

CONAN: So if they're going to do that, they're just plain wrong. And there's also a compact, is there not, as citizens we have an obligation here.

Mr. COHEN: I believe so, yes. And we are members of a large community and it's certainly something our parents made quite clear to us. It's not morally complicated that you're obliged to pay your share, that we meet to our representatives, we decide these are expenses we've undertaken and we must all share the costs of them. Although I do think it gets harder and harder as an ethical issue to float the idea of this when the tax code skews more and more to the benefit of the rich and does not seem to accommodate ordinary working people. That this compact assumes a certain level of fairness. For the last six years it's harder and harder to maintain that.

CONAN: He's got a point, David Cay Johnston. The tax code is incredibly complicated and a lot of people say unfair.

Mr. JOHNSTON: The tax code is very unfair and it's getting worse. And morality is a very important aspect to taxes. The birth of democracy 2500 years ago in Athens was connected to the development of a moral principle that Athens, when it was a tyranny, had an absolutely flat tax. Every person paid the same tax and for almost everyone but the wealthy it was a horrible burden to meet to avoid being cast out into a Hobbesian world. And the moral principle they devised was that the greater your economic gain from living in a civilized society, the greater your moral obligation to maintain that society with your taxes.

Unfortunately, we have in this country in the last 25 years or so come under this idea that the wealthy should pay less than the rest of us, that the wealthy are the ones who we should be idolizing. I mean, in some ways we're like the ancient Greeks. I think that we treat with this whole celebrity culture that we have many people as if they're demigods. And in that we are creating real problems. And there are lots of people like Christopher. I believe that if we had really good data it would show that at least a million adult Americans believe that the tax system is illegitimate and that a significant number of those believe that the federal government is nothing more than a criminal organization.

Mr. COHEN: I'd like to quibble just slightly with what you said. I don't think this shift happened because there's some consensus that we should admire the rich. I think it's because the rich have been able to buy the government, that if you're wealthy you're able to exert tremendous political pressure and influence the shape of the tax code. It's not that I admire rich people now and want them to pay less.

Mr. JOHNSTON: I thoroughly agree with you that that's, I mean, I wrote a whole book about exactly that point and I'm writing another one called "Free Lunch" that furthers that point. But it's also caught up with our notion…

Mr. COHEN: I like the way you snuck your book plug in. Exquisitely done, my friend.

CONAN: Well, is that ethical? Anyway, let's see if can get another caller on the line. This is Jackie. Jackie calling us from Carson City, Nevada.

JACKIE (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi there.

JACKIE: I just wanted to share about a recent experience I had when I was considering buying a business in another city. I'll make sure you know it's not in Carson City. The owner of the business was very reluctant when I asked to see the financial statements and complained that, you know, people wanted to see all these financials but they weren't really interested in the business.

And once I convinced her, yes, I was interested, she then pulled out there accounting that she had done herself and her tax return, and said, well, I've done some creative bookkeeping here. And what she explained to me is that she had basically never declared the cash income that her business had generated in the year that we looked at, which I think was 2005 because this is was in 2006. It was about $14,000 or $16,000, she said.

And then she looked at her tax return and pointed out that oh, by the way, some of these deductions that I have put in here are not really business deductions. They're, like, my house insurance and my car insurance. And I was absolutely appalled and at that point had nothing I knew how to say.

And as it turned out, for many reasons including this - figuring this wasn't going to be a great energy to be building on or picking up a business from - I declined to pursue this any further. But I, frankly, have been tussling with whether I should turn her in. And frankly, I don't know how to turn somebody in who's cheating the government out of taxes they owed.

CONAN: Well, two questions arise there. One of them is ethical. Randy Cohen, we'll turn to you for that.

Mr. COHEN: These kinds of questions are called duty-to-report questions that you yourself have done nothing wrong, but you're aware of the wrongdoing of others. Do you have an obligation to come forward? My guideline for this kind of thing is you must come forward if it will prevent imminent serious harm to a particular person.

So if I know an angry guy with a gun is running toward your house, Neal, I have to call 911. You have less of an obligation as the threat is more diffuse, as it's less serious and as it exists in the past. So I would say turning in this person is something that ethically you may do but not something you're required to do.

CONAN: And in terms of how she might do it, if she wanted to, let's ask David Cay Johnston about that.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the IRS has a fraud line. And if you go to irs.gov you can very quickly and easily find that. And the IRS also has a program to pay informants. However, the IRS is particularly reluctant to actually pay people. There are a lot of folks who've gone to great lengths to help the government catch major tax cheats only to be told at the end that they're not going to get the money.

And I believe the latest data is that only 11 percent of the rewards claimed by taxpayers are actually paid. If the government were serious about pursuing this, of course it would probably be 89 percent paid.

CONAN: Jackie, good luck with your quandary.

JACKIE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks for the call.

JACKIE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with David Cay Johnston and Randy Cohen, both of whom write for the New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail we got from Travis in St. Augustine, Florida. I work at an independently owned restaurant. My employer pays every one of her nine employees under the table on a cash-only basis for wages and tips. We're not paid with checks therefore do not have taxes taken out.

She's told me her business is set up in such a way the IRS only recognize her and her partner as employees and they receive a weekly paycheck of $500. They also take tips when they work. How is this legal? If it is not, how do they get away with it? And David Cay Johnston, it doesn't sound legal.

Mr. JOHNSTON: It's not legal and they get away with it because Congress has cut by a third the number of auditors that work for the IRS in the last decade. Back in the '80s, high-income people and business owners had the chance of being audited about once every 11 years. Now for some categories it's about once every 360 years. And we simply have handcuffed the tax police and then reduced their numbers.

CONAN: And that of course tends to reduce income as well. But it's always popular to cut the IRS' auditing capabilities. Anyway, let's see if we can get Lenny(ph) on the line. Lenny is calling us from Miami.

LENNY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

LENNY: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LENNY: You haven't covered this yet. I'm an entertainer, and I make a lot of cash in my business, and I don't report all the cash that I make, ha ha, there's something new. And I was curious to know about what people do, how illegal that is? What people do who earn a cash business such as myself, waiters, waitresses, who make at least maybe a half or a third of their income just in cash alone? And I'll take my answer off the line.

CONAN: Well, one quick question, Lenny, before you go. How do you rationalize this?

LENNY: Well, someone told me once that cash goes in your pocket, so I take the cash and I put it in my pocket.

CONAN: So you don't think about it a lot.

LENNY: I don't think about it necessarily, because it doesn't seem to be very traceable. I mean, if you get like $100 tip at a show…

CONAN: So you don't report it because you can?

LENNY: I don't report it because I can.

CONAN: Okay. That's fair enough. All right. Thanks very much for the call, Lenny.

LENNY: Sure.

CONAN: And for his question - for his answer, David Cay Johnston.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, he's obligated to report it. He may well not ever get caught. One of the things we might think about is that cash allows us to have a lot of freedom and anonymity in our society, and there's a lot of value to that. You don't want Big Brother looking over your shoulder everyday.

There are a lot of people who are very much in favor of the idea of going to a national retail sales tax. If we did that, I suspect you would see enormous pressure brought to eliminate cash and require that all transactions be done in a traceable way through electronic interchanges like debit and credit cards.

CONAN: Here's a quick question. There have been a lot of articles recently warming people if they don't declare their income from eBay and things like that they're likely to be targeted by the IRS. Is that a threat to actually fear?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, they're focusing on that, and they will find some people and make examples of them. There's a principle in federal law enforcement called general deterrence. Specific deterrence is what we do to rapists, murderers and drug dealers. We try to catch every single one of them and put them behind bars.

General deterrence is we try to find somebody notable or someone who you will identify with. You're on eBay, they'll find somebody on e-Bay and prosecute them to encourage you to behave because you think you may get caught.

CONAN: Good, thanks very much. David Cay Johnston joined us from WXXI in Rochester, New York. We thank you for your time.

Mr. COHEN: You know, there's a sort of observation about ethical conduct of people that they will not behave ethically if they feel the system is rigged. So that when you see all your neighbors jumping the turnstile, people tend not to want to pay their subway fare. But if you construct a system where other - you look around and you see other people complying, people tend to comply. So one way to get people to do the right thing is to feel their neighbors are.

CONAN: Randy Cohen, the "Ethicist" for The New York Times, thanks very much for being with us. He joined us from his home office in New York City.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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