May 2006 "Easy Calls"
  • Examining the legal basis underlying Ken Lay's conviction for his role in Enron's systematic defrauding of investors is beyond the mission of this site, but Lay's protestations of innocence went beyond a legal defense every time he claimed that he "did nothing wrong." The Scoreboard has said this before in reference to CEOs who oversee crooked companies, but it bears repeating. Corporations are big, powerful things, like atom bombs, locomotives, steam-rollers and King Kong. Like these things, big companies have to be carefully monitored, managed and controlled. Boards pay CEOs obscenely rich salaries and perks exactly because such companies have so much capacity to create wealth and waste it, to strengthen the economy or savage it, to help citizens or hurt them. These executive jobs carry a lot of responsibility, with many people's lives and welfare depending on how well they are performed. For anyone to accept such a job and all of its rewards and be so incompetent, inattentive and negligent as to be unaware of massive fraud at a company's highest levels is the equivalent of piloting a 747 blindfolded after taking a correspondence flying course, or being drunk behind the controls of an oil tanker. It is the equivalent of a novice juggler moving from scarves to his first attempt with live hand grenades in a room full of spectators; it is the equivalent of accepting the job of overseeing a federal disaster response agency when you have no experience without making damn certain that the deficits in your skills are covered by others. All of these are wrong: arrogant, reckless, inept, and wrong, so wrong that they reach the point where unethical conduct justifies criminal penalties. Lay's jury apparently did not believe that he had no hand in Enron's scams. Maybe they were mistaken…I doubt it, but perhaps. From an ethical point of view, it hardly matters. His job was to make sure that the corporate behemoth under his command was well-trained and friendly. He not only failed to discharge that job, he deceived people who trusted him by insisting that he had. [5/31/2006]

  • It was an issue obliterated by the shock and "Awwww!" that followed the surprising exit of presumptive "American Idol" favorite Chris Doughtry, but the show's producers and judges have displayed a terrible sense of fair play in their treatment of dark horse Idol competitor Katherine McPhee. First, they stacked the cards against her by decreeing that the last four competitors had to duke it out with selections from the repertoire of Elvis Presley. "The King" was a man's man of a rock singer, and his hits are hardly conducive to allowing female vocalists to show their abilities to good advantage. Even if a female singer did manage to do a decent interpretation of an Elvis classic, it would be difficult for an audience accustomed to the Ol' Swivel-hips' version to appreciate a feminine approach. While Chris Doughtry would be a natural doing Elvis's bluesy laments, and Elliot could emulate Elvis the Crooner, and hyperactive Taylor would slide naturally into Vegas Elvis, McPhee was left to choose her songs from the likes of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Burning Love;" was this sabotage? Just maybe it was: after only one male winner in four years, the "Idol" gurus' seem to feel it's time for a guy. Predictably, Katherine tanked when she accepted the hopeless challenge and attempted "Hound Dog," a song that suits her talents (classically trained voice, Victoria's Secret catalogue looks) and persona (bland) about as much as "Satisfaction" would serve the song-styling skills of Julie Andrews. The producers' tactic, if it was that, didn't work due to Chris' inexplicable rejection by the TV land voters, but it was still an unethical move by a hit show that purports to be running a fair contest. Then in the final showdown between McPhee and Happy Feet Taylor Hicks, the producers assigned her a truly awful original song that would have defeated Barbra Streisand, Billy Holliday or Nina Simone. Finally, the lone articulate and arguably sane judge, Simon Cowell, sealed Katherine's defeat by declaring Taylor Hicks the winner before a single vote had been cast by the audience. Yes, it's only a TV show, and yes, when your only stand-out performance is a version of a 1939 ballad that was the signature of a showbiz icon who has been dead for 40 years, you probably aren't headed for pop stardom. But American Idol did not even attempt to be fair to Katherine McPhee.

  • The film of The Da Vinci Code is kicking up a another lively round of Dan Brown bashing, with the general thrust of the criticism being that the best-selling author is a lying infidel who is trying to undermine the faith of millions by spreading slander about the Catholic Church. There has even been an effort to pressure the movie's director, Ron Howard, into approving a disclaimer to run in the opening credits. As Howard's film is already recognized by everyone with two neurons to rub together as an adaptation of a work of popular fiction, the disclaimer would presumably say something like: "This film is really, really, really a silly story made-up just for fun and to make Dan Brown richer than Oprah, and by the way, Tom Hanks isn't actually a Harvard symbologist." What seems to rankle DaVinci Code haters is that Dan Brown's novel says that it is "based on fact." "That's just not true," said one Catholic activist on CNN. Oh, really? Based on fact? "Gone with the Wind" is based on fact. "Dracula" and "The Godfather" are based on fact. Heck, "Jurassic Park" is based on all sorts of facts, but I'm not looking over my shoulder for dinosaurs. "The Day After Tomorrow," one of the most absurd movies in recent history, is based on facts galore…it just makes idiotic assumptions from them. True, the characters in The DaVinci Code toss off quasi-historical factoids with the certitude of the imaginary Ph.D.'s that they are, but it can't be that hard to remember Basic Cheesy Novel Principle #16, which says (I'm paraphrasing now), "If the person making a statement isn't real, there's a substantial likelihood that what he's saying isn't real either." There are so many misstated, garbled, made-up and otherwise mistaken "facts" in Dan Brown novels that a cottage publishing industry has emerged creating books ( better books, too: see Secrets of The Da Vinci Code and Secrets of Angels and Demons) to identify and clarify them all, for they include whoppers concerning history, architecture, geography, science, religion, politics…you name it. A novelist saying that his book is "based on fact" is like a food manufacturer calling its product "all natural." It's meaningless, except to the gullible, the inattentive and the slow-witted. The Catholic Church's concern about losing followers to Dan Brown's obvious nonsense makes the Scoreboard question its respect for them and confidence in itself. Attacking Dan Brown looks more and more like an attempt to shift responsibility for the Church's very real problems of its own making. [5/15/2006]

  • People sometimes ask how something can be both legal and unethical. A Plainfield, Indiana gas station found the answer the hard way when it inadvertently listed the price of regular gasoline at its pumps as .002, or one-fifth of a penny, instead of the real price, $2.75. An unnamed number of greedy drivers promptly filled their tanks and drove off.

    They were clearly within their legal rights to do so: a posted price is always enforceable. But those who filled their tanks had to know that this price was a mistake, given that the high price of gas is a major issue of the day and gas hasn't cost two-tenths of a cent since the horse and buggy. They also had to know that the owner of the station would suffer a financial loss that they could easily prevent by taking two ethical actions: not filling their tank at two-tenths of a cent a gallon, and telling the owner about the mistake. They chose to do neither. This is similar to seeing someone walking ahead of you dropping dollar bills out of a hole in his pants. You can return the bills that have fallen and tell him about the hole. You can pick up and keep a couple of the bills and then tell him about the hole. You can pick up and keep as many bills as you can get away with and not tell him, or you can keep the fallen bills and alert your friends that a guy dropping bills is coming their way. The options decline in ethical content until you are simply exploiting and adding to another's misfortune. Legal though it may be, taking the gas at an absurdly low price is a clear violation of the Golden Rule, and not telling the owner about the expensive error so he can be exploited further by others is a second Golden Rule foul that compounds the first. [5/15/2006]

  • Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney just proved that he, like most politicians, voters, and editorial writers, doesn't comprehend the whole "conflicts of interest" concept. The Boston Globe reported that the Governor was preparing to return a $750 political contribution received from Robert Prosperi, one of six Aggregate Industries NE Inc. employees accused of falsifying records to hide the delivery of inferior concrete to the "Big Dig," Boston's epically corrupt and mismanaged tunnel construction project. Romney's decision Friday came just a day after the arrests of the six men inspired him to condemn them and their employers by saying, "No one in Massachusetts should be surprised to learn that a project so badly mismanaged, over budget, and grossly delayed is now also facing allegations of criminal misbehavior." Then, having made it clear that he was no fan of campaign supporter Prosperi, Romney's political action committee announced that the Governor felt that it was appropriate to return his contribution. Now wait a minute. The standard logic behind allowing direct political contributions to elected officials by those who may benefit from their future decisions is that the contributions are completely unrelated to the decisions when they are made. So why does Romney think it makes him look more ethical if he returns the gifts of men whom he has decided to oppose? The action makes it appear that the gift was indeed a quid pro quo, and returning it is the Governor's way of saying, "Sorry, Bob, but our deal is off. I can't help you. I'm an ethical man: I'll only accept a bribe if I can deliver on it! You understand." What would have send a truly reassuring ethical message would be the exact opposite conduct: sending back the contribution if Romney felt the right thing to do would be to support Prosperi, and keeping it if, as is the real case, he chose to condemn him. That would demonstrate that Romney did not regard accepting the contribution as a tacit promise of support. Quid pro quo ("this for that") gifts are bribes, and by giving back the contribution of a political supporter Romney no longer can support, he has actually behaved in accordance with the quid pro quo understanding: if I can't give you your quo, I'll send back the quid. That doesn't make him look like he's ethical; it just means that he's fair to those who bribe him. Nope…Gov. Romney just doesn't get it. Or, more disturbingly, perhaps he does. [5/8/2006]

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