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Monday, March 11, 2013

The percent who get caught

An article in the NY Times yesterday described how Harvard hacked the emails of 20 professors in an effort to find out who'd been talking to the media about the cheating scandal. (Evidently "nearly half" of the 279 students who took a large government course at Harvard either collaborated or outright plagiarized, and eventually 70 students were suspended.)

When news of the scandal first broke, the world reacted with shock and dismay (and more than a little schadenfreude.)

But does anyone think that such cheating does not go on everywhere, all the time, and that the vast majority of students who cheat get away with it?

When General Petraeus was found to have had an affair with his biographer, it was a big scandal. Yet studies have shown that upwards of 60% of spouses stray at least once. Does anyone think that type of thing does not go on in Washington DC -- and everywhere else -- all the time?

My guess is that the 60% figure is low, and that those who don't stray abstain primarily because they lack the opportunity.

Whenever there's a prosecution for insider trading, it's a scandal. But does anyone really think that everyone on Wall Street -- and elsewhere -- does not use whatever inside edge they can get? Newsflash: people do whatever they can to make money.

My guess is, for every successful prosecution, there are over a hundred people who get away with it. Just look at the way practically every single stock of every single company which has ever been acquired seems to have gone up in the days before the announcement.

Saints are few and far between.

Whenever an athlete gets caught using steroids, it is a major scandal. We're all familiar with famous names who've been caught. But look at how many of those people got away with their juicing for years and years before getting caught. Or who never tested positive.

Does anyone think that the vast majority of juicers aren't going undetected?

Every now and then we read of income tax evaders. Technically, gambling earnings are subject to taxation at the earned income rate. How many people do you know who win their office pool and report those earnings to the IRS?

Tax evasion is a Continent-wide sport over in Europe. For example, over half of Greek doctors report an annual income of less than $14,000. (If that's what doctors actually make, why would anyone ever go to med school?)

Most of these types of cheating don't rise to the level of a sociopathic crime, i.e., you don't have to be a sociopath to do them. For instance, most of us couldn't imagine running a Ponzi scheme for years on end, and getting your friends to invest in it. We would, however, be tempted to act on a tip a friend gave us.

Mot of us couldn't imagine jumping out of the bushes and holding a knife to the throat of a strange woman so that we could rape her. We would, however, be tempted to have sex outside our marriages.

Most of us could not imagine cheating at cards in a game with friends. We would, however, be tempted not to declare our winnings to the IRS. (In fact, it would never even occur to most of us to declare those winnings.)

And most of us can imagine collaborating with friends on a take home test.

Whenever I hear people express outrage at the types of cheating to which most of us could succumb, I hear the unmistakable sound of envy and jealousy. The outrage is really more of the why-couldn't-I-have-gotten-that-opportunity variety than actual shock that a person would take advantage of the opportunity.

There are types of cheating -- like taking steroids -- which occupy more of a gray area. You don't have to be a sociopath to take steroids -- but a sociopath is far more likely to take them. It's more the body language around this particular form of cheating that betrays character. If you take them, then self-righteously declare that you would never do so, boast about the tests you've passed, and then bask in the false glory of your athletic "accomplishments" without the slightest trace of guilt, then, well, you're probably a sociopath.

In any case, the main point is, when it's a type of cheating that most people might succumb to, the limiting reagent tends to be opportunity, not character. And it's probably going on way, way more than we hear about.

So when you hear of various scandals involving the types of cheating listed above, please don't act shocked -- unless you're a saint.

And if you're a saint, of course, you'll be completely forgiving -- and not at all envious -- anyway.

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