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2012 Winter Issue 4 (February 3, 2012)

Growing up amidst rampant crime

February 3, 2012
By MIchael Goodgame

At age seven, I saw my mother breaking the law.

That’s right.  She knew about the law, and she broke it clean without even worrying about the repercussions.   You guessed it: she was speeding.

Underwhelmed?  My apologies.  My mother hasn’t robbed any banks recently.  But why should going above the speed limit be okay?

At the tender age of seven, I certainly didn’t see an obvious answer.  The signs would say 45, and inevitably my mother, father, brothers, friends, and everyone else I knew would go about 60.  I didn’t see why that was acceptable.  Why didn’t anybody care?  What were the police there for?  Perhaps most importantly, what other laws were flexible like this one?  Ideas like these almost made me feel nervous that I was doing something wrong (ring in the Thought Police), but it also occurred to me that laws were probably being broken all the time.  Maybe most of them were minor infractions on a larger scale, like speeding, but they were still enforced rules being shattered by regular people.

Fast-forward twelve years.  I’m sitting here in college, and what other impressions do I really have about the law?  I’ve heard all my life about people breaking laws – mainly for convenience (speeding) and greed (insider trading).  The rule of thumb for speeding, as we’ve all heard, is to stay with what’s called the “flow of traffic” – as long as you’re not weaving through the lanes and going 10 miles an hour faster than everyone else, you probably won’t get pulled over. 

Does this rule translate?  Are there other laws like this?  One could say that the drinking age law matches up.  You can pretty much drink underage in America – just (please) don’t act like an idiot.  Rules like this are bent all the time, and it’s much more about being in the norm relative to those around you than about following the law by the letter. 

How does this work at a higher level?  Is there a rule of thumb for fraudulent banking practices, where millions of dollars – not to mention countless lives – are held in the balance?  Does this kind of thing happen every day just like speeding does?  I’m asking this time.  I don’t know.  But based on what the economy has just been through and what top-heavy income concentration we’re seeing right now, I would venture a guess at “yes.”

I worry not so much about the current state of laws; my primary concern is for youth development.  I, along with most people, was taught the notion that laws are flimsy, and as long as you act with enough stealth, you can get away with breaking them.  I fear for the implications of this lesson.  It translates directly into school, after all: people cheat.  And we can’t really blame the students that cheat when there are countless stories about colleges and universities – which are supposedly run by the saints of the academic world – lying about their statistics in order to get ranked higher by Forbes.

What does this tell kids, and what are the results?  We see everyone around us cheating, lying, stealing, getting away with it, and benefitting from it.  The rule has turned from “do it right” to “don’t get caught doing it wrong.”  Our society needs some lessons in why that’s the incorrect method before we’re going to learn how to run this world.

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