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  • Dan Connors

Cheaters often prosper but what can we do about it?

I know that some people lie, cheat and steal, but I've always believed in the slogan that winners never cheat and cheaters never win. Cheaters may prevail in the short term, but their lack of real achievements and ethics will eventually catch up with them. Well, recent history is making cheating look pretty darned attractive.

I could handle asterisks in the Olympics and the Super Bowl, but now we've got asterisks in the World Series too. Sign stealing scandals threaten to tarnish that sacred institution here in St. Louis for both 2017 and 2018 winners. Ex-Cardinal Tommy Pham has even questioned whether the Astros were wearing buzzers under their uniforms to get signals from the bench. It kind of makes the entire baseball season into a lie. If the batters in the World Series on one team knew what pitches they were facing, that's a huge advantage that spits in the face of fairness and sportsmanship. And if they were doing that in the playoffs, who's to say teams weren't doing that during the regular season as well?

Many of us can remember the Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds excitement of the 1990's that filled ballparks and excited the nation. It turned out all of that was a steroid-induced lie as well. Cheating has been around in sports since the caveman days, but as technology advances, new opportunities have arisen to give teams mental or physical advantages. And still the only player to have the book thrown at him was a steroid-free hustler with a gambling problem named Pete Rose.

I bring this up as the nation is about to endure a bizarre Kabuki theater ritual in the US Senate known as an impeachment trial. Everyone knows that elections are high-stakes affairs and there has always been some cheating to try to give a candidate the upper hand. The extreme level of cheating that this impeachment represents is a challenge to the honor and ethics of our nation as a whole. Most of the country agrees that the president cheated in Ukraine, but many excuse it as that's just the way politics is played now, and that the other side does things that are much worse.

As a CPA, I'm bound by a code of professional ethics that guides everything I do. We are supposed to be independent, responsible, honest, careful and work in the public interest. As an IRS Enrolled Agent, I'm bound by circular 230, another set of regulations that require me to take a class in ethics every year. Accountants take ethics seriously because they know the whole system crashes if there is no trust that financial information is accurate. (One reason I'm so happy we have a CPA running for Governor in Missouri finally.)

So what can we do about cheating? If you believe that everybody else is already doing it, then you may think that it's crazy not to cheat. Ethical standards seem to be on the decline because so many see others getting away with things. No one went to jail after the financial misdeeds of 2008, the Astros get to keep their World Series title, and the President has gotten away with all sorts of frauds and lies that would have toppled other leaders.

It reminds me of the famous prisoner's dilemma. By screwing over their fellow prisoners, one prisoner could get out early. But if all the prisoners choose to screw over their fellow prisoners, they all get out much later. If they choose to cooperate and not betray each other, the best result happens and they get out sooner. We are all prisoners in a way of this system of fake news, information bubbles, and cheating. We don't trust the other side and think they're cheating, so we drag everything down by cheating too. Tax evasion goes up and there's not enough money to run things. Marital cheating goes up and families fall apart. Somehow we have to build trust again, which will take time and soul-searching.

But before any of that happens, we need to find some impartial referees that we can rely on to do the right thing. The Olympic committee had the right idea in stripping gold medals from people who were found to be cheating. They banned the entire Russian team for two Olympics because of their rampant cheating and drugging, which goes a long way toward restoring trust in the games. Baseball needs to strip Houston (and possibly the Red Sox) of its World Series title and ban them from the playoffs for a while. Only when people see and agree with the punishments will they start to trust the system again.

Both sides need to recognize that cheating brings chaos, retribution, and anger. Nothing good can be built on a platform of cheating, because there's nothing left to trust. The US Senate, and Supreme Court need to somehow transcend partisanship and become trusted institutions again. If we are to continue as a democracy, our elections have to be trusted, sacred and immune from cheating. The losers will never accept the winner unless they have faith in the system, and ultimately everybody becomes a loser when things fall apart.

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