Rosenblum: Is it easier to be good or be bad?

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2013 - 9:31 PM

Minneapolis rare coin dealer David Marion is heading to prison for bilking investors out of more than $3 million.

In St. Paul, the Ramsey County attorney’s office just charged four women with an elaborate identity theft scheme involving hundreds of Social Security numbers, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers. According to the charges, a former state employee stole a lot of the information while at her work computer.

In Washington, senior policy adviser John Beale is expected to plead guilty on Monday to stealing nearly $900,000 over 12 years from his employer, the Environmental Protection Agency, by receiving pay and bonuses he didn’t earn.

These cautionary tales appear so regularly it’s hard to feel shocked anymore. But, after years of consuming them and, sometimes, reporting them, I still wonder:

Is it easier to be good or to be bad? Or more fairly, realizing that those are loaded words, is it easier to behave badly — or well?

I’m not talking morality here. We all know, including those genuinely remorseful for their actions, that our world would be a far sunnier place if everybody played by the rules. And I realize that we all have the capacity to go down either road.

But it’s exhausting to think about having to keep track of so many below-deck details, about tortured sleep and loved ones trampled by ill-advised actions.

So, why do some people do it?

Many reasons, it seems. Sometimes, it’s not a choice, but a survival skill. Sometimes, addiction plays havoc on one’s sense of reality. Sometimes, people get in too deep and panic.

“I’ve often had the same thought myself,” said Hank Shea, who prosecuted hundreds of white-collar criminals during his 20 years as an assistant U.S. attorney.

“Those questions came up a lot, in the courtroom and in the interrogation room,” said Shea, now a fellow at the Thomas Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of St. Thomas.

Many tales revealed a slippery slope. The first transgression is usually minor, he said. The person gets away with it so he or she tries again — but this time, only to make things right. By the third time, it’s beginning to be business as usual.

“You don’t understand, Mr. Shea,” people have told him. “Our competitors are doing this.”

Most federal prosecutions, he said, are not “crimes of desperation. They are not doing this to provide food for their families.”

They’ve been overtaken by greed, ego and temptation, he said. Easier than generosity, selflessness and self-restraint? Maybe at first.

“Doing things correctly takes more time, more effort,” Shea said. “But taking ‘the easy’ route always ends up as a huge setback, eating away at one’s conscience and values. Most [offenders] end up getting divorced and it’s such a hard road forward for their children.”

The Rev. Paul Marzahn of Crossroads Church has spent 20 years running a recovery ministry for people coming out of prison. He thinks it’s actually easier to be good.

He recalls a drug dealer who told Marzahn he couldn’t remember which guys he’d lied to about his prices.

“It’s a lot of hard work to keep track of all your lies,” Marzahn said. “The problem is, many people don’t discover that until later, when they’ve made mistakes. Self-awareness doesn’t often come until you’ve hit bottom.”

Marzahn works in a world where many people do make decisions based on putting food on the table, or trying not to get shot to death.

One man told him goodbye, because he was heading out to “protect my mom,” by killing some men who had threatened her. Marzahn convinced him to consider other options, including talking to police, as well as digging deep into his faith.

“In their mind-set, they only think violence and threats will work,” Marzahn said. “But he could go to jail and his mom would still be in danger.”

Dan Cain said this is not an either-or question.

“Everything is circumstantial,” said Cain, president of RS Eden, a 42-year-old Twin Cities-based substance abuse treatment program.

“Everyone in life has temptations,” he said, temptations they can easily justify “by manipulating their thought process. Even a petty thief likes to view himself as Captain Jack Sparrow. Jack Sparrow isn’t a bad guy. He’s quirky and misunderstood.”

Like Shea, Cain recognizes the danger of that slippery slope. “You cross thresholds in life,” he said. “The first time I swore in the presence of my mother, I was sure God would strike me dead.”

Didn’t happen.

“It got easier the second time. The justification gets easier.”

Cain understands this better than many. Forty-one years ago, he served time in prison for property crimes related to drug abuse. He’s been out since 1972.

So?

“Now? Much easier. I’m much more successful. When you feel good about yourself, you’re more productive, you value things more, you’re not looking over your shoulder. You’re open to having intimate relationships.

“It’s much more rewarding.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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