Honesty during the holiday season

Posted: Jan 08, 2004 12:00 AM

While recently driving and listening to National Public Radio, I heard a piece on holiday homelessness. During this time of the year, one frequently hears stories about the downtrodden and homeless. No one seems to agree exactly on the number of homeless, and the numbers cited often depend on the information provider's agenda.

Shortly before George W. Bush's presidential election, the Wall Street Journal argued that with a "mean-spirited, non-compassionate" (my description) Republican in the White House, expect to see an explosion in media stories about the homeless. The paper came up with a new feature on their Web site -- the "Homelessness Rediscovery Watch" -- to track the increase of stories about homelessness under this Republican president.

A few years ago, I interviewed Father Robert Sirico, a Roman Catholic priest who runs the Acton Institute in Michigan. Father Robert believes that government-provided charity increases dependency, and considers people-to-people charity more compassionate, efficient, humane, and, thus, more likely to change behavior from dependency to self-sufficiency.

An irate caller, who said he worked at a soup kitchen during the "harsh" Reagan years, challenged Father Robert's thesis, claiming a "huge increase" in homelessness as a result of Reagan's dastardly "trickle-down economics." Father Robert asked, how do you know those showing up at soup kitchens were, in fact, poor or homeless? Did anyone means-test them, ask for proof of indigence? Did at least some of the people, he suggested, show up for free goodies? So how can you prove this "uptick" in homelessness onto Reagan?

The caller stammered something about simply assuming those who showed up, by definition, constituted the homeless and the needy.

Most living on the street include the mentally ill, the alcohol- or drug-addicted. But some able-bodied and able-minded people simply scam others, exploiting the compassion we have for the defenseless. But how many simply lie about their condition?

What about the honesty of the non-homeless? Years ago, while living in an apartment in Cleveland, I subscribed to the city's principal daily newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The paperboy delivered it to my front door each morning before about 7:00 a.m. But, at least 30 percent of the time, if I failed to retrieve the paper from the hallway floor, by, say, 7:30 or 7:45, someone filched the newspaper.

According to a survey of 12,000 American high school students by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 74 percent cheated on an exam at least once in the past year. Of those who stole my newspaper, Lord only knows how many of the thieves currently attended college. This large downtown apartment rented out to a large number of nearby university students. So the number of students/thieves surely exceeded zero.

Currently, I receive home delivery of several newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and others. Last night, I awakened from an odd dream. Outside my home sat a well-dressed, bowtie-wearing, professorial-looking man browsing through my Wall Street Journal. On his knees was a stack of other papers.

"Excuse me," I said to the gentleman, "might that be my Wall Street Journal?" "That depends," he said, looking at the name-and-address label on the paper. "What is your name?"

"I see," I said. "Taking someone's paper is OK, provided you take it only from the specific person who subscribes to it. Is your name on it?"

"I just wanted to make sure it's yours," he responded.

"So let's get this straight," I said. "You find it acceptable to steal someone's paper, provided you steal it from someone other than its rightful owner."

I then snatched the paper from his hand and dared him to do something about it. A few seconds later, however, I discovered that I not only grabbed my newspaper, but also several other papers the "professor" held, papers that looked like student tests complete with handwritten grades.

"Excuse me," he said, "but did you grab my test papers?"

"Well," I said, "that depends, doesn't it? What is your name -- as well as the names of the students?"

Enraged, he called me a thief, threatened to send in the cops, while telling me of the incredible inconvenience he and his students face if I refused to return his papers.

Now, again, this is a dream. But back when I lived in that Cleveland apartment building, I moved from an apartment in the middle of the hall to one at the end, facing the hall. During my several years' stay at the end-of-the-hall apartment -- with the peephole directly facing the long corridor, enabling me to see anyone walking toward my apartment, including any would-be thief -- I missed not one newspaper.

Moral to the story: Honesty depends, at least in some measure, on whether someone thinks he or she might get caught. This applies to newspaper thieves, student test-takers, and some who claim poverty or homelessness.