Intergenerational Larceny: We Are All Thieves

What is it about Illinois? When I was learning my multiplication tables in a downstate elementary school there, we were proud of our governor, Otto Kerner Jr. He was descended from German-speaking Czechs, and a son-in-law of the assassinated Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. He was a two-star general in the National Guard, after commanding field artillery units in both the European and Pacific theaters in World War II.

He was so well respected that, after race riots in Los Angeles, Chicago and Newark, the president asked him to chair the 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The committee’s report, seven months later, was on the front pages of big-city newspapers. All we knew was the called it the Kerner Report.

But by the time they were whacking algebra into me in an adjacent state, Kerner had fallen into disgrace. It had something to do with racetracks and bribery (which Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew also found irresistible around that same time). He ended up going to federal prison, where he may have seen some old acquaintances from his seven years as U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois.

Kerner wasn’t the first or the last Illinois governor to end up in prison. In fact, four of the past eight Illinois governors have gone to jail.

And it isn’t just governors. Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. recently served 30 months in federal prison. Disgraced House Speaker “Coach” Dennis Hastert became federal inmate number 47991-424 last year.

Former Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa never went to jail, but his disgrace compares with those who did. He was proven dirty, and his records deserve an asterisk.

But is Illinois unique, or is it typical? It might be overrepresented, but there’s undeniably a lot of cheating elsewhere in this country.

No account of cheating would be complete without a shout-out to Texan Lance Armstrong. He was a philanthropist and a cancer survivor. One would expect an intolerance of anything false or shallow. But his thirst for recognition was insatiable – he would take it by fraud, he would take it by browbeating, but he would not deny himself applause.

Years ago, when my son was a serious weightlifter, I bought him “The Kennelly Method,” by Ryan Kennelly of Washington state. It was a slim volume by the bench press world-record holder. Ryan was a soft-spoken but articulate young guy who had invented some lifting accessories and was generous with his advice on other lifters’ websites and YouTube channels. I thought he might be an inspirational role model for my son.

Then local police searched Ryan’s apartment and seized 84 vials of steroids. If that were me, I think I would have been chastened, and gotten out of the steroid business. But three years later, a federal grand jury indicted him for possession of lab equipment for the manufacture of steroids, possession of steroids, and intent to deliver steroids. Cheating, it seems, is addictive.

How else to explain the reckless self-destruction of Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia? Did McDonnell actually need to cadge a fur coat for his wife? Surely he could afford to clothe his own wife. Cunningham was plucked from the private sector in Southern California to stand for office. He could have made a much larger income, if he chose, by staying out of government, or by leaving it. Why did he enter public service, then take bribes?

These publicly disgraced people deserve the penalties they suffered. I would oppose any leniency. But I don’t think they are fundamentally different from the rest of us. The basic human impulse for larceny is, if not universal, at least pervasive.

That’s why the Earned Income Credit is so popular. It’s why we claim a right to sign up for health insurance after we become unhealthy, guaranteed against rejection for pre-existing conditions, or we run up enormous uninsured medical expenses, then take bankruptcy. It’s why we want richer people (than us) to pay our taxes for us.

And it’s why we Baby Boomers borrow every nickel out of our Social Security trust fund to pay for government programs, leaving bales of IOUs instead of cash, then insist that younger workers pay those IOUs back to us, out of their future earnings.

Intergenerational larceny will have very grave consequences. Grievous debt will deprive our grandchildren of their capacity for self-government. They will build fewer needed schools, roads and hospitals because they’ll be paying off our self-indulgence. Their military will be hamstrung. Classroom sizes will swell. Infrastructure will slowly disintegrate.

Are too many politicians and professional athletes corrupt? Yes, one would be too many. But we’re corrupt, too. Shame on us if we don’t protect and endow future generations instead of pillaging them.

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