It’s time to return ethics classes to schools — and politics

By Tom Allon

It is the underpinning of all knowledge and behavior, yet no one teaches ethics anymore. For the last five decades, we have seen the waning of civics classes in high schools and ethics classes in colleges. In the corporate world, learning ethics has become an anachronistic notion.

Worse, in government around the country, political ethics has become an oxymoron, a punch line to an erstwhile joke.

State governments in all 50 states were recently given grades by a good-government group based on ethical behavior: the highest grade was a “C” for California. Everyone else received a “D” or lower. In New York State, two of the three most powerful leaders for the last decade are about to be measured for prison jumpsuits.

But again there is a deafening silence from the governor and the Legislature in Albany about ethics reform. We are in the midst of a “Watergate Moment,” and our leaders are again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Are our elected leaders going insane? Certainly seems like it.

There has been an endless torrent of commentary and prognostication on this seemingly interminable presidential campaign. But throughout, the voters have been reacting to the “honesty” and “authenticity” of the candidates. Ironically, the two leading candidates—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—register very low in surveys asking voters whether they are “honest” or “trustworthy.” Donald Trump, in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, calls his main opponent “Lyin’ Ted Cruz.”

When will this insanity end? Hasn’t this country learned from Watergate, the crushing corruption scandal that brought down a president more than four decades ago? What about the lessons of the inappropriate sexual relationship between a president and a White House intern that derailed the Clinton presidency? Or the Bush administration’s lying to the public about non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that led to a disastrous and very costly war in the Middle East?

And now in New York, in the wake of the Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos “pay-to-play” scandals, come reports that Mayor de Blasio and top police brass are being investigated on a number of fronts. Large campaign donors reportedly received special treatment from some leaders of the NYPD. A nursing home on the Lower East Side was sold to a developer for a tremendous profit after the city government waived a restriction that was meant to keep this facility a non-profit health care option.

The mind reels from this endless cascade of mind-numbing malfeasance.

So where do we go from here? I am a firm believer that mandatory ethics classes for all professions are one smart route. All those involved in government—from staffers to lobbyists to consultants to elected leaders—need to take continuing ethical education each year. Lawyers and doctors must do ongoing training to keep their licenses, so why not those in the political world?

This year, we have reached a tipping point in the public’s utter disdain with our elected leaders. Congress members are held in contempt by the public; some surveys show that less than 10 percent of the population respects the legislative body that makes decisions that govern our lives.

The unfavorable survey results for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump outpace their favorable ratings. And yet the choice for our next leader, it appears, will come down to the lesser of two evils.

It’s time for ethics classes for our leaders.

And for our children, isn’t it time to resurrect the ethics classes that had been taught since ancient Greece? Pre-K would be a good place to start, so we can ensure the next generation behaves better than this one.

Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallon@cityandstateny.com.