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The Great American Cheat Sheet

W.C. Fields said, “Anything worth having is a thing worth cheating for.” By following that guiding principle, Americans have become the greatest cheaters in the world. From the time we’re little kids lying about the cards we hold in our Go Fish hands, until we find out about our potentially terminal disease and try to cheat death, Americans have become masters of getting away with it.

Cheating has become so commonplace that people have had to change the definition of what it means to cheat. For example, my friend Dan believes that when he’s golfing, it’s OK to kick the ball out of the rough and back onto the fairway for an easier shot, as long as you’re not sneaky about what you’re doing. “It’s not cheating if you tell everyone what you’re going to do” he says.”It’s only when you try to lie about it that it’s cheating.” All his golfing buddies know Dan cheats and they would be disappointed in him if he suddenly stopped.”They’d worry that I was sick.”

When a sportswriter asked baseball manager Sparky Anderson about his education he replied, “I only had a high school education and believe me, I had to cheat to get that.” Sparky was not alone. In schools, a majority of people now cheat to get better grades. According to a study published in 2006 by Donald McCabe, a Rutgers professor who has studied cheating for many years, 56 percent of MBA students admitted cheating, along with 54 percent of students in engineering and 45 percent in law. Who would have ever guessed that would-be lawyers would be the most honest students in school?

When the kids who grow up cheating on tests and buying term papers on the Internet finally get jobs, it’s not surprising that they begin figuring ways to cheat their bosses, their clients, or their company’s shareholders. “Thank God there are 25 hours in a day,” said a recent law school grad. “Otherwise, I’d never be able to rack up enough billable hours to make partner.” What starts out as fudging a number on a timecard or expense account can easily turn into “massaging” the numbers on quarterly financial reports to make the company stock price zoom. But about the worst that ever seems to happen to cheating business executives is that they are forced to resign in disgrace and live off the meager multi-million dollar bonuses they received when they reported last year’s dubious numbers.

With the latest political scandals involving prostitutes, three-ways with the chauffer, or wide-stanced rendezvous’ in public restrooms, voters are beginning to look back nostalgically on the days when politicians were only expected to be liars and crooks. But it isn’t only politicians who have been cheating. The Internet has more sites about how to cheat or catch your partner cheating than eBay has listings for iPods., for example, offers a database ranking cheating men, and gives profiles of their cheating history, allowing visitors to “research and rate b4u date.” Meanwhile, offers a different perspective: “Cheating on your girlfriend – How having an affair can strengthen your relationship.” Hmm. Wonder which site is bookmarked by the most state governors?

Sports stars have also made big cheating headlines this year. I grew up in a time when spitballs and greaseballs were an intrinsic part of the game of baseball. It wasn’t considered cheating so long as you didn’t get caught, and if you did get caught, they just made you start over again with a dry ball. But now the cheaters aren’t corking the bats, they’re corking the batters. Athletes will do seemingly anything to get an edge over their opponents, but even coaches have been caught up in this year’s scandals, with Super Bowl champion coach Bill Belichick being fined $500,000 for illegally videotaping opposing coaches. Coaches Gone Wild. That must have been an exciting video to watch.

As long as the reward of better grades, better sex, or bigger endorsement contracts seems to outweigh the risk of being caught, we can expect cheating to continue to dominate our psyches, and our headlines. We know there are millions of other people out there cheating, and getting away with it, so why shouldn’t we? Compare all the people who are outsmarting the Big Government bureaucrats at the IRS to those few who have gotten caught, been audited, had everything they own attached, and been forced to pay interest and penalties, possibly for the rest of their lives. Or imagine the bragging rights (plus the financial rewards) you’d be due if you could figure out a system to beat the dealers in Las Vegas, versus the slim chance that Big Lenny would come to your hotel room in the middle of the night to break your thumbs, legs, or neck.

OK, maybe those aren’t the best risk/reward examples. But no one can deny the advantages of cheating death. Our health care and insurance industries are designed to give you the maximum chances of doing just that. The sicker you get, the more attention and technology get poured into your fight. And what’s the worst you risk if you do cheat death? Another season of American Idol? A small price to pay for the chance to have more time to cheat at everything else.

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