In business and politics, too many leaders forget this leads to chaosMost voters claim to detest negative political advertising, which often involves slander, distortions and outright lies. So why do politicians use more and more of a technique their target audience hates?

Because it works.

As the presidential election slips ever deeper, sooner, into the mire, perhaps leaders should be asking themselves if that simple, practical answer (it works) from the political consultants is an adequate approach to governing a nation.

There is an ethical question here. Should candidates succeed by using negative advertising just because they believe it works? From an ethical perspective the fact that such ads are effective is basically irrelevant. Cheating on one's taxes might work, but it is ethically wrong. We invest decades and dollars teaching children, who grasp the concept, that cheating is wrong on tests, in sports and in life. It's the wrong way to win. The same could be said about negative political campaigning.

If we extend the logic of doing something because it "works" to other parts of society such as business or education, few would miss seeing the slippery slopes. Enron's fraudulent accounting worked. It produced stock price gains and millions for managers and energy traders while it beggared California, using outright lies and illegal trading practices. From Enron's point of view at the time, their dishonesty "worked." The fraud at Enron extended to a set of books that were impenetrable even to accountants. The net result was a financial collapse that ruined innocent Enron employees.

Sadly, other corporate giants were on the same path. WorldCom accounting produced the world's largest bankruptcy. In the process, it also destroyed the financial integrity of one of America's great economic bulwarks, AT&T, where managers decimated a work force and a proven business system while trying to measure up to a competitor's reported performance that was based on lies and jiggered accounting. Millions of employees, retirees and others dependent on historically steady dividends from AT&T continue to pay a price. But for WorldCom management, the system "worked" for several years, providing enormous incomes and wealth.

It would be naive to suggest that mud slinging could leave politics. But everything has a limit. Shakespeare has shown us what happens when lying and deceit rule. Kingdoms crumble, families are torn apart and chaos rules. Greed is one element in what we have observed at Enron or WorldCom, but the malady is deeper. Too many persons in high places seem to have lost all sense of where their malfeasance eventually leads - where it will take their company, their employees, their shareholders or the nation.

Deceit is in the saddle. The Wall Street Journal too frequently carries business news that befits a supermarket tabloid. Our president is using deceit for the third time in his career to smear an election opponent.

We stand on the edge of a very slippery precipice.


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