Law vs. Ethics: A Snatched Bar Mitzvah Gift, A Leaky AG, An Embarrassing Scoreboard, and”OINK”

Oink

I try to keep my legal ethics seminars up-to-the-minute, so while preparing for yesterday’s session with the Appellate Section of the Indiana Bar, I came across a bunch of entertaining stories in which the ethics were a lot clearer than the law, or vice-versa. All of them could and perhaps should sustain separate posts; indeed, I could probably devote the blog entirely to such cases.

Here are my four favorites from the past week’s legal news, involving a mother-son lawsuit, a brazenly unethical attorney general, a college scoreboard named after a crook, and police officer’s sense of humor: Continue reading

Ethics Quote Of The Month: Dr. Jonathan Gruber

“We currently have a highly discriminatory system where if you’re sick, if you’ve been sick or [if] you’re going to get sick, you cannot get health insurance. The only way to end that discriminatory system is to bring everyone into the system and pay one fair price. That means that the genetic winners, the lottery winners who’ve been paying an artificially low price because of this discrimination now will have to pay more in return. And that, by my estimate, is about four million people. In return, we’ll have a fixed system where over 30 million people will now for the first time be able to access fairly price and guaranteed health insurance.”

—– Dr. Jonathan Gruber of MIT, an economics professor who is among the designers of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare. He was interviewed by NBC’s Chuck Todd regarding the troubled law’s problems.

lottery

Could it be that the act of getting involved with this administration turns even non-politicians into deceivers and liars? For an economist to talk so deceitfully and manipulatively is distressing. He, of all people, certainly knows how insurance works, and has to work. The insurance company accepts, in essence, wagers from its insured, in the form of premiums, that they will “win” by incurring health care costs that require more funds more than the accumulated “wagers.” The insurance company gambles that it will “win” by the insured remaining relatively healthy, so that the premiums (and whatever investment income they generate) exceed what the company has to pay in medical costs for that individual. The only way a company can keep providing insurance is to win more bets than it loses.

Saying that an insurance company is “discriminating” (in the unjust and biased sense) when it refuses to  accept a wager that is virtually certain to win is like saying that a poker player is engaging in discriminatory conduct by refusing to play with a new player who brings a royal flush to the table with him. It is not discrimination to refuse to lose money, and Gruber knows it. But  like an expert liar, as I must presume he is, he plants a false definition of discrimination at the beginning of his discussion and then treats it as an agreed-upon description of what is occurring. Not selling something to a customer who can’t afford a fair price is not discrimination, and refusing to gamble with someone who is assured of winning is also not discrimination. But discrimination is something that everyone regards as wrong, unfair, and unlawful, so that is how the lawful operation of insurance companies is framed by this clever, learned, dishonest man.

I no longer trust Dr. Gruber, nor should you.

His statement is of additional interest, however, because it starkly defines the unique Progressive definition of “fairness,” by his repeated use of lottery imagery to describe the fact that some people, through no fault of their own, have fewer advantages than others, while those others, often through no virtue of their own, have more resources and opportunities. Progressives regard this as inherently wrong and unfair, and so unfair that it must be remedied by obtrusive government interference. The rest of America regards this as “life.” Continue reading

When A Corporation Trusts Too Much: The Saga of the Unlimited AAirpass

If you sell this guy a ticket to your all-you-can-eat buffet and he eats the table, is he at fault, or are you?

A strange subplot of the American Airlines bankruptcy is the saga of its unlimited AAirpass, a special deal offered by the airline in 1981. The company sold passes for a lifetime of free and unlimited First Class travel with no limitations at a price of $250,000. An additional $150,000 permitted AAirpass customers to buy one “companion ticket” that would let one person—anyone— accompany them on any flight, anywhere, again, for life.

Apparently eschewing competent market research—and you wondered why this airline went belly up?—American assumed that the lifetime luxury travel passes would be bought by corporations for their high-flying employees. But no; the purchasers were almost all very rich people with a lot of time on their hands. As designed, American got a quick influx of cash, but at an unacceptable and strangely unanticipated cost: the AAirpasses placed the company at the mercy of  few profligate travelers who exploited American’s carelessness to the edge of absurdity, thereby raising a fascinating ethical question: If someone lets you have the right to ruin them, is it ethical to do it? Continue reading

The Conflict of Interest That Isn’t, But Looks Terrible Anyway

David Becker, the top lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission, is suddenly an embarrassment to his employers. He and his two brothers inherited more than $1.5 million in phony profits from their mother’s investment in $65 billion Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Since the S.E.C. was famously asleep at its post regarding Madoff, its negligence and incompetence allowing him to destroy individual lives, charities and more, having a key lawyer at the regulatory agency profit from Madoff’s scheme, even by inheritance, looks corrupt and unconscionable.  Continue reading

Ethics, Ethics, Everywhere…

Stories with ethical implications are popping up everywhere, in many fields. I’m running hard to keep up; if you want to join the race, here are some recent developments and notes:

  • A prominent Harvard professor and respected researcher just retracted a major paper and has been put on leave, as an investigation showed irregularities in his methods and results. “This retraction creates a quandary for those of us in the field about whether other results are to be trusted as well, especially since there are other papers currently being reconsidered by other journals as well,’’ wrote one scientist. “If scientists can’t trust published papers, the whole process breaks down.’’
  • A Wisconsin lawyer bought a farm from his own client in a bankruptcy matter, a classic conflict of interest. The lawyer’s defense was amusing: since his license had been suspended, he no longer had a fiduciary duty to his now former client. The court canceled the sale. The story is on the Legal Profession Blog.

The Ethics of Voluntary Mortgage Default

Friend and reader Loren Platzman alerted me to the article, “Walk Away From Your Mortgage!” in the Sunday Times Magazine ( the magazine was, in fact, sitting unopened by my desk at the time. Some days, I just know that reading Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist” column is going to ruin my weekend.) The thrust of the article, an installment in the “The Way We Live Now” series, is that American cultural tradition has reinforced the belief that there is something unethical and shameful about voluntarily letting the bank foreclose on a property when falling property values have placed the mortgage “under water,” meaning that the home is worth less than the amount still owed on it. Continue reading