Whatever Happened to Ethics?

It's 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.

Don't get me started on politics. In governments around the country -- whether it's state, city or federal -- political ethics has become an oxymoron, a punch line to an erstwhile joke.

State governments in the 50 states were recently given grades by a good government group based on their ethical behavior: the highest grade was a "C" for Alaska. All but three 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 their 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.

Into this breach, my company has decided to offer a one-day political ethics seminar on April 20th with Albany Law School and the Rockefeller Institute at the University of Albany. In addition to a professor of political ethics leading a lively discussion of the rights and wrongs of political behavior, there will be guest speakers including campaign finance expert Dick Ravitch, former New York Times editorial board member Eleanor Randolph, NYPIRG director Blair Horner and the Governor Cuomo's Counsel Alphonso David.

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.

Ethics is something that was taught in ancient Greece and was once neatly woven into our secondary education system. Ethics classes, like civics classes, are now rarely found on the high school level in this country. Isn't it time to resurrect this again?

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 similarly low in surveys asking voters whether they are "honest" or "trustworthy." Donald Trump, in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, constantly 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, comes 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. Power corrupts, as the old saying goes. And taking this aphorism a step further: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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 have shown that less than 10 percent of the population respects the legislative body that makes important laws and decisions that govern our lives.

It's time for ethics classes for our leaders.

And for our children. Perhaps as early as pre-K so we can ensure the next generation behaves better than this one.

Tom Allon is the president of City & State, NY, and was the Liberal Party-backed candidate for Mayor in 2013. He can be reached at tallon@cityandstateny.com.