In their critique of modern society, conservatives tend to cite two points as self-evident: amorality is rampant, and it's all the liberals' fault. That picture, argues David Callahan, isn't so simple. While the right sounds its alarm over, say, teen sex and socialized medicine, it's equally valid to see the transgressions of corporate tycoons, doped-up athletes and doctors shilling for dubious medications as signs of moral decay a decay made especially reprehensible in that it exploits the weak and is driven by greed.

In The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Do Well, Callahan makes his case by piling on story after story of selfishness exercised from boardrooms to classrooms. These examples from overaged Little Leaguer Felipe Almonte to Sears mechanics who doctored automotive diagnoses become more depressing with each passing page. Why is it that we know so much about these scoundrels and so little about those who lead less predatory lives? The answer is even more sobering: in uncertain times, many of us feel secret fascination and envy for those who rip off the system. In fact, Callahan writes about his subjects with a kind of sympathy because, as he sees it, they are victims as much as perpetrators of the system, no different at heart from kids who download rather than buy their music because, first, it's free and, second, they know that some record executives have earned more in one good year than they'll probably see in a lifetime.

When we get, as we inevitably must, to questions of how to deal with all this, the author suggests steps that even he admits seem inadequate. "Be the chump who files an honest tax return . . . who gives your friends a hard time for cheating on their taxes," he writes, and you can almost hear the apology that such nostrums are doomed even as they are uttered. For in the end, The Cheating Culture persuades us of the permanence, as well as the gravity, of this problem.

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