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Jane Ahlin, Published February 15 2009

Banks, baseball and babies: morality plays all around us

Which breach of ethics and morality is more dangerous: good old-fashioned greed, or the brave new world of performance-enhancing drugs and fertility medicine that distort our ideas of normal and natural?

The good thing about greed is that it’s a motivation as old as life itself. Investment guru Bernard Madoff perpetrated an incredible Ponzi scheme, bilking his victims out of more than

$50 billion; and yet, mega-crime that it was, we understand it. He’s really nothing more than the “Ocean’s Eleven” version of local insurance and investment man gone bad, Larry Atkins. Madoff and Atkins conned their victims the very same way, but Madoff pulled it off in the biggest of all big leagues. Don’t forget, at one point he was NASDAQ’s chairman, effectively glazing all he did with Wall Street’s version of Teflon. The “little people” who questioned him were silenced. And he got an extra decade out of a scam that now seems so painfully obvious as to be ludicrous, the biggest joke of all turning out to be the Securities and Exchange Commission, more toothless old lapdog than watchdog.

If we’re not quite as clear about the machinations of greedy national bankers and their idiotic subprime lending binge, their arrogance, evidenced in personal jets, luxury meeting locations and shameless bonuses, sums up the shortcomings of deregulation in a way no economics professor ever could. Those of us who pay our bills and live within our means (and these days don’t dare open our 401K statements) shake our heads in disgust. There’s no pleasure in bailing out the big banks largely responsible for the nation’s financial collapse and allowing their head honchos $500,000 bonuses to boot. We’re assured it’s necessary for our nation to climb out of recession, but the problem for us is that we have about as much trust in those folks as we’d have in a guy who bet the farm on pork bellies.

That said, for the most part Americans “get” the moral and ethical lapses brought on by greed. Other morality plays on America’s media stage right now come with more ambiguity, particularly the stories of Alex Rodriguez and Nadya Suleman.

By now, we ought to be accustomed to the falls from grace of popular athletes – most recently, baseball’s Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod), who admitted to using steroids from 2001-03. Rodriguez wasn’t alone in using drugs, of course, but he fostered the illusion that superhuman prowess could be natural. Even if other big hitters, such as McGuire, Sosa, and Bonds were suspect, A-Rod stood apart.

Now shown to have been just another juiced-up guy, he wants understanding. At the time he used steroids he was a young player under the crush of unrealistic expectations. (Cue the violins.) Most of us find that argument lacking. And yet, in a world of Viagra and Prozac and Botox, we’re nagged by a twinge of hypocrisy. Are life-enhancing drugs OK but athletic performance-enhancing not?

Finally, there’s Nadya Suleman, the woman seemingly addicted to in vitro fertilization who was aided in her weird obsession by a physician who should have lost his medical license years ago. The ways Suleman offends our moral and ethical sensibilities are almost too numerous to count. Her ideas of mothering and providing for 14 children, three of whom are disabled, (and we aren’t sure how many of the octuplets will face disabilities) are far removed from reality. Certainly, she and her children will cost the state of California millions of dollars. Worse, the children hardly have a fighting chance to end up leading productive lives.

As appalled as we are by the actions of Suleman and her doctor, however, they point up the moral and ethical debates over infertility medicine. What about all those extra embryos? If they all are implanted, how many Nadya Sulemans would there be? What about stem cell research? What about women who have other children? What about single women? What about the financial burden to society when multiple births result?

We may be thrilled when infertile couples have babies, but morally and ethically, we’re way behind the science. And unlike the subject of greed, we aren’t going to come to understanding any time soon.

Ahlin is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages