ETHICS problems now occupy the nation's attention. The S&L debacle grabs the headlines, of course, and the sums involved are huge. But the rising tide of concern over ethics reaches far beyond developments in the thrift industry. Polemics aside, it's really very hard to say if ethical standards have declined in recent years. Many of us seem inclined to believe they were somehow higher in the past. But in part, at least, this inclination means nothing more than today's problems are the ones we must deal with.
Regardless of whether they manifest a decline, today's ethical standards leave much to be desired, and the public is clearly concerned about them. Indeed, dissatisfaction is strong enough that there's potential for long-term harm to the society through eroding public trust.
One immediate problem is that economic performance may suffer. A successful economy requires the confidence and trust of its participants. Some businessmen have long felt that the public doesn't really like them, but in fact popular backing for our private-property-based system and commitment to making it work have been remarkably strong throughout US history.
Some Americans may not fully appreciate just how unusual their society has been in the relative absence of class jealousies so prominent elsewhere. Our ``exceptionalism'' in this regard was evident even in the 1930s, when class feelings were heightened by the Great Depression. ``Do you think there should be a law limiting the amount of money any individual is allowed to earn in a year?'' the Roper Organization asked in a 1940 survey. After a decade of widespread privation, three-quarters of the public opposed income limits.
The deeply held national values such findings attest aren't going to be swept away by public revulsion over the behavior of some savings and loan executives. But the problems of the thrift industry come against a backdrop of growing public concern that too many people running major institutions in the US are failing to discharge properly their ethical responsibilities.
A steady stream of events has fed this judgment. On the business side, it is unlikely that revelations about the cupidity (and stupidity) of some S&L owners will trouble the public as much as the rush of reports on the high levels of executive compensation - pay sometimes wholly unrelated to performance. Top executive pay today dwarfs that at any earlier point in US history, and far surpasses what businessmen receive in other industrial countries. Ostentatious earnings aren't confined to business. From rock musicians to baseball players, the story has been of earnings that in a year dwarf what most middle class families can expect in a lifetime, and which mock our sense of fairness and propriety. ``How much can I grab?'' is bound to strike most people as the wrong standard.
The public sees many different institutions implicated. Professed confidence in Congress, for example, is lower today than at any point in the 50 years surveys have been conducted on the subject. When the revelations about then-House Speaker Jim Wright and majority whip Tony Coehlo broke in the winter and spring of 1988, polls showed that the immediate political fallout was minimized, perversely, by the widespread perception that the alleged misbehavior was not at all unusual.
Polls suggest that in times past Democrats tended to disbelieve the claims of Republicans, and vice versa. Today both groups view all politicians' claims skeptically. Speeches on important subjects are increasingly taken as mere posturing. The entire elections industry - from campaign technicians who boast of ingenious efforts at manipulating voter preferences to reporters who depict politics as an uninspiring game - bears responsibility for the widespread perception that only fools believe the claims and commitments made at election time.
It's not true that Americans think most politicians are crooks. Rather, the public believes it can't count on them to say what they really think and then act upon those views.
From time to time, leaders in one party suggest that ethical problems would be resolved if only the other party's officials would shape up. The public isn't buying. Concerning the S&Ls, only by telling the truth about the complex sources of the problem do Republican and Democratic leaders alike have a chance of mollifying disgruntled voters.
The power of example can cut either way. Cases of good judgment and high integrity in public ethics can build confidence, just as the opposite can erode it. The founders of the American system were keenly aware of the essential role good examples play in building the trust democracy requires. Recapturing this awareness is perhaps the most important thing we need to do as a nation today.