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The Ethics Sage, KPMG Insider Trading Scandal Damages the Reputation of the Accounting Profession

(I honored to have the Ethics Sage, Steven Mintz, write a post for my blog. Please visit his blog at Ethics Sage.)

KPMG Insider Trading Scandal Damages the Reputation of the Accounting Profession

What possesses an audit partner to trade on inside information and violate the accounting profession’s most sacred ethical standard of audit independence from one’s client? Is it carelessness, greed, or ethical blindness? In the case of Scott London, the former partner in charge of the KPMG’s Southern California’s regional audit practice, it was some of each that motivated him to violate ethical standards and, in the course of doing so, causing the audit opinions signed by London on Skechers and Herbalife to be withdrawn by the accounting firm.

This case has a local twist as pointed out by Stephen Nellis in his column “Deckers, PCBC were victims of auditor leaks” in the April 19-25 Pacific Coast Business Times. Nellis notes that two companies affected are Goleta-based Deckers and Pacific Capital Bancorp, the former parent of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust now part of Union Bank.

Overall, Shaw is charged with leaking confidential information to his friend, Brian Shaw, about Deckers, Pacific Capital Bancorp, Manhattan Beach-based Skechers, and Los Angeles-based Herbalife. The leak of information about quarterly earnings information led to Shaw’s unjust enrichment of $1.27 million. Shaw, a jewelry store owner and country club friend of London repaid London with $50,000 in cash and a Rolex watch, according to legal filings.

The leaking of financial information about a company to anyone prior to its public release affects the level playing field that should exist with respect to personal and business contacts of the leaker and the general public. It violates the fairness doctrine in treating equals, equally, and it violates basic integrity standards. The KPMG scandal concerns me because a pattern of such improprieties may be developing.

In 2010, Deloitte and Touche was investigated by the SEC for repeated insider trading by Thomas P. Flanagan, a former management advisory partner and a Vice Chairman at Deloitte. Flanagan traded in the securities of multiple Deloitte clients on the basis of inside information that he learned through his duties at the firm. The inside information concerned market moving events such as earnings results, revisions to earnings guidance, sales figures and cost cutting, and an acquisition. Flanagan’s illegal trading resulted in profits of more than $430,000. In the SEC action, Flanagan was sentenced to 21 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to securities fraud. Flanagan also tipped his son, Patrick, to certain of this material non-public information. Patrick then traded based on that information. His illegal trading resulted in profits of more than $57,000.

The KPMG case is a particularly egregious one because it involves insider trading by an auditor of client stock. This incident jogged my memory and I came up with a characterization of London’s actions as “stupid is as stupid does.” Scott London, the partner in charge of audits of Herbalife Ltd. and Skechers USA Inc., traded on inside information for personal gain.  KPMG resigned as the auditor of both companies after learning that London provided non-public information about the companies to a third party, who then used the information in stock trades. The firm fired London.  

In resigning the two audit accounts, KPMG said it was withdrawing its blessing on the financial statements of Herbalife for the past three years and of Skechers for the past two. KPMG stressed, however, that it had no reason to believe there were any errors in the companies’ books. Both companies said they are moving to find new auditors.

In a statement that should raise red flags for all CPA firms that audit public companies, KPMG stated it had concluded it was not independent because of alleged insider trading. Independence is the foundation of the accounting profession and the cornerstone of an audit conducted in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards. The public (i.e., shareholders and creditors) relies on auditors’ independence, objectivity, and integrity to ensure that the audit has been conducted in accordance with such standards and that the financial statements are free of material misstatements.

I’m having a hard time understanding the stupidity and moral blindness of London in this case. Surely he knew of his ethical obligations. All audit firms supposedly have been carefully assessing independence in the aftermath of financial frauds in the late 1990s and early 2000s (i.e., Enron and WorldCom). Firms generally have quality controls in place to prevent compromises to audit independence.

Trading on insider information for cash and gifts is bad enough, and when done by an audit partner it is unforgiveable. Even more baffling to me is that the quid pro quo for passing along stock tips about clients to a friend for London was to receive cash and gifts in return. According to London, he received a discount on a watch, and the friend bought him dinners from time to time and on a couple of occasions gave him $1,000 to $2,000 in cash. A cynic might say he sold himself cheap.

So, what happens next? Both Herbalife and Skechers will need to have their financial statements re-audited, not an inexpensive proposition. Even though the companies were not at fault, the public may misunderstand and think the companies were complicit in the matter.

For KPMG, the insider trading investigation is a setback. The accounting firm has worked hard to rehabilitate its reputation after coming under scrutiny last decade in a wave of corporate accounting scandals and the firm’s role in the marketing of fraudulent tax shelters. KPMG paid large nine-figure settlements to resolve lawsuits related to accounting scandals at the drugstore chain Rite-Aid and Oxford Health Plans. In 2005, the firm paid a $456 million penalty to the government related to tax fraud.

I have to wonder whether insider trading by partners at Deloitte and KPMG portends a larger scandal on the horizon. It seems every ten years or so the accounting profession finds itself in a “pickle” and hauled before Congress to explain its actions. It is about that time following financial frauds at Enron, WorldCom and a host of other companies. I don’t know how to get the message across to those in the profession that every time such incidents occur, and now insider trading, the public loses patience with the profession and doubts begin to surface about whether the profession truly acts to protect the public interest.

Blog Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 12, 2013


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The Ethics Sage Addresses Harvard Cheating Scandal


The Ethics Sage Addresses Harvard Cheating Scandal

Should Students who cheated at Harvard be Rewarded or Punished? – Ethics Sage

I do think the students violated the rules in this case and should be held accountable for their actions. However, there were mitigating circumstances not the least of which was from the teaching assistants who seemed to work with those students who came forward asking for help to interpret information and develop responses to test questions.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the Harvard cheating scandal is we, in academe, need a new approach to evaluating the benefits and potential harms of collaboration. It can be a great teaching tool and mirrors collaborative effort in the workplace. Test questions in a collaborative enivornment can better assess analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills, two skills essential for success in today’s workplace.

The level playing field argument is key in evaluating the use and purpose of student collaboration. Academic integrity is at stake. Collaborative effort may impair fairness in the grading process unless collaboration is expected of all students. Otherwise, those who “play by the rules” may receive lower grades because they worked individually while those who shared information may benefit from such an approach.

Should Students who cheated at Harvard be Rewarded or Punished? – Ethics Sage

The Ethics Sage, Steven Mintz, discusses the Harvard cheating scandal in his latest post. I find his reasoning compelling and I agree in full with his ethical reasoning in this case. The students’ instructions from their various teaching assistants were less than clear. Further, the modern technique of collaborative learning needs more in depth ethical analysis, and clearer rules. It’s a good piece of work. Don’t be satisfied with this brief section. Go to the Ethics Sage’s web site and read it in full and while you’re there sign up for e-mail alerts for later essays.

James Pilant

From around the web –

From the web site, Janitorial Musings:

Unfortunately, I suspect they’ll find that achieving and maintaining fame and fortune requires just as much corner-cutting as getting their grades at school. After all, those same kids who have no qualms with cheating in school soon enter the business world. And those who tell themselves that they are only cheating to keep up with the cheaters will tell themselves that they must do the same outside of academics. I’ve been involved in a part of business–not as a janitor–where I was surprised to learn how many ways and how often our competitors would do small dishonest things to get the edge over us. It made me think: if people are this dishonest with the small things, I wonder whether it is all the more so with bigger things? (Maybe not. I recall seeing a report that said in relationships men are more likely to lie about small things they deem unimportant and women are more likely to lie about big things they deem important. Maybe when it comes to big things in the business world, people are less likely to be dishonest?)

From the web site, Erik B. Wilson:

Indeed cheating in academia is nothing new and to view this particular instance as somehow extraordinary within greater academia would be naïve. That is not to say that systematic cheating is widespread at Harvard, but odds are there have been plenty of cheaters in Harvard’s history as an institution. Perhaps they were single students acting alone, perhaps they were groups that went unnoticed, but doubtless they did exist. The school’s reputation is of course the underlying factor that makes this story so noteworthy – it is quite difficult to imagine a similar ruckus concerning cheating at a local community college. There is an assumption about Harvard, a presumed integrity that goes along with the status and prestige of the Harvard name, one that places the members of the student body somehow above cheating. However, these students and their actions are informed by society writ large – they do not stand apart from it. And as such if we seek to understand the incentives that compel cheating we must consider the social fabric in which they are embedded.

And finally, from the web site, phoebecurran:

After news broke of the collaborative cheating efforts of over 120 students in an “Introduction to Congress” course at Harvard University last spring, the honesty and conduct of college students are being questioned. University students are typically young, but surely old enough to know right from wrong.

Eric Kester, a recent Harvard graduate, wrote a memoir, published in July, which details many instances where dishonesty dominated good character throughout his four years at the university. He said there were a number of take-home tests that were completed with group efforts, notes passed in bathrooms during exams, and research papers written and sold. Kester said he never cheated, but he certainly understood the pressures that came along with an Ivy league education.


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The Ethics Sage Calls for H1-B Visa Reform

The Ethics Sage Calls for H1-B Visa Reform

Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage

Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage

Limitations on H1-B Visas Harm Economic Growth in the U.S. – Ethics Sage

Life in immigration limbo is awful. Immigrants on H1-B visas, which are issued to workers, must be sponsored by a specific employer. This visa can be used to employ a skilled foreign national for up to six years. They cannot change jobs without jeopardizing their application. Their careers stagnate. They do not know whether they will be deported, so they hesitate to put down roots, buy a house or start a company. Sometimes their spouses are barred from working. More and more immigrants look for alternatives and places such Canada, Australia and Singapore are ready to welcome them with open by handing out visas swiftly and without hassle.

Limitations on H1-B Visas Harm Economic Growth in the U.S. – Ethics Sage

Steven Mintz, better known as the Ethics Sage see problems in the way America’s Visa program for professionals and entrepreneurs works. He believes in the need for H1-B Visa Reform. Obviously, an article thoroughly grounded on facts, often unpleasant deserves attention and action.

James Pilant

Other comments from the Web:

Here’s one from a web site simply entitled H1-B:

I decided to interview a fellow international friend of mine, who graduated from American University in May. In the short interview she describes the difficulty of finding a employment due to her international status and its links with the H1-B program. It’s just one example of thousands of how difficult it is for recent graduates to find jobs. This interview also brings to light the necessity of colleges and universities better training its international students on immigration policy. While I know immigration policy is one we have to run after, it would be interesting to have more seminars on campus about the transition of student to employment authorization status to H1-B status. The more recent graduates can learn about the H1-B process prior to graduating, the better off they are in their job search process.

From the web site, Immigration Services and Forms Blog:

Two weeks back, the quota for H1-B Visas ran out within just 10 weeks of time after it was opened on April 1st. In year 2010 quota was completed in Jan 2011, and in 2011 cap was filled in Nov 2011. First every quota was established in year 1990. This is good news for immigrants and the employers who are petitioning because of the improving job market. Bad news for the US citizens, they want skilled immigrants to stay competitive in the market.

Most of them still think H1-B workers take US jobs, but this isn’t the case. Hiring of these skilled workers doesn’t come at very less cost, government and legal fee runs in thousands of dollars. Fee of $ 1,500 must be paid by US Companies for each H1-B petition for training and scholarship fee. So for a year 65,000 visas, it comes up to $2 billion according to NFAP. This amount is used for more than 53,000 scholarships for students, several programs for 190,000 students and 6,800 school teachers and train up to for more than 55,000 US workers.

From the web site, Definitely Filipino: (I went a little lengthy on my quote. The author has so much interesting to say. JP)

Let’s just say their chances depend on the basis of qualification alone, how sure are we that human resource/personnel departments do not adjust their preferences, in favor of co-Americans to subscribe first, to the Obama Act and second, to the American nationalism?

If this is the case, why give H1B visas intended for foreign nationals, if there are no U.S. companies/institutions ready to provide sponsorship at all? False hopes or merely a part of U.S. recovery efforts? By the latter means the government admits its failure to achieve an acceptable standard, in terms of economics. To date, there are still no instructions that temporarily prohibit the provision of H1B, so we expect more casualties coming for the next quarters.

Critics including H1B holders themselves are saying that Obama’s resolution on the matter directly contradicts the provisions of the Equal Employment Opportunity and the United State’s principal role in advocating globalization, which means being in subscription to the free market of labor and workers. (H1B Visa and Employment, published September 21, 2010)

The agony and hopelessness that foreign visa holders experience will definitely strengthen their cores. But more than anything else, this clearly shows a piece of evidence that America is suffering from many different insecurities, a direct contradiction to its superpower facade.

For H4 visa holders, we shall say, analyzing their situation is like looking at a glass, half-full or half-empty.


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Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage Talks Occupy Wall Street, the 99%ers.

I consider the Ethics Sage to be a friend. His writing ranges from business ethics to workplace bullying to economic issues and of late he has written passionately about the death penalty.

In his lastest essay he describes the criticism of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and then responds by emphasizing the serious nature of the complaints presented by the protestors. I am using more than a third of his article and I do this because I don’t want to diminish the power of his message. Of course, you should real the full article if at possible. His heart is in this and I am pleased to consider him a colleague.

Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage

If there is a class warfare that has developed in the U.S. it is because the selfish policies of these institutions caused the financial meltdown, economic recession, and massive loss of jobs – all through no fault of us who play by the rules. The unemployed didn’t cause the crisis. Sure, some people overspent and got too deeply in debt, but that was due in part to the belief fostered by the actions of these institutions that the good times would keep rolling along. Instead, the bubble burst and it was the average American that was left holding the bag.

The Republicans attack over-regulation in the form of Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley that, they claim, has created an uncertainty and unwillingness to expand economically by the very companies being regulated. That may be so and there is no denying it is a problem. However, the Republicans need to look in the mirror of those being regulated to see the face of who created the need for more regulation.

Our free market capitalistic system is based on the notion that by acting out of self-interest, business will create a better economic climate for all Americans. Well, it is just not working out as intended by Adam Smith. According to a survey by salary.com, the average salary and benefits paid to the CEOs of the Standard & Poor’s top 500 companies in 2010 was $11.4 million. The average CEO earned 343 times more than typical workers.

Very little has been said this election year cycle about how much the financial crisis has cost the average American in lost wealth. Well, hold on to your chairs as you look at the data provided by The Pew Charitable Trust that covers the period between 2008 and 2009:

  • $100,000: Cost to the typical American family in combined losses from declining stock and home prices
  • $5,800: Average household income loss resulting from declining economic growth
  • $14,200: Average household loss in wealth caused by plunging real estate prices
  • $66,200: Average stock market losses for households from July 2008 to March 2009
  • $2,050: Average household cost to pay for TARP, the main government program to shore up the economy
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Ethics Roundup, October Second, 2011

I have four entries in the Ethics Roundup this week. I hope you enjoy them.

James Pilant

1. The Ethics Sage has a new post out called –

Deloitte Sued for $7.6 Billion, Accused of Missing Fraud

Steven Mintz writing as the Ethics Sage is appropriately outraged. Let me quote his concluding paragraph –

Are auditors finally going to be held accountable for their role in the financial meltdown? Time will tell but there can be no doubt some must have missed the red flags and, more important, ignored the changing business model and risks inherent in dealing with financial instruments such as sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps. Auditors are supposed to understand the environment in which their clients operate and use that knowledge and related risk assessment to determine proper audit procedures. It appears that Deloitte failed to do so and there may be other cases waiting in the wings.

2. Chris MacDonald writing in the Business Ethics Blog has a new post called –

Corporations as “People” vs. Corporations as “Persons.”

In this essay, Professor MacDonald explains corporate personhood in its two very different forms.

3. Lauren Bloom writing in her blog, deals with the downside of Henry Ford‘s creations.

Entitled – It’s amazing what can happen in 103 years.

Here’s my favorite paragraph –

Now, just a little over a century later, Americans take for granted the right to cross our country in the comfort of their automobiles, and we can make trips in hours that used to take days. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that our nation is crisscrossed with roads and bridges that require regular repair, millions are killed or injured annually in autmobile accidents, our cars are eating up the ozone layer with their toxic emissions, Americans drive instead of walking and, as a result, suffer from record levels of obesity and associated diseases, and traffic jams have become a daily nightmare. (Living in a city that’s earned the dubious distinction of having the worst traffic in America, I should know.)

4. Josephson on Business Ethics and Leadership has a fascinating article up on doctors’ conflicts of interest.

Dollars for Docs – How Industry Dollars Reach Your Doctors.

Best paragraph –

Even though such payments are legal, most medical policymakers agree that they are not ethical.  Special trips, meals, and “educational opportunities” are very common strategies that companies use to create stronger bonds with their clients, and to achieve the basic goal of any business — to sell more. In most industries, such gift-giving doesn’t raise any particular ethical red flags. But in medicine, the person getting the gifts isn’t the person taking the drugs. The person taking the drugs is you. And if your doctor has prescribed you that drug when a different drug – or no drug at all – might be the better choice, then it’s likely you’d want to know about it.




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The Ethics Sage Confronts Falling Test Scores

Mean SAT Score for reading and math tests, by year

Image via Wikipedia

Steven Mintz, whose Internet alter ego is the Ethics Sage, today discusses test scores and accountability. These are his opening paragraphs

Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage

In my last blog I pointed out that the mean SAT reading scores of U.S. high schoolers have fallen to their lowest levels in nearly 40 years, dropping four points in the last four years to 497. Furthermore, only 43 percent of test takers achieved a total score indicating they are likely to succeed in college. The testing company claims this decrease is due to greater participation by a more diverse group of students, and cushions the news with information that our top-achieving students are doing even better. I suggested that the results may be a reflection that the gap between the haves and have-nots, or those in the know and those who know not, is widening

The results also indicate that while white students’ overall scores decreased by a mere three points since 2006, black students’ scores decreased by 19 points, Puerto Ricans’ decreased by 17 points, Mexican-Americans’ decreased by nine points, and “other Hispanics’ ” decreased by 14 points. For Asians, the trend is reversed: from 2006 to 2011, Asians’ scores increased by 40 points. These results led me to question the value of the No Child Left Behind program that was put into place during the administration of George W. Bush

I want you to go to the larger article and see how Professor Mintz develops the topic. He is a provocative author with strong opinions based on hard moralism I find most appealing.

In my view, the American educational system is poorly designed to produce high-test scores. If you look at the curriculum, you will see a recipe for building Americans. This system is based on a curriculum developed during the early decades of the Twentieth Century to incorporate waves of European immigrants into the nation. It is an excellent system for taking individuals and homogenizing them into a predictable group that society can count on to do certain things, in particular, manufacturing work and consumerism.

My perception is that high test scores as a educational purpose is an undebated concept more or less established as an ad hoc value on top of educational system designed for another job. As a teacher, I have a proportion of high test score students in each class. If I were hiring students to do work for me in one function or another, would I hire those students? No, they wouldn’t be my first choices. Why? Because the factors that make someone good at a job have little to do with high test scores.

Now, I like my high achieving students. I like all my students. But the kind of obsessive compulsive behavior, that generates the high scores doesn’t work well for all purposes.

I think test scores are only partially useful.

We need a discussion of what we want public schools to do and how we would like to measure it, and that would include the possibility that most of what makes a good human being is not measurable.

James Pilant

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Steven Mintz Has Written a Pair of Essays on Corporate Social Responsibility

Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage, has written two quite intelligent essays on corporate social responsibility.

Steven Mintz, the Ethics Sage

The first was 8/24/2011. Entitled What Are Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR)? , the article is a basic description of the concept with the best paragraph being the following –

In a previous blog I made the case for increased regulation due to the narcissistic behavior of some on Wall Street. The Republicans seem to have short memories and are in denial as to the main cause of our economic woes. The public has lost billions in wealth as measured by losses in investments, retirement funds, and their home equity. Little regulation existed at the time to curtail risky behavior and corporate fraud including misleading and deceptive disclosures on real estate transactions. The expansion in business regulation is directly the result of unethical activities by corporate America with the result being Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank. In short, corporate America has no one to blame but itself for the “over-regulation.”

The following article appeared on 8/26/2011 and is entitled: Social and Ethical Obligations of US Multinational Companies.

My favorite paragraph is the one explaining the Rights Theory. Here it is –

In ethics we sometimes use the Rights Theory to evaluate actions and decisions. We could apply the universality perspective to outsourcing by asking: “Would I want other companies to shut down their US plants and move them overseas in similar situations for similar reasons?” In other words, if one corporation moves its plant overseas for cost savings, would I be comfortable if all corporations did the same? Taken to its logical conclusion this would mean a potentially catastrophic exodus of jobs from the US with all the related damages to our economy. Moreover, from a utilitarian perspective an argument could be made that outsourcing causes more harm through lost jobs and economic stagnation in the US compared to any utilitarian benefits that, after all, accrue mostly outside the US.

Generally, Professor Mintz and I agree on most things. However, in the first article he is more charitable to Milton Friedman than I am. I find Friedman’s theories about corporate purpose to echo Machiavellian ethics minus the idealism. I think they are a repudiation of the values of Western civilization and certainly all religious systems.

Aside from that, the Ethics Sage and I share a common opinion on the rest of the issues.

In all events, this is fine writing and deserves your attention.

I recommend you subscribe, at least favorite, the Ethics Sage and read him regularly.

James Pilant



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My Friend, Steven Mintz, Continues the Good Work of Fighting Workplace Bullying

Steven Mintz

This is from the Ethics Sage’s, Steven Mintz,  latest post – What to Do if You Are the Target of a Workplace Bullier

Workplace Bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s) including physical and emotional stress. The purpose of this blog is to help you identify whether you are the target of a bullier. If so, you should act immediately. This blog provides some resources to use to resolve the issues and stress it can cause in the workplace. The longer you wait to deal with the issue, the more difficult it becomes to achieve a successful resolution of the matter because the negative treatment becomes endemic to the workplace culture and other employees accept it as part of the group dynamic.

The Ethics Sage is willing to do more than talk about the subject. He is willing to offer advice while protecting your privacy. Go here to reach him.

James Pilant

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Steven Mintz Addresses the Issue of Workplace Bullying

Steven Mintz writing in his blog, Workplace Ethics Advice, has some things to say about bullying in the workplace. As an attorney I can tell you with authority that he knows his business

If you believe you are the target of a workplace bully, speak to the person doing the bullying. Similar to sexual harassment in the workplace, a topic of a previous blog, the first step with bullying is to make your feelings known that it is unwanted and unwelcome behavior. While you know it can negatively affect workplace performance, I recommend you not mention that to a supervisor because it might be held against you if the matter gets out of control and a workplace demotion or firing needs to be “justified.” While talking to other employees may seem to be a logical step, be careful who you choose to discuss the matter with as that person might be pressured by the bullier down the road to tell the latter’s side of the story. What should you do? Be sure to keep a log to record when each incident occurred; what was said or done in response to it; and your feelings on the matter. It is a good idea to give a copy of the log to a trusted advisor who can independently attest to the facts down the road if that becomes necessary. This is similar to the protective step I recommend for a whistle-blower, the topic of my next blog.

Steven Mintz

Steven Mintz has been blogging for quite some time. He works hard at it and is well informed. His blog posts are backed up by careful research and a well ordered writing style. I recommend you read his blogs, favorite the site and subscribe. He’s one of the best ethics bloggers on the web.

James Pilant


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Ethics Roundup – July, 28th, 2011 The Heavy Hitters

poster6tmbEthics Roundup – July, 28th, 2011 The Heavy Hitters

The invaluable Ethics Sage takes on the definition of reasonable and other aspects of our most lurid recent case. Big News – The Ethics Sage (Steven Mintz) is creating a brand new blog to go with his current. Go to his web site and read about it.

The “Debt Compromise” … Another Pass for the Rich and a Fleecing for Everyone Else. This is from Washington’s Blog.

Rogue Columnist burns up the paper with an acid commentary on American (Chinese) bridges. You should read this. This kind of passion harkens back to another age of American journalism.

Homophilosophicus posts on “Death by Misadventure.” This is some of the best web writing you are likely to see – the man is eloquent. My big complaint is that he has all this talent and I hardly ever see a new post on his blog. When God gives big, you are supposed to share.


James Pilant


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