A sign of the times? Crowd converges to scoop up 'free money'

money grabAn armored truck dropped boxes of cash on a downtown Indianapolis street and a frenzied money grab ensued, with drivers stopping short, bolting from their cars and scurrying away with armloads of cash clutched to their chests. Reports say a few homeless people stood by, not partaking, but people walking on the streets certainly did. A good Samaritan eventually put the remaining boxes in his van and waited for the police to come, ending the mayhem.

No one is yet saying how much money got away, but there is plenty to be said about how we got to this point in the recession where the chance to take what clearly doesn't belong to you feels like a blessed opportunity. Certainly the recession has tested our mettle and we all wonder when it will be over, but does being resourceful include resorting to thievery -- which is what this was?

Actually, crowd behavior like this is par for the course, says Dr. Rushworth M. Kidder, president and founder of the Institute for Global Ethics and author of The Ethics Recession: Reflections on the Moral Underpinnings of the Current Economic Crisis.

What began as a financial recession has become an ethics recession, he says.

"It's a troubling sign of where we are," Kidder says. There have been similar incidents in the past around the globe -- a truck carrying about $2.5 million in coins this summer overturned in southern Italy, spilling its contents onto the highway where motorists hit the brakes and dug in. There was a take-what-you-can-carry-away mob scene when cargo containers washed ashore in Great Britain in 2007. What makes the Indianapolis incident feel different -- and more insidious -- is that the economic picture has worsened over the past few months and the polarization between the haves and the have-nots has grown.

With the middle class squeezed hard and the working poor pushed deeper into poverty, an "us versus them" mentality has bubbled to the surface. The "us" is anyone who has lost a job, lost a home, and/or has had their financial legs cut out from under them. The "them" are the banks and the financial institutions people hold responsible for the recessionary crisis. And what better symbol of "them" than an armored truck carrying some big business's money?

If it had been a lunch truck with a hand-painted sign on the side, chances are no one would have taken a dime, believes Kidder.

I'm not so sure he's right. Offering a helping hand to those who have less seems to have fallen to the wayside. Charitable giving is down by two-thirds; nonprofits are just that; and lines in food banks and kitchens grow each day as whole families join them. In the suburban Los Angeles Santa Clarita Valley, demand has increased 44% over the past two years and donations are down.

The pity is, at the end of the day, all we have are our ethics, the moral codes that we live by. If we lose that, we are a country bereft. How we treat those who have less is critical to American culture. The backlash against the long-term unemployed has resonated loudly as resistance mounted against extending jobless benefits this summer. Companies with openings publicly say they only want to talk to those currently holding jobs. If you are unemployed for more than six months, the reasoning goes, there must be a reason. Yeah, the reason is that there are five applicants for every opening and many of the skills that kept people in jobs are no longer needed. Who is going to computer training classes these days? The same people who ask whether they come with an AARP discount.

Of course there's some irony here since it was ethical chicanery that got us into this mess in the first place. Mortgage brokers huddled with buyers concocting ways of bolstering the income they could show on a loan application, Bernie Madoff told people what they wanted to hear, people borrowed against their homes to consume goods they never really needed and lived way above their income level.

Still, the scene in Indianapolis was a troubling one. And sorry folks, but stealing is stealing -- even if the banks stole first.

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