The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 9, 2014

When do-gooders don't

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— Stories, homilies, plays, lessons, literature, court dockets and graveyards are filled with tragic people who started off like Pretty Pamela Brown, educated, well-intentioned, good girl from our town (Tom T. Hall, 1995, performed by Bobby Bare and Leo Kottke), but who wound up in disgrace.

Readers will recognize the tumble, often reported in a newspaper. Shocks ripple through small and supposedly close-knit communities as reputable individuals or trusted organizations become suddenly exposed and derailed – or derailed and exposed. It is hard to tell which.

The state legislature this year even took up bills to escalate the penalties for theft by deception, embezzlement, diversion, and such, so that miscreants would be eligible for many more years of prison, laboring to pay back, at the penal pay rates between 35 cents and $1.80 an hour, which seem to top out around $5.50, the tens of thousands or minor millions they skimmed.

We know these folks. They volunteer in our fire companies, teach our children, keep the books for youth sports and deliver community services supported by donations and a yearning to validate the goodness of humankind.

The question arising from the charges, arrests, convictions – the one that is rarely answered with complexity – is “why?”. We get the what, who and a lot of the how, but seldom the fully-formed why.

History reveals the monsters within, the epic cruelties and ruthlessness born of terror and violence inflicted upon ordinary people by fanatics and sociopaths until great crimes against humanity are executed by the neighbor next door.

This is a Hitler metaphor, erroneously applied in most instances to spotlight an event by exaggerating the effect rather than identifying the cause with any accuracy.

Temptation, too, is a fine explanation. People in underpaid, under-invested and under-appreciated jobs simply could not resist plucking enough from the flow of passing dollars to pay for the time share in Boca or the next few rounds of chemotherapy.

There is, however, a more common and less discussed possibility, one that seems present when good people break bad in unison, often with unanimous consent of governing boards whose singular grand purpose is to assure that whatever it is they oversee remains on the rails.

It is the phenomenon of the escalating commitment, the very real experience people have of starting something manageable with a worthy goal in mind and pressing on with it. Group think provides a momentum of its own. No one wants to buck the trend until it is too late.

A lawyer recently shared how the pitfalls of escalating commitment were taught in a group demonstration where members of a class were asked to participate in an auction for $75.

Naturally, bidding began with offers that maximized return – $10, $15, $18 and so forth. Around $40, the auctioneer introduced added conditions and provisions, new terms and qualifications for successfully acquiring the $75.

Eventually, the new elements would include more risk than reward and drive the price of acquisition well above $75. But, by then, the bidders were in it to win it and had already agreed to penalties for extraction. They had fallen victim to escalating commitment.

In my limited experience with nonprofit organizations and community service, escalating commitment is an under-appreciated risk, as it is in life.

“In for a dime, in for a dollar” is seductive enough when those are your dollars in your poker game. When they are freely donated dollars for community improvement, looked after by educated, well-intentioned good folks from our town, the road to ruin is unimpeded by fear of loss or pang of conscience.

Yes, there are monsters within and people given to temptation or weakened by need who take the money and run.

There is also the phenomenon of escalating commitment, the inability to face the cost of failure when, too late in the game, it shows itself as a project you cannot complete, a cost you did not anticipate, accounting maneuvers you should never have embraced, looming bankruptcy, the impossibility of victory or assured disgrace.

For this, we need not be instructed by news stories. We have Flanders, Normandy, Arlington, the Vietnam wall, those empty schoolhouses in Afghanistan and the fading echo of Pete Seeger.

When will we ever learn?

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.