Continuing Education... Leonard Wong on Honesty and Ethics in the Military

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Leonard Wong on Honesty and Et... Michael O'Hare on Art Museums...

This week EconTalk host Russ Roberts spoke with Leonard Wong, research professor at the U.S. Army War College, about the honesty and ethics among officers complying with various reporting and training requirements.

We want to hear your thoughts on the tension between regulatory requirements and honesty, in the military and elsewhere. Use the prompts below as conversation starters, and please share your thoughts in the Comments. We love to hear from you.


1. The military is not the only organization that struggles with the issue of requirements that are hard to satisfy while remaining honest. Where have you worked where you had to deal with similar issues raised in this episode? Why do you think such requirements persist given that many of the participants up and down the chain of command are aware that the information being gathered is flawed?

2. What does Wong mean by "ethical fading?" How does a culture of ethical fading emerge? Have you witnessed ethical fading in any of the organizations with which you're familiar? What does Wong suggest can be done to mitigate or prevent this phenomenon?

3. Information is necessary for good decision-making. What are the lessons from this episode for the challenges of decision-making? How do these challenges relate to the Hayekian "knowledge problem"--the challenge of coordinating knowledge that is scattered across people within or outside an organization?

4. In this episode from 2012, David Rose explains what he views as the moral foundation of economic behavior, which enables more widespread trust. How do Rose's "golden opportunities" compare to the sorts of dishonest instances Wong refers to? To what extent can the principles which Rose believes engender trust be applied to military situations? Explain.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Extras (199)

TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Dave Hamilton writes:

I found this very interesting, having been in the military and seeing this same type of thing happen in the corporate world. When I was in the Marine Corps Sgt and about fitness reports were so inflated that a mark of above average was considered a negative mark. Anything less than excellent to outstanding was a black mark against you. However, I think that truth telling when they are down sizing is not likely. When I worked for an alphabet retail pharmacy in management they gave us so much to do that it was impossible to do it all, this gave them the fuel to fire those who had been around for awhile and were making larger salaries, and when the downturn came that's exactly what they did. We went from a company were you decided what you would do first to a company where you decided what you wouldn't be able to do. A gatekeeper is needed to say wait that's to much we need to take something off the plate. We had a saying --- If everything is important then nothing is important.

Hunter Husar writes:

Thanks for this episode, I was a high school teacher and just chiming in I can't even get started on how slippery the requirements are, I suppose we live in a society of ever increasing audits.

Amy Willis writes:

@Dave- Sounds like you and Wong are saying the same thing from similar experiences...Is your "gatekeeper" the same as Wong's "leader"?

@Hunter- Great to hear from you! I've been there, so I know your frustration! Do you ever use EconTalk in the classroom? If you do, we'd love to hear about it (or hear what we can do to make it easier to use).

Allen Hutson writes:

Regarding question 1, the comments to this episode have been revealing - this occurs not just in the military, but across the professional world. It may not be ubiquitous, and the consequences that could be faced are trivial in most settings compared to the military. Nonetheless inaccurate reporting on (lets call them frivolous) requirements is common.

I think that a lot of people have the same perspective that Mr. Hamilton has - these requirements are basically a tactic by upper management. It allows them to fire people or withhold raises for "cause." This common perspective is why Leonard Wong's comments are so important. Wong indicates that frequently these requirements are made with the best of intentions.

If we assume good intentions and still observe this behavior something else must be going on. I am speculating, but I think that there is a strong connection between Ronald Coase's Theory of the Firm.

While he doesn't specifically address the issue, it does seem to be a natural byproduct of market activity through organizations. If we were all independent contractors, only the requirements we all agreed to would exist and be enforced via contract. Transforming this relationship into an employee-employer relationship yields problems (agency issues, etc). My best guess is that the issues that Wong describe should be added to the list of problems the firm creates.

Bill writes:

Great show. This is a phenomenon that plagues the medical field too. There are endless requirements and training modules, each instituted with good intentions, but which are crippling when taken in aggregate.

We "watch" the training modules on racism and sexual harassment with the sound off while doing actual work and get credit for them. In other words, we lie.

The only purpose they seem to serve is to cover the hospital in case an employee does something racist or sexist. The hospital can say "well, we gave her the training not to do this, so it's all on her."

One correction: "Bath salts" are synthetic drugs that happen to share a name with the bath salts people use in baths. It's not that kids are enamored of their parents bath products and get a mild high off of them, as Mr. Wong implied :) They are dangerous, and army recruits seem to fit the demographic of bath salt users, so it's not unusual to expect them to understand its dangers.

Cam Mccintyre writes:

The "Bath Salts" confusion was amusing. Bath Salts is the street name for a group of designer drugs, and I'm not sure that either of the speakers realized that these are not literally bath salts.

Richard Fulmer writes:

Bureaucracies have an insatiable thirst for ever more detailed information as they grow larger and more complex. I would expect that "feeding the beast" with whatever upper management wants to hear is very common in government, and that this is an important part of public choice theory.

Allen Hutson writes:


The question has to be, why do larger and larger organizations need ever more detailed information? They obviously can't keep track of it, and they obviously don't even believe that it is being correctly reported? Moreover this problem doesn't just apply to government, the other comments in the two forums reflect show that this is a problem for public and private organizations.

The interesting thing that the guest pointed out is that these requirements are frequently created to address real concerns (dangers of bath salts, etc). Far from being a tactic by management, these are designed to be good for employees.

Blake writes:

As a junior Air Force officer I found this discussion fascinating. In my unit, I feel like most people put forth the effort to accomplish most of the requirements that fall down upon us. Obviously, some tasks are going to fall to the wayside as more important urgent issues arise. This is part human nature, and part the result of a bureaucracy that does not provide units with adequate staffing to fully accomplish all the requirements that are sent down.

From my personal experience I can say that that this situation is not as grim as the author's paper might lead some individuals to believe. We fly planes in the Air Force. Every day I look above my head and see them soaring by. Obviously, there would be serious consequences if mechanics or pilots were pencil whipping the checklists that they are required to accomplish to put a plane in the sky. Does that mean that every pilot has accomplished every last piece of training the Air Force has kicked down? No, absolutely not. As professionals, we must set priorities. We should be able to identify the tasks that must get done now, the tasks that should get done now but can be put off, and the tasks that can be put off until we have time to accomplish them. It's unfortunate that military professionals often have to embellish their reports and statistics for the sake of 'looking good.'

Iggy Grey writes:

[Comment removed for multiple policy violations. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Hunter Husar writes:

@Amy - Thanks for replying! :)

I would if I could! But I quit teaching and got into programming computers. Now I work at a VC firm with startups and I listen to Econ Talk religiously while I'm coding at work. The main thing that attracted me to working at a startup was that it's much like starting a rock band: no rules, no one knows what works and what doesn't and chances are your boss will not inundate you with requirements which are trickling down.

Kevin Sudbeck writes:

I have listened to this now 5 times, and I believe there is a direct correlation to this and safety within both the military and corporate world. Specifically aviation safety, as it is an industry segment that is dominated by former military flight officers.

Steve W writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance.--Econlib Ed.]

Evan Downie writes:

I have read several books on the psychological effects of war, how individuals react etc. But this is the first study, I have seen, that deals directly with the real psychology with in a functioning military.

From what I can see there is no difference between the Canadian military, which I was a member of, and the American. Also from meeting many professional soldiers, as opposed to conscripts, from other countries, there is a similar culture in all militaries I have encountered.

Here one sees the separation of the individual members, and the bureaucracy that surrounds them. The military term we used to describe this, the literally 1000s of pages of minute detail regarding every process imaginable, was “the game”. The game aspect being the need to at least appear to be fully invested in all the endless guidelines, in order to avoid the insurmountable paper work accompanying noncompliance.

During my service experience the bulk of bureaucracy was regarded as a nuisance. I know, that in the combat trades at least, your loyalty is to the members of your regiment before any bureaucratic protocol. As they are, literally, the people who keep you alive.

The thing to keep in mind is that although that appears to represent a lack of discipline. The exact opposite is true. To fully understand the level of discipline in a combat unit, you need to be a genuine serving member. The discipline, and real protocol, is absolute. The centre of which is a selfless loyalty to your unit, and it’s members. Deviation was immediately, and severely, dealt with.

I think what has been revealed here, in a limited way, is the the politics of control, and the psychological human reality with in a standing military.

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top