Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Rule of the Decent Interval

By Richard Conniff
Basic Instincts
The New York Times
June 20, 2007

Call me shallow, but I am fond of those little extemporaneous rules, like Murphy’s Law or the Peter Principle, that allow us to recognize and ridicule familiar patterns of social behavior. And I’d like to propose one of my own.

I call it the Rule of the Decent Interval. It holds that the value of a good deed decreases in direct proportion to how badly you need the resulting good will.

This rule first occurred to me several years ago during the criminal trial of rap impresario Sean John Combs, on weapons charges in connection with a 1999 shooting at a New York nightclub. Mr. Combs was eventually acquitted, and he later settled a civil lawsuit brought by his driver in the incident.

But what caught a lot of peoples’ attention was a $50,000 donation he tried to make a few weeks before his trial, to a scholarship fund run by the think tank 100 Black Men. The group turned down the donation because the timing made it look like an attempt to buy support. That is, Mr. Combs was violating the Rule of the Decent Interval.

Other examples soon turned up — acts of philanthropy that were not merely self-interested, but also just a little too timely — and they made Mr. Combs’ proffered Benjamins look strictly nickel-dime.

For a while, former HealthSouth chief executive Richard Scrushy seemed to be setting a splashy new standard for this sort of thing after his indictment in a $2.7 billion securities fraud case. Facing trial before a largely black jury, Mr. Scrushy suddenly found Jesus and brotherhood with the African-American community, neither of whom had been much in evidence around the executive suite at HealthSouth. On many Sundays, the pre-jailhouse convert drove from his 20,000-square-foot house in a white neighborhood to worship, and contribute, at a largely African-American church.

And God is great, or anyway, pretty good: With his new-found fellow parishioners in court to back him up, Mr. Scrushy beat criminal charges in the case, and settled a civil suit. But he faces the likelihood of jail time this month on a bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud conviction in a separate case.

Even Mr. Scrushy looks like a piker, though, compared to Hyundai Motor chairman Chung Mong Koo. In 2006, Mr. Chung and his son, also an auto industry executive, apologized and pledged to donate $1 billion “to society” even before prosecutors in South Korea were scheduled to question them about shady financial dealings. Mr. Chung was subsequently convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to three years in prison. But he is appealing his case, and on Tuesday he reiterated the $1 billion pledge in a bid for clemency. Not only has he continued to run the company, but a recent poll named him the second most admired business person in South Korea.

Coincidentally, Lee Kun-Hee, chairman of Samsung Group, who ranked first in the poll, got caught last year trying to finagle the inheritance tax, and Samsung had to make an $825 million donation (also “to society”) by way of apology. (Let me get this straight. Mr. Lee was 20 percent less charitable than Mr. Chung, and still managed to rank number one. Oh, the injustice!)

All this reminds me of a lesson I learned growing up in New Jersey. The nuns at St. Cassian School used to tell us about an imaginary mob boss who’d led a wicked life but went to heaven anyway because of a sincere deathbed confession. They meant to show us that confession is powerful, and God forgiving. But some of my classmates took it to mean they could get away with murder, as long as they managed to eke out a good Act of Contrition at the end. Others (possibly including some of the nuns, behind those starched white wimples) felt that God was no fool and would pack the mobster off to roast in hell regardless.

I would humbly suggest that the latter attitude is entirely appropriate for violators of The Rule of the Decent Interval.

Everyone understands that there’s an element of self-interest in philanthropy.

Recent brain studies have suggested that acts of charity produce a powerful sense of well-being for the donor (perhaps more than for the recipient). Doing good is also a way of gaining status within a community. It may even encourage zoning boards or college admissions officers to smile on us a little more willingly. But the nice thing about traditional philanthropy is that we have no way of knowing if there’s a quid pro quo down the line. Meanwhile, we get drawn into the sense of belonging and mutual support that are fundamental to any community — and these things often turn out to be the real quid pro quo.

Just-in-time philanthropy, on the other hand, says flout the laws and damn the community. If you get caught, you can just make the whole mess go away with a well-placed act of contrition, or rather, “charity.” Perhaps I am being obtuse, but it’s hard to see how this is any different from bribery.

Philanthropic organizations, and just-in-time donors, ought to be nervous about that. Violations of the Rule of the Decent Interval tend to remind people of the terrible alternative — not hell, perhaps, but almost as ominous: Enforce good laws, punish violators, and instead of depending on the whim of self-serving donors, make basic social services a function of government — even if that means you have to tax wealth more heavily.

Meanwhile, I like to imagine that Sister Immaculate’s take-home on the Rule of the Decent Interval would sound like this: Do good deeds now. Do lots of them. You never know when you will need the good will. But pray to God it won’t be any time too soon.

Richard Conniff, a longtime nature writer, is the author of “The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide” and “The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights, and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature.” He also writes for Smithsonian, The Atlantic and National Geographic.

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