Chapter 1

What Do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?

 

Who cheats? Just about everyone . . . How cheaters cheat, and how to catch them . . . Stories from an Israeli day-care center . . . The sudden disappearance of seven million American children . . . Cheating school teachers in Chicago . . . Why cheating to lose is worse than cheating to win . . . Could sumo wrestling, the national sport of Japan, be corrupt? . . . What the Bagel Man saw: mankind may be more honest than we think.

For every clever person who goes to the trouble of creating an incentive scheme, there is an army of people, clever and otherwise, who will inevitably spend even more time trying to beat it. Cheating may or may not be human nature, but it is certainly a prominent feature in just about every human endeavor. Cheating is a primordial economic act: getting more for less. So it isn’t just the boldface names — inside-trading CEOs and pill-popping ballplayers and perk-abusing politicians — who cheat. It is the waitress who pockets her tips instead of pooling them. It is the Wal-Mart payroll manager who goes into the computer and shaves his employees’ hours to make his own performance look better. It is the third grader who, worried about not making it to the fourth grade, copies test answers from the kid sitting next to him.

Some cheating leaves barely a shadow of evidence. In other cases, the evidence is massive. Consider what happened one spring evening at midnight in 1987: seven million American children suddenly disappeared. The worst kidnapping wave in history? Hardly. It was the night of April 15, and the Internal Revenue Service had just changed a rule. Instead of merely listing each dependent child, tax filers were now required to provide a Social Security number for each child. Suddenly, seven million children — children who had existed only as phantom exemptions on the previous year’s 1040 forms — vanished, representing about one in ten of all dependent children in the United States.

The incentive for those cheating taxpayers was quite clear. The same for the waitress, the payroll manager, and the third grader. But what about that third grader’s teacher? Might she have an incentive to cheat? And if so, how would she do it?