Government Employees Gone Wild: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast
Our latest podcast is called “Government Employees Gone Wild.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
It’s about a book that I’ve come to love — a most unusual book. What makes it unusual?
- It is made available online, as a Word document, but is not actually published.
- It is free (or, more accurately, it’s already been paid for — by U.S. taxpayers).
- It is published by the U.S. Department of Defense.
This unusual book is called The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure, and you can get it here (2013 additions here). What is it? It’s an ethics guide for government employees, full of true stories about epic screw-ups. In the podcast, you’ll hear from the Encyclopedia‘s founding editor (Steve Epstein) and its current editor (Jeff Green). Epstein explains how the project came about:
EPSTEIN: There was a requirement that we train our senior officials and many other officials in the government every year. And the problem of course is keeping that training fresh, keeping it relevant. And to do that we discovered that the first thing you have to do is you have to entertain folks enough so they will pay attention.
How do you do that — entertain folks while teaching them? By telling stories, of course. In this case, all the stories are true, divided into chapters that include “Fraud,” “Gambling,” “Conflicts of interest,” and “Abuse of Position.” Here’s one, for instance, that gives “governmental red tape” a new meaning:
“Two workers at the Veterans Affairs Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy, which mails prescriptions to veterans, were charged with taking kickbacks for purchasing a product from a supplier at more than twice the normal price. The product? Red tape. The employees were charged with purchasing 100,000 rolls of the tape, which is stamped with the word “security” and is meant to deter tampering, at $6.95 a roll rather than its $2.50 retail value. In return, they received kickbacks of more than $1 per roll. The duo will have plenty of time to appreciate the irony of their situation, as they face a sentence of 15 years in jail.”
There is also, as you can imagine, a lot of sex in the Encyclopedia. Here’s Green explaining a particularly twisted incident:
GREEN: We have one involved a navy officer who was in charge of a submarine. He was married and was carrying on an affair with another woman and he got her pregnant. And so he rigged up his email so that someone else sent her an email that said he passed away in the service of his country.
My favorite thing about this episode is the voice you’ll hear reading several Encyclopedia entries. It belongs to Laura Walker, President and CEO of New York Public Radio. We recruited her based on her compelling pledge-drive announcements (seriously, I find them compelling). For this task, she came to the studio prepared and upbeat, and did a great job. Much thanks to her, Epstein, and Green.