I serve on my town's Cultural Council, which awards state-financed grants to local arts projects. Many council members themselves are artists and are permitted to apply for grants. Those members leave the room when we consider their proposals. But unlike ordinary applicants, every council member seeking a grant has received one. Is it ethical for council members to receive these funds? -- Name Withheld, Massachusetts
Conflicts of interest cannot be averted simply by having a potential beneficiary put his head down on his desk and close his eyes or leave the room for two minutes, or via some other elementary-school methodology. (And then you all get cupcakes. That someone's mom baked from scratch.) The interconnectedness of town life demands more stringent safeguards.
The law does permit you to finance a colleague if certain procedures are followed. Your state's "Local Cultural Council Program Guidelines" declares: "a grant to a sitting council member individually will, at a minimum, involve a disclosure filing, local legislative or (Massachusetts Cultural Council) exemption and nonparticipation in the decision." But as the guidelines acknowledge, these are minimum requirements to deter conflicts of interest, and a local council may go further and "make its own rules regarding funding council members." Ethics demands that you do.
You might forbid council members to apply for grants during their tenure. This would require sacrifice on their part, but such is the nature of public service. And presumably members join for only a limited time; council membership is not a career.
An additional possibility: Submit member applications to a council in another town. They do yours; you do theirs. (Similarly, some newspapers use an outside critic, rather than a staff writer, to review a staff member's book.) Just don't get too friendly with the folks in the next town. No romantic multitown Cultural Council retreats in the Berkshires.
I am a casino employee and an expert in gaming. At another casino, I saw a woman losing heavily at blackjack, a game requiring some skill. Clearly she had no idea of the statistics of the game and was throwing away money on bad bet after bad bet. She would have been better off playing roulette or slot machines or any game based on luck. Should I have said something to her? -- Name Withheld, California
Any chef passing a bad bistro is permitted but not required to offer his professional opinion to would-be customers: Danger! Inedible coq au vin! Similarly, you could have spoken to that blackjack loser. And then you could have said something to every other gambler in the place. Consider this: Where do you suppose the money came from to build this lavish casino? And this: The odds on every game in this joint favor the house. And this: Americans shelled out about $64 billion on legal gambling last year. And this: The former basketball great Charles Barkley recently settled his debts to Steve Wynn's casino -- $400,000. In 2006, Barkley estimated his cumulative losses at $10 million.
Which is to say that nearly all gamblers are bad gamblers (if not as persistent as Barkley). And while a tiny minority of them do OK, they are anomalies. So had you decided to counsel that blackjack loser, consistency would have required you to give a lot of speeches and, if you are truly concerned about bad gamblers -- i.e., gamblers -- to seek other employment. Or to chant the self-serving mantra of the casino owner: Gambling is a form of entertainment for which some people are willing to pay by losing. (Only cynics call such people "suckers." Or "prey.")