I just watched the excellent Assassination of Richard Nixon. Sam Bicke, the bungling wannabe assassin played by Sean Penn, has a bunch of gripes against the world. But first and foremost, he wants a job where he’ll never have to lie. Which leads to the obvious question: Why oh why is Bicke a salesman? Why is a man who values honesty so highly in an occupation notorious for shading the truth?

His response, I suppose, would be that he has no choice. But common sense and economics declare this a cop-out. There are lots of jobs out there that don’t require dishonesty, aren’t there?

My immediate response is to point to my own occupation. As an economics professor, I never feel like I have to lie. But on second thought, when I was trying to get my Ph.D. and earn tenure, life wasn’t so simple. I didn’t lie, but in order to get ahead, I pretended to be more interested in the subject of my dissertation – and more admiring of my precursors – than I really was. If I were at a less supportive department, I might have felt pressure to keep pretending until I had tenure.

In any case, Bicke was hardly qualified to become a university professor. So to rephrase my question, what honest jobs are out there that require no more than a high school degree? Here are a few candidates:

  • Construction worker (not sales, of course, but doing the physical labor; but perhaps your boss would tell you to cut corners?)
  • Restaurant server (worse case scenario – your boss asks you to serve food that somebody dropped)
  • Librarian (worst case scenario? I can’t think of one!)
  • Assembly line worker (lying about your mistakes might make your life easier, but your boss wouldn’t order you to lie)

    Question for Discussion: If you were an employment counselor, what occupation would you have recommended to Bicke?

    P.S. If you watch the movie, you’ll notice that Bicke feels perfectly comfortable lying for his own benefit. He only mentally suffers when he feels pressured to lie for the benefit of others!