In our society many people measure individual progress by steadily increasing wealth and the symbols of success. The bright and successful are envied and admired, the unintelligent and poor ignored and despised.
Society Favors the Smart
Starting from kindergarten and throughout the education process intelligence tests select the gifted for special preferences. High School SAT tests sift out the smart, who go to college and then enter the job market through a relentless selection process that chooses only the brainiest. The best-of-the-best win scholarships. The mediocre (driven by parents’ ambitions) pay hugely expensive tuitions. The wealthy, well-connected parents get their kids into the schools of their choice, irrespective of merit.
Brains ≠ Success
We soon get used to the idea that smarts + drive = success; pay-raises, promotions, perks and prestige. It becomes a sort of fascism: the smarter you are, the more you push, the more you achieve, the higher you rise, the wealthier you become.
But, it’s quickly evident that brains alone do not bring success; lots of high IQ people are not successful, at least in terms of becoming rich. To achieve financial success other characteristics come into play: diligence, drive and determination. And something else.
Sometimes it takes a propensity for pretense, the inclination to cut corners, take short cuts. The smarter a person is, the easier it is for them to tweak the truth.
Overstating is acceptable – after all, TV advertising does it all the time. One doesn't really believe all those claims – or does one? C’mon – sales people do it all the time.
Few people are out and out cheats and liars – most drift into increasingly dubious behavior through insidious wealth addiction. Bluffing and amplification and become the norm. Many drift into tweaking results, expecting that they can explain away the discrepancy if and when their bluff is called. They fudge (stretch the truth), and then the fiddling turns to lying, which extends to cheating and stealing. This is “creeping criminality.”
Avoiding or Evading
Let's take taxes. If you have a lot of income, you pay a lot of taxes. It's interesting how people, who wouldn't dream of ever doing anything crooked, will happily fiddle their taxes. The same lifestyle junkies, who spend recklessly on cars and boats and trips to Bermuda, try hard to either not think about, or find ways to avoid paying taxes.
There are lots of people who worry about the tax deductions they may be losing by not following a "tax strategy". They spend a lot on tax advice that leads them to buy time-share condos in out of the way places and make complicated investments in offshore partnerships, all to save on their taxes. As I listen to friends outlining their complicated strategies, I start to wonder how much income they must be making to go through such trouble. And, I wonder too how much time and money they must be spending to save how much money. And how much fudging?
Anyone is capable of cultivating creeping criminality. It grows and tends to become addictive.
Occasional borrowing from petty cash becomes a habit and the amounts grow. Pilfering the coffee cups and copier-paper with impunity for a while grows into more ambitious stealing. The waiter puts a few fresh beer bottles along with the empties outside with the trash for a buddy to pick up, and the habit soon extends to wine and steak. When caught, many plead innocence because they had not really intended to cheat.
Break the speed limit a bit and your propensity for speeding creeps up. Jump a couple of red lights and it becomes a dangerous habit. Driving after a couple of drinks may be harmless enough at first, but can escalate into deadly drunken driving. The occasional lapses simply escalate.
The patterns of addictive creeping criminality are everywhere. Political bribery often starts with harmless gifts and sponsored trips that drift into blatant bribery and boondoggles. Small security leaks become steadily more sinister. Harmless flirtations grow into full-fledged affairs. The friendly parish priest or scoutmaster may not have recognized his own latent pedophilia until it was too late.
Freedom to Fudge
The way business is organized today, there are lots of encouragements to exaggerate and even falsify.
Most companies pay senior management incentives and bonuses based on growth and profit performance. The diligence that starts out as ambition turns to plain old greed.
After a few years of generating high income it becomes the norm. The lifestyle is addictive. It's easy to scale up, but not scale down. How do you explain to your family that they will need to move to a smaller home and give up their cars because you failed at work? This is when deception becomes a dependency. The overhead perpetuates the prevarication.
It is disingenuous to think that creeping criminality is not common. The disease is widespread. With a stock market that measures the worth of companies by their ability to meet quarterly forecasts, the temptation is too great: fudge the numbers today and catch up in the next quarter.
Over the past several years, several major financial institutions have been routinely accused of lying to their customers to sell securities that they knew were substandard. They make a multi-billion-dollar settlement, typically “without admitting anything prejudicial”. Which means they get away with it.
Movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” demonstrate the deception that is fairly common, though not so blatant. Stockbrokers are ranked with used-car salesmen and politicians and as people who cannot be believed. (I find it hard to accept that most politicians are corrupt.)
Soon, and perhaps too late, the recognition comes that lying generates a large overhead; the lies must be consistent. No matter how smart the liar is, the Peter Principle of prevarication applies: getting caught when the lies exceed the liar's level of lying competence.
Creeping criminality is a human condition that can afflict anyone and everyone. How do we stop ourselves from this insidious infirmity? Watch the little things, and don't even start!
27 October 2014