Monday, October 27, 2014

Creeping Criminality

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.

Fabricating Falsehoods

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?

Growing Addiction

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.

Financial Fiddling

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.)

Human condition

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!

Jim Pinto
27 October 2014


  1. Nice article, Jim. Couple of points. Society also favors the connected. There was a chart I saw the other week which showed that bottom-of-the-class whites earn as much or more than top-of-the-class blacks do. And I think that the pilfering that is endemic in office environments is a passive-aggressive way to get back at the company for all the stupid little ways they often demean their workers.I don't know that taking home a pencil is a gateway drug to embezzlement, though. Consider all the people who know when to stop.

    1. Walt:

      Yes, pilfering is endemic - sometimes thoughtless, sometimes deliberate. Many don't know when/how to stop, and the behavior escalates.

  2. Jim, In general all valid observations, however, I do take issue with the opening comment, "In our society individual progress is measured by steadily increasing wealth and the symbols of success", this is entirely dependent on which part of our 'society' you reference. I am reminded of the Fourteenth Point from Kermit Fischer's (founder of Fischer and Porter Co) "Guide to Executives" #14 If you haven't figured out yet that the size of a man's car or home, the affluence of his friends, the number of his clubs, the price of his wife's fur coat, and the title on his door have nothing to do with his intrinsic worth, and if these things mean more to you than the job quietly done well and the wisdom and spirituality acquired - then you don't belong here.

    1. Bruce:

      You are right about the opening comment. I have changed it to read as follows: "In our society many people measure individual progress by steadily increasing wealth and the symbols of success."

      Thank you for the Kermit Fischer quote. I never met the founder of Fischer & Porter, but certainly heard about him.

  3. We live in an era in which truth and facts have no value. FOX News and its many clones report and repeat outright lies, and make millions of dollars doing it. Billions of dollars are spent on political attack ads, with no regard for facts. Public figures pay no price for lying.

    Political leaders play on people's fears and prejudices; and when the facts don't support their agendas, they invent their own alternatives to the truth. The success of these politicians make lying an acceptable option when facts are inconvenient.

    In 2003, there was no doubt the high levels of CO2 were causing climate change. Billions of dollars spent on propaganda, political campaigns and outright lies have made the science "still questionable."

    The latest crisis to attract political lies is the Ebola crisis. "The experts are wrong, Ebola can be transmitted through the air. Be afraid"

    Until the public punishes politicians and public figures for "lying-for-profit," the trend will continue.

  4. Committing fraud, which is what lying is, could be made less tempting were the convicted perpetrator to be subject to flogging. The number of lashes could be based on the damage done to others and there could be juvenile and adult versions. Singapore has demonstrated that "caning: works. We should try it.

    1. Interesting comment!

      Did you know that teachers cannot even lay hands on an unruly or violent student - even though they run the risk of being hurt. "Caning" - won't get past the hordes of hungry lawyers and lawsuits. Whatodo?

    2. I think we should return to physical discipline in schools. My wife was threatened with physical violence from a student and she asked the administration to deal with the child and they did nothing. I told her to call 911 and press charges against the child should he threaten her again.

  5. Well, Jim, my only comment is this: Creeping Criminality has been with us for a long, long time. However, I'm pretty sure we have now advanced into Leaping Criminality!

    1. Mike :

      You're right - many in society at large seems to have no conscience.

  6. As a world we are always talking about growth and how it will solve our economic problems. We will inevitably learn that financial growth is only one part of the solution.In a world that is evermore heading towards astonishing technological progress and innovation it will become essential for societies to hold it to together that we must concern ourselves with individual growth as humans.This human growth is dependent on how we see ourselves in the cosmos as well as our own individual countries....sooner or later we will have to acknowledge ourselves as spiritual beings with human bodies and learn to develop the material and spiritual together.For this to happen we need to be open to leaders who advocate this dual response to our predicaments.

    1. Thank you! Our modern society is so obsessed with GROWTH as a solution to all economic problems, that very little attention is paid to individual growth as good human beings. Many have not yet learned how to develop "the material and spiritual together".

  7. Nice piece. With the inundation of media and the eradication of morals in our schools and work place, it's important that people are reinforced with their innate drive to be good. There is a booklet called The Way to Happiness that does just that. It's free, non-religious and very helpful with simple but direct precepts on how to live a happy live.

  8. Q: You know the difference between a marketing person and a sales person?

    A: Marketing people know when they are lying. :)

  9. It’s a slippery slope. Just ask any convicted embezzler. It starts out small with good intentions to make it right. And it’s downhill from there.

    There is a ditch on each side of the road. The road is narrow. (Mat 7:13-14)

    As a people, as a community, as humans we need to follow a "moral Compass", whatever moral grounding each of us uses. If not, we doom our selfish selves and the rest of humanity.

  10. The world is set to change in every possible way imaginable. It is those who will sustain positive attitude and have a true sense of giving will survive. This is a choice that humankind has in front of them, to choose to cheat and repeat the same patterns or to make a shift to truly following your heart.

    I mean no ill to the people who cheat as that is what they have chosen for so many reasons which all boil down simply one thing - the fear of loosing. Loosing what or to many gaining what? We have been for so long been enslaved by the fear of loosing that it was only natural to hoard and cheat to survive. Those days are coming to an end and technology will only help to reduce that need. If you look around its already happening...many highly paid corporate employees have started to leave the old paradigm and move on to becoming entrepreneurs to build things that matter to us as humankind.

    The real question now is what can we do to help those still stuck to shift and feel abundant?

  11. Illinois politics is a good example of creeping criminiality!

    1. Allan :

      Actually politics almost everywhere in America (as we get ready for elections next week) has lots of examples of almost criminal behavior. Whatodo?

  12. Thank you Jim. Really good column. You're a bright light in this world.