If You’ve Got Money, You Stole It

I was brought up to believe that the rich were all thieves or the descendants of thieves: “If you’ve got money, you stole it” (a working-class proverb) was a common refrain in my neighborhood. What’s more, I was brought up to believe that the people in charge are all either clueless or corrupt. And yet these are not my views. I tend to believe that: (1) plenty of the people in power in our society are in power because they know what the fuck they’re doing (i.e., they’re competent); (2) truly corrupt people are the exception, not the rule; (3) many of our institutions function remarkably well, all things considered; (4) you don’t have to steal to get rich in our society; and, (5) there are plenty of ways to make money in a virtuous fashion.

I hold these views, I hasten to add, not because I’m a law-and-order conservative traditionalist who refuses to question authority, and reflexively assumes that Father Knows Best, but rather because I saw the adult world working in my formative years rather often. For instance, the district manager of the clothing store I worked at when I was a teenager. Let’s call him Steve.

Monday Morning Justice

Steve was actually the smartest person in the room. And he had his job precisely because his competence was noticed and rewarded by the American owner of the company. There were, at the time, 256 stores in North America: five in the Montreal area. Steve was in charge of these five stores.

Each store had a general manager and two assistant managers: an operations supervisor, who oversaw everything that happened in that part of the store which was open to the public (e.g., cashiers, customer service, loss prevention, etc.), and a production supervisor, who oversaw everything that happened in the factory-like part of the store which was not open to the public (e.g, sorters, testers, pricers, balers, etc.). The job of a production supervisor was, by a significant margin, more demanding than that of the operations supervisor: it involved, among other things, managing a larger staff. So they were paid more. And promoted to general manager far more often.

An outstanding operations supervisor might be promoted to the rank of production supervisor; an outstanding production supervisor would, sooner or later, be promoted to general manager; and an outstanding general manager might one day become a district manager. And yet I had heard through the lunchroom grapevine that Steve had somehow managed to defy this corporate logic, that he was promoted from operations supervisor to district manager—by the Big Boss, the owner of the company, who apparently flew up to Montreal just so he could meet, and promote, Steve!

I’m not sure how the subject came up, but, at some point, curiosity got the best of me and I asked Steve how he managed to catapult from the operations supervisor of one of Montreal’s smallest stores to district manager. We were at the annual Christmas party, and he was chattier than usual on account of the eggnog. He said that he had figured out how to vastly increase sales by having special weekend Sale Days. The advertising budget was devoted to commercial spots in crappy, forgettable, non-prime-time TV slots, some radio spots (once again, rarely at good times), and a few full-page ads in local newspapers (usually during the holidays, where they were probably drowned out by the rest of the holiday noise).

As an operations supervisor, Steve didn’t have anything to do with city-wide advertising decisions. Spending of the advertising budget was at the discretion of the district manager. The DM often consulted with the five general managers before making advertising decisions, but he never consulted with the operations supervisors. That just wasn’t done. And yet here was Steve: an annoying operations supervisor, who kept calling his district manager, again and again and again, with ideas about how to best spend the advertising budget, and requests for discretionary spending.

Although it took awhile, Steve was eventually able to secure a small slice of the advertising budget: “Pretty sure the DM gave me the money just so I’d go away and leave him alone. I think I was getting on his nerves. Whatever. It wasn’t much. Just enough to have flyers printed out.” He scheduled his first Sale Day on a Sunday and promoted the event solely with the flyers: no TV, no radio, no newspaper ads. His boss, the general manager of the store, thought it was a stupid idea, said no one would show up. In fact, sales on the first Sale Day amounted to a little over $8000 (sales on a typical Sunday were somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000-$2000). The next Sale Day was on a Saturday. Sales topped $17,000 this time (sales on a typical Saturday were in the $3000-$5000 range). A year later, the 10th Sale Day grossed close to $25,000. And yet his boss, the general manager, hated the Sale Days with a passion—for a remarkably petty, shortsighted reason.

His boss didn’t hate the Sale Days because he was jealous, proven wrong, or pissed that someone else’s idea was working. Nope. He hated them because they were messy. A successful Sale Day could easily bring in ten times as many customers as usual. And that meant far more heaping shopping carts filled with ill-fitting clothes left at the changing rooms, far more fallen clothes to pick up off the sales floor, and far more abandoned clothes at the registers. What’s more, if a Sunday Sale Day was especially busy, the cashiers working on those days would end up spending the vast majority of their shift at the cash register, which meant that they didn’t have much time left over for clean-up throughout the day.

At first, Steve offered free pizza and time-and-a-half to any cashier who stuck around after the store closed to tackle the mess. But as the Sale Days grew more and more successful, the clean-up grew more and more onerous—even when every available cashier was working the Sale Day (e.g., leaving the store at midnight after a Sale Day wasn’t unheard of). Six months into the experiment, Steve decided to set reasonable limits on how late employees stayed after close (6:00 p.m.) to clean up the mess. Henceforth, they would do as much as they could before 9:00 p.m. And then they would go home.

Steve asked the general manager to hire two more cashiers. He said NO. He asked him to have production staff from the back of the store help out with Monday-morning clean-up following Sale Days. He said NO. In fact, his boss refused to reimburse him for the pizza! Steve asked his district manager if he could divert a little more of the advertising budget to Sale Day promotion. He said NO. He asked him if he was interested in bringing the Sale Day idea to the other four stores. He said NO.

The Sale Days were clearly working. It was a great idea. And yet Steve was hanging on to his job by a thread. He had just received his third written warning, when the owner of the company walked into his general manager’s office. It was a Monday, a Monday morning in May, and the owner of the company wanted to know how this little Montreal store had managed to achieve the single biggest sales jump in the company’s history. As you might expect, he and Steve had a nice long chat. After which the owner fired the general manger, fired the district manager, and promoted Steve. Sometimes the world makes sense. Sometimes the people in charge have a clue.

The Ethics of Buying and Selling Stuff on Kijiji

Our 12-year-old son Indie said he wanted an iPod Touch for his birthday. But we really didn’t think we could afford to get him a new one. So we checked Kijiji and soon found one for $180. In retrospect, I guess I should have known something was off when the seller’s phone number was listed as “Private” and he asked to meet at Mont-Royal metro station instead of his house. Then again, I know people who don’t want strangers to know their phone number, and I’ve met a buyer or seller twice in the past at Mont-Royal metro station. Some people, especially women, just don’t want people to know where they live. And I get that.

We met the guy at the metro station and he didn’t set off of my wife’s excellent bullshit detector. Didn’t set off my crappy one either. And the iPod Touch looked fine. So we gave him the $180 and went our separate ways. When we got home and tried to activate the iPod Touch we discovered that it was still linked to the seller’s ID. So we tried to send him an email. But his Kijiji ad was already down! Literally twenty minutes after we bought it.

We nevertheless managed to find the seller’s address and phone number on the iPod. When I called the seller and discovered that, well, the seller wasn’t the seller. The iPod was stolen: from a 12-year-old boy who lived about ten minutes away from us. His father, a delightful man named Jean-Marie, came to pick it up a few hours later. He shook my hand vigorously, hugged me warmly, showered me with various Haitian blessings, and assured me that a great reward awaited me in heaven.

Since the 1970s, much of the ethical training has revolved around teaching young people how to make rational ethical choices. We present them with ethical dilemmas, often absurdly clear-cut ethical dilemmas that would never happen in real life, and teach them how to choose good instead of evil. But this is probably for the most part misguided. We should probably be cultivating phobias, aversions, and emotional responses to evil.

I never even considered keeping the stolen iPod Touch. There was no ethical dilemma to resolve. There was no conscious moment of indecision. Indeed, there was no decision. The very idea of keeping the iPod makes me feel sick to my stomach. What’s more, much as I’d love to tell you different, returning the iPod Touch wasn’t first and foremost an act of kindness either, though Jean-Marie’s gratitude surely felt good. Ethical behavior is for the most part a kind of second nature, like riding a bicycle, which we learn early on and then act upon for the rest of our lives without overthinking it. Can capitalism flourish in a culture that hasn’t cultivated these moral emotions? I doubt it.

Our Prudishne$$

“Everybody’s uptight about something.” That’s what the adorable little hippie said to me, with a sassy smile. I had just teased her about the meticulous manner in which she cleaned her bong. No joke, it was like watching a marine clean his gun. Only she was the very opposite of a marine: a wake-and-bake stoner who rarely got up before noon. She said “dude” often, and her basement apartment on St. Paul Street was in a perpetual state of patchouli-scented chaos. For these reasons, and others, her fussiness about the bong seemed out of place to 25-year-old me. But contradictions of this stamp surprise me less at 43. In part, because I’ve discovered that they’re actually quite common.

There are extroverted exhibitionists in this world, delightfully entertaining people, who will, at the drop of a hat, regale your dinner-party guests with salty stories from their misspent youth. They’ll talk about the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll, and all the rest, and they’ll do so without hesitation. These are people who wear their shamelessness like a badge, people who take pride in their openness, people who could, it seems, talk about any potentially embarrassing topic with ease, until, that is, the topic of money and indebtedness comes up.

At that point, many of the very same extroverts clam up and turn bright red. The fiery redhead who was just telling us about an ecstasy-fueled orgy is suddenly speechless, sheepish, and shy. Same is true of the flamboyant dude in the corner who was just telling us about the time he overdosed on Viagra. He’s shamefaced and silent too. Our culture has never been so laid-back about sex, nor has it ever been so uptight about money.

Waiting in Line for Free Flowers

Dentists and lawyers waiting in line for two hours on a sunny Saturday to get $15-worth of free flowers from the city. Have middle-class values ever been made so manifest? How frugal these people are with their money! How profligate with their time! Of course I’m writing this on my iPhone whilst waiting in line for free flowers. But that’s besides the point. Because this isn’t about me. It’s about middle-class values.

The middle class has always sought to differentiate itself from the wasteful rich and the wasteful poor. “We are the careful, hardworking, frugal ones.”—this is their greatest source of pride, their central and defining conceit. “We weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths, goddammit! We didn’t inherit our money like those spoiled rich brats over there. We earned every penny of what we have. And we’re smart with our money. We save and budget and look for specials (even when we don’t need to!). Unlike the wasteful poor, we don’t spend all of our money on beer and cigarettes and lottery tickets.”

Paying full-price is for the middle-class moralist what a mortal sin was for the medieval Catholic. This makes them especially zealous comparison shoppers who will readily waste an entire Saturday driving around from mall to mall just to save $20 on a toaster oven at a big-box store in the burbs. You might be tempted to remind them that life is short, that the day would have been better spent at home, playing with the kids. And you might be tempted to point out that they probably burned far more than $20 in gas on their day-long suburban pilgrimage. But don’t bother because they’ll hear none of it.

Trying to reason with a zealous comparison shopper is, I’ve discovered, about as pointless as trying to reason with a Christian fundamentalist. Besides, in their heart of hearts, they’d rather lose money on gas than overpay for that toaster oven! As such, when you compliment a person who grew up middle class, they invariably tell you that they didn’t—God forbid!—pay full price! They got it on special. It was 50% off or 75% off or 2-for-1.

The spiritual victory of middle-class values in North America has been nothing short of astounding. Even the ultra-rich Bill Gates drives a sensible car and walks around in khakis; and, in so doing, signals that he’s still spiritually middle class, despite the money. By contrast, the hip-hop star’s bling signals that he remains—psychologically speaking—a product of poverty, despite the millions. We’re all supposedly middle-class today.

When conservatives and libertarians rail against big government and wastefulness, they’re really just standing up for middle-class values like thriftiness. Likewise, when they roundly reject the noblesse oblige—“to whom much is given much is required”—tradition, they’re really just standing up for the middle-class rejection of luck, fate, and fortune. “We earned our money, goddammit! We don’t owe you bums a thing! Why should I have to pay taxes to support social programs for people who are too high or lazy to work? Word harder! Save more! And stop looking to me for a handout!”

The Ethics of the One Percent

Being rich in a place that’s not uniformly rich is sort of like being rich in a large extended family: you’re made aware on a fairly regular basis of how fortunate you’ve been. Does this mean you have to give your wealth away? Divvy it up? Of course not. But it does mean that (a) you’re far more likely to have a realistic assessment of how different classes live; (b) you’re far more likely to be swayed by the notion that “to whom much is given, much is required”; and (c) you’re far less likely to get caught up in the delusions of the global upper class.

By contrast, when rich people start living in rich-people neighborhoods, vacationing in rich-people resorts, shopping in rich-people malls, and sending their kids to rich-people private schools, all of this much-needed perspective goes out the window. For instance, I had a student whose family owns a helicopter and four houses tell me, in all seriousness, that her family was middle class. None of the millionaires and billionaires who built Canada would have ever said anything this stupid.

Paul Martin, a billionaire who was for a time prime minister of Canada, walked around my neighborhood without bodyguards when I was a kid, and he was a local elected official. He knew what was going on at every level of society. Used to come to my hockey games and talk to the dads in the stands. He would find the repulsive arguments of our cloistered One Percent thoroughly unconvincing. His public service was based on the much maligned “noblesse oblige” model. We could do much worse. Indeed, we have. The ethics of the 21st-century rich were inadvertently summarized by Drake in Nothing Was the Same (2013): “I’ma worry ’bout me, give a fuck about you!”

The Myth of the Happy Poor

I’ve encountered the myth of the happy poor most amongst elites and intellectuals from South Asia and South America. And I can’t help but suspect that it’s a way of rationalizing the extremes of wealth and poverty in those places. It brings to mind the way slave owners in the Old South used to go on and on about how happy their Negros were. Or the way that every annoying douche-bag from Saudi Arabia goes on and on about how the women are actually running everything. Two heuristics: (1) The more the guys in a place, especially guys sitting around doing fuck all, tell you that the women really have all the power, the less power the women actually have. (2) The more a country’s elites tell you about how happy their poor folk are, the less happy they actually are. “Poverty,” as J. K. Rowling rightly observes, “entails a thousand petty humiliations and hardships; it is romanticized only by fools.”

Money’s Blessing, Money’s Curse

Money can be profoundly liberating. This is especially true if you’ve been financially dependent, for years, upon one of those sad souls who use money to control people. I’ve seen this first-hand: the 44-year-old wife who can finally leave her abusive asshole of a husband because she’s got a job and an income of her own; the 22-year-old college graduate who can finally get out from under the thumb of his psychotic controlling mom because he’s no longer dependent upon her for books and tuition. It’s equally gratifying to behold the plumber who has, at long last, gotten to the point where he can afford to turn away rude customers and say NO to crappy weekend jobs he doesn’t want.

If you come into a small fortune, it frees you from the need to suck-up to people you despise, work for a boss you hate, live with a spouse you no longer love, or bite your tongue when you’re surrounded by idiots. In The Black Swan (2007), Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to that magical point in his life when he became financially independent as the moment when he got his “fuck you money”—that is, the moment when he’d made enough money that he no longer had to put up with other people’s bullshit. This kind of freedom, this newfound autonomy and independence, is perhaps the greatest of money’s blessings. But it’s often money’s greatest curse too. Because blissful isolation can so easily turn into soul-crushing loneliness.

Does Money Make You Mean?

After years of being an overweight sweetheart, this guy I knew in high school started working out, lost all of the weight and, seemingly overnight, got majorly ripped and thoroughly hot. Before this dramatic transformation, he had plenty of female friends who adored him and confided in him, but never hooked up with him. The girls saw him as a sweet, understanding, empathetic guy. But soon after his manly metamorphosis, he became a repulsive “bro” who used girls with the indifference of a sociopath—and, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about a garden-variety player. At one point I confronted him about his nasty behavior: “What happened to you? You used to be such a nice guy.” “I’m hot now,” he said, with a sleazy smile, “and you don’t have to be nice when you’re hot.”

That’s when I realized that he was always an asshole. He was just really good at hiding it. The power that came with his newfound hotness afforded him the opportunity to behave in ways that accorded with inclinations that were always there. Taleb’s aphorism—“You will never know if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich”—follows the same logic: money doesn’t make people mean, it just allows mean people to be mean. Or, to put it another way, as Taleb once did on his Facebook page, in a clarifying remark: “People reveal their temperament when they have choices.”

Paul Piff’s research into the relationship between social class and unethical behavior suggests that Taleb may be wrong about this. In numerous experiments, he has demonstrated that you can turn a completely normal person into a sociopathic jerk. It’s actually quite easy: just give them some power. If Piff is right, then it’s not so much that latent asshole tendencies are brought out by wealth but that wealth (in and of itself) can turn many perfectly normal people into assholes.

Anthropologist Helga Vierich has summarized this research nicely: “Human nature has a flaw. Under conditions of apparent competition, when a hierarchy of relative winners and losers is created, NO MATTER HOW, the people at the top tend to fall for something called a ‘self-affirmation fallacy’ which causes them to attribute their high status to their own merits and qualities—even if they became rich by winning at some gamble which could have gone the other way. BEING rich literally makes people change, makes people less sympathetic, less compassionate, less law-abiding, less honest.”

Civilized Competition

“I’m going to fucking kill you next year.”—That’s what Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic told Montréal Canadiens forward Dale Weise, at the end of the game, during the beautiful and richly symbolic post-game handshake ritual. “Don’t be a sore loser, don’t be a sore winner.”—That’s what my mom always said. That’s what she taught us. And to the extent that I’ve heeded this advice, it’s served me well; when I’ve failed to heed it, I’ve almost always regretted it later on. But only now, at 43, do I realize that what she was teaching me was actually a rather sophisticated solution to the problem of competition.

So far as I can tell, there are three main ways to deal with competition: (1) the Kindergarten Strategy: wherein you try to eliminate it altogether; (2) the Ayn Rand Strategy: wherein you give it free rein; & (3) the Civilized Strategy: wherein you harness the power of human competitiveness whilst reining in its nasty side.

Well-functioning stable societies are invariably good at the Civilized Strategy. In Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell maintains that one of the keys to Roseta’s extraordinary success as a community was the way in which it dealt with inequality. Society’s winners were, on the one hand, regularly reminded of their obligations to those less fortunate and strongly encouraged to refrain from showing off. Society’s losers were, on the other hand, treated with a great deal of dignity. The wealthy in Roseta were, writes Gladwell, discouraged “from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.”

Milan Lucic’s gracelessness is reprehensible. But it’s really just a symptom of a much larger cultural problem. We’re raising kids with remarkably mixed messages these days. First we tell them, usually in kindergarten, that we’re all special, that competition is bad, and that everyone should get a medal. Later on, usually in high school, we tell them they have to be the best of the best, that they better get into a good school and be prepared to compete in a global marketplace. WTF? No wonder they’re confused! Am I supposed to be a ruthless predator or a selfless saint?

Neither of these strategies is particularly realistic or conducive to the kind of civil society we wish to live in. The Kindergarten Strategy rarely works in practice. And when it does it invariably leads to dead, boring, stultified societies (e.g., most of Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War Era). The Ayn Rand Strategy is more realistic, yet still deeply problematic. As we’ve seen again and again throughout history, competition that’s allowed to run wild invariably leads to barbarism. So I propose that we return to my mom’s simple British wisdom, with its much-maligned focus on fairness and good sportsmanship. Anything else would be, well, uncivilized.

—John Faithful Hamer