It’s not worth it to be dishonest

Subway train blur

I just finished reading The Big Short, about the U.S. mortgage bubble/crisis in the late 2000s. I don’t know how I never got around to reading it before now, but there’s always more books to read.

It’s hard not to get a little enraged at it all, even with the hindsight of a decade. There certainly wasn’t much in the way of justice in the way things shook out. And it’s hard to not come to the conclusion that greed and dishonesty can pay, and pay handsomely.

That said, I still don’t feel like it’s worth it to be dishonest in your financial affairs. You might make more money in the short term, but I don’t believe you will profit in the long term, to say nothing about what it does to you as a person.

Here’s a story exemplifying this, where I was given an opportunity to commit fraud.

Story time

Around fifteen years ago, I was living in New York City and working at Kinko’s (those are the FedEx stores that have copy machines, for anyone who doesn’t remember). I was making somewhere around $13 an hour full time (about $17 today). That may not be poverty wages, but this is New York City, and let me tell you $13 an hour did not go very far.

I was working on a Sunday afternoon, and it was dead. It was just me and George (name changed). I was set to be off at 6PM that day while George was set to be off at 8PM. There were no customers in the place.

As I was about to clock out, George said, “hey man, if you want to just get going, I’m happy to clock you out at 8 when I take off.

Now you have to understand that two extra hours of pay would have gone very far for me at this point. Every little bit counted for me. I was tempted.

But in the end, I felt too weird about the whole thing, so I merely thanked him for his offer, clocked out, and left.

I never saw him again.

The next day, a Loss Prevention rep had come in and fired George for various infractions regarding theft and fraud.

The way I described the feeling upon hearing that this had happened, and the way I still describe it today, is this:

Imagine you’re standing on the subway platform, with your feet right up on the edge. Imagine a train barreling through the station at full speed, no more than an inch away from your face. Imagine how the wind would you feel, the blur of metal and glass, right in front of your face, but not touching it. Imagine how you would feel if you were standing there for that.

That is how it felt to learn how close I came to disaster.

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What could have been

If I had allowed George to clock me out two hours later, I could have been implicated when he got fired. I could have lost my job, and been deemed ineligible for unemployment. While unlikely, I could have been prosecuted.

Certainly, it would have affected all of my job opportunities for the foreseeable future, if not the rest of my life, because new employers would want to know why I left my last job, and if I’d ever been convicted of a crime.

And all this for around $25.

Where will your temptation be?

Now, few moments are as clear as this. Sometimes the upside is much higher ($250,000 instead of $25) and the risk of being caught is much lower.

It doesn’t matter. It’s not worth it. You might gain money in the short term, but you’ll more than likely lose it in the long term.

And even if you don’t, what is the cost to you as a person? Do you think you’ll feel good about yourself from having profited off of dishonesty? Do you think Bernie Madoff feels good about what he did? (We certainly have an idea about how Mark Madoff felt.) You can say whatever you want, but late at night, when it’s just you and your thoughts, you know what you’ve done.

I can’t guarantee you that you will be wealthier if you stick to honest dealings. I believe it will, but I can’t prove it. But, as a consolation, you will be helping to make the world a better place. I hope that’s enough.

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