Julius Baer is the latest Swiss bank to settle with United States justice and tax authorities over an investigation that revealed its active participation in a scheme with wealthy American clients to avoid taxes. Were this an isolated incident, one could chalk it up to greedy bankers and self-centered multimillionaires—the former for the hefty fees, the latter for the hefty fortunes. Yet this is merely the latest in ongoing investigations. Even if we were not in our current age of omnipresent—and, to be sure, omnipotent—electronic financial trails and travails, why do some people still consider integrity a human trait best left to our society’s do-gooders? Why can clean balance sheets still not be taken for granted, if only because they are so difficult to hide nowadays, let alone because tax fraud is hardly a victimless crime?
The easy answer is that the house needs to be bigger, the Ford needs to be a Mercedes, the meals need to be five-star, the travel needs to be first-class, the art needs to be in the trophy league. Yet how much is enough? Five million, 10 million, 100 million dollars or euros? Two, four, six houses? Beyond a certain point, the pursuit of money takes on its own appetite, its own “freedom” or “glory.”
As the New York Times put it, “White-collar defendants seem to be emerging as the new media stars, generating publicity sometimes rivaling that of social phenomena like the Kardashians.” What governs individuals from Martin Shkreli, the hedge-fund manager and pharmaceutical executive recently charged with financial fraud, to corporations like Volkswagen charged with emissions fraud? The key answer is what does not govern them—integrity.
Is it legacy that they crave, as they already have more money than is spent annually by an entire country like Bangladesh? Is it ego, power, control and/or a dozen other all-too-sweet human attributes?
Taking a few steps back, how humbling to recognize the brevity of our time on this little planet, the gratitude that comes with having instant access to food and heat, and the desire to look beyond ourselves to help other individuals and nonprofits. During the last month, email inboxes have been overflowing with year-end donation requests; how fortunate that the same government that prosecutes tax fraud also allows tax deductions for charitable giving.
As we look ahead to 2016, grateful for our health, our relationships, our finances, or helping others with their health, their relationships, their finances, the big picture remains huge. Those clean sheets allow for very good sleep indeed.