Do you have to be smarmy and cut corners to succeed? No, in fact smarmyness often leads to failure.
On the way back from our cruise, we took a taxi back from the cruise terminal to the RV park (which stored the RV for us while we were gone). The taxi driver was smarmy. And by that, I don't mean swarthy, which he was also, but just greasy in an ethical sense. Immediately, he asks if we want to pay cash and whether we want a receipt. What he wants to do is have us pay him cash directly, so he can not only cheat his employer, the cab company, but also cheat the government by getting paid under the table. This was a not a good way to start off the relationship. As I noted before, any business relationship entered into, predicated on a lie, no matter how trivial a lie, will go downhill from there.
And it did. It was an uncomfortable ride with a man of questionable integrity. Maybe another trick up his sleeve was robbing his fares? Or dropping us in a bad part of town where cohorts would clock us on the head and take our wallets? That sort of thing is common in Mexico City. I doubt it would happen in Vancouver, but nevertheless, riding with a cab driver of compromised ethics is not a relaxing experience. He was also a shitty driver - slamming on the brakes of the Prius only when he got to the crosswalk, when he could clearly see the red light from a block away.
Instead of driving us directly to the RV park, he took a circuitious route through Vancouver's Chinatown, which is to say, Vancouver, as all of the city is now Chinatown, with bilingual signs everywhere. And by that, I don't mean English/French as in Ontario (or just French as in Quebec). In fact, many signs are just in Chinese, particularly adverts for real estate agents. The message is none-too-subtle - we don't want your business, round-eye! You have no money, anyway!
But I digress. Vancouver, being on the Pacific Rim, has to look toward the West (or is it the far-East?) and China is a far more important trading partner than even the nearby US, to some extent. Besides, all this influx of cash is propping up the Real Estate market, and no one wants the party to stop just yet, even if ordinary folks are finding it harder and harder to afford a place to live.
But getting back to our story, the smarmy cab driver gets us to our destination, eventually. He turns off the GPS early into the trip, as he doesn't want us to see that he is deviating from the direct route. We arrive and the fare is $52, which is odd because the far to the cruise terminal a week earlier, was only $38. I guess they had a rate increase while we were gone.
I pay the bill and don't make a fuss about it. It isn't worth it, for about $14, which is like eight dollars American. But it makes me sad that this guy thinks the way to "get ahead" in life is to cut corners here and there. And clearly it must be working for him, as he is still driving a cab.
I get a lot of inquiries regarding this blog, and many young people - and young men in particular - and in particular, young men from foreign countries - argue with me that saving money and spending less is only something a stupid chump would do. To succeed, you have to act successful and spend a lot! You need a scheme and a plan! You have to cut corners, do scams and cons, and cheat the tax man and your customers! In other words, you have to engage in what we used to call "sharp practice" to get ahead.
But for some odd reason, the people who do this never really seem to succeed in life, even as the theory takes hold more and more in America. Today we have our Smarmy-In-Chief running the country - a guy who made his career by cutting corners and browbeating people into "deals" that often ended up with him in bankruptcy court. By some accounts, Donald Trump would easily be two to five times as wealthy as he currently is, if he only took the money left to him by his Dad and simply invested it in Index funds. Instead, he tried the "art of the deal" and most of these deals - the casinos, the housing projects, the airline, etc. - all blew up in his face.
On the flip side, you have people like Warren Buffet, who invests old-school dividend-paying companies and ends up one of the world's richest men. Or the people who follow the "Boglehead" theory of investing, by putting their money into investment funds and simply leaving it alone. They are not trying to skim a few dollars here and there to "get ahead" or cutting corners or cheating the IRS. And the advantage to this philosophy is not only that you will make more money in the long run, but that you don't have to constantly be looking over your shoulder and wondering when the police, or the IRS, or a disgruntled customer are going to show up and exact their vengeance. Ask any of the former associates of Donald Trump who are now facing jail time whether the "smarmy" model worked for them. Trump himself is clearly nervous that the other shoe will drop at any given moment. That is no way to live.
But that is the way the media portrays the rich - living in gated enclaves and engaging in nefarious schemes to get rich. And maybe a few such people exist. But you'd be surprised how many people get fabulously rich simply by running a company that makes a good product at a reasonable price and sells for a hefty profit. It's been known to work on occasion.
But like with get-rich-quick schemes, the poor often believe that there are shortcuts to wealth, and that nicking a little bit here and there is the only way to succeed. This is not to say that if you run a business you shouldn't cut expenses and cut overhead as much as possible - small savings here and there add up to the difference between a profit and a loss. But that is far different than, say, trying to get ahead by systematically short-changing customers, or by cutting the quality of your products to the point where they are junk. Both tactics usually end up with the company going bust - eventually, over time.
Smarmyness simply doesn't work. And yet smarmyness is on the rise worldwide. The cabdriver in question was from overseas - from an area of the world where sharp practice and shady dealing are a way of life. And one reason he left there, no doubt, was that the smarmy economy of his home country is in perpetual depression (Gee, I wonder why?). No doubt, he was of the opinion, being raised in that environment, that smarmy was the way to success - and how people in America (and Canada) became successful as well. But such is not the case. Smarmyness is not a cultural value in the West (for the most part) and engaging in smarmyness is a sure way to alienate yourself from western society, regardless of whether you are born into it or immigrate to it.
When I was a pizza delivery driver, I had co-workers who tried to cut corners. Or, at the very least, they would complain bitterly if every delivery they made wasn't a huge profit for them with a big tip. For example, one company I worked for would not pay us a percentage of delivery for salads - for whatever reason. So a delivery to far-away South Campus, with only two salads (and no tip!) was a money-loser for the driver. Some drivers would complain loud and long about this, or if they had such a delivery, put it off and deliver more high-margin pizza pies to the frat houses (with drunken tips!) first and end up delivering wilted, warm salads, late, thus insuring no tip (and creating a self-fulfilling prophesy).
Myself, I took the opposite approach. Regardless of tip or profit, I delivered the product the same way - the way I was hired to do. I figured that it would even out over time, and you can't make a killing on every delivery (like a 30-pie delivery to a convention at a hotel) nor should you expect to. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying to optimize outcomes in what is, in effect, a small potatoes game.
Similarly, I am sure that my cab driver friend, no matter how much he tries to cheat in the margins, isn't going to get ahead any more than the other cab drivers who play by the rules. Passengers will be turned off by his smarmyness and probably be inclined to tip less. The cab company will eventually catch on to his cheating them of fare money and fire him - and he will suffer the ignominy of being fired from a job that, well, is pretty damn hard to get fired from. And where do you go from there?
Yet the papers are full of articles about people who do similar things. Folks with cushy jobs and government pensions, who feel they need to cheat on their expense reports or steal office supplies, to "get ahead" of their fellow cubicle dwellers. After all, this is how it is done, right? The President of GM didn't get to where she is today by not stealing paper clips from the office supply cabinet, right? Wrong.
Cheaters may win in the short run, and indeed, a few even win in the long run. But the large majority, even if they are not caught, never really end up getting very far ahead of those who don't cheat. And by focusing their energies on cheating, they often forgo other opportunities offered to them, such as funding their 401(k) - because in their minds, that sort of thing is for chumps, right?
Don't be smarmy! It just isn't worth it.