Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fair-weather Gentlemen

“What invoice?” the real estate developer said. He didn’t know it, but Liina had him on speakerphone. Phone conversations with him are cheap family entertainment.

“The one you didn’t pay three months ago,” she replied. This was one of her bigger clients for her interior design business. Around the house, I refer to this client as Snake.

“I didn’t get the invoice,” Snake said. “Can you send it again?”

That was three months ago. He still hasn’t paid. I sometimes think that we should translate Snake’s words to Latin and print them on currency: Ego non adepto invoice. Vos transporto is iterum?

The financial crisis has done a lot more than show who is, in the words of Warren Buffett, swimming without trunks. It’s put a host of so-called businessmen under the loop and outed those who are in American parlance, “fair-weather” gentlemen: they behave as gentlemen only when business is going well.

Of course Snake got the invoice both times that Liina sent it: she has a collection of his “we’ll get that paid right away” emails. So it’s a rather odd dance that plays out on the phone, where both Liina and Snake know the invoice was sent and received, yet Snake claims he never got it and Liina, out of a combination of not wanting to call the guy a liar and the hope of getting her money, plays along with him. Wouldn’t it just be easier on everyone if Snake would admit he doesn’t have the money? That despite his Audi Q7 and Hugo Boss suits, it’s really the bank who’s running his company?

Instead, he’s on the phone with my wife pretending he’s a bigshot, talking about other härrasmehed he’s in business with, and trying to convince her to take on another project, even after he never paid her for the last one.

An even better question: Why is Liina still talking to him?

I’ve tried her to persuade her to walk away from the guy, to take their contract to an inkasso company who will at least drag Snake’s name through the mud. So that the next time he appears in Kroonika, readers will look at his photo and say, “Ah, there’s Snake again. Has no one killed that scumbag?” Getting the money out of Snake would be nice, but telling him mine persse would be more satisfying. I can live without money. I can’t live without some measure of integrity.

Which is probably why I can’t understand Snake. To me, there’s no shame in bankruptcy itself. The shame is in pretending everything’s going swimmingly.

But I doubt Snake’s fooling anyone but himself. In Estonia’s real estate heyday, my dog Mundo could have run Snake’s real estate company. Some parts of the business excepted, it isn’t rocket science to buy property, build ugly apartments on it, and then re-sell it. In fact, the greed and false confidence of gentleman geniuses like Snake is what got the world into the mess we’re in. Why’d we ever let them run the place?

I think what we need in Estonia (not to mention the rest of the world) is a revolution of accountability. We start locally, because Estonia is so small no one can hide. Estonians seem to already know who the scumbags are in their country. But my question to you: Why haven’t we run them out of town?

The first step in this revolution is the rule of No Second Chances. Let’s say you’re a university rector who spends the school’s money on Church’s English Shoes and a charter jet instead of on a student library. You should get the boot and never be allowed a second chance. That’s right: Never. Not in a million years. Your ass should go to jail. And when you get out, the only job you should be able to get is shoveling coal into furnaces at the university you cheated. Well, okay, from time to time you should be released to do yard work, so that professors may point at you and say to students, “Look, there’s the stupid son-of-a-bitch who abused the public trust.”

The second rule of our revolution is Money is Not Your God. This could be taught by replacing obligatory Estonian military service with eight months of helping lepers in Orissa, India’s poorest state. And this program isn’t just for young men. Let’s say you’re a minor bureaucrat, convicted of siphoning off EU funds and awarding contracts to your own MTÜ. India will be happy to get the volunteers, and a little time away from fluorescent office lighting will do every public official some good.

Third is the rule of Public Humiliation. Let’s say you’re a minister of parliament who swapped land or sold your signature for cash. Public humiliation should be so steep that you’ll flee to Argentina to live next door to Nazi war criminals (if you stashed a lot of dough) or in a tent on the beach (if you didn’t).

Some Estonians argue that the reason these rules can’t be applied is because so many who might apply them also have skeletons in their closets. This is entirely absurd. There are 1.3 million people in this country, most of them perfectly honest. Many have never cheated anyone, have paid all their bills, and will do most anything to honor their word when they shake your hand on any size deal. If you’re an Estonian and haven’t met any of them, then you need to crawl out of the cave you’re living in and meet new people. There are some damned fine people in this country. (More good news: Some of these fine people are businessmen and some work in government.)

But what if the problem isn’t Snake and his ilk? Might the bigger problem be the rest of us? Are we too forgiving? Are we too easily walked over? Maybe Edmund Burke is overdoing it, but what the hell: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Some readers may wonder how I can judge. It’s easy: I’ve never cheated a fellow citizen or stolen anything. And, for the rest of my life, I don’t plan to. I also know plenty of rich people who got rich without stealing. So, in fact, it’s damned easy to sit on my high horse and look down at people like Snake.

Yes, if Jesus were here he’d tell me not to be so judgmental. He’d tell me to turn the other cheek and give Snake love. But until Jesus arrives, I don’t plan on forgiving Snake. And I think Estonia would be a hell of a lot better place if more of its good citizens weren’t so forgiving, either.


Due to Vello's crankiness (too much Martin Amis?) as witnessed in the above column, or perhaps due to shrinking magazine advertising revenue, as of next week his column will no longer appear in Eesti Ekspress. (He's still available here in English.) He promises to take a hoe to Snake and to recover the Vello within.