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Published on November 22nd, 2013

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The Backpacker’s Guide to Kleptomania

“It was crazy, we’re talking hundreds of dollars worth of stuff. In their backpacks, under their shirts, underwear,” said the security guard. The more he spoke, the more he seemed to enjoy telling the story.

“Yep, knew they were trouble the minute they walked into the supermarket,” he said as he bit into a sandwich.

“Backpackers. From Europe,” he said with his mouth full, mashed bread clinging to his teeth. Just to show how serious he was, he nodded sternly before aggressively tearing another bite.

“But hey, here’s the real kicker. When the cops searched ’em, apparently they had $4000 on them, each! Crazy! Can you even imagine doing something like that?”

I nodded along, and said I couldn’t imagine it. I was lying.

That’s how it started for me. Stealing food while backpacking in Morocco, usually from stores I didn’t like very much. A supermarket would be perfect, but a mum-and-pop deli would be a terrible target.

However, that isn’t kleptomania. Kleptomania starts when you start stealing compulsively; the value of the item is coincidental. I was never actually diagnosed with anything, so maybe I too never really had kleptomania. Nonetheless, I decided I had a problem one day after finishing a meal in a restaurant. Not only was I wondering if I could skip the bill, but how much of the cutlery I could take out the door with me.

I decided instead to pay for the meal, leave a decent tip (something I never do) and quietly promise to kick the habit. It wasn’t all that hard to go cold turkey, but there were a few tense moments.

I remember once waiting an excruciating ten minutes in a small corner store in Moulay Idriss while the elderly shopkeeper went down the street looking for change. At first I could hear her walking stick tapping on the bitumen as she went door to door, but after a few minutes the sound faded into the distance.

“Gee, people here are chilled. I mean, someone could go nuts stealing in here,” a friend I was with joked.

My fingers twitched, and I gulped down the tingling urge to go wild. Luckily for me my friend didn’t know about my habit, and I didn’t want him to think badly of me. I also knew it was completely irrational; I could easily pay for whatever I wanted in the store. Plus, I felt immensely guilty, and wasn’t about to steal from such a trusting shopkeeper. In short, social norms, recognition of my problem and a dash of empathy got me though.

But what I didn’t have someone there to (presumably) disapprove? What if I had refused to accept I had a problem, or simply lacked basic empathy? Or worse: what if I was able to pass off my irrational, compulsive urge to steal as normal?

Systematic, Irrational Theft

Last year, banking giant HSBC reached a $1.9 billion settlement with US prosecutors after admitting to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. HSBC admitted to ignoring red flags; in other words, no one was watching over anyone’s shoulders, even though according to prosecutors cartels were depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars in single days. The settlement was roughly equal to five weeks income for the bank, and US prosecutors decided against pursuing criminal charges out of fear it could destabilise the bank and damage the global financial system. When juxtaposed with the fact that it’s possible to receive a life sentence in the US for stealing a $159 jacket or trying to cash a stolen cheque, the message is clear: even if we’re watching, we don’t care.

However, HSBC isn’t the big picture: there is a general problem with our financial system that simply hasn’t been accepted. As Steve Denning argued in a January Forbes piece, we haven’t learned the lessons of 2008.

“Financial reform didn’t work. Banks today are bigger and more opaque than ever, and they continue to trade in derivatives in many of the same ways they did before the crash, but on a larger scale and with precisely the same unknown risks,” Denning wrote.

Yet the problem isn’t just our suicidal financial system; our entire corporate economy has about as much empathy as Ayn Rand probably had towards everyone else waiting in line while she applied for social security.

When it comes to corporate empathy, Nestle is one of the latest companies to be put under the spotlight. A recent documentary titled Bottled Life aired allegations that operations at Nestle Waters’ bottled water factory at Sheikhupura, Pakistan are exacerbating water shortages in the nearby community of Bhati Dilwan. The company has denied the allegations, though Nestle’s chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe once argued that water isn’t a human right, and suggesting so is “extreme” (though he has since clarified that “water you need for survival is a human right” [emphasis added]).

It’s not theft out of need when the world’s wealthiest companies pursue profits at the expense of someone’s water supply, turn a blind eye to massive money laundering or cash in on peddling dodgy derivatives. It’s systemic insanity.

In the end, I didn’t need what I stole any more than Brabeck-Letmathe needs more cash. I stole because it felt good. I felt smarter than those around me. I felt like I deserved it, because they had made the mistake of looking away. I also felt like I was getting back at companies I didn’t like- certain chain stores, for example. More than anything though, it was an ego-trip.

I was able to break out of this mentality, but what about our economy?

Are those running our corporate world compulsive thieves, or is the economy itself a kleptomaniac?

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