Strange things are happening in Brazil: billionaires are going to jail. This includes Eike Batista, once the eighth-richest person in the world, who was arrested in January. Accused of paying $16.5 million in bribes, he was placed in a 160-square-foot cell with six other prisoners who shared a single fan and a single squat toilet and a single tap where the water turned on just a few times a day. His head was shaved—a standard procedure in Rio de Janeiro’s prison system, but one that came as a shock to those who remembered how he had once bragged on TV about his $30,000 wig. People used to call Eike the Donald Trump of Brazil. He kept a silver SLR McLaren in his living room.
In the past couple of years, two other Brazilians from the Forbes list have ended up behind bars: the construction tycoon Marcelo Odebrecht (convicted of corruption) and the investment banker André Esteves (still awaiting trial). Along with dozens of other executives, lobbyists, and politicians, they were ensnared in a federal police investigation known as Operation Car Wash, which has exposed a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme that doubled as a kind of parallel campaign-finance system. Even the patrician president, Michel Temer, has been implicated. This is a big deal given that, for most of Brazil’s history, the rich routinely bought or bullied judges and only the poor faced the full extent of the law. The crimes uncovered, though, are not unique to Brazil. The fall of Eike Batista is actually a story about the ethics of the business class, whatever its nationality.
In any country, the moral calculus of the business class is pegged, LIBOR-like, to its perception of what it can get away with.
First you should know how Eike came about his wealth. In a country that runs on crony capitalism, he pitched himself as a new kind of businessman: a risk-taking entrepreneur making his fortune on good ideas, not through government connections—though he is the son of a former minister of mines and energy. Promising to create some of the world’s largest companies from scratch, he sold a series of startups to money managers made thirsty by the Brazilian natural-resources boom. By 2012, just six years after his first IPO, he was worth $34 billion. Already the country’s richest person, he claimed he would soon be the world’s richest person. The problem was that he didn’t have the resources he claimed. And worse: he owed untold billions to banks and bondholders. When it became clear that his business plans amounted to little more than wishful thinking, the investor class abandoned him. By 2014 he was bankrupt.
Prosecutors initially targeted Eike for market manipulation and insider trading. Then, this January, as part of Operation Car Wash, he was accused of paying kickbacks to Sérgio Cabral, the former governor of Rio, who gamely fast-tracked environmental licenses for his port projects. Eike denies everything, of course, but despite his past rhetoric of high-minded entrepreneurship, straight-up bribery is not so inconceivable for him. In an interview the night before his arrest, Eike implicitly framed himself as an unwilling player in a corrupt system. Wanted by Interpol—and still bountiful of hair—he was at JFK awaiting a flight back to Rio, taking selfies with Brazilian admirers, occasionally fielding insults. “Car Wash is cleaning up Brazil in the most fantastic way,” he said. “I say the Brazil that is being born now is going to be different, you see? Because you’re going to request your licenses, and you’ll go through normal, transparent procedures, and if you’re the best you win and that’s it, right?”
The comment was self-serving, but Eike had a point. Until recently, corruption was almost never punished in Brazil; purely for the purpose of maximizing profits, it could be seen as a rational response to local conditions. It’s not that Brazilian CEOs suffer from some national deficit of character. In any country, the moral calculus of the business class is pegged, LIBOR-like, to its perception of what it can get away with.
This reality departs from common wisdom. Faced with the latest case of brazen graft, a Brazilian will lament, Só no Brasil!—“only in Brazil!” Many Americans, meanwhile, denounce Trump’s presidential self-dealing as “banana republic” behavior—as the stuff of third-world oligarchs. But corruption is far from alien to U.S. business culture. See how our corporations act in countries where enforcement is weaker. Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, and Pfizer are just three of the many Fortune 500 companies found to bribe foreign officials as a business strategy—and if market fundamentalists had their way, such palm-greasing wouldn’t even be prosecutable in the United States. With such a low bar for corporate integrity, it’s little wonder Trump is baffled by the constraints of public office. He’s trying to run government like a business, in his way.
Brazil’s old elites are desperate to reassert their power, and they may yet succeed.
Of course, you don’t need to look abroad to find corporate malfeasance. One in three senior Wall Street executives admits to having witnessed or knowing about “wrongdoing in the workplace.” Many have come to expect this turpitude from the financial industry, but the ethical ceiling isn’t much higher in Silicon Valley: Apple and Google recently settled on charges they colluded to keep wages down; Uber designed a Potemkin version of its app to throw off law enforcement; Theranos apparently faked its blood-testing technology. It turns out that Silicon Valley’s self-image—as the standard bearer of a new, more civic-minded version of capitalism—is, like Eike Batista’s, highly selective. At heart, the ethics of business do not vary by country or industry. The opportunities vary. As Adam Smith put it, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.”
Still, one difference between Brazil and the United States is that our white-collar crimes have caused more damage. Billions of dollars were lost when the Eike bubble popped, but his lenders remained solvent. Eike himself made this point in that pre-arrest interview: “Brazil has this image of being a corrupt country, but in the United States in 2008, what did the banks do?” he asked. “We in Brazil are nothing compared to that.” Which leads to another important distinction: in the United States, it’s still impossible to imagine Lloyd Blankfein doing the perp walk.
None of this is to suggest that Brazil has beaten plutocracy. The country’s old elites are desperate to reassert their power, and they may yet succeed. In April, after three months in jail, Eike was released to house arrest by a Supreme Court justice whose wife works for a law firm that is defending him. He still faces a possible sentence of up to forty-four years in prison, but other businessmen have won immunity for informing on their cronies in government. It’s a reminder that any advance against billionaire privilege is fragile.
This is just as true in the United States, where it took a century of public-minded regulation to rein in the power of trusts and robber barons. Since well before Trump’s drive to deregulate everything, hard-won checks on organized money had been withering away—casualties of the idea that business should be governed by its own blinkered ethics and little more. This idea is deeply American, but if it prevails, our future may look something like Brazil’s past.