Don’t end up in the next data leak, grads

The Panama Papers data leak reminds us how important it is to teach young leaders about ethics.

Martha Pietruszewski

Full disclaimer: I’m a student, so I still get a tax refund, and my tax rate is relatively low. I certainly don’t have to create offshore accounts, either.
 
 
However, thanks to a leak of millions of files which the news media are calling the “Panama Papers,” we now know that many powerful people weren’t as lucky as I was in the tax brackets. According to the documents, public figures ranging from Russian President Vladimir Putin to soccer player Lionel Messi hid their wealth in offshore tax havens. 
 
 
One question remains — why are people so corrupt?
 
 
Evading taxes is obviously a bad thing, especially for the rich who can afford to pay their dues. But I would hesistate to label everyone incriminated in the leaked documents “evil” or “corrupt.” Perhaps they were advised into a poor business decision that seemed enticing. Maybe they truly didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.
 
 
I don’t know many really rich people or Russian presidents, so I can’t make generalizations about why the people in the 
 
 
Panama Papers did what they did. I can only urge you to not make the same mistakes. 
 
 
The leak illustrates why it’s so important to teach ethics early in life. You may not be a billionaire looking to hide your money offshore, but everyone needs to know what’s right and wrong. 
 
 
This is especially important for aspiring businesspeople. Fortunately, the Carlson School of Management teaches an undergraduate ethics course which it now requires of all business students. This is a great way to plant the seed of ethics in future business leaders — whether those seeds grow is up to each of us.
 
 
I’d like to think I have a basic sense of right and wrong, but learning more about ethics before I graduate next month will  help me make even better decisions in the future. 
 
 
The University of Minnesota should consider broadening its course offerings on ethics. Perhaps it could require a course on research ethics for science students or a philosophy of ethics course for psychology students. No matter how we approach it, it’s a good idea. 
 
 
That’s because ethics is one of the few areas of study that actually proves useful no matter what kind of career you enter. An ethics course won’t just remind you that hiding your assets offshore is a bad idea — consider that journalists who brought the Panama Papers to the public also had to grapple with serious ethical dilemmas of their own before deciding how to act. For example, was it right to invade people’s privacy by publicizing their business transactions? 
 
 
I think it was. Society tends to frown on whistleblowers, but doing the right thing and bringing this sort of scandal to the public benefits our society in the long run. 
 
 
The debates surrounding corruption and what we need to do about it are never-ending. The Panama Papers remind us that we need to stop the problem at its root — and that means teaching students about ethics, including what to do when they see someone behaving unethically. 
 
 
Or, at the very least, we can teach them to just pay their taxes. 
 
 
Martha Pietruszewski welcomes comments at [email protected]