A few years ago, there was a somewhat famous article about a bagel man who sold bagels on the honor system. You can read it here. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/06/magazine/06BAGEL.html?pagewanted=all
For this essay, here’s the salient quote: “He also says he believes that employees further up the corporate ladder cheat more than those down below. He reached this conclusion in part after delivering for years to one company spread out over three floors — an executive floor on top and two lower floors with sales, service and administrative employees. Maybe, he says, the executives stole bagels out of a sense of entitlement. (Or maybe cheating is how they got to be executives.)”
Now, I’m not one to defend dickheads, but I had an interesting experience today that made me rethink the above assumption.
When I was living in LA and scraping by, I never got soda when I grabbed lunch at work. If you’re looking to save money, soda is a good place to start. It’s not the least bit healthy, it’s expensive, and when you stop drinking it for a while you don’t miss it. But, I had a frequent experience back then that’d go something like this: Order a water, go to the soda fountain, note to self that it would be very easy to put soda (or SOME flavoring) in water, reject that option). At least in my recollection, this sort of thing had a serious moral character to it. I still remember, for example, that once my car had been impounded, and the man at the garage accidentally underbilled me for $100. I remember having a genuine moral crisis. I could’ve really used the money, but at the same time, I didn’t want to screw over the garage guy who was probably as broke as I. So… dammit… I had him bill me the remaining $100.
Today, I am much more well off than then. Without going into numbers, I probably make ~10x what I did in the time I’m describing. Mind you, my income was pretty damn low back then, and I’m not accounting for inflation, but the point is that I’m quite a bit more comfortable now. I have an espresso machine. I shop at Whole Foods. You get the idea.
As it happens, I still get water instead of soda. Mostly this is because I’ve lost the taste for it, but it also bugs me on principle that a company can charge you 2 bucks for a little syrup and CO2 bubbles. I found myself at the soda fountain again, and had the same train of thought. “I could put a little lemonade or something in this water, which would make it a little better.” Although I didn’t do it, I noted that I was mostly refusing out of habit. That is, the decision didn’t have the same moral character as it once did for me. I thought about this a bit, and I came up with an idea that might offer an alternate explanation for the bagel man’s story.
I realized that when I was less affluent, “stealing” the 2 bucks worth of soda was more serious. 2 bucks isn’t a lot of money, but when you’re watching your budget carefully, you’re often thinking about matters in the vicinity of two dollars (e.g. this item is $1 a pound, that one is $1.50). Now that I’m a bit better off (thank you all, dear readers, for that!), I’m unlikely to change my views of anything over a matter of $2.
Suppose we then talk about a quantity: cost of an item per income. I’ll call it c for short.
For an individual fast food franchise, c probably doesn’t change for soda over time very much. However, for an individual buyer, it does. Between the age of 25 and 30, the c for a soda for me personally probably fell about about 90%. That is, it went from important to negligible.
So, even though I know intellectually that it’d be the same “crime” to take a little soda as it was back then, I didn’t emotionally feel a moral quality to it. This may be because I’ve grown evil, but I am inclined to think it has more to do with the change in c. Because c is smaller, the crime seems smaller as well.
We all agree that it’s not really a crime to steal, say, a single grain of rice from someone. We all agree that it IS a crime to steal truck full of rice from someone. But, it’s worth noting that the value of a rice grain scales with the affluence of the buyer, and so our view of morality is in some way lensed by affluence.
If the compunction about theft has anything to do with c, ironically, needing something less might (in certain situations) make you MORE likely to steal it.