Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What Price Honesty?

Last night I tried to put a dollar value on honesty. This issue came to mind not because of New Hampshire's extravaganza of presidential politics in which it is much easier to find dollars than honesty, but because of a situation at lunch yesterday.

After a pleasant discussion that included lip service, at least, to the importance of honesty, my companion paid for his lunch with a twenty dollar bill. The cashier returned to him about twenty-three dollars, having mistakenly handing over a twenty dollar bill instead of a ten. My friend immediately saw the mistake and said, "As much as I'd like to walk out of here with this [the twenty] I think you meant to give me a ten." The cashier gratefully made the correction. As we walked to the car my friend commented that most people are honest, at least for ten dollars.

I hope that at this stage in my life and under similar circumstances I would have behaved the same way for ten dollars. But what if the amount was different?

What if in purchasing a house I realized that the washer and dryer included were an unrequested upgrade for which I was not being charged the difference, let's say $200? Should I point this out at closing or save myself the money and save the builder the embarrassment of having the mistake make public?

If an insider told you that due to a programming glitch in a large city's parking fine payment system any fine would be wiped clean for a payment of one dollar, would you take advantage of the information? I learned about this from the programmer who created the glitch, someone I trusted, oddly enough, to be telling the truth. I never shared this with anyone who could have benefited, nor did I ever put myself to the test: after learning about this glitch I made sure never to get a parking ticket in that city. I guess I didn't trust myself.

One evening while buying gas in New Jersey about twenty-five years ago a pump jockey in a hurry gave me an extra dollar with my change then dashed off to take care of another customer. Already on my motorcycle and ready to go I took the windfall and zipped out of the station in a hurry, hoping to be gone by the time the mistake was discovered. For One Dollar! I still recall both the ecstasy at the gain and the dread of being discovered. For One Dollar!

On another occasion, years before that, I found fifty dollars on the sidewalk after a date. I did nothing to find the person who had lost the money. Merrily I blew the money on movies and popcorn – a lot of movies and popcorn back in the era of $4.50 tickets.

Then there was that late late night driving along University Boulevard in College Park when I noticed a little gym bag sitting in the middle of the right lane. "This might be interesting," I thought as I pulled to the side of the road. I retrieved the bag and motored on home.

Once home I discovered that the bag contained some loose marijuana and a couple of joints in a Baggie™, along with about thirty-five dollars in cash and some form of ID card. Now here was an interesting dilemma. Should I have called the person so that I could return the controlled substance and money? Should I have dropped the whole bag on the steps of the police station a couple of blocks from my apartment? This time I don't remember what I blew the cash on, and surely the statute of limitations has by now expired on the disposition of the dope.

As I write this I realize that all of my adventures in keeping other people's money have occurred after sundown. Had these events happened at lunch time, would I have behaved more like my friend did yesterday?

After dark, what would he have done with the ten spot?

1 comment:

Doug S said...

The friend would have done the same thing you did with the dope.

Seriously, there's much truth in the joke about the billionaire and the virtuous woman, who, after saying yes to a $1 million offer for sex, responded angrily when the offer was reduced to $100.
"What kind of woman do you think I am?!!" protested the woman.
"We already know what kind," replied the billionaire. "Now we're just haggling over the price."

Moral (if you agree with it): everyone has a price.