The Million Dollar Question

As I believe I have mentioned here before I happen to work at Home Depot. One of the places I regularly get assigned to work is the return desk. When I first started working at returns it was a pretty easy job. You scan the receipt (presuming they have one) you scan the item, you glance in the box to make sure the item is there, you ask the customer if the item is damaged or not working correctly and then you process it accordingly. Now things have changed considerably, not because the process has changed (though it has changed in a few minor areas, it is still basically the same system), but because I have changed.

I've gone from wanting to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and believing that everyone was likely telling the truth when they showed up at returns with some bizarre reason for why they needed to return or exchange something to believing that "everybody lies." Every time I work returns I encounter at least one customer making up a story. Quite often they don't even need the story they just think it will help smooth the transaction if they stretch the truth a little.

I've had people tell me items were fine that were clearly broken, tell me they didn't remember how long they've had an item and then mysteriously remember after I couldn't pull up the item in our computer with their credit card, tell me an item was broken that was perfectly fine, tell me they weren't able to use an item that had clearly been used, and even a woman who told me that an item had only been taken out of the package when it still had caulk on it that had been used in an attempt to install it.

This last example happened yesterday. A woman showed up with a couple of a/c vents she wanted to return. The one that had been taken out of the package had dust on it, rust in a couple places (though the remaining paint looked new) and some kind of caulk or adhesive foam on the back side. Well at the time I only noticed the rust and not the adhesive on the back, and figured even though I was concerned by the rust that perhaps the item had been a previous return and the woman just hadn't noticed the little bit of rust on it when she bought it. So I asked her if it was rusted when she bought it and she says "all I did was take it out of the package."

I went ahead and gave her store credit for it, after she left I noticed the caulk that I had overlooked on the back, and felt like a fool. Its like someone trying to sell you a rotten apple and then telling you its not rotten when its brown and shriveled, and you convincing yourself that even though it is clearly rotten perhaps they don't know what a rotten apple looks like. Only in this case the woman got about 5 dollars of store credit out of it, whereas I don't think I'm gullible enough to purchase an obviously rotten apple. In the end I was quite astounded both by this person's willingness to lie for such a small amount of value, and my own willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt when faced with such blatant evidence that the customer had themselves damaged the product. That is to say that as far as I know Home Depot doesn't sell pre-rusted vent grates.

Though I had a far more embarrassing situation happen about a month ago. A customer came in with a sewage pump that he wanted to exchange for another. He told me he had just installed it and that some part, the name of which I don't remember, didn't work. I told him to go get another one and we would exchange it for him. All I did was glance in the box to make sure the pump was in there, the box looked new so I wasn't too concerned about it. After the customer had left with his new pump I had to open up the box to put the paperwork into it that the customer had taken out of the box. When I did this I noticed the pump didn't look very new. On close inspection I realized the pump was corroded and was probably many years old. Thats when I decided to check the price on the item: $260 dollars.

Later that day I had a discussion with our RTV associate (RTV stands for return to vendor) I wanted to tell him about the pump and apologize for the mistake. He wasn't suprised at all (apparently it happens all the time). He told me that I should look close at anything over 100 dollars because for anything worth 100+ dollars its worth it to someone to lie about. Yesterday I discovered that amount is apparently far smaller than I thought.

In fact I wonder if it is actually the other way around - that few people are willing to lie to get 100 or more dollars out of a retail store, while a great many people are willing to lie to get 1-5 dollars. I've had enough average everyday people lie to get credit for a light bulb, or a random fitting that its become common place. Wheras the 100 plus dollar scams seem to be few and far between. Perhaps the latter feels like crime wheras making up a fib to get a couple dollars for a lightbulb you put into a socket that couldn't handle the wattage, or for a plant you forgot to water does not. But I have to wonder at the idea of dollar value determining the scope of a misdeed. Certainly a million dollar scam is worse than a 1000 dollar one, and a 100 dollar lie is worse than a 5 dollar one, but at what point should we make some moral distinction?

The woman who lied to get 5 dollars made me angry, but she's certainly not a crook in my mind. The guy who got me to exchange a well used sewage pump for a brand new one is. Yet their actions were effectively the same, they both lied to get me to give them credit for something they knew they shouldn't get credit for.

Clearly the scope of the damage caused through a dishonest act has an impact on how we treat and even label the action. Somehow though I find it unsettling to think of morality being determined numerically - the 6 dollar lie being worse than the 5 dollar lie, the ten dollar lie being worse than the 6, and so on.

When it comes to crime this approach makes perfect sense. We certainly wouldn't want to punish someone who stole a pack of cigarettes the same way we would someone who stole a car. Its the moral part that gets fuzzy. What is morally different about a person who lies for a dollar, and a person who lies for a million dollars? One, many of us would probably give a dollar to get them to go away, and they probably wouldn't even earn the label of "liar" from us in the process. The other would quickly earn the labels of con artist, criminal, and thief. Likewise the million dollar deed would be long talked about while the other would be quickly forgotten.

Is the latter a million times as bad as the former? or are they morally the same thing?

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See, for me your choice of

See, for me your choice of focus is interesting. You look at the question on the "demand" side of the scam: you want to determine the magnitude of the immorality of the scam relative to the "size" of the scammer, since, as you say, people scam for $5 when relative to their wealth they don't need to put in that time and effort.

The first question for me, however, would have been to look at it from the "supply" side, ie, the relative effect of the scam on the victim. That to me is a lot more important.

Mom used to say, "If someone

Mom used to say, "If someone isn't trustworthy in small things, how can you trust them with big things? Look at the small things." I know that is probably not original, that she got it from somewhere, but I don't know where.

I may screw up a few of the big things, becuase I'm weak or stupid or silly or overwhelmed. But I do my damnedest to be trustworthy in small things. Unfortunately, it's made me basically hate most people, or at least look down on them. And, even worse, it's made me love people who get the small stuff, even if they can't be trusted with the big stuff. What a mess.

I work in tech support. Every morning I talk to myself in the shower; I say, "Don't hate the user base." I really don't. I like my job. My predecessor in this job did hate the users, and he hated his job. I guess that teaches me a lesson about my attitude toward people.

Yes. When people share

Yes. When people share certain goals (as in a family, business, or political party), they form coalitions for the purpose of advancing those goals. But there’s still competition within these coalitions. Siblings compete for parental attention. Coworkers compete for promotions. Party members compete to influence the platform and nominees. Cooperation extends only as far as shared goals.

I agree with everything but the last statement. Families to not cooperate simply for "shared goals"- they do so because of human bonds based on mutual aid. The incredible accomplishments of unions have an aspect of "shared goals" but the sense of solidarity and purpose which really allowed them to withstand the strategies of big businesses (trying to recruit the leaders, undermine them from within, hire some as scabs, whatever) truly transcend simple self-interest. You're right of course that Comp. exists within structures of Coop and mutual concern (in fact I think it's most valuable when it exists wihtin the context of coop.) just as cooperation still exists within competitive structres, but as for the latter, people are trying to do away with that. An example might be a boss who doesn't fire an employee because he's aware of that employee's dire family situation at the moment and cares for him. As I'm sure you know, that behavior is heavily discouraged (and in fact legally prohibited within certain corporate jobs) within our system of institutionalized capitalism and that's one of the biggest problems with it that I see. It's things like that that concern me so much about the effects of capitlism on society, because it simply destroys such human bonds and undermines natural mutual concern. To give another exmaple, let's suppose a CEO became heavily concerned about the conditions under which his products were being made and sought to improve them for ethical reasons. Such a person would simply cease to be the CEO and would be replaced by a new guy who could ignore such concerns (or rationalize them by reading "In Defense of Global Capitalism" over and over.)

More importantly, a nation of tens or hundreds of millions is not one big, happy family, and you can’t make it one by legislative fiat.

certainly not, but I think bonds are quite possible. The Knights of Labor and the IWW are functional exmaples of this- remarkable bonds of solidarity were created among people who knew nothing of each other. They were based on solidarity, and that can be an amazingly powerful force.

People have different goals, and sometimes those goals conflict. If they can’t resolve that conflict through market competition, they’ll try to resolve it through political competition.

true- the seas won't turn to lemonade. I just think that appropriate venues can be created for solving some of the incredibly complex problems that will continue to plague us as result of our nature. Perhaps some can even be eradicated.

Matt

Brandon, I still disagree

Brandon, I still disagree with this. With serious social bonds discouraged and broken down and with competition emphasized, people will respond to scarcity by competing for resources. Within a family structure (for instance) people will respond to scarcity by attempting to mitigate the suffering of all parties.

Yes. When people share certain goals (as in a family, business, or political party), they form coalitions for the purpose of advancing those goals. But there's still competition within these coalitions. Siblings compete for parental attention. Coworkers compete for promotions. Party members compete to influence the platform and nominees. Cooperation extends only as far as shared goals.

More importantly, a nation of tens or hundreds of millions is not one big, happy family, and you can't make it one by legislative fiat. People have different goals, and sometimes those goals conflict. If they can't resolve that conflict through market competition, they'll try to resolve it through political competition.

Brandon, I still disagree

Brandon, I still disagree with this. With serious social bonds discouraged and broken down and with competition emphasized, people will respond to scarcity by competing for resources. Within a family structure (for instance) people will respond to scarcity by attempting to mitigate the suffering of all parties. Scarcity is a problem, and the way it's responded to is a function of a given social structure. Of course, the argument that a particular social structure will eliminate scarcity is interesting, too but mostly unconvincing. Capitalists and Marxists have used varients of that argument over time so that they didn't need to deabte ver the harder question that we're discussing.

matt

One of the better critiques

One of the better critiques of Anarcho-capitalism in my opinion, isn’t that people are good, but that putting them in cut-throat competitive circumstances beings out some of the worst features of human nature.

But this isn't a critique of anarcho-capitalism. It's a critique of scarcity. As long as there are scarce resources to be allocated, people will compete for a chance to influence that allocation in ways that they find desirable. The only way to eliminate competition is to eliminate scarcity.

We can argue about which kinds of political systems foster the most and least harmful forms of competition---I think it's worth noting that the vitriol and slander that we've come to expect from political competition is quite rare in the business world---but high-stakes competition is not a feature unique to any one political system.

Matt, Yes, it's true that

Matt,

Yes, it's true that Hobbes thinks that in the state of nature, humans will be nasty to one another. It just isn't true that Hobbes thinks that humans are fundamentally nasty. Rather, it's that 'nasty' behavior is also rational behavior in the absence of a sovereign. For Hobbes, though, the behavior itself really isn't nasty, though life itself is (along with solitary, poor, brutish and short). Since there is no injustice in the state of nature, no behavior is actually wrong. And since it's all aimed at preserving my own life, it's not motivated by an inherently bad human nature.

If you assume that all humans are inherently bad, then Dave's objection to government works on Hobbesian terms. But the argument Dave gives above doesn't work because the first premise is false.

“I’ve gone from wanting

“I’ve gone from wanting to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and believing that everyone was likely telling the truth when they showed up at returns with some bizarre reason for why they needed to return or exchange something to believing that “everybody lies.” Every time I work returns I encounter at least one customer making up a story.” ---- Rainbough Phillips
Ha! One liar every time you work? You should work as a medical review officer as I did a few years ago. The medical review officer interviews persons who have had positive pre-employment or other drug tests in order to make sure they know their options, to make sure the test was done right and to make sure the positive test was not due to non- drug abuse reasons. I only had two people who admitted taking drugs despite practically foolproof evidence of drug use. One guy admitted that he sure had fun in New Orleans and the other the other said “You don’t know how hard it is to stop using crack.” Everyone else lied. The almost universal excuse was “I don’t use drugs but I’m around people who do.” The passive inhalation defense doesn’t wash.
I feel like a hypocrite since I don’t approve of drug testing of normal acting people. If you have to test normal acting people to detect impairment the how do you know they are impaired? But you do your job.
Most positive drug tests are marijuana. Until the late seventies it was almost impossible to detect marijuana. Since it never killed anyone and was hard to detect forensic toxicologists ignored it. Technology to screen for it was developed using antigen antibody tests. The scientists who developed the tests were young and felt kind of bad about drug screening themselves. They probably tolked up a little themselves at one time. But making money and discovering new science feels even better than drugs. I had some exposure to NIDA toxicologists who did the drug abuse research. They were anything but drug warriors but did their job. Their research never supported the type of hysteria you see in the press. How’s their ethics? The anti-drug fanatics were all political appointees. They had the real power. This does not mean I don’t believe that unrestricted drug use would not result in dead bodies everywhere. It is happening anyway but would be worse in an unrestricted climate.

I used to work at the

I used to work at the customer service desk at a grocery store, when one of my regular duties was handling returns. I didn't have the authority to deny a customer a return, but if the return was valued over $x it had to be approved by a manager. (Being a grocery store, $x was low, usually around $4 or $5.) There is only one time in my 8 years working there that a manager ever denied a return, although there were many times when we realized we were being scammed -- often we realized it while the transaction was happening but allowed it to happen because we could not stop it without violating corporate policies.

BTW, I know I have been tempted to lie to facilitate a return when I feel I have been wronged by either a restrictive return policy or a crappy product. I think the lying is usually more motivated by the intimidation factor of having to go through the return process than by any desire to scam the retailer (granted there will be *some* people who are outright scamming). We consumers know the retailer is (necessarily) suspicious of any return, and so we come up with a lie that fits a 'legitimate' return reason better than whatever the real story is.

I think these arguments

I think these arguments feature rather simplistic takes on human nature. Human Nature seems to be a mixed bag, heavily dependent on the circumstances in which it's placed. One of the better critiques of Anarcho-capitalism in my opinion, isn't that people are good, but that putting them in cut-throat competitive circumstances beings out some of the worst features of human nature. The "incentives problem" applies with a little twist- under a competitive, every-man-for-himself social structure, people will have strong incentives to do all sorts of curel and destructive things.

Matt

It only goes to show that

It only goes to show that people are selfish, and that they don't nesessicarily value their own integrity.

One common and weak

One common and weak fallacious liberal critique of anarcho-capitalism is that it depends on people being inherently good, when they aren't.
It's a subset of market failure arguments.
These tend to go like this: Your anarcho-capitalism isn't utopia because of x. Therefore the market fails. (Insert favorite brand of statism) is the alternative to market failure. Ha ha!
The obvious comeback is that because of x, statism isn't utopia either.
The market doesn't fail unless the market approach has worse results than the statist approach.
A second comeback might be, 'and x is false.'
Market systems are designed to work whether people are selfish or altruistic, honest or dishonest. Adam Smith's invisible hand is all about how if everybody is selfish and interacts through a market, the result is cooperation, just as if all were altruistic.
Democracy, on the other hand, is war of all against all, nasty brutish and short. If there's a theory comparable to smith's, that democracy can work when everyone is selfish and cheating and out to screw everyone else, I'd like to hear more about that. (Maybe there is.)
A less common critique of anarcho-capitalism is that it fails because people are basicly good. The argument has the same flaws.
If people are basicly selfish and evil, you end up with a market system with high transaction costs. Lots of return desk policies, security guards, more guards to watch the security guards, and so forth. A 'who sweeps up after the janitor' problem. It's still better than statist alternatives, that tend to reduce to stalinist models.
Libertarian theorists tend to reject absolutist models of human nature, and view humans as adaptable critters who respond to incentives.
So the return desk setting is about transaction costs and incentives.
As a consumer, I'm nervous about buying overpriced junk at home depot, or more especially walmart - what if I get home and it doesn't work?
So the stores want to be known as having an easy return policy, but that opens a door to abuse, or to close cases.
The lady who returned the rusty grate may have been genuinely not well informed about how the return policy works.
The guy with the pump was obviously scamming, and was rewarded for it.
The state doesn't come into it - it's a matter of does Home Depot want to continue having her or him as customers.
It's also a matter of whether the guy gets a call back saying, hey, you returned the broken old pump, what's the deal? Or a note on his credit report saying "scammed us out of a $250 pump."
I rarely buy stuff at stores, and I almost never return anything. Apparently return can run 40% of sales, at least at christmas.
I had heard that Walmart had crappy stuff at low prices, but a very flexible return policy. I bought some crappy stuff that broke and learned their return policy wasn't so flexible after all, and now I tend not to shop there except for food type stuff that is unlikely to need to be returned. I have an ongoing problem with buying compact flourescent bulbs at Big Box, getting home to find one bulb in the package doesn't work, and it's not worth a trip back to Big Box to return it, but I save the receipt and the bulb in case I'm ever going out that way again, until I step on it or something.
So the store wants to eat some bad returns, just to cultivate sales, but wants to avoid getting ripped off, raising prices enough that people will go to Walmart instead.
That's why they hire smart nice people like you to make contextual decisions. Again, the state almost never enters into it - it's about axelrod's reiterated prisoner's dilemma - in an ongoing series of trades, there are disincentives to cheat.
Liberal models of information flow, where the state is omniscient, don't work. Austrian models, in which information is scarce and has costs and benefits, explain better. What your Big Box could do is set up a database of who the scammers are, and trade that info with the other Big Box chains, so when Pump Guy comes in, a red flag goes off and you check the returned pump very carefully. Without such databases, we use contextual clues or cues, which can get into issues of race or class or other group-think issues. Too long already - I'm avoiding work by compulsively checking blogs.

It would be correct to say

It would be correct to say that Hobbes thought that humans, in a state of nature, would be nasty toward other humans. Would you say that's right Joe?

David, _As per Hobbes,

David,

_As per Hobbes, humans are by nature nasty towards other humans._

The problem, though, is that Hobbes doesn't think that humans are nasty to one another by nature. He's not committed to the view that humans are basically evil. His view, rather, is that humans are basically rational egoists. He then uses prisoner's-dilemma style arguments to show that, in the state of nature, it's rational to act preemptively. One gets to cooperation (which is actually preferable to both players if not rational in the game) only if someone can enforce cooperation.

Now it may be that Hobbes is wrong. In fact, the evidence that he is wrong seems to be pretty good, and Hobbes argues that only absolute power can prevent utter chaos. We have several hundred years of non-absolutist pretty peaceful society for empirical evidence.

Still, it's a mistake to think that Hobbes regards humans as inherently nasty or evil. Indeed, that understanding of Hobbes runs directly counter to his discussion of the laws of nature found in _Leviathan_ chs. 14 and 15.

With the customers, the cost

With the customers, the cost of lying to a stranger was weighed against the benefit of the price of whatever they were returning. I wonder why only the customers are getting such scrutiny.

Lacking sufficient skepticism or due diligence, Ms. Phillips caused Home Depot to lose hundreds of dollars, possibly to gain the benefit (albeit short-lived) of feeling that she was a trusting person, or perhaps to merely minimize the costs of taking that extra time to look at the item being returned, or to deal with irritated customers).

I'm left to wonder if Home Depot had a policy that the clerk bears the cost of improper refunds, would she have been so willing to give customers "the benefit fo the doubt." The morality issues here are on both sides of the counter.

Tom, 1. As per Hobbes,

Tom,

1. As per Hobbes, humans are by nature nasty towards other humans.
2. government is a subset of humans.
3. therefore government ...

the (incorrect) belief that anarcho-capitalism is a viable ideology.

I'm having difficulty integrating the last line of the syllogism with the quote. Can you provide some assistance?

Perhaps it's unwise to turn

Perhaps it's unwise to turn this thread into another minarchist-anarchist debate, but what the hell, it's been a few weeks since we've had one.

Tom:

[T]he Lockeans/Rousseauians hold a naive view of human nature that leads them to the (incorrect) belief that anarcho-capitalism is a viable ideology.

Are you thinking of anyone in particular? David Friedman is considered one of the fathers of anarcho-capitalism, and he, I believe, is explicitly not a Lockean. I suppose the Austrian school anarcho-capitalists have more Lockean influence, but so far as I know, their view of human nature is not particularly naive in the sense you seem to be using the term.

Josh says: "The 'state of

Josh says: "The 'state of nature' does not refer to man’s natural ability but to his nature; etc." So? Lying at Home Depot reveals man's nature; it has nothing to do with civilization or laws and everything to do with what we humans are like beneath the surface.

Josh says: "Libertarians can be and are both Hobbesians and Lockians/Roussians." Yes some can be one and some can be the other, but the Lockeans/Rousseauians hold a naive view of human nature that leads them to the (incorrect) belief that anarcho-capitalism is a viable ideology.

Scott says: "In fact, Richard Epstein attempts to synthesize the Lockean and Hobbesian theories of the state in the early chapters of Takings." I'll have to read that. Thanks for the tip.

In fact, Richard Epstein

In fact, Richard Epstein attempts to synthesize the Lockean and Hobbesian theories of the state in the early chapters of Takings.

The "state of nature" does

The "state of nature" does not refer to man's natural ability but to his nature: that is, what he is as a person. In the state of nature, man lives only according to his nature. In civilisation, man lives according to laws as well as to his nature.

While there are solid arguments that men are naturally good (or at least, naturally not evil), that position is not necessary to libertarian thinking. Libertarians can be and are both Hobbesians and Lockians/Roussians.

- Josh

So much for the benign

So much for the benign "state of nature" in which many libertarians believe. Me, I take a Hobbesian view of human nature.

A Christian perspective: All

A Christian perspective:

All sins are sins and should be identified as such. Romans 3 says "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Earlier in the first chapter, God puts murderers on the same level of gossips. The standard is perfection. So a Biblical conclusion would be that the $5 thief is as bad as the $100 thief.

The punishment levied against that person might be different, both in the form of the wrath of God and the wrath of the state. Yet the sin is the same.