Monday, May 19, 2014

Are We All Evil?

A couple of months ago an Iowa man bought a small painting at a garage sale for $15.  He bought it because he liked it.  Something about the color and composition appealed to him, and he thought it would look good in his dining room.  He found that his wife agreed and he hung it on the wall.  A few weeks later one of his neighbors, a retired college professor, dropped by and the painting caught his eye.  He admired it as well, but told the man that he should have it appraised because it might be worth something.  As it turned out, it was an original, previously unknown painting by American artist Grant Wood.  It’s estimated value was $40,000 to $60,000.  He immediately drove to the house where he bought it and told them the story.  Neither he nor the sellers were aware of its value, but he promised that if he ever sold it, he would split the money with them.  They agreed and will be very happy to share in the windfall.

Notice there is no link to the above story, because I just made it up.  I have never heard of something like that happening.  In fact, the story usually ends up with the buyer gloating over the fact that he picked up a valuable piece of art for a small fraction of its value.  There is never any talk of the poor suckers who let it go for so little.  Even if the buyer, out of a sense of fair play, were inclined to offer to share the windfall with the original owners, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that the original owners hired a lawyer to try to recover the painting instead of graciously accepting the offer.  Our understanding of human nature and the values of our society lead us to accept these versions more readily than the first story.

In fact, it’s more believable to think that the man at the garage sale haggled with the sellers to get the price down or to get another item thrown in for free.  That’s the way almost everyone acts at a garage sale.  That’s the way almost everyone acts at a car dealership or when contracting for home repairs or buying a house.  We are always looking for the bargain.  Phone Aps tell us the best price for gasoline in the area.  If we buy even a small item and it goes on sale the next week, we feel cheated.  With rare exceptions we never want to pay more than we absolutely must.

Now we read editorial comments about how everyone deserves to be paid a living wage.  Fast food workers stage periodic strikes for $10 to $15 per hour wages to support their families.  Everyone assumes that the corporate managers are the bad guys.  They are portrayed as evil and greedy for doing what the rest of us do in our daily lives, trying to pay no more than the value received.

As pleas go out for a “living wage” and “fair pay,” a couple of questions come to mind.  First, were these jobs ever intended for “a single mother with five children ranging in age from 21 months to 18 years old” or a 33-year-old with “a one-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son” or another who “is the main source of income for his family, which collects food stamps and takes government help to pay the rent”?  I thought these were starter jobs to teach young people about dependability, responsibility and customer service, not career opportunities.  Second, how many of us consider the financial hardships of the family hosting the garage sale or the kinds of mistakes a car salesman or house painter may have made earlier in life before we start haggling about the price?  No, we pay only what we think is fair for us or walk away.

When you think of the problem in terms of our American culture and the habits of everyday people, the behavior of the fast-food corporate management does not seem to be so evil or even so very unusual.

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