Home / General / Bagels, Rational Choice theory and the moral habits of private property.

Bagels, Rational Choice theory and the moral habits of private property.


Warning: The following is long, rambling, inconclusive and pointless. Read at your own risk.

Most of you have probably figured out that Rob is the Guns and Scott is the Lawyers. I’m Money, but by default. If you thought I was come kind of economist or something, you couldn’t be more wrong. Anyway, I’ll feebly try to justify that here by considering the social and mental status of private property, which is kinda related to money.

I’m obviously way behind, but I just read last Sunday’s NYT Magazine piece “What the Bagel Man Saw.” Since it’s over a week old, it’s technically behind a pay-per-view wall (Why can’t the times give us a bit more time? A month, maybe?), but I’ve found it here.

It’s the tale of a bored economist who quit his job to sell bagels. His scheme is to make arrangements with offices to leave bagels and doughnuts in their office kitchens along with a money box. He drops them off early, picks up leftovers and the money in the afternoon.

Surprisingly, his business is quite successful; he makes as much as he did as an economist. What’s interesting, though, is that he’s got an extraordinary dataset on the most piddling of corporate crime–bagel theft rates for different industries, different times of year, etc. A fair amount of ink is spilled by political scientists pondering the boundaries and range of applicability of rational choice theory; I can’t help but think more than a few of them would like to get their hands on his data set. Of course, the rational choice approach to the problem–which has more marginal utility, one dollar or the warm fuzzies of honest behavior?–is profoundly uninteresting, so I’ll attempt some non-rational choice analysis.

First of all, a couple of limitations on the model. He calculates compliance rate based on money received, but makes no allowances for tips. This problem is both intractable and in all likelihood trivial, but it’s possible that a business that appears to have a normal theft rate actually has a high theft rate and a high tip rate. Secondly, another possible variable is kitchen foot traffic. People are probably less likely to steal bagels if they are being watched.

On to the data. We’re just given snippets. The one that interests me is this:

But worst are the holidays. The week of Christmas produces a 2 percent drop in payment rates — again, a 15 percent increase in theft, an effect on the same order, in reverse, as 9/11. Thanksgiving is nearly as bad; the week of Valentine’s Day is also lousy, as is the week straddling April 15. There are, however, a few good holidays: July 4, Labor Day and Columbus Day.

It would seem that the same holidays that breed depression breed dishonesty. It would also seem that the holidays that are supposed to be about interpersonal relationships–the nuclear-family fests of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the main romantic holiday–put people in foul, thieving moods, and the holidays that celebrate a larger sociocultural entity (labor, the USA) produce magnanimous non-theft. Perhaps the failings of your family life are distinctly harder to be in denial about than the failings of your nation. Just a thought.

The following should surprise no one who has worked for tips:

He also says he believes that employees further up the corporate ladder cheat more than those down below.

But what really got me thinking was this:

This is an intriguing statistic: the same people who routinely steal more than 10 percent of his bagels almost never stoop to stealing his money box — a tribute to the nuanced social calculus of theft. From Paul F.’s perspective, an office worker who eats a bagel without paying is committing a crime; the office worker apparently doesn’t think so.

“The nuanced social calculus of theft”–I like that. It captures something quite real about our moral reasoning when it comes to private property. People I know and theorists I read have a wide range of views on the validity and proper extent of the institution of private property. Some are sophisticated; most are not. Some match up reasonably closely with the way private property is legally arranged in the here and now; others are broadly revisionist in various ways. But I suspect all this has very little to do with ways in which most people make choices about how, when and to what extent private property should be respected. Food in a kitchen to which you have full access–most people lived their whole lives in contexts in which food was, in that context, freely available. Perhaps that explains some of the bagel theft. I’m certain there are plenty of people out there who might stoop to taking a soda or a sandwich from a communal work refridgerator, but wouldn’t dream of taking such an item from a grocery store, even if they were confident they could get away with it. I give more thought to my “on the margins” private property behavior than most, but but my rationalizations are generally ex post facto. Earlier today, I walked out of the dorm cafeteria in which I’m currently being fed with an apple in one hand and a cookie in the other, even though I saw a sign that clearly said “You may take one piece of fruit or one dessert out of the dining room. Now I think I could justify this, but that justification is clearly secondary to the fact that is just seemed utterly unproblematic to me.

So anyway, now I’m thinking about how to approach this gap, which I’d characterize as the gap between habits of private property and moral and political theories of private property. On other topics-inclusion, race/gender equality, etc–our habits and their shortcomings vis-a-vis moral and political ideals of inclusion, equality, etc. are heavily scrutinized, and rightfully so. I’m not sure the same approach is appropriate in this case, though. In brief and incomplete terms, here’s the reason. I’m far more comfortable with the notion that our theories of racial equality trumping habitual behavior in some sense, because I’m far more confident in the justification and value of those theories than I am of any one particular theory of private property relations. My suspicion is that the theories that purport to order human behavior vis-a-vis private property are far more incomplete and contingent, which suggests that this is a situation in which our theories could learn a bit from our habits (Our habits, no doubt, certainly a great deal to learn from our theories as well.) I’ll post again when I figure out a good way to approach this particular problem.

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