Sunday, May 30, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

On the corner of Farmington Avenue and Kenyon Street in Hartford, Conn., on the sidewalk between the Burger King and Ichiban restaurants, stands a machine that sells copies of The New York Times. This machine is where one of my readers, J.M., buys his copy of the paper each day.

When the daily paper's price was raised from $1.70 to $2.00, a new plate was screwed onto the machine above the coin slot. It read: "$2.00, Quarters only."

Shortly after the price increase, however, my reader inserted six quarters and two dimes, the old $1.70 price, into the machine.

"Voila!," J.M. writes. "It opened!"

When he repeated the same experiment on several other newspaper machines a few blocks up the road in West Hartford, he got the same results.

For more than a year, therefore, J.M. has been buying his New York Times every Monday through Friday at the reduced rate of $1.70.

"Can I transfer responsibility to whomever is in charge of that newspaper box," he asks, "and justify my theft by saying that the Times should know better? Or have I been stealing 30 cents a day from the Times for more than a year?"

J.M. is admittedly uncomfortable with his decision. He points out, for example, that he would never think of ripping off the newsstand at the Bradley Airport, where people pay on the honor system.

"It's the honor system," he writes, "and it just wouldn't be right."

Even so, he says, he's holding on to the slim hope - even though he knows that my column is a product of The New York Times Syndicate, and that therefore I am a representative of the company - that I might advise him to forget about it, since those operating the machines should know better.

J.M. is right, I do have an obvious conflict here, given my somewhat tenuous connection to the papers being sold in the boxes. I would hate to think that his 30 cents a day was coming out of my pay.

Even so, I'm fairly sure that my answer would be the same even if I wrote for another company. The ethics of the situation are clear, not only to me but also - given his reference to "my theft" - to him. Though he would obviously like "permission" to keep getting his paper at a discount, his practice is wrong and he should stop.

There should be no difference in the way he treats the faulty box and the way he treats the airport vendor. An unfixed glitch in the dispenser allows him to pay less and still get his paper, but he knows that the correct price is $2.00. It's not as if the machine would accept only the wrong amount - I'm sure that, if he deposited eight quarters, the box would give him his newspaper promptly.

Paying less, simply because he knows that others may also be paying less, is no different from cheating the honor system up the road simply because others may be cheating it as well.

It would have been a nice gesture to report the defective machines to the newspaper company, but he wasn't ethically obligated to do so. He was obligated to pay the right price for his newspaper, and that's the right thing for him to do now.

And, yes, since he knew from the start that he was paying too little for his newspaper, he ought to send a check for the difference to the Times Company. For a year, that would amount to $78 - it does add up.

J.M. also notes that he's keeping track of the time that elapses between his confession to me and when the box finally gets fixed. He wants to find out, he says, "how closely you in the ethics section are connected with the information-sharing apparatus at the Times."

We'll have to see on that. In the meantime, though, J.M. should pay up.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

17 comments:

Shmuel said...

It might also be relevant to note that J.M. isn't ripping off the New York Times. He's ripping off the reseller who paid for the papers, and is supposed to be making a profit from the sales. In other words, he's robbing the paperboy.

For shame.

Anonymous said...

They're called "honor boxes" for a reason. There's nothing to stop him from taking the entire stack and selling the papers for $1 each.

David said...

If the posted price is $2 that's what you should pay. It's okay to try $1.70 once out of curiosity to see if it still works, but having discovered that it does, the right thing to do is to report malfunction and start paying $2 in the future whether the malfunction is fixed or not.

Anonymous said...

It is the responsibility of the New York Times, and/or whatever company owns the boxes, to ensure that the price required by the coin machines is accurate. I'm not going to pay $2 if $1.70 will get me a copy of the newspaper without breaking any laws. Neither should anyone else. It's the same principle that applies when you find a mismarked item at a retail store. It's the retailer's fault for mis-pricing the item. Stop feeling guilty! If the Times wants to charge more money for the papers, it has to also make the investment to update it's machines.

Anonymous said...

"Its machines." Sorry for the typo.

Rick Kenney said...

Anonymous:
Where's the ethical component of your argument?

Marty said...

This is no different than a clerk giving you too much change in return...and Shmuel is correct...it's the reseller that's getting burned.

David said...

The ethical component is, "Thou shalt not steal," whether it's from the paper boy or the newspaper. As noted previously once the box opens you can take as many copies as you want if are willing to steal them.

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