Sunday, July 05, 2015
Taking advantage of drought rebate system is ethically barren
Last summer, California Gov. Jerry Brown urged residents of the state to conserve water during what's turned out to be a severe drought. His goal was to curtail water usage by 20 percent, but the reported results of the voluntary cutback amounted to only a 9 percent savings. As a result, the state starting offering sizable monetary incentives for homeowners to replace water-thirsty lawns. Some payments were as high as $6,000, at $2 per square foot of lawn replaced.
Homeowners seized the opportunity and soon the initial funds set aside were depleted. More money was added to the kitty and more residents applied for rebates. A reader in northern California writes that one of her neighbors is going to extremes to take advantage of the program.
"I live in drought-plagued northern California," D.M. writes. "Since the situation is so severe, some communities give stipends if homeowners uproot lawn areas and plant them with something less water-dependent."
A neighbor has told her he intends to spend $200 to plant a lawn. He'll then apply for a rebate of $1,200 to rip out the new grass -- yielding a profit of $1,000 for removing a lawn he never intended to have in the first place.
D.M. finds his actions both "cockamamie" and unethical. "If nothing else, it's bad karma," she writes.
I'm not sure how karma works in northern California, so I can't speak to that, but D.M. makes a good point. Even if her neighbor is not doing anything illegal based on how the rebate system works, he's certainly violating the spirit of the plan: to replace existing lawns with ground cover that needs less water.
It's often a challenge to make sure those who take advantage of such government programs are truly deserving. In the late 1990s, after the Red River flooded parts of North Dakota, residents were invited to relocate after utilities had been shut down so public works employees could dig in and get everyone back online. Relief agencies and other non-profits set up food banks and clothing drives to help the displaced.
However, as long as residents lined up for relief could prove they lived in the towns affected, not all were asked for proof that their specific home had no utilities. Those who accepted relief services they didn't deserve meant there was less for those actually in need.
Is D.M.'s neighbor acting illegally? Probably not. Are his actions unethical? Certainly. The right thing to do would be for her neighbor to simply live with his landscaping as is, rather than spending a small amount of money to get a bigger rebate.
If California municipalities want to ensure that such misguided efforts don't become commonplace, and to make sure their resources can actually achieve the intended goal of conserving water, the right thing to do is create a mechanism whereby homeowners must prove they haven't worked the system by planting a lawn with the sole intention of fleecing the state.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.