The other morning I heard a news blurb on the radio about a gas station where they had accidentally bumped the decimal point over on the pumps, and were thus selling gasoline for 31 cents per gallon. It seems that this happened over the course of an hour and a half before they realized what was happening and switched off the pumps.
What really struck me was the moment when the woman on the radio made a comment along the lines of, “Man, why doesn’t something like that happen to me?”
Why does this bother me? Because for a full ninety minutes, every customer at that gas station stole gasoline*. If the price sign says $3.19 but the machine only charges you a tenth of that, that’s a glitch in the machine, not a fire sale. Any person with half a grain of morality would have known this, and said something to the guy running the station.
When I was growing up one of the common stories they told children was about how “Honest Abe” Lincoln once walked a mile to return a single penny to a shopkeeper who had given him too much in change. The point of the story was that, even though it was only a penny, (although a penny was worth a lot more back then…), it wasn’t Abe’s penny — it properly and morally belonged to the shopkeeper.
I remember back when I was just out of college and working at a bookstore, when at the end of the day one of the registers was short twenty dollars. We quickly figured out that a particular employee must have counted out one too many bills when giving a customer change for a hundred — this being determined by the employee remembering and thus suspecting the particular transaction, and the manager remembering an odd incident when he overheard that same customer say something like “What a nice gift!” as she counted her change leaving the store.
The employee didn’t get into much trouble — it was an honest mistake; but the customer clearly knew that she had been handed too much money, and for all she knew he could have been fired for it. But hey, twenty bucks, man.
Do young people ever learn about “Honest Abe” anymore? How about Washington and the cherry tree? Were those stories literally true? Probably not; they were moral lessons, not history lessons. Today instead we have the Clinton legacy: “If you don’t get caught, you haven’t done anything wrong.”
That word I keep using that nobody seems to comprehend? “Integrity”.
* …with the exception of those few customers who perhaps didn’t so much as glance at the price on the pump.