The Fairness Factor

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Jonathan and I waited in our golf cart as the foursome in front of us teed off down the eighteenth fairway. A city course may not be as finely manicured as the private ones but it was a cheap and convenient place for a father-son Saturday morning outing. As we sat chatting about the effects of the economic downturn on his computer-programming career, a dark figure emerged from a nearby thicket of trees and approached us. Shoeless and muddy, the man carried a clear plastic bag filled with used golf balls that he undoubtedly had fished out of the water hazards and deep roughs. "Forty balls for eight bucks," he muttered as he held up the bag for us to see. It was not a bad deal, especially if there were indeed forty balls and if the balls were in decent shape - assumptions I didn't want to risk eight dollars on. "Four," I countered without much thought, mentally calculating the number of balls in the bag with the same precision as guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar. "Seven," the shabbily dressed young man came down easily. I feigned disinterest and told him to try out his merchandise on the foursome behind us. A mixture of confusion and disappointment registered in his eyes as he struggled to make an intelligible response to my comment. "He's deaf," Jonathan whispered. My heart was immediately touched. My impulse was to give him the seven dollars - maybe even his original eight-dollar asking price. But just as quickly I recovered my senses. This was business. Even handicapped people have to play by the rules of the market. From my cynical side (conditioned by years of ferreting out con games) emerged a suspicion that this "deaf act" might just be a cunning ploy.

"Five," I said holding up five fingers just in case the scruffy entrepreneur couldn't read my lips. He dropped to six without much effort but I held my ground. It was a buyer's market. I would be able to close this deal for five and I knew it. Even when he started to walk away I could tell it was simple brinkmanship. He turned around, held out the bag and I gave him a five. He looked dejected. I was satisfied. Jon and I moved on to the eighteenth tee.

Jonathan was quiet as we teed off. As we zig-zagged our way down the long par five fairway, he began to relate to me an experience he had on a mission trip in Guatemala. A woman from the village where his team was staying had followed him around all week trying diligently to sell him a colorful vest she had woven. The vest was a work of art that had immediately caught Jon's eye but she wanted twenty dollars for it - far more than a college student wanted to pay out of his own pocket money for an article of clothing. The woman persisted and Jon enjoyed the dickering. To him it was playful negotiating with little at stake. He could play the role of tough deal-maker with no intention of buying. On his last day in Guatemala the village woman dropped her price again, this time to meet Jon's last eight-dollar offer. It was a bargain that even Jonathan could not resist. The deal was struck and he boarded the bus proudly wearing a gorgeous woven sweater-vest, victorious!

His jubilation was short-lived, however. When the mission trip leader told him that it took the woman a month or more to weave that vest and that this was her only means to support her family, Jon's bargain lost its delight. The market that had produced a windfall for Jon had yielded only ongoing poverty for the village woman and her family, despite her long weeks of artistic handwork and best bargaining efforts. All of Jonathan's rationalizing could not remove the sick feeling he felt in the pit of his stomach as the bus rolled away from the village. His week of service was overshadowed by the unfairness and insensitivity of this single, final transaction. He has been careful never to do such a thing again, he said. I was silent as we chipped and putted our way to the eighteenth hole.

A deal is a deal. Isn't that right? If a person doesn't want to trade, then he can walk away from the deal. That's free enterprise. If a profitable market isn't there for the product or service, then let him find something else to exchange. No reason I should feel badly about bidding low on something that is of marginal value to me, not to speak of the risk factors. After all, the price should be based not on how much a commodity costs to produce but on how much the buyer is willing to pay. It's called supply and demand. That's how the market works. So why does the memory of the village woman still haunt Jon? And why does my deal with the used golf ball peddler now trouble me?

Introduce "fairness" into the market equation and the clear rules of supply and demand begin to get muddied. Exchange based on whatever the market will bear is so much simpler than trying to determine what is fair compensation. Fairness stirs up all sorts of messiness - lifestyle differences (chosen or determined), risk and reward ratios, a theology of enough, business ethics and who should set these standards. What one sees as healthy return another views as profiteering. The simple, self-regulating purity of unfettered free enterprise makes life so much less complicated. Unless, of course, you have a conscience.

Therein lies the conflict. Our spirits do not rest easy within us when we perceive an injustice. It is a reflection of the Divine nature imprinted in us, the part of our being that reacts with righteous indignation when a widow is defrauded out of her life's savings by a cruel con artist, that sends food and clothing to refugees driven from their homes by ruthless power-mongers. It's that same spirit that persistently pushes the fairness factor into our exchange processes, confronting our whatever-the-market-will-bear economics with "just and caring" values. We create legislation to help us ameliorate some of this tension - anti-trust, usury, price-fixing type laws - but much of the burden of daily dealing remains squarely on our shoulders. Whether it's tipping the waitress who brings our coffee or paying the Mexicans who do our landscaping, whether it's investing in the bank that pushes the limits of predatory lending or patronizing the retailer who benefits from child labor half a world away, the conflict between our love of bargain and our love of neighbor keeps us in unending tension. And God seems to leave the fairness factor to our discretion with little more than our conscience as a guide.

It was just supposed to be an enjoyable morning of golf with my son. How did it end up in a wrestling match with confounding ethical conflicts? How enticing the temptation to suppress that still, small voice that intrudes even during a round of golf (especially during a round of golf)!

Bob Lupton

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