Saturday, July 31, 2010

Situational Ethics at the Soda Fountain

Earlier today I felt like getting a What-A-Burger, not any hamburger, a
What-A Burger. It is a sign of a rich society that one can get cravings
for the exact same food ingredients, dispensed a little differently at a
dozen different places. Everyone knows the difference in taste between
the various hamburger lines across the country. They are all pretty
good, but What-A-Burger has the taste that is closest to what a diner
hamburger was when I was a boy and so, I think out of nostalgia, I often
eat there.

As fascinating as all of this is to you, it is not what I set out to
discuss. Readers of this space will know from hard experience of my
fascination with the sale of soft drinks. Generally speaking, I confine
my complaints to the fact that the Movie Theatre has just raised their
cost of a coke to $4.50 for a "small"(which contains more liquid than
one person can consume at a movie). For $5.00, "only fifty cents more",
they will sell you a "large" which seems to be about twice as big. For
$5.25 they give you a cup the size of your head and allow free refills.

The world did not always work like this. When I grew up, the only free
refills were for ice tea and coffee and some jerks would not even refill
those. If you bought a Coke at the hamburger place they went behind the
counter and filled up a glass, usually with way too much ice. and that
was it for your meal beverage unless dad would spring for another. Then
everything changed.

Taking a cue from the movie theatres, the fast food places, egged on by
the convenience stores, discovered that you could sell a carbonated
beverage for a price never before imaginable, as long as it was served
in a 64 oz. cup or the purchaser given unlimited refills. Why does this
work ? Because the cost for the syrup of a single glass of Coke is about
$0.000052. A penny buys about 200 Cokes. They make this Coke concentrate
in Ireland and for $2.60 (this includes labor costs)they can sell you
enough concentrate for 50,000 Cokes. That is how these places will let
you drink enough soda to displace the tonnage on your average aircraft
carrier for the same amount that they will sell you one small Coke "to
go". This has changed a soft drink purchase from the realm of a
"special treat" to a hum drum activity that many, apparently mostly fat
young people, indulge in several times a day. Ask your father, if you
are under 35, was there always Coke around the house ? The answer is,
almost never, and it was a big deal to go to the drug store and sit down
and drink a soda for five or ten cents, depending on how flush you were.

These changes, unimaginable to the baby boom generation, happened very
rapidly. It is not unusual to see a child put away three of four
fountain Sprites while eating a few "chicken fingers" & fries. Because
of this rapidity in the change of soda consumption, I do not believe
that social mores have ever been truly established as to exactly what
one is entitled to once one orders a Coke at fast food place. Those of
us interested in the subject of ethics have done a disservice to the
community at large through not defining exactly what we get for our

To begin with, of course, one never orders a "large". That is because
you can drink the same amount of soda, through free refills, for the
price of a small as you can for a large. I used to wonder about this, I
have now come to the conclusion that a "large" soda is only sold as a
"to go" order, or because the consumer has gotten so lazy, and so rich,
as to not want to be bothered making trips back to the soda fountain.
Consequently, it appears to me that ordering a small drink and refilling
it ten times is an acceptable practice and one has not violated any
ethical standards in consuming the beverage in this way. Some
convenience stores will sell you mugs to where you can come fill up for
free of all the drinks you want, apparently forever. I don't think that
this could work at fast food chains. But perhaps I am wrong, think
about this, is it ethical to go pour yourself a drink "to go" as you
leave the restaurant after you have already consumed a number of refills
drinks ?

I used to think that the answer to this was no. I now find that not only
was I wrong about this, but that some places encourage you to fill up
the "to go" cup as you leave. Can you come back later for a refill ?
That's doubtful, Apparently, some do believe that once you have
purchased the drink, you drink for free as long as the original cup
holds up. I saw a sign at the Federal Courthouse in Wichita. Kansas
which said that refills were only good through the date of purchase

The reason that these are tough questions is because the premise of the
issue is that if you order a Coke at a fast food place, you can sit
there for eight hours drinking your way right into a diabetes stupor if
that's how you want to spend your time. I really think that is the
agreement you make at Wendy's when you buy a Coke. Well then, since you
are entitled to all the Coke you want anyway, how does it hurt anyone,
or seem unethical, to share your unlimited drink with someone at your
table ?No one would object if you shared with your three year old, why
is it different that if you share with a 30 year old friend ? If you
share, does it have to be from the same cup, or can your friend use the
small free water cup they gave her when she ordered. Must you be the one
to do the refill, or can your dead beat friend do it ?

One way to gauge how society is expected or is no expected to act in
these Coke contracts is to look at the enforcement mechanism of the
vendor. They are just about non-existent. The drink bar is often even
out of eyesight of the eighteen year old kid who took your order. It is
my belief that the profits made on these drinks is such that it is too
expensive to waste labor policing the outcome of the Coke purchase
transaction. In other words, for the most part, we are working under a
true honor system. I suppose that would be fine if there were any honor
among soft drink junkees.I doubt that there is much. Do you think
today's ten year old tosses sleeplessly at night thinking about filling
up her water cup with Mountain Dew ? I doubt it, and yet there you have
it, an out and out breaking of the ten commandments, not matter how thin
you slice it (how's that for mixing metaphors ?).

Is this really what we want to tell our kids about capitalism ? That in
certain cases, vendors under our system wink at these thefts, perhaps
to the point of encouraging them. This cannot go on, if only because it
is spawning a race of 300 pound fourth graders.

There are three ways we can approach this problem. The first is to work
through the issues of ethics with our children to make sure they
understand the concept of value in exchange for money. OK, OK, stop
laughing. There are two ways we can approach the problem.

First, groups of concerned citizens can give up parts of their day each
day to sit around fast food places and police soft drink activity. When
confronted with an ethical breach, the concerned citizen can go over to
the patron (thief) and explain to he/she ,as well as the entire dining
area, why patron has broken the commandment, not to mention the law.

Second, since the first method would result in violence, is what I call
the bundling theory (actually economists call it that, but I am stealing
it for this blog, see the irony ?). I would propose that everyone who
enters a fast food chain pay $1.00 as an entrance fee, sort of like a
two drink minimum at a night club. After the payment of the fee you can
do anything that I have expressed concerns about in this blog, as I am
sure that $1.00 per person will keep the establishment profiting
greatly, maybe even greater than now. The downside of this is that it
hits hardest on those least able to pay for themselves, i.e. the
children. Good. They need to find other ways to spend their disposable
income. If it was up to me I'd have a value added tax of fifty cents on
every soft drink sold in this country and probably ban soft drink ads
from the public airwaves. All of the money collected by the government
from these would be earmarked for children's fitness programs, if anyone
even remembers what those are.

The alternative, of course is the status quo,eventually all societies
seem to emulate ours and the problems that we have they seem to happily
embrace. Can you imagine a world of 1.5 billion Chinese consuming cokes
at our per capita rate. That would at least help the balance of trade
problem in much the same way sales of armaments do. There is always
light at the end of a tunnel.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Two old friends came in to see me this weekend. Craig Meredith and Bobby
Rayburn were part of a group I ran around with in high school which
included Jeff Franks, Dan Harrison and George Pfeiffer as , well as our
girl friends. Other folks were in the mix from time to time, but this
was the core group.

I had met Meredith in the eighth grade through my friend Herb
Farnsworth whom I guess I have told you before, now receives his mail at
a Texas penitentiary. Bobby I have known or known of most of my life,
as he grew up in the neighborhood. I know that I have written about Bob
at least once.

At any rate, the three of us were thrown together in an English class
our Junior year, Bob was also in my homeroom. In English, Bob sat right
next to me and Craig right behind me, there we would plot out activities
for the weekend which on more than one occasion involved the ingestion
of an illegal, but we felt harmless, drug.
The fact that marijuana was a felony at that time and there were people
serving thirty years in the slammer for possession of it, so we probably
should have been a bit more careful, but all's well that ends well.

At any rate, this story focuses on Bob, then aka Bobby, now Robert. Of
all my friends, Bob was the most energetic. He could not sit still and
always seemed to be somehow locomoting, even while sitting in a chair.
He was also one of those guys who, because he moved and thought so fast,
often did bother to think twice before doing something or saying
something. He was not cautious about anything. He has bought a
Volkswagen Beetle for $100 from someone and he drove it mostly in fourth
gear and without the use of brakes. It had brakes, I think, but as far
as Bob was concerned they were in the car just for decorative purposes.
Bob preferred dodging things like people, dogs and stop signs, rather
than to slow down , or, God forbid, stop down for them. That Volkswagen
could take any punishment and was used basically as a four wheel drive vehicle
with Bob taking it off road and, on one terrifying occasion for me, up a
hill which had no road. I will say that Bob was not so reckless as he
was fearless.

Now this English class we all took together was a hoot. The teacher was
a man named Sugg, and he was a very flamboyant character. He had a real
liking for Bob (most teachers did because they thought that he was a
little "scamp" and not capable of doing anything too bad. Depending upon
your definition of "bad" these teachers were all incorrect, but Bob, no
matter what he did, always landed on his feet.

This story takes place in January of 1970. We had all just returned from
a Christmas vacation and were starting the new semester. These were the
days before computers, or at least before the day that any computer
made was not stored in a building the size of a 7/11. In those days, at
the beginning of every semester, the teacher would hand out preprinted
index cards for all students to fill in with their name and address,
etc.. These cards were then alphabetized so that the teacher could
determine tardies and absences with them.

My class that January had a lot of new students. Our High School that
year was very civilized and had allowed us to change teachers a midterm
for any reason. In history class, I gave up a football coach with a flat
top, for a blonde former cheerleader from the University of Texas who
actually knew a little bit about the subject. But I digress.

As I stated before, Bob sat right next to me in Suggs room and I noticed
when I handed him the index cards that he took two.
It was actually fairly common practice in those days to fill out false
names on these cards in order to get a good laugh at the teacher, sort
of let him/her be put on notice that we would not be intimidated. Today
when they want the teacher to get that same message, they often assault
the teacher, but these were simpler times.

Our buddy Jeff Franks had told me over the holidays that someone in one
of his classes had turned in the name
"Sid Chauncey" and that that name had been called that name everyday for
three or four weeks before the joke became tiresome and someone told the
teacher that Sid had transferred to another class. I had related this to
Bob whom I guess decided to go a step further (or a bridge too far,
depending on your tolerance level for such pranks ).

The classic fake name, although one that I had never seen actually
attempted was Richard "Dick"
Hertz. You can probably see the humor in this, at least if you are
still on a seventh grade level sense of humor, which most of our class,
including me, was.

Now there are three things that came happen when you attempt this
particular trick. The first risk is that the teacher will recognize the
trick before calling the name. The second risk is that the teacher will
call out "Richard Hertz" which is not nearly as funny as Dick Hertz. The
their possibility which makes the joke work to perfection, the teacher
must go through a three line cycle calling out just like this, and in
this order: 1. "Dick Hertz" (pause) "Dick" (pause), and finally, "who's
Dick Hertz ?" Laughter then ensues and the teacher turns red. Bob's
effort succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. There was Sugg, going
through the correct order of call outs needed for the joke, ending with
the dramatic,
Who's Dick Hertz ? Ah, immortality for Rayburn, although his immediate
future did not quite so promising exactly At least he did not attempt
the last stage by answering the question, "Mine does Mr. Sugg."

After class, while Bob hid somewhere in the bowels of Bellaire High
School I approached Sugg to help him search through the cared and find
the culprit. By the way, this is the one mistake Bob made, if you can
get someone, not in the class to fill out an index card, you are bullet
proof. Bob had not done that, leading me to believe that it was a spur
of the moment idea. As I mentioned before, Bob did not often think twice
about such things, none of the great ones do..

As Sugg went through the cards I pointed out someone whose name I don't
recall, the was a manager (towel boy) for the baseball team Thus guy
was always trying to get us to sign petitions to support the team. I
figured, why not ? No one would blame me if I got this guy in trouble..
But Sugg then ran across Rayburn's card and compared them side by side.
"Well, you know it's not Rayburn" I said optimistically. Sugg gave me a
cold stare did not say a word, and went to lunch. I think he felt a
little betrayed because Bob was just about his favorite student. He
called him, for reasons I never understood, but was always concerned
about, "Bobble".

As the day wore on, "Bobble" made himself very scarce. Somehow, between
the end of English, and the beginning of that class the next day, The
evidence disappeared. That card being the only thing which could tie Bob
to the crime, he got off Scot free, as he invariably did, and the world
turned as it always had.