An honest meal?

iStock_000009252801SmallI have, in my time, made off with a roll of someone else’s lawn tucked under my arm, but it wasn’t easy, and I did have permission, but maybe that’s why I’ve become so fascinated with the CCTV footage of two women nonchalantly rolling up an entire newly-laid lawn and apparently making off with it. If you look very, very carefully at Candis’ August barbecue shots you might see a freshly lain roll of turf that is now, as I look at it, six-inches high and full of daisies.

I know the grass is always greener and all that, but would you? Could you walk off with someone else’s lawn? It took the two women, universally described as “middle-aged”, which I thought slightly mean and unnecessary, almost an hour to strip the garden bare, apparently, and that included a fag break, but you’ve got to wonder at the brass neck of it. There may well be a perfectly innocent explanation for this case of grass rustling, but it’s got me thinking about where people draw the line when it comes to helping themselves. Is it greed? Is it opportunity? Or is it desperation? Desperation seems to be a driving force – combined with the idea that my need is greater than yours. This morning I heard on the radio that although crime in general has gone down, shoplifting for food has gone up dramatically – apparently because people are stealing to feed their families. Desperate times, but it was unfortunate that the story was illustrated by the tale of a woman with cut glass vowels explaining that she was forced to shoplift because the food parcels she was given didn’t contain any fresh food. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t judge, but if I didn’t we’d all be bored.)

Rather than wreck her children’s diet she went out pinching butter, eggs and bacon from a supermarket. What was she thinking? “Now let me see – which would be worse for them? Me spending six months in Holloway, or me depriving them of a homemade quiche Lorraine? Pass the bag for life Tarquin, I’m going out on the rob.”

One of my holiday reads, stolen from under the nose of my daughter, Cleo, when she was concentrating on her iPod and tanning her back, was Freakonomics, a cheeky provocative little number by Stephen D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. One of the questions tackled by this irreverent romp through conventional economics, is what guides people’s personal morality. The depressing conclusion seems to be: “whatever I can get away with without, a) getting caught, b) losing social status, and c) feeling guilty.” As an example, it tells us the story of the Bagel Man, a public-spirited idealist agricultural economist who turned what began as a public spirited office pick me up – bringing in cream cheese bagels into work for his colleagues – into a business. When he got sick of the corporate world he set himself up as a Bagel Man, selling his bagels on an ‘honesty box’ basis to different offices. He suggested a voluntary price of $1 a bagel and factored in a five per cent ‘selfishness’ tax of people who would happily help themselves without paying, which he had to calibrate to between ten per cent and 20 per cent depending on the office. The higher up the corporate ladder his customers and the bigger the company, the higher the percentage of pilfering.

Perhaps the richer people got the less value they put on a dollar and subsequently on that of other people. “It’s only a dollar, what difference does it make?” Well obviously, when you’re making and selling a couple of hundred a day, quite a lot.

The honesty box tradition, in my experience, works very well when restricted to selling fruit, veggies and flowers from a trestle table or an upended crate at the side of the road in villages where everyone not only knows your name, but your car registration number and your mum. Now, it’s apparently taking root very successfully in the big bad city where artisan bakers, community-minded café owners and restaurants are using them to drum up trade and publicity.

My only experience of this was years ago, in a lovely restaurant called Just Around The Corner that served fabulous French food with no bill, asking diners to pay what they thought the meal deserved. The food was wonderful, but all I can remember about it is the squirmingly embarrassing experience of working out the price. It made the traditional “but I only had the rice” wrangles over bills for student outings to Curry Mile seem like a Buddhist retreat in comparison.

The theory is fabulous – good quality food available to all because those who can afford it supplement those who can’t, but I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. If I want to have an excruciating guilt-tripping conversation about the price of a cup of tea and a designer butterfly bun, I’ll wait a couple of weeks and head for the PTA cake sale when the new uber-keen reception mums are in charge.

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