In their popular book, Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner relate the story of small bagel- delivery service started by Paul Feldman, an agricultural economist, while he was working as a weapons analysts for the US Navy in Washington DC.
Feldman would deliver bagels to his colleagues every day along with a serrated knife and cream cheese. The innovation lay in the payment system, which was based on an ‘honour system’, with Feldman leaving a ‘cash basket’ along with a sign of a suggested price to cover his costs.
Eventually, he felt sufficiently confident in his enterprise to leave his analytical job and to transform the bagel service into a fully fledged business, delivering 8 400 bagels a week to 140 companies in the Washington area.
Now Levitt and Dubner have extracted a number of interesting moral and economic lessons from this system of payment, which they were able to garner from Feldman’s meticulous record keeping.
However, there is one key lesson that I would like to ponder further, as I feel it has much relevance to the state of things in South Africa today.
When Feldman started his business, he expected a 95% payment rate, based on the experience at his own office. But that rate turned out to be artificially high, parti- cularly when Feldman was supplying to businesses where he was an anonymous entity rather than a valued colleague.
Eventually, he considered a payment rate between 80% and 90% “annoying but tolerable”.
But through is meticulous collection of data, Feldman also stumbled across another factor: employees further up the corporate ladder cheated more than those below.
After delivering bagels to one company spread over three floors, with the executive floor on the top and the two lower floors occupied by sales, service, and administrative employees, Feldman found that the executives abused the ‘honour system’ far more than their subordinates.
Levitt and Dubner related how Feldman interpreted this as the executives possessing “an overdeveloped sense of entitlement”, while the authors mused: “Perhaps cheating was how they came to be executives.”
Culture of Entitlement
This got me thinking about the issues of entitlement and cheating and how they apply to the prevailing South African experience.
But before I unpack these matters, it might also be instructive to ponder the words used by Tiger Woods, who is now sadly regarded as a serial deceiver, during his initial public apology in February.
In a highly stage-managed event, Woods blamed an overinflated sense of entitlement for his recent marital indiscretions. “I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled,” the elite golfer lamented.
Now, Woods’ statement offers something of a mirror into which we, as South Africans, can gaze when considering the unhappy matters of cheating and entitlement.
The question for me is just how many South Africans are currently burdened by this same overinflated sense of entitlement?
The answer is complicated, because, in the main, I don’t think many South Africans feel this way.
To be sure, if poor South Africans did genuinely feel such entitlement, the service delivery protests would be far more violent and there would be no way to contain the anger from flowing over into the cities and the richer suburbs.
Then again, South Africa has a chronic and frighteningly violent crime problem, which, arguably, has its roots in poverty. But, such thuggery is more the exception than the norm, with most South Africans still trying to improve their lots through honest endeavour.
However, there appears to be a dispro-portionate number of individuals among this country’s political and business elites for whom the sense of entitlement appears to know few, if any, bounds.
Unfortunately, the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League seems to be somewhat top heavy with the most obtuse examples of such individuals, epitomised by their ‘tenderpreneurial’ leader, Julius Malema.
So overdeveloped, it seems, is Malema’s sense of entitlement that he feels no embarrassment when speaking on behalf of the country’s most vulnerable, while living a lifestyle that appears wholly insensitive to the plight of the poor, as well as those who have truly taken an option to serve the poor.
Perhaps, he has learned from those ANC veterans, who seem to have more than readily forsaken the values of the ‘struggle’ that was so bravely fought, often without much heed to personal gain or safety.
Then there is the entitlement of the boardroom, where executives or managers have, by commission or omission, allowed awful safety, poor environmental and unhealthy business practices to develop, or to go unchecked.
Revelations about all manner of anti- competitive behaviour, from collusion and price fixing through to excessive pricing, have gone a long way to prove just how deeply entrenched this sense of entitlement is within corporate South Africa.
Arguably, such developments just go to prove the musing of Levitt and Dubner that “cheating was how they came to be executives”.
For this reason, the competition authorities should be praised to the hilt for their efforts at unearthing such destructive behaviour.
If only such effective institutions could be created to expose and prosecute those abusing their political positions.
Who knows, perhaps Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has just such a remedy in mind – but we won’t hold our collective breath.