Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nebulous wholesome nouns are important things

Today at lunch I wasn't charged for my samosa.  I noticed it at checkout and purposely didn't mention it to the cafeteria lady.  Errors at checkout just happen—sometimes they overcharge me and sometimes they undercharge me, and I don't mention it either way because I figure that it will roughly balance itself out over time.  I believe this to be a moral course of action.  But I already wrote what I think was a pretty good post on these sorts of moral trivialities so I don't feel a need to write another one.

What I wondered about on the way to my office is why it matters.  Why does it matter to do the right thing on such an incredibly trivial issue?  It's extremely difficult to argue that if it were immoral for me to have not mentioned the existence of that samosa on my plate (thereby effectively stealing it), to have mentioned it would have made the world a better place.  At face value, it would have transferred two dollars from my account to that of a corporation.  The effect on my life: miniscule; the effect on the lives of that corporation's shareholders: negligible.  So why does it matter?

Always doing the right thing is important to me, because I strive to be the best person that I can be.  But it's also important to me that things matter and that there's a reason for things, because I'm an engineer, and because I'm an INTJ.

The epiphany I had on the trek back to my office really intrigued me: maybe always doing the right thing on the little issues matters because it primes and prepares and trains you to do the right thing on the big things that do matter.  Perhaps integrity and honor and love and all of those sorts of nebulous wholesome nouns are important things to strive for even when it comes to the most unimportant, everyday issues, because they are how we practice making decisions so that we can make the right ones when the time comes.

What I do know, though, is that God still loves me, because I bit into that samosa and there was meat inside.  Not just any meat, but beef.  There was ground-up dead cow inside of my Indian food.  It was delicious and culturally insensitive and the best samosa I've ever had.  God works in mysterious ways.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cashback bonus

I'd wondered off and on for a while why some credit card reward programs give you extra points or percent cashback for transactions at gas stations and restaurants.  And even though my card doesn't, I think the reason finally hit me while I was filling up my tank tonight: because those are the businesses that don't want to accept credit cards.

To oversimplify things a little bit, credit card companies charge fees to the businesses based on a percentage of the transaction cost.  The agreements that the businesses sign with Visa and the other credit companies prohibit them from passing those costs onto you on top of the purchase price, with very few exceptions.  They can offer a discount for paying with cash, but they can't charge you 2% more for paying with a card.  Anyway, generally gas stations and restaurants would make more money if everyone just paid in cash.  They accept credit cards because credit cards are convenient and people demand that they accept them.  Those few gas stations and restaurants that don't accept them lose business because of it—given a choice between two gas stations only one of which accepted credit cards, I'd always pick the one that accepted plastic unless there was like a 1-in-10 chance of being murdered at that one.  I hate dealing with cash.  Pretty much the only thing I use it for is splitting bills when I get dinner with friends; everything else goes on the card.

So why are gas stations and restaurants special?  I sure don't know, but it probably has something to do with margins.  2% on the total purchase price means a lot to a business with a 10% profit margin compared to one with a 40% profit margin.

So rather than reduce fees for gas stations and restaurants, the credit card companies chose to drive even greater demand for those businesses to accept credit cards by offering their customers extra rewards for shopping there (and insisting that the business continue to accept cards).  The customers presumably end up paying exactly the same amount for their gas as they would if things were less complicated—the gas stations just raise prices by a couple cents to cover the couple cents in credit card fees that they pay.  You pay the gas station a couple extra cents, the gas station begrudgingly gives it to the credit card company, and then the credit card company gives you back your couple of cents except now you're happy about it because it's a cashback bonus.

I have no idea if any of that is how it actually works.  But it seemed plausible at least.  Bear with me here, I'm new to weaving economic conspiracy theories.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Making the world a better place

I'm definitely a person who believes that creating art and beauty has value to the world—creating these things makes the world a better place for those who live here.  But I had a thought this morning that intrigued me: if we assume that creating art has value, do we also assume that the world must also be improved in some way simply by consuming art and appreciating beauty, even if you never create anything?  More so than other activities that make one happier?  I certainly feel that society is improved when people appreciate artwork, but I'm not sure that I can really articulate why.

Anyway, this is all a pretty good justification to spend 162 hours playing Skyrim.  It's making the world a better place.