One type of news item I notice often – because it confirms a belief that I like to maintain – reports that a recent psychological study has found that the most effective way to give yourself a quick happiness fix is to do someone else a favour. The most recent I remember reported, for example, that while visiting a favourite place might lift you out of the glums, doing someone a favour was more likely to do it. So when I visited a local coffee shop that offered ‘delayed coffee’ recently I made a point of buying one.
A ‘delayed coffee’ is a cup of coffee that you buy for a complete stranger. You pay for the coffee and at some later time someone else who’s stuck for the price of a coffee can come in and get one free of charge.
Described in those bald terms spending money that you could use to buy a scratchie or shove into a pokie machine on a ‘delayed coffee’ looks economically naïve. In either of the two latter options you at least have the prospect of getting some return – however small and improbable – on your expenditure.
Buying a cup of coffee for someone who may never turn up to claim it gets you no return whatsoever. Even if someone turns up looking to claim the coffee you’ve paid for, it’s possible that they won’t be the down and out homeless person you think you’re helping but some grasping little git who’s too lazy to walk to an ATM to cash up and too tight-fisted to pay EFTPOS transaction fees.
Even if someone whom you would believe does deserve your charity turns up to claim it, your local cafe proprietor might have given up on ‘delayed coffee’ because the only customers who take them up are obviously cashed up self-serving bastards and she’s sick of being taken for a mug. So what’s the value proposition? Where’s the economic utility for buyers of ‘delayed coffees’?
The answers to these questions won’t be found in the realm of physical satisfaction, as used by Alfred Marshall (as I recall) to explicate the notion of diminishing marginal utility, according to which a hungry economist will gain much satisfaction from his first plate of roast beef with all the trimmings in the dining room of his West End club, somewhat less from his second and, after he has finished that, will happily pass up on a third and spend his remaining cash on a trip to Whitechapel in pursuit of more intense, if somewhat debauched, pleasures. Whatever satisfaction I might gain from buying a cup of coffee for an unknown and possibly non-existent stranger, it’s neither physical nor debauched.
Nor will we find the answer in the realm of monetary gain, since buying a ‘delayed coffee’ is a transaction with no possible monetary return. The answer lies outside the two realms we most immediately associate with economics – the exchange of money for physical goods and the more abstract exchange of money for future monetary return.
Delayed coffee, although it can be force-fitted into the realm of service provision, is an abstract good and its purchase returns abstract satisfactions. Such as the satisfaction – however spurious – of feeling for at least a few minutes that one is a contributing member of society with the capacity to help others. It’s also – and just as gratifyingly – a brief exercise in trusting others to act honestly and deal with your gift as it is intended. Most immediately, you’re trusting the seller to pass on the delayed coffee at an appropriate time.
Buying a delayed coffee gratifies a desire to experience a fuller sense of our own humanity. To experience ourselves as social creatures with social ties, however tenuous, and pro-social motivations, however weak. For the price of a cup of coffee we obtain the self-satisfied warm inner glow of the charitable.
I suspect (and some might be able to demonstrate empirically, if it hasn’t been done already) that this self-satisfied warm inner glow might have more value to its consumers the further down the income and class scale they are. This suspicion would be empirically supported if you could show that, on average, people at the lower end of the income scale spend a greater proportion of their income on charity than those at the upper end. It’s a behaviour well exemplified in the Biblical story of the widow’s mite(s):
1 And [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,
However, if empirical evidence supports my suspicion, the explanation for this behaviour would remain a matter of controversy. Does the widow behave the way she does because:
- She believes that her two mites will help someone else who is worse off than she is?
- She believes that, in the long run, she will get her two mites back, along with all the other mites she has donated to the temple treasury?
- She believes that by surrendering as much of her income as she can to the temple, she insures the future existence of an institution she will come to rely on in old age?
Those are all interesting questions but, for me, two more interesting questions presented themselves while I was writing this post: how the hell did our experience of ourselves as social creatures with social ties and pro-social motivations become a scarce economic good? And how the hell did it get privatised?