Delayed Coffee and the Widow’s Mite

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,

2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites.

3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all;

4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” (Luke 21)

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?

About Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)

Gummo Trotsky is the on-line persona of Paul Bamford. Paul recently placed his intellect at risk of finally becoming productive by enrolling in a Lemonade, Lime & Bitters degree via distance education. He also plays the piano but Keith Jarrett he ain't.
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conrad
conrad
8 years ago

I think your last paragraph isn’t generally accepted in some areas — there’s a fair bit of relatively recent work looking at infants in psychology, and even they show pro-social behavior for not obvious gain, despite having pretty limited capacity to do things. People have used this as an argument that (most) people are generally hard-wired to be nice to each other. Some types of monkey do this to a lesser extent also.

Your example is actually potentially atypical because typically people look at doing good deeds to help people that need it, rather than doing good deeds just to make others who might be feeling good feel better. But you’ve also framed in terms of helping yourself, in which case one could argue it isn’t an altruistic event. Alternatively, one could argue that you would have done it anyway, and feeling good is just a by-product of the event, not the cause. I’ll put my money on the first, although you can’t distinguish between them easily since the act and outcome are the same.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

Gummo
By chance the sermon on Sunday was about the black dog and generosity.
Ecclesiastes is a despairing sort of text: work hard, acquire wisdom and it will all be inherited by idiots sort of stuff: (it is also great poetry)

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

In Luke, Christ offers this parable- a sort of get out of jail response:

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
8 years ago
Reply to  john r walker

I’m getting to like your take on things . . .

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  Ingolf Eide

I will pas the compliment on to our priest, think she will laugh.

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
8 years ago
Reply to  john r walker

No undue modesty now.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  john r walker

:-)

Paul H
Paul H
8 years ago

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.

You might be interested in this article from The Atlantic which states that:

One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/why-the-rich-dont-give/309254/

Paul H
Paul H
8 years ago

1 And [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,

2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites.

3 So He said, “Is that all you’re giving, bitch? Two small, parasitic arachnids?”

4 And then He cast a fireball from His fingertips, inflicting 35 hit points of damage upon the widow, and reducing her to a small pile of ash.

The Gospel of Luke, updated.