YOU DECIDE: Can good deeds and economics coincide?

Date posted: April 15, 2011

Dr. Michael Walden is William Neal Reynolds professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University.Dr. Michael Walden is William Neal Reynolds professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University.

Media Contact: Dr. Mike Walden, 919.515.4671 or michael_walden@ncsu.edu

By Dr. Mike Walden
North Carolina Cooperative Extension

I was in a different state and on an unfamiliar road. Suddenly, and without warning, I heard a loud pop, about like a gunshot. Then I felt the vehicle sag, and I knew exactly what had happened, a flat tire.

A piece of wood had flown out of the pickup truck in front of me, and I couldn’t avoid it. My left front tire went over it and was shredded. I thought there was no way I would make it to my meeting.

I limped off the interstate and into the parking lot of a convenience store. I was driving a rental vehicle with a tire jack I’d never seen before and didn’t know how to use. But before I could call the auto club, the first of four special events occurred.

A young man in, how should I phrase it, full contemporary attire — shaved head, body piercing and tattoos galore — approached me. My reaction was caution. However, he extended his hand, said I looked to be in trouble, and offered to help.

Almost before I could say “yes,” he had the spare tire out (it was under the vehicle), expertly assembled the jack, quickly removed the torn tire and installed the spare, all in the span of 15 minutes. As I watched in amazement, he smiled and assured me the jack of this particular vehicle was different. But he had plenty of experience changing tires.

With the job complete, I offered to pay my new friend.  He shook his head no and stated he tried to do five good deeds a day, and this was number three, so he had two to go!

Renewed by this act of kindness, I arrived at my meeting on time. Afterward, and thinking that the rental company would impose a large expense for the tire, I decided to purchase a replacement myself. The decision resulted in three more good deeds.

Using the GPS on my cell phone, I located the closest big box store with a tire department and hurried to its location. It was approaching 6 p.m. Fortunately, the store’s tire department was still open, but the tire I needed wasn’t available.

The workers at the big box store could have shrugged their collective shoulders and said, “too bad.” But they didn’t. Instead, they gave me perfect directions to a tire store a couple of miles away that they were certain would have my tire.

By the time I arrived it was after 6, when the store closed. But the manager was still there, and he waved me inside. Patiently listening to my story, he checked his inventory. Ironically, earlier in the day he had had four of the tires I needed, but sold all four just hours before.

Again, the story could have ended there, but it didn’t. The manager had an idea. He called one of his colleagues who managed the same tire store in another part of the city. Not only did the manager have my tire, but he agreed to stay open until I arrived and would change the tire that night.

Once again I was on the move, and 30 minutes later pulled in to the second tire store. The manager and his crew were waiting and ready, and in another 20 minutes I had the new tire on the vehicle and was headed back to the hotel.

So what does my tale of good deeds have to do with economics? Isn’t economics just the opposite; about cutthroat competition, profits at all costs and “me, me, me”?

Actually not; or at least, not always. Take the tattooed and pierced young man who put on the spare tire. He liked to do good deeds. In economics, this means good deeds gave him personal satisfaction. Everything we do doesn’t need to result in a monetary reward. Some of the best compensation comes in other ways.

The big box employees who pointed me in the direction of the tire company could also have been motivated by the personal satisfaction of helping a stranger. Yet they also created an image of good will for their company that I will remember.

The managers of the two tire franchises were practicing smart customer relations. They illustrated the principle that most economic transactions are win-win trades. I received the new tire, and they likely received a customer for life!

Economics has often been called the dismal science. I think my story gives solid evidence of a contrary view, but you decide!

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Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences communications unit provides his You Decide column every two weeks. Previous columns are available at http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agcomm/news-center/tag/you-decide/

Related audio files are at http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agcomm/news-center/category/economic-perspective/

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