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The Nazis Had Pieces of Flair They Made the Jews Wear: Morality in Office Space

June 28, 2010

(Warning: long post)

I’ve seen Office Space a million times.  Okay, maybe not a million times, but at least around a hundred times.  I’ve seen it enough times to know that the consultants (Bobs’) surnames are Slydell and Porter and that Lumbergh leaves 17 messages on Peter’s phone when he doesn’t show up to work on Saturday and that the beer Peter and Michael Bolton drink is Dos Equis and that, at Chotchkie’s, they require 37 pieces of flair and that the bottom-left square (or is it bottom-right?) on Tom Smykowski’s “Jump to Conclusions” mat says “Moot!” on it.  That’s just off the top of my head.  BUT, as I was watching it yesterday, I finally realized the morality issue inherent in the scheme that Peter, Michael, and Samir pull at Initech’s expense.  Here’s Peter explaining it to a smoking hot Jennifer Aniston:

Peter Gibbons: [Explaining the plan] Alright so when the sub routine compounds the interest it uses all these extra decimal places that just get rounded off. So we simplified the whole thing, we rounded them all down, drop the remainder into an account we opened.
Joanna: [Confused] So you’re stealing?
Peter Gibbons: Ah no, you don’t understand. It’s very complicated. It’s uh it’s aggregate, so I’m talking about fractions of a penny here. And over time they add up to a lot.
Joanna: Oh okay. So you’re gonna be making a lot of money, right?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah.
Joanna: Right. It’s not yours?
Peter Gibbons: Well it becomes ours.
Joanna: How is that not stealing?
Peter Gibbons: [pauses] I don’t think I’m explaining this very well.
Joanna: Okay.
Peter Gibbons: Um… the 7-11. You take a penny from the tray, right?
Joanna: From the cripple children?
Peter Gibbons: No that’s the jar. I’m talking about the tray. You know the pennies that are for everybody?
Joanna: Oh for everybody. Okay.
Peter Gibbons: Well those are whole pennies, right? I’m just talking about fractions of a penny here. But we do it from a much bigger tray and we do it a couple a million times.

Basically, Initech pays out interest to certain parties, which it computes via, well, computer and then rounds off, paying said rounded off amount to whatever party is in question.  Peter, Michael, and Samir devise a plan to round down these remainders and aggregate them into an account they open, which doesn’t actually work because they misplace a decimal point (“some Monday detail” to Michael) and gather $303,326.13 in a matter of three days (that’s strictly from memory, by the by).  The moral issue, though, is what I find interesting.  Is it really that wrong to do what these cats did in attempting to steal oodles of money from their former company in order to be able to retire in their late 20s?  Well, is it, punk?

Let’s try a little experiment here.  Suppose this cat named Stephen loans this other cat named Ryan $10.  Stephen lets Ryan borrow this $10 on the condition that Ryan pay him back the very next day, Tuesday, say, or else Ryan will have to pay him back at 6% daily interest (not that Stephen needs it anyway).  Suppose Ryan hits for the cycle on Tuesday and is just too caught up in celebrating and having a good time and socializing with hot chicks that night to remember to pay Stephen back.  So he pays him back on Wednesday after his hangover wears off (yeah, it was that kind of hangover).  Now, as Stephen and Ryan both know, Ryan does not owe Stephen a simple $10.  He now owes him a cool $10.60.

However, an arbitrary rule is introduced into this situtation.  Ryan cannot pay Stephen with any coin — the smallest amount of currency he can use is $1.  Ballplayers don’t carry change on them at all times, and let’s just stipulate that both Ryan and Stephen agreed that they wouldn’t be paying each other in coin.  So Ryan owes Stephen $10.60, but, since he can’t pay with change, that is of course rounded up to $11.  Suppose a clever guy like me were to come in and create a computer program that rounded that $11 back down to $10.60 — i.e., Stephen would still get his money plus interest, but that extra money that Ryan spent due to the rules of the game would not go to Stephen, but instead would go directly toward the enlargement of my stamp collection.

Okay, you got me: I don’t collect stamps.  Whatever: it was a worthwhile example.  Now, let’s switch up the terms a bit.  Suppose Stephen charged 4% interest instead of 6.  That means that, if Ryan paid Stephen back on Wednesday, then he would owe $10 instead of $11 because of the stated, arbitrary rules that no coin be used in payment, unless you exist in some bizarre universe where 4 rounds up to the next decimal place.  In this situation, Ryan loses out because of my program — he would have saved himself an extra 40 cents, but my program rounded down his payment and took those rounding errors with it.

This leaves us with two similar situations.  In Case I, the thief (and he is a thief, by legal standards), is taking from the lender.  However, he’s not taking from the lender anything that the lender is owed — nay, the lender is simply owed his original loan plus interest, which is $10.60 in this instance.  The extra 40 cents Ryan pays is just a byproduct of an arbitrary rule set by way of convenience — just because nobody likes to carry around quarters because it makes it harder to get your keys out of your pocket at the end of the day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry around quarters.  Ryan pays an extra 40 cents because of some random rules, and some third-party player benefits because of the rules — Stephen shouldn’t care because he got paid his fair share anyway.  The converse is true as well.  In Case II, Ryan is the beneficiary because he avoids having to pay interest a’tall due to his low interest rate.  Thus Stephen gets no benefit, having been out his Hamilton for two days and receiving a sole Hamilton in return.  Ryan benefits, having borrowed $10, paid $10, and avoided paying interest because of a rounding rule specified when the loan was made.  So my program takes from the borrower, rounding down his payment and dropping that extra 40 cents into an account that I opened.

So, in Case I, the thief is taking from the lender what he isn’t owed, and in Case II, the thief is taking from the borrower what he owes. In fact, he is removing the luck from the equation as much as he is stealing from lenders and borrowers.  The lender gets paid what he should have — in Case I, he gets exactly the amount he was owed (if you set rounding aside), and in Case II, he gets what he is owed based on some arbitrary rules that were decided when he initially gave the lender that ten bucks.  The borrower, on the other hand, pays exactly what he should have — in Case I, he pays what he owes based on the rounding rules, and in Case II, he pays exactly what he owes based on the interest rate (if you set rounding aside).  Basically, my program has made it impossible to benefit from the rules.  You’re either going to pay exactly what you owe or a little more, and you’re either going to get paid exactly what is owed you or a little less, and that little less is not the money I took from you but the money that the rounding rules stipulated that you don’t get.

Now, the moral question here is obvious: can you just arbitrarily set rounding aside?  It depends on how you feel about the morality inherent in contractual obligations between two parties that feature arbitrary rules adopted for convenience.  In this situation, it is not I doing the stealing but the rule that says you have to pay $11 if you owe $10.50.  The issue is that I’m not eliminating what I see to be the randomness of the rule in order to give the extra money you paid back to you.  Instead, I’m taking that money and going to Vegas this weekend.

So, for me, this devolves into a question of whether actions are morally wrong just because they’re legally wrong.  Usually, theft doesn’t really compare to things like speeding and jaywalking (hey, we were talking about this yesterday!) because no matter how big of an asshole Terry Benedict is, he still earned his money legally and you have to exert some moral flexibility to just take it from him, regardless of whether the insurance company gave it all back to him — by extension, Danny Ocean is stealing from the insurance company, and that’s still wrong even if you hate insurance companies.  But, in my case, I’m not taking your hard-earned dollars out from underneath your mattress.  I’m taking money that should be legally returned to you based on a random outcome in an interest payment computation.  And the randomness of the ballplayer scenario is true of the Office Space scenario too — the remainders that the software engineers stole were based on the decimal place to which the guys who wrote the bank software decided to round.  And that decision wasn’t a moral one.  The Initech brass just didn’t want to deal with endless streams of irrational numbers.  And I took that decision and altered a little bit — specifically, I made it more precise.

I don’t think this is unconditionally ethical behavior.  Even if the restrictions are arbitrary, there was still an expectation that Ryan would only have to pay Stephen $10 if he paid him back by Wednesday when the interest rate is 4%.  At the same time, I don’t think this is unconditionally immoral behavior.  I just took some tiny amounts from you that you didn’t want to deal with anyway precisely because the amounts were so tiny.  On the black-and-white scale, this one is a little gray.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    January 1, 2012 7:35 PM

    It was $305,326.13.

  2. Ben permalink
    July 8, 2012 11:44 PM

    Chotchkies only required 15 pieces of flair. You clearly need to watch the movie at least 100 more times.

  3. tyler permalink
    January 10, 2013 9:29 PM

    lol cat named stephen=cat stephens…

  4. Justin permalink
    June 11, 2013 10:37 AM

    Why?

  5. george permalink
    July 6, 2013 11:21 PM

    You fucking moron

  6. Tim permalink
    August 9, 2013 12:42 AM

    Here is the one thing you did not consider; in the baseball players example, both players know the rules of your computer program and have agreed to the stipulations therein for the settlement of debts. Conversely, Initech had no knowledge of Michael, Samir and Peter’s plan, since they covertly installed the program into the Initech mainframe. This deception is what makes the their actions immoral.

  7. ladiebug permalink
    September 3, 2016 1:47 AM

    It’s not a “Monday” detail, lol, the word is MUNDANE.

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