The Bad Man's View: Home Robbery as Opportunity

If you get robbed: make lemons into lemonade. (Photo: BananaStock)

One of the occupational hazards of teaching law is that I often take what Oliver Wendell Holmes called a “bad man’s view” of human motivation (my beloved spouse just told me this is the understatement of the century). Holmes, in his paradigm shifting “The Paths of the Law,” said :

If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.

I find that this cynical tool for legal prediction – which parallels a presumption of narrow economic self-interest – often guides the way I interpret actions and events.

For example, Staples has a television ad in fairly heavy rotation where a young couple returns to their home only to discover that they’ve been robbed.  The house is basically stripped bare of its TV, stereo and most of its furniture.

But in the next room, the couple discovers that the thieves didn’t take the computer.  The woman thinks for a moment and then says “Maybe, it’s time for a new one.”

Cut to a Staples store, where the couple has just bought a snazzy laptop and the man happily concludes. “Now this is something they would steal.”

Others have commented on the perversity of the ad (if they had had a nicer computer they might have lost their wedding video, baby pictures, and taxes documents), but after several viewings it occurred to me that the ad might be subversively read as suggesting that the couple may have committed a criminal offense.

Can you see why?

Here’s a hint. Thinking about the telephone calls the couple is about to make when the woman concludes that it’s an opportune time to buy a new computer.

If they have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, they are about to call their insurance agent (as well as the police).

It might have occurred the couple that it was a good time to buy a new computer because they have a chance to commit insurance fraud and falsely claim to the insurance company that their decrepit old computer was stolen along with their other belongings. From the bad man’s perspective, now may be a good time to buy a new computer, because the insurance company will pay for it. (Of course, having Staples transfer your files from the old computer would be riskier if the couple was simultaneously telling its insurance company and the police that the old computer had just been stolen).

I’m pretty sure that this fraud reading of the commercial is not one that the authors intended – so it’s not one of the hidden messages that I’ve found in Crocodile Dundee or the Lion King. But the bad man’s view suggests a perverse way that insured victims of crime can immorally turn lemons into lemonade. An added benefit of putting Lojack in computers and flat-screen TVs is that it might help keep down the prevalence of insurance fraud.


Ann

You and every other economist I know are obsessed with Lojack. Considering the cost/benefit ratio, it makes sense. I just love that you found an opportunity to plug it in at the end.

Nick

My house was burglarized about a month ago and my 3-year old HP laptop was left untouched while a brand new iPad 2 was taken. I actually said something to the cop about how the burglar must've known his electronics. Then I saw the commercial maybe a week later and it really hit home. However, the fraud aspect never crossed my mind.

MW

I admit I'm going off topic here, but:
If you've been subjected to the professional attention of a teacher, you have been "taught", not "teacherized". In the same way, if you've been subjected to the professional attention of a burglar, you've been "burgled", not "burglarized".

I'm not against neologism, but "burglarized" is inferior to "burgled" in every way - it is longer, more ugly and more complex (it is the result of 3 modifiers to the base word "burgle", two of which ('-ar' and '-ize') simply undo each other, compared to just one modifier for "burgled".)

I'm sorry you got burgled. I'm glad that insurance fraud opportunities do not spring to your mind.

Nick

MW, you're completely wrong. "Burglarized" is actually a word that you can find in any dictionary (unlike "teacherized") and the use of an established word that goes against your stylistic preferences should not be confused with neologism.

J

You're really overthinking the Staples commercial. It's meant to be funny, not cynical. Also, it's pretty clear you have (or think you have) replacement cost coverage, rather than (the much more common) ACV coverage. Might want to check that policy.

"I find that this cynical tool for legal prediction – which parallels a presumption of narrow economic self-interest – often guides the way I interpret actions and events"

That can be extremely inaccurate. Ideology (including moral beliefs) is an exponentially more powerful motivator than economic self interest (which is pretty powerful itself).

Eric020

Does it make you evil if you actually thought of that explanation *before* you realised the couple could actually also *not* be breaking the law?

Joe

In the Staples commercial, the house was burgled, not robbed. Similarly, the photo in this post of of a burglary, not a robbery.

James

We might insert a thought about social expectations of obsolescence. Why do you these folks need a new computer? The old one is perfectly adequate for anything the average not-hardcore-gamer will do - and in fact probably uses only a few percent of its potential computing power.

Jim

I remember well an incident at a party where a blowhard was bragging about how he "tacked on" about $3,000 more to his actual losses in a robbery. Another co-worker then said "What a coincidence I just knocked over a liquor store and also got $3,000.
Some people there utterly failed to get the irony.

J

Why people think it's OK to steal from an insurance company might be a good idea for a post. Many people do not think what blowhard was bragging about amounted to theft; I know two attorneys (at least - I have discussed this issue specifically with these two) I consider very moral "pillar of the community" types, who sincerely believe that if you have not recovered in loss claims every penny you've ever paid in premiums, your insurance company has stolen that money from you.

Shane

Others suffer the Good Man's View. They predict that people will not cynically take advantage of, say, social welfare systems because they themselves are honest and would not do such a thing.

An amusing fictional example is in Terry Pratchett's "The Fifth Elephant", in which a priceless dwarvish artefact is apparently stolen from the dwarves. A very cynical human police officer is thinking the case over and realises that the dwarvish guards were poorly chosen because they were honourable. It would have been better to employ guards with "devious little minds" because they would think like criminals and spot potential flaws in the security system!

"You wanted sneaky people for a job like this."