There are all sorts of debates in economics about whether behavior can be explained in economic terms and a recent essay in Le Monde brought these back to mind in an interesting and funny way. The author, Didier Porte (photo below) is a French humorist and media personality. In the piece he recounts getting a call from the PR agency representing the (French, by the way) car maker Puegeot. The agency was calling to invite Porte to apply to be the voice of Peugeot’s new ad campaign.

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Porte is apparently appalled by Peugeot’s labor practices (it has recently been criticized for seemingly rational layoffs in a terrible car market), so his first reaction is to pass on the offer and be done with it. That is, until he hears that the minimum payment for about 20 hours worth of work is about 340,000 Euros and that 400,000 Euros might even be possible.

At this point, things get funny and interesting. Perhaps, Porte, wonders, it would be possible to shill for Peugeot ironically. “They’re going to lay off 6,000 people,” he says, “let’s sell some cars in protest.” Then of course, his agent makes another argument, this one more subtle. “Well, we could take the money and then redistribute it.” This line has real promise but it makes sense, notes Porte, to keep some money to pay the taxes, and of course, for administrative expenses, etc. Let’s not forget that, since all labor should be paid a fair wage, it’s important that Porte be paid something for the 20 hours in the studio. And so on and so on goes the slippery slope…

In the end, Porte turns down the offer but why did he do it? Refreshingly, he doesn’t claim it was his stand against capitalism but the simple fact that becoming the voice of Peugeot would alienate his core audience and so cause him more economic damage in the long term than 400,000 Euros.

Besides concluding that even socialists understand strategy, what else does this little story suggest? First of all, that for most people, ethical choices that involve money raise an especially tricky issue of present/actual versus future/potential benefit. These four dimensions form the dynamic under which many of these decisions are made and making them while staring a pot of gold is not easy for anyone. Interestingly, Porte says in a “PS” that ” he never had a choice” but indeed he did. He chose his long term economic interest. That it happened to match his “ethical” position was a happy a happy coincidence this time. Will that be the case when the next call comes?

The full piece can be found here: http://abonnes.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2013/01/09/comment-j-ai-fini-par-refuser-un-jackpot-de-340-000-euros_1814534_3232.html

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Posted by Carlos Alvarenga

Carlos Alvarenga is the Executive Director of World 50 ThinkLabs and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

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