Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Andrei Tribute and the spoils of power

When I was a lot younger than I am now I had an after school job in a big hardware come paint store.

There were three tiers of customers in that store - the hoi poli who paid the full price, trade who got a 10% discount (if I recall correctly) and wholesale who paid a margin a little over cost. In those far off days we had a book with each item we sold tallied with the three applicable prices written along side.

Now this may come as a surprise to younger readers who will be imagining, I guess, an establishment like the big hardware stores of today and will be visualizing yours truly sitting with bored expression at a checkout counter ringing up the customers purchases but in those far off times when someone entered the store we were taught to greet them, by name if we knew it, and to inquire if there was anything we could assist them with.

When a sale was made it was de rigeur for all but the smallest of purchases to take them to the customers car or to offer to anyway.

Now one day a woman entered the store, a woman extremely well turned out, far beyond anything normally encountered in that place. As it happened I knew who she was and did my thing of greeting her as was normal. She was in fact the wife of our local MP, a cabinet minister with some degree of local celebrityhood on her own account.

But my boss's boss the manager of the whole caboodle spotted her from his office and quickly rushed out to attend to her needs and I was shoved aside (almost literally, no sixteen year old shop boy for her, natch) And you should have seen this, his obsequious manner and her patrician graces and myself standing aside in wry amusement.

Anyway I gathered up the things she desired and carried them over to the counter and waited while the big boss tallied up the price at wholesale rates which he then rounded down to the nearest $10. The point was clearly made to her that she was getting her stuff at cost near enough, a point taken I guess but not acknowledged.

Anyway I put the stuff in her car and she didn't even say thank you, I have never forgotten this, its not resentment, it was her manner of overwheleming superiority that has stuck with me. She was a handsome woman, turned out to a tee and I a mere shop boy.

I was reminded of this reading about Taito Philip Field and the stories in recent days of Cabinet Ministers little goodies and how we pat ourselves on the back and say we don't have a culture of political corruption.

And it seems to me that my boss behaved towards that woman the way he did purely on the basis of who she was (or more precisely on who her husband was) and that he hoped that by treating her generously now that future business including new government business might come his way. And although in a strict legal sense no cash changed hands, in reality it did in terms of an extremely favorable discount that most certainly would not be given to the average joe and the place would go bankrupt if it were. "A sprat to catch a mackerel" was the phrase he used at the time I recall.

But all of this is just our normal way of doing business - the trouble comes when we look at other cultures and their "normal way of doing business" and call it corrupt when maybe its just their way of oiling the wheels of commerce. It all comes down to paying tribute to the powerful in order to carry on with our daily functions.

Just a thought

4 comment(s):

Sean said...

If that's your idea of corruption then no wonder NZ leads the no-corruption tables. And that's a good thing.

People have their flaws, sadly it's human nature. As you said the branch manager saw a potentially influential customer and acted accordingly, like any good salesman would. So she (the customer) didn't say thank-you when you put her goods in the boot. This personality failure I would not link to the managers reaction.

At the end of the day no harm done. What we need to be careful of is when real corruption becomes "acceptable". By this I mean when discounts (even backhanders) are given with no true or perceived value to the business. i.e. when it becomes personal.

Andrei said...

If that's your idea of corruption then no wonder NZ leads the no-corruption tables. And that's a good thing.

But we are defining what is or isn't corrupt in our own terms to achieve this standing don't you think Sean.

When you see other cultures they seem strange but when you look deeper they are they much the same with the same behaviors just manifested differently.

People have their flaws, sadly it's human nature.

Thats the real point of my post I think Sean.

Sean said...

"But we are defining..."
- indeed.

squaredrive said...

I agree Andrei! I have often said that NZ corruption does not come in the form of used $20 bills in a brown paper envelope, but it is there.

Discount prices or freebies for 'important' people, free (house) work in exchange for (immigration) help (Taito), appointing the 'right' people to charitable trusts to ensure the funds go to other 'right' people (think recent pokie pub charity trusts feeding the lucre to rugby/league mates through false invoices), etc, etc.

Australia have recognised that these are the expressions of our Anzac forms of corruption, and they have independent commissions to weed out and prosecute corruption (can't use police, they were among the chief suspects!). Recent Queensland MPs convictions show the problem is still there over the ditch, and it is here too. Recall ex-NZ First MP Tuariki John Delamere's acquital on immigration fraud charges? (I thought he was v. lucky to get off what looked like a straightforward case).

Transparency is the answer - sunlight is the best disinfectant!

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