Financial Ethics; May I Rip You Off?

There was a time when honesty ruled financial matters.  Evidently that time has long since disappeared.  Not a day goes by where there is not a story decrying the obnoxious and repulsive greediness that rules the western world.  I am left with one overriding question; when is enough ever going to be enough?  At every turn the rules of sanity have been turned upside down to where what is totally absurd is considered normal and what should be the norm is looked upon as crazy. 

A bike has handlebars.  Can we all agree on that?  It does not have a steering wheel, it has handle bars.  A brand new bike has handle bars that are squarely in alignment with the bike.  If a person sits on the seat of the bike, the handle bars form a U or a V directly in front of the rider.  This is the correct (and logical) way to position handle bars on a bike.  If a person rode the bike with handle bars in this position, they would have no problems steering.

But, take that bike and turn the handle bars to one side and tighten them.  Now the U or the V of the bars is pointed to one side or the other.  If an experienced bike rider got on the bike and tried to ride, he would immediately wreck the bike.  It would not be possible to drive with handle bars turned sideways. 

But, if a person who never rode a bike before was taught how to ride using the sideways bars, guess what?  They could learn to ride and steer with no problem.  Now, put the person who learned to ride with sideways bars on a normal bike.  The result would be an immediate crash.  That person would have the same problems adjusting to what is “normal” as the previous rider would have adjusting to the abnormal.  The question then becomes; what are we going to establish as normal and what is going to be askew?  Once the norm is set up, then everyone should abide by the norm.  Everyone should have handle bars that face forward and not to the side.

In England cars are driven on the opposite side of the road than in the United States.  Is one country right and the other wrong?  Of course not, it is a matter of the established norm.  People from the United States must conform to the English norm when driving in England and vice a versa.  No one takes offence at this agreement.  In fact, St. Ambrose is credited with stating:  “When in Rome, do as the Romans”.  Whether dealing with situational conduct or driving etiquette, few wiser words have ever been spoken.

The age old conundrum in all this is; what if Rome is wrong?  Is one to still “do as the Romans” even if doing it is not ethically right?  Let us say I visit someone’s home and they have a household rule that everyone in the house must slap the person next to them every hour on the hour.  As a guest, not wanting to offend the host, am I to start slapping people on the hour?  If I refuse, I will be escorted out and miss the fellowship.  If I “do as the Romans”, I compromise my own principles and betray myself.

We live in an age where laws are made to be broken and many people deliberately strive to “push the envelope” as far as possible, to get away with as much as possible.  Is the longstanding defense of; “everyone else does it” grounds to do whatever one wants to do whenever wanted?  Is it allowable to do whatever one feels like doing regardless of the harm it may cause others?  These questions define ethics and ethical questions hold few definitive answers.

People become very defensive when ethics are brought up in the context of financial compensation.  Capitalism is a very controversial subject when ethics are brought into the equation.  Just how much profit should one person be allowed to make off a transaction with another person?  Capitalism, or free market theory, would suggest the answer is; “as much as the other person allows him to make”.  This idea sounds legitimate except that it breeds dishonesty and opens the door wide to those whose character is shady and whose “sales skills” are slick and well sharpened.

I used to sell used cars many years ago.  I hated every minute it.  The whole business is built on lying to people.  The determination of the value of a trade-in is one of the most devious tactics ever devised by anyone to “rip people off”.  So what if a blue or yellow or black book says a vehicle is worth so much in such and such condition.  It is all objective.  It is impossible to be subjective in this situation.  There are a few honest vehicle dealers, but there are far more dishonest ones lurking as vultures waiting to pounce on a gullible naïve person who doesn’t know or has forgotten how to “play the game”.

I recently had a van break down while away from home.  The van had many problems, so I decided to see if I could find a replacement vehicle instead of trying to fix the broken one again.  I succeeded in negotiating what I thought was a fair deal on a five year old Dodge pickup that had less than 100,000 miles on it.  I had told the salesperson I was willing to let the dealership make $500 if they would just be fair with me.  He came back beaming for the manager agreed to the arrangement.  After a long day I drove home thinking I had made a fair and honest deal. 

The next morning I started the truck and the “check engine light” came on.  Driving to the nearest auto shop, I found out the truck needed $1,500 of work just to get the light to go out!  I was furious and called the manager where I had purchased the vehicle.  He proceeded to yell at me over the phone saying:   “You bought the vehicle AS IS so it is your problem”.   When I threatened legal action I was cussed at and hung up on.  This was coming from the used car manager at the biggest Chevrolet dealership in all of central Missouri. 

Ethically who was right and who was wrong in this situation?  Was I wrong because I trusted a car dealer to tell me the truth?  You bet I was wrong, and I paid dearly for my stupidity.  Was the used car manager at the dealership wrong for lying to me and yelling at me and refusing to fix a problem he knew existed prior to the sale?  In his mind he was not at fault, for in his business, lying is allowable and acceptable because “everyone does it”.  In other words, it is the established norm.

I took the truck to a Dodge dealer where it was established that a “quick fix” had caused the “check engine light” to not be lit up when I first drove the truck, but came back on after a day.  In other words, the dealership knew there were problems, covered them up, stuck an “As Is” sticker on the window and placed the truck on the lot.  I don’t know if this is legal, but I do know it is NOT ethical.

I traded the truck in the next day to a “Five Star” dealership who upon hearing what had happened wanted to do things right.  They showed me the paperwork for the van I wanted.  They brought in the used vehicle broker who showed me exactly what the truck I had purchased was really worth to a dealership.  They were willing to make a deal if they could make a profit of $250 with no tricks.  I agreed and have been happy with the van ever since.  Oh, by the way, they figured the previous dealership made around $2,500 profit on the transaction I was told was a $500 deal.

When dealing with those who smile and tell you “trust me” but all the while are lying through their teeth, what can you do?  If the adage of doing what they do in Rome holds true, then I guess you should lie right back at them.  But, do two wrongs make a right?  When I first was taught how to sell cars back in 1986, I was told it was allowable to lie to the customers because they always lied to the salesperson.  How is that for a new slant on; “when in Rome…”?

Is it possible to be an honest salesperson?  Of course it is and there are plenty of them out there.  But, in our greed driven society there is no profession more prone to dishonesty than sales where deals must be negotiated, especially with “trade ins”.  Is it right to “rip someone’s head off” if they allow you too?  Is it right for me to make a huge profit at your expense if I lied to you?  These are ethical questions that need to be addressed in our selfish, “it’s all about me” culture.  Trust me; there is still a need for defining what is right and what is wrong, especially when your hard earned money is at stake.


4 Responses to “Financial Ethics; May I Rip You Off?”

  1. November 5, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    I read with great interest your article. My daughter sold cars here in Phoenix for one of the largest Chevy dealerships here. She told me several stories like this from her place. I forwarded this to her and told her that this is classic car sales 101. The big rip off. Our website http://www.1-800BadCredit has several articles like this to teach people what to watch out for.when car shopping. Let the buyer beware.

  2. 2 Reid Whitton
    November 26, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Used car salesmen are dishonest? Is this supposed to be a startling revelation? I disagree with the fact that there was a bygone golden age when honesty ruled. It just isn’t true. Not when money is involved. It’s like these clueless preachers telling us God’s “protective hedge” of blessing and security has been taken down due to our evil ways. I’d like to know when this “golden age” existed in America? Was it when religious fanatics were burning “witches” at the stake? Maybe it was when Africans were being shipped over here in chains to be worked to death? And how about the treatment of our Native Americans? What about the total annihilation of the Buffalo herds and murderous gold seeking frontiersmen. Don’t forget about the concentration camps for Japanese Americans during the second world war. It’s only been 45 years since Americans of color have been recognized as full human beings. Americans need to look at the nuts and bolts of their own history. Chalking it up to God’s curses and blessings is total nonsense. Yes, it’s true there is more greed, dishonesty, and selfishness in today’s society. It’s no wonder these negative character aspects are escalating in our society when the boob tube has served as babysitter for the past several generations. There is hardly a shred of truth being uttered or portrayed in TV land but it remains America’s national past time. Our children are being instructed in the art of market capitalism. The intrinsic value of things means nothing. Money is God in America.

  3. November 28, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    May I dare point out I stated there was a time when honesty reined in “finacial matters”. We all know our country and society is built on lies and deception. The point is that like a balloon, the whole thing is getting ready to explode.

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