What Happens When You Do This

or: Why it would be nice if self-centered technogeeks, anticorporate rebels, and teenage thieves actually thought about the consequences of their actions

People who steal from soda machines generally seem to think of themselves as cool anticorporate rebels, sexy bad boys, or clever technogeeks. I wonder if any of these people ever bothered to think about what they were doing.

My cousin Carol home-schools her kids. She feels (quite justifiably, I think) that the public schools in her area would probably provide the boys with a rotten education while immersing them in one of the more pernicious and nasty versions of Christianity. Plus, the boys are active and physical but slightly skittish, and they tend to do better with an adult who understands them and can tailor their education to their personalities.

As part of the kids' education, Carol decided that the family would invest in a half-dozen soda machines. This might seem a bit odd, but it's amazing how much you can learn from a soda machine. When the kids were young, she simply had them count Snapple bottles or soda cans or quarters or whatever. Then they learned how to count by fives and tens and twenty-fives. A bit later, they learned multiplication and division. Later still, they learned how to work with percentages and fractions.

She motivates the kids by using the twin rewards of free time and profit. When they are done with the accounting for the day--but only when they are done--they are allowed to go watch Spongebob SquarePants. They split the profits, and while the kids must put a certain amount in savings, they can spend the rest of it more or less as they please. Carol's portion goes into the family budget and gets used for food, clothes, and other necessities.

Along the way, the kids have learned some practical things, too. They've learned that lowering prices can actually result in an increase in revenue. They've learned that while it might be cool to give your friends free soda, it really sucks to have no money for two weeks. They've realized that they sell lots of soda in summer but not much in winter, and that it might be a good idea to save money in summer to get ready for winter. They've also learned that it's not a good idea to shake up the soda cans before you put them in the machine, because people leave you angry notes and refuse to buy more soda.

As I said, it's amazing how much you can learn from a soda machine.

A couple times a week, they climb into the car, drive to each machine, refill the soda, and collect the money. When they get home, they put all the cash on the kitchen table and start counting it up. I don't know if you've ever noticed, but kids love a glittering pile of coins. Offer a kid a choice between a stack of Benjamins and a pile of glittering quarters, and if he's young enough, he'll choose the quarters every time. They're pretty and they jingle and they sparkle, and that's about all that a little kid wants. He might have all of $4.35, but as far as he's concerned, it's a load of silver doubloons. So when Carol dumps the money on the table, the boys' eyes practically bug out of their heads. For whatever reason, Michael always insists that the pile is bigger than it was last time, even if it obviously isn't. He loves to grab fistfuls of change and let them drop onto the table, his giggles mixing with the clinking sound of the falling coins. Meanwhile, Jason starts listing all the things he's going to buy with his chunk of the profits.

So begins one of the most important lessons. It's one that many people would do well to learn: you can't spend money you don't have, and you don't have money that you owe to other people. So Jason and Michael must figure out how much they owe to other people.

"First," Carol says, "we need to pay for using the car. We have to pay twenty-five cents a mile for gas and maintenance. How many miles did we drive?"

"Twenty-two!" says Michael, whose job it is to keep track of the odometer.

"Twenty-two. That's right. So how much do we need to pay for the car?"

Jason counts out piles of quarters. "Four miles, eight miles, twelve miles, sixteen miles, twenty miles...and two more is 22 miles. Five dollars and fifty cents!" he exclaims, pleased to have figured it out himself.

"That's right!" says Carol. She takes four piles of quarters, along with two more from another pile, and puts them away.

The boys watch in dismay as the piles of glittering coins disappear into Carol's purse. This is THEIR MONEY, and it's going somewhere else. This is not good.

"Now we have to make our monthly payment for the machines we bought," says Carol.

They calculate it out. Quite a large number of coins vanish into Carol's purse.

"Now we have to buy soda to refill the machines."

Another few fistfuls of coins go away.

"Okay. Now we have to pay taxes. What's seven percent of our gross proceeds?"

Michael and Jason squeeze their eyes shut and start calculating. A few more stacks of coins go away, leaving a tiny little pile of coins for them to divide amongst themselves. They're not happy with this at all; they're still thinking about the huge pile of coins that they originally collected, and they're desperate to keep as much of it as they can. They understand (after repeated explanations) why they have to pay for the machines, why they have to pay for gas, and why they have to buy more soda. But taxes have eluded them entirely.

"What's tax, Mom?" asks Jason, for the fifteenth time.

Carol smiles. "Well, tax is what you pay to the government. It pays for things like the roads, the police, the library--"

The boys don't like this one bit. "But the librarian is really mean!" Jason says. "The sign says that we can take out six books, but she only lets us take out three!"

"Yeah!" says Michael. "She's mean! It's not fair! I don't want to pay taxes for the library anymore!"

It's settled, as far as the kids are concerned. But Carol knows better. "Sorry, guys," she says cheerfully. "You don't have a choice. You have to pay taxes."

If you've ever had kids, you know what happens when you tell them that they don't have a choice. Immediately there's a riot, because they'll do just about anything to prove that they do have a choice. Carol tolerates the resultant hurricane and happily informs them that the law requires them to pay taxes, and that the police will come take Mommy away if they don't, and that the kids can't vote and have absolutely no say in how their taxes are spent.

This is an important lesson, too.

Amidst lots of sniffling and whining, another large pile of coins disappears into Carol's purse, and a small stack of coins gets divvied up.

One day, Carol and the kids service the soda machines on the local community college campus. When they get home, the kids count out the money and discover they're short--seventy-five dollars short. Carol assumed that one day they'd have to deal with loss, either from theft or from machine malfunction; she figured it'd be a good way to get the kids to understand why stealing is bad. But she never thought that she'd have to deal with theft of this magnitude.

Seventy-five dollars is a lot of money. When you're a kid, it's an incredible amount of money, and hell hath no fury like a kid who knows he's been wronged. Michael is virtually in tears and wants to call the police, but Carol gently explains that they wouldn't be able to do much. Jason volunteers to ride his bike to the nearest machine and hide behind it with his dad's baseball bat so he can beat the crap out of the people who are stealing. Carol explains that this isn't a solution either, and that they probably won't get their money back. Ever.

It gets worse, because they still have to pay the bills. After calculating it all out, they discover that they don't have any money to buy more soda--all their gross profits had to go to pay for the gas and the machines and the taxes. Carol springs for the soda out of the family budget, and while that satisfies the kids somewhat, it's hardly a good thing. Remember that they're using Carol's chunk of change to supplement the family budget. So Not only did they lose the supplemental income, but they also incurred an unexpected expense.

When your income is at the lower end of the scale, that really hurts.

You see, you need to understand how soda machines work. Much of the time, they're not run by the soda company itself. Instead, individuals or small franchisees buy or lease the soda machines and stock them with soda bought wholesale from Coca-Cola or whoever. Once Carol and the kids have paid for the soda, Coca-Cola is out of it entirely.

So when a bunch of rowdy teenagers steals some soda from the machine, the family loses the amount they paid to buy the soda, purchase the machines, and use the car--and they lost the profits they would otherwise have made. But they still have to buy more soda if they want to keep the machine running.

Coca-Cola's loss is essentially zero. Carol and the kids bear the full burden.

I doubt I need to explain who suffers when you ruin the vending machine by pouring salt water through it.

So when you steal soda from a machine, you haven't necessarily hurt the gargantuan capitalist corporation at all (even if it were legitimate to steal from them). In most cases, you've hurt the local folks who are making only a small profit off each machine. Sure, there might be a fancy label saying that the machine is serviced by CJM Enterprises, Incorporated, but that doesn't mean much when almost anyone can print out a cool logo on a flashy peel-and-stick label. CJM, you see, is "Carol, Jason, and Michael," and the sticker is sparkly because that's what caught the kids' eyes in OfficeMax. The folks you rob might not be a family like Carol and the kids; maybe they're a retired couple or a small businessman trying to make do. But it's probably not a rich fat heartless capitalist. More likely, it's an everyday guy, a guy who's doing his best to make a decent living and feed his family. And every soda you steal is money out of his pocket.

Let me know if you still think you're cool for figuring out how to steal a soda from the machine. And if a furious nine-year-old kneecaps you with a bat, don't you dare come running to me. Hell, I'll be standing there cheering him on.