This New York Times headline that caught my eye: “How the Bot Stole Christmas: Toys Like Fingerlings Are Snapped Up and Resold.”
I had no idea what a Fingerling was or why I should care. Then I learned that fingerlings are “colorful chirping monkeys (and sloths and unicorns) that wrap around your finger.” They have become one of the most sought-after toys on Christmas lists.
Here’s why they are in the news: the fifteen-dollar creatures are sold out online nearly everywhere. You can’t find them at Toys “R” Us, Walmart, or Target. But you can buy them on eBay and Amazon for double, triple, and quadruple their original price. One Fingerling on eBay is advertised for $5,000.
Here’s why: popular items are being purchased by software programs as soon as they are offered for sale. These computer “bots” buy the products at a speed that humans can’t match. They also subscribe to online sales and use multiple email addresses to bypass the purchasing limits set by retailers.
Good Morning America also reported on this story, noting that a Barbie Hello Dream House which retails for $299.99 is being sold on eBay for nearly $1,700. A Nintendo video game that normally sells for $79.99 is being resold for $13,000.
Lawmakers are calling on retailers to “block the bots.” The National Retail Federation is working to “take away the tools being used against innocent customers.” But eBay explains: “As an open marketplace, eBay is a global indicator of trends in which supply and demand dictate the pricing of items. As long as the item is legal to sell and complies with our policies, it can be sold on eBay.”
And therein lies the problem.
The “invisible hand” of greed
In The Wealth of Nations, Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) spoke of the “invisible hand” of the market. He argued that an economy functions best in a free market scenario where everyone works for his or her own interest. If people are allowed to trade freely, self-interested traders will compete with each other, leading markets toward positive outcomes.
For example, a business that charges less for its product will draw customers. Other businesses will be forced to lower their prices or offer something better than their competitor. When enough people demand something, it will be supplied by the market. The seller gets the price he wants and the buyer gets the goods he wants.
But this economic system is fair to customers only when businesses are able to compete with each other. Smith did not envision a day when bots could buy all the Fingerling toys on the market and resell them for outrageous sums of money.
The phenomenon of bots at Christmas exposes this reality: humans are tempted by greed. No matter how much we have or don’t have, most of us want more than we need.
John D. Rockefeller was one of the wealthiest men in human history. Even though he was noted for his remarkable philanthropy, when a reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?” he replied, “Just a little bit more.”
During this Christmas season, as materialism and consumerism dominate our culture, how can we set a better example for our secular society?
The value of values
In July 2002, President George W. Bush delivered a significant speech on corporate misconduct in which he noted: “All investment is an act of faith, and faith is earned by integrity. In the long run, there is no capitalism without conscience, there is no wealth without character.”
Similarly, Warren Buffett described the traits he seeks in employees: “You look for three things: You look for intelligence, you look for energy and you look for integrity.” Of the three, he says that integrity is the most important.
How can we choose character over greed?
One: Agree with God. His warnings on the peril of possessions are clear:
• “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).
• “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
• “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).
• “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
If you think you’re the exception, you’re being deceived.
Two: Pray for integrity. We cannot be godly in human strength (Romans 7:9). But whatever God asks us to do, he helps us to do.
Phillips Brooks: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle.”
Imagine a world where all of God’s people accepted this invitation. Will you “pray for powers equal to your tasks” right now?