Don't do the wrong thing

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Oh man, where to begin this morning?

Let’s start with Matt Colvin, an Air Force veteran and “retail arbitrager” from Hickson, Tennessee. He’s spent 10 years buying products at dollar stores and flea markets, and selling them for a markup on Amazon and Ebay.

Last Friday, nobody knew who he was. Then, the New York Times ran a story on people who had bulk-bought the nation's retail supplies of hand sanitizer, planning to sell them for a tremendous markup on Amazon and Ebay.

For a while it worked. Colvin sold 300 bottles online for between $8 and $70 each, he said, before Amazon started cracking down on price gouging.

Then, he let a Times photographer follow him to his home and a storage locker where he was keeping 17,000 more bottles that he could no longer sell online.

“If I can make a slight profit, that’s fine,” he said in the Times. “But I’m not looking to … make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.”

Of course, that’s exactly what happened: he became “that guy.” Within 24 hours:

  • Tennessee’s attorney general was investigating him.

  • His social media inboxes and cell phone voicemail were filled with vile threats.

  • Amazon and eBay had suspended him.

By Sunday evening, Colvin had done a complete 180, and donated his entire stockpile. In a second interview with the NYT, he sounded remorseful.

“It was never my intention to keep necessary medical supplies out of the hands of people who needed them,” he told the Times, which said he was crying during the conversation.

You can feel sorry for Colvin, or you can feel like he got what's coming.

But I think there’s a big lesson here—and it’s not just “don’t brag about your shady business to the New York Times.”

Our country and most of the world are undergoing sudden, radical change. We hope it’s temporary, but it probably won’t be quick. At my age, I guess I’d compare it to 9/11, but this feels bigger and more uncertain.

We’re being asked, while everything around us seems like it’s falling apart, to make personal sacrifices to help people we may never know.

In fact, we might never even know, other than in a statistical sense, that we were any help at all.

The right thing can seem difficult to identify under those circumstances, never mind to choose. But it seems like the “wrong things” are becoming increasingly clear.

Don’t hoard. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be “that guy,” in whatever definition—the one who sees a way to profit from everyone else’s misery, or who insists on thumbing their nose at everyone else’s sacrifice.

For now, that’s the bar. “Do the right thing” might be too much to expect. So at least, maybe we can ask each other: “Don’t do the wrong things.”

And we can work up from there.

12 other things worth your time

I couldn’t stop at just 7 today; and in fact I could have easily kept going.

  • So much has happened since Friday. Here’s a good wrap-up article as of last night, that isn’t behind some kind of paywall. (Associated Press)

  • This graphics simulation of quarantines, social distancing, “flattening the curve” and viral outbreaks does a nice job of explaining why everyone is being asked to stay at home to the maximum extent possible right now. (The Washington Post. $, possibly—although it seems they might be waiving the paywall)

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