Markets in Everything

The background:

A melee at a Kmart store in Wauwatosa Saturday morning was started by a computer glitch.

The store was running a promotion in which it would give away $10 to anyone applying for its credit card, but the computer glitch led to everyone’s application being granted — bestowing up to $4,000 in instant credit to anyone who applied even if they shouldn’t have qualified.

Generally the lesson should be that businesses should take better care to test their software before unleashing it into use. In software development, test, test, and when you’re done with that, test some more. Oh, and then test again.

But what’s interesting is how quickly the entrepreneurial spirit kicks in:

Two employees confirmed for police that anyone who applied was being given instant credit — from $850 up to $4,000. They also told police that people started calling other people to the store for so-called free money. The store ran out of credit applications.

One witness told police someone went to another Kmart, got some applications there and was selling them in the Wauwatosa Kmart parking lot for $20 apiece.

I should wave a finger and tsk, tsk this. There’s a missing level of fairness and decency here, knowing that the advertised benefit is a mistake and the people who are clamoring presumably wouldn’t qualify without a software glitch. (Sounds eerily familiar to the current subprime “scandal”…)

I won’t tsk, tsk, though. The applicants are adults. If they get themselves into debt from “free money”, I have no problem with the economic damage they’ll cause themselves when Kmart comes collecting. A software glitch does not include the right to engage in a fraudulent agreement to borrow without intending to repay. And Kmart is large enough for its management to know that it needs to test its software. It will now deal with the fallout, although it has a legitimate claim on every debt incurred by its customers.

More importantly, the individuals selling the applications are the only people who demonstrated any intelligence here. Sketchy morals, perhaps, but an acute sense of the immediate market. That counts for something.