The obligatory “Harvard prof goes to war with Chinese restaurant over four bucks” post

posted at 5:21 pm on December 10, 2014 by Allahpundit

The Internet’s blowing up over this. Let’s talk about it — but not until you’ve read the e-mail exchange between the two, which feels like it came from a McSweeney’s satire on privilege. The professor, Ben Edelman, ordered 53 bucks’ worth of food from a local Chinese restaurant; the prices listed on the restaurant’s website for some of the dishes turned out to be outdated, resulting in a bill for $57. Edelman e-mailed them asking for a refund.

And that’s when things went so very wrong, my friends. Just a taste:


It gets better from there. In case the rooting interests here aren’t palpably clear, the Boston Globe provides an extra sympathy nudge:

[Edelman] graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College. He has a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

Ran Duan moved to the U.S. from China when he was 3-years-old. His father had hoped to support the family with a career as an opera singer, but when that didn’t pan out, Duan says “like all Chinese families we decided to open up a restaurant.”…

The exchange with Edelman stood out to Duan. “I have worked so hard to make my family proud and to elevate our business. It just broke my heart.”

And that’s how Ben Edelman became The Most Hated Man In The World. But wait: Is he right? Lay aside the fact that the PR beating he’s taking for being so high-handed with Duan is costing him much more than the 12 dollars he asked for in treble damages. Is he, as Sonny Bunch and Ann Althouse argue, basically correct in treating this as a not-insignificant offense? Edelman defended himself to Business Insider, claiming that if it’s not right for large companies to get away with false advertising, it shouldn’t be right for small businesses to get away with it. By his own admission, Duan knew that the prices on the website were wrong and hadn’t moved quickly to correct them; presumably the restaurant was making a few extra ill-gotten bucks on every order with little resistance from customers, most of whom wouldn’t fight Duan over an extra three dollars when they’re hungry. Assume 50 Internet orders a day and an average overcharge of two dollars per order and you’re talking about three grand a month squeezed from customers who thought they were agreeing to one price and were then surprised at the point of delivery with another.

Is Edelman right on the law, though? Adam Levitin, who teaches the Massachusetts consumer protection statute that Edelman threw in Duan’s face, says nope:

First, MGL 93a(9)(3) does not mandate treble damages.  It provides for a recovery of the greater of actual damages or $25.  The statute allows double to treble damages if the UDAP was a willful or knowing violation” or if the defendant refused, in bad faith to settle. That’s quite different from automatic treble damages.  

But wait, you say, that just means the HBS professor should have been demanding $25, not $12. Not quite.  There’s a second problem.  MGL 93a(9)(3) requires that before bringing suit the plaintiff send a demand letter to the business asking for rectification of the unfair or deceptive act or practice. That gives the business a chance to settle things for something like actual damages. The whole purpose of the demand provision is to encourage settlement and to act as a control on damages.

Duan told him in the course of his e-mail exchange that he’d honor the website prices and refund him the overcharge, i.e. four dollars. That should have been the end of it as a legal matter. At one point, Edelman even offered to accept four dollars or 12 dollars, whatever Duan wanted to provide. Read the exchange, though, and you’ll see that as Duan started to push back a bit, citing legal advice that the restaurant owed Edelman nothing because the prices quoted on the website were for a different location, the professor dug in and increased his demand to have 50 percent of his order refunded instead. Actual quote:


It was the principle of the thing! Or, maybe Duan stepped a little too hard on Edelman’s ego by resisting his demand for a refund. Or maybe Mediaite’s right and the guy’s just a dickweed.

Exit question: What happened here? There’s a certain segment of the HA faithful that reliably takes a “rules are rules” approach to disputes, no matter what outcome the balance of equities suggests, but I’ve gotta say, the comments in Headlines to the Globe item fall pretty consistently on the “dickweed” side of the ledger.

Update: Edelman has now apologized. He does seem sincere.

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Same law in California. The chinese restaurant should just cut the guy some slack a charge the old price. But they are probably ultra stupid cheap.

jake49 on December 12, 2014 at 12:44 PM

Wow, you couldn’t be more wrong about tipping. If you are traveling, and you will never eat at a restaurant more than once, ever, by your logic you don’t need to tip your waiter because there will be no ‘next time.’ The tippee is supposed to draw from his experience the consequences of his service, THEN apply that to the next customer. I.E. ‘If I am late, I don’t get a tip. If I am on time, I get a tip. The conclusion I get from this is that I should not be late anymore because I like getting tipped.’

Umm, nope. Entirely backwards. I, while traveling, have to rely on other people following the concept of variable POSITIVE reinforcement to ensure that my wait staff will be in a mood to provide good service. I do the same for them. However, a wait staff shafted by people who feel they didn’t receive excellent service, maybe because their 7 minute lunch came in 7.5 minutes, will not learn the lesson of improving, because the delays may have been beyond their control. In fact, they almost always are. Using your system merely encourage them to do their job, not excel at it. Do you give twice the tip if the delivery time is halved? Do you really give nothing if the delivery is 30 seconds late? Since you can’t possible provide all the “lessons” any given restaurant or server requires, you are relying on something akin to herd immunity to continue getting your pizzas at all.

An airline flight and a pizza are not fungible.

Nor did I say they were. Merely the money the person receives for providing the service.

I conceded nothing to you by noting that tips are an important part of a pizza guy’s earnings. I noted that it makes it especially important for the pizza guy to do his job correctly, because if he doesn’t, according to you…he gets tipped anyway?

Yes, albeit, not as much as he would have, had the pizza been on time. The man is still doing his job if your pizza is slightly late, just not as well as it could be.

All that said, it is obvious we won’t see this in the same light. You will no doubt continue to stiff the less than minimum wage delivery guy while rationalizing it by claiming to be doing the world a favor by teaching him a lesson.

WryTrvllr on December 12, 2014 at 1:45 PM

You cannot expect positive reinforcement to encourage the desired behavior if the lack of the desired behavior still results in the reward with which you want the desired behavior to be associated.

Since you can’t possible provide all the “lessons” any given restaurant or server requires, you are relying on something akin to herd immunity to continue getting your pizzas at all.

I cannot provide all the lessons, true. Imparting all the lessons requires all of the customers to reinforce the behavior they want and dissuade the behavior they don’t. If you tip for a late delivery you are failing your responsibility as a customer to provide the proper feedback to the driver on his job performance. You reinforce the mistaken notion that he can slack off and still get tipped.

Nor did I say they were (fungible). Merely the money the person receives for providing the service.

Money is not fungible. It is the medium that allows for certain goods to be fungible. Even so, an airline pilot still doesn’t get tipped, and a cab driver is still under no obligation to promise a certain time frame for you to reach your destination. Just because money is exchanged in all three transactions does not mean you can compare the tipping etiquette (or lack thereof) in disparate careers as if they were equal.

All that said, it is obvious we won’t see this in the same light.

Yes, because what you post is how I should compensate the pizza guy based on his needs regardless of his ability to provide the service his employer expects of him, and what I post is how human nature learns the value of a job well done in comparison to a job not well done.

James on December 12, 2014 at 3:05 PM

This post was obligatory?

I don’t think so.

Axion on December 14, 2014 at 9:06 AM

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