I can’t remember the last time I bought a pen. Why would I? The globe is covered with a great sloshing tide of writing implements that ebb and flow between restaurants and hotel lobbies, briefcases and bodegas. Pens trickle out of my purse into the world, and from the world back into my purse.

The exception to this “Tide of Pens” rule (not to be confused with Tide pens, which are something else entirely) is the office supply closet. As far as it’s concerned, pens only flow in one direction: out. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if office supply closets were the original source of 90% of the world’s pens.

If so, so what? People are always saying companies should care about the common good. As far as I’m concerned, the provision of pens (and other minor office supplies) to the world is one way companies uphold their end of the social contract between business and society.

Ah, but the company cafeteria is different. While pens are easily swapped and shared, food is consumed. You can borrow someone’s pen, but you can’t borrow someone’s bagel. (Sadly, not for lack of trying.) Perhaps that’s why companies seem to turn a blind eye to many a light-fingered Lucy rifling through the office supply closet, but are quicker to crack down on employees who pilfer provisions.

Earlier this month, a minor news item appeared revealing that Citigroup placed a trader of junk bonds on leave for grabbing grub from the company cafeteria without paying for it (no word on what the junk bond trader was stealing, but I like to think it was junk food).

According to The Wall Street Journal, London-based Paras Shah, 31, earned the equivalent of over a million dollars a year. Surely that’s enough dough to pay for his bread. But maybe he figured, why should I shell out a few quid for lunch when the company is already paying me millions for my labor? At some point, doesn’t charging such a high-earner for fries seem like, well, small potatoes?


Several studies have found that even thinking about money makes us less ethical. In one experiment, participants exposed to money were twice as likely to lie as a control group. In another, drivers of luxury cars were more likely to ignore crosswalks and steal the right of way at a four-way stop.

In a world of 60- or 70- or 80-hour weeks, employees may also feel justified in taking a few liberties. One reason so many companies now offer free chow is that they’ve realized it keeps people at their desks longer. And in an era when large tech companies offer their employees free sushi and custom cupcake towers, perhaps it’s not surprising that employees in companies without free food may resent forking over lettuce for their forkfuls of lettuce.

But there’s a difference between a worker who snags an extra Kind bar on his way out the door — or even five extra Kind bars to help him through the next week of school lunches — and one who decides to use the office pantry as the grocery store he’s too busy to ever visit. Particularly when the eats at his office are supposed to be paid for at a cafeteria cash register.

Perhaps a simple cost-benefit analysis can help untwist all this pretzeled logic. What would Mr. Shah pay, now, to get his name stricken from all the news outlets that have covered this story? (So far, that includes the Financial Times, the BBC and Business Insider, in addition to the Journal.) Probably more than a few lunches’ worth.

So where should companies draw the line? If they’re cracking down on stolen strudel, should they also crack down on purloined pens?

I argue (admittedly self-servingly) that that’s a bridge too far. Food is what economists call a rivalrous good — if you eat that apple, I can’t eat it. Food is also excludable — you can restrict access to it to paying consumers.


But pens? Pens may be rivalrous — it’s really hard for two people to use the same pen at the same time — but they’re effectively non-excludable. Sure, some companies — notably, banks — go to great lengths to control the flow of pens by attaching them to desks with metal chains. But this effort is doomed — these pens invariably run out of ink.

No, the tide of pens cannot be stopped, any more than the ocean tides can be held at bay. So go ahead and crack down on food theft. Just leave the pens alone.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.