Don't Take an Ethicist to an Auction


Rafael Escandon, DrPH, PhD, MPH, HEC-C

Publish date

Don’t Take an Ethicist to an Auction
Topic(s): Decision making

Here on Bainbridge Island, the most anticipated event of the year is the annual Rotary Auction and Rummage Sale (RARS). RARS has achieved a cult-status in its 63 years. A status is beyond local legend – In fact, maybe you already know about it.

While not a member of the Rotary Club, I’ve become close with dozens of “Rotarians” through their volunteer staffing of the extensive SARS-COV 2 vaccine clinics our community ran from late 2020 to early 2023. Rotary International was a natural fit for our local vaccination campaign, as they have played a pivotal role in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Our all-volunteer SARS-COV 2 vaccination program vaccinated tens of thousands more citizens than live on our island. All of us are proud.

Also famous for its Saturday morning dash to the goods, safety announcements precede the opening. When the caution-tape is lowered at 8 am, RARS is a demonstration of Darwinian principles. The strategic attend the Friday night preview, while others simply dash to goods of interest. There are donated cars, boats, kayaks, bikes, skis, golf clubs, camping equipment, housewares, furniture, clothing, electronics, and on and on. Residents’ generosity is endless, as is the scale of the volunteer hours to organize a collection that is truly a sight to behold. Most items are in the rummage sale category and have price tags affixed. Higher-value items are in the silent or live auction categories and come with posted minimum bids and auction times. Transactions are prohibited on Friday night – As that’s the sacred time to create your strategy for auctions, or the next morning’s stampede to the items that are priced as marked.

This year, the lawn and garden equipment section beckoned me. As a volunteer, I got an even earlier preview of the goods and locked onto (a twice-used) Wallenstein BXM3213 wood chipper without so much as a blemish. It was love at first sight. A little googling told me that when new, these machines retail for $7,500. It was marked for silent auction with a $500 minimum bid. I snapped a photo and texted it to my wife, who is the real pro at maintaining our little farm. She was gleeful at the prospect.

And it’s there that sadly, this story takes a decidedly negative turn.

The silent auction for “Wally” as we (so briefly) came to call her, ended at 10:15am. The two-ish hours to closing elapsed at a snail’s pace. Wally weighed heavily on my mind, even as I browsed the audio room and the bikes on the soccer field. At about 10:10am, the RARS attendant saw me pacing and asked if I was the high bidder. I said yes. My strategy of bidding 3-times the next highest bid seemed successful in deterring more casual bidders.

Was that ethical?

My moral compass said yes. Anyone was free to outbid us.

The silent auction closed, and I texted my wife that we’d won Wally!! Several minutes elapsed awaiting the supervisor to take my credit card details. During that time, I entered a dream-state.

I thought: What a great deal I had just closed. I had visions of stuffing branches into Wally’s intake, and of her producing wonderful, aromatic, Pacific Northwest mulch. The prospect of sharing Wally with neighbors, friends, and other volunteers warmed me. I even had a vision of my wife and me on a holiday card, wearing goofy X-mas sweaters and feeding candy canes into Wally while she produced perfect peppermint snowflakes.

Shaking me awake from that dream-state was a voice.

“I thought there was a live auction on this at 10:15.” 

It was the voice of the lowest bidder, at 10:19am by my watch. The attendant tried to explain the rules, printed on the bidding sheet,  that he had closed the auction on time, and that one needed to be present and speak up when he publicly called for any final bids (at which time, according to the rules, a live auction would have ensued).

The voice was indignant and claimed to have been “right here” (they weren’t) when the silent auction closed. The situation began escalating. The attendant and I became increasingly uncomfortable. The voice was raised. After maybe 90 excruciating seconds with no supervisor in sight, the flummoxed attendant turned to me and asked if I would agree to engage in a live auction, despite having rightly won Wally according to the rules.

I reluctantly agreed. In another eschewing of the rules, my now nemesis raised my bid by $1 which the attendant denied. We ultimately bid Wally up to $2,800. With each increment, my nemesis would add nuggets like: “We just brought this property which is a mess” and “We weren’t prepared to have to clean up this much to reduce fire danger.”

All of this made me question my worthiness of owning Wally.

During the bid-up, a terrible memory replaced my vision of chipping candy canes into peppermint snowflakes. My wife had trained for 6 months to compete in an Ironman race, only to have her, and a dozen others’ participation denied because we were stuck in traffic and late for the race packet pickup, 2 days in advance. Staff instructed us to return the next day to plead hers and others’ cases with the race director who, as it turned out, took pleasure not just in denying the would-be participants of their long-anticipated opportunity, but by humiliating them. To watch someone you love be reduced to begging makes an impression on an ethicist.

Somehow, the thought of me not agreeing to the live auction reeked of being associated with that guy.

So, I let Wally go, and she fetched $2,800 (significantly more than our winning silent auction bid) for the Rotary Club. My nemesis did not say thank you. The RARS attendant maintained his sheepishness and offered me two free lawnmowers of my choosing. I had no need.

My wife told me that had she been present, Wally would be ours.

Had some higher power kept her in the quilt section past 10:15?

More probably, an ethicist is just the absolute wrong person to bring to an auction.

Wherever Wally is, I hope the mulch she makes is as sweet as it would be on our farm. I also hope the extra money pushes the world that much closer to polio eradication.

Rafael Escandon, DrPH, PhD, MPH, HEC-C lives in Bainbridge Is, WA, and is the founder of DGBI Consulting, LLC – which provides clinical R&D, research ethics, and patient advocacy services to the biopharmaceutical industry.

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