Veggie of the Week - Market Diversity
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Have you noticed the three-wheeled ice cream sellers, pedalling around an insulated box about two feet on a side, plastered with stickers displaying the various sugary milky fruity frozen wares they sell, to the accompanyment of ringing bells, maybe, or recordings like 'Mi ranchito' or 'Paloma'? It's something new, but then, it's also something old: a hundred years ago and less this kind of commerce with no fixed abode was common, it might be shoeshine boys or people selling flowers or small baked goods, milk, fruit or fish, ice cream or sandwiches. As motor transport became more common, some of this trade moved with it, so there were baker's vans, milk men and Good Humor. And as more people drove, they spent less time on the street, where they'd be potential customers, and the other trades withered away.
The pedal-powered ice cream sellers are an example of an interesting economic phenomenon. In past columns we've mentioned several kinds of diversity - biodiversity and product diversity, in particular. The ice cream sellers are an example of what we can call market diversity: there's nothing necessarily special about the products these guys sell; what's special is how they sell them, the market (or marketplace) that's created by putting ice creams on a wheeled vehicle that is small enough (and quiet and clean enough) to have access to most of the places a pedestrian has.
On the supply side, there are two features that make selling from a pedal trike radically different from selling from a shop. First, there's the matter of capital outlay. At a guess, a good second hand cargo trike with insulated box could be had for about five hundred dollars, maybe seven hundred. This is probably about one percent of what it would cost to open an ice cream parlor. With the parlor, you've got lots of overhead - rent, power, insurance, it goes on and on, whereas with the trike, maybe a little oil on the chain, new tires every couple of years, and ice or dry ice with each load of ice cream. The trike provides an opening for a whole new set of entrepreneurs: people who probably wouldn't have a chance of getting a job in an ice cream parlor, even if they could hack the forty hours a week behind the counter, can save - maybe several people together - and buy a trike, and work it three or four hours a day, or just weekends, to supplement other earnings. Sure, they're still taking 'orders', but being asked for a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of strawberry can be part of a rewarding social interaction, whereas being ordered to put the XXX rock in the XYZing bucket! isn't, always.
One of the things about working is 'structure': there are rules that come with a job, from when to show up and go home, to where to hang the tools and when to wash your hands. People come in lots of kinds, and one way they differ is in how much structure they need, or can tolerate. On the one hand, you have the homeless guy who's adaptable enough to make a living out of what other people toss from their car windows, and who on his own improvises much of his life environment every day; and on the other you have someone like Jack Welch, who's so dependent on structure that he hires someone to provide structure to his each waking minute, can't accomplish anything without dozens of assistants, and even has to hire someone to drive his car for him.
It's not a matter of 'skill set', education or laziness, it's more like a difference in world view that's innate and fixed: a person like Jack Welch sees himself as the center of his world; the homeless guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago definitely saw himself on the fringe, and couldn't handle moving closer to the center. He was a quick learner with good dexterity, articulate enough, and energetic, but he couldn't tolerate the structure and, more important, the social agressiveness used to impose it, of a 'normal' job. The alternative was collecting cans to recycle.
It would be nice to think that an ideal society offered more options to the not inconsiderable number of people who, for one reason or another, have difficulty accomodating the 'structure' - the work rules, the social rules and rites, and the structured time - that's part of the vast majority of jobs. We've mentioned a few options, such as the able, but unimposing, part timers at Wal-Mart, and the assistants with various 'handicaps' you'll see at supermarkets. But by and large, the people who make the rules, for both ideal societies and for the one we live in, are on the side of structure. Structure looks efficient - everyone in place and on task; but more important, structure looks like control: if you know who's where when and what they're doing, it's easy to give them orders, it's easy to figure what to pay them, it's easy to regulate and tax them. You get people pedalling around on their own with an ice cream cart, you have no idea how much money they're making, or even what they're really selling or whom to. So the unstructured options tend
to get foreclosed, by regulations - licensing, labor, zoning, health, for example, which discourage the offbeat, part time or individual and encourage the corporate and the mainstream. But, market forces being what they are, both on the supply (labor) and demand side, when there's a vacant niche which an individual can comfortably fill, there's some innovation and something like ice cream pedalling results, at least until it gets regulated away.
This tension between workplace structure and accomodating the individual is much like something we see in farming. All farming involves changing the 'natural' environment to favor crop plants, and in this it is like the imposition of the basics of societal structure on a group of people. But farms can be 'optimized' in various ways. One way, which is currently the most popular in the USA - is to optimize for the production of a certain crop, or a few crops. This is what leads to the vast unvarying fields of broccoli, for example, in the Salinas Valley. At the other extreme are farms that don't look like they're optimized for much - they might have fifty or a hundred fifty different kinds of crop plants, with natives and ornamentals here and there on the property and no effort taken to put into production land that isn't suited to it, being too rocky, for example - that's left to the brush and the birds. Rather than being optimized for dollar crop yield, this sort of farm aims to optimize overall productivity, including crop output, of course, but also considering longer-term 'intangibles' such as sustainability, biodiversity, and, let's be honest, the pleasures of listening to the birds.