Friday, February 27, 2009

Capitalism Works!

It was one of those mild winter days in New York, and Rick and I biked uptown yesterday to the George Washington Bridge, stopping at the "Little Red Lighthouse." The lighthouse has always been a beckoning sight in summer when I was out on the river kayaking, so I was happy to get up close.

Rick is constitutionally unable to pass a supermarket or a greengrocer without stopping, and Fairway, ("like no other market") at 125th on the river, operates like a magnet on him. "There's no room in the refrigerator or freezer," I said. "We only needed tea and cream," he countered. We parked our bikes outside, just across from this outdoor display.

Fairway is huge, though not like the supermarkets I grew up with in the heartland. Saturday afternoon shopping at Fairway is torture, with people descending from near and far to shop, and the narrow aisles clogged with shopping carts. Mid-afternoon on Thursday it almost seems empty. Fairway uptown has an ingenious way of keeping cold all the products that require refrigeration. In place of freezers, there is a large "cold room," and everything from cold cuts to milk and orange juice are simply displayed on wire racks.

As soon as I enter the cold room I am always taken aback not only at the sheer abundance of the displays but also at the variety, the "choice." I used to say to Rick whenever we went into the cold room, "Whatever were they thinking back in the Soviet Union?" Meaning, why did the communist bureaucrats ever think they could produce such variety with their five-year plans?

I work at home, so it is seldom that I am outdoors early in the morning, but there was a time when I taught early and had to be on the road before it was light. What always struck me back then were the numbers of people who were already up and working, the bus drivers and transit workers of course but, for the most part, small-store owners and employees. The Koreans and Guatemalans at the greengrocery, the Arabs at the bodegas and newsstands, and plenty of other Americans at the dry cleaners and the bakeries. They were up and working because people like me wanted to have their coffee and bagels and newspaper, drop off their shoes for repair, buy their lotto tickets, and so on. Plumbers were starting their rounds. When at about 9 or so the really big stores open and the "government" offices began their operations, many, many Americans had been long at work. In fact, manual laborers had been working so many hours already that they were having their morning break at a diner. At Fairway, they had never stopped working. There were all those boxes of good from all over the world that had to be unloaded so that we would have our choice of olives or bottled water.

All this is a preface to the current problems with the economy. Yesterday when we entered the cold room of Fairway I said to Rick, "Does President Obama have any idea how all these things get on the shelves?" I suspect he does not, for the simple reason that he has never had the kinds of jobs that employ most Americans. He has never stocked a shelf, filled an order, made a payroll. Ross Perot made a comment about Bill Clinton when he was running for president; he said the Arkansas governor should spend six months running a candy store. In other words, in order to learn how money is made -- not how to spend it. As one who has grown up with the Boomer generation, I know well that our tendency is to spend and that we have lost sight of how the many choices we enjoy are produced.

By the way, we did not stop with tea and cream; we got out of Fairway after spending $42.00. That's how the economy works.

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