Free lemonade!

>> Thursday, July 08, 2010

photograph by Arria BelliOkay, so earlier this week a Chicago Sun-Times writer, Terry Savage, wrote an op-ed piece about how pissed she got when three little girls tried to give her free lemonade. And no, it wasn't because the kids peed in it. It's because the children are bad capitalists:

"You must charge something for the lemonade," I explained. "That's the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs--how much the lemonade costs, and the cups--and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money."

As Dan Gilmor points out in Salon, it's the kind of article you'd think was an April Fool's joke except it's been published in mid-summer and the author is evidently serious. Which is a damn shame, as her article really reads like the kind of thing The Onion would publish as a commentary piece (see, e.g., one of my all-time favorites: "I Must Regretfully Decline Your Invitation To Appear In Court On July 28").

You really should read the Savage piece for a good larf. Beyond that, I have little to add to Gilmor's take or to Cory Doctorow's perceptive take on it at Boing Boing.

Mostly what I'd say or amplify on is this:

First, that as much as conservative-types treasure private property, there's something a little absurd in telling three children who have been given property by their parents (perhaps in trust, with the instruction, "Why don't you kids go outside and give some free lemonade to the neighbors?") what they can and can't do with it. If Savage actually had the power to seize control of the disposition of the lemonade--even to force the children to sell it against their wishes--it would be an act of theft; if she did it by being bigger and bossier than the children, an act of theft under the color of power or violence. Just saying, because of course Savage doesn't actually have the power to make the children sell something they possess.

Second, I'd amplify what Gilmor says about public service: there is something commendable and, for that matter, American about citizens being willing to sacrifice something for the good of their neighbors. Sometimes those sacrifices have been altruistic (e.g. those who have given their lives in defense of liberty) and sometimes co-operative (e.g. the American tradition of barn bees and similar communal activities in which one a citizen does for his neighbors what his neighbors have or will do for him). Savage makes a great deal of fuss about tying capitalism to the July 4th celebrations of America's birth, but a more apt use of the children's example might actually be to recall Cinicinnatus, one of America's founding civic myths.

Cincinnatus, you may recollect, was a Roman farmer who was asked to abandon his business and property for a time so that he could defend Rome from invasion and was granted near-absolute power during the war which he abandoned as soon as the invasion was repelled, returning to his humble farm. George Washington modelled himself after Cincinnatus during and after the American Revolution, abandoning his estate to lead the country in war and immediately resigning his command to return to his lands when the war ended, and was frequently called an American Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was frequently referred to in post-Revolutionary America as a heroic ideal to be copied by all citizens, and towns were even named after the ancient Roman. If we've forgotten this fact over the intervening two centuries, it's not to our favor.

One wonders, indeed, if we should infer from Savage's column that George Washington was a bad American because he followed the example of Cincinnatus instead of asking the Congress in Philadelphia how much they would pay him and what the benefits package looked like. After all, one does not work for free and one shouldn't expect someone else too, either; you don't give yourself away, but rather are entitled to the maximum compensation you can negotiate for the sweat of your brow.

Ask not what you can do for your country, but rather how much it's worth in the private sector.

Thirdly, Savage does have one good point, she just predictably fails to reach the right conclusion:

No wonder America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the "lemonade" or benefits we're "giving away" is free.

And so the voters demand more--more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits.

They're all very nice. But these things aren't free.

The government only gets the money to pay these benefits by raising taxes, meaning taxpayers pay for the "free lemonade." Or by printing money--which is essentially a tax on savings, since printing more money devalues the wealth we hold in dollars.

If we can't teach our kids the basics of running a lemonade stand, how can we ever teach Congress the basics of economics?

Hear, hear! Except that what Savage takes for granted is that she shouldn't be paying taxes, either. Which is stupid. Obviously, if the state is going to provide services, they have to be paid for. Now, granted, one might dispute the level of services government ought to be providing--perhaps, for instance, there should be no Department Of Education or no standing military forces whatsoever. (Funny how some conservatives treat the former as disposable and the latter as indispensable, even though the latter has historically been a greater threat to liberty in various parts of the world. Not trying to be anti-military, it's just that when's the last time you heard about some Minister Of Education somewhere ordering local schoolboards to take over the national radio station, arrest the Prime Minister and deport the Royal Family?)

I have no idea how many Americans think that all public services should be "free," and I suspect that the problem with those who do is that the national culture since the Reagan era has been to cut taxes. Cynical conservatives have gone so far as to claim they want to "starve the beast," i.e. cut taxes so that government services have to be cut, but few have actually had the balls to start denying Medicare to old people and school lunches to low-income schoolchildren, much less the 'nads for cutting law-enforcement subsidies and canceling defense contracts. But I doubt there's any educated liberal who thinks that taxes can be low across-the-board and necessary government services paid for. On the contrary, I suspect most of us feel that tax revenues should be adequate to cover the services we believe an enlightened, modern civilization should provide and that taxes should be apportioned based on ability to pay (i.e. tax schemes should be progressive, not regressive).

You might disagree, and for the purposes of my point here, that's fine, I don't really feel like getting into that right now and it's not the point of this post: you may feel taxes and government services should be minimal, but don't accuse thoughtful progressives of believing in a mythical free lunch. We're perfectly aware things like providing your property with police protection and educating people so they have opportunities beyond stealing your crap costs money, we'd just like you to pay for it, just as we're willing to do.

Speaking of which, and back to those girls: I imagine that if these girls are supposed to charge for the lemonade, they might be expected to collect any food and sales tax applicable under city, county or state law, no? After all, the police who keep ruffians from stealing their lemonade and the road that brings customers to their booth aren't free, either, now are they?

Whatever. Savage is an idiot. One can only hope these kids are too young to read the Sun-Times and the parents have more sense than she does. What's wrong with America isn't little girls with generous spirits, it's jackasses who think there's something wrong with people who aren't as selfish, self-obsessed, greedy and miserable as they are.

Oh yeah, that reminds me of one more thing: Ms. Savage, you did realize that if you'd wanted to insist on paying a bunch of kids for the lemonade they were willing to give away for free, you still could have left a tip or donation, right? "Thank you very much for the free lemonade, here is a contribution to the free lemonade fund."

Of course you didn't. What an asshole.


Jim Wright Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 10:14:00 AM EDT  

The last line of this post sums things up perfectly.

there are two types of people in this country, those who think of themselves, first, foremost, and always - and those who don't. The trick is to figure out which one you want to be.

timb111 Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 2:47:00 PM EDT  

I have to disagree. The long letter declining the court appearance is not needed. A simple note saying "I'm sorry I will not be attending your court" would be enough. Miss Manners agrees BTW.

Eric Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 3:54:00 PM EDT  

Good gods! When did Miss Manners become Estelle Getty?!

Nathan Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 4:02:00 PM EDT  

I'm pretty sure Estelle Getty looks more like this .

Nathan Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 4:05:00 PM EDT  

More on topic though, I'll lay odds that Savage gets bent out of shape when parents give their kids multiple Christmas gifts with the understanding that they get to keep two and have to give three away at the local orphanage.

And how sure is Savage that the kids don't have to do chores to "earn" their lemonade ingredients?

What a C---.

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