The first principle in dealing with government is: Don't be awed by it. What little the government achieves is almost always due to the voluntary participation of its citizens. Those who don't want to help the government can go their own ways without running into much trouble.
“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”As the inequality gap grows, there is an ideological battle unfolding in the West.On the one hand, there are those who think government can fix things. It must do more, tax more, […]
What do 8 of the 10 wealthiest people in the U.S. have in common?Aside from being able to fly in private jets, the common thread is that each of them has made their fortune thanks to a start-up.Let me explain…From tech titans like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison (founders of Microsoft and Oracle, respectively), to […]
In December of last year, I left my career to travel the world for one year.My plan was to visit as many countries as possible on my Star Alliance Around-the-World ticket in the first nine months, then, for the remaining three months, return back to the country that most caught my eye and my curiosity.Nine […]
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
For the last 18 months, we’ve been wrestling with a conundrum: How is it that the U.S. energy industry is unlocking vast new stores of oil and gas… and the U.S. biotech industry is discovering how to turn back our biological clocks… at the same time Washington is setting new debt records and Wall Street […]
“What are you complaining about all the time?” people sometimes ask me. “I’m just about as free as I want to be.”Here’s the problem. How can we really know what we want if we’ve never had it before? The less free we are, the less we know what freedom feels like and how it shapes […]
I’ve noticed a trend with the writings of Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and the author of a new book on 3-D printing called Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.It goes like this. He comes out with a book, and the highbrow experts say it’s crazy, that this time he has gone too far. […]
Two years ago, I spoke to a gentlemen who had started and sold four companies. He was currently working on a new project that sounded very promising (for all I know, he has already sold that one too). We had just heard a talk in which the speaker told people that the whole key to […]
A contributing factor in the rise of Internet commerce, a feature that gave it a kick-start, was that you didn’t have to pay sales tax on what you purchased out of state. Ah, the glory days of the 2000s, when you could order anything and, for once in your life, not get hammered by the […]
Why is business so often scapegoated for all the problems of society?The term scapegoat comes from the Bible and refers to the goat cast out of the community as part of a purification ritual. Perhaps when people saw that lonely goat walk away and probably into its death, it made them feel better about themselves.Weird, […]
In 1881, Dakota Territory had never sold a bushel of wheat to anybody outside of Dakota. Six years later, it sold 62 million bushels. What happened?I recently read Garet Garrett’s The American Story, which came out in 1955. It is a well-written history of America, unusual because of its emphasis on the powerful economics that […]
For young people facing terrible job prospects and a generally bad economic environment going forward, starting a business sounds very appealing. It has advantages over embedding yourself in a big institution, taking your wages in forms of benefits, and hoping (against hope) to climb the ladder.It’s never been easier to strike out on your own, […]
There’s a jewelry store in town with a long tradition, a devoted client list, and a good record of solid profitability. But during the last year, it’s moved around like the “oldest established permanently floating crap game” from the musical Guys and Dolls.It was downtown. Then it was not. It was reestablished on the other […]
Oh how everyone (of a certain class and income) makes fun of the Twinkie, the ultimate symbol of modern food decadence and phoniness. I don’t get it. Have the critics ever tried one? They are so appealing and delicious: light, spongy, sweet, and creamy, all in a tiny package.The news that the parent company Hostess […]
I was strolling along the wharf in Bodrum, Turkey, and I was intrigued to see some natural sea sponges on a table with a merchant behind the table telling me something about them in Turkish.I vaguely recall seeing an item like this when I was a kid but I long ago dismissed them as some […]
My neighborhood is filling up with political yard signs. Vote for this guy! Vote for that guy!I can’t understand why people are willing to give up precious real estate on their front lawns, make friends mad at them, and put their own credibility on the line to back some politico who will certainly betray them […]
The web is packed with some of the greatest educational material on entrepreneurship and enterprise, material that didn’t exist a decade ago and is now within the mouse-click reach of vast swaths of humanity. Are we taking advantage of it?Doug French and I set out to collect the top 15 videos on entrepreneurship — a […]
It’s fashionable to put down commercial culture, but, when you think about it, this makes no sense. Commerce is the driving force of human progress, in more ways that we often realize. Americans in the 19th century knew this and celebrated this. Our commercial culture was a source of pride and the envy of the […]
What’s great about POM Wonderful? Sure, this pomegranate juice tastes great. POM is one of the few drinks that seems to have the same scrunch-up-your-mouth effect that you get with a bold dry red wine.When I was a kid, it didn’t exist. Like everything wonderful in this world, it comes to us because of the […]
The great recession continues in so many ways but online commerce is booming as never before, increasing in the last quarter of 2011 at the fastest rates in six years.Before you know it, the retail side alone will account for $300 billion in sales per year. We click and pay, and if it’s not a […]
The organization Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doesn’t just want you to be able to have new choices about the makeup or other products you buy. It wants the FDA to be able to ban and recall products. It will decide for you what is and isn’t safe.And it is prevailing against the industry itself, which […]
The functioning of millions of our consumer products has been wrecked by government regulations in ways that are extremely hard to detect and difficult to narrow down. The other day, I wrote about discovering the reason lawn mowers have mysteriously stopped working and stopped improving over the last decade or so. (I now have a […]
I was strolling along the wharf in Bodrum, Turkey, and I was intrigued to see some natural sea sponges on a table with a merchant behind the table telling me something about them in Turkish.
I vaguely recall seeing an item like this when I was a kid but I long ago dismissed them as some kind of goofy, hippy thing. Sea sponges are for the Flintstones. The Jetsons use the cool stuff in the grocery store.
Still, I bought a couple of them anyway. Then I got them home and that’s when my sponge love took off. These things are just amazing. Big, scratchy, and solid, they look and feel great. They soak up the soap and water, distribute it all quickly, and then drain fast. The guy at the wharf told me it will last 50 years, which seems extreme but maybe not. I’m dedicated to these things.
So once stateside, I decided to get more. I shopped and shopped and found nothing out there, not even in the hippy health stores. Finally, I landed at “Bed, Bath, and Beyond,” and picked up a sea sponge that was lighter colored. It was from the Caribbean, not the Aegean Sea like mine. But how could this really matter? Surely a sea sponge is a sea sponge. So I shelled out $20 for it.
It turns out to be pathetic. Once the water hits it, it turns to a blobby mush. You might as well try to wash with a raw egg yolk. What’s the deal with the Caribbean and its wimpy sponge plants or animals or whatever they are? Is this the best that place can do is produce such a sorry excuse for a sea sponge?
I went online where all things are available. I looked everywhere for a sponge from Turkey or Greece or just from the Aegean Sea generally. You know, seas that produce robust and manly sea sponges. No luck. Surely I was mistaken. I returned to the Internet night after night pursuing my treasure. Nothing.
How can this be?
Sure enough, statistics from the U.S Trade Representatives office confirms. We get plenty of sponges from the Bahamas, Philippines, and Caribbean but none (none!) from Turkey and only a few from Greece. Incredible. It seemed obvious to me that Turkish sponges are far better so why can’t we buy them in the U.S.?
We live in a world in which everything is available. If some tiny choir in Amsterdam sings a 15th century motet, I can snag a recording of that in a matter of minutes. Most of the stuff sitting on my desk comes from China. My shirt has parts and labor embedded within it from a dozen countries around the world. Why can’t I get a sponge from Turkey?
This is when I start making calls. I rang up the leading importer of sponges with a business that has been in the family for three generations, starting long ago with imports from Turkey. Now the company only imports from places closer to home. This is how the conversation began. I told him what I had found and he confirmed it point by point.
The conversation lasted 20 minutes. It was filled with fascinating detail about varieties of sponges, places of origin, sponge farming techniques, import restrictions, wholesale pricing deals, big-box contract restrictions, sponge longevity, and trends in sponge usage across industries. This man lives and breathes sea sponges, just as his father and his father’s father did.
I gotta say it: I love conversations like this. They are too rare. Experts are amazing people. Real experts, people who know a sector like no one else. And if you want a real expert, you have to go to a business person. These are the people with the strongest passions, the depth of knowledge, the on-the-ground (or in-the-sea) experience, and vast knowledge about stuff that no normal person could acquire through any known means. Wikipedia is ignorant by comparison, and the professor who thinks he knows knows nothing.
Speaking on deep background, he admitted that the Turkish sponges are vastly better and that the floppy mush from the Caribbean is a sorry excuse for a sea sponge. He said that consumers have been denied serious sponges for so long that they no longer expect anything else.
Why can’t he get them from Turkey? He said that he has tried and tried for years but, as best he can tell, there just aren’t people harvesting them on a scale to enable the volume of imports that would make importing them economically viable. There are no restrictions on importation, so far as he could tell, but he still can’t make it work and be profitable.
I just laughed and laughed over this comment: “A few years ago, a guy in New Jersey managed to get some. But he kept them!” I’m not sure if he meant that he declined to sell them to wholesalers or if the guy retained them for use by his children and his children’s children. In either case, it was a funny comment because it illustrates just how much my new friend knows about this market.
That still leaves the question why so few boats are willing to go out and harvest these things. It could be that there is not enough demand to justify it, but I doubt that. This is an ancient profession — literally dating back to the ancient world when divers would plumb the depths of the ocean to drag up this amazing things and sell them on the streets to all classes of people.
I can’t confirm this with absolute certainty but I suspect that modern sponge divers in the Aegean Sea region have lobbied for and achieved a cartel status, restricting capitalized companies from planting and harvesting on grounds of job protection. Again, I can’t confirm but I’ve found enough material about the supposed sad plight of traditional sponge farmers to make me suspicious that the hand of the state is somehow involved in forming them into a tiny guild to keep their wages and profits high. Hence, the small quantity available on the market.
My temporary mania to discover the secret of the sponge took place right in the thick of the presidential debates just before the national election. Each of these debates feature extremely impressive actors who purport to have vast knowledge of all things sufficient to give them the intellectual capacity to manage the country and the whole world. They rattle off statistics and pronounce on all aspects of everything. We are supposed to believe that they are like that character in the movie Megamind. They are all knowing!
Anyone with bit of sophistication can detect the truth. These guys are pulling sponges over our eyes. They know how to get elected. That’s their main talent. If you want to gain actual working knowledge of something, you have to talk to a person — like this sponge importer — who lives and breaths the sector and puts his own property on the line, and tests his knowledge daily by the ultimate crucible of the balance sheet. It is in the commercial sector that you find real expertise.
Of course my sponge merchant is not presuming to run our lives or run the world. His mission is more realistic and humble: get people stuff they can use to improve their lives. This is a humble calling, an honest profession, a heroic endeavor. It is social service. It is a model of how to live a good and productive life.
Admire not those who lie and trick us into believing they are god like! The merchants are the people we should be admiring because they are exactly what they purport to be, and, in a market economy, they are always and everywhere willing to be corrected, ready to change plans, and happy to be deferential to the tastes and demands of others. This is the market at work: humble expertise in the service of humanity.
If you are ever in a position to advise young people, steer them in this direction. Merchantcraft is a life well lived. A mind is a terrible thing to waste on politics.