Years and years ago, I argued with my father about "little" guys and "big" guys using the economic system. He had a gas station in a then small California coastal town, and griped about welfare and about military retirees who bought their oil for $.25 / quart on the Marine base, bought a $1.50 lube job and asked him to "change the oil. And I've got five quarts of Pennzoil in the trunk." I asked him to worry about lobbyists and military contractors who were getting rich at the public trough.
Now I know that we understand what is close to us-and what hits our own pocketbooks directly. Things that are far away-the forces that determine our insurance premiums, the proportion of Coca Cola costs that go to advertising-are more difficult to track. This is only natural.
Locally, we know that the restaurant with average food and average quality of service won't last long, that the builder who cuts corners and charges high prices will not make it, and we watch as a new person pays too much for an existing business, can't retire the debt, and closes its doors. Look up and down Main Street in Wallowa County and think about the last ten years. Small markets work because the players and costs are well defined, because we know the people involved, and because we "trust" them to be rational and honest. When people do "stupid things," or when the trust is broken, we go across the street to the other restaurant, the other grocer, carpenter, mechanic, doctor, or dentist.
I've come to think that we often take the easy way out and assume that large markets work about the same way our small markets do. We assume that the big marketplace is "efficient," and that the best cars, drugs, technologies, insurance packages, and computer software will win out in the end.
But think again. On a local level, we also take individual personalities into account-we hit it off better with some veterinarians, barbers, bankers, lawyers, and electricians than with others. And we throw our own business-and that of our friends and relatives when we can-their way. We, as a community, acknowledge and understand these personality differences. "Dr. so and so-your doctor-is ok, but I'll stay with my doc" we say. In other words, we understand a complex set of ideas and personalities that go into economic decisions at home.
Think about the number of personalities and issues that are involved in regional, national, and global markets! About old friendships, college fraternities, institutional loyalties, opportunities for advancement, fame, and fortune. Think about advertising, which not only helps determine what flies in the marketplace, but itself becomes part of the marketplace. The Wieden and Kennedy advertising firm, headquartered in Portland, competes with companies around the world for business, and at the same time is a big economic player in development of Portland's Pearl District. The lobbyists in Washington D.C. pay rent, buy houses, hire secretaries, and on and on. How does the market sort all this out? Assuming that the best products and services win in this kind of marketplace, assuming that cost and quality, the objective yardsticks for comparison, will somehow determine the best advertising campaign, National Health Plan, or who builds airplanes for the Pentagon, is absurd on the face of it.
And these same advertisers and lobbyists also have large voices in what we buy in Wallowa County-which may or may not have to do with the quality of the products and services that they represent. What are the differences between generic drugs and name brands? Coca Cola and the Safeway knock-off? Is Microsoft and Windows a superior product, or did Linux systems-"open source" and offered free-take a beating because Microsoft was able to sell and persuade computer manufacturers to install their systems at the factory?
On the local level, most of us come back to some kind of trust. We buy a computer from Jay because we trust him to keep it going, not necessarily because we think one brand is superior to another. We talk with our doctors and pharmacists about generic versus brand name drugs, shop for loans at local banks, and we ask our neighbors and friends before we hire a contractor.
Locally, the free market works. Goods and services flow through the community with natural bumps and grinds, but they sort themselves out. There are small losses and readjustments, because not everyone make a good pizza or steak or knows how to serve it, and not everyone is completely honest or knowledgeable. In flush times there are more carpenters' belts and mechanics' tool boxes out there; in tight times some people move on or find other occupations. Market factors-costs, efficiencies, quality-have direct impacts on our economy.
But the further we get from hometown economics the more skeptical I am of the early capitalist theorists' idea that the "hidden hand of God" makes the marketplace work. There are just too many people out there with their own agendas buying and bullying their ways to add or take a little weight off that hidden hand.