Mobilized Against Impermanence

Seventeen years ago when my wife was pregnant, she craved grapefruit. We tried to buy organic foods whenever possible, and finding a steady supply of organic grapefruit that was fresh and reasonably priced was not easy!

We were lucky to find Scott Nash selling organic produce out of a small warehouse storage facility in Rockville, Maryland.  The warehouse site was an upgrade; while in high school, Scott had begun selling organic produce out of his parent’s house. Each week I drove to Rockville to buy his produce and the case of organic grapefruit he set aside for me. The price was much cheaper than Whole Foods or my local natural foods store, the product was fresher, and the shopping experience was enjoyable. If you can imagine calling Whole Foods to special order a case of organic grapefruit, you can understand the problem that Scott solved for me.

Scott grew his little produce warehouse into his first store My Organic Market (MOM’s). Recently, he announced the opening of his seventh store in Timonium, Maryland; it’ll be his first in the Baltimore area. In over 30 years of natural food shopping, I have found MOM’s to be unequaled for price, selection, and quality. Over the years, Scott’s entrepreneurial drive has not only saved my family thousands of food dollars, but has made natural food shopping an event. We continued to shop at our local natural foods store in Baltimore; but when we visited the Washington D.C. area, a stop at MOM’s was a must.

MOM’s is a success story. Yet, when Mom’s opens in Timonium, other merchants will be directly impacted. A former next-door neighbor owns a natural foods store less than a mile away from MOM’s new location. Their sales could fall precipitously; another close-by natural foods store in Towson might also see a drop in business.

Whether or not the other natural food stores in the area continue to thrive by finding new ways to serve their customers, I can’t say. That is a decision consumers will make in the future, after MOM’s opens. Competition helps consumers discover who among these honorable competitors can serve them best.

I can imagine a outcome where MOM’s bigger selection and lower prices makes it hard for these older, established stores to compete. Is that it unfair? MOM’s has lower prices because Scott is willing to accept a lower margin, but also because he now has buying power that the smaller stores do not have. Yet, the path Scott Nash followed was open to anyone—he had no special connections.

It is safe to predict that MOM’s will grow the overall market for natural foods in the Baltimore area. The current plan is for the Timonium store to hire fifty people; the number of individuals employed in the natural foods industry in Baltimore will certainly increase.

If you sat down with Scott and the owners of the other natural food stores in the Timonium/Towson area you would find them all very likable and hard-working.  If you met the staff at any of these stores you would find almost all of them to be dedicated employees. Those who own and work at the incumbent businesses may have their livelihood disrupted; it would be natural to feel compassion for them. Yet, very few would think there’s a public policy issue here—impermanence is part of life. There are no guarantees in business.

So far you might think this is a rather unremarkable story. Someone builds a better mousetrap every day; businesses grow and businesses shrink in response to who best gauges the most urgent needs of the consuming public.

Yet, this story is remarkable when we consider how much of today’s society is mobilized against impermanence. Much of society believes that the government can prevent night from following day and winter from following summer.

This magical thinking has its origin in the beliefs that conditions should always get better and that there is an entity called government which is responsible for preventing suffering.

In his insightful essay: “A Tale of Two Economies” Oliver DeMille observes:

Using government power to transfer money and wealth from the middle classes to the upper class is aristocracy, pure and simple. Aristocratic conservatives and aristocratic liberals have greatly benefitted from this trend, and they keep the rest of the nation from doing anything about it by arguing among themselves. Conservative and liberal aristocrats point fingers at each other, accuse and call names, and tell us to send more money to one side or the other.

If the DeMille is correct, and I believe he is, the question arises, Why are many Americans seemingly asleep at the wheel as wealth is transferred out of their pockets? There are many possible answers; economic illiteracy is one that comes to mind. Another is ignorance of the transcendent founding principles of this country and how those principles generate wealth and freedom. Yet another possible answer is that political lobbyists, with their ability to steer campaign contributions, are more powerful than the general public.

Yet, I believe there is an even more deeply buried belief at work. Aristocrats have a sense of entitlement and privilege. Aristocrats believe things have always been a certain way and that they are entitled to keep their inherited privileges. Impermanence is for everyone else, but not for those with aristocratic privileges.

We are left with the uncomfortable truth that Americans in sufficiently large numbers do not oppose the transfer of wealth that is going on because too many of them already have, or aspire to have, aristocratic type privileges.

Public employee unions, the banking and financial services industry, the nuclear power industry, the ethanol industry, defense contractors, and the list goes on, are largely refusing to surrender a penny of the privileges and subsidies that government has already granted them.

Consider Americans who refuse to pay attention to even rudimentary principles of good diet and exercise. Yet, there is often a sense of entitlement to health care.

Consider college students whose partying time crowds out their studying time. Yet, there is sense of entitlement to a good job after they graduate.

Consider homeowners who had a sense of entitlement to perpetually rising housing prices.

Or consider corn farmers who have a sense of entitlement to subsidies while conventional farming practices help to destroy the environment in the Midwest and cheap corn fuels the destructive feedlot beef industry and the energy consuming (not energy producing) ethanol industry.

Here, too, the list of the privileged can go on.

Much of American society is mobilized against impermanence. Of course, impermanence is more powerful; in the end all of these privileges are impermanent. Yet, mobilizing against impermanence, we are destroying the economy and destroying America’s future.

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