Monday, January 23, 2012

The Confusion and Bounty of Capitalism

I needed some shampoo, body wash, and toothpaste. Since the CVS was close to my office I would go there. It was a 2 and a half minute drive from my garage. The front door was motion sensitive and opened when I got close. Once inside I found the shampoo aisle which was parallel to the body wash aisle. As far as the eye could see there were shelves packed neatly with every major brand and even some I had never heard of. It took me a while to find the kind I use, but it was there, right where it was the last time I was in. Just before I reached for the body wash I stepped back and looked up and down the aisle marveling at the choices that confronted me. There were over thirty competitors for this $3.45 purchase. It was shampoo and body wash, a rather pedestrian purchase requiring very little planning and forethought, and yet here were hundreds of possibilities. I wondered where they all came from, and how did they all get here? I was glad for the abundance, since there was no telling what it would have cost me had there been only one brand. Visions of old Soviet- era state stores with empty shelves came to mind. But, a nagging thought came also to mind as I paid by sliding my debit card through a little machine at the front counter. I took my receipt from the clerk and then took one last look down the shampoo aisle. Why does any market need thirty different shampoo manufacturers? Obviously there IS a market in this country large enough to support thirty different brands of shampoo or they wouldn’t all be crowded together on the shelves. But, is that the best allocation of resources available? Why so many shampoo options but so few razor options? I’ve been shaving for more or less 40 years and there have always been basically two choices…Gillette and Schick. If I misuse shampoo I might get nasty split-ends but if I get a hold of a bad blade I cut my neck all to pieces, and yet I have thirty kinds of shampoo but only two razor companies?

After leaving CVS I stopped by Uppy’s to fill my tank with premium unleaded gas. I was running on fumes so to fill my 16 gallon tank cost me over fifty bucks. The price per gallon was something like $3.40. I remember when gas used to cost half as much not so very long ago. But when I think of where this gas came from and what it had to go through to get to this pump, it’s breathtaking. It was pumped out of the ground as crude oil somewhere either in the middle east or off shore out in the ocean in very dangerous conditions. Then it was hauled at great expense to a refinery somewhere in Texas probably and sent through a highly complex, expensive and dangerous procedure before it was in a form that could then be hauled across country by tanker trucks to distribution centers and then to the shiny clean station right down the street from my safe and clean subdivision. On the other hand, the six bucks I had to part with to buy the gallon of 2% milk at Martins after I left Uppy’s came from a cow somewhere probably no further than 100 miles away. It required very little geo-political risk to produce, virtually no risk to refine, and didn’t have to travel halfway around the world and back to land in the dairy case at my grocery store. And yet, it cost me nearly twice as much as the gallon of gas I just pumped into my car. Why don’t the Occupiers start raising hell about “BIG DAIRY” like they do “BIG OIL”? I suppose it’s because oil pollutes the environment, while cows don’…er , wait a minute.

Although Capitalism can be very confusing, it should be noted that this particular shopping trip took me a total of 17 minutes to complete, an efficiency of time largely unknown in the undeveloped world. Because it didn’t take me two days and hundreds of dollars in bribes to complete this simple shopping trip, I had plenty of time to further enlarge my carbon footprint, by writing my thoughts on this blog. I am told that as a responsible citizen of the world I should feel some level of remorse for this my good fortune. I do not. Tomorrow, I will step out of my bathroom with shiny hair, a pleasant body odor, and clean teeth. After eating my bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and 2% milk, I will drive to my office with the confidence that comes from a full tank of gas. For all of this I am exceedingly grateful. Zero remorse.