Wednesday, September 16, 2009


One recent strand in the debate over Obamacare has been the argument over the expense of the program. Though the President claims great savings will be realized by nationalizing this sector of the economy, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office continues to peg the additional costs at around a trillion bucks over the next ten years. Other estimates are much higher and, of course, all of us know that government programs often cost many times the amount of the initial estimates.

Supporters of nationalization, while not directly addressing this criticism, have cited “obscene profits” currently being reaped by insurance executives, medical facilities, “Big Pharma,” and the like. Look at their millions in stock options and bonuses, we are told. Look at their corporate jets and lavish conventions! There are vast savings to be found simply by cutting these looters and brigands out of the healthcare loop. Obama himself has informed us that doctors who amputate feet and remove tonsils are often motivated to do so by greed alone.

All of which brings me to the sippy-cup aisle at Argus, which I discussed at some length in “Feeding The Maw” (here). In the American marketplace, there are more sippy cups than you can imagine, in different shapes, different sizes, different colors and different designs. There are sippy cups with screw-on tops and snap-on tops, and insulated sippy cups, and sippy cups with different sorts of handles, and sippy cups featuring cartoon characters and cute little animals and letters of the alphabet. Even Argus cannot possibly carry all the different varieties.

As I pointed out in that article, people on opposite ends of the political spectrum can have very different views of the profusion of sippy cups at Argus.

Personally, I regard them as a wondrous manifestation of the “invisible hand” of capitalism first described by Adam Smith. The only reason for the existence of, let’s say, a six ounce, powder-blue, Spongebob sippy cup with a snap-on lid is that there are people who want it. They want it enough to get in their cars, drive to Argus, take one off the shelf and pay money for it. And because these consumers exist, there is also going to be someone somewhere (or many people in many places), who will acquire the raw materials, fabricate them into the desired product, package it, advertise it, and ship it to Argus for sale. The process is entirely voluntary on all sides; in fact, the term “voluntary” makes it sound more willful than it is. It’s more of an autonomic process, like breathing, since it happens without anyone having to think about it or orchestrate it. And it occurs without sippy-cup czars or central planners or the approval of Nancy Pelosi.

For a liberal, however, the reaction is quite different. How many different sippy cups does America really need, they wonder. It’s ridiculous to have so many different designs and colors and shapes and decorations. Look at the inefficiencies and the waste of our resources! And look at all the sippy-cup executives with their $20 cigars and stock options and country clubs and corporate jets! Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we cut the fat cats out of the system? Just think how much we could save.

It’s the classic Marxist analysis of the free market system, and the analysis is the same whether we’re talking about health care or sippy cups. It’s the people who invent things and make them and sell them, and become rich as a result, who are the problem. They are simply parasites, exploiting the poor schmo who works in the sippy-cup factory (or writes the health insurance policy), and getting wealthy by stealing bread from the mouths of the deserving poor. History, however, has shown us that there is no way other than capitalism to produce things that a) provide people with what they want, and b) create wealth.

There is a very simple reason for this. It’s because the incentives for businessmen and bureaucrats are completely different.

Though “profit” is a dirty word in the White House at the moment, it is only the allure of profit that gives someone the motivation to solve all the problems involved in making a product people desire at a price people will pay. It can’t be easy to make money in the sippy cup business, for example. For starters, barriers to entry are very low and the competition is fierce. In addition to finding a design that will catch the consumer’s eye, you will have to arrange all the details of manufacturing the item (probably in a foreign country), ensuring at all times that your product conforms to every clause and sub-paragraph of the 250 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to “Things That Go In A Baby’s Mouth.” You will also have to reach an agreement with Spongebob’s snarling mob of entertainment lawyers (reputedly the meanest in Hollywood) for the rights to use his image. If you then succeed in transporting your sippy cups across thousands of miles of ocean, teeming with pirates, and your shipment is not stolen on an American dock by mobsters or destroyed by careless longshoremen, all you have to do is forge a marketing deal with Wal-Mart or Argus or Costco, none of which will pay you one single penny more than they absolutely have to and all of which will drop you like a white-hot anvil if your Spongebob cups don’t break all sippy cup sales records and excite infants to throw their Elmo cups out of car windows. In addition, you have probably done all this with money borrowed on the security of your other business and your house so that if you fail, you will lose everything you have worked for over the previous twenty years, including your wife, your girlfriend and your Labrador retriever.

A man like this is highly motivated to make the best possible product at the lowest possible price.

But the Sippy Cup Czar will have no such concerns. The desires of customers, for example, will hold little interest since he will preside over a monopoly that will give consumers no other option but to buy their cups from the government. It’s wrong even to call them “customers” or “consumers”---they will be “end-users,” a term we have all become familiar with, which describes the user of a product or service who has no market power in the transaction by which the product or service is acquired. And as we have all learned through bitter experience, if you are ever offered the choice of being an end-user or being waterboarded, the first thing you need to do is to put on your bathing suit.

The Sippy Cup Czar will not be a free agent, of course, and there will be a number of constituencies he will have to attend to. Congressmen, who will constitute his board of directors, will have many “suggestions” on the images that should appear on the cups (perhaps a picture commemorating the Stonewall riots?), the unionized factories that should produce them, the trucking outfits that should transport them, and so on. The Sierra Club will also bring pressure to bear on the Czar, perhaps relating to the carbon usage that the manufacture of sippy cups inevitably involves. One must assume that somewhere along the line, ACORN too will get a bone.

Cost and efficiency will not be an issue because it never is in a bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are not judged in that fashion. The clout of a government official is measured by the size of his budget and the number of people in his agency, which is why there is never even an attempt to save money. If, by accident, a bureaucrat fulfills his mission without spending his entire budget, his appropriation is cut for the next budget cycle and he loses prestige. It’s much safer to go slightly OVER your budget so you can claim you need a much larger number the following year. This is why government programs almost always cost more (and sometimes quite a bit more) than they were supposed to.

Given the results of central economic planning around the world, can there be any doubt what would happen if the government took over the sippy cup industry? There would be one kind of cup, perhaps in two colors, and there would probably be a picture of Rosa Parks on every one. From time to time, there would be an unexplained shortage, and the shelves would be empty for months. Half the cups would leak and occasionally, when little Johnny dropped one on the floor, it would explode. And each cup would cost $12.

Medicare (begun in 1966), now costs about thirteen times more, in real dollars, than it was supposed to. Bush’s Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003 was supposed to cost $400 billion over its first ten years. It costs at least twice that today (it’s difficult to get accurate figures on this), and in its second decade, the program’s costs will quadruple.

Obamacare will be no different, and the CBO’s projected cost of $1 trillion over the next ten years will turn out to be woefully low. The idea that the government can do anything more cheaply than the private sector is absurd, and the claim that vast savings will be obtained by taking away a few jets and spa retreats from evil fat cats is simply a disgraceful appeal to class hatred.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009


The first week in January, the weight-loss and low-fat items went on sale in order to draw in all the folks who had resolved, on New Year’s Eve, to lose twenty pounds. That’s when I met the Lean Cuisine Lady. She accosted me as I was filling the freezers with cases of the stuff.

“Which one of these was recalled because it was made in China and had pieces of plastic in it?” she wanted to know. She was 5’2,” 95 pounds, with dark beady eyes that never blinked. Her short black hair seemed headed in several directions, as if trying to escape.

I didn’t know the answer to her question. In fact, I didn’t know there had been a recall at all, but I assured her that whatever type of Lean Cuisine it was, and if we had ever stocked it, it was long gone. (With modern inventory systems, any contaminated food with a UPC code is instantly found.) But she still wanted to know, and she was rather insistent about it. Looking at her, taking her all in as it were, it occurred to me that the plastic-infested Lean Cuisines might actually be the kind she wanted because, on her planet, they were a rare delicacy.

She spent 45 minutes at the LC cases, considering the dozens of different flavors and selections. She apparently viewed the information on the nutritional labels as merely starting points in her investigations, and she peppered us with further inquiries that none of us could answer. At one point, she asked rhetorically, “Why don’t they ever tell you the ratio of carbohydrate grams to sodium?” Then she laughed bitterly and returned to her work. Gradually, she filled a shopping cart---a couple hundred dollars worth of Lean Cuisine dinners.

The crew reacted in various ways. Georgette went to lunch. I tried to work around her for a while, then grabbed all the ice cream and went to a different aisle to shelve it. Robin continued to work the LC cases as he patiently and politely answered all her questions, or tried to. Tamika kept working too but tried to push her out of the way with repeated “Excuse me’s.”

You remember the crazy ones, of course. The vast majority of guests (who are never called “customers”) are polite and friendly and just want to know where the peanut butter is, or the mayo, or the motor oil. And if they want to banter for a minute or two, well, that’s fine too.

The Coupon Guy needs more than a minute or two, but I’m always happy to oblige him. Though he’s every bit as insane as the Lean Cuisine Lady, hers is the brooding, muttering, worried-about-gluten sort of lunacy, while his is the manic glee of a man who has been released (perhaps briefly) into the wonders of Argus from a restricted facility and who intends, until his burly keepers arrive, to make the most of it.

No matter how many of us are working in the market area, the Coupon Guy always finds me and, with his stack of coupons in hand, dragoons me for his shopping adventure. The coupons themselves are odd looking items he gets direct from manufacturers. Typically, they say something like “Good for $3.63 on any Kraft product.”

“Show me all your Kraft products,” he begins. This takes five minutes or so, considering they are spread over twenty different aisles. When he has decided, he moves to the next coupon. “OK, now show me everything you have that’s made by Claussen [or Tombstone, or Old El Paso, or Kikoman],” he says, and off we go.

His choices are based in part on his taste preferences, but only in part. The price is much more important. Holding an Oscar Meyer coupon for $3.50, for example, he will not buy a pack of wieners that costs $3.51. “I don’t come here to spend money,” he confides. In his coupon universe, it is essential that everything he obtains is free.

When I ask him where he gets the coupons, he reaches out and grabs a jar of something, randomly, off the shelf. “See this?” he says, showing me the back label. “It’s an 800 number. They all have them. So I call them up and I say I bought something they make and there was something wrong with it.”

At this point, he leans into me to whisper, “Sometimes you have to lie a little bit.” Then he continues, “And a few days later, they send me a coupon! I get $300 worth of these every month! Free beans! Free mayo!” He’s getting excited now, and he grabs my arm. “And it’s a free call! They’re all 800 numbers!!!”

“Well, God bless America,” I say, at which he snaps to attention and executes a crisp salute.

“Brother,” he says, “you got that right. God bless America. Now show me everything you’ve got from Pepperidge Farm.”

* * *

T-shirts I’ve seen:

(On a woman who was 5’4” and 280 pounds):







Front: ECAC
Back: I chose Division II

(Sure. Duke offered you a scholarship to play volleyball, but you decided to go to Moravian State instead)


Hang Out
With Your Wang Out


Property of Hogwarts Athletic Dept.


(On a 10-year-old boy):



Ask me what I can do with my hands


No Shirt
No Shoes
No Juicy


(Cartoon picture of a man holding a hamburger against his ear):

I’m Talking On My Burger Phone!


(On a woman with a very large chest):



(On a short Pakistani-looking guy):

Good things come in small Pakis

* * *

I suspect there are more loonies at my Argus than at other places because there is more of just about everything. It’s a very busy place, mostly because there are no other big-box stores for miles in any direction. Also, since it’s on the city’s edge, it draws from both the poorest areas in West Philly and the richest suburbs off the Main Line. There are a number of hospitals and rehab facilities and retirement homes in the area. It’s the closest Argus to a dozen colleges and universities. There’s a large and wealthy Jewish community about a mile away. The Muslim American Society claims there are 200,000 Muslims in Philadelphia (which I doubt), but however many there are, most of them live in Germantown, or North Philly west of Broad St., or West Philly, and my Argus is the closest big-box for all of them. The largest town in American where Indians from India are a majority is three miles away.

The peculiar demographics of the area have a number of curious effects. For one thing, our Back-To-School is bigger than our Christmas, and there can’t be a lot of retail establishments in America where that is the case. Also, the parade of nations that strolls past me every day would make the bar scene in Star Wars look like the crowd on a Tuesday night in a corner taproom in South Philly. You like diversity? We got diversity. You really don’t understand how many different types of people there are in Philadelphia until you see them all in one place. That place is Argus.

Every day, I hear people speaking languages I don’t recognize. I also regularly hear Greek, French, German, Hebrew, Korean, Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Polish, Tagalog, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, Russian, Ukrainian, and Arabic. Many of the speakers, but not most, are foreign students.

I see yarmulkes every day but Saturday. Often I see orthodox Jewish families with five or six kids, Dad with a beard and all the males in skullcaps. I always steal a glance at the mom to see if she’s wearing a wig, but it’s usually hard to tell.

A while back, I started counting the women in headscarves and the women who are fully veiled. There are some delicate judgments to be made with head coverings, but for census purposes, I am fairly strict. The haven’t-washed-my-hair-this-week do-rag is easy to recognize, as well as the babushka. Those I discard. The I-danced-for-Shatner bangled head adornment is often featured on women from India or the Caribbean, however, and it can be difficult to distinguish (at a glance, anyway) from Islamic dress. In close cases, I will give the woman a second look and determine whether, from a male perspective, it is possible in even a theoretical way to regard her as potentially hot. If so, I assume the purpose of the garment is not modesty.

There are a hundred different words for these garments, and they describe dozens of styles that are quite distinct, so I’ll just give you the basics. “Hijab” is the basic concept of modest dress, and the original and basic meaning of the word is the practice of covering up in public. More commonly, however, “hijab” refers to the headscarf itself since this is the fundamental unit of Islamic modesty for women. It covers the head (including all hair), but not the face.

Hijab come in different shapes and different colors, including patterned prints, and there are several ways to wrap them on the head. There is sufficient stylistic variety in the hijab that a certain “Muslim chic” can be found among young African-American girls who are not, in fact, Muslims. Tamika has girlfriends who wear headscarves just to look cool and to save time fixing their hair every day. These same girls remove it on Saturday night, do up their hair, and hit the clubs.

I see a dozen or more women in headscarves every day, and most of them (the real Muslims) combine it with the abaya, the long overgarment that covers the arms and legs and all the other things that drive men wild. This is truly a diverse group, from America and Turkey and Morocco and Iran and the West Bank and God knows where else.

For the veiled ensemble, there are several options, the most famous of which is the burqa. This features a screen over the eyes so no part of the woman is visible (and her vision is obstructed). I’ve never seen a burqa at Argus and I don’t believe I’ve seen one in Philadelphia. Women here wear the niqab, a veil that covers the face and forehead, but not the eyes. At Argus, the niqab is always black and is worn with a black abaya. I usually see five or six of these; it’s a rare day when I do not see at least one fully-veiled woman.

Unlike the headscarf wearers, none of these women is foreign. As far as I can tell, every one of them is American, Black, English-speaking and native. They sound exactly like all the other sisters who shop at Argus, they just happen to be covered from head to foot (except for their eyes and hands) in black cloth.

These women have always puzzled me and now that I see them every day, they puzzle me even more. I have read that when women leave Saudi Arabia, the first thing they do, once they’ve cleared Saudi airspace, is remove their “coverings.” Makes sense to me. Yet these Americans don the niqab voluntarily.

At least, I assume it’s voluntary, for most of them, anyway. Across the Middle East, there is nothing voluntary about it; women are beaten or killed, often by their own families, for failing to obey the rules of “modesty.” It also happens here in America, in ethnic enclaves of Somalis or Pakistanis. But the women I see in the niqab are not Somalis. They grew up at 10th and Diamond in North Philly and went to Ben Franklin High School. Even if they now happen to be in a situation where they don’t really have a choice about it, they did have a choice at one point in their lives, and they chose to place themselves in what some feminists call “the moving prison.”

I don’t get it. I never have. Anyone can become a Muslim, of course, for perfectly rational and spiritual reasons, but what would a modern American Black woman see in the trappings of 7th century misogyny that are not even especially Islamic? I mean, you can be a perfectly proper and devout Muslim woman without living your life in a bag and walking ten feet behind your husband and carrying all the suitcases in the airport. Isn’t it bad enough you never get to eat a pork chop? I just don’t get it.

Let’s be candid here. It may not be the best thing in the world to be Black and a woman, in America, but if you haven’t let liberals turn you into a welfare-dependent, badly-educated, reparations-demanding single mother and victim, you can be anything you want to be. You can go to college, and you can have a career, and you can make money. MILLIONS OF BLACK WOMEN HAVE DONE SO. This is not 1920, when there were impenetrable barriers that even the cleverest women could not overcome. Today, the only barriers are Democrats telling you there are racists somewhere (Kentucky? Wyoming?) who, for some reason, will hold you back, somehow.

Polygamy in America is not something on which official statistics are kept. It’s a secretive practice that is hard to pick up by handing out a questionnaire asking, “Are you in a plural marriage?” Nevertheless, those who study these things tell us there are more polygamous marriages in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the country---more than Utah, more than Nevada, more than Arizona.

I see them. They shop at Argus. Hubby will be wearing a skullcap, gown and sandals, and the wives will be fully-veiled, in black, shopping and chatting with each other. They will be near Hubby, but not really with him. Then Hubby will glance at them and with a subtle movement of his head, command them to follow as he moves to a different area of the store. They do.

And I think: “Don’t you girls ever watch Oprah?”

* * *

Walking past aisle B24, a young athletic-looking guy calls me over with a question about ironing boards. He shows me the board he is considering and asks whether a different cover is available. I examine the offerings and tell him no. He could buy a replacement cover, of course, and discard the one that came with the board he wanted, but that would cost another $20. He looks troubled.

“What’s wrong with this cover?” I ask finally.

“It doesn’t match my hallway,” he replies. “It’s just wrong.”

I spend the rest of the day wondering about him. What has happened to guys? I mean, if a guy is buying a couch and he wants it to match his rug---well, OK, I can live with that. I still don’t want that guy on my hockey team, but I can live with it. But an ironing-board cover?


A woman walks by, glances at me, and says, “Hi, how you doing?”

“I’m fine,” I say. “Can I help you find something?”

She looks at me, surprised, and says, “Oh, I wasn’t talking to you.” It is only then I see the Bluetooth in her ear.

There are times it seems every shopper at Argus is talking on a cell phone. Not true, of course, but the perception is unavoidable because people who do talk on cell phones in public places intrude on everyone around them. The practice shatters one’s expectations of the line we all have traditionally drawn between public and private behavior.

When you are in a store, or on a bus, or in the bank, and you are surrounded by strangers, you give up a certain level of privacy. People may glance at you, or speak to you in certain ways we all accept as part of the price we pay for living in society. On the other hand, I do not consent to hear the details of someone’s hysterectomy just because I happen to be in a public place.

* * *

A young, attractive blond calmly shops as she carries on a lengthy fight with her boyfriend on the phone. “How can you be such a jerk, John?” she says, taking a jug of Tide off the shelf and putting it in her cart. Later, as she examines the hotdogs, I hear, “Do you have any idea how big an asshole you are?”

* * *

A college girl on her cell, dispensing moral advice to a girlfriend: “Well, if you’re looking for a simple hook-up with him, that’s OK. But Sue, I’m your friend and I’m just not sure you’re capable of that.”

* * *

A woman is pushing her cart with an infant in the seat and a toddler walking alongside. Both are screaming, non-stop, yet she ignores them completely as she shops and chats on her phone. Five of us working in the market actually stop working to marvel at her. I turn to Hayley, who is pregnant, and tell her, “You know, Hayley, if I ever see you shopping and talking on a phone while your kid is screaming, I’m gonna have to smack you.”

“Oh no you won’t,” says Tamika, “’cause I’ll smack her first.”

* * *

A fat, loud woman on her cell: “I have to get out of here, Mary. I’m telling you, MY RECTUM HURTS!!!”

* * *

I can’t help but notice the tattoos.

I should confess my personal biases here because I am out of step with current sensibilities on this matter. Today, many doctors and lawyers and pillars of the community have tattoos, in addition to the carnival workers, gang members, merchant seamen and felons, who always had them. I see them on middle-aged, respectable-looking women in office-appropriate dresses and sensible pumps, (and I’m not talking about a discrete butterfly or flower---I’m talking about an entire sleeve of design from wrist to shoulder). I see them on college athletes who are bursting with vigor and energy and good health.

But I basically disapprove. I can’t help it. For one thing, my parents were quite clear on the subject. They felt that tattoos were a desecration of the body God gave us, and that people who had them were low-lifes. My father was a veteran of WWII, and he was more lenient toward a guy with an anchor on his shoulder or a “Semper Fi” on his forearm (I am too), but he never entirely approved.

In addition, I grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood in NE Philly in the 1950’s, and some of the first tattoos I saw as a child were serial numbers on the wrists of concentration-camp survivors. These were some of the saddest people I have ever encountered, and that early experience still makes it difficult for me to view tattoos as fun or cool or hip.

But they’re everywhere. I can count the veiled women and the headscarves and the yarmulkes, but if I tried to count the tattooed people I see every day, I would never get any work done. And these are just the visible ones, of course. Many people still get them in places that are not normally exposed. Also, there are some that are only visible in warm weather---I never see the “license plate” on a girl’s lower back in the winter. (Actually, you don’t see license plates as much in the summer either---they are not as fashionable as they were a few years ago, so girls don’t display them as much.)

And not only are they everywhere, they’re terrible. The vast majority of tattoos I see are ugly and cheap. I don’t care for the artistic ones either, as I’ve confessed, but I can tell the difference. I’m amazed that people who are getting a permanent marking on their bodies won’t take the trouble (and spend a few extra bucks) to find somebody who knows how to do it properly.

I asked Robin about this one day because he’s 22 and very hip and savvy, and I’m not. When I started at Argus, we were the only two guys who worked in the market; the rest were all women. That’s why we’re buddies, and it’s also why we call each other “Girlfriend.”

So I asked him one day if all the tattooed people I see each day had gotten their tats in prison.

“Yeah, they’re nasty, aren’t they? I want to get one someday, but if you’re going to do it, you have to find the right guy.”

“So why are there so many bad ones?” I ask.

“Well, there are tattoo parties, you know, where a bunch of people will get together and hire a guy, so they’re cheap. A lot of people get them at those things. Also, there’s no law that says you have to be smart to get a tattoo.”

The most annoying for me are the cleavage tattoos, which always seem to be words, in script, across the top of the breasts. The quality is generally terrible, which means the words are difficult to read, and you wind up staring at the girl’s chest until you begin to fear you are running the danger of getting slapped in the puss, or at least eliciting the dreaded, “What the hell are YOU looking at???” It’s not fair, really. They’re a hazard to navigation. I mean, they get the damn tattoos, and then they wear a plunging neckline to show them off, and then innocent bystanders like me are put at risk.

There was, however, one cleavage tat I will never forget. The girl was pleasant enough to look at, though perhaps a bit plump, and lying horizontally across the top of her breasts was a tattoo of a red, long-stemmed rose. It was a well-executed drawing, in muted tones, and had obviously been done with care by a tattooist with some artistic ability. The highlight, however, was the low-cut pastel jersey she wore. On it, repeated twice, was the same horizontal long-stemmed rose.

* * *

Though I spend most of my time putting products on shelves, rearranging displays, and so on, the most important job for all of us is to help guests find whatever it is they are seeking. Ignoring somebody, or blowing them off because you’re too busy, is just unthinkable, and I assume any employee who did it would be fired on the spot. Also, one of the few psychic rewards in a job like this comes when you have actually answered a question or found them the Pop-Tarts, and they thank you. It’s a little thing, but it’s a reaffirmation that civility can exist in what is sometimes a harsh world.

I was shelving some cookies one day when a 60ish woman asked me where we keep the bath mats, so I stepped away from what I was doing and started leading her to the right area. As people sometimes do, she said, “Sorry to take you away from your work.”

“Ma’am,” I said, “your satisfaction is my highest priority.”

We walked another couple steps as she thought about that. “You know,” she said, “it’s been a long time since a man said that to me.”