How Two Economies Function or Fail
The Self-Service Economy
by Richard Risemberg
We were in Argentina, visiting relatives, my girlfriend and I, when she ran out of the hand lotion she had brought along. This may not seem like a big problem, but she dotes on that lotion, cherishes the comfort it gives her, and cleaves unto it with a touching fidelity. It is a substance that is damned hard to find, even in The Greatest Market Economy in the World, the USA. There is only one drugstore we know of that regularly carries it, and it's rather far (there are ten others that don't carry it within a mile); and even in that one it is often enough out of stock, though our neighborhood is a fairly upscale and densely populated area in the heart of Los Angeles.
When it is out of stock, and we ask when it will be in, we usually hear that it "should be in in a week or so, when we get a shipment." When I've asked one of the nearby pharmacies if they could get it in for us, they usually say that they can't get it, or that they'll check and call me. But they never call….
So there we were in Argentina, far away from everything and in the middle of what is officially called a "recession," but that appears to me to be a depression. And my girl sadly gazing at her depleted bottle of lotion.
So I went downstairs, out the front door of the hotel, and around the corner, where I found the nearest pharmacy, a tiny establishment facing onto a tiny side street on the edge of downtown in Córdoba, a city that is definitely not Buenos Aires. And, being the sort of guy who likes to push the button and see what happens, I asked for the lotion.
The girl behind the counter answered swiftly: "I don't have any here at the moment, but let me check the computer…ah, yes. I'm sorry, but it will take me half an hour to get it for you. Do you mind coming back?"
I did not mind coming back. There's plenty to do on the streets of Córdoba, second city though it is. My eyeball estimate is that each block contains at least two small eateries (restaurant, coffeehouse, empanada shop, etc.), a pharmacy, a kiosk (tiny shops which one usually doesn't even enter; they are the equivalent of US convenience stores, but of course face directly onto the sidewalk for pedestrians to use), two Internet cafés (which usually provide phone and mail service as well), one small market, and one or two ice cream shops. (In fact, I've never been anywhere that has such a high density of ice cream shops; many blocks will have four!) This is on a side street; a main street would have more stores and more variety, including shopping malls (with no parking garages!), offices, schools, professional establishments, churches and museums, the more formal restaurants, and hotels. Apartments are everywhere. And the streets are crowded with people walking at every hour of the day, for in Argentina dinner rarely begins before ten, and often lasts till 2AM…when you move on to a club, perhaps.
It's always easy enough to while away half an hour in Argentina, the only irritation being the buzzing of tiny unmuffled motorcycles that swarm the city…however, it is those motorcycles that sustain the astounding network of business and home delivery services such as the one that was bringing me the lotion. Even a tiny food stand will have several motorcycles ready to deliver orders.
Twenty five minutes after I walked out the pharmacy's door, I walked back in. The lotion was there.
In The Greatest Market Economy in the World, we have to drive back to a pharmacy far from home, a few days or a week later, and hope they've gotten it in.
In Argentina, despite all their political and economic problems, they have not forgotten that life is not just what you buy and sell, but what you do to make each other's lives comfortable.
One often hears lately that the US is becoming a "service economy," but I don't see it. I rarely enjoy any kind of "service" in this country. I am presented with an illusion of choice, where a bigbox drugstore that covers an acre of land will have less variety than a modest storefront in a battered economy. We are a self-service economy, where the object is to trick the customer into buying what is cheapest to offer him, and not what he really may want or need.
The Argentine pharmacist needed to make money, of course; living in a country in profound recession, she needed to make money far more than the bloated kingbees of the US corporate economy need to. And she did make money. But she also made sure that I could get what I needed, and she did so kindly and thoroughly. Because she cared that this stranger's girlfriend should be happy.
And that, my friends, is service.
That lotion (the equivalent of $12.00 US) was one of the most expensive things I bought in Argentina, but I didn't pay nearly enough for what I got.
Our thanks to the author for permission to share this article with Progress Report readers. This article originally appeared in The New Colonist. Their web site is cool, by the way.
You may also want to read Fred Foldvary's editorial Argentina Shows Woes of Land and Money
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