Saturday, August 29, 2009

What I learned in the dart booth at the church picnic

And no, it isn’t about religion. It was about economics and the role of the market in moderating demand. In other words, it was about health care.

feelluckyIn our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), we have an administrative unit called a “stake”. It is a group of congregations, kind of like a diocese in scale. Anyhoo, we have an annual picnic and usually something like 3,000 people come and there’s food and a band and stuff. This year, each congregation (called a “ward” for those playing along at home) also had to put together a little carnival type booth – face painting, old time photos, bean bag toss, etc. I was in charge of our effort (or more precisely, I was our effort, by choice, not complaining) and I put together a dart balloon popping thing. And all these booths and activities were free.

A guy in our ward (a single congregation) who is fanin the toy business had donated some pretty cool prizes. They were samples he’d had sitting around for some time I’m guessing. There were squeezy balls that looked like panda heads. (Ummm…and no, I don’t know why you’d want to squeeze a panda head.) And there were these very cool battery powered fans that lit up in the middle. His one rule about donating these prizes was “don’t bring these back to me”. Both the fact they’d been kicking around awhile and that he didn’t want them back will come into play later.

OK, so the rules of this game were simple.
1) Age 11 and under, throw from the closer line.
2) Over 11, throw from the further back line.
3) Three darts to a turn.
4) Pop a balloon, win a prize.
5) If you miss, you still get a piece of candy.

See? Simple.

I’ve played this kind of game at carnivals and amusement parks. There’s rarely a big line. The odds (for me) of winning a prize are better than most carnival games. And the itinerant serial killer carney working the booth seems to have plenty of time to blow up more balloons and put them up to replace the ones that are popped by suckers valued guests.

So here’s how it worked out for me in the nearly four hours I manned the booth…

A line quickly formed that ultimately extended about the equivalent of a block. That line stayed the entire time and, I’ll add, consisted of many of the same people. The only other booth with a line was face painting. Not even the food line was anything like this in length or duration. This was the Space Mountain of the Bellevue South Stake Picnic 2009. If you can separate Mormons from free food, and it isn’t a multi-level marketing pitch, you’re really on to something!
The lesson some of the organizers tried to take from this was, “Wow! people really like that dart game.”
NO! It wasn’t that they liked the dart game. They wanted the cool prize!
And so it began…

Issue #1
“We need to leave, do you mind if my child gets in front of the line?”
We had several of these in the time the booth was open, and people would just acquiesce and let the person go to the front. I mean, it was a church picnic after all.
But, seriously, what kind of person does this? What a wonderful life it must be to feel like your situation is soooo unique as to go ahead of 100 people waiting in the sun to try to play a free game to win a fan – that they only really think they need because they are standing in the sun trying to win one.

Issue #2
“This fan you gave me is broken! I need another one!”
Some people were nicer about this than others, but some were kind of angry about this. I mean, it was a free game, and I was happy to replace the fans, but holy crap.
As it turned out, the fans had about a 30-50% failure rate out of the box. In most cases because the batteries were dead or leaking.

Issue #3
“Our booth ran out of prizes, can we have some of yours?”
I gave them a case of 100 fans.
Then they ran into the failure rate and came back and said, “Hey, a lot of those fans don’t work. Can you give us another box?”
To which I said, basically, “WHAT? Howzbout you get your own prizes for your own #%$^@# booth?!?!” (well, not quite, but that’s what I said on the inside)
Then they started sending people with broken fans to my booth to get them replaced.

Issue #4
People showing up at the booth with three, four, or even five fans dangling from their belt.
On the one hand, I didn’t care because the mandate was to give people something to do and to get rid of these prizes, but it was an interesting experiment that, because it was free, people suddenly developed an insatiable appetite for these fans.
A side observation was seeing kids having “fan fights” where they would stick their spinning fans into each other and the fan that broke was the loser. Then the kid would get back in line and win another or just come and claim that it was broken and get another one.

Issue #5
“Hey the fan you gave my daughter got caught in her hair! YOU should be more careful about the prizes you give out to kids!”
“Dear brother in Christ, YOU should have smarter kids who, oh I don’t know, maybe don’t stick freakin’ motorized spinning things next to their head!”

The Lessons
The Role of Markets
supplydemand Markets moderate demand. When demand goes higher than can be sustained at a certain market price, the price increases to the point where demand slackens to a more sustainable level.
If each time someone played the dart game, they had to pay a dime, or donate a food item to the homeless, or use one of a rare set of tickets that were provided, or some other currency of the moment, they would weigh their “wants” much more carefully.
THIS is the thing I didn’t anticipate. I had to interrupt the flow of the line to put up more balloons, or find darts in the grass, or whatever. There was never a slack moment in demand.
At the end of the day, I still had a bunch of these fans and I just started giving them away to the people waiting in line and some people would reach in the box and take three or four of them and then ask if I had more.
Demand for the least worthwhile of goods becomes insatiable when the price is zero.

I noticed that one of the booths, started putting a dot on kids hands when they did their activity and not allowing repeats. I think it was the cotton candy booth. One kid was sad because they had dropped whatever it was and then couldn’t get more of it. Not that kids need more cotton candy or popcorn or what-have-you, but the only way to limit demand is a strict ration and that can be unrelenting and harsh in the face of genuine need. (or perceived need)
I didn’t do this, although I though of it, because, again, I wanted to get rid of the fans. 
In a market driven economy, the market forces do the rationing by allowing people to choose what is most important to them.
In a centrally planned economy, these choices tend to disappear either by direct government action or through the reactions of market forces to indirect government intervention into that market.

It was genuinely surprising how a control group of unusually nice people at a church picnic could quickly feel entitled to these prizes. “Hey, my dart bounced off that balloon! Is this rigged?” (Yes, sir, I’ve rigged this free game of skill and chance so I can get money, power, jollies?)
Not too mention those people in the neighboring booth who seemed determined to have equal access to the prizes I’d arranged for MY booth.
And when the event was over and the organizers told me I needed to shut down, I still had people coming up wanting prizes while I was cleaning up and being clearly disappointed that they were gone – while they had two or three fans in their hands right before me.

So to end my sermon, brothers and sisters, I’ve spent an afternoon in ObamaCare, and it looks a lot like a dart game booth at a church picnic.
Only we won’t be clamoring for our fifth lame light up fan. We’ll be begging for our first necessary appendectomy while our doctor consults the bureaucracy to see if we should just maybe take the pain pills instead.
Be afraid! Be very afraid!

And, by the way, keep up the fight, we’re winning. Thanks to folks like David Hedrick. Semper Fi Cpl Hendrick. (As we all know, there are no “former” Marines, no matter what Sean Hannity says <g>)

And, all kidding aside, I can’t end this without a big shout out to the H’s, the C’s, and the T’s for all the help blowing up balloons. To P for the prizes. And to my family for their patience while we got through this lame assignment. :-)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Freezing My Own Green Beans (and other firsts)

No, that’s not a naughty euphemism.

We have a little garden going this year. Basically just:

  • Green beans
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Zucchini
  • Pumpkins

I’m not the world’s greatest gardener but I’m determined to have something to show for this year’s effort.

Our tomatoes are coming on strong, but haven’t ripened yet.
We’ve already harvested two crops of spinach and are ready to plant another row.
Our carrots are progressing – slowly.
Our pumpkins look promising. I suspect they’ll be supplying Jack-O-Lanterns for us and some of our friends as well.
Our zucchini has, of course, done well. I think I read somewhere that after a nuclear war, all that will be left is cockroaches and zucchini. It is about all I can do to harvest them when they are young and tasty before the become useless engorged beasts.

beansblanch And our green beans have been great. We’ve eaten some and had some in the fridge, but we can’t keep up, so I found a page on the magic interwebs about freezing them. Some boiling water. Some ice water. Some freezer bags. Bada bing! I did it.

I’m now officially pioneer stock. Next I’ll probably be tanning hides and making soap.

Another first…selling a car on Craig’s List
I may be the last person on earth to have sold a car on Craig’s List. What’s more, it was a broken (repairable but not by me) Nissan Sentra.

Two firsts in one day. Pretty nifty stuff.