The Umbrella: A New Era

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Summer approaches, the season for sipping Sangria by the pool underneath a big umbrella to block the sun. There’s only one problem: the round pole. There it is, right in the middle of the table where the Sangria pitcher should sit, where the plate of cookies should rest, where the centerpiece of summer flowers should decorate a table of wrought iron and glass.

Instead, there is the pole. You must lean to the left or the right to talk to the person across from you, and whichever way you choose, that puts you thereby farther from the person on your right or left. Should you choose to say a word or two to the person from whom you just leaned away, you will have to move again, the person across from you will either have to shift in the opposite direction or talk to the pole.

The pole! Curses on it. You can stand it in May, tolerate it in June, barely keep from chopping it down in July, but by August, it’s too much. You can’t wait for the Fall, just to get back to luxuriating in a space where conversation is not constantly interrupted by a round steel pole with a winding crank staring at you. Somehow you realize, too late, that it has been a source of disconcerting spatial division in your life for longer than you can remember.

Ah, but the discovery process of the market — the international market employing the division of labor without regard to the arbitrary lines drawn by the political class — has at last given us the alternative: the side-post umbrella.

It is so obviously superior that it is a wonder why it hasn’t existed before. In this sense it is like other great inventions, like the wheel, the digital camera, or the Market Fresh sandwich: once they come to exist, they seem to be part of the fabric of the natural law. We take them for granted ex post, which is a tragedy in some sense. We should better appreciate the glories of the marketplace that ceaselessly moves history forward.

And history has once again taken a step in the direction of progress toward human flourishing. The first side-post umbrella I saw was at the Amsterdam Café, and it was and is a technological marvel. How does it not topple over? Who knows and who cares? The division of labor permits you to leave such technical details to others.

You can only amazed that you seem to be sitting under an umbrella and yet you are simultaneously experiencing a sense of conversational freedom. You are consuming both shade and a vast expanse openness, the perfect combination of security and liberality.

As the poet said:

Are you at ease? Now is your heart at rest?
Now you have got a shadow, an umbrella,
To keep the scorching world’s opinion
From your fair credit

You might at first think: this contraption destined to take flight at the first light breeze. In fact, it pivots side to side in the breeze, and most models have a wind vent at the top to prevent this problem. You can even put two side-by-side and create a massive canopy that would otherwise break the bank to install.

The day before yesterday, there was the problem of price, made of heavy canvas and teak and other fussy materials. Online it is hard to find them for less than $500 — shade accessible only to the rich, surely. Most are running $700 and up. Not even the amazing Froogle seems to make it affordable.

Ah, but exorbitant profits don’t last for long in a rivalrous market. Mine was $89 and I bought it at the grocery store, imported to Auburn, Alabama, all the way from China in order to bring my backyard comfort and joy.

Wouldn’t you know that the grocery retailer that daily brings flowers from all over Latin America, beer and wine from all corners of the world, and cheese from every far-flung region, would also be the first to bring us the newest innovations made affordable to the masses from the far East?

To be sure, I checked to Lowe’s first.

Me to clerk: “Pardon me but do you have the new fashionable porch umbrella that everyone is talking about?”

Clerk: “No.”

Me to clerk: “But how can you say no when you don’t know what I’m referring to?”

Clerk: “All I know is that we have had the same umbrellas for sale for years. No changes.”

So here we have it: Lowes is stuck in the Walrasian Box. So is WalMart, for that matter.

I gave the clerk the “heads up” on the newest trend, and drove straight to Kroger for mine, which would surely be the envy of the subdivision if I felt like sharing my shade with anyone.

This year, this little item is an oddity. You may have learned about it for the first time here. But next year? Thanks to the glory of international trade, the pressures of the marketplace, the unstoppable ingenuity of the entrepreneurial spirit, the magic way in which the market spreads information far and wide, this very well could become standard by next year. Tables with holes in the middle will be clogging every yard sale.

We may all some day look back at the center-pole umbrella as a stage of history that is long past. You might find them only on Ebay, like wood-burning stoves and manual typewriters. Our grandkids may wonder about the day when people had not figured out that an umbrella pole need not be placed in the center of the table. A real centerpiece can be a year-round item, indoors and out.

Addendum: the race to offer these at the right price is on! Yardiac.com has a stunning gallery and a model for $169.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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