The toot of the trolley caught my ear as my buddy and I enjoyed the beautiful sun sparkling like thousands of diamonds on the surface of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
I said, "Let’s ride it!" It was one of the older street cars retired in 1939, restored to perfection. Brought back to service for the Como-Harriet Line through donations and volunteers, it and a couple of other restored cars run on a mile-long track between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun.
I had just spent $4 on a couple of lemonades and reached in my pocket to dig out my last $3. Figuring the price would be about $1-$1.50, I walked into the historic station to purchase tickets.
I was greeted by a friendly woman behind the counter and I asked her how much for tickets. She stated the price was $2 each. I made an offer. I said, "I’m here with a friend and we’d like to ride the train. I notice that right now, about 3-5 people are riding and the rides are mostly empty. I’ll give you my last $3 for two tickets if that works for you."
Her smile faded and she twitched her chin back and forth and she replied slightly annoyed, "The price is $2 per ticket." I said, "I know that’s the price and I respect that. But your train is running empty, back and forth all day with nobody on it. This organization depends heavily on volunteers and donations and here is an opportunity to profit $3 instead of us walking back down to the lake. It’s $3 that you wouldn’t have otherwise and it won’t cost you anything."
Well that pretty much did it. Her voice became stern and she loudly exclaimed, "Sir, the tickets are $2 each. No exceptions!" I smiled and said, "I understand, have a beautiful day." I meant it.
I walked out to the platform. One of the volunteers was talking with a couple. He was dressed in his train conductor uniform and as I approached I asked, "Excuse me, can I ask a question?" I repeated the dilemma of the situation. The couple seemed to be puzzled but the conductor flat out said, "Yes I would accept $3 for two tickets." And then he went on to further explain his understanding of the concept I had introduced. The couple’s expressions turned from the look of, "who is this weirdo trying to get on for free" to nods of understanding.
I quietly explained that the person inside wouldn’t accept my offer. And given that the whole operation was donation dependent, the capacity was way under-utilized, here was a chance to take in 75% of a fare times two.
The conductor lowered his voice. "Oh…Helen." He went on. "She works for the state. Maybe you can give me the money and I’ll settle things later with her." But he immediately realized the error in his thinking. His face was strained.
"That’s not going to work," I said. "It will usurp her authority and it will make her look bad." He agreed it would be a problem. Then he offered, "I could ring it up as a donation but I’d still have to explain it to Helen." Finally I said, "Let me go in, buy one ticket, and settle up with you out here for the last $1 and my buddy and I can ride."
So I went back in. She was just as pleasant as when I first arrived. Ticket purchase, attempt number two.
"One ticket please," I said in my perfect "Elaine from Seinfeld" voice, where she approaches the Soup Nazi to order the Seafood Bisque. It was amazing. She rang up the order with a smile. She even giggled when the token slipped out of her hand and rolled across the counter towards me. I side-stepped one space to the side, smiled and again said, "Have a beautiful day!" She smiled back and said, "Isn’t it gorgeous?"
The understanding became crystal clear. Poor Helen can only do what she has been told to do. She has been given no authority to make even basic decisions other than to ring up a sale, here’s the price, have a nice day. I don’t fault her in any way. Maybe people try to scam a ride off her on a daily basis. Maybe she’s been told, "No Free Rides!" She has been programmed to staff the register and ring up $2 per sale. That’s it.
I walked out of the station and over to the conductor, handed him the token, gave him the extra $1 for a donation, and my friend and I got on the train.
As the other three people boarded, the conductor went on to explain more. "I just returned from Russia. My Russian adopted son needed a Russian visa in his US passport. I couldn’t risk him having a Russian passport in Russia as there have been stories of young men being held up in red tape or worse, drafted." He had just returned from the ultimate in bureaucracy and could see it a mile away.
It was so refreshing to be able to communicate basic economic understanding with someone and not have to deal with soup nazi mentality. What should have been a simple transaction between two people turned into having to navigate around the glue in the machine–namely the misunderstanding of economic concepts by people charged with economic duties.
It would be one thing if there was a line out the door and the train was maxed to capacity. The price could actually be increased on the fly to match the demand. She would have logic on her side when she told me to take a hike. But here they are running nearly empty all day. That price should be dropping by the minute and any offers entertained..in theory. Reality has Helen involved.
Helen represents so many things wrong about bureaucratic mentality. Fear of making a mistake, fear of doing the job wrong or losing it, distrust in anyone who doesn’t follow the rules. She went from happy to irritated to happy all in the space of a few minutes and when I bought the one ticket, it was if our initial encounter had never happened! She was programmed for one thing and when the program didn’t match, sirens went off in her head and she had to protect the program. But when she gets the standard routine, she’s in paradise.
The disconnect in a bureaucratic system is that the planners don’t understand that their roadblocks to free exchange only disrupt the flow. Helen provided no benefit to the flow except to make the operation less profitable. The powers that be gave Helen handcuffs and said here’s the job, here’s what you do, don’t screw it up. And she performed that job flawlessly.
The truth is, she hinders the natural process of barter and exchange. The transaction occurred in spite of Helen. She may never even know. But water flows the path of least resistance. Helen’s resistance added a solution to a problem that never should have existed had someone with more economic aptitude been staffing the post.
Helen’s mentality is the same as those who scream at so-called price gougers selling plywood at 10x markup during a hurricane threat. Or ice and gas going up like a rocket during scarcity and outages. Rather than try to understand why, the ignorant usually cry out for the levy of fines, penalties and jail time. The ego gets involved and says, "This price is not fair. I want to pay the NORMAL price." There is no normal. It is what it is. The minute plywood sells for $40 a sheet rather than $140 a sheet during a hurricane is when the seller sells his entire inventory in five minutes. And then the buyer goes down the street and makes $100 a sheet profit selling at $140. Goods flow to the greatest demand at the price the market will pay. The only fairness involved is that no one is forced to buy or sell at prices they are unwilling to.
Helen may never be open to understanding this and that is fine. But it makes me wonder how many Helens are gumming up otherwise beautiful, simple transactions of the market.