Adventures in New Capitalism: The Red Hook Vendors

As our readers may or may not know, I am a borderline libertarian/objectivist... While I think universal health care would be rad I question government interference in the fiscal sphere. I believe that a "pure free market" might briefly be a nightmare but could blossom into a beautiful thing. I believe many of our land's current issues revolve around the coercive powers of government being used against its citizens at the behest of corporate interest. I believe in the corporation but not in the unholy amalgamation of lobbyist, laws, and commerce. I also believe all of this only works in a place where people behave rationally, which g-d only knows is not the place we live in. Having made this lengthy preamble, I have to say this: I don't want to lose the Red Hook Soccer Field Taquerias. For those who have somehow missed this, there are these astonishingly clean and pristine sporting fields at the very end of Red Hook where the local latin-american population enjoys picnics, futbol matches and baseball games. They are also home to small vendors serving some of the best latin-american food in the hemisphere... And for cheap.The fields are far from train and bus, and until recently, this preserved them as one of the city's best kept secrets. In recent years thanks to food blogs and the collective hipster unconscious, the soccer fields have become very popular among the brooklyn intelligentsia and culturati. However, the area has also become very popular among developers, resulting in the gigantic and labyrinthine Fairway and soon a huge Ikea adjacent to the fields. This has struck me as a red flag that it might be time to move. The coming of Ikea means more than increased traffic, pollution and the illusionary opportunity for "local economic growth." It also means that the vendors who have been there for years will now be engaged in a permit bidding war to supply food to the furniture tourists who will soon be flooding the area. Corporate vendors who will charge ten dollars for an unappetizing hot dog will be able to force out the amazing artisans of $5 quesadillas and $2 pupusas in order to make the city the maximum profit. WAIT: When I began this post, I thought I would be forced to compromise my ideals and say that this cultural and culinary treasure should be an exception to the free market, but as I write I realize this is once again this is an example of coercion... Why should a permit be required to use public land that ostensibly "belongs to the people?" Why don't we allow whoever wakes up earliest in the morning to get their booth and let whoever sells the best food they can at the best value they can win the day? I can guarantee a minimum-wage slave from Subway will not be able to compete against this juggernaut of cultural integrity and tasty deliciousness. mmmm... blood sausage.


Hoyt Pollard said...

If they kick out the latino vendors and bring in some corn dog bull shit, no one will go. Put that in your free market and smoke it, Mayor Mike.

md said...

I totally agree that they should stay. I am worried that tired IKEA shoppers will infest the park, spur crime by desecrating a lovely spot for local families, and eat whatever crap you put in front of them.

Although, the real question here is: "Wouldn't the IKEA shoppers just have the tasty swedish meatball platter inside?"

Is Hoyt a Deliverance shout out?

ks said...

mmmmm. those look tasty. might have to take a trek to red hook. or a ferry or something.

Hoyt Pollard said...

It is indeed. (Insert banjo riff here.)

Mean 3Monkey said...

First of all, with respect to permits to sell food on public property, I doubt you would assert that unregulated commerce should be allowed on public property. Were that the case, Walmart could open up shop in Central Park. "Public" property is only meaningful if there are controls on how the public is allowed to use it.

That concern aside, a permit might be necessary to use public land because, as you note, there may not be enough land to go around. Permits seem like a much more reasonable mechanism for deciding who can use this scarce resource than just allowing whoever arrives earliest to set up shop, because it avoids an unnecessary waste of resources. Manning a food stand when no one wants to buy food is a very real expense, from which no one derives much benefit. If these spots become as valuable as you suggest, then in a first-come-first-served system, the over-priced corporate hot dog vendor will simply pay someone to operate his shop 24 hours a day, forcing out the independent taqueria operator who wants to go home to his family.

Libertarianism and anarchism have a little too much in common for me to be comfortable with the former.

md said...

mean 3monkey--

you make a lot of good points. I just think there's something jarring about the idea of "public" property that is actually "held in trust" for us by entirely biased parties.

Which I guess is my high school anarchism coming back out.

My spur-of-the-moment solution (first come first served) doesn't work, but what would?

These are my two questions for you:

1. If the land is in fact "public" shouldn't it be use for the public good? And is the increased permit revenue more of a "good" than providing jobs, community pride, and amazing pupusas?

2. Is there a difference between a corporate vendor paying an employee to sit at a stand for 24 hours or paying for an expensive permit to guarantee their sole use of the space.

How to make this system of "democracy" work is a real interesting one. I hope you read and comment in the future. I need someone to challenge my "pragmatic" idealism.

Mean 3Monkey said...

md -

I completely agree that public land should be used for the public good. I am whole-heartedly in favor of public land, in the form of national parks, state universities, and undeveloped areas like ANWR, as well as green spaces within cities, precisely because they provide benefits which privately held property could not offer.

The advantage of the corporate vendors paying for a permit rather than staking out their claims 24 hours per day is that the permit money can be used for the benefit of the community, whereas few people are going to eat hot dogs stuffed with the blood of abused workers at four in the morning.

However, I agree with you that the public interest is in this case best served by the existing taquerias. I'm no politician, but I see no reason why the permits required to run a food stand in Red Hook must be blindly auctioned to the highest bidder. Why couldn't a local community group charged with managing the parks simply select the vendors to be given permits. Or the matter could be decided via that old democratic standby of voting.

Unfettered capitalism scares me because it seems to breed robber-barons. There's a positive feedback loop through which those with money have the means to get more money, and with money comes power divorced from responsibility to the greater community. Public property needs to be held in trust or it falls victim to the tragedy of the commons: everyone (or enough people to ruin it for everyone else) takes what they can without regard to their impact on the common good because that strategy maximizes their own benefit. I agree that the question of who is to do the trust-holding is problematic, but I think it can be solved reasonably well through the democratic process (so long as that process is not corrupted by corporations and other special interest groups), and even a suboptimal trust-holder is better than no trust-holder.

I think one of the main problems with American representative democracy is that the representatives are so divorced from the people they serve. It's a shame that the Supreme Court is punching holes in the McCain-Feingold act. If the politicians actually served the people as a whole, rather than the people with the money to get them reelected, the entire system would function more smoothly.

Enough ranting for one night...