In the first chapter of Stephen King’s The Shining, Watson, the maintenance man at the Overlook Hotel, warns Jack Torrence (the character famously played by Jack Nicholson in the Kubrick movie) that he has to keep an eye on the pressure gauge of the antiquated boiler in the basement:Â “You got to check the press.Â If you forget, it’ll just creep and creep . . .”Â This oddly ominous little phrase “it creeps” recurs throughout the book as the boiler becomes a metaphor for the mounting tensions in Torrence’s life and the malevolent influence of the Overlook itself.
I think socialist ideology is like that.Â It creeps.
Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, you are aware, of course, that it’s Girl Scout Cookie season.Â My daughter, a Cadette Girl Scout, loves selling cookies, and she’s pretty good at it.Â There are two phases to the cookie sales:Â pre-sales, in which each scout goes around with the familiar color-coded order form and collects as many paid-in-advance orders as she can, followed by “booth sales”, which is what is going on when you see gaggles of Girl Scouts set up at tables for cash-and-carry sales at grocery stores, big box stores, and pretty much everywhere else you look right now.Â What you may not know is that the determination of when each troop can set up its booths at which major retail locations is – at least here in the middle of the Peach State – made by operation of a multi-round lottery system which rivals the complexity of the NFL draft, and is controlled entirely by the local Girl Scout Council. Troop leaders meet at the offices of The Council and spend an entire evening at it.Â First, each leader has the chance to enter a random drawing to determine the order in they will proceed.Â Then they go through several rounds of selecting from a list of available locations and times.Â These locations and times have been arranged with local retailers by The Council, and individual troops or individual scouts are not allowed to approach any of the retailers that The Council has staked out.
Last weekend, I found myself in a conversation with one of our troopâ€™s leaders, who was grousing mildly about the booth schedule our troop is assigned for an upcoming weekend.Â We have the 10 am to 12 noon and 12 noon to 2 pm shifts at a particular location, then will have to break down the booth and vacate the location for another troop to come in from 2 pm to 4 pm, whereupon we go back to the same location and set up again to sell cookies from 4 pm to 6 pm.Â When I asked how anybody could have come up with such a ridiculous plan, she told me that it was an operation of the lottery system.Â She had, when it was her turn to pick, selected four consecutive shifts at this particular location.Â She chose those slots because (a) the location is convenient to where most members of our troop live, (b) the consecutive shifts would mean less work setting up and breaking down, and (c)Â this place is considered a “good location.”Â (In our town, Wal-Mart and Lowe’s on the north side and the Kroger stores on the north and south side are considered “good locations”, known for high volume sales; the Wal-Mart on the west side, where purse-snatchers stalk the parking lot even in broad daylight and the meth smurfs go to purchase cold meds to supply clandestine labs, not so much.) However, because of the way the lottery is set up by The Council, a leader that ends up going later in the order (because she happened to pull a higher number in the random drawing)Â is allowed to take a time/location already chosen by another leader.Â As our cookie mom explained, “Even if you end up picking last, you can take one slot from another troop.Â They say this is the only fair way to do it, so everybody gets to have a good location.”Â This revelation prompted the cookie mom’s husband, standing nearby, to remark, “Yeah.Â Well.Â We’re supposed to have equal opportunities . . . everybody isn’t guaranteed equal results.”Â I already knew I liked the guy, but he instantly rose several points in my estimation.
I found the memory of this conversation returning to me at odd moments this week, worrying me like a toothache.Â It’s not just the idea that Troop A can take a booth location from Troop B for no other reason than that Troop B has it and Troop A wants it, and never mind considerations like efficiency or reasonableness.Â What really bothers me about this is that all the folks at The Council and all the troop leaders who participate – many of whom I know to be intelligent, assertive women – have apparently just accepted this practice along with its bizarre results as completely normal and natural.Â What the hell are we teaching the Scouts?Â When did we reach the point where The Council controls and dictates so many aspects of what is, at least on its face, designed to be an energetic exploration of capitalism and entrepreneurship?Â When did we turn cookie sales into a lukewarm exercise in Fairnessâ„¢?
Now, compare and contrast:Â There is certain little independently-owned gift shop in town which is run by a group of ladies who effortlessly combine keen business acumen and excellent sales skills with true Southern graciousness and charm. Â Over the years, weâ€™ve grown to be friends.Â Because I like what they sell, I like the way they take care of their customers, and frankly, because I just love the atmosphere of the place and enjoy watching the way these ladies work, I stop in often, usually with my daughter in tow.Â When cookie season rolled around this year, the owner graciously invited my daughter to set up a table in her shop one Saturday to sell cookies.Â After accepting the invitation, my daughter considered whether she should invite other members of her troop to join her in this endeavor, but decided against it.Â You see, thereâ€™s an iPod Touch incentive prize available to top individual cookie sellers this year.Â So, although some might (and probably would) accuse her of being a greedy little capitalist, she felt like this invitation was hers and she wanted the sales for herself.
So I helped her make a plan.Â First, this required that we check out quite a few cases of cookies from the troopâ€™s supply, with the knowledge that if they didnâ€™t sell, weâ€™d be buying them.Â You canâ€™t return cookies, only money.Â â€œBut Mom,â€ my daughter asked, â€œarenâ€™t we taking a big chance?â€
â€œYep,â€ I replied.Â â€œThatâ€™s how business works in the real world.Â You have to take risks.Â Do you think this is a good location to sell cookies?â€
â€œWell, yeahÂ . . . I think so.â€
â€œThen weâ€™ll take the chance.â€Â Bingo.Â She had just learned her first lesson (risk and venture capital).Â We continued planning.Â She selected an attractive tablecloth in just the right shade of green and together we created a matching sign (marketing).Â We researched and compiled a booklet of recipes that can be made from Girl Scout cookies to give away (customer service and good will).Â I insisted that she learn to â€œmake changeâ€ the old-fashioned way (almost a lost skill, even among adults working in retail) and we practiced it over and over.
Despite all the preparation, on the way to the shop that morning, my little entrepreneur started getting cold feet.Â â€œBut Mom, Iâ€™m not used to having a booth by myself.Â I donâ€™t know if I can do this.â€Â (My daughter, who at age three would wander up to perfect strangers and chatter uninhibitedly about the most intimate details of our family life, has acquired the tween-age preference for traveling in a pack.) I gently reminded her that, if she backed out at that point, this venture would definitely fail, so there was really nothing to be lost by giving it a try.Â I suggested that, once we got to the shop, she should watch how the ladies who work there interact with customers, and imitate what they do. I helped her tote stuff in and set up the table, then purposely faded into the background.Â Since she had no one to rely on but herself, she mastered her nerves.Â She watched and learned.Â Soon she was assertively greeting and serving customers, confidently and accurately making change, and selling so many cookies that I had to go and get more.Â By mid-afternoon, when the Thin Mints ran out for the second time,Â and we had decided to pack it in for the day, she was tired, but seemed really happy.Â â€œSo,â€ I asked as we drove home, â€œHow do you feel?â€
â€œGreat!â€ she replied.Â A quick glance over my shoulder into the back seat confirmed what I had already heard in her voice.Â Her smile would have lit up Atlanta.
â€œWhy?â€ I asked, covertly crossing my fingers, and wondering whether her answer was going to have to do with being quite a few cases of cookies closer to earning that iPod, or something more . . .Â essential.
â€œWell . . . because I did it!â€Â Yes.
By engaging in this venture by herself with no controls, no guarantees, and no safety net, my daughter gained something that will last long after any material reward she might earn is replaced by next yearâ€™s model.Â She made a plan and executed it.Â She took a chance, which paid off because she mastered the skills she needed to do the job and she worked hard.Â Most importantly, in a way that was real and personal and vital to her, she tasted freedom . . . the freedom that comes from self-reliance, from not having to depend on anyone else to make arrangements for her, and from not having to follow artificial rules in an artificial system designed to implement Fairnessâ„¢.
I grieve for those Scouts – there are, I fear, many of them – who are totally reliant for their cookie booth sales on the nanny-state-in-microcosm set up by The Council, in which no one is allowed to risk too much, fail too much, dare too much, or succeed too much, because it wouldnâ€™t be â€œfair.â€Â They will not have the opportunity to discover that the seeds of motivation to learn, innovate, and improve can take root and grow out of the bitter dust of disappointment.Â They wonâ€™t experience the pure elation that comes from freedom and self-reliance.Â Socialism creeps, and so does loss of freedom.Â There are many masks and innocuous disguises.Â If we are to preserve the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, we must exercise constant vigilance.Â Children (read:Â future voters) learn what they live.
It would be a far better life lesson, in myriad ways, if The Council stepped out of the way, and just said, “Go forth and sell cookies.”