I was in Washington, D.C. last weekend, channeling Shannon McGarry’s rage while I searched for a public restroom, when I remembered I was only a few blocks away from the National Mall. There the large behemoths of the Smithsonian Institute sit, forming an oasis of free in an otherwise costly city. I slipped into the Museum of Natural History, knowing I could catch a sight of a thagomizer while taking advantage of the public facilities.
I must have had a radiant glow when I left the museum, having both relieved my bladder and my deep desire to walk among the dinosaurs. My large smile happened to catch the attention of a woman who stopped me. “Hello! I’m with the fun police and we’re just giving out stickers to thank people who are smiling today,” she told me. Now of course this was a hook, a single phrase that would get me to stop the linear progression of my day to chat with her about whatever she was selling. In this case it was a donation to a soup kitchen that provides healthy food to people who are homeless in D.C.
While we talked at length about nutrition and fighting food insecurity – another passion of mine – a truck rode up on the grass behind us. “What are you selling?” the man asked loudly and gruffly to my companion. “I’m just giving out stickers. I’m not selling anything,” she replied. “I don’t know why they’re hassling us,” she said exasperated when the truck pulled away, “You used to be able to do and sell anything you wanted on the mall. You’d see people out here just playing or picnicking, just living, you know? You could buy food, an umbrella, a fan, now none of that’s allowed unless you go into one of those.” She gestured to the institution I had just come from where you can touch a meteorite for free but fries and a hotdog would set you back ten dollars.
Her comment touched on thoughts that had been rattling around in my head for some time. I think in order to transform our economy we have to make it easier for people to exchange. Many of the companies and organizations I discussed in my last post on the sharing economy do just that, but we also need to make it easier for people to buy and sell as well. We need to make it easier for entrepreneurs.
I’m not talking about the same entrepreneurs as our politicians always reference. I’m not talking about the next Bill Gates or Henry Ford. The entrepreneurs I’m talking about are not held in such high esteem; in fact they are often held in contempt, banished from well -to-do places. The entrepreneurs I’m talking about already have another name: hustlers.
In many communities “hustlers” are defined as people who make a living doing something illegal or shady, but I define them as the ultimate go-getters. These are the people who are coming up with enterprising ways to make a buck or two. I think of hustlers as the people who are selling bottles of water at the side of the road, snowballs on a hot day, or candy in a school cafeteria. I think it is also what Girl Scouts do when cookie season comes. It’s the building blocks of entrepreneurship.
But cute Girl Scouts are rarely hassled for their hard work, while many local governments are making it harder and harder for people to start their own mini businesses. Laws and regulations limit how and where people can sell and tend to favor much larger brick-and-mortar businesses. For instance if you wanted to sell a bottle of water legally in Baltimore you would have to get a business license, then get a license to sell on whatever street you are selling on, followed by a license from the department of health (even if you are not selling food). If all goes well, your licensing will cost you at least $300 and that’s before you can even go out on the street.
Now I know what some will say that doesn’t seem like a lot, that it’s the cost of doing business, that we have to tax them somehow. But let’s go back to the Girl Scouts. Now imagine if the government required each of these young female entrepreneurs to fill out copious amounts of paper work and pay $300 to sell their Girl Scout cookies. Plus they’ve got to pay the whole sale value of the cookies up front. Imagine how many of these micro-businesses would be stopped in their tracks.
With unemployment as high as it is, would it really be terrible to let people create their own jobs? For a relatively small investment and perhaps a little training we could have our neighborhoods thriving with business. Just like the food truck boom has made it easier for people to start their own culinary enterprises, a hustler boom might allow us to take retail to the streets.
Imagine a real-world, more-inclusive Etsy existed on our city streets. On your way back to work you could get produce for dinner, a gift for your Aunt Sue’s birthday, and your neighbor’s amazing handmade soap. What if all anyone needed to make extra money this weekend was a table, a chair, some baking supplies, a well-walked street, and their grandmother’s cookie recipes? What if we rewarded those people who took such an entrepreneurial initiative instead of stopping them?
Let’s go back to the National Mall. You already have hustlers on the fringes hawking Obama shirts or people in carts selling hot dogs, but what if you could encourage an even greater range of entrepreneurship there. Instead of using regulation to impede all sales, we could use regulation to help micro-enterprises flourish. Sure it would curb the Smithsonian’s DeBeers-esque monopoly on food and tchotchkes but it could employ a greater range of people. What better place than our nation’s capital to play out America’s true favorite pastime: entrepreneurship.