Free as in lemonade

This article was originally published on Salon on July 7, 2010.

In which a newspaper columnist attacks little girls for the anti-American act of giving away lemonade. Really

Sometimes you can’t tell if someone is pulling your leg or being serious. So for a few minutes after I read this column from the Chicago Sun-Times I was sure it was a gag, but then I realized it was published on July 5 and not April 1.

To sum it up: The writer, Terry Savage, got all exercised because three girls in an upscale suburb had set up a lemonade stand but were giving it away instead of demanding payment. Here is my favorite part of the rant, in which the kids are instructed:

You must charge something for the lemonade. That’s the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs — how much the lemonade costs, and the cups — and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money.

But wasn’t this really about the spirit of giving, as another person suggested? Savage insisted:

That’s not the spirit of giving. You can only really give when you give something you own. They’re giving away their parents’ things — the lemonade, cups, candy. It’s not theirs to give.

Uh … Let’s follow the “logic” of the second quote just a bit, then return to the first. The girls did own what they were giving away: It had already been given to them by their parents. Surely that’s as easy for the kids (and maybe Savage) to understand as any mercantile notions, no?

The idea, more important, that the parents needed to teach them to approach this endeavor in mercantile ways — or, I guess, be scarred forever as incomplete capitalists — is laugh-out-loud loony. Voluntarism, and doing good deeds, are as American (or used to be) as getting rich.

Savage did have a reasonable point spinning off the initial premise:

America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the “lemonade” or benefits we’re “giving away” is free.

And so the voters demand more — more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits.

They’re all very nice. But these things aren’t free.

No, they aren’t. And it’s clear enough that our national sense of entitlement has led us into the worst kind of trouble. Someday, maybe soon, the reckoning will arrive, and when it does America’s grotesque debts will come due. My generation has stolen so much of the future from our kids and generations to come that we should be ashamed.

But we learned to steal from experts — especially from people like the Wall Street gang whose financial “innovations” were new kinds of paper that were only one step removed from the counterfeiters of yore, and apparently legal only because several generations of politicians were paid to make it so. Successive Congresses and presidents, except for a few years during the Clinton administration, spent our kids’ money with epic irresponsibility.

We learned to steal from the people who raided the treasury for billionsin cash that went missing in Iraq after the United States invaded. We learned from the epic corporate welfare of recent years, such as the telecom industry, which got exclusive use of our airwaves and street rights-of-way and then sold it back to us. As Cory Doctorow notes, in a different but fun take on the lemonade scandal:

Get that, kids? The correct thing to do with the stuff you appropriate from others is sell it, not give it away! Sounds about right — companies take over our public aquifers and sell us the water they pump out of them; telcos get our rights of way for their infrastructure, then insist that they be able to tier their pricing without regard to the public interest. Corporatism in a nutshell, really.

But, yes, let’s face it: We also learned to steal from each other as so many Americans demanded services we were totally unwilling to pay for. Some in the Tea Party crowd are hilariously hypocritical when they demand that government keep its hands off Medicare, but even before the economy went south we were collectively demanding that government (at all levels) spend or promise to spend money that could not possibly be repaid without higher taxes, which we then insist are off the table as even a possibility.

What America does need to do is recover our senses about responsibility. It will take a generation of investment and sacrifice, starting, one hopes, with the people whose corruption created the mess we’re in today, especially Wall Street and our political class, but also everyone else who’s been spending the next generation’s money so freely.

The investments won’t come only from the taxpayers, though we have enormous challenges we can only handle with national decisions. Shared sacrifice will mean a restored sense of voluntarism and civic duty.

People volunteer their services all the time, not looking for payment (ever heard of the barn-raising or a volunteer fire department in a small town, for example?). The “business model” for community theater is to enrich a community’s cultural life, and to give amateur actors a way to go onstage and fulfill something in their own lives. Maybe “free lemonade” that quenches some thirst and makes three girls happy has community-enrichment value, too.

We’ll need to learn more from the open-source and free-software folks, who produce often  valuable work without direct payment to themselves. Some are making a living off it by providing ancillary services. Others do it because they believe in the principle. They may or may not love capitalism as it’s practiced today, but they do believe in contributing a piece of their lives to a larger cause. (The title of this post is a riff on an often-cited line about the difference between free and open-source software, as seen by Richard Stallman: Free as in freedom speech, not as in beer.) (Thanks, whitenoise…)

I sense a latent but real understanding of what’s needed among the American public, which is waiting for a leader to ask the best of ourselves. Sadly we don’t have leaders like that.

(Corrected: Terry Savage is a woman. Stupid mistake by me…)