When I was young I learned the basics of economics and selling from dealing Christmas trees. My Dad was a cheap son-of-a-gun and had no desire to give my older brother and I money for buying his Christmas present, or anything else for that matter. He wanted us to earn it. So in addition to the work we did for his business of renting motor homes, during two holiday seasons when my brother and I were both in High School my dad set us up with our own Christmas tree lot.
At the corner of Main Street and 148th, next to the now defunct Shell gas station I learned about the basics of supply and demand and how cash availability would drive up the prices the buyer paid for the trees. The same principles apply to all forms of capitalistic enterprise, in particular health care and a college education. I often wish our nations leaders had run their own Christmas tree lots in their youth so that they could learn what 16-year-old me found very basic.
My Dad rented Winnebago Motor Homes for a living. At any one time in my youth he owned anywhere from six to eleven RV’s. Skier’s in the Winter and campers in the Summer paid for my modest upbringing. My Dad kept the vehicles parked next to the gas station near our home. Since the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas was kinda slow for his business and since he already had the lot in which to display the trees he came up with the brilliant idea of selling Christmas trees to earn himself a few bucks and help his teen-aged sons pocket some easy money, while staying busy and out of trouble.
Anyone who has run a retail business knows the process. My Dad would pay wholesale prices for the trees from a grower, and pay to have them delivered to the Bellevue location. Using 2-by-4’s, nails, and a hammer my brother and I set up easy to construct stands in which to lean the trees. One of the larger Winnebago’s was parked beside the designated space in the Kmart parking lot beside the aforementioned gas station. There my brother and I would report after school, eat our snacks, do our homework, and watch whatever tv we could pick up with rabbit ears on a small black-and-white tv we had. We were set up for business.
We were cozy and warm inside the motor home until a family pulled up outside and got out of their cars to peruse our selection of trees. Each tree had a colored ribbon tied to it so, though our customers didn’t know, we would know how much we paid for it. My memory is foggy from over thirty years passing but my best guess is that the smaller yellow ribbons meant my Dad paid $5 for the tree, Red- $10, Blue- $15. My Dad told us he would take $10 for every tree we sold. But anything above the whole price-plus-$10 was ours to keep. Strictly cash transactions. There were no debit cards back then, or mobile electronic credit card processing. Put simply, my brother and I could charge customers any price we felt we could get away with.
Needless to say the same tree could go for $40 to one family or $100 to another. We learned to pay attention to what size and kind of vehicle a family drove as they climbed out to see the trees. A nicer car or a truck meant these people would pay more. My brother and I practically fought our way to be first out the door when a family with young kids walked onto the lot. It was those little tikes who happily screeched at their Daddy , “Oooo Daddy that’s the perfect tree can we get that one. Can we PUHLEEEEZZZ get THAT one?”, who unknowingly drove up the price of the tree. My brother was ruthless. He had no problem telling the haggard Dad that one of the $15 trees was $125. I could seldom muster the nerve to ask for $80. And if anyone hesitated on paying what we were asking, we simply offered to give them a “special” deal, and lowered the price $20 “because you look like such a nice family”. Once again, big brother remained much more rigid in his pricing than did I. He would only lower his price when the family had left the lot and was packing into their car. Selling the trees was easy. In fact, there was no “selling” involved. The only question was how much they’d pay. And if they had the money, and we could see that, they always paid extra.
An article in today’s Seattle Times Newspaper reported the fact that 1-in-2 college graduates faced unemployment when getting out of school this year. It raised in my mind the question, just how worth it is a college education anymore. The average cost of a four-year degree at a public university is now about $35-thousand; for a private university it’s almost $120-thousand. And NOBODY gets a bachelor’s degree in four years anymore. The cost of a college education has climbed 600-percent since 1980. To determine the reason for the massive increase in college costs one need look no further than our Federal Governments constantly supplying universities with an unending, unquestioning source of revenue. Our spend-happy Washington DCers have increased funding for higher education assistance 141% since 1991. It’s like all the colleges are Christmas tree lots and our Government Representatives are parents with screaming kids who don’t know how to say, “NO”.
Health care has been similarly effected. Who truly pays health care bills? Most are paid by our Federal Government piggy bank. The rest is picked up by large, rich insurance companies or equally large and powerful corporations. Doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical firms and other health care providers are standing in the lot holding up the big tree with the blue ribbon on it smiling broadly. This tree will sell, and their will be a large profit. The only question is, “how large?”.
The hardest sale my brother and I ever had to make was the guy who tromped into our tree lot with no wife and no kids and interested in nothing more than getting the tree and going on with his day. Usually this guy had a station wagon, that was probably missing a hub-cap. When confronting us he’d ask “How much?” and no matter what we said, it was too much. He’d offer less and we’d happily accept.
Were the giant feeding troughs of government funds removed from the college revenue and health care equation these behemoths would be forced to deal with that one guy (or gal) who ultimately will pay the bill for the services provided. The one guy buying the Christmas tree isn’t swayed by emotional pleas that “we’ve got to have it”. And the tree seller can see the guy doesn’t have much money to begin with. So he’ll offer it for less and accept far less. He would have to, or he wouldn’t sell the tree and he’d eat the $15.
Obamacare, promising health care coverage for all Americans, was passed two years ago. It’s laws not completely going into effect until 2114. And still, we’ve seen the cost of health care continuing to climb. The President has made a lot of news this Spring berating colleges about increased tuition costs. But colleges continue to raise fees. THIS Christmas tree salesman knows why. It’s basic.
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