The Free Market at Work . . . Or Not

Three Unrelated Examples

Yesterday I returned to Ka Glo from a night at Frémy’s house in Darbonne. The trip involves a lot of public transportation. It takes three pick-up trucks, a large bus, and a minivan. As I was riding on the large bus that would take me from the city of Léogane to Pòtoprens, I got to thinking about how what we like to call the “free market” was affecting the character of my experience that day.

It all started because I got a window seat on what had once been an American school bus. Generally speaking, I have a choice to make when I step onto one of the large busses: I can get either a decent seat or a quick departure. Good seats usually disappear quickly, and the wait can be a half hour, 45 minutes, or even longer as the conductors fill up the rest of the bus before it finally leaves. I was in luck, however. Though my seat was excellent – not just a window seat, but near the front of the bus – we took off almost immediately. This driver had apparently decided to hope that he could fill up the bus by picking up passengers on the way.

Things on the bus were tight, as always, because the busses carry three adults on each of the benches – plus small to medium-size children, poultry, and other baggage. (I vaguely remember sitting two to a bank in such busses as a child.) My window was the emergency exit, and it was broken. The bottom edge of the frame was unattached, so the whole window was flapping up and down in the wind all the way into town. Because of the crush, I needed to stick my elbow part way out just to be comfortable, but I had to be careful to avoid getting it whacked by the window as it jumped up and down.

The broken emergency exit was just one sign that the bus was in disrepair. Many of the benches were split, torn, or falling apart, and some of the windows were cracked as well. The bus rattled and wheezed as it bounded swiftly down the highway, and every time it hit a larger bump there was a loud whack from under the frame. It was in sorry shape, and that’s what got me thinking.

The trip was costing me twenty gouds. That’s a little less than fifty cents. Most public transportation seems remarkably cheap to me here in Haiti, so much so that it strikes me that it may be a problem. One rarely sees a vehicle used for public transportation here that is in good condition. They are not public in our sense of “public transportation” because each is owned by an entrepreneur, often but not always the vehicle’s driver. Their poor condition is surely connected in part to the terrible condition of most Haitian roads and to chaotic traffic patterns that make accidents, at least minor ones, a near certainty. But I wonder too whether their condition is related to the low price of transportation, whether their owners have the money to keep them in good repair.

This is where things get hard for me. I took economics in high school but I vaguely remember getting a “D”, and frankly, at the time, I couldn’t have been bothered with such things. Frisbee, ping-pong, and re-runs of 60’s and 70’s sitcoms seemed much more important.

As far as I can figure, though, the problem with the price structure here is that the fare is determined only indirectly by the vehicle operators’ cost of doing business. It is determined more immediately by what people are willing and able to pay. Of course, if what the drivers are getting for a given route falls too low, they can choose not to work that route. But their short-term need for cash may very well trump long-term considerations like whether their business is sustainable at the price they are charging.

Not only that: My experience with Fonkoze is starting to show me that small business people here in Haiti may not even be very clear even about as important a question as whether they are succeeding or failing. Market woman who participate in Fonkoze’s basic business skills course regularly report that before they took the course they had no real control over what they were spending and what they were bringing in. That means they had no good way to evaluate whether their businesses were profitable. I suspect that drivers here are in much the same boat.

And all that doesn’t even take into account the way external factors – like regular or irregular gifts from relatives living abroad – complicate things. It might, for example, be or seem to be in the best interests of a vehicle owner to run a vehicle into the ground, maximizing immediate gains as he hopes to get a replacement from Miami when the vehicle dies. He would thus save the maintenance and repair expenses that good upkeep would entail.

Shortly after I got into my seat, a woman got on with a large basket. She quietly said “gen kasav dous pou vann” and sat down. It seems as though only the man sitting next to me and I heard her, because only we sprang into action. Kasav is the Haitian flatbread made of grated manioc. It comes in two styles, regular and sweet. It’s hard to find, but this woman was saying that she had sweet kasav for sale. As much as many of the Haitians I know like kasav, it’s a real pain to make so they don’t often produce it at home.

Nevertheless, when you can find it, it’s generally quite cheap. The woman on the bus was selling the sweet kind that my neighbors in Ka Glo and I prefer. Since it’s almost impossible to find in our area, I rifled through my pockets for change and bought all that I could. The man next to me bought almost as much. We exchanged pleasantries about how happy our people would be with us when we got home. We wondered why no one else was buying, but we joked that we had already made the woman’s trip worthwhile.

As we entered Kafou, the suburb we had to get through on the way to Pòtoprens, a man climbed into the bus. Measured in distance, our trip was almost over. Measured in time, however, we were less than halfway there. The traffic in Kafou is terrible, so we would have a long way to ride before the trip would end.

That’s what this man was counting on. He was a travelling salesperson, selling personal care products: medications of various sorts, soaps, cremes, lotions, toothpaste. Such merchants are common on mid-distance bus routes like the one from Léogane to Pòtoprens. He stood next to where the //kasav// merchant was sitting, and began to sell. He had a big, attractive voice, and soon everyone on the bus was listening. Plenty of them were buying, too.

Before long someone in the back asked the driver to stop. She wanted to get off. Generally here there are no fixed bus stops. Someone who is ready to get off yells “mesi”, or thank you, and the driver stops at the first place he finds where he can pull over. As the woman was getting off, she saw the kasav. She berated the woman loudly for not proclaiming her wares, and then held up the bus while she made a purchase. At this point, chaos broke out. People were suddenly aware of the chance to buy kasav, and they started yelling out their orders, sending their money to her at the front of the bus, and demanding their change. The salesman grimaced as he saw that his own work could not continue.

But then he smiled. With his voice booming over the cacophony, he started calling out instructions to those who were buying kasav. In effect, he joined the kasav merchant as her sales clerk. Within a few minutes, her basket was nearly empty. She was aglow with her success. When people asked her why she hadn’t advertised her wares more firmly, she answered simply that she had announced them when she got on the bus. It was as though she saw it as her customers’ problem if they had not heard her.

Having finished his work as a volunteer assistant, the salesman returned to his own business, but by then we were very nearly at the end of our route. People were getting off at every intersection and between intersections as well. He had lost his best opportunity to make his own sales through his willingness to go with the flow.

When I finally reached downtown Pètyonvil later that day, I walked to the Malik station. That’s where I would get a pick-up truck to Malik, the last town before Ka Glo. From there, it’s a half-hour uphill walk home. When I got to the station, I was surprised by the absence of pick-up trucks. Normally there would be three or four waiting for their turn to load up with passengers for the short trip. I asked someone and got the following explanation: Recent heavy rains had made the road to Malik impassible. It had cut the road in half in Bwa Mokèt. Pick-up trucks could not cross the temporary river that had been created in the ravine there.

So I started to hike up the hill. I was carrying two heavy bags, partly because I had been away for a week but partly because I had stocked up on fruit, kasav, and other groceries for the Sunday I would be spending at home. Before I got very far, I heard someone yelling “Malik” from a large flatbed truck. It seems that in the couple of hours that it had taken to determine that pick-up trucks could no longer cross the ravine in Bwa Mokèt, a man with a bigger truck, an entrepreneur, had stepped into the void. This is, I suppose, how the free market is supposed to work.

In some ways, the economy here seems much freer than the economy in the United States is. The Haitian government is incapable of the sorts of massive subsidies the American government pays – to agribusinesses, for example. I don’t know of laws restricting people’s right to organize into unions – not that there are many powerful unions here. There seems to be little government control in areas like environmental protection or worker safety, little government control of anything. Given all that, the economy seems, in a sense, free to a significant degree. At the same time, the influence that outside forces – like donor nations and multinational corporations – exert here makes it hard to feel that freedom as something serious.

I suppose that I’ve lost any sense I might once have had as to what a free market actually would be. It’s not as though I am or have ever been an economist. But it doesn’t take long here to doubt the otherwise tempting hypothesis that prices and, generally, economic circumstances are being controlled by something like an invisible hand. The hand or hands at work in Haiti leave perfectly visible fingerprints all around me. The difficulty comes in understanding to whom each fingerprint belongs.