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Friday, January 31, 2014

About micro-industries in Wilmington . . .

I've gotten a lot of behind-the-scenes comments about my idea that the government should just basically suspend all licensing and rules that prevent residents of Wilmington from starting their own micro-businesses in their apartments, their churches, or even in the street.

The responses run in three basic flavors.

1.  This would be economically insignificant; people are not going to run out and start micro-businesses in the middle of the city.  Actually, that's not true by a long shot.  From baby-sitting services to hair-dressing to impromptu food stands near major civic events, if we remove the barriers to getting out and hawking their stuff, people will do it.  In part we know that because, all across the country, city officials are fighting a running battle to collect gigantic fees from precisely such micro-entrepreneurs.  It is a war that extends from lemonade stands to food trucks, and it is a war that is depriving inner city residents of even the opportunity to use their own bootstraps to get out of poverty.  We used to admire people who hit the streets to sell things--what happened?  Number two happened. . . .
2.  We can't allow people to open these so-called "micro-businesses" without the benefit of permits, licenses, and inspections--it just wouldn't be safe or fair.  Hogwash.  What the bizarre meshwork of licenses and permits and inspections in Delaware (and elsewhere) have the MOST to do with is limiting competition in favor of particular classes of vendors who can afford the political clout to lobby for exclusivity.  Brick-and-mortar establishments hate food trucks and street vendors because it is supposedly "not fair" to them that other people selling competing products should not be paying the same fees.  Of course it was completely fair from their perspective when the process ended up with them (as it does in many cities) having such a monopoly (as the only ones who can afford the fees) that they have no competition to keep prices down.  It is not the government's responsibility to protect your business if you cannot figure out a way to compete with small-time competition (hello racinos!).  Nor is it really about a safety issue:  when you have a city bureaucracy that can't manage to insure that residents all live in buildings with functional heat, clean water, or absent lead paint, please don't tell me about the dire problems that could occur if somebody on the street sold a contaminated ham sandwich.  Here's a clue:  people who buy from food vendors on the street realize that there is an increased risk (and if you think there is no risk in restaurants, you've never been inside their kitchens to see what cooks and wait staff do to your food if you tick them off).

3.  We can't afford to give up the revenue from licenses and fees. OK, first of all you're not getting that revenue NOW.  Poor people either enter business illegally or don't enter it at all because they cannot afford to pay the fees or the taxes.  If, on the other hand, you actually allow them to organize for themselves and stay the hell out of the way, two things will happen.  Some folks will fail--miserably--but most won't be any worse off than they were before, and many will get up and try again.  Others will succeed, and that success will improve their lives and the living conditions of their community.

Think of it for a minute:  no "right to work zones," no "development incentives."  Just full-scale commercial down-town anarchy as a stepping stone out of poverty.  Around the developing world it works.

Oh, and one other note:  want to curtail violence in Wilmington and get rid of the "code of silence"?

Let people start making money in their homes and on the street, and guess what?  Street crime goes down because people running improvised food carts or selling products they scarfed up off eBay for a song suddenly have a vested financial interest in safer streets.  People don't walk the streets, they don't make money.

This whole issue, if you like technical terms, is called "urban informality," and there is a lot of good research on it around the world.  If you really want to read about it and get educated, try here, here, here, here, and here. [Some of these are gated and some are abstract--just keep Googling "urban informality" and you will discover not only a wide literature on global developments, but you will also find out how urban informality was a transformative norm in American cities until the mid-20th century.]

We need to have the imagination to have new discussions about Delaware's future.

Republicans and Democrats simply are not having them, so it's time for new voices.

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