On the Economic Virtues of Street Hustling

I just arrived in Turkey for vacation and one thing struck me almost immediately: the sheer amount of hustle in the streets.  Every square inch seems packed with glitz and manpower constantly selling.  I couldn’t believe the density of commerce; virtually no nook or cranny is left unused.  One is barraged by offers, deals, and ‘unbelievable low prices’.  It’s all part of sales game that is finely tuned for such a touristic milieu.  While many find the solicitation annoying, or even offensive, it’s actually a highly calculated strategy to maximize profits.

The difference is that, in Turkey, it is possible to employ people (or employ one’s self), in comparatively menial sales jobs.  They will spend huge amounts of time pursuing the sale.  People walk around the ferry boats selling goods; just today I bought hot tea on a ferry for 30 cents.  It was perfect.  It was wildly cheap.  But how was it possible that I could be served for so little (while on a moving target,no less)?

It’s not merely that Turkish labor is less expensive.  It is.  But something else is in play.  The sheer variety of low-income jobs that I saw that facilitated the sale, if only marginally, was qualitatively different from what we have in the US. Another example: a child greeted us at a restaurant, sat us down, and asked us our order (in English no less!).  The boy could hardly have been 10 or 11.  When I asked for something not on the menu, he thought nothing of going to another restaurant to go fetch it.  He was apparently the son of the owner.  It wasn’t ‘abusive child labor’; it was a son helping out at the family business, learning practical business skills, and English no less.

Other people, often young men, roam with popular snacks that passers-by might want to buy.  These men probably make very little profit, even by Turkish standards.  But that’s not the point.  They’re still out there hustling.  Hustling in the best possible sense of the word.  They’re making something from nothing by the simple mechanism of satisfying customers.

Young Man Selling ‘Simit’ Bagels: Making Something from Nothing

In America, their counterparts are too often sitting and doing nothing.  People in comparable situations, with minimal skills or employment prospects, are usually sitting at home.  They may be looking for jobs.  But they’re almost certainly not hustling on the streets the way their Turkish peers are.  There’s something wrong there.

I suspect that in America, the man serving tea could not legally serve it due to health regulations and commercial license requirements.  The boy who helped us to our seat in the restaurant could not legally do so due to child labor laws (as far as I can tell…).  The countless salesmen on Turkish streets couldn’t exist in the US because

A)  They can’t afford the licensing and regulatory costs to employ themselves (or they aren’t worth the regulatory costs to potential employers).  Put another way, for individuals who produce low (but nonzero) value, the regulatory costs consistently outweigh the produced value.

B)  Minimum Wage laws plainly prohibit the sorts of occupations I’ve described.  If someone produces less value than the mandated minimum wage, their job has been effectively outlawed, without addressing the root problem of low-value.

Some will say that Americans will not work such jobs because their time is too valuable.  This is true for many Americans.  And yet, for people who are unemployed, or who are desperate, their time has very little (financial) value; it should be rational to pursue such jobs.

Others might say that Americans culturally dislike ‘hustling’ and thus that it is not suited for us.  But one can define hustling quite expansively, in the least offensive ways (such as the old man quietly serving tea on the ferry boat).

All we hear in politics these days are complaints about the lack of jobs.  But lots of jobs could exist that don’t.  So many human services could be offered with some economic value.  Something is better than nothing.

All I’m proposing is a more relaxed attitude towards low-income jobs.  The minimum wage is actually highly pernicious in that it renders them extinct, without actually helping the people who would have worked those jobs.  Regulatory costs also hit low-value jobs disproportionately strongly since they must be paid for out of a smaller revenue stream.

Were Americans highly employed, with a high cost of labor across the board, then there would be no place for ‘hustling, menial’ jobs.  But as it is, with very low labor force participation, with widespread unemployment, and the total absence of comparable services in the US, something is truly wrong with our labor laws.

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