The authorities are coming down hard on kids' lemonade stands this summer. In Georgia, three girls trying to earn enough for a trip to a water park were told they needed $50 a day in business permits. In Wisconsin, the cops busted a pair of sisters who figured they could make some money selling lemonade to people headed to a nearby car show. (The police eventually backed down.) And right here in Maryland, Montgomery County authorities shut down a stand outside the U.S. Open golf tournament in June. The trend has made the newspapers and talk-radio shows as an example of the absurdities of over-regulation.
Normally I am as offended as anybody by intrusive government. On this one, though, a churlishness of the W.C. Fields sort comes over me, and I want to say, "Yeah, run the little buggers outta town."
The lemonade stand of 2011 is not what it once was. It's like a lot of other things — the inflated grades they hand out at Harvard these days, say, or the heaps of equipment now required for a kid to be in Little League.
The incident at the U.S. Open is another case in point. Kids hawking bottled beverages under a 10-foot by 10-foot tent near a nationally televised sports event is hardly a scene out of Norman Rockwell. County officials showed up and demanded a permit. An on-line commenter protested that this was the kind of repression against a merchant that we saw in Tunisia, and look what happened there. (It was the outrage that touched off the Arab Spring.)
C'mon, folks. They were threatening to slap a fine not on plucky young entrepreneurs but on "helicopter" parents in charge of a fairly elaborate operation.
Adding to my doubt that the lemonade stand teaches the solid virtues it always did are my own bitter experiences. Take it from me. These mini-Horatio Algers — at least the ones plying their trade in my neighborhood this summer — will rip you off as fast as you can say "Justin Bieber."
Part of it is that the young do not value a solitary U.S. greenback very highly. Of coins they are downright contemptuous. This attitude may be understandable, given the weakness of the dollar internationally, but it really distorts the price structure. In Roland Park, where I live, curbside refreshment can set you back a buck for four ounces or so. You get the feeling that the 30 cents that it would be fair to charge is somehow beneath them.
The other part has to do with dodgy math skills. Got to watch these urchins like a hawk. During the last heat wave, I stopped at a bridge table on a sidewalk near my house for lemonade and a bag of three small cookies. The girl served me, and I asked, in the tone adults use when tossing a softball question, how much I owed.
My vendor hesitated, then threw out a figure that overshot the mark by a factor of two. By the time I corrected her, paid, and walked away, she still had not fully assented to the proposition that $1.00 plus $1.50 equals $2.50. Her perplexed countenance left me feeling guilty. Had I discouraged a budding entrepreneur by being a stickler? The guilt went away when I bit into one of her tiny half-dollar cookies. They were not homemade but of that cheating, slice-and-bake kind that leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
Another child I was parched enough to buy three cups of lemonade from had the amiable manner you want in a salesman. So far, so good. When he tired of calculating how much of my $5 bill he should return to me, he allowed as how it might be easier to call it square at $5. A pittance to him, apparently. When I smiled and reached in the box to make my own change, he was cheerful about it. He could be headed for a career in public finance.
Eradication may be too harsh a solution here, I realize. Instead, how about these suggestions for parents: Keep it simple. (No tents or generators.) Have your offspring do some computation drills before sending them out to that card table on the sidewalk. And lastly, how about teaching them that quality does matter in retail by suggesting they bake cookies from scratch? It's not that much more time-consuming or costly than using those lousy pre-made tubes of dough. And you never know; the cops may be more forgiving if you ply them with some home-made baked goods.
Lauren Weiner is a freelance writer in Baltimore. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.