Thursday, December 21, 2006


Adam Smith, generally considered to be the father of economic thought, was mystified by the operation of markets. How could they be so efficient without some sort of managerial oversight? Smith concluded that markets were coordinated by the “propensity in human nature…to truck, barter, and exchange.” That is, to engage in commerce is just as much a part of the human experience as to engage in survival or reproduction.
Each Thanksgiving we celebrate the bountiful harvest of almost 500 years ago when the first successful colonists arrived in the “new” world. As I walk the streets of Beibei, I frequently wonder what it looked like five thousand years ago as the early inhabitants of this river valley pursued their “propensity…to truck, barter, and exchange.” My initial guess is that not much has changed.
Economists who work in the field of economic development have used a variety of terms to refer to levels of development. Probably the least value-laden construct is first world, second world, and third world. In the first world, most economic activity involves survival—primarily hunting, gathering, or agricultural pursuits. Most production is for self-sufficiency and there is little exchange among families. In the second world, an agricultural surplus supports the rise of non-producers such as priests, teachers, soldiers, and chiefs. Exchange between the producers and the non-producers becomes essential, and local markets develop. In the third world there is a high level of work specialization with relatively few food producers and a highly developed system of exchange. In a politically correct analysis, it is neither good nor bad to live in the first or third world—just different.
One of the fascinating things about life in Beibei is that we truck, barter, and exchange in all three worlds simultaneously. Many Chinese still live in the rural, isolated, agrarianism of the first world. These are people who will die within walking distance of where they were born. More often than not, they will die during their first few years of life from disease or hunger. The first world is rapidly vanishing in China as the infrastructure of transportation, health care, and electricity reach into the vast, isolated interior regions. In Beibei, it is not uncommon to see people who have literally walked (or floated) out of the first world into the urban milieu of the second world.
The most common interfaces of the first and second worlds are the informal produce markets that are found everywhere. Here you find merchants from the most humble to the very sophisticated. It is not uncommon to see a woman who has walked into town with one or two handfuls of surplus green onions trying to sell them for a few pennies [see photo]. She could never sell them for enough to pay for a bus fare back to the isolated spot that is home. What might she buy? Maybe some cooking oil or some cloth—things that are not easily produced in even the most self-sufficient household.
We live in an apartment complex of more than 500 units. Every morning vendors from the first world start laying out their fresh produce on the cement walkways around the central basketball court and playground. What is available follows the seasons—right now there are lots of cabbages that are as large as a basketball, peppers that will blow the roof off your head, and a type of radish that is bigger than a big carrot. Many vendors carry a crude balance beam to weigh your purchase. Women (in most cases) come down to this area in the morning to buy the day’s meals—no produce is stored at home as it is purchased and consumed the same day. By noon, the shopping is over and the vendors have started their long journey home, arriving in time to harvest another handful of green onions for tomorrow’s market.
Just around the corner from the basketball court, maybe thirty yards away, is a second world market. A row of shops along the road includes two green grocers who sell much of the same stuff as the street vendors, but with more selection, higher prices, and longer hours. There is a butcher with today’s meat proudly arranged on a wood table or hanging from a hook overhead. The meat, of course, is neither refrigerated nor covered. It is up to the buyer to get the freshest cut (caveat emptor). In addition to the fresh shops there is one small grocery store that sells rice, noodles, cooking oil, and other packaged goods such as Crest toothpaste. Between the street vendors and the small shops, the residents of our apartment complex are able to buy all of the ingredients of their day-to-day existence.
For a third world market one must go to downtown Beibei (10 minutes by bus) to a Chinese retail chain called CBEST. There one finds full lines of clothing, bedding, appliances, cosmetics, and a supermarket. In the supermarket you can buy all sorts of packaged goods like crackers, breakfast cereals, candy, paper plates, clothes pins, and cleaning products. In the fresh fish department you can select your fish from those swimming around in a tank and have it cleaned before your eyes. Last month we were able to buy the quintessential American food—peanut butter (we got Skippy crunchy).
There you have it—from the first world to the third in a matter of minutes: from a handful of green onions carried in from a nearby small farm to a plastic jar of Skippy peanut butter produced in China by Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch transnational conglomerate. The growing popularity of “farmers’ markets” in the U.S. suggests a certain nostalgia by some who live in the third world for the benefits of the first and second worlds past. Here in Beibei, we have it all—take your pick. But, be willing to truck, barter, and exchange.


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