"What a good idea," I say to my wife. "Shoulda done it a long
"What?" she says from deep inside her crossword puzzle. "You've
decided to buy a new pair of jeans? Yes, that is a good idea."
"No," I say. "I avoid all enterprises that require new clothes."
"Thoreau," she says. "'Walden,' 1854."
I'm a retired English teacher. She's a retired librarian. I
sometimes quote literature without attribution. I call it literary
entrepreneurship. She calls it literary larceny and tells me where I've
stolen the passage from. It's her way of regulating my innate tendency
toward deception and fraud.
"I'm not talking about new jeans," I say. "I'm talking about
And I thrust between her nose and her crossword puzzle an opinion
piece from the Journal-Star of February 24. The headline asks "Should the
U.S. Postal Service be privatized?"
"So what's your answer?" she says. "And why has it taken you
three weeks to decide?"
"I've been thinking long, long thoughts," I say.
"Longfellow," she says. "'My Lost Youth,' 1855."
"The answer to the headline's query," I say, stroking my goatee
and looking wise, "is yes, the U.S. Postal Service should be privatized."
"I'll bet," she sighs, still not looking up from her puzzle,
"you're going to tell me why."
"One simple reason," I say. "Anything government can do, free
enterprise can do betterif we don't smother it with regulations."
"Thatis simple," she says. "Rush Limburger
says it all the time."
"All of us deep thinkers say it," I say. "All of us who
understand the magic of the unregulated marketplace."
"Uh huh," she says. "Magic that will get our mail here faster and
cheaper, I suppose."
"You bet your boots," I say. "Corporation A will deliver a letter
in three days for a quarter. Corporation B will figure out a way to
deliver it in two days for twenty cents. Competition does it.
Unregulated free market magic."
"Like Enron?" she says.
Poor thing. She has a hard time staying focused when I talk about
"And while we're at it," I say, "why stop with the U.S. Postal
"You mean?" she says.
"Exactly," I say. "Privatize and deregulate the whole government.
Mints. FBI. Supreme Court. The military. Bureau of Weights and
Measures. All of it."
"But," she says, "for the magic of the unregulated marketplace to
work, wouldn't we have to have competing Mints and Bureaus of Weights and
Measures? Many FBIs all investigating one another? Multiple Supreme
Courts over-ruling each other? Myriads of military competing for tax
monies? Without competition, how would the cream rise to the top?"
The Truth, Mainly
"Good thinking," I say. "We could have something like March
Madness64 different militaries, all striving to outdo the others, the
magic of the unregulated marketplace goosing them to greatness."
"But," she says, "who'd be in charge? Who'd be
"That's the genius of it," I say. "There'd be many
commanders-in-chief. We'd call them CEOs and they'd all be competing,
getting much more efficient. That is, of course, if we didn't regulate
them. The enterprise has to be free."
"So we'd go from CEO to CEO to check out their government
policies," she says, "the way we go from Target to Best Buy to Wal-Mart?"
"You got it!" I say, my synapses snapping with excitement. "We'd
patronize the CEOs that offer us the best deals. Only in America! Is
this a great country or what? Get rid of a regulated economy and it's
every man a robber baron! Every woman a robber baroness!"
She's getting excited too. I can tell. She's put down her
"But don't we need the regulations?" she says. "Without them,
wouldn't we eventually have a country run by mercantile war lords, all
with their own rules? You know, like Afghanistan?"
"Hah?" I say.
"You know what I think?" she says. "I think you're a booby and
I'm going to have you put in the booby hatch. That's from Thurber's
'Unicorn in the Garden,' 1940."
"Hah?" I say.
"And one more thing," she says. "Can you explain how your
deregulated utopia would prevent future Enrons?"
I think a few long, long thoughts before I speak.
"I would prefer not to," I finally say, pleased by my own
"Melville," she says, her voice sternly regulatory. "'Bartleby,
the Scrivener,' 1853."
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail