The Glories of Capitalism

From snack foods to office supplies, the free market delivers a dazzling bounty.


The glories of free-market capitalism are capacious. It has lifted hundreds of millions of people from bare subsistence to astonishing wealth. It has given us life-saving medical marvels, grocery shelves groaning with plenty, and phones that let you dial long-distance in the middle of a cornfield.

But its glories are not limitless. And the outer boundary of capitalism's blessings stops just shy of the dill-pickle potato chip.

You might differ on this. To you, some other product might better demonstrate how market economics' blessings are mixed: The DeLorean. Harley-Davidson perfume. The Apple Newton. British TV's Heil Honey, a short-lived sitcom about (no kidding) Adolf Hitler and his Jewish neighbor. The Kardashian franchise.

But you don't have to research the past 50 years of product flops to make the case. Just check a vending machine. There you will find every possible combination and interpolation of snack food. In the potato chip category alone—we don't have time to look at crackers, cheese puffs, corn chips, or cookies—one finds not just barbecue- or cheddar-flavored chips, but chili cheese, cool ranch, ragin' ranch, habanero, cheddar jalapeno, hot sauce, honey cheese, creamy chipotle, Mediterranean herb, and ketchup-flavored chips.

It's obvious what's going on here. Like every other industry, America's snack-food makers live in deathly fear that the other guys are going to come up with the next "disruptive innovation" first, so everyone is trying to innovate as fast as they can. The poor sots in middle management have been told next year's raise depends on producing X amount of revenue from new products. But there are only so many truly new products you can think up. Answer? Combine existing products the way you choose from a Chinese take-out menu: one from Column A, one from Column B. …

This seems to be the method at Hammacher Schlemmer—the fine folks who bring you must-have products like the bath mat/alarm clock and the remote-control pillow. It seems to work for them. So why not try it with snack food?
Pickle-flavored potato chips, that's why. Who needs all that ridiculous junk? Your basic potato-flavored potato chip was good enough for our ancestors and by gad sir, it should be good enough for us.

Or at least this is my attitude when standing before a vending machine. Whisk me into an office-supply store, however, and the tune suddenly changes

I am among those who have a weak spot—call it a fetish, call it an obsession—for school supplies. Pens, especially.

There are pens, you see, and then there are pens. The ballpoint might have been a wondrous innovation in its time, a leap forward as great as the saltation from the Underwood manual typewriter to the IBM Selectric. But today even the best ballpoint seems a poor and shabby thing amid the rows of rollerballs, gel-inks, porous-points, brush-tips, technical pens, and other fine writing implements.

And each of them has its place in an ordered world. You want the right pen for the job, after all. For marking up page proofs, there's nothing like a Pilot Bravo, which leaves a thick red or blue correction that bellows "FIX THIS" in a manly baritone. For jotting down a phone number on a scratch pad, you can't beat the speed of a Uniball Signo 207 gel. For everyday writing, the Pilot Precise V5 rolling-ball is splendid.

You can find those in most well-stocked stationers. But for the very best pens, you must seek elsewhere. The perfect implement for glossy magazine crosswords? It's a tossup between the 0.4mm Pentel Hybrid Technica and the 0.4mm Pilot Hi-Tec C (If you're working a crossword on newsprint, you'll want a Pentel Slicci—no tearing or bleeding.) Both the Technica and the Hi-Tec are engineering marvels. You can find the Technica at Hobby Lobby. The Hi-Tec isn't available in most U.S. stores, for some totally insane reason, but you can order it from jetpens.com, and I suggest you do so right away. While you're at it, order a Pentel Tradio Stylo porous-point fountain pen, for those days when you want your signature to look its jauntiest.

And then—this is purely personal opinion, mind you—there is the apotheosis of pens, the Koh-i-Noor 0.35mm technical pen. Technical pens are messy and balky, but when kept in proper working order and applied to a college-ruled 14-inch yellow legal pad, they are … well. Words fail. One gets choked up a bit, and needs a moment.

There. Composure restored. Now, if you are not a pen person—if you are content with a Bic ballpoint or (shudder) a simple No. 2 pencil—then the preceding will strike you as baffling and perhaps even stupid.

But then that is another glory of free-market capitalism. There's a pen for everyone, just as there is (sigh) a potato chip for everyone. We don't all have to like hypodermically fine-point technical pens for someone to make them, just as we don't all have to like ketchup-flavored potato chips, either. It's enough that some of us do, and the miracle is that they get made, even though nobody is in charge of the pen market or chip market. There is no federal Secretary of Pens, no Department of Potato Chip Flavors.

Yet somewhere out there right now, a middle manager is thinking up some totally awesome new type of pen, and when it hits the shelves your humble servant will be the first in line to snap it up. And somewhere out there, a chip fanatic is loading his shopping cart with Utz and Lays, a spring in his step and a song in his heart because someone has just introduced a flavor he hasn't tried yet.

I get it, Mr. Chip Man. I totally get it. Eat your heart out, big guy.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.