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The Circle Bastiat

The economics of slushies

How is it that a little cup of brightly colored, flavored ice can cost $3?

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One obvious observation is that it was a hot day, and so refrigerating the ice in a relatively small container (i.e. that could fit in a truck) might be expensive, especially because it has to sit in the hot sun for at least several hours. The vendor also had to buy the sugar flavoring (available in several colors) that the kids would squirt into their "cup of ice." Who knows how much those cost to restock, but the vendor would also have to worry about some kids dribbling large amounts onto the ground before their parents intervened.

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Another obvious expense in the operation was the truck itself. This wasn't some guy's F-150 with a cooler thrown in the back; the whole truck had been configured to sell frozen treats. (For example, one side of the truck was painted full of descriptions of the available items.) Now, perhaps the owner used the vehicle for his personal transportation needs, but it's possible that the truck was dedicated entirely to his business. In that case, the $3 per sale would need to cover not just the ice, cup, and flavoring, but also a tiny portion of the truck payment and upkeep, including gas.

Another major cost was the vendor's time. I love watching my son play, but I know I'm ready to get the heck out of Dodge when the game ends. In order to make it worthwhile to stand at that field for several hours, the vendor would have to charge a high enough "markup" to pay himself a decent hourly wage.

Yet another consideration is the risk involved. If there are thunderstorms (or even if the field is too muddy from previous rains), all the games would be cancelled on a particular Saturday. (I think they make them up — if at all — with double-headers in subsequent weeks, rather than extending the season.) So when deciding on his pricing strategy, the frozen-drink vendor would need to consider that he might miss out on a large fraction of potential sales due to weather. If the weather is particularly cold, then it might not make sense to drive the truck to the field even if the games are on.

Finally, we have to consider that the coveted location is itself valuable. The truck's owner obviously had to get permission from the league to be able to park right in the middle of all the fields, so that the majority of parents and kids would pass near it on their way home. This is what gives the truck vendor such an advantage over his competitors in nearby convenience stores and restaurants, and the soccer league might charge him a fee for this privilege (unless he's friends with the people running it).

Depending on the fee that might be charged for use of the location, the entire problem might get pushed back a step. Rather than asking, "How can this vendor get away with skimming so much off the parents?" we instead would want to know, "How can the soccer league get away with earning so much from providing concessions during the games?"

The answer to this second question would follow similar lines. We would first realize that nobody was forced to join the league, and that if the organizers really were making a killing, then competing soccer leagues (charging lower registration fees and/or providing concessions at lower prices) would spring up.

Conclusion

The point of this article wasn't to say whether $3 for an iced drink was "too high" or "just right," according to some particular theory of justice. Rather, as dispassionate economists, we can analyze why consumers were willing to pay so much for each unit of a good, and why producers didn't rush in to sell more units at a lower price. Such an exercise is useful in understanding how the world works, and it also promotes social harmony when we see things from another's perspective. And believe me, social harmony is valuable indeed after a bunch of parents have watched their 6-year-olds play soccer.

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