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Economics has taught me many things in the last few weeks, but the precept that is really resonating with me today is the concept of ‘free riding.’ Free riding is something you’re doing right now. Didn’t know it had a name? Neither did I, but I know when I’m doing it. It’s a simple concept; if you concede that practically everything has a cost, or price of admission,  you quickly get that to “free ride” you slipped the rope and got in for free.

My favorite free ride is TED talks. I love TED talks. I love that it’s free.  I know that I’m benefiting from their generosity, and I’m appreciative. No cash payment required. Free ride.

Pandora radio- mostly free ride!

Public television is a free ride, unless you call in and support the cause.

Public radio is another.

Street entertainment can be a free ride, it can also be horrid but thats not my point.

Everyday we enjoy something that is free. Internet service at a cyber cafe, or long distance calls on the weekends on your cell phone. Yes in some instances you have to pay to be a member of the club, join the service, or buy a cuppa joe, but the perks are still offered to you free of charge.

What I’m finding is that the more we live in a free ride society, the more we expect someone else to pay for it. I was watching television earlier today and a Canadian station (I forget which one) was broadcasting a documentary about the prevalence of a congenital deformity called cleft lip and cleft palette in children internationally. The video is  a bit like a car crash; you have to watch it to see the before and after shots of the kids faces. The transformation is amazing, inexpensive, and entirely within our ability to surgically cure.

After a few minutes I turned the station and realized that I was free riding. I saw an obvious need and thought “how wonderful that these children were getting help. Thank god that so many people saw this video and sent in their $240 so that a child could get the surgery they need to live a normal life.” But it doesn’t work like that. I actually felt a little lighter thinking that we lived in a society that helped the underprivileged all over the world. I felt good about myself for a few seconds before I realized that I was free riding on an emotion. I was lying to myself that I had somehow made the world a better place. This thought shocked me, which caused my light feeling to come crashing down like the proverbial house of cards.

Yes, I know that some days it feels like everyone and their dog has their hand out asking for something. I know that to fall for their antics would be the equivalent of tattooing “sucker” on your forehead, and hopping a speedy train to the poor house. But, what if instead of seeing a hand out as an act of stupidity or generosity; what if we saw it as actively participating in our own society, taking care of our family, friends and neighbors.

I have friends who tip generously at restaurants. I don’t. Why? I was never a server. I never had to depend on tips and schlepping food to absolute strangers for my livelihood, but my tipping friends have. They know something that I don’t. They know how hard it is to carry food all day, smile at a demanding asshole, and provide excellent service regardless of how many times your ass gets pinched in a shift. Free riders- tip your servers!

I have a friend who busk’s at Granville Island. Last weekend she made $5.17 for a day of playing her guitar and singing her original tunes. Her busking license cost $30 bucks. So far she’s $24 bucks in the hole, plus parking fees. I don’t know about you but some days I’d not walk across the street for a free latte at Starbucks, and certainly wouldn’t drive, pay to park, and sit outside all day performing for $5.17. Free riders- if you like the music, give the artist a buck or two!

Can’t afford the price of paying up a little, ok, I get that. I’m a student, I understand living within your means and I’m not saying to break your piggy bank and give it away. But you can stop being a free rider in the things that matter to you.

Personally, I’m volunteering for Habitat for Humanity here in Whatcom County.  Beginning at the end of the month and for the next six weeks, I’m swinging a hammer for a family of strangers. Now I’m not a fan of Habitat for Humanity’s Christian agenda, or their aptitude to recruit free labor from the local churches, but regardless of how screwy I think their politics are, their mission is admirable and I have the time, skills and ability to help out. This home is a womens only construction project in Ferndale, one free ride perk is that the women who participate will learn new construction skills. Plumbing, carpentry and painting skills that they can use in their own homes, to save themselves money, or to prevent them from getting ripped off by scam artists who see women as easy targets.

So free rider- What are you going to do?