Hungry Congressional Staffers Discover the Value of Trade

Under current ethics rules, members of Congress are allowed to receive gifts of snack food from companies located in their states or districts, as long as the snacks are available to office visitors.  While constituents visiting the Capitol may be getting to enjoy home-grown treats, the real beneficiaries here are the office employees who have privileged access to free snacks.

Yesterday Politico ran a light-hearted story about a thriving, informal market that has developed for congressional staffers to trade these free snacks.  It’s funny and you should read it in its entirety.  In order to be insufferably pedantic, I thought I would share a few thoughts on how this peculiar market, like all markets, developed as a way for individual humans to improve their lives through trade.

The rules create a peculiar inconvenience for hungry staffers, as they can only get free snacks produced by a company in their boss’s district.  Some offices only have Pepsi products while others only have Coke.  Some have healthy food and some have junk food.  Free snacks are great and all, but what do you do when the snacks you have aren’t the snacks you want?

The problem here is a non-optimal distribution of snacks, and the solution is trade.

Dozens of junior staff who spoke with POLITICO described an elaborate barter system based on local products. Pepsi is swapped for M&M’s, and Coca-Cola for Craisins.

Some of the foods that are most highly in demand are also well supplied in Capitol Hill offices, while others appeal to more particular tastes.  These realities shape their value as products to trade. 

Frito-Lay chips and Mars candy are the most common — and perhaps the most commonly traded — snacks on the Hill. Both manufacturers have operations in several states.

And orange juice, it turns out, is a hot commodity on the Hill, trading at times for as many as five bags of Lay’s chips.

Not all products on the political circuit are well-known brands. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has Ola! all natural granola, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) has Cherry Mash, a chocolate cherry treat, and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) has Aplets & Cotlets, a square fruit puree and nut snack that isn’t all that tradable.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, I think it’s worth pointing out how crazy it would be to restrict this trade.  Should offices worry that they’re running a snack trade deficit?  Are some snacks being unfairly traded at too low a price?  Are other offices inadequately inspecting their exports for safety?

What is perhaps most interesting about this microcosmic economy is how infrastructure and culture have developed to facilitate trade:

The most dedicated snackers have compiled comprehensive lists of who has what — a Capitol Hill snack bible of sorts.

The covert snack economy is not just a way for hungry staffers to seek out chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from Hawaii or Lay’s chips from Texas. It’s a system for aides, especially low on the totem pole, to make friends, forge informal alliances and, ultimately, help keep Capitol Hill functioning.

Between arranging constituent tours and taking calls, staff assistants use a massive email Listserv to arrange snack swaps.

As fun (?) as it might be, I’ll leave it to the reader to analogize these practices with the institutions of our broader economy. 

Finally, while the article and the staffers themselves refer to this trading as “black market,” it is not clear that anyone is actually prohibited from sharing snacks.  My guess is that the market seems “black” or “underground” to those working in government simply because it is spontaneous and unregulated.

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