The Lobster Tale
A long, long time ago in a faraway land, there was a fishing village. It had acquired a modest standard of living for its community members, and of course, fishing was the primary industry. As time went by, however, fish consumption started to drop. The fishermen noticed that people were eating more meats and grains and, sadly, fewer fish.
The fishermen got together and decided that something had to be done. After all, their incomes were now starting to fall. One fisherman suggested that they get people interested in those ugly, but tasty, lobsters. There were lots of them and they were easy to catch. Some of the members tasted the lobsters and found them “rich.” They argued that people could not eat a lot of it—not to mention that they looked disgusting.
They agreed, however, to hire a marketing firm to look into it. The firm investigated and found that people did, indeed, like the taste. The firm felt that the ugliness could be overcome through a creative ad campaign. They also said that the “richness” was not a problem and was, in fact, a benefit, because lobster could not become a staple as fish had. Therefore, people would not become bored with it. The lobstermen were convinced and the campaign launched.
The campaign was a huge success and the lobster business took off. The lobstermen found that as demand increased, they could charge well beyond the cost of catching the lobsters. Profits began to rise dramatically. All was well with the world.
As time went by, however, the lobstermen noticed that more fishermen were now harvesting lobsters. Although this made more lobsters available and lowered the price, there was still a large and sufficient profit. But then, something more disturbing happened—the lobster catch started to decline. Many times, the traps contained few lobsters, and sometimes the traps were empty. But as the harvest declined, prices began to rise, so most of the lobstermen were unconcerned.
However, several of the largest and most successful lobstermen were concerned, so they hired a biologist to look into the problem. The answer disturbed them. There were, in fact, very few lobsters. The biologist reported that if the present harvesting rate continued, there would soon be no more lobsters. This was not good news, because the lobstermen did not want to return to the meager income they had as fishermen.
Something had to be done. This time, all the lobstermen got together and decided not to harvest lobsters for a period of time, to allow the numbers to grow back. This was financially painful in the short run, but all saw that it was necessary for the long run. The biologist calculated how many lobsters could be safely harvested each year. The lobstermen agreed among themselves to take only their “fair” share. They also agreed to police themselves.
At first, all went well. But later, some of the newer, less prosperous lobstermen began to cheat and take more than their share. They claimed that they could not make a living off of their quotas. There were incidences of physical violence when the wealthier lobstermen took action to keep the cheaters in line. This alarmed people in the community, and there were cries of vigilantism. So the larger, more successful lobstermen created a formal organization and approached the community aldermen. They explained their position, their vulnerability, and proposed a solution: (a) Only 100 lobstermen could own a license, (b) each lobsterman was assigned a territory from which to catch lobsters, and (c) the catch per lobsterman was limited.
The wise men of the community saw the problem and the need for lobsters—they all liked lobster—and made the proposal law. Thus, the number of licenses was fixed, and licensed lobstermen could not take more than their limit from their territories; violators would now have to answer to the police. This seemed to work. After a time, the biologist confirmed that the lobster population was in a “steady state” such that the harvesting rate was in balance with the reproduction rate. Now there would be no increase or decrease in the supply of lobsters. Again, all was well with the world.
In fact, it was even better. As time went on, the lobstermen noticed that as the community population grew, the demand for lobsters grew. With supply at a steady state, prices and profits were increasing nicely. Before long, the lobstermen owned the biggest houses and began to invest in other areas, such a real estate, and a few leveraged their lobster profits into massive fortunes. These few lobstermen and their family members entered politics and became powerful, influential members of the community.
But, alas, as often happens in life, all did not remain as it was. It turned out that only “free men” were allowed to harvest lobsters. At the time of the initial arrangement, slaves could certainly not own property and therefore could not participate. And women, except in some cases of widowhood, could not own property. There were now stirrings in the community that slaves should be freed and that women should have the right to own property.
Fortunately, the lobstermen were able to use their influence with—and positions in—politics. They ensured that licenses could be passed down from one generation to the next. With only a finite number of licenses in existence, this strategy guaranteed that whatever happened regarding slavery and women’s emancipation, the future of the lobster industry would remain in the lobstermen’s hands.
And it came to pass that the slaves were freed and women were given the right to own property. The lobstermen were sympathetic and said, “Good, we support minorities and women. All those who are willing to work hard at catching lobsters should go ahead and do so. It’s a free country.”
However, ex-slaves and women were unable to acquire licenses. They discovered that there were only a limited number and that the existing owners either were unwilling to sell or wanted exorbitant prices.
Thus, even after many years, there were very few ex-slaves or women in the lobster business. As one of the lobstermen smugly noted, “See, even when we allowed ex-slaves and women to participate, not many chose to do so. I guess they’re just not suited to the hard work of harvesting lobsters.”
All was well for many years. Not much changed despite the hubbub regarding minorities and women. However, once again—another alas—it was not to remain so. Some academics were claiming that Blacks and women did not have a fair chance because of underlying structures that had been put in place in the past. And these theorists were getting the attention of politicians because ex-slaves and women had also been given the right to vote. It was becoming more difficult for the lobstermen to control the political situation.
Eventually, laws were passed that required that a certain number of licenses be made available to African Americans and women. These laws passed despite the extensive effort of lobstermen to block them. The extensive effort was necessary because the lobster population was still in a steady state and the harvest could not be increased. As the lobstermen well knew, this meant that the only way to let African Americans and women in was to push existing lobstermen out. All the lobstermen agreed that this was unfair and that something had to be done.
Their first response was defensive. The lobstermen used their power in the community to strong-arm equipment suppliers not to sell to these newcomers and to strong-arm retailers not to buy their lobsters. At the same time, the lobstermen agreed that they would work politically to eliminate the unfair and unjust “quotas.”
The lobstermen also had another strategy: to turn their attention elsewhere, both in terms of lobsters and in terms of other businesses. After all, they had by this time accumulated massive amounts of capital. It turned out that lobsters were available in other parts of the world.
Fortunately, the people in these countries did not know the value of lobsters. The lobstermen found that they could purchase the harvesting rights at a very low price, pay next to nothing to have the lobsters harvested, and ship the lobsters back to their community—all under the domestic cost. But there was a problem. These foreign lobsters were a light shade of orange, as opposed to the white local lobsters.
So the lobstermen again turned to the advertisers. The advertisers said, “No problem, we can convince the customers that the orange lobsters are really much better than domestic lobsters. You’ll be able to charge more for them.” So the lobstermen had a choice as to whether to set the price low and undercut the local lobster people—and eventually put them out of business— or set it high and make large profits. The newcomers were already finding it hard to compete; they had not yet accumulated the resources to compete effectively.
There also turned out to be other investment opportunities around. Some wealthy lobstermen simply applied their wealth to other industries where there was more growth potential. Athletic shoes and textiles turned out to be very lucrative.
Meanwhile, back at home, the lobstermen kept up the political maneuvering and lobbying to eliminate the domestic quota laws—after all, now there would be global competition, and the laws were restricting the country’s ability to compete. They have had some success and just may get control back yet. Again, all seemed well with the world.
Read the passage given below. Suppose you are appointed as a consultant to study the lobster community and its problems and provide a way forward. Answer the following two questions.
Q1. Please develop a plan of investigation using the Hypothesis Tree approach and provide the logic and the assumptions behind your approach.
Q2. Using the principles of Soft System Methodology, develop Root Definitions for the two main stakeholder groups.