Three Line System

Not an OperatingSystem written in AplLanguage, but rather an extraordinarily convoluted system for purchasing things.

Back in the former SovietUnion (and maybe still today in the RussianFederation? -- I haven't been back lately), when you wanted to buy something in, say, a department store, you had to stand in line three times:

  1. You had to stand in line at the merchandise counter to pick out the thing you want. But you didn't get to buy it just yet. Oh no. See, they didn't take money at the merchandise counter, just at the central cashier. So....
  2. You had to go over to the cashier, and stand in line there. Once you paid the cashier, s/he gave you a receipt that you could take back to the merchandise counter.
  3. So you went back to the merchandise counter and waited in line for the second time there (but third time overall). You handed the man at the merchandise counter the receipt, and he handed you your merchandise.

The ThreeLineSystem applied whether the merchandise in question was a watch, meat, or a head of cabbage. (Obviously the Soviets had never heard of SamWalton.)
As discussed in DesigningAnAuthenticationSystem, ThreeLineSystem is the SystemMetaphor used in the design of Kerberos. The cashier's receipt that actually got you the merchandise is analogous to a KerberosTicket?.
All poor countries maintain ridiculous business rules whose only purpose is to soak up labor. In Peruana cities they have three forms of mass transit: Cabs, mini-busses, and rental cabs. Cabs are licensed and owned by the driver. (They are the kind you use to get out of the airport district, which, conveniently for the pickpockets, is a huge slum.) Mini-busses are large vans or small school busses; they employ a driver, and a "conductor" who hangs out the door yelling the schedule at passers-by, and then helps cram them in. Poor drivers rent their rental-cabs from a yard for like 50 solas a day (USD$ 15), and then drive people around for 1-5 solas a trip.

A real subway system, though within Lima's means, would leave many drivers unemployed.

These practices are cultigenic - they influence all aspects of life. In the poorest restaurants you still get metal flatware and ceramic plates. Not plastic sporks and paper plates. That's because the labor to wash them is more important than the cost of disposing of them. The napkins are paper, of course, but they come packed flat in squares. In any restaurant you go to, they are set on the table as little triangles. Someone has the job of slowly folding each one before use.


I was in a department store in Lima where they did that. (La Quinta in Jr. de la Union, perhaps Philip's wife knows of it...) --DavidBrantley

There are ridiculous practices in any country, but the examples you give sound quite sensible. Where the cost of labor is low, it gets used more than in places where it's high. This is just capitalism at work.

Capitalism rewards efficiency.

Efficiency might mean different things when labor costs $0.50, rather than $5 per hour.

A left-minded economist might make the argument that there are costs other than those of business -- costs borne by society, as a whole, not by individual agents such as consumers or companies. (Economists call this a MarketExternality?; it is more commonly known as TragedyOfTheCommons). That same left-minded economist might argue that in a context where capital is low and labor availability high, labor-reducing business efficiency techniques might save the company money, but cost society more.

The problem with this "external costs" and "costs society" stuff, is that there is no objective way to measure such costs, so people with an ideological axe to grind can make up whatever numbers they want. -- Yes, it's very difficult to measure. (I happen to think this is par for the course, though; see EconomicsIsNotaScience?.) Certainly, though, you wouldn't want to argue that simply because the benefit or cost of something cannot be easily quantified, that it shouldn't be considered. What about music? Art? Urban planning?

Consider, by way of illustration, this quote from Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., in Harper'sMagazine a few years ago:

When I go to my gas station in Japan, five young men wearing uniforms jump on my car. They not only check the oil but also wash the tires and wash the lights. Why is that? Because government doesn't allow oil companies to compete by price, and therefore they have to compete by service. ... I pay a lot of money for the gas.

Then I come to Washington, and in Washington gas is much cheaper. Nobody washes the tires, nobody does anything for me, but here, too, there are five young men ... standing around, unemployed, waiting to rob my car. I still have to pay for them, through my taxes, through imprisonment, through a failed welfare system ... But in Japan at least they clean my car.

Music and art can be quantified -- individuals put prices to them, what they're willing to pay for them, and what they feel they need to be paid to make them. That's the quantification that matters to an economy. I'll grant that something like urban planning is harder, because it can only be quantified in its aggregate effects.

I don't know much about ecomonic laws in Japan, but it's possible that U.S. laws contribute to the contrast cited in the quote. Our laws keep the cost of labor artificially high (through minimum wage laws, employer payroll taxes, etc.), so we discourage small business owners from hiring people to provide services.

There is also the issue of trust - a ThreeLineSystem means less people handling money. They're quite common in Italy, although usually only two lines - they have standardised prices for broad categories of items. I've also seen one here in Sydney, Australia, at the fish market. --BenAveling

Installing little overhead cameras sounds cheaper. --PCP

only if there is a minimum wage.

The three line system is in use today in the electronic chain stores "The Wiz" in Manhattan. I presume the goal is to reduce shoplifting. --AndyPierce

Overhead cameras are more brittle than having more than one line. Also, overhead cameras presuppose (trustworthy!) centralised control.

There is a chain of furniture stores in Europe called Ikea who operate on... sort of similar principles.

This is the story of me buying furniture for a new house. We arrive at Ikea to furnish a house. I need to buy sofas (settees for Britons who don't like the word sofa). We go look at a batch and we go for big (3 seater) grey (won't get grubby) ones. Sofas, you pick in the store. Pay for at a till and then get delivered by a sofa delivery company some time later.

We also need office furniture and beds. Office furniture comes in two kinds. One lot you pull off shelves in warehouse #1 and pay for at the till with it in tow. The other lot you buy like the beds...

Beds you go pick, pay for at a till and then... get to go queue again in warehouse #2 and hand the ticket to someone who goes and gets them.

(It's so they can use a forklift to get big things).

Of course then we wheeled all the stuff round to warehouse #3 where it was put in storage to be delivered by Big Truck a week later...


We've got IKEA in the States. Similar, but you never have to make more than two stops to buy anything. For small items, you pay at the cash register and walk out, like most other stores in the US. For items that are large (but large enough to take home), you pay at the register and get a slip that you take to the pickup area. For really big stuff, you pay at the register and get a slip that you take to the delivery counter to arrange home delivery. In my experience, IKEA is always packed full of people; it's very popular here (LongIsland?, New York). -- MikeSmith
ThreeLineSystem (nLineSystem?) also applies to virtual systems - web sites, interactive voice response and help desks where you have to navigate several paths for what you intuitively think (hope) should be simpler. Ie certain (big) movie theatre sites I go to will have a link for new shows right up on the front page but you click it, then click showtimes right beside it you think will show all the theatres but no, you have to pick region, city etc ok fine but then the desired cinema comes up and lo, now you must again pick which film from a long list because it does not remember where you started. Or if you are unfortunate to make a mistake on 1 info item renewing your license at a kiosk (which you thought would save time), there's no option for "changes". You go line up at the human version (several miles away) after waiting in line for 1/2 hour they then say it can't be changed there. Then you have to call the head office. "Press 1 for billing, 2 for technical problems, 3 for...etc". Finally you get someone tell them the whole story, then they transfer you to another department, where you have to recite all the details again... And for these RubeGoldberg "systems" north america is no exception.

EditText of this page (last edited April 1, 2004) or FindPage with title or text search