Food and free markets

Don Boudreaux considers an entertaining counterfactual:

Suppose that we were supplied with groceries in same way that we are supplied with K-12 education.

The argument provides an interesting rhetorical angle: given that we need food to live — and that we need it more acutely than, say, education, or health care, or law enforcement — why is no-one up in arms about the fact that we leave its provision to the avaricious and uncaring private sector*?  If inequality in health-care access and public-school quality are signs of our society’s horrid broken-ness, how much worse a sign is the fact that the wealthy — merely by having more filthy lucre — have access to the very best and healthiest foodstuffs, like grass-fed beef tenderloin, fresh-caught wild salmon, and organically-cultivated heirloom produce, while the working poor must content themselves with nutritionally dismal and gastronomically offensive options like off-brand ramen, canned soup, and Wonder Bread?  Doesn’t anyone care about this despicable inequality?

Boudreaux imagines what this indignation would look like in terms of the rhetoric that surrounds non-public schools:

[T]he small handful of people who call for total separation between supermarket and state would be criticized by nearly everyone as being, at best, delusional and – it would be thought more realistically – more likely misanthropic devils who are indifferent to the malnutrion and starvation that would sweep the land if only private market forces governed the provision and patronizing of supermarket.  (Some indignant observers would even wonder aloud at the insensitivity of referring to grocery shoppers as “customers”; surely the relationship between suppliers of life-giving foods and the people who need these foods is not so crass as to be properly discussed as being ‘commercial.’)

As it happens, however, we don’t need to imagine this sort of indignation.  Michael Moynihan discovers that when high-quality food provider Whole Foods tries to open a store that caters to a poor Latino neighbourhood in Boston, rich overeducated white folks are on hand to protest the franchise and keep their booted heel down on the oppressed:

(Hat tip: Radley Balko, in an entertaining post you should also read.)

I neglected to mention that the rich overeducated white folks claim to be progressives, and think they’re protesting in the best interests of the neighbourhood’s residents.

Elsewhere, in an article that’s been languishing in my “blog about this” bookmarks for years now, Balko himself reports upon another corporate effort to bring cheap good food to people that smug internet progressives like to mock:

“We expected the study to show an increase in obesity in communities with a Wal-Mart,” [researcher Art] Carden says. “We know that Wal-Mart lowers the cost of food, but we figured it’s not always the best food for you.”

To their surprise, they found the opposite—there was a small but statistically significant reduction in obesity rates in communities with a Wal-Mart, perhaps because the store also sells fresh produce of good quality at a good price.

Broadening the study to big-box stores in general, the effect was even more pronounced. “People actually bought more produce, more fruits and vegetables,” Carden says. “Instead of just eating more, they ate a higher-quality diet—a lower-fat diet than the rest of the population.”

But of course because Wal-Mart is big and successful and not a union shop, Caring People and Lookers With Concern conclude — based on detailed examination of their feeeeeelings — that it must be a Bad Thing.  Balko reports:

In Chicago in 2006, a proposed Wal-Mart store met with fierce opposition from groups critical of its labor practices—a position just reiterated by Mayor Richard Daley. So instead, Wal-Mart opened in Evergreen Park, one block outside the Chicago city limits. The store received 24,500 job applications for just 325 positions, and now generates more than $1 million per year in taxes for the small town while boosting revenue for local businesses.

Had Chicago’s politicians not been so obstinate, that economic windfall could have been enjoyed by the city’s low-income, mostly minority Chatham neighborhood—whose residents might have dropped some pounds as well.

I’ve long suspected that the two remaining refuges for respectable racism are mercantilist protectionism (“Buy American!  Don’t let the Heathen Chinee steal our jobs!”) and anti-immigrant bias (“It’s not that I don’t like black people, I just don’t want a flood of them to ruin the vibrant and precious Québecois culture!”).  A pair of anecdotes is not data, but it’s starting to look like I’ve found a third.


* Blah blah blah farm subsidies blah; yes, I know.  T’ain’t the same thing.


7 Responses to “Food and free markets”

  1. 1 Not Sure
    April 25, 2011 at 21:08

    “I neglected to mention that the rich overeducated white folks claim to be progressives, and think they’re protesting in the best interests of the neighbourhood’s residents.”

    But of course. If the neighborhood’s residents were capable of managing their own lives, progressives wouldn’t be needed at all.

    And we Can’t Have That, can we?

    • April 25, 2011 at 21:30

      Well, what else are you going to do with a BA in Sociology, a trust fund, and a finely-honed appreciation for Death Cab For Cutie?

      • 3 Not Sure
        April 25, 2011 at 21:49

        I’m sure I don’t know.

        I suppose one could have considered the benefit of a Sociology BA before deciding to get one in the first place? Perhaps I’m giving too much credit for planning ahead, though…

  2. April 26, 2011 at 06:48

    “they ate a higher-quality diet—a lower-fat diet”

    Hmm. The fact that he equates low-fat with high-quality makes me doubt his conclusions.

    • April 26, 2011 at 13:16

      I share your concern, but I’m guessing it’s a labeling problem. Carden and Courtemanche studied obesity rates, found a small reduction in the presence of Wal-Marts, and concluded that Wal-Mart’s low prices on things like fresh produce let people afford a healthier diet. So far, so good. How do you explain something like that to a journalist? Probably you just say “low-fat”, which has been code for “healthy” for a good three or four decades now.

      In any case, since the observed decline in obesity rates is driving speculation about diet, rather than observations on diet driving speculation about obesity rates, I’m not too worried.

      • 7 perlhaqr
        April 26, 2011 at 20:04

        Lower fat, lower carb, lower high fructose corn poison syrup, whatever’s driving it. OTOH, if we say “It’s the result that’s important, and not what’s driving it” we may undermine the idea. Of course, as I’m sure we all know, just because Wal-Mart neighborhoods show a slight reduction in obesity, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a link. Correlation vs: Causation, etc.

        For all we know, it’s a result of Wal-Mart carrying Cosmo and giving the local youth ridiculous ideas about ideal body image. ;)

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