Government Programs, Coffee and Bread

I have been vexed for years by a simple problem: How to explain to young people who were not taught anything of substance at school why free markets are desirable. You would expect this to not be much of a problem is this overall still capitalist country. When, I try, most of the time, I end up making their eyes glaze over although I am captivating speaker overflowing with charisma.

The difficulty is that the concept of market is counter-intuitive. In everybody’s personal experience, good things generally happen because someone makes them happen: Mom, Dad, the boss, God. The “invisible hand” of the free market is just that, invisible. To understand our economy takes an effort of imagination.

Lack of understanding of markets opens up people, especially young people, to the direct, unsophisticated emotional appeal of government intervention. In many minds again, especially in the young’s, government solves problems and when it does not, problems go unsolved. There is a good reason for this misapprehension of reality: The many good things that the market does, it does undramatically, almost imperceptibly. Its achievement tend to be taken for granted. By contrast, government interventions are nearly always thunderous, even and especially, if they turn out to be completely ineffective.

Below is a micro-essay question that illustrates this phenomenon. (No grade and no reward except the pleasure of discovery.)

Introduction

Thirty years ago, in America, coffee in public places came in two varieties, fresh and burnt. Today, there are dozens of kinds of coffee beverage and hundreds of varieties of coffee beans available. Even the coffee at McDonald is good. And it’s about the same price in terms of median wages as the bad, burnt coffee was thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago, two kinds of bread were available in America, soft and white and soft and off-white. Both were packaged and carried no good smell from the factory where they were made. I don’t want to exaggerate: There were at least one hundred bakeries, all on the East Coast and in San Francisco, that offered fresh-baked, reasonably crunchy “specialty” bread.

Today, every supermarket in Bakersfield, and in Kansas City, and in Cleveland offers at least twenty varieties of bread, many baked daily. In yuppie towns such as San Francisco, it’s forty varieties and there are dozens of specialized bakeries.

Questions

Name the federal or state government program or programs that account for this considerable improvement in the quality and variety of coffees available to the ordinary American consumer.

Or: same question for bread.

Use only one side of a single page, please.

Send me your answers as “Comments.”

Note: Yes, I am going to address the topic of why immigrants are superior. I am just taking a break. Stay tuned.

Gone to the beach!

About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Socio-Political Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Government Programs, Coffee and Bread

  1. Gary says:

    Jacques:
    Not only was there NOT a federal program, if there had been it would have surely stifled any normal home grown impetus to diversify and create new distinctive. The reason? Its just like now with federal truth, er, I mean political correctness.
    IT is 100% about remoooving distinctiveness – that is unless it can get in on the profit itself

    Gary

  2. Sam says:

    How could i restrain myself from commenting on this one?

    I appreciate the variety of coffee as much as anyone and yes, both are made possible by the free market. However they’re demanded by a rich population, and deregulation would never ever be a factor in economic downturn, would it?

    Anyone can see that there are circumstances under which the free market must be restrained. There are also circumstances under which the government should and must be beaten away with a very large stick. The truth of the matter is more nuanced than gov’t->bad / market->good. You’re committing a straw man fallacy if you think that liberals are ideologically forced to believe the government should always intervene in the market and a hasty generalization if you think the example proves it should never.

    This is why I roll my eyes every time you claim Obama is a socialist. Its a mischaracterization and a malicious one at that. More than that though it lowers the level of debate by oversimplifying, just as you are here. I understand that this was a brief post but, unlike most of your posts, you’re not educating or convincing here, only garnering cheers.

    P.S. The real cause for the abundance of quality bread and coffee is probably the American romanticization of Europe, something for which I don’t think you have such great fondness.

  3. Thomas H. says:

    Sir:

    There’s no particular method one might use to trace the development of what were essentially commoditized products in the grocery store years ago into what are today everything from the old commodity items to very focused, quality and premium items (that sell for premium prices of course.) In my humble opinion, the marketers and manufacturers of such products were long ago grasping at straws at how to make their business ventures work better, and they came up with the idea of essentially re – inventing the public’s perception of a number of ordinary items that everyone who went to market purchased, even for the day. Said manufacturer’s did take advantage of everything, including things written into the economic system at the time that rewarded anyone who took business risks, win or lose, and created appeal for young and old, rich and poor alike for these what were at one time simply ordinary dry goods. This hypothesis is not comprehensive, nor exhaustive, nor all – inclusive, but am a student of such economic / business developments and their merits according to application of business / economic theories like supply and demand, advertising effectiveness and influences, and the like. Good day to you.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Too much jargon. Too much speculation. Too much unnecessary display of imagination. Not really an answer to the questions.
      How about: “NO government programs of any kind are responsible for the improvements described.” Period.

      • Thomas H. says:

        Professor:

        Somehow a pop – up box appears just for a second or two when replying to your own comments on my comment / reply to your posting (uh – oh.) The case you make is very good for the libertarian who, and with whom I will agree about this a little at least, calls for the abolition of the tax code and for instance, abolition of agricultural and other food subsidies. Your principles as presented apply to dry goods and the like, but have similar application to other areas of business and commerce, even the professions. I bow to your oversight in superintending the dissemination of all this. Have a great weekend.

      • jacquesdelacroix says:

        I don’t know what to do about it. You are greatly overestimating me. If you tell me, I will try to do it.

  4. Mary Sullivan says:

    So, until thirty years ago, the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the free market brought us only
    bad coffee and two kinds of bread. White and beige. The beige being white bread given caramel coloring and peddled, dishonestly, as wheat.

    The past thirty years have brought us fine artisinal makers of bread, cheese, coffee, and
    purveyors of beef, pork and poultry raised on certified organic pasture, without antibiotics or hormones.

    Thanks to their efforts, consumers developed more refined tastes. And, perhaps more importantly, became aware of the nutritional value and quality of their food and water. They began to demand better.

    Much of the research in food quality and safety was been done by the agencies of our federal and state governments responsible for oversight of these products.

    The free market did respond (was forced to respond) when manufacturers had to compete for this new, more sophisticated consumer.

    One could argue that it was the failure of the federal government’s oversight for the better part of the twentieth century that led to such dismal product being pushed on the American consumer. Indeed, private sector marketing convinced us that the goods were often superior, with there added vitamins and minerals and preservatives.

    The next time, Mr. Delacroix, you are sitting in your favorite coffeehouse, savoring the
    aroma of a fine cafe you are about to sip, and fingering the crisp crust of your soon to be devoured bit of brioche, consider this:
    Your coffee may be contaminated with chlorpyrifos, (brand name Dursban/Dow AgroSciences). “A broad spectrum organophosphate used against coffee cherry borer and coffee leaf miner. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned most household uses in 2000. It is a contact poison. It has caused human deaths, and has been linked to birth defects. It is still used by coffee growers around the world.”

    And your wheat product may be contaminated with pesticides banned in this country but still used around the world.

    When our government agencies are populated, not by cronies who wish to see government fail, but by dedicated public servants working in the public interest, yes,
    “they account for considerable improvement in the quality of coffee and bread available
    to the ordinary American consumer”

    The question you posed was sophomoric.

    I embrace, in your words, “the unsophisticated, emotional appeal of government intervention” over your myopic love of the soulless, amoral free market.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Capitalism brings near-continuous progress in every area. I doubt much that government research had a lot to do with the adoption of Arabica strains of coffee by American food corporations. (Yet, I am always eager to learn.) The food pollution you refer to is almost entirely in your head. The fact is that people in developed capitalist countries live longer all the time. When I was a child, rickets was common and people died frequently from bacterial infection because the food supply was foul. Government control of the economy has been tried. I don’t know how old you are so, I have to remind you : It was called the Soviet Union, a workers’ paradise ordinary people could not wait to escape. The Soviet economy couldn’t even produce decent beer. Government economic control was tried in a much less blood-thirsty form in India. It gave India two generations lost to deadening poverty. (It was deadly only to the very poor, I admit.) Having discovered capitalism, India is doing fine at last. Probably a coincidence!

      It’s “A R T I S A N A L”

  5. jacquesdelacroix says:

    PS I realized too late that Mary seems to have her own idiosyncratic definition of capitalism. It does not appear to include the free enterprise of artisans (small producers). I don’t know why that should be. I developed a full definition of capitalism in my entry of the same name in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (hard-cover, 2006). The Blackwell is at once an authoritative source and generally expressed in every day English.

  6. Pingback: Government Programs, Coffee and Bread « Notes On Liberty

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