Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why I don't listen to NPR on my way to work every day.

This morning a man was talking about the rising cost of food in America. And something he said bothered me. He was talking about how food has risen drastically over the last 3 years. I do not challenge this assertion, I know it to be true.

Disclaimer: I know that people in America go hungry, that food stamps buy less and less, and that rising food costs lead to cuts in other areas, especially health care and education, for families near and below the poverty line. I want people to know that this concerns me, but I want to bring up the following point, which is:

Americans have gone from spending 22.7% of their income on food in 1929, to spending an approximate average of about 11.3% of their income in the early to mid 2000's. Yes, food prices are on the rise. We are spending in 2008 about the same percent of our income in food on average, as in the early 1990's. [Source: USDA Economic Resource Service.]

So, why is this making people freak out?
1. The "oil crisis". People are spending more on gas and it is upsetting.*
2. The "global grain shortage". By "global" the US means everyone else is low on grain. We're fine, but people don't know it.
3. General economic downturn. People know that the dollar is low and that we are headed towards troubled times and are panicking.
4. It's an election year. Uniting voters against Republicans by creating artificial crises is an excellent strategy. It worked very well for Bush when we invaded Iraq.

The average US citizen spent about 10-11% of our income on food in 2002. A U.K. citizen spent about 13%, contrasted with a Mexican citizen who spent about 27%. In 2002 the average spending on food in the Philippines was nearly %50 of one's income. [Source: USDA Economic Resource Service] My guess would be that everyone is now paying more, but that the difference between our expenditures has probably remained steady since then, though I do not have hard data to back this up.

I would conjecture that the reason that other countries spend more on food are:
1. America is massive and grows a lot of food.
2. More money is made by exporting food than keeping it in poor countries. Minority rich get richer and the majority poor stagnate.
3. Smaller nations and nations with different geological and meteorological circumstances probably cannot produce as much food.
4. The US government controls food prices through various means.

I think that the bottom line of global food is that, while technically every item is only worth what you or I will pay for it, every item has a certain cost associated with its production. We have been using artificial means to hold down prices. Instead of spending income on necessities we are able to spend income on crap that we don't need. It goes nicely with the enormous sense of entitlement. The concept of "affordable luxury", a car in every garage, and designer clothes for dogs probably stems from necessities being cheaper than they realistically should be.

I guess my point is that food and oil cost more everywhere else and at nearly every other time in the history of this country. If people in Spain and Norway can mostly afford food, so can we. We just can't afford that limited edition H2 and food and gas.

The real question is how are we going to make sure that everyone in the U.S. gets fed enough. If our poor can't feed themselves now, they will suffer. You and I will just buy bicycles or smaller cars, cheaper or fewer handbags, and do things our own damn selves. And unless you're buying domestically created cars or handbags (har har) only retailers (most of which are owned by the wealthy minority) will suffer. (And I couldn't care less.)

Final verdict:
Quit your bitching. Almost all of us could and should pay realistic prices for our commodities. But what will/should we do for those who can't?

*Aside: I am irritated with Clinton's idea to temporarily abstain from taxing gasoline. A better way to alleviate the gas crisis would probably be to take that gas tax money and spend it on public transportation infrastructure for major US cities. When gas hits $8 a gallon this girl will have been riding her bike to work for months. Making gas 18.4 cents cheaper per gallon is not even a band aid, it's like sticking your finger in a ten foot wide crack in Hoover Dam.


qtilla said...

Oh and a double addendum:
1. Our cheap necessities allow us to live well off the suffering of poorer nations. Socks are not a dollar, even if that is the price at which Walmart sells them.

2.Additional links:
2006 article on food costs.
Article about a book about food costs on a global level.

Dr. Zoltar said...

I totally agree that suspending the gas tax is stupid and that we need to put more money into mass trasit. Case in point: The Sounder. While having it is awesome, what sucks is that it only runs between 6-8 am and 4-6 pm. So those people with off schedules can't use it. Add to that the parking fiasco at each station, and it's a pain to use. I know that in Puyallup, if you're not parked by 6 am, you won't find a spot.

qtilla said...

I was not aware that the sounder schedule was that bad. I'm surprised that it is useful to enough people that parking is a problem.

I rock the reverse commute, which of course means no bus or train service. Though after I move I will probably ride a bike, because I like being cold, wet, sweaty, and badly dressed when I get to work.

Elwood said...

The closest Park-N-Ride to my house is 13 miles away, and 5 miles from my office by the time I get to it, so stopping there and waiting for the bus is just silly.

However, when our offices relocate to downtown Bellevue in November, I will be carpooling or taking the bus.

The company will continue it's current practice of providing free bus passes to employess, but after the move will also being paying employees $75 per month extra NOT to drive to work.

qtilla said...

That would buy some serious bacon. I'm just saying....