Tag Archives: food

Britain Discovers Food Banks, Can’t Decide If It Likes Them

Originally posted at The Billfold

Meet Joanna. She’s a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can’t afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She’s lost 49 pounds in the last three months.

Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don’t have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that’s all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.

You know the food crisis is a Thing when there’s a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.

“Budget Menu” is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.

In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters—for us they’re just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.

But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven’t decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?

The debate over Britain’s food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.

Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut (“sanctioned” is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.

“Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support,” was the quote from Church Action on Poverty’s chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, “what he said.”

The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and “aw hell naw” you would expect from Britain’s leading left-wing paper. The IndependentThe Guardian’s slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin—also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.

Even The Sun—the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid—ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.

What’s interesting about these—to an American anyway—is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.

“This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat,” the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. “This is a food bank.”

Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, “It is obviously a tragedy–and a scandal–that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry.” But it also made sure to lament that the report “politicized” the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.

The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator—basically a right-wingAtlantic—in a series of articles that investigated Britain’s newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, “food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer.”

But this point—food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they’re a triumph of private generosity—is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don’t simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, “Job Centres” or social services agencies—the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can’t use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.

This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.

“Food banks are not part of the welfare system.” That’s Lord Freud, the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. “Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.”

Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro (these names!), responded in an interview with The Independent: “It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century,” thus taking us right back to where we started.

Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don’t disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can’t provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that’s a bad thing.

David Cameron’s Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver “The Big Society,” a country where people don’t rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and “social entrepreneurs” are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, “Great! What shall we improve next?”

The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can’t do become things the government won’t do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government’s problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.

As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I’ve lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don’t know which side I’m rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.

But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA had its shit together, I wouldn’t have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?

I don’t know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can’t say they didn’t know what it would look like on the other side.

At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna’s celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that cost nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she’s already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She’s reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.

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Filed under America, Food, Serious, United Kingdom

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?

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One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.

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But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.

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Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.

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What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.

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It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.

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I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.

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I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.

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It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:

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First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.

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Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.

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Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.

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These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.

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Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.

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If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.

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The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.

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But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.

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Why Organic Food is So Expensive

In recent years I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the willful blindness of the food movement to the fact that organic food is produced by profit-making entities.

Organic food has to be expensive, say the foodies. It’s more labor-intensive! It doesn’t use pesticides! It’s made in small batches!

These sound suspiciously like rationalizations to me. I have no doubt that the production costs of organic food are higher than non-organic food, but that’s not an explanation for why the retail price is up to three times higher.

Retail prices are only related to production costs up to a certain point. An iPhone costs about $170 to make. Apple charges you $650 to buy one not because this has some quantitative relationship to the production cost, but because the company has calculated that this is the highest price the greatest number of people are likely to pay. Any less than that, and the company would earn less profit. Any more than that, and the company would sell fewer units.

The price of a product is based on profitability and demand, not cost. As soon as the price is above $170.01, how much it costs to make is irrelevant to how much it costs to buy.

I hate to break it to everyone who takes healthy eating seriously (myself included), but there is no reason to believe organic food is the only sector of our economy that is immune to this reality.

A free range chicken at Whole Foods is $3.99/lb. At Safeway, it’s $0.89/lb. I’m sure it costs more to produce a chicken that’s free-range, no-GMO, gluten-free, dolphin-safe, etc. But you’re not gonna convince me that those two chickens are equally profitable for the retailer.

Or check out peanut butter: $0.24 per ounce for normal (‘natural’, even!), $0.44 per ounce for organic. Again, I’m sure organic peanuts are more expensive to produce than normal (natural!) ones. But seven bucks for a jar of peanut butter is just fucking hella, and the company that makes it is just as profit-seeking as McDonald’s or Nike or Halliburton or any other.

No one defends their Lexus by saying ‘Well, it cost more to make’. We accept that it’s a luxury good whose price is determined by a standard demand curve. A Lexus costs $80,000 because that is how much people are willing to pay. That jar of peanut butter costs $7 for the same reason.

In the context of our current food system, Whole Foods and other organic food producers and retailers are providing luxury goods. A whole chicken costs $12 not because it was raised on foie gras and asparagus tips, or allowed to roam freely and pursue its life’s dreams. It costs $12 because that is highest possible price the company can charge before demand starts to taper off.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward solving it. We need to acknowledge that organic companies are just another facet of Big Food, and aim our advocacy efforts toward universal sustainability standards (if pesticides are so harmful, why can they be used at all?).

Otherwise, we haven’t improved the food system. We’ve just added a Lexus to every meal.

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Is Coca-Cola as Immoral as Phillip Morris?

At my old job we used to always have arguments about which companies we were comfortable working with. If Halliburton came to us and said they wanted to be better on human rights (and we believed them), would we work with them? What about Lockheed Martin? Or Philip Morris?

What about Pepsi?

Weapon and tobacco companies are probably the only American industries we conceive of as inherently immoral. The products they manufacture and sell are so damaging that it doesn’t matter how just or unjust their operations are. They’re so morally compromised by what they’re making that how they make it is irrelevant.

This is appealing as a principle, but its edges are more blurred than we acknowledge. Once you identify AK-47s and Lucky Strikes as products the world would be better without, you can’t just stop there.

Take soft drinks. Like tobacco, soft drinks deliver short-term pleasure and are hazardous if overconsumed. The soft drinks industry, also like tobacco, has specifically designed their product to encourage overuse (increasing portion sizes), addiction (caffeine) and consumption by youth.

Obesity kills more people than lung disease every year. Companies whose products are basically obesity-in-a-can bear a significant amount of responsibility for this. The line isn’t as direct as that between tobacco and lung cancer, but is that really the only distinction?

In my time in human rights, I did some work with mining companies. Would the world really be that much worse off if every diamond company threw up its hands and said, ‘From now on, the shiny rocks stay in the ground.’ With all the human rights violations linked to diamonds, fuck it, let’s find something else to decorate our fingers and our ears.

But while we’re at it, why stop at diamonds? Other than some industrial purposes, we could probably do without gold, too. All of our handheld electronics use a mineral called coltan, which is basically only minable from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it fuels conflict and feudalism. We can do without that too, right?

OK, so there’s obviously a line between uzis and iPods. I’m not saying that we should start classifying industries into categories of moral acceptability. I just think that it’s more complicated than the products themselves.

If a tobacco company paid all of its workers a living wage and genuinely contributed to agricultural development in its supplier countries, would it be as morally acceptable as Wal-Mart, which has basically done the opposite everywhere it’s operated?

One of the great moral shifts of the last 15 years has been the growing acceptance of the moral implications of our consumer choices. From our Nikes to our oil, we accept that everything we buy is the end of a thread linking companies to governments to workers to suppliers to communities. No one gets to ignore that anymore.

But I don’t think we’ve worked out the full implications of it either. Pull on the It’s what you make thread long enough, and you disqualify every product other than bottled water and baby clothes. Pull on the it’s how you make it thread and you can buy a ballistics missile as long as the factory pays its workers and pays its taxes.

After working on human rights and business for the past five years, I’m no closer to weaving this together into a moral standard than I was when I boycotted Shell in the fifth grade. All I know is that certainty obscures more than it illuminates. And you should probably drink less soda.

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Slave to Ration

I just finished Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. It perfectly combines my two current obsessions: 1) Food and 2) Everything I Know About WWII is Wrong.

The book follows the food policies of all the major combatants in WWII: Axis, Allies and colonies alike. Each chapter demonstrates, in its own microcosmic way, how recent a phenomenon our current abundance of food is. Nixon famously told his secretary of agriculture that he didn’t want food to be an election issue ever again, and after reading The Taste of War, you kind of sympathize with him.

Food shortages were a common occurrence before WWII, and even more so during and immediately after. People in countries rich (Britain) and poor (China) faced empty shelves, malnutrition and, in extreme cases (Russia) resorted to boiling leather shoes because they yielded a few calories of gelatin.

This anecdote from Japan is illustrative of how food shortages trickle down through all corners of the economy:

Arakawa Hiroyo and her husband owned a bakery shop in Tokyo. They made katsutera, a sort of sponge cake made with flour, eggs and sugar. The decline of their business reflected the dwindling food supply in Japan. At first, as a food business, they were supplied with flour and sugar, and customers would bring them vegetables in exchange for katsutera.

Eventually the supply of their ingredients declined and they were only able to bake every two or three days. Then the police would drop by. 

‘Oh, today you’re baking?’ they would comment innocently. ‘This house sure smells good.’And then Arakawa would have to give them some cakes.The grocers in her street suffered from the same problem. Police and soldiers would simply pocket the food and refuse to pay.

Eggs were the first of their ingredients to disappear altogether. For a while they had a supply of powdered egg from Shanghai but eventually this became unavailable, as did sugar. Arakawa changed the business to making sandwiches, but even those they had to fill with whale ham because there was no pork to be had.

Then bread and whale ham became unavailable. Undaunted, they changed to making ‘cut bread’ for the army, which meant that supplies of the necessary ingredients were guaranteed. [...]

Then the military laid claim to their bread-making machine for the iron and they had to close their business.

The sheer foreignness of this experience demonstrates both the novelty of food shortages as a non-issue, and how unprepared we are for our current infinity of food products.

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Peanut Butter is a Nutritional Catastrophe

Now that I’m not eating sugar, peanut butter is one of the hardest foods to find. All of the major brands contain significant amounts of sugar (usually disguised as dextrose or some syrup), even the organic brands. This got me thinking about the peanut butter I used to eat when I lived in the states, so I went to the Jif homepage to look up the nutritional information on their Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter, which was a staple of my breakfast from about 10 years old to 19.

I’ve been out of the US food environment for quite awhile, and Germany and Denmark, say what you want about them, don’t have deceptive labeling or choice-overload the way the US does. Still, a few things surprised me about the spreadable options back in my homeland:

  • All of Jif’s peanut butters have exactly the same calories per serving: 190. As a kid, I would have been better off just eating the full-fat version rather than the ‘reduced fat’, which just makes up for the lost fat with extra sugar.
  • Even the ‘natural’ peanut butter has a shitload of sugar in it, and basically the same nutrition info and ingredients as the standard peanut butter. If you want proof that the term ‘natural’ is pure marketing, look no further.
  • The Jif Omega-3 Peanut Butter is a joke. It’s still laden with sugar, and the nutrition label admits that it contains ‘less than 2%’ of the ingredients that contain omega-3s.
  • All of Jif’s peanut butters contain sugar, even the ‘natural’ and ‘simply’ versions.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that American consumers should just ignore what is on the front of the label and go straight to the nutrition facts on the back. What does it say about America’s political culture that consumers have to maintain constant, hawklike vigilance just to avoid eating products that are demonstrably unhealthy? I’d like to see a survey of how many Jif consumers know that their peanut butter is up to 30% sugar.

Jif obviously has the right to make peanut butter with the nutritional profile of cake frosting. What’s less obvious is why it is allowed to market such cake frosting as ‘natural’, ‘simple’ and containing health-promoting ingredients without any regulation by the government. It’s one thing to make an unhealthy product. It’s another to hide behind a cloak of nutrition and trick consumers into feeding that product to their children.

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Defending The Nutella Lawsuit

In the kind of news designed for talk-show monologues, a woman is suing the makers of Nutella for claiming that the chocolate-and-hazelnut goop is good for you.

There’s a tendency to look at these stories and have a kneejerk reaction against the woman filing the lawsuit. How the hell didn’t she know that Nutella is bad for you? Look at it! Taste it! Read the label! The comments on the article are almost exclusively of the ‘give me a break!’ variety.

But do we really want to live in a country where a product that is less nutritious than a milkshake can be marketed as a reasonable breakfast food for children?  The government in this case failed to do its job of preventing a company from lying to its customers. This woman, and this lawsuit, are trying to fill that gap.

This is not an isolated incident. As Marion Nestle’s always pointing out at Food Politics, food companies are allowed to say all kinds of bonkers shit on their packaging. This cereal, for example, is at least one-third composed of marshmallows:

The fact that Nutella lied and that this woman is an idiot are not mutually exclusive. In cases where an ignorant individual is fighting against a dishonest corporation, though, I think our contempt should go first toward the one doing the lying, rather than the one who believed what they were told.

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Conscience Do Cost

By coincidence, I read the following two articles back to back on a plane last month:

Charles Fishman, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know.”
Michael Pollan, “An Animal’s Place.”

The first one is about how Wal-Mart almost singlehandedly  incentivized American companies to move their production abroad. Companies making products to be sold at Wal-Mart were told over and over again by their biggest customer that they had to drop their prices. If you stick-and-carrot efficiency for long enough, pretty soon you can’t justify paying a bunch of Americans 5 bucks an hour to do something a Chinese dude will do for 1.

If Wal-Mart doesn’t like the pricing on something, says Andrew Whitman, who helped service Wal-Mart for years when he worked at General Foods and Kraft, they simply say, “At that price we no longer think it’s a good value to our shopper. Therefore, we don’t think we should carry it.”

Wal-Mart has also lulled shoppers into ignoring the difference between the price of something and the cost. Its unending focus on price underscores something that Americans are only starting to realize about globalization: Ever-cheaper prices have consequences. Says Steve Dobbins, president of thread maker Carolina Mills: “We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world–yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions.”

In other words, we all want to live in a country where we can all have good jobs, beautiful nature and working infrastructure. But we don’t want to pay for it.

The second article doesn’t, ostensibly, have anything to do with the first. It’s about our food production system, and how it’s making us all sick. You know the drill: Factory farms bad! Micro-bio-loca-ganic farms good!

Salatin’s chickens live like chickens; his cows, like cows; pigs, pigs. As in nature, where birds tend to follow herbivores, once Salatin’s cows have finished grazing a pasture, he moves them out and tows in his “eggmobile,” a portable chicken coop that houses several hundred laying hens–roughly the natural size of a flock.

The hens fan out over the pasture, eating the short grass and picking insect larvae out of the cowpats–all the while spreading the cow manure and eliminating the farm’s parasite problem. A diet of grubs and grass makes for exceptionally tasty eggs and contented chickens, and their nitrogenous manure feeds the pasture.

A few weeks later, the chickens move out, and the sheep come in, dining on the lush new growth, as well as on the weed species (nettles, nightshade) that the cattle and chickens won’t touch.

This is self-evidently true and wonderful. If all farms in the Western world operated like this, we’d all be healthier, not to mention less morally culpable in the kind of animal cruelty that only Wal-Mart efficiency can inspire.

But, like the 8-hour day and the minimum wage, sustainability costs. Creating a food system that prohibits inhumane practices essentially creates workers’ rights for animals.  I’d be totally fine with that, but if all the factories have been shipped overseas by rising costs in the West, why won’t the same thing happen to all the farms?

To me, this is the central dilemma of the capitalism we’ve set up for ourselves. We as citizens want our chickens to be able to live like chickens, our cows to eat grass, our pigs to have bottomless slop to slip in. But as consumers, given a choice between happy chicken breast and torture-farm chicken breast, we choose the cheaper, every time.

It’s not just farms, of course. Our decision to choose cheaper, as pointed out in the Wal-Mart article, is why our countries don’t have factories for clothing or cars or IKEA anymore either. As citizens, we want access to jobs that let us buy a house and see our kids a few nights a week. As consumers, we want the cheapest option possible, even if it means a 78-hour workweek for that dude in China.

Economic theory says the middle class was created when Henry Ford started paying $5 a day. That was a huge salary in 1914, and it instantly transformed his workers into consumers. Maybe in the  last 20 years, that transformation’s finally complete. We’re so busy celebrating the victorious consumer that we forget his victory is over the worker. And that they’re the same person.

In other words, somewhere in Flint, Michigan, right now, an unemployed autoworker is trying to choose between two pieces of chicken.

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Liveblogging the realization that Hungarian cheese puffs are the best lunch ever

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12.00: Damn, this is hella good.
12.03: That was hella good.

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Eat me

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