Spending More for Food

by Martin Harris

First they conferred with the consumer-attitudes experts who have urged public utilities to give Vermont rate payers a chance to kick in a few pennies more per kilowatt (voluntarily) when they pay their monthly bill for Reddy Kilowatt’s rates-set-by-State-government services. Then, similar-minded advocates in the “Keep Local Farms” movement are now urging consumers to (voluntarily) pay a bit more for dairy products. Two of the reasons in the Associated Press news-piece: “farming is tied to tourism” because the view-scape attracts recreational revenues; and “the money goes to help dairy farmers buy electric generators that run on methane” so that their on-site kilowatt production will replace (?) power lost after Montpelier succeeds in shutting down Vermont Yankee. We aren’t told how well that “pay more for power” gambit is working out for Vermont’s now-Canadian-owned major utilities, but we might guess, based on the consumer-behavior principles set forth a dozen years ago in David Brooks’s sociological treatise “BoBo’s In Paradise”, that there’s a lot of up-scale households in Addison County which will eagerly do just that for dairy, provided it’s offered in up-scale manner..

As well-informed students of economics, both agricultural and monetary-policy, these above-average income and education folks who fit the Brooks profile for what he calls “the new upper-middle-class” with both bohemian (defying tradition and precedent for the first “Bo) and bourgeois (skillfully working the dollar-denominated reward system to maximize family earnings, wealth, and life-style for the second “Bo) are fully conversant with the recent history of milk prices. For the few non-BoBo’s in this readership, here’s a thumb-nail sketch: in 1950, milk retailed for $1 a gallon. Since then, thanks exclusively to Federal Reserve money-printing actions, the purchasing power of the dollar has declined so that, using the Consumer Price Index as the gauge, it now requires $8.35 to match the 1950 dollar. Today’s milk gallon, give or take a bit of Vitamin D added or milk-solids removed, is basically the same as its 62-years-ago counterpart (unlike, say, computers, no change in product quality or capabilities, and therefore no “heuristic” up-grading of the price to reflect the improved value) and so, it ought to be selling at $8.35, minus maybe a couple of dollars for gains in on-farm productivity since then. If it were (subjunctive contrary to fact) farmers would be making a modest profit on milk at the farmgate (as they were in 1950) and wouldn’t need consumer charity; but the present retail price of milk isn’t half of what it was, and the official urbanite (as reflected in USDA milk-price-setting policy) response has been to commend farm families for making up the losses on milk with off-farm jobs for other household members. Read it for yourself (p. 33 et al) in such ag textbooks as “Policy Reform in American Agriculture”; on p. 41 there are the stats for off-farm income and the observation that it’s “a healthy trend”. One of the authors , Robert Paarlberg, is a member of the same politically-connected family which earlier produced a Secretary of Agriculture. With retail milk not even making $4/gallon, you can see the national (pro-urbanite consumer-voter) cheap food policy in operation.

Now that urban (and suburban, and exurban, all non-farm) consumers are spending less than 10% of median household income for food (in 1950 it was near 25%) some of them have felt wealthy enough, budget-wise, to spend more on food via the “new agriculture” –organics, no-chemicals,hand-tended, no GMO’s, and artisanals sold at farmers’ markets and even at new big-box retailer Whole Foods. It isn’t always locally-grown but it meets the local-vore expectation, at a suitably higher price. Industry observers guess that 20% of the overall food dollar is thus spent. That 20% is doubtless well-represented in Addison County and would doubtless chip in to preserve their view-scape. Under certain conditions, spending more (so others will notice and approve) is part of the Brooks description of BoBo purchasing style. One the Brooks principle, if your Middlebury neighbors see the supermarket price for plain ol’ milk go up a nickel, they’ll howl about thirsty deprived children and (NY Times favorite) farmers in limousines. But if a dairying neighbor, full-size or mini-farm, offers artisanal private-label product in hand-blown glass jug with natural-ink designer label at, say, $6.35/gallon they’ll snap it up and put it on their hand-made-from-re-cycled lumber-by-natives-without-electricity nutrition-alcove table for visitors to see and admire; both milk-and-jug, and their superior food and furniture tastes and purchasing skills.

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For those non-BoBo’s who have read this far, here, under the rubric of “The Code of Financial Correctness” are Brooks’ Seven Rules, with parended Humble Scribe annotation.

1. Only vulgarians spend lavish amounts on luxuries. Cultivated people restrict their lavish spending to necessities. (like milk, Nature’s most perfect food.)

2. It is perfectly acceptable to spend lots on anything of “professional quality”. (see above re “perfection”; applies also to container and label, no low-end printed plastic is aceptable.)

3. You must practice the perfectionism of small things. (The well-set table will be crowded with half-portion gourmand/gourmet delights.)

4. You can never have too much texture. (Under this rule, non-homogenized, cream-at-top would be better.)

5. The educated elites are expected to practice one-downmanship. (Imported French milk, unlike the drinking water, isn’t necessary. Domestic will suffice.)

6. Educated elites are expected to spend huge amounts on things that used to be cheap. (Like $6.35 milk in lieu of ( a little French lingo, there) $3.65 milk.)

7. Members of the educated elite prefer stores that give them more product choices than they would ever want but don’t dwell on anything s vulgar as prices. (Advice to Hannaford’s: put the private-label 4-cow-dairy milk next shelf over to the Dean Foods product.)

Brooks explains his Rules: “…we (BoBo’s) don’t just ask for a beer; we order one of 16,000 micro-brews…educated people refuse to be mere pawns in a mass consumer society…shopping for us isn’t just about picking up some stuff at the store…by selecting just the right [milk]…the companies that appeal to us educated consumers not only are informing us about things but are providing a philosophical context for their product. Ice cream companies (HS note: think B&J’s) now possess their own foreign policy doctrines…we want our material things to be bridges that will allow us to effect positive social change…we dine at restaurants that support endive co-operatives…we members of the educated elite attach more spiritual weight to the purity of our food than to five of the ten Commandments…” and so on. You have neighbors who match the Brooks template.

And what better commercial vehicle for such elevated concepts than milk, Nature’s perfect food (for those genetically prepared by northern European ancestry with the essential digestive genes, that is) from dairy cows which are, as Hoard’s Dairyman has long described them, “foster mothers of the human race.” Ancient Vermont poetry has lines about “…cows like goddesses and cats like pandas…” so maybe $6.35 milk could be a “see and admire my socially-conscious spending” practice for Addison County’s many followers of The Seven Rules.