Green Room

The Parable of the Bread Aisle

posted at 1:46 pm on March 16, 2010 by

What does the bread aisle of your local grocery store look like? Chances are it’s quite large, featuring shelves filled with many different types of bread. Each type of bread is also offered by different companies – you’ll have several brands of wheat or rye bread to choose from. One of these options will probably be the “house brand” of the grocery store itself, and it will likely be cheaper than any of the other brands, particularly for staples such as white and wheat bread.

What purpose is served by having so many types of bread to choose from? We could all survive nicely on wheat bread. Even if we make allowances for taste, and indulge those who prefer other flavors, what’s the point of having all those different brands on the shelf? And why would anyone buy a marquee brand like Wonder Bread or Pepperidge Farms, when the grocery store house brand is cheaper?

And why do we have to pay for bread at all? We need basic foods to survive, far more urgently than we need health insurance. Maybe it would be better if the government took over the bread industry. Think of all the money wasted on packaging and advertising, which could be saved if the State distributed Obama Bread in plain white wrappers that said RYE or WHEAT in simple block lettering. Our wise politicians could then decide if all those different varieties of bread are truly necessary.

If you have studied the history of socialism and communism around the world, you know what the inevitable results of a nationalized bread industry would be: hungry people staring at dusty shelves containing a few expensive loaves of low-quality bread. Humanity has invented few weapons that kill people more efficiently than collectivist agriculture.

Why is this always the tragic outcome of collectivism? After all, government control of goods and services is presented as a way to control costs. The bribes and shady backroom deals perpetrated in the service of ObamaCare are supposed to produce a system that increases “access to health insurance” and make it more “affordable.” The inevitable result will be a system that reduces the quality of care, makes it harder to come by, and increases its overall cost to American citizens.

The same thing has happened across decades and around the world, every single time the State has taken control of a private industry. There’s some grim amusement in watching a supposedly educated man like Paul Krugman make an utter fool of himself trying to pretend otherwise. (“In Britain, the government itself runs the hospitals and employs the doctors. We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false.“)

The reason for the failure of collectivism is revealed in the parable of the bread aisle. Why are there many different flavors of bread? Because people demand them. Why are those flavors provided by different companies, at various price points? Because there is competition to satisfy demand. These factors produce reductions in price, and increases in quality… and the burning truth every statist desperately needs you to forget is that political commandments cannot produce either of these things.

Why couldn’t a nationalized bread industry produce higher quality bread at lower prices? A politician would simply declare bread must be healthy, delicious, and provided to Americans for fifty cents per loaf, paid by a loving government interested in the welfare of its people!

The problem is that politicians cannot redefine value, or repeal the laws of supply and demand. Ironically, given the endless invocation of the term by American liberals, the first thing sacrificed in a state-run industry is diversity. Political allocation of bread would see no logic in offering different brands of bread, or even different flavors… at least, not to the politically powerless average citizen, who would have no way to express his desires by spending money on the bread he prefers. The sole input available to the subjects of a state-run industry is power. If you don’t have any, you take the bread government sees fit to provide, at the time of its choosing.

This doesn’t happen because the masters of a politicized economy are heartless and cruel. One of the most dangerous, enduring illusions of the post-industrial era is the belief that collectivism has only failed in the past because nasty people were in charge of it. The elimination of diversity and choice is an inescapable requirement of command economics. Control cannot be dispersed among millions of consumers, imposing their individual preferences on the system. That’s what capitalism does. When Pepperidge Farms tries to win your business, it caters to your demands, and it can find opportunities for profit in satisfying very specific tastes. If the State provided bread, you would need to adapt your tastes to the requirements of the State.

Reducing costs and increasing quality, to earn profits in a competitive economy, is very difficult. Statists think it’s easy, which is why they believe an enlightened President and Congress can simply command it. Relieved of competitive pressure, the State’s bread-making decisions would be guided by political considerations, at the expense of variety and efficiency. Chances would not be taken on experimental flavors that could result in wasted production, if they don’t catch on with the public. The unhealthy decadence of white bread would likely be sacrificed in the name of reducing health-care costs.

Grain harvests, and the location of bakeries, would be shaped by the political power of local senators and representatives, rather than the painful demands of cost control. This is one of the reasons why government programs always cost more than the original estimates. Those estimates quickly become arbitrary limits, easily discarded when they become difficult to meet. This also makes it easy for politicians to obscure the true costs of their plans, by providing ridiculously low estimates of cost. They know they will not be held to account for those projections later, the way a private business would.

The bread aisle of your grocery store overflows with a variety of fresh, affordable options because that bread is baked in the fires of competition… where a fortune can be made by learning your tastes, and finding an inexpensive way to satisfy them. If you relied upon the government for your bread, you would accept what you were given, and you would be given what politicians think you were willing to accept. They would conceal the massive cost of its inefficient production by telling you it was free. Because this is a lie, you would soon find yourself staring at an empty shelf, remembering the days when you could choose between six different brands of honey wheat bread, while politicians explained why your nostalgia reflects a greedy and selfish desire to return to an impossible age.

Cross-posted at www.doczero.org.

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Excellent column Dr. Z

Have you organized all of your columns into book form yet?

Chip on March 16, 2010 at 4:21 PM

Excellent column Dr. Z

Have you organized all of your columns into book form yet?

Chip on March 16, 2010 at 4:21 PM

I’m working on it. I hope to have something ready soon!

Doctor Zero on March 16, 2010 at 4:28 PM

No, I wouldn’t want his to happen, but lately an insane fantasy of mine has been this:

LET THEM PASS IT. Not only “O” Care, but Cap & Trade, Amnesty, Free College For All, etc.

Then sit back and let 5 years pass.

And then we will see what an incredible mistake it all was since we would be in shambles.

I think this is what has to happen for people to demand and receive real change.

Opposite Day on March 16, 2010 at 4:48 PM

Succinct as always, Doc.

It also might be worth mentioning that the Fed and State governments have already started their government health care ‘bakery.’ Much of the dysfunction of our current system is the results of years of intervention by politicians. From the origin of employer-based insurance to Nixon’s reinforcement of it, to Medicare/aide, to a fractured, 50-state regulatory regime, health care is anything but a free-market arrangement between consumers and HC providers.

50% of our ‘bread aisle’ is already filled with rotten product that taints the rest. Those that claim we need the aisle to be 100% white-label must have gotten a hold of the ergot-flavored variety.

chimney sweep on March 16, 2010 at 5:50 PM

LET THEM PASS IT. Not only “O” Care, but Cap & Trade, Amnesty, Free College For All, etc.

Then sit back and let 5 years pass.

The problem with those “5 year plans” are the millions of people who starve to death in between.

Sarjex on March 17, 2010 at 12:57 AM

Nice parable Doc. But I must take issue with a particular sentence fragement:

if the State distributed Obama Bread in plain white wrappers that said RYE or WHEAT in simple block lettering

Due to the FDA, amongst other architects of our safety, the label would read more like “contains monosodium glutamate, benzoic acid, food dye number 47, wheat, water, yeast, low sodium sodium, low calorie sugar, high calorie sugar, lactose, wheat germ, germy wheat, a couple of bole weevils, and a partridge in a pear tree”.

Robert17 on March 17, 2010 at 6:25 AM

I’m working on it. I hope to have something ready soon!

Doctor Zero on March 16, 2010 at 4:28 PM

I’ll buy it hot off the presses. You are the living summary of the very best on HA, and provide more food for thought than a dozen buffet tables.

Dark-Star on March 17, 2010 at 11:24 AM

I’m working on it. I hope to have something ready soon!

Doctor Zero on March 16, 2010 at 4:28 PM

Awesome! Consider me a customer.

aquaviva on March 17, 2010 at 12:09 PM

Once again, excellent Doctor Z. Incredibly well written and informative. I read everything you write and pass it on. I have to admit, I’m so envious of your writing abilities, but so happy you have those abilities! When you get that book done, I’ll be one of the first in line to buy.

SueM on March 17, 2010 at 12:10 PM

Brilliant, Doctor… thank you for this.

D2Boston on March 17, 2010 at 12:11 PM

I always find myself reading Doc Zero with a mix of anger, awe and the occasional urge to cheer.

LibTired on March 17, 2010 at 12:18 PM

Dark-Star on March 17, 2010 at 11:24 AM

Strange words from someone who thinks the answer to every problem is more govt regulation.

MarkTheGreat on March 17, 2010 at 12:22 PM

Someone really needs to hire you to write speeches.

Count to 10 on March 17, 2010 at 12:24 PM

Doc -

I love your writing. One suggestion I would make is that I think your impact would be magnified if you were able to give authoritative references for some of your statements.

I forward your writings to several liberal friends and they often question the source of your data.

ksm on March 17, 2010 at 12:27 PM

LET THEM PASS IT. Not only “O” Care, but Cap & Trade, Amnesty, Free College For All, etc.

Then sit back and let 5 years pass.

The problem with those “5 year plans” are the millions of people who starve to death in between.

Sarjex on March 17, 2010 at 12:57 AM

And the 70+ years it takes to get rid of the tyrants the “plan” puts in power.

TugboatPhil on March 17, 2010 at 12:27 PM

So true! The government can’t run anything well even it’s own internal operations. But, we’ve been letting them havn’t we!!! It’s in great part our own fault. Should have clipped their wings long ago. Hope it’s not too late.

jeanie on March 17, 2010 at 12:32 PM

Strange words from someone who thinks the answer to every problem is more govt regulation.

MarkTheGreat on March 17, 2010 at 12:22 PM

What I am usually for as a solution is government regulation/protection of the basics, which puts me at odds with the hard-right (like you) and the hard-left who want TOTAL gov’t control of EVERYTHING.

If you can’t distinguish me from the hardcore libtards, get some glasses.

Dark-Star on March 17, 2010 at 12:35 PM

Great piece, Doc, but you forgot the “Bread Panels,” where the government decides if you can even have government-supplied bread.

Kafir on March 17, 2010 at 12:43 PM

Doc, not only are you a great writer you are a great speaker as well!

Last night while eating dinner, my husband and I happened to catch you on Rusty Humphries’ show. When he announced that Doc Zero was coming up I thought, Doc from HA?, no way.
But, sure enough it was you.

We were both very impressed with your appearance. I told my husband who you are and he said that you are such an articulate young man. You also have a great voice, perfect for radio.

Maybe there’s a future there for you!

Anyway, I was thrilled for you and thought you did a terrific job.

Jvette on March 17, 2010 at 12:53 PM

I cannot be convinced that Obama/Pelosi/Reid/etc are so stupid that they don’t realize all of this. They do know it, and they would rather benefit from a temporary political advantage at the cost of the rest of society. This makes them evil, in actuality.

Not evil, just wrong. No, evil.

No representation without taxation!
/my new slogan

urbancenturion on March 17, 2010 at 12:55 PM

Funny how there is a bread ad shown on the right side of the page. Kinda like the Ukraine date ads when the guest bloggers were in charge a month ago or so.

Glad that AP didn’t copy the actual headline and/or article from the latest “Dude” headline! Don’t even want to think about the ad that would, um, pop up (sorry — couldn’t resist).

Is it too much to ask for an article about Scandinavian lingerie models?!?!?!?!?!

DOOF on March 17, 2010 at 12:55 PM

Doc, I am, once again, dazzled by your brilliance. Keep up the good work!

cheeflo on March 17, 2010 at 12:58 PM

I’m working on it. I hope to have something ready soon!

Doctor Zero on March 16, 2010 at 4:28 PM

Have you begun to organize a campaign for 2012?

cntrlfrk on March 17, 2010 at 12:59 PM

What I am usually for as a solution is government regulation/protection of the basics,

Dark-Star on March 17, 2010 at 12:35 PM

Which results in the govt controlling everything.

MarkTheGreat on March 17, 2010 at 1:01 PM

Good stuff.

Murf76 on March 17, 2010 at 1:09 PM

I’m gluten intolerant, so mostly eat rice-flour or corn-flour breads.

Since they’re specialty products, do you think the ObamaBread bill will cover them, so I can stop paying twice as much?

I would guess that the ObamaBread bill passes, I’ll have to start baking my own gluten-less bread, as long as I can buy rice and corn that is….

Mew

acat on March 17, 2010 at 1:15 PM

MarkTheGreat on March 17, 2010 at 1:01 PM
—–
Government is like concrete. The more you use, the less distance you can go.

Mew

acat on March 17, 2010 at 1:19 PM

One of the most dangerous, enduring illusions of the post-industrial era is the belief that collectivism has only failed in the past because nasty people were in charge of it.

I vote that this is the money quote in a column of money quotes.

Despite how many times it’s been tried under disparate conditions and environments and despite the many different labels that have been attached to it, collectivism has failed and will fail each and every time simply because it is contrary to human nature.

Every time it is the application of brute force to equalize that which can Never be Equalized.

Chip on March 17, 2010 at 1:27 PM

I spent a career in the military, often eating in mess halls (now dining facilities). Inevitably, the bread was baked locally on post. But, uniformly throughout the world the bread was usually hard crusted, sometimes stale, and not very tasty.

Government bread (like government anything) is bad stuff.

Special Forces Grunt on March 17, 2010 at 1:27 PM

The Commonwealth of Virginia has asserted its 10th Amendment rights in the legislature this year. It is a legislative act which is prelude to hauling the Health “scare” monstrosity into court if it is “deemed passed” by autocratic, authoritarian, socialistic Congress Kritters. This thing will not be enacted without a fight from Virginia – thank God we have Bob McDonnell in place rather than part time Tim, the Wonder Boy of DNC.
.
Make sure your legislature is acting on the 10th amendment issue to pre-empt the automatic implementation of ØbummerScare.

ExpressoBold on March 17, 2010 at 1:51 PM

I’m working on it. I hope to have something ready soon!

Doctor Zero on March 16, 2010 at 4:28 PM

Count me in on a purchase, but I want it autographed( if possible). By the way, I heard you on the radio the other day, blew my mind! Congrats.

javamartini on March 17, 2010 at 2:26 PM

Maybe it would be better if the government took over the bread industry.

Don’t give them any ideas.

You’re my favorite person in the world Doc! :)

estee on March 17, 2010 at 2:41 PM

I’m working on it. I hope to have something ready soon!

Doctor Zero on March 16, 2010 at 4:28 PM

It will be bought. I don’t even buy this sort of thing, but I’ll buy this.

TheUnrepentantGeek on March 17, 2010 at 5:06 PM

DZ, great as always. Count me in the line for your book. An autographed edition would be swweeeet!

AH_C on March 17, 2010 at 8:18 PM