Food, clothing, shelter: the true economic bubble

Prices of food have hit the roof, but nothing has gotten more expensive faster than organic foods. By the laws of economics, organic food consumption will surely fall:

“Man, $6.99 for a gallon of milk is pushing it. We have to be very careful about not pricing organics out of the market.”

— Perry Abbenante, global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market

Near-term inflation (stagflation?) in the US can be attributed to the falling dollar and the rising costs of inputs (namely, oil and energy). But there’s also a long-term force at work here: by outsourcing agriculture and manufacturing to extract lower prices, advanced nations have essentially exported social and environmental costs to their poorer peers.

I’m not advancing an anti-globalization screed: in the very long term, the pie will grow, and we can view this exchange as “borrowing” against the future in the hopes that by the time the payments come due (in the form of fair wages, human rights, and environmental repair), we will have grown to the point where we can pay it off. And that seems a fair moral balance to strike if we (capitalists and environmentalists alike) acknowledged the terms of the bargain. But as President Bush just made clear, he sees the deal as entirely one-sided: the United States gets to borrow, but never pays a dime in either principal or interest.

Americans may be familiar with this scenario: we’re watching another version of it unfolding called the sub-prime mortgage crisis. For almost a decade, many Americans — rich and poor — lived in a fantasy bubble in which their homes basically cost nothing, pumping their “savings” into massive and unsustainable consumption.

We also see now what happens when the bubble bursts.

Those of us who have gotten used to buying sweatshop underwear and industrial lettuce are living in the same bubble. By pushing the cost of these products on to abused workers and energy-subsidized processes, we’ve been able to spend the difference on luxuries like big, wasteful cars and televisions. But in this version of the mortgage crisis, we the consumers are more like the banks than the homeowners: we’ve bundled up our debts and spread them through the system in such complex and hard-to-measure ways that we have no idea where the costs will land.

In other words, the basics of human survival — food, clothing, shelter — have been unnaturally cheap in the developed nations because we’ve had the power to offload their costs on to people (sweatshop laborers) and systems (global carbon exchange) we don’t see and can hardly understand. And just as a return to normalcy in the housing crisis means that homeowners will once again start paying realistic monthly mortgages — after a harsh period of payback — likewise if we want to return to a sustainable global economy, we Western freeriders will inevitably start paying higher prices. And many of us have been doing that by buying, yup, organic and fair trade products.

I believe in the big picture, the economists and capitalists are right: centuries of innovation have produced massive efficiencies and, with it, a real rise in global wealth. In the very long term, most people on this planet will enjoy a better life eating healthy food, getting decent health care, and enjoying reasonable luxuries — if we can survive the medium-term payback that awaits us in the form of climate change. But we consumers and citizens need to start separating artificial cost savings that come from borrowing against our planet or our fellow man from the real cost savings that come from technological innovation. With that clarity, a just economy comes into view.

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