op-ed

High-Priced Avocados: The Cure For What Ails You

Back in the stone ages, when newspapers were actually printed on paper, the day’s most important headlines appeared “above the fold.”

This meant precisely what you think it means: When a newspaper was folded in half at its waistline and stacked neatly in a vending machine or on a newsstand, all that was visible to passersby was the top half of the front page: “Dewey Defeats Truman,” “Titanic Sinks,” “Kimye Welcomes Baby.”

I still live in the stone age, by the way, still walk to the end of my driveway each morning to fetch my newspaper, still roll off its rubber band and add it to the giant ball that lives by the door because hey, free rubber band. On some rainy mornings I have to separate the flimsy pages and lay them out to dry before I can read my newspaper.

So “above the fold” still retains its intended meaning for me. This morning I stripped the rubber band from my newspaper and learned that “Trump keeps up war of words against North Korea.” That’s certainly above the fold news: an irrational egomaniac with a short fuse threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. Also, North Korea’s leader is up to something.

But another headline appeared above the fold this morning, one that the editors determined would sell papers as well as pending nuclear holocaust does. The headline was this: “Get ready to pay $3 for an avocado.”

I’ll save you the suspense: A heat wave reduced this year’s yield of California avocados, and Chilean substitutes haven’t made their way to market yet. The coming avocadopocalypse may have many dire consequences, according to Produce Express manager Jim Boyce, but perhaps none more frightening than this: “[Grocery shoppers will] buy nacho cheese instead.” Chilling.

I like avocado. It’s easily in my top five -ocados, but if I choose not to be a buyer at three bucks I’ll be fine. There’s plenty of other good stuff in the produce aisle. What’s more important to me in this above the fold story is this: nacho cheese makes an excellent substitute for avocado. Also important: The fact that a three dollar piece of fruit is front page worthy reveals something about early 21st century Americans. We do not expect to pay what things actually cost.

Let’s follow the path of one hypothetical avocado. Avocados begin life as a tree, of course, and that tree requires a plot of land, which is far from cheap in California. For at least the first five years of its life, that tree bore not fruit, so for half a decade its owner earned no money from that small plot of land. He spent plenty, though, on items such as irrigation, pruning, fertilizer, pesticides, and the miscellaneous expenses of running a business (taxes, accounting, etc.).

Eventually, though, avocado Christmas came, and paid field workers harvested the ugly (but delicious) green ornaments that drooped from the tree’s limbs. These were packed into crates that cost money and loaded onto trucks that cost money driven by paid truckers who filled their machines with gas that cost money.

The boxes arrived at loading docks of expensive warehouses where paid workers unloaded them by hand or with expensive forklifts and pallet jacks. The crates of avocados were then loaded onto more trucks with more drivers and more gasoline and driven to restaurants, grocery stores, and even other warehouses. Some of those destinations were nearby, others were on the other side of the country. Country nothing: Some of those crates may have hopped rides on super expensive ships and airplanes.

When the fruits arrived at their final destinations, they were unloaded once again by more paid workers, and then the specialists took over.  Some were hourly cooks adding avocado to toast and BLTs, others were salaried chefs working fatty, green, gastronomic magic. Factory workers received a bunch. They loaded them into impossibly expensive Rube Goldberg machines designed to ingest fresh avocado and excrete packaged guacamole. These avocados earned yet another round or two of packaging and shipping.

But above the fold we’re concerned mostly with the avocados that find their way to the grocery store. Once those crates make their way past the markets’ loading docks, paid produce clerks must unpack them, display them nicely, toss out the bad ones, etc. The store itself must spend thousands of dollars per day just to light and refrigerate the joint, never mind leases, insurance, taxes, and payroll.

Finally, here comes James, pushing a $150 shopping cart toward our one hypothetical avocado that took a minimum of five years to produce and dozens of people to deliver into my hands. “Three dollars for an avocado?” I mutter. “You crooks are out of your damned minds! Where’s the nacho cheese?”

Given what goes into nurturing that ugly little fruit, I wouldn’t be surprised if avocados cost ten dollars, maybe twenty. Most people wouldn’t buy them, of course, but that’s the point: We don’t want to pay what things are actually worth.

A significant number of our social problems have at their root The Tale Of the Three Dollar Avocado. The circuitous route from orchard to kitchen counter must remain as inexpensive as possible in order to keep the avocado near a retail price that shoppers are willing to pay. Those involved in the supply chain do whatever they can to achieve this: massive corporate farm mergers, with their economies of scale; scorched earth pesticides, an easy and inexpensive line of defense; immigrant field workers paid less than minimum wage; automation, automation, automation; the inevitable outsourcing, in this case to Chile.

In the near future we’ll see the death of the commercial truck driver as those jobs are replaced by self-driving trucks. Tens of thousands of men and women will find themselves suddenly obsolete, not unlike family farmers, minimum wage field hands, and all so we can have affordable avocados.

This is the reality of the self-check at your local grocery store, the self-order kiosk at your favorite burger place, the inevitable self-driving taxi. It’s why a 10 year-old in some faraway land is making your shoes while in another factory his mother assembles your new television. We all sit in booster seats on airlines now because we won’t pay what it should reasonably cost to get from New York to Los Angeles in under seven hours. We’re cheap, but we demand luxuries.

We weren’t always like this. Forty years ago, a 19-inch color television with remote control cost almost $600 at your local Sears. Today that same product will run you 80 bucks at a big box retailer, color and remote thrown in gratis. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just a little over twenty 1978 dollars. Expressed the other way, that $600 1978 TV would cost $2,300 in today’s money.

So how did the primitives of 1978 cope? They saved, or they skipped the color and the remote control, or they just didn’t buy a 19-inch TV set. One television in the living room was a common configuration for families during the ’70s. If I count every screen in my house capable of displaying TV-like content, today I own at least ten, though admittedly only three of them are used as “television” in the traditional sense.

Bacon, orange juice, designer labels, power windows, air travel–all were considered luxuries in my childhood home. Now each of these is both ubiquitous and inexpensive. I’m not smart enough to know why this is, but I have a hunch.

George W. Bush spilled the beans after September 11 when he encouraged us to “get down to Disney World in Florida…take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” In other words, the best response to the greatest threat the continental United States had seen since the Civil War was to go spend money, because consumerism drives the U.S. economy.

When we were an agricultural-based economy, we didn’t have these problems. We had other ones, but not these. My grandmother once told me that the Depression had little impact on her family because they grew their own food. Three dollar avocados never would have happened for her family–they’d just go outside and pick something else for dinner.

Nor did it matter much when we were a manufacturing-based economy, as the average wage enabled most Americans to live a reasonably comfortable but not excessive life: a car, a house, maybe some Tang, the aforementioned console TV.

But when a nation’s economic engine is powered primarily by people buying things prices must remain unrealistically low. Who in 2017 is willing to pay $2,300 for a 19-inch television? We blame our low wages and vanishing jobs on heartless corporations, bumbling government, undeserving immigrants, overseas labor, “The Man,” whomever that might be, but inevitably we’re as guilty as anyone because we’re unwilling to pay what an avocado is actually worth.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that while the retail price of most things has dropped dramatically over the last 40 years, the average household is saving less. This is in part because we buy more junk than we used to, but we’ve also shifted much of our monthly outlay from that which is tangible, like TVs and avocados, to that which is not.

In 1978, most households paid one data-related monthly fee: Ma Bell, the telephone company. Cable television was spreading quickly, but most folks still grabbed their complimentary TV signal right out of the airwaves, courtesy of that relic known as the rooftop antenna. Now the average household pays a monthly cellphone bill significantly higher than the old AT&T rates. Some pay for cable or satellite television, and again for monthly internet service. Others bundle all of these into one mega-bill that provides the illusion of savings.

And then there are the subscription services: satellite radio; Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple Music, XBox, Playstation, Hulu, Tidal, on and on. Our outlay for data each months is in the hundreds. Collectively, we as a nation spend a fortune each month to own nothing, and we like it, yet a three dollar avocado is above the fold news.

Non of this applies to things we actually need, by the way. Just ask the victims of price gouging by the likes of Martin “Hard Time” Shkreli and Mylan, makers of EpiPen. We’re all feeling the gouge in insurance of all sorts, particularly healthcare. If avocados were medicine, they’d cost $300 rather than $3.

Anyway.

The solutions to some of our most pressing problems aren’t found at the tip of a legislator’s pen. It’s much simpler, and much less palatable, than that. Yes, if we want fast food workers to make a living wage, the mega-burger chain must be willing to pay those workers a living wage, but more importantly we have to be willing to pay what a super-sized #3 meal should really cost.

If we don’t want Wal-Mart employees dependent on government assistance, we have to be willing to pay more than $3.88 for a 50-pack of tube socks.

If we want manufacturing to return to the Rust Belt, we have to put on our big boy pants and pay what a TV is worth. Child labor in foreign countries turns into good jobs in American factories when we’ll pay the actual price of a pair of sneakers.

Want to solve North Carolina’s pig pollution problem? Stop expecting to pay 25 cents to add bacon to that #3 meal.

As for illegal immigration: We can spend billions on a stupid wall that will be obsolete as soon as rope and ladder technology is achieved on the Mexican side, or we can pay what an avocado is worth when people are paid a living wage to get it to our table.

That is the above the fold story that is never published: We are destroying our own society with unrealistic expectations. We are enabling all of those horrible things that we complain about The Man doing to us,  and all so we save a buck-fifty on an avocado.

Tomorrow morning I’ll walk out to the end of my driveway and pick up my stone age newspaper again. I’m willing to pay what it’s worth to learn what’s above the fold, but honestly? I’d never drop two grand on a second television.

Categories: op-ed

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