Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Buying bread takes more "bread"

[Baking bread at Big Sky--Portland Press Herald Photo]

There has been little in the way of positive economic news for weeks now. The biggest issue on most American voter’s minds right now, is the health of the U.S. economy.

Just this morning, the Business Tuesday section of the Portland Press Herald had three stories highlighting the rising cost of fuel, food and fears of inflation.

Bakers of bread, pizza makers and others that rely on flour for their livelihood are facing escalating prices, as wheat stockpiles worldwide are at 60-year lows. This is in part due to droughts in Australia, a major world producer of wheat, as well as burgeoning demand for wheat and wheat products in the world’s two most populous countries, China and India.

Owner Andrew Siegel, of When Pigs Fly, a York-based bakery that churns out wonderfully unique breads, is quoted as saying, “It’s kind of a scary time right now.” The scary time he’s referring to is bakeries seeing their flour costs tripling over the past year.
Portland-based Big Sky Bread Company has also seen costs nearly triple from a year ago, with recent prices up 50 percent since the beginning of January.

Martha Elkus, owner of Big Sky Bread says that a 50-pound bag of flour cost about $11 in February 2007, and is now about $30. At about 60 bags per week, that means her weekly flour bill has jumped from less than $700 a year ago to about $1,800 now.

“The person delivering her flour recently joked that he might need an armed guard,” Elkus said.

With flour and wheat products tripling in price and the price of oil at an all-time high, the three remaining presidential contenders will have their hands full with just the U.S. economy, let alone geo-political concerns abroad.

In this context, I’ll leave you the sometimes misogynistic and always-"sunny" Jim Kunstler, with a portion of his take (from Monday’s Clusterfuck Nation).

Whoever wins on November 5 will wake up to preside over a different America than the schematic one he was debating about during the primaries and the election. The long campaign will beat a path straight into the long emergency. The new president will inherit a wrecked banking system, an economy in freefall, a wobbling world oil market, and an American public extremely ticked off by its startling, sudden impoverishment. (This is apart from whatever melodramas spool out on the geopolitical scene.)

The president-elect will quickly realize that the number one problem is not that Americans can't afford health care -- it's that they can't afford anything, because their income is evaporating in terms of both lost jobs and a dollar that is racing toward worthlessness. They'll be hard put to pay for food and gasoline, nevermind Grandma's emphysema treatments. They will be walking away from home ownership -- or yanked kicking and screaming by default-and-repo -- and any government scheme devised to abridge their mortgage contracts will only undermine basic contract law that has made mortgage lending a credible thing in the first place. And that too, of course, would redound straight to a real estate sector already in price free-fall, with no one willing or able to think about buying a house.

One more section from Kunstler to hammer home some reality, in a campaign season filled with delusion and I assign blame widely, both right, left, and to the loopy. Say what you want about Jimbo (and he gets my hackles up on a regular basis), there are few, in my opinion that root the energy/peak oil issue as succinctly and firmly in a reality-based paradigm as he does.

Whoever wakes up as the next president on November 5 will have to preside over the comprehensive reorganization of American life. The big question is whether he can persuade the public to let go of its sunk costs, and all the sheer stuff that represents, and move ahead in a unified way that doesn't end up tearing the nation apart. The danger is that the public will want to mount a kind of last stand effort to defend a way of life that has no future under any circumstances, and they will ask the president to lead that last stand.

To avoid that deadly outcome, the new president will have to be equipped with a realistic vision of what this society can actually do to survive the discontinuities that circumstances present. This will require him to confront the prevailing delusion that the US can become "energy independent" in the sense that we can run WalMart on something other than oil from foreign lands. The new president would have to carefully restate American expectations and goals -- for instance, not to keep all the cars running at all costs, but to get us living in places where driving is not mandatory. I'm concerned that the American people will hate the new president if he tells them the truth: that an old way of life is over and a new one has to begin now. We're about to find out how much "change" the public can really stand.

Happy bread baking!

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