There’s a certain lack of perspective here:
Is food made out of gold now? Because it’s starting to seem that way. Every time I go to my (extremely not fancy) local New York supermarket I am shocked at how expensive groceries have become. Prices seem to jump every month – in fact, food prices are up 3.5% compared with last spring, according to the US Department of Agriculture. While that might not sound extreme, it adds up. And it’s going to keep going. “People will have to get used to paying more for food,” a food distribution expert told Bloomberg recently. “It’s only going to get worse.”
I don’t know how much banks are making from the current food crisis, but I do know that, thanks to the coronavirus crisis, the 1% are richer than ever. Billionaires collectively gained $1.1tn in 2020; they are now nearly 40% richer than they were before the pandemic. While large swathes of the world don’t know how they are going to put food on the table, billionaires don’t seem to know what to do with all their cash. Jeff Bezos is reported to be buying a $500m superyacht; the boat is so big that it needs its own “support yacht”.
Do you think billionaires like Bezos ever stop and worry about the fact that gross inequality is inevitably going to lead to social unrest? Do you think they worry that, as food prices continue to rocket, people are going to get so hungry they’re going to think about eating the rich? Yes, of course they worry about this. Why else do you think the world’s richest men are so obsessed with going to space? The world has enough resources to nourish us all but for some people, there’s no such thing as enough.
The logistics chain that is Amazon, or Walmart, or even a Ralph’s, is one of the grand capitalist achievements in history. It used to be, in those heady days before the capitalists inserted themselves into the food supply system, that the working man spent 80% of income on food and rent. Sure, rent is a bit of a problem in certain places still. But food bills have fallen to perhaps 10% of household income.
We can check this too. Back in 1962 or so Mollie Orshansky noted that a poor family was spending about 30% or so of income on food. So, if we take a reasonable diet and triple it – roughly – then we’ve got a reasonable estimation of the poverty line. Sure, it was a back of the fag packet estimation and was meant to be used for a year or two while they all figured out something more sensible. But that is what the Official Poverty Line in the US is today, merely upgraded for inflation. And as general inflation has been significantly higher than food price inflation over those decades that average poor family, on the same inflation adjusted budget, is now spending 12 to 15%, not 30%, of their budget on food.
Supermarkets are the reason why. The people who own supermarkets charge a 1 or 2% margin on their activities. They get 2%, we get a 50% reduction in costs. It’s one of the great bargains of all time.
And this is what Guardian columnists complain about……