Tuesday, 9 September 2008

So, why don't I stop baking bread and start stacking shelves?

The Fallacy of Mass Production

I enjoy making bread. So what has this to do with mass production? Well, in the UK a standard loaf costs around £1 at the moment. This is really odd, as the cost of baking it yourself is less than half of this - including the gas for the oven.

So what is going on? Well, I'm sure that the bakers pay less for their flour than I do. They probably pay less for the gas as well. They will be using machines so that the human intervention is minimal - and the transport and sales system is meant to be efficient. So why does it cost so much more than it does for me to do it myself?

I've ignored the labour. For me to bake break requires me to be around for several hours. The actual labour is probably only 30 minutes or so, 10 minutes kneading, few minutes here and there while it is proving, rising and baking. So if you charge my labour at even minimum wage, then that loaf costs me two or three times the one from the shop. But does this make sense?

Opportunity cost calculations don't make sense here. Now in economics there is this concept of opportunity cost. This is the idea that while I'm making bread I'm not out stacking shelves in the local supermarket, so I've lost all that minimum wage. So, why don't I stop baking bread and start stacking shelves?

Look at the Utility - not the cost. I enjoy making bread. I enjoy eating my bread. I might enjoy working in the supermarket, but I doubt it. The problem with economics is that it tends to focus on money - which is easily measurable, rather than the utility of the process.

But we can see the flaw in the costs. The flaw in the new business ethos of "mass production" stems from the places where it does work. Trying to build a computer chip or an engine from scratch would be a thankless and extremely inefficient process. Building a car, machine gun or sewing machine with a good machine shop at your disposal would take far more time than it was worth (unless, of course, you valued the activity like I value baking bread). So, what we have is a process that made sense for certain highly complex industrial products being applied to everything.

Food glorious food. In So Shall We Reap, by Colin Tudge, there is a careful and logical argument for changing the way that we grow our food. I find it Tudge convincing, and recommend this book wholeheartedly. I find it hard to find a better way to describe the book than to use the revealing, if lengthy, subtitle "How everyone who is liable to be born in the next ten thousand years could eat very well indeed; and why, in practice, our immediate descendants are likely to be in serious trouble."

We need to spend more of our effort on our food. What is the point in spending all of our time worrying about cars, computers, houses, plasma screen TVs and the like? The life style we are embracing in such a hurry is clearly not sustainable. Growing, preparing and sharing good food and drink are essential for a truly satisfying life.

So why is this a cockspiracy? Well, simply put, these blinkered politicians, capitalists and agronomists aren't really out to destroy the earth, they just haven't thought it through. We need to get back to basics and stop running after the next new toy.