Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Buy the best deal

I have been watching volume 7 of Milton Friedman's PBS special "Free to Choose" about needless consumer protection and quality standards and it got me thinking about how it relates to localism.

One of the cases I often hear is that local goods are of a higher quality. Local crafts are always compared to lead-soaked Chinese sundries and local food to supermarket vegetables.

My replacement message to the "buy local" idea is to buy the best deal. This doesn't mean buy the cheapest price - that would encourage buying lousy goods. There is no simple formula for the best deal. The consumer simply has to weigh the quality of the product to the price, and decide how good the deal is for them.

The idea that locally-produced goods are of a higher quality is suspect. We know they are not taking advantage of economies of scale, so the quality-to-price ratio is already skewed in the wrong direction. There's no reason to believe a factory would produce a low quality good while a craftsman would make a better one. Henry Ford proved the opposite when standardized automobile parts made his assembly lines possible.

As for local food being "fresher," I've only heard that argued in theory and never with data to back it up. Yes, it makes perfect sense that a local grower could uproot a few carrots 10 minutes before the farmers market opens. But does that mean they will? What's stopping them from harvesting and washing their vegetables a few days before? Most farmers markets are only open one day a week, doesn't that mean the "freshness" selling point rapidly diminishes over the next six days?

Furthermore, some supermarket plants ripen during shipment. It's planned out. They also get new food in all week. I have a bag of supermarket carrots I've been eating for a few months now and they still taste just as good as when I bought them.

When someone is trying to sell me something and says it's "fresh," I feel like they're trying to trick me. The word now means it's not frozen or canned. Likewise, when something is judged in terms of freshness, it implies it tastes better. I've never really noticed a quality difference, and if there is one, it's too subtle for me to justify the price hike for local foods.

It's so condescending when the poorly-named "foodies" talk down about the rational, affordable good meals you eat and brag about their hand-made locally-grown organic crab apple chutney. I can understand why the sellers want to stress things like "freshness" as a selling point, but when the activists and food snobs do it, it just comes off as snobbery.


  1. I am not food-savvy enough to be a foodie but I enjoy the nice restaurants in the area that also boast local sources. To me the differences are the freshness, not localness, in the taste.

    I can not comment on the local-vs-shipped food products because you have not given any details or sources about what restaurants serve what. Nor have you given actual facts about when local farmers pick, ship, sell their produce versus others. Just assumptions of what the growers in California possibly do ("some supermarket plants ripen during shipment") and what local farmers possibly do (What's stopping them from harvesting and washing their vegtables a few days before?").

    I want to know, DO they? What DO they do? Then you and I could make a proper judgement call.

    I don't know if it is condescending for foodies to talk down places like Olive Garden or Ruby Tuesdays. Those ingrediants are not just "not loca" but they are not even close to fresh from the supermarket. But I more fair comparrison would be 555 (New England meats and cheeses from what I was told by the owner) and maybe Cinque Terre (I honestly don't know) who might not use local but uses certainly fresh.

    I am not arguing against your anti-local-only stance actually.

  2. The "ripen during shipment" argument is specious, Mike. That typically refers to products like tomatoes, which are picked green and sprayed with ethylene to "ripen" in transit. Fruit that has to be durable enough to travel long distances is genetically not the same as fruit that has been selected for ideal taste or nutritional value. I'm far from a food zealot, but it makes logical sense to me that the lesser the additional costs in getting food to your table, the better a deal you're getting. But we grow a ton of our own food anyways.

  3. Jessie, you and I agree that there is not enough information to tell which food has spent the least amount of time on average between being plucked from nature and ending up on your plate.

    If I had been arguing that supermarket food is fresher, than you'd be correctly nailing me for not backing up what I'm saying. However, I'm not. I'm saying the localists are claiming local food is fresher, and the burden of evidence is on them to back their claim up with real data.

    In addition, I'm not just talking about chain restaurants. I cook a lot of my own meals and tend to freeze breads and meats. You're correct that that food is no longer "fresh," but the important question is what impact does it have on taste. Freshness is never the end goal; it's the taste of the food. If there is any taste differnce in freezing whole chickens, it's too subtle for me to notice, so why should I pay more for it?

  4. Thor, you're correct. Spraying ethylene and genetically selection are two very good tools science has come up with to. It's possible there is a trade off in taste. That's why I said the focus should be on the "best deal." I may not be willing to pay twice as much for something that tastes 1 percent better. More importantly, just because there can be a trade off doesn't mean there always will be, but localists behave like it must be.

    As for your second point, that lowering transportation costs by producing locally would equal cheaper food, you only have to look as far as your nearest farmers market. The transportation cost is a small part of the production cost of food. The loss of economies of scale mean local food is produced innefficiently. That's part of why it does more harm to the environment to eat local foods than supermarket foods.

    This is the danger of "common sense economics." It sounds like buying food produced within 100 miles would use less fossil fuels, but that's a very crude way to evaluate a complex issue. It ignores the big differences in production methods.

    The famous example is that British people save money and do less environmental harm to eat lamb from New Zealand instead of lamb produced in the United Kingdom.

  5. Just because you are unable to discern a difference in the taste does not mean that others are not able to.

  6. @ Anon: "You haven't tasted a REAL tomato." Don't worry, my life will go on.