Friday, September 26, 2008

Dreaming Ahead, the Names Never Change

I had a very strange dream last night. I dreamed that I had awakened in 2048, exactly 40 years into the future.

My surroundings were fairly familiar, but cars and storefronts looked quite different -- definitely futuristic. Wal-Mart and McDonald's were pretty much the same, only bigger. McDonald's, for example, had a food section chock full of ready-to-eat meals. All the customers had to do was bring plates or trays and fill them with whatever entrees and sides they preferred.

In the future, there are no refrigerators. Irradiation and preservatives are so effective that food won't spoil for at least three months. One shopper told me that she preferred some dishes, like corned beef and cabbage, to get "tangy" before she served them. She was shopping for Easter (2049) dinner when I met her at Mickey D's.

Politics had changed a little, but there were still plenty of familiar names on the ballot. Ruprecht Gainer Jr., son of the esteemed Wirt County proctologist, was running unopposed for state auditor, thus making 80 consecutive years of somebody named Gainer holding that office.

West Virginia had lost population, so much so that we were down to one congressional district. In 2048, Shelley Capito-Underwood (granddaughter of Shelley Moore Capito) was unopposed. However, she would only serve until 2050, when Charles Mollohan (grandson of Alan Mollohan) would take over. And then in 2052, Glenn Bob Rahall (grandson of Nick Joe Rahall) would return to serve for a term.

The voters had approved the Ambassador Amendment in 2016 to protect the three political families who had so dominated House of Representatives races. In their off years, the Congressmen served as official ambassadors to Washington, were paid a generous stipend and allowed to maintain a district office.

It was no surprise then that "Rocky 7" (John D. Rockefeller VII) was the favorite to win the Senate seat previously held by Rockies 4 through 6.

Gus A. Douglass was still the incumbent agriculture commissioner, although he had threatened to retire a decade earlier saying the job was too much work for him. The voters responded by approving the Agricultural Stabilization Amendment, which reduced the duties of agricultural commissioner to maintaining the grassy areas around state office buildings.

Commissioner Douglass was running unopposed in the general election. He had survived a challenge in the primary election from Devil Anse "Jesco" McGraw, an itinerant leaf-blower from Mingo County.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd had unexpectedly retired in 2047, which left the state's Democratic Party in a quandary. Because the name "Byrd" was so synonymous with the Senate seat, the party chairman, Ralston P. Caperton, insisted on appointing someone named Byrd to it. After an exhaustive search of coalfield Democratic voter rolls, no Byrds turned up. The closest match was Kermit Bird from Glen Jean, and he received the appointment to fill Robert Byrd's seat until the next election.

Now this race was interesting because Piper Palin, the youngest daughter of former president Sarah Palin, had moved to West Virginia in 2025 and was running well ahead of Sen. Bird. Piper Palin was best-known around the state as a champion ATV racer. She lived in a tent on Spruce Knob.

During the summer, Piper Palin had scored points by running a negative ad that featured background music from the movie "Dumb and Dumber." Voters apparently took a liking to Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels singing "Mockingbird" because most of them referred to Kermit Bird simply as "Ing."

Joe Manchin Il was certain to win the governors race. He defeated Joe Manchin V (grandson of former Gov. Joe Manchin III) in the primary election.

It came as a shock to me when the lady I was talking with at Mickey D's explained that Joe Manchin Il was actually Kim Sam Il, a Korean immigrant who changed his name. Voters had mistaken "Il" as "II" and assumed that they were voting for the elder Manchin.

I asked the lady if Kim Sam Il was from North Korea, and she replied: "No. It's even worse. He's a successful businessman from South Korea!"

In 2048, West Virginia is not ranked 50th on the economic indicator lists. Unfortunately, West Virginia drops to 56th behind the new states of Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Grenada.

I am now awake, and I know it's 2008. I am writing this column from Mickey D's in Clarksburg. My Egg McMuffin tastes a little tangy, but I am not sure if it's the food or my imagination.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Re-Examining the Bread Standard for 2008

Comparison of Bread  1957-2008 

Sunbeam Bread    '57 Fresh (3)    '57 Day Old         2003 (4)      2008 (4)
Price per loaf             0.16                0.08            1.59 (5)        2.09 (5)
Sales tax (1)               .01                  .00              .10              .07

Mileage (2)                 .00                  .00              .73            1.17
Totals                      0.17                 0.08            2.42            3.33

Footnotes to table:
1.  1957 rate equals 3¢ per $1.00, beginning at 14¢.  2003 rate equals 6¢ per $1.00.  2008 rate equals 3¢ per $1.00
2.  IRS Mileage allowance of $0.365 per mile (2003);  $0.585 per mile (2008)
3.  Sunbeam bread baked in Clarksburg
4.  Sunbeam bread baked by Flowers Baking Co., North Carolina
5.  Kroger, Clarksburg.  Sept. 2, 2003; Aug. 14, 2008 _________________________________________
    Five years ago in this column, I compared the cost of a loaf of bread in 1957 with its adjusted cost in 2003; I called it the “Bread Standard.”  The comparison, updated for 2008, appears in the accompanying chart.

    In 1957, Sunbeam bread was baked daily in Clarksburg and delivered to the neighborhood grocery stores.  There were two grocery stores within a short walk of my house.  Grocers discounted day-old bread by half, because most homemakers would only buy fresh bread. 

    In making a like comparison, we must use the discounted price of day-old bread because Sunbeam bread is now day-old bread when it arrives at the grocery store.

    If we needed bread, I was allowed to walk or ride my bike to the neighborhood grocery but not to the nearest supermarket, which was one mile distant on a heavily-traveled thoroughfare.  Thus, the comparison chart includes the cost of a two-mile automobile trip for 2003 and 2008.

    In determining the purchasing power of one dollar, most economists opt to compare commodity prices such as oil or gold.  Throughout history, however, the daily ration of bread has been the most consistent measure of nutrition for all people, whether they lived in the ancient Nile valley or now live in Kansas.

    While not every civilization ate wheat bread, most of the world’s farmers could grow a cereal grain of some kind.  Our daily bread, whether made from wheat or corn, has its nutritional equivalent in rice, other grains, or non-grains such as potatoes (E.g.: the Incas).

    Human civilization managed for a long time without need of oil or gold but never a day without bread.

    In 1957-58, only the wealthy drove Cadillacs; the behemoths retailed for about $7,000.00.  Or put another way, if you could afford a new Cadillac, you could also afford 87,500 loaves of day-old bread.

    Today, a Cadillac retails for about $50,000.00 and is considered nice middle-class car.  And why shouldn’t it be?  Its worth is only 15,000 loaves of day-old bread.

    To match the social status of a 1958 Cadillac owner, you would have to spend $290,000.00 for your automobile and a whole lot more for the house, swimming pool, gardens, driveway and garage to go along with it.  And don’t forget to add in the associated property taxes and insurance policies.

    Along the way, we have seen depreciation in more than just the dollar.  The old neighborhood groceries provided free delivery service, and credit-worthy customers could run a tab and pay every two to four weeks.  A housewife could also call her grocery order in if she didn’t have time to shop.

    Fifty years ago, grocery shoppers demanded quality.  This was due to the fact that even city folks were not far removed from growing their own food, and they knew what fresh food looked and tasted like.  June Cleaver would absolutely scream if she had to fry a “fresh” egg from today’s supermarket. 

    Fifty years ago, people knew what fresh-baked bread tasted like because they were probably raised on home-baked bread.  Homemakers in the 1950s would try to do without something else on the grocery list before they would stoop to buy day-old bread. 

    In terms of food, the dollar has become worth a lot less for two main reasons.  The first is that government deficit spending for food stamps and agricultural subsidies have skewed the marketplace with inflationary pressures.  Import tariffs have done likewise.  And the ethanol-for-fuel mandate (ethanol is alcohol made from grain) is piling even more inflation on top of that.

    Secondly, Americans have lowered their food quality standards.  Shoppers will pay a grocer for a dozen eggs that are a month or more old but will balk at buying truly fresh eggs from the local farmer because those eggs aren’t USDA-inspected.  This is but one example of how food-ignorant Americans are. 

    Ignorant people make ignorant spending decisions—distilling corn for Cadillacs being just one.