Friday, April 18, 2008

State of the bean-conomy

Yesterday I threw away an entire $4 bag of cut and washed green beans. I thought I’d try them as a healthy snack to keep at work. But I took it for granted that produce, especially such expensive produce, would last a week. But the best-by date was three days after I bought them. I ate one bag in the beginning of the week, and when I tore open the second bag I was greeted by a pile of green slime.

Such a minor occurrence, but it made me question my entire food philosophy: Why would I pay $4 for beans in the first place? Aren’t vegetables supposed to be cheap?

Food costs are rising rapidly, and I seem to have just realized that I am spending way too much on food.

I try to eat healthy, and that’s a problem, especially up here. My bag of beans, or my other favorite, sugar-snap peas, both run $1 a serving. I can buy an entire box of Twinkies for $1.50.

For a lot of us, life has been too comfortable for way too long. Several years ago, I ran myself down to zero, even into the negatives, since I had to borrow a couple hundred bucks from family. I was between jobs, but I wasn’t worried. Gainful, or at least needs-meeting, employment was just around the corner. Money was out there waiting to be made.

Other people used this same philosophy, buying standards such as houses and extras such as boats or second cars, all on credit because they expected the money to be there.

But then the subprime market collapsed and the rest of the economy started to fail too, as our battles overseas failed to keep gas prices down and food prices also started to rise, and Mexico started enforcing price limits on tortillas because they were getting too expensive because we were using too much corn to make gas, but even that didn’t keep gas prices down and we didn’t think through the other potential consequences enough. Even those houses that seemed so basic to our existence are now drifting beyond our means.

Heather Havrilesky, in the article “How I learned to stop worrying and love the recession,” looks at where we were seven years ago:

Sept. 11 was supposed to make us all more down-to-earth and more honorable— you know, the way World War II traumatized the so-called Greatest Generation enough to put down the bottle and stop beating up the little Mrs.? We were supposed to choose valiant, heartfelt, courageous paths, to give of ourselves like never before, to come together as a nation. Instead, most of us have spent the last seven years monitoring Nicole Richie's eating disorder. We haven't been volunteering or running for political office, we've been reorganizing our walk-in closets and talking on the phone about the ideal age to start Botox. As the economy soared, there were far too many options available to us, but we were all whiny and depressed over it nonetheless.
Gregg Easterbrook looks in-depth at the burdens of choice in his book The Progress Paradox. He examines how all the benefits available to us fail to make us happy. Now tough times loom and lives are falling apart. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but it is somewhat true.

Some of us try to be good to the world but we don’t want to move out of our comfortable suburban dwellings and into the city to be closer to the jobs in order to reduce our emissions. We drive our giant SUVs on our long commutes. We get to the office and try to pretend that the organic apple we eat as a snack every day is somehow changing the world.

I fall into the same category: I try, but what am I really accomplishing? I say I will start riding the bike to work, but I haven’t because it won’t stop snowing.

My latest and largest good environmental choice was buying re-usable grocery bags a couple weeks back. Wow.

But soon our choices on how we want to live our lives will be limited.

I would like to drive a hybrid vehicle, but I’ve decided I can’t even afford the vegetables I like. In the Havrilesky article mentioned above, she sets the frame of her discussion around buying dried beans at the grocery store, the only thing that seems affordable to her these days.

Some people are making choices not to eat only organic vegetables and fruits, but to only go organic on the most potentially harmful.

We are downplaying our beliefs to focus on self-preservation.

The stimulus checks are coming soon (I maintain that it is a bad idea, but that is a discussion for another time), and companies are trying to get their hands on that money, but fortunately in ways that help the consumer. But how many of us are going to put the money towards groceries? It seems to me that part of the idea of the stimulus is to push people back to the realm of overconsumption, so that people once again feel they can buy their $5-a-day Starbucks drink. But it may only push some people toward more of the poor choices that have put our country in a situation where we need stimulus checks.

Myself, I will spend that money abroad, as it will reach me around the time of the "big move." I’ve found myself tracking the dollar against the euro. It’s changed nine cents over the last several months, which has directly cost me well over $100 on my course fees overseas.

I mentioned to Rowan how strange it will be too watch our economy continue to crumble, but from a distance. To hear about friends and family barely getting by.

I will also know that my own savings, in American dollars, are shrinking in comparable worth as I try to get by in a strange country. But get by I will, because that’s what people do.

But for now, I will stare at my grocery list at try to make the best choices possible. I’ll buy a lot of bananas, because bananas are cheap. And already mushy, unlike the beans or apples that catch me by surprise.

I’ll try to help myself for now. Saving the world, that will have to wait for later.

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