business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB reported on Wednesday that a new study suggests that many shoppers are strapped for cash as the holiday shopping season commences, which could lead to less than robust sales between now and the end of the year.

To which one MNB user wrote:

Hmmmmm…maybe this is further indication that the middle class continues to drift towards the lower end as more and more new jobs are at the lower end of the scale. Will a Wal-Mart full time employee be as likely to have cash for Christmas spending as a Costco full time employee?

And responding to our story about Wal-Mart being willing to work with trade unions in China, another MNB user wrote:

Is it just me or does the idea that Wal-Mart workers in China have more workers rights than the same workers in the US and Canada do seem a little odd?

We’d be a little careful there. Wal-Mart’s employees in China may be unionized, but they likely don’t have more “workers’ rights” than their US counterparts, who, after all, still work in a democracy.

We had a story on Wednesday about a new study from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggesting that next year, for the first time in fifty years, the United States could import as much food as it exports.

We noted that America used to be known as the “breadbasket of the world,” and that one of the things that made us special was the fact that we could feed not only our own people, but also millions of people around the world less fortunate. If somehow the US has squandered that advantage, we mused, then has the US lost something more?

One MNB user responded:

Kevin -- you make the comment that "But we hope that somehow we haven't squandered one of our greatest advantages as a nation - the ability to fill people's bellies, and to teach them to feed themselves."

Remember that a fair amount of what we ship overseas as food is free – to fill people's bellies. These generally are either shipped at no value, or at the minimum value possible to minimize taxes and duties. It's terrific and necessary, but it also skews the export numbers significantly.

AND's also an arithmetic issue for another reason. We are still one of the largest producers of a wide variety of grains (read raw materials). By definition, the value of the raw materials will be less than the value of the finished good -- with a bargeload of wheat, there's no processing, no additional ingredients, no packaging, no ad campaign, and comparatively little sales budget. (And that bargeload of wheat will sell for far less than a containerload of whatever is made from it -- to possibly be sent *back* to the US!)

I think that for a lot of us, US mass-market suppliers have gone for the lowest common denominator -- they fill people's bellies, but that's about all. There *are* exceptions (like the wonderful dairy products put out by Vermont's Cabot Creamery...I'll name names for that kind of quality), but for the most part, so much is homogenous and, well, just BORING (tasteless spongy white bread, process cheese food, those square pink things that they call tomatoes -- what kind of demand is there for those!) that imported foods add some longed-for variety and FLAVOR. HobNobs, Argentinian malbec, a find old Stilton, New Zealand lamb, and a silky, very old tawny Port -- all are examples of things that simply are not available from US suppliers – and would NOT be considered luxury goods (at least not at Costco prices!). Keep that in mind the next time you have Thai, or Italian, or Mexican food – and take a look at how much of it is imported...then try to find that same ingredient produced *entirely* in the US...good luck.

Remember, too, that there is an *enormous* population of people who have come here from other places. They miss and prefer the products that come from home, wherever that may be. It's only savvy marketing to bring the products to the people -- thus as our foreign-born population increases, so likely will the importation of "foreign" foods.

And how wonderful for the rest of us! How better to become aware of other cultures and ways of life than to eat what is common THERE, then let curiosity expand that interest into the rest of the lifestyle? (And for the not-so-adventurous, wouldn't it make you a little less hesitant to visit somewhere if you knew you at least like the food?)

This is another case where imports are not necessarily an evil thing, nor a bad reflection on us -- it is what it is...

Sorry to get long-winded -- imports and exports are my main concern most days -- and just like every other field, it's a game of numbers played for one's own advantage...

We think we feel better now.

MNB user Dave Wiles wrote:

You wrote "we hope that somehow we haven’t squandered one of our greatest advantages as a nation – the ability to fill people’s bellies, and to teach them to feed themselves."

Have you considered that with all of the years of aid and knowledge we have been giving to other countries, that just maybe, we have taught a few of them to feed themselves and they don't need the exports from us but can finally grow there own. Now they are exporting too.

"Teach a person to fish and they can feed themselves for life". We did this in farming.

Okay. We do feel better now.

Our reaction was based on our long-term conviction that in a world where the US always has sought to influence other nations, our food was our best bargaining chip. Maybe we’re wrong, but we’ve always been a “swords into ploughshares” kind of guy…
KC's View: