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06/12/08 The Price of Ice Cream

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Stephen Dubner co-authored a book called Freakonomics and writes a blog/column for the New York Times of the same name.  He is rightfully credited with making economics accessible to everyone by applying theory to every day life.  The piece he wrote on June 9, 2008 is, however, disturbing.


He describes a weekend activity with his children during which they set up an ice cream maker that one of them had received some time earlier as a birthday present.  All the necessary items were purchased for $12 and the orange sherbet they produced was apparently borderline inedible.  The $12 he asserts could have been used to buy twice as much sherbet and it would have tasted better. The column went on to examine the economics of people growing their own food and, while acknowledging that there might be some additional benefits (exercise, suntan, satisfaction, etc.) ultimately the cost would be greater, the quality lower and the choice of diet restricted.


In reading the column Mr. Dubner’s talents are clear.  He was able to make his case in a lucid manner and the language and mathematics describe the greater expense of the Locavores (I had to look that up – it was the 2007 Word of the Year in the Oxford American Dictionary and describes people who only eat food grown within a defined radius of where they live, usually 50 – 150 miles).  But even after reading the piece a second time I still came away with the same feeling.  I felt sorry for his kids.


Did they have fun making the foul tasting sherbet?  Did they fight about who would do what and end up learning how to share?  Did Dad relish the time he was able to spend with his children?  I hope so and I have no reason to doubt Mr. Dubner’s commitment as a father but I think his analysis misses the point and illustrates one of the core problems we have in our culture.


To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we all seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Human experience has been reduced to dollars and cents.  That thinking is as delusional as the origins of the subprime crisis.  Price is transitory, subject to value of a currency, the demand for the product, the efficiency of the market and the fickle whims of the consumer. Viewing an experience with a child through the prism of the dollar cost seems very depressing.


People are increasingly hungry in the United States.  Inside all those homes that are in foreclosure as well as the ones that are two and three months behind in payments people are cutting what used to be considered essentials so they can to keep their homes and their families together.  Meanwhile, the cost of food and fuel is soaring.  The Locavores not only grow food for themselves, they donate to food banks and friends in need.  The value of such behavior is only marginally related to cost. 


We’ve been told that we have a love affair with our cars and we are addicted to oil.  Aside from the subtle claim that we are somehow in a swoon on these issues and not really responsible for our actions, we miss the real addiction; the worship of the dollar.  We’ve confused the means with the end.  Money isn’t the evil.  The fear that manifests itself as greed is what is making us all so miserable, anxious and worried about what tomorrow will bring.

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It has been brought to our attention that Margaret is being portrayed as a psychic on $1.99 sites. These sites are doing so without Margaret's permission. Margaret has not claimed she is a psychic. - MW