Food Price Controls – On Race

Well, it’s been over a month since I last posted.  I’ve actually been on vacation, back on island, and I was focused more on relaxing and catching up on things rather than blogging.  I’m back in Scotland now to resume my studies (for those unfamiliar with me, I’m studying for a PhD in Urban Studies in Scotland with the intention of returning home after my studies).  

In today’s paper there is an article based on some comments I gave the RG in response to some questions they fielded to me about their results of a survey on food price controls.  Now, reading the comments on the online version, I thought it would be wise to post the full writing of mine, back to the RG, of which they were obviously only able to use just a fraction of (though I think they did a good job of getting my points across).

The idea is that readers can see the quotes in their entire context, and, so that we may continue the discussion here also.  There were actually two sections to this, one focused more on race and price controls itself and one more focused on the issue of sexism.  This one only covers the first, and I’ll post the one on sexism shortly.

Mindmaps Survey on Food Price Controls:

I was emailed a question from the RG regarding their recent results of a survey on food price controls.  This survey revealed a significant difference between Whites and Blacks on their respective support for food price controls.  Overall 67% of people supported price controls on staple foods, but when broken down by race 81% of Blacks supported them versus 41% of Whites.  Incidentally the poll also showed differences between males and females, with 76% of females supporting them versus 57% of males.

I was specifically asked what my thoughts on (a) why is there are discrepancy between the races on this matter; and (b) would I support price controls, or any other alternatives.

My Response

While there is a clear racial disparity, what particularly strikes me is the disparity between males and females, which points, to me at least, to a continued structural sexism in our society, in terms of – and sure, I’m hypothesising solely off these results – that it seems that women are more responsible for purchasing foodstuffs for the household, and thus are more aware of the costs of staple foodstuffs for the household, and thus are more aware of the costs of staple foodstuffs in as much as this relates to their providing for the family.  So, to me, I personally find that quite interesting and something that would be worthy of further investigation.

As to the discrepancy in the results racially, I think the reason most Blacks would appear to be more sensitive to food prices than Whites (in as much as I reckon this sensitivity translates into support for food price controls) is simply down to socio-economic inequalities.  Our class structure (in economic terms) is still very much conflated with race, and it seems to me that the poorer individuals of society, being overwhelmingly Black, are more likely to be affected by rising prices of staple food stuffs.  The more middle and upper class members of society, although affected, are only marginally so, and can still afford to shop at places like Miles or consume luxuries.  Rises in staples do reduce their income, in terms of costing them more overall, but the cost to them is, relative to the poor, quite marginal and no where near as serious a matter to them.

It may also be possible to associate the racial aspect in relation to food staples price controls in terms of social hangovers from segregation eras, in as much as in those times Blacks were more reliant on communal support networks, either through the friendly societies or labour unions, in as much as these would have instilled a sense of social justice in terms of basic necessities and so forth.  I believe that at least the BPSU has previously come out in support of price controls on food staples, and so the stated position of the BPSU (and other unions) may indeed have influenced the position of Blacks on this, in as much as they may hold the unions in a higher regard than the Whites (in as much as the unions benefitted the Blacks more than the Whites in our recent – second half of the 20th Century – in terms of real income and civil rights.  The key though to me remains the conflation of race with class.

It would have been interesting to be able to compare the breakdown of support by income (as this can be used as a proxy for class); I’m not sure if this was already done and is just not included in the statistics I’ve seen.  It would also have been interesting to see if three is any change on this issue as a result of the economic crisis leading to a greater shift towards austerity throughout the population, and whether this leads to changing positions on this issue.  Personally I reckon that the poor would be more likely to support price controls on food staples at all times, but the weight of their support will fluctuate with the economy (when the economy crashed it becomes a more pressing matter).

I would support price controls on food staples, yes.  There are concerns of course that this will lead to abnormalities in the market, true,  but, quite frankly, there are already abnormalities in the market (in terms of it not taking into account externalities, and other factors inherent to the system, which lead to both environmental degradation and social inequalities).

What I particularly would like to see is some variation on sin taxes, or, to be fancy, pigouvian taxes.  I guess one could call this a junk-food tax.  What I would envision for this is that unhealthy foodstuffs and luxuries (processed foods, sodas, steak and other meat) are taxed and that the resulting revenue, instead of going to a central money-pot for government, it is ring-fenced to go to health expences (for treating things like diabetes and obesity, that is, issues that can be tied most easily to the foods taxed) and to subsidising food staples, namely starches (rice, potatoes, pasto, bread) and fruit and vegetables, also legumes.  There are problems extending this to dairy, at least to Dunkleys, but I can see an argument being made to include dairy and eggs into it.  One could also model a similar system for carbon taxation, the idea being that this could make local food production more profitable and stimulate some industry there (either for our local farmers and fishermen, aquaculture or small-scale things, in terms of farmers-market systems).

There are some difficulties that will need to be addressed in doing any of the above of course.  There will be opposition from retailers and wholesalers, who may strongly oppose either price controls or my idea of a junk-food tax.  There may be too much of a push-back from them which could scare off the politicians or civil servants, as happened with the proposals for a bottle bill previously.

There will also be concerns about this leading to a way for the private sector to siphon off public funds, or something to that effect.  There may also be the concerns about the impact on the very poor who cannot rely on refrigeration, and thus highly processed foods (full of preservatives) may thus be a vital part of the diet, or people working additional jobs and hours simply may not have time to ‘cook’ using the subsidised or price-controlled staples, leading to increased costs for their households, thus having a counter-productive result.  I guess this could be countered by extending the subsidies or price controls to some pre-cooked meals, such as the hot food provided by some grocery stores.

But, yeah, you can see there are risks of unintended consequences.  Anyone designing the policy would thus have to work out the number of people potentially affected by such a policy, work out if the pros outweigh the cons, and also try to identify any possible problems I may not have thought off in these initial thoughts.

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6 thoughts on “Food Price Controls – On Race

  1. What exactly were the questions in the original poll? Without that information we cannot begin to know what you are talking about.

  2. There was just the one question, ‘Should Government introduce price controls on staple food items?’ In addition, the following demographic data was taken, and the results analysed accordingly – age, sex and race.

    81% of Blacks said yes compared to just 41% of Whites.

    76% of females said yes compared to 57% of males.

    I don’t really see any differences across age brackets, at least nothing significant.

  3. So this really is about 2 separate issues:
    (1) whether there should be price controls.
    (2) whether the polled person thinks Government should do it.

    It could be that there are racial disparities in the belief that asking government will do something when asked that is separate from the price control issue. Since the govt is virtually of a single race, it would be not unexpected that those of another race do not favour asking that government for support if there was no past history of similar support in the past. Instead perhaps the whites are asking the shop managers for price controls instead of Government.

    This confounds the issue completely.

    On an unrelated issue, males not being aware of high prices in grocers could be a failure of men, not sexism. It implies females are empowered and better able to making smarter choices, substantially weakening the sexism argument you make.

  4. I think your argument regarding the Government as being a ‘single race’, is questionable, but perhaps I misunderstand it. But yes, it is two separate issues, and, as far as I’m concerned it’s not so much about race as it is about class (you should note that a sizable minority of Whites support price controls too, 41%, which would seem to weaken your position).

    As for the sexism issue, which is much more fully explored in the next post, https://jonnystar.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/food-price-controls-on-sexism/ , I fully admit that it is based on a number of premises, and that it’s not really possible to analyse sexism in Bermuda based solely on this one poll result. Nonetheless, I felt that it allowed an interesting segue to a topic which I think is seldom addressed in Bermudian political discourse, far too often eclipsed by the discourse on race. Even if one rejects the premises I make in relation to it, building on this poll result, I think it is wise for us to collectively discuss the issue of sexism rather than to ignore it simply because you believe my particular premise in question is flawed.

  5. Price controls never achieve their purpose because any control which produces a significant price change necessarily leads to a shortage of that commodity.

    A more productive line of enquiry is: why does the government charge duty on basic food items? Fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. Should be duty free. This would knock a few percent off those food prices at a stroke.

  6. I agree that there are problems with the concept, and acknowledged as much in my original argument; which is one reason I attempted to propose an alternative policy, the junk-food tax/staple food subsidies.

    My support for them (price controls) should be seen as a short-term idea, one designed to temporarily alleviate the relative greater cost of food price increases to the poor under the current situation (price increases plus economic crisis). My emphasis though was on a longer-term solution though, and I guess I could have been clearer on that.

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