PARABLE OF THE BUFFET

Here’s my next column for The River Reporter:

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: PARABLE OF THE BUFFET
By Skip Mendler

The dishes were still in their boxes in my brother-in-law’s new, smaller apartment – so, once we’d moved him in, he (laid off a few months ago) and I (ditto) had to decide where to go eat. The conversation came around to all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets – which reminded him of some lunch breaks at his old job.

“It was crazy,” he said. “We’d go to one of those Chinese buffets, and my coworkers would load up on all the meats they could. I’d have some fruit, a lot of broccoli, maybe a little chicken – then we’d go back to the office and they’d be groaning, or falling asleep at their desks, and I’d be working away as normal. I couldn’t understand why they’d eat like that…”

This gave me the opportunity to share a favorite economic parable. Why eat like that? Perhaps at the time it looked like the most economically “sensible” thing to do. After all, the immediate marginal cost of each extra dollop of, say, Kung Pao Beef was basically zero. So why not eat as much as possible of the more expensive (and perhaps yummier) stuff?

But clearly, such a plan of action is based on a very narrow and short-term assessment. A more rational decision-making process might take into account not only the near-term effects on one’s productivity for the rest of the afternoon, but also the possibility of later costs due to cardiovascular damage. To be even more comprehensive, one would have to figure in long-term environmental effects of raising livestock, along with… but you get the idea.

Capitalist theory assumes that when everyone follows their own individual “self-interest,” the aggregate result will be the greatest possible benefit to society as a whole. But this “Parable of the Buffet,” if you will, suggests that we may not always know what that “self-interest” really is.

This is not to say, mind you, that I think the government or anyone else necessarily knows more than we do ourselves about what is or isn’t in our own self-interest. I am simply saying that sometimes we make such decisions based on skewed or insufficient information.

In fact, speaking of skewed information and decision-making, consider this: capitalism also assumes that we are “rational economic actors” making dispassionate, logical judgments based on objective and reliable information. However, we are also surrounded by the all-pervasive handiwork of advertising, marketing, and public relations companies – whose express purpose is to make sure that we consumers never make any such judgments. Instead, like diners at the buffet, we are trained to respond instinctively to color and sizzle, to aroma and texture, to promises of pleasure and delight.

(By the way, speaking of promises, have you watched any commercials lately for kids’ presweetened cereals? Eyes pop, heads explode, kids find themselves transformed into cartoon critters or transported to magical lands. And then we wonder why they get into drugs…!)

Capitalism may have its purposes – but as we have seen in the past and are seeing now once again, societies that rely too much on mercantile impulses and faith in the supposed wisdom of “the invisible hand” become unbalanced, unsustainable, and ultimately destructive. There may be hope for its salvation yet – check out http://mbaoath.org for some news that gives me encouragement in this regard – but I think it more likely that we will need to devise some completely new economic theories and paradigms to meet the challenges of the next few years.

Let’s lay out a smorgasbord of possibilities and ideas – but let’s think carefully about what we put on our plates.

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2 responses to “PARABLE OF THE BUFFET

  1. “Capitalist theory assumes that when everyone follows their own individual “self-interest,” the aggregate result will be the greatest possible benefit to society as a whole.” — This is a false statement. You’ve built a strawman which you then gleefully burn and bask in the glow thusly created.

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