The Null Device

Artisanal bread vs. economic rationalism

The impeccably economically rational minds in Australia's Productivity Commission has denounced artisanal food producers, “international style” bakeries and small winemakers as a drag on Australia's productivity and economic efficiency:

“Bakery product manufacturing is likely to have contributed to lower measures (or productivity),” the commission says ... “Lifestyle considerations, tax arrangements, and alternative sources of income may have reduced the incentive for small wine-makers to leave the industry.”

If one looks at it from a certain perspective, they have a point. Certainly, spending $5 on a loaf of artisanal bread when a $1 loaf of Tip-Top will provide the same amount of calories is an expensive frippery which isn't doing Australia any favours when competing in the Global Race that one keeps hearing about. After all, while we're demanding the money and leisure time to savour a sourdough ciabatta washed down with a nice glass of cab sav, the developing world has billions of people who are willing to work 90-hour weeks on a bowl of gruel a day and be grateful for it. That's to say nothing about the establishments in which these decadent luxuries are consumed. Taking up valuable space all over inner urban areas, these squander resources on quirky décor, and not only neglect but actively sabotage their throughput by encouraging the patrons to linger, rather than quickly getting and consuming their food and going back to productive work. Replace them all with McDonald's-style drive-throughs and not only would Australia's workers be able to get more work done, but, paying less for their lunch, could do so for more competitive wages. Think of all the extra iron ore we could load onto ships, and the higher profits remaining at the end of the day.

But why stop there? While pointing out the grotesque inefficiencies of small-scale foodstuffs and gratuitous luxuries (and, implicitly, wages high enough to create demand for such fripperies) drives a point home, it misses the broader point implied in such economic-rationalist (or, as they call them these days, neoliberal) critiques, that of what Australians should and shouldn't be doing. Australia, it would seem, has one core business: digging Australian ore and coal up and shipping it out; it's the one thing we do better than anyone else in the world, and everything else that doesn't tie into that or its support industries is superfluous, and thus, by definition, a drag on the national economy. (With the exception of cricket, of course; panem et circenses, as they said in Rome.) If you divert resources to baking artisanal bread, or, say, building cars or televisions (which the Chinese can do far more efficiently), those are resources which cannot be used for digging up every lump of coal that can be sold.

Another example: if you go to any of the aforementioned inner-city cafés with their inefficient ciabattas and fairtrade flat whites, you are likely to find several people in their 20s and 30s with fashionable hairstyles and MacBooks; some of them will be working on mobile games or social websites, editing short films, writing novels, mashing up phat beats, or doing other things atypical of the inhabitants of a mining colony. Given the high Australian dollar (due to the world wanting our iron ore and coal, which we can't dig up fast enough), it makes no economic sense for anyone in Australia to be doing these things, given that similarly fashionably attired MacBook owners in Berlin or Brooklyn could do the job for less (that's to say nothing of the DJs and designers of Beijing or Bangalore). Nonetheless, the young and hip in this mining colony maintain the pretense of being part of a “Creative Class”, one of limited economic purpose and often importing its symbols and touchstones, from trucker caps to taco trucks, from bars named after parts of Barcelona to the very idea of using bicycles to get by (itself a pretentious, and un-Australian, affectation according to a significant segment of the population). Meanwhile, tonnes of iron ore remain tragically unmined and unsold.

So the question posed by the critique seems to be: perhaps it's time for us to, as our heroic Prime Minister would put it, stick to our knitting, put aside all these foreign lifestyle pretensions and concentrate on what we do best: digging stuff up and shipping it out. After all, we all want to live in an efficient, dynamic economy, don't we? Those who don't fit in with the country's business, who can't find a job as a minerals engineer or contract lawyer, can try their luck with the US visa system or see if they can wangle a European passport through where their grandparents came from.

Of course, that's one point of view; that from the top of the pyramid, from where everything is a resource to be managed efficiently (which is to say, profitably), and the profits are to make their way to the top of the pyramid, unmolested by the little people's economically irrational desires for artisanal nutrition, or the notion that Australia might be a complex society rather than, as that other metaphor used by the current government goes, a team with a single national focus. But increasingly, this is the point of view which counts.

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