Tuesday, June 25, 2019

What's For (Food) Desert?

We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with the fattest poor people.  Our number one health problem in America is obesity.  Yet some folks argue there are not enough food stores!

Narratives.   I have mentioned this before.  People want to sell you a narrative that life is rotten, the country you live in is no-good, and you are put-upon and poor, and that "the other guy" is making out like a bandit, probably at your expense.

It is an odd narrative, but chances are, no matter what country you live in, someone is selling this narrative.   And maybe in South Sudan or Venezuela this narrative has some truth to it.  But folks in both those countries are dying (quite literally) to migrate to the horrible, rotten, impoverished U.S. of A. for some reason.  They must not have gotten the word.  They probably don't have NPR there.

When someone tries to sell you a narrative that your country is no good, the company you work for sucks, and the government is rotten and evil, stop for a moment and ask yourself why they are doing this - and perhaps who may be behind these narratives.   Often the folks who repeat these mantras are depressed people who want to bring you down to their level.  But the folks who create these narratives are either enemies of your country (you know, people named Vladimir, for example) or folks who want to use the everything-is-awful narrative to get elected.  And yes, both Republicans and Democrats play this game, trying to get you all riled up so you will vote - blindly.

One of the latest narratives is the myth of the food desert.   In a land of abundance and plenty (indeed, our largest export is food) we are told that people don't have access to food.  For example, in Washington, DC, there are neighborhoods with no food markets.  If you want to shop at the grocery store (and get the discount prices, as opposed to shopping in a convenience mart) you have to drive to the suburbs.   The "big box" shopping club stores are far in the suburbs as well.  And of course, this just isn't fair.  Damn Walmart!

But of course, the story is more complex than that.  Rents and property values (and taxes and regulations) in the big city are onerous.  Trying to truck produce through downtown streets during rush hour is difficult.  So you can't blame a retailer for moving to where land is cheaper, taxes are lower, and there is enough room for a large parking lot.  Opening a Wal-Mart in downtown Manhattan just isn't feasible - or at least not practical.

Then there are the politics and corruption.  You want to get your building built, you have to give a "taste" to the local mafia - trade unions - and their corresponding corrupt politicians.  This adds considerably to the cost.   Worst yet, when you announce you are going to open a store in an urban area, "Community Activists" will storm the zoning meeting, decrying the low wages that you pay, the low benefits, and how you are stripping the rainforest with non-fair-trade coffee or whatever.   Never mind that it might not be true (ask Amazon about this - and AOC's wild and false allegations), they can stop your plans dead in their tracks.

When Wal-Mart wanted to open a store in DC, they were shouted down by the same "community activists" who later on blamed Wal-Mart for creating a "food desert".   I wonder if these "community activists" were not in fact paid by the Association of Small Korean Grocers.  You laugh, people do shit like this - create "astroturf" campaigns to advance their financial agendas.

In the trendy San Marcos neighborhood of Jacksonville, Publix wanted to put in a store on two vacant lots that spanned a city block.   Given there were no stores in the area, it would have been a convenience for the expanding local market.   But it was shouted down at zoning meetings, and today, those vacant lots are still vacant, and if you want to live in that crime-ridden, overpriced neighborhood, you have to drive several miles to get your groceries.   We get the government we deserve - or at least we should be careful what we ask for or are protesting about.

Then there is crime.  In the city, not only are there greater chances your staff will be held up at gunpoint, but the "shrinkage" (read: shoplifting) in the city is rampant.  Worse yet, big-city politics dictate that the guy stealing from you is the real victim.  I mean, shame on you for locking up the tents and camping gear, just because homeless people shoplift them!  Don't you see they need it?  Don't you understand that your main purpose in running a store is to offer free goods to needy people in the community?  So someone runs out of the store with armloads of goods, and you get bad publicity because your store manager tried to stop them.

In the suburbs, this is less of a problem.  Taxes are lower, property values are lower, there is room to spread out, and you are only a few miles, if that, from an Interstate exit.   State and County Police are less afraid to tackle a shoplifter leaving your store, and because of the "broken window effect" people are less likely to shoplift in better neighborhoods.   Your cost of doing business is less - far less - and you can offer those low, low prices, which you need to do, because in the suburbs, there is more competition for business.

So you decide to put your new super-box-store out in the suburbs.  And the same "Community Activists" who decried you as an evil heartless corporation, are now decrying you as creating a "food desert" by abandoning urban areas (or extreme rural ones).   Again, you are not running a business, right?  You are performing a public service, which you should do for free, because profits are evil, man! (pauses to take bong hit).

But what about the poor person (in both senses of the word) living in the city?   They have to drive to the suburbs to shop, take a bus, subway, or taxi, just to get groceries.  Or, they have to pay exorbitant prices at downtown bodegas - at least the few left that weren't burned down after the last spate of rioting.

Oh, right, that.  One reason why some neighborhoods in Washington DC have no retail stores is that they were burned down in the riots of 1968.  I lived there decades later, and the stores never reopened.  No one wanted to lose their life's savings by starting a store that could be looted on a moment's notice.  And getting insurance was difficult, if not impossible.  People trash their own neighborhoods, burn down the businesses that serve them, and then complain no one wants to open a business in their area.   Go Figure.

Of course, people do have choices.  You can choose to live in a crappy neighborhood with no shopping and no opportunities - and this could be an inner-city ghetto or a rural trailer park - or you could chose to move to where crime is lower, schools are better, and yes, there are stores to shop in.  There is no requirement under the law or in the Constitution that you have a right to live wherever the hell you want to, and what's more the right to have jobs, goods, and services brought to your doorstep.

You are better off living in a tiny apartment in a nice neighborhood than a house in a ghetto.  When I first moved to DC to work for the Patent Office, I looked for places to live, which was hard.  Yes, even back then, most of your paycheck went to rent, once taxes were taken out.  It's not fair!  Well, it is what it is - back then, and today.  Back then, we sucked it up and lived with it - and tried to get a raise or a better job so we could afford a better place to live.  Today, we petition Bernie Sanders for free shit.

I looked in places in DC to live - they were expensive.  And not being from the area, I didn't know the lay of the land.  I was wandering around Capitol Hill and towards Southeast DC, looking at row houses to rent.   I thought the prices were pretty attractive, and I thought I needed the space.  I didn't realize I was looking in what was a notorious drug-infested ghetto (at the time, things have gentrified since then - another "bad thing" we are suppose to hate - better homes, lower crime, cleaner streets, etc.).   The people renting out the house - who were black - kind of looked at me and said, "Do you know what neighborhood you're in?"    I must have looked like a country bumpkin.  Odd thing, they didn't want to rent to a white guy.   Discrimination!   Well, maybe they realized I would not fit in to the neighborhood.

I ended up renting a one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, right off the beltway.   It was a bit noisy at times, but it was steps from Old Town, Alexandria, and within walking distance of a retail district and more than one grocery store.   Later on, we rented a pretty spacious two-bedroom with a balcony for $900 a month.  Oddly enough, the rent was less than the row house in Southeast DC.   Factoring in inflation over the last 30 years, the rents there are still pretty cheap.   So I had choices, and I chose to live in a neighborhood with lower crime, more retail, and easier parking.   Granted, it wasn't as spacious as the row house, but I made do.   Financially, I came out ahead simply by living in a better neighborhood.   Others make different choices.

Similarly, people choose to live in rural areas - often without jobs - and wait for jobs to come to them, and complain that there aren't enough grocery stores or other resources.   I guess they feel the government should provide these?  Or they could move away from an impoverished area and seek employment in areas where they are hiring.  It is easy to do?  No.  It is hard work, and you will spend a substantial portion of your paycheck on rent.  But you will do better and you get more living in civilization.

It's not just grocery stores, though.   There are shortages of dentists and doctors and other services in rural areas.  This weepy piece from the Washington Post ("Democracy Cries in the Darkness") describes how people in rural West Virginia line up for a free clinic once a month.  Reading the article, all I could think was, "Why don't they sign up for Obamacare?"  Because in the impoverished local town I live near, they have a sign-up table right there in the Wal-Mart.    But of course, you have to live at least somewhere near a town or city large enough to have a doctor, in order to make this work,

We are awash in a sea of dentists in this country - an overpopulation of them.   More and more graduate every year, and yet there are part of the country where there are no dentists, such as rural West Virginia.   Why is this?    Well, as a young dentist, starting out, you could go to West Virginia, and go broke.  You'd get few customers, other than for the occasional extraction when teeth rot out, and likely half of those won't pay.   Or, you could move to the big city, set up shop in a strip mall, an do expensive cosmetic dentistry for people who have jobs and maybe even dental plans.

And the same is true for doctors.  There is little or no profit in setting up shop in some rural area.  And profit is not an evil thing - it is what you need to survive.  The free-market economy has its flaws, and one of them is that people will migrate to places that are profitable, and leave behind places where there is no money to be made.   This does not bode well for those left behind, but it begs the question, why did they decide to stay?

Now, I suppose when Comrade Sanders comes into power and disbands Congress and the Supreme Court (like that would happen) he would assign territories for dentists and doctors based on perceived need, much as National Health does in the UK.  But don't hold your breath waiting for it, because it ain't likely to happen in the USA - and neither will student loan forgiveness and slave reparations.

"Well, Bob, that's easy for you to say, you never had to move to find a job!"   Au Contraire, my friend.  I have moved several times in my life, to find jobs or to find a better job.   I never sat on my ass and assumed that work would come to be because I was entitled to it.   When I realized that opportunities in the rust belt were slowly seeping away, I moved away - and thrived.  Places like New York have negative population growth for a reason.   Find a job somewhere else and then move there (and not vice-versa).  Waiting for the finger-cutting factory to reopen after 20 years simply isn't a good plan.

But getting back to narratives, the other issue that is not addressed in these weepy stories is that the number of folks we are talking about is pretty small.   In a nation of 300+ million people, we are talking about a tiny percentage of the population.    These stories - and other "poverty stories" tend to concentrate on the least fortunate (as they would put it - implying luck is involved) in our country and ignore the vast majority of Americans who live within a 30 minutes of a grocery store and an Indian casino.

It is like these stories about the homeless in San Francisco.   Yes, it is a crises, not because a huge percentage of the population is living on the street, but because the small minority that is, is shitting the sidewalk, doing drugs, and breaking into your car.   "Homeless Advocates" want to make homelessness more comfortable and attractive by spending more money on homeless housing and whatnot.  But maybe we should worry less about the 7,499 homeless people (that few - really?) and more about the millions of tax-paying workers who are busting their ass just trying to get by - and playing by the rules.

These narratives would have you think that the city was awash in homelessness, when in fact, in each district there are only a hundred or so.  And as I noted before, many of these are there by their own volition, as the result of drug use and mental illness.   They stop taking their meds proscribed for them, and take illegal meds instead.   Maybe we need to bring back the old-school mental institutions where such folks could get treatment - but that is shouted down as "heartless".   No, we need to set up a homeless "shelter" which has all the charm of the Bedlam asylum.
But the main thing is this:  These sort of ain't-it-awful articles are using the circumstances of a tiny minority of people in this country to paint the whole country as some sort of run-down rotten place.  And the folks doing this (like our socialist friends at The Guardian) have an agenda behind this.   It is awfully hard to tear down America, when America is so wealthy and successful.  So you seek out the poorest and most disadvantaged person in the country (who is wealthier than half the folks in Africa) and try to paint a picture that this is what America is like.   And sadly, many Americans get involved in this as well, using these types of stories as a means of getting elected - convincing ordinary Americans that somehow their fortune is ill-gotten and undeserved.

In a way, it is like this narrative about ocean pollution - it is just assumed that the United States is behind this, and the reason why there is a "garbage patch" in the middle of the Pacific is because you threw away a plastic coke bottle.   But the reality is, the largest source of this trash (besides discarded fishing gear) is trash from Asia and India, where things like "recycling" have yet to take hold.  But that doesn't fit the "USA is bad" narrative, and some people flat out refuse to believe it when you tell them.  Note the accompanying graphic in the article cited above, shows the amount of plastic in each ocean, but puts the "North Pacific" numbers over the United States, as if to imply this is the source of the trash.  But such is not the case, as the article points out - 90% of this trash comes from Asia and India.  Sorry, haters, but that's the truth.

So, stop feeling bad about your country.  You are lucky to live here - and if you doubt this, buy a one-way ticket to Sudan (don't bother with a round-trip, you'll be killed within a day of arriving anyway).   People really have it bad in other places, and it is obscene in my opinion to whine about how awful things are in America, when so many others in the world have it far, far worse.    Why do you think we have this migration issue?  Why are people lined up at the border trying to get in?  Yea, that.

Sadly, I doubt this will change anytime soon.   Americans love to feel sorry for themselves, and love to read weepy stories about how hard some folks have it here in the land of milk and honey.