Assize of Bread and Ale

Somewhere between “market forces will fix all” and dictatorship lies reality.  We tend to want to think we’re so civilized that there are some basic truths, some fundamentals that the overwhelming majority agree upon but the reality is that we’re packs of dogs.  Probably since the beginning when people developed societal constructs, there have been pack hierarchies.  The alpha dog’s bite replaced by a club and, as the pack grew, the alpha appointed subsidiary alphas; barked orders replaced by written directives.

Alphas control resources and it is their responsibility to dole them out.  Alphas control food.  Bread is a very basic food resource, long regulated and controlled by alphas.  During the middle ages, one example was the Assize of Bread and Ale.  It set the price of bread based on the price of wheat and the quality of the bread.  Ale is important in a community with poor quality and contaminated water so it too was regulated.  It also set some penalties ranging from fines to pillory (similar to stocks) to “Judgment of the Body” (the range there is from whipping to loss of hands to death, whether intentionally imposed or as a side effect) .  The “woman brewer shall be punished by the Tumbrell, trebuchet, or castigatorie”.  Women were not permitted to be bakers, excluded from the profession altogether.  As brewers, women were held to a higher standard and the punishments more creative.

Bakers developed a tradition of adding an extra loaf to the dozen.  Even today we sometimes see the Baker’s dozen advertised.  If one had already been fined and was facing possible loss of a hand or simply had a heavy handed alpha likely to impose an extreme fine, one was wise to toss in a little extra to ensure not being charged for cheating customers.  These laws regulating bread were incorporated into law in the early American colonies but were later challenged as violating of the free market concept.  One author notes the success of the challenge thus: “the free market in a new society did the job of the old assizes”.  I must disagree.

The market seems to take care of the basics, at least for a while.  Today, “whole wheat” is all the rage and that’s because manufacturers figured out how to take the nutritional part of the wheat out of the wheat before making bread and only those in the industry understood what they were doing.  THIS is why the basics simply must be subjected to regulation and that regulation should be serious and enforced.  THIS is why specialized areas must be regulated.  Without that, changes happen that affect us all and most will not have the knowledge to even know they are being wronged or cheated.  And this insidious form of cheating has just become pervasive in retailing.

I drove through a fast food place for an order of fried chicken the other night, having forgotten momentarily why I am always annoyed by these places.  When I was growing up, we often fried our own chicken.  In over simplified terms, a chicken consists of 8 pieces: 2 each of legs, wings, breasts, thighs.  That’s the standard established convention.  It’s the reason one orders 4 pieces or some multiple thereof and, for a long time, one knew what should be expected in an order based on that convention and substitutions or changes incurred additional charges.  Well, no more.  You place your order and there’s no telling what the composition will be when you open the box or bucket.  One could order 8 pieces and get 4 wings and 4 legs.  Church’s Chicken doesn’t even have a real “menu” on its website.  KFC doesn’t define what you’ll get in a bucket these days but you can back into it from what won’t be there because it’s what is popular in its plated menu.  There was a little stink over this way back when but it’s had little impact on the retail fried chicken’s industry.  Did you know the popularity of "wings" in all forms was a side effect of them being promoted as this particular part was being grossly over represented in bucket and box orders which really made people feel cheated to get home with mostly wings and legs?  These places aren’t as popular as they once were and I suspect that’s because many “feel” they are being cheated but…  Well, what to do.  Go back to cooking?  OMG :)  So, the market is partially taking care of the issue but not entirely because society has changed in such a fundamental way; so few actually cook at home these days.

Then there’s retail banking these days.  Ally Bank has some really cute commercials running.  There's one on “fine print” and then one on “ridiculous conditions”.  They’re talking about bait and switch; offering one thing and delivering something else.  The message is simple: we’re the new guys and we’ll treat you right.  Would you buy into that if the message was from GMAC?  Surprise, it is!

Our lives are pervaded by these little insults, by those who cheat us to make a buck in the name of free market.  I’m all for free market and the American way but I don’t think that means being able to freely cheat others.  In a complex society, we do need basic regulations and they need to be enforced.  We do need regulation of specialty areas and they do need enforced.  Without that, we develop a growing collective cognitive dissonance.  I can feel it growing around me and I sense the chasm is about to widen dramatically.  The Climate Change Summit started today and, whether you agree with what they’re preaching or not, you can bet your boots that the world we think we know is going to change dramatically and probably very soon.

I would urge everyone to pay attention to the basics, your underlying fundamental beliefs, try to recognize your cognitive dissonances and what to do with them will be the subject of future blog entries.

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