Tuesday, May 12, 2009

They Got An Awful Lot Of Coffee In Brazil, Except When They Don't


You know, I've warned you repeatedly here that you don't want to go back to the seventies. But you don't listen.

The news today is dire. Coffee costs more, and is likely to cost more still:
Caffeine addicts face higher prices for their daily fix as the wholesale cost of both coffee and sugar rise sharply because of poor crops and robust demand.

It's a subscription site, but don't worry, if you're like me, you would stop reading after that first sentence anyway. That is supposed to be a NEWS item on a NEWS site. I know if you go to real school they tell you to write everything in the overwrought style of the novel you wish you were writing, but out here in the real world where we're interested in getting real information in a hurry, we've got no patience for this style of writing. And it's a particularly trite style of boilerplate about drinking coffee, isn't it? Trite squared.

It doesn't matter what analysis follows the plea for registration, because it's bound to be wrong. "Analysis" in these matters is like an intellectual boat adrift on a sea of sensations, looking for any dock to bump against. The same opinion fits all situations. Bush did it, or Obama did it; take your pick.

If you don't have a memory based on your brain stem instead of the bigger, damper part, you'll remember that the scare chart above is absolutely nothing compared to 1977. In 1977, the price of coffee went from $0.50 a pound to $3.50 a pound. That is not a typo. The coffee in my kitchen right now costs about $3.50 a pound, thirty two years later. I had a job in 1977, and it would have taken me an hour and fifteen minutes to make enough money to buy that pound of coffee then. And I was supporting myself and putting myself through school on that wage.

I've talked to academics about the seventies, people who were living right down the street and a world away from me in Boston, and they all tell me what a blast they were having then. If you're well north of forty maybe you were partying at the disco or something. Rich people often have fun in the ruins of civilizations. Others not so much.

I could find some ax I'd like to grind and blame expensive coffee on it. I could blame the weather or global warming or global cooling caused by global warming or Hugo Chavez or greedy coffee barons or FARC or bad mojo or fiat currency or whatever floats your boat in the "Illuminati are spoiling my summer" sweepstakes you find in any blog comments section. But I'm going to say something more disquieting instead.

There's no rhyme or reason to it. There's a general breakdown in almost every formerly functioning economic and social process I can think of. The intellectual and economic version of delirium tremens rules the day. Bizarre things, with even bizarrer explanations offered for them will happen every damn day for quite a while. And by "explanations," I mean unreasoning blame -- a headwind which does not shift but comes from all points on the compass.

It's the seventies again, baby. You wished it on yourself, but now we're all going to get it, good and hard. Been there, done that, got the straightjacket. Trust me, you're not going to like it.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh God! Not the 70s again. I spent the whole decade working on being stupid, selfish and immature. Am I due to go through all that again? Crap.

westsoundmodern said...

Maybe you should nix the classic furniture designs and start building that chunky floor height stuff with the burned and wire-brushed finish and multi-colored velvet overstuffed pillows that was so popular in the Carter years.

Andy said...

I maxed out at age 4 in '79, and I am guessing I am a far sight better off for it. The pictures of my folks are enough to scare me off, though there is something comforting and engaging about my uber-skinny, fully-haired pop with an Old Milwaukee in one hand and me in the other.

Apis Melliflora said...

You are fantastic. I wonder what you're like in person. Do you talk the same way you write? When's your book of social wit and satire hitting the bookstores? Did I say how fantastic you are?

PatHMV said...

I encourage all with the desire to learn to think more clearly to study the works of Edward Tufte, who provides excellent warnings about the dangers of "chart junk" and the selective presentation of data.

In this chart, the graphic artist has made 3 choices which make this data seem much worse than it is.

First, by starting the Y axis at $1.20 instead of 0, it exaggerates the amount of increase. Visually, the highest price point appears to be about an 8-fold increase from the low price point, but in fact the price has not even doubled in that time period.

Second, the chart only contains about 17 months worth of data. Much more is available (the price of coffee is the subject of many studies on commodities), and could easily be displayed in that space, to provide greater context.

Third (and this is an assumption), the graph appears to use nominal dollars rather than "real" (i.e., inflation-adjusted) dollars. Because of inflation, most commodities show steady price increases, but the cost really hasn't changed. It's just that the purchasing power of the dollar has lessened as a result of inflation. Now, inflation is not a HUGE factor in a 17-month time frame (inflation for 2008 was at 3.8%), but that is significant, especially in a chart like this where the vertical scale is so exaggerated.

MSL said...

A quick quiz.
How would PatHMV react at a party if you told him the keg was almost empty?

SippicanCottage said...

Apis- In person, I'm taller than I am on the phone. And I'm louder than I am on the Intertunnel.

My veritable euphonium of a voice is tempered somewhat by my challenging physiognomy. I was disfigured while fencing in Heidelberg as a youth, and I have a glass eye and a porcelain nose. When you hear me speak about matters various and sundry in person, you'll often also hear my glass eye as it begins to thrum as I reach the height of my perorations, and my porcelain nose will often begin to whistle a dulcet tone to accompany the rhythms of my eye. I'm told it's quite a striking audio/visual feast.

For the life of me I can't understand how I was injured so severely, as it was a split rail fence.

leon said...

all right Sippican, in regards your last comment. brilliant. that should be on the fount page.
leon

Thud said...

I'm keeping my head down and slogging on,what more can I do? as for the seventies revisited...they won't make me wear platform shoes will they?

The Queen Vee said...

I've got my Apis Melliflora/daughter hooked on your meanderings of wit and wisdom. I fully concur with her comment today!

The 70's again, heaven forbid. Ugly clothes, decor and architecture not to mention inflation.

Apis Melliflora said...

Mr. Sippican,

Cool...you're exactly like I've imagined you.

DBC Reed said...

This is not very rock and roll,but there is a whole history of coffee over-supply and undersupply shot through with severe frosts in Brazil all detailed on the website of the International Coffee Organisation.

Ed onWestSlope said...

This is a good call, learning from Tufte "to learn to think more clearly to study the works of Edward Tufte, who provides excellent warnings about the dangers of "chart junk" and the selective presentation of data."

Being in my 20's throughout the '70's I learned about these junk graphs from Mr. Darrell Huff, 'How to Lie with Statistics'. It is the 'GEE-WHIZ GRAPH'. Telling a lie with the truth.

PatHMV said...

MSL... I'd probably mention that lamentable fact to one of my friends who drinks beer, in case they wanted to top off his or her cup before the keg emptied entirely...

Ed, there's another, non-circular way to parse my sentence, but in truth I should have used more punctuation to make it clearer. I'll check out Darrell Huff's work.

MSL said...

I have misjudged you PatHMV. I expected a diatribe on the many complex choices facing the beer drinker in such a scenario but you have taken the pragmatists choice in electing to finish the keg off before someone else does.
Your point regarding using simplistic graphs like this to prove a point when there is often hidden data that would further clarify is well taken.

Country Squire said...

Sipp,

Your last two paragraphs are inspired. I’ve been feeling those bizarre headwinds too. As a fellow survivor of the '70's, you are correct - they aren't going to like it. Not one bit.

Regarding your “challenging physiognomy” achieved whilst “fencing in Heidelberg as a youth” – when someone yells “En Garde!” put the axe down Eugene.

PatHMV said...

Don't re-judge too quickly, MSL... I don't actually drink beer, which is why I'd direct my friends to the keg rather than attack it myself!

TmjUtah said...

I really think the worm is going to snap rather than turn.

Seventies, indeed. I've been telling my family and friends that it feels an awful lot like 1973 for a while now.

The real killer is going to be that quite a few tens of millions of people are going to realize all at once that their world is over and that their government and most especially The One are manifestly the problem and nothing remotely resembling a solution.

Carter was bad enough in that he attempted to convince Americans that malaise was our normal state.

Obama will be orders of magnitude worse. He is a stone Marxist running a coup. The congress is too busy running like hell to carve out scraps before the collapse to pay any attention to The One...

I have to chuckle sometimes. I thought that I'd seen my World Changing Moment when the Berlin wall went down.

If I had only known.