Saturday, December 16, 2006

The KwikSave test

BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze this week discussed whether

the core reason of family and social breakdown in our society is due to the decline of marriage and the rise of cohabitation
Professor Steven Rose asked Theodore Dalrymple whether he could imagine what it is like to have to live on £160 per week. Rose was blaming an absence of socialist redistribution for all social ills, as usual.

Dalrymple, who was disappointing as a witness - I like his writing - seemed unable to say he could. At least, he wavered. I know I could have given an unequivocal affirmative to the question, though. I've lived on less.

In about 1993, I was living in a high rise flat in Battersea, London, refusing to take welfare on principle, occasionally driving a mini cab and living on less than a welfare package would have given me.

The trick is simple enough: you cook using cheap ingredients. Roast, stuffed lambs hearts are delicious and at today's prices a roast meal for three people would cost less than £1 for three hearts, £1.20 for home-made stuffing made of breadcrumbs, chopped shallots, fresh garlic, fresh sage, ground pepper and sea salt, and another £2.50 gets you the fresh vegetables (loose, in no greater quantities than needed) making a grand total of £4.70 - under £2 a head. On £160 per week, you could throw in a bottle of wine.

A big bag full of neck of lamb costs a fiver, plus about the same for a load of root vegetables. Lamb stew the first day, then the left-overs can be made into Cornish Pasties the following day. Cheese and onion pie or flan is even cheaper and very tasty. It requires a little care, a little bit of shopping and some preparation, but it's easy enough to live on a low income. If you cook...

Adjacent to the council estate where I was living was a large cheap supermarket called KwikSave. This particular branch was a bit up market by the standards of the chain, because Battersea is affluent and just a block away was Prince of Wales Drive, which overlooks the Park, and is quite posh. So this supermarket had two very distinct types of customers, very up-market, nipping in quickly for the stuff they'd forgotten to buy in Waitrose, and very down-market.

Without looking at the people themselves, you knew immediately which category they fell into from the contents of their shopping trolleys:

Fresh vegetables, flour, condiments and a bottle of wine = posh

Huge bottles of soft drinks, vast multi-pack sacks of crisps, ready-to-cook meals = poor

While the richest were getting the best value for their money, the poorest were spending as much as it is physically possible to spend on water with added sugar and gas; potato and oil; tiny, over-salted portions of unpleasant over-cooked and stale food.

I don't believe this is a rarely observed phenomenon, but it is certainly rarely commented on. Perhaps this is because it raises some genuinely difficult issues. Buying such expensive foods - expensive for what they are - and failing to cook from raw ingredients is a characteristic of the poorest, and it is stupid, though not in a pejoritive sense. It is unintelligent. Delicate ground, this. People often downplay the idea of a link between heredity and intelligence, but our daily experience tells us it exists.

It's true that intelligent parents tend to own books and give a stimulating environment to their children, but there is a hereditary component. The problem is that the left has a large investment in the idea of the tabula rasa, but this is a nonsense engineered to justify endless interference in individual life. There is such a thing as innate intelligence, and there is a correlation between prosperity and intelligence.

Are there lessons here for social policy? Is the socialist preoccupation with wealth distribution an irrelevance at best; at worst a totalitarian intervention that can only fail. The experience of New Labour's policy of pouring money into pits labelled 'health' and 'education', while both decline amidst increasingly pleasant surroundings, suggests this is the case.

For example, in the field of education, if we accept that intelligence is hereditary then we should expect there to be a bias towards the university education of the children of university-educated parents. Yet Labour formulates policies designed to "correct" this imbalance. Of course, a simple and patently fair solution would be meritocracy, whereby children who successfully pass qualifying exams go, free, to academic schools. Maybe we could call them Grammar Schools. Or we could give the kids grants directly to go to private academically orientated schools. That could be called the Direct Grant.

But I digress. Back to the shopping trolleys at KwikSave. Why are the poorest buying so badly?

One factor is advertising. At its most extreme, when it is directed at small children, advertising could be described as the process whereby the most predatory people in society hire the most manipulative to exploit the most vulnerable. My instincts are libertarian but I do feel that children are not miniature adults but rather they are small creatures in the process of growth and formation, and they deserve the protection of adult society. This means that while I generally believe that adults should be free to make mistakes (nobody questions successes) and to take the consequences, I don't think this applies to children.

On the Moral Maze, Dalrymple talked of the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor. He has a point. But the KwikSave shoppers weren't feckless, just stupid in their buying decisions. A cause of this stupidity is susceptibility to advertising. They were buying either the most heavily advertised products, or unbranded versions of them. A feature of inner-city life is poorly-nourished people in very expensive branded clothing, most notoriously training shoes. I don't know the answer but I think this is a valid question: do the more susceptible, less intelligent deserve protection from advertising, just like children? Do we have a paternalistic duty?

How do we deal with the lack of home cooking among some of the poorest? Jamie Oliver has been derided for bringing this issue into schools, but he has a point. It is much better for people to enjoy and understand good food, and that isn't necessarily expensive food. It would also alleviate the effects of low incomes more than anything else.

I have bought whole sheep, pigs, even sides of beef and divided them between myself and friends, with everyone getting excellent meat at a significant discount. I even learned to butcher them. This could be called self-help. Why is it vanishingly rare?

Why is this sort of thing never mentioned when low incomes are discussed? Not only do people like Professor Rose never think of teaching anyone to fish, rather than giving them other people's catches, he actually regards the very idea as immoral. Yet there could be no surer way of cementing people in the poverty of aspiration and circumstances we see in our vastly wealthy society - when measured against almost all other human societies in history and geography - than the policies of this indecent Professor.


Gordon Freece said...

I've been unemployed a time or two, and the one thing I've always noticed is that when you're not working, you don't seem to have time to get anything done at all. Give 'em a job and they'll have time to cook.

As for "protecting" them from advertising, how do you plan to decide who to protect? And how do you plan to protect them? It's there that paternalism always runs into trouble. I can't help wondering if it wouldn't be a good idea to limit the franchise to people with jobs, though.

Anyhow, I don't think advertising is the problem. I think the problem with the food is partially the time issue above, and partially simple helplessness: They don't know how to cook, and they have no idea how to learn. They most likely don't believe themselves capable of cooking. And they're lazy. Get rid of all advertising without changing what's on the store shelves, and they'll eat the same crap. The problem with the clothing is status. They buy the expensive sneakers because they're expensive, and the felt need for that crap is due far more to the desire to appear successful and be respected, which advertising did not invent.

They're not as stupid as you think. How did their ancestors survive 100 years ago? They worked, cooked their own food, and wore clothes they could afford. Probably wasted too much money on alcohol, but one way or another they scraped along.

Peter Risdon said...

I disagree - when you're not working you DO have time to cook. The one thing you have is time.

So far as the paternalism/advertising question goes, I don't know. I'm asking the question. But the fact that I don't know doesn't necessarily invalidate the question. I think that a genuine problem is buried in this.

You're right - they don't know how to cook. It's a skill that has been lost down the generations. How do we fix that?

I'm asking questions here, not rhetorically.

And yes, if I thought they were stupid, too stupid to cook and handle their lives, I wouldn't be asking these questions. The stupid thing is about susceptibility to advertising and other pressures. The point really is that I think they could handle their lives better. I don't dismiss them, or believe they need to be supervised like children.

I'm asking how they can regain the autonomy their ancestors had, as you so rightly point out.

Peter Risdon said...

I think you're right, Sir Percy.