Saturday, 3 May 2014

Toothless - a tale of state intervention

Raffia and her younger brother Lentil came home from school terribly excited one afternoon. “We voted!” she exclaimed when her mother, Alopecia, asked what was going on. “We had elections and we made a manifesto and everything!” Lentil chimed in at this point, eager not to be excluded, “They had a thing called hustings where some of the big boys and girls stood on a box and told us what they would do if they were Prime Minister. It was great!” In the next few minutes Alopecia learned that they had almost unanimously voted to elect their favourite prefect who had stood on a platform of a reduction in the price of sweets.

“Gosh!” she said, “That does sound exciting. But how are you going to do that?” The kids rolled their eyes and sighed, going on to explain to the stupid adult that it was easy. Prime Minister Big Boy was going to decide what was a fair price for, say, a Mars Bar and then pass a law to make it illegal for anybody to sell them at a higher price. “Because,” explained Raffia, faux-patiently, “when you are Prime Minister everybody has to do as you say. If I was the PM I would abolish poverty as well… but today it was mostly all about the sweets.”

One year later, in a household in Slough…

“Daddy, can I have some pocket money?” asked Troy, nagging at his father’s sleeve. “Sorry son,” replied his father, “since I got laid off at Mars, we haven’t any money for sweets. We’ve barely got enough to feed you.” Troy’s mouth turned down and he reluctantly wandered off to annoy the dog. He knew there was no point asking twice, not after the last time he’d tried and received a belt for his incessant nagging. He didn’t really understand what had changed but he did know it was something to do with ‘the guvmint’. Whatever one of those was he knew it was nothing to do with him.

A few months earlier, the new government had capped retail sweet prices in order, it said, to level the playing field between the supermarkets selling at cut price and the corner shops testing what the market would bear. This, they had claimed would be a popular measure and would play well with the vote they intended to soon extend to fourteen-year olds. It had been universally cheered when they had focus-grouped it at the schools attended by cabinet ministers’ children and so it had been introduced in a surprise announcement in their first budget.

Initially the policy had played well but gradually the corner shops, without sufficient margin to cover pilferage and stock and staffing costs had stopped stocking premium brands altogether and looked further afield for cheaper foreign imports.  In an effort to compete, the country’s confectioners began to lower their pack weights and introduce more air to bulk up their offerings but there is only so much you can do to a Mars Bar before you start to lose an entire generation of consumers to better value products.

To reduce costs the factories began to cut back on maintenance and laid off local British workers in favour of the cheapest labour they could source. As a result, quality began to suffer and orders were not always met on time. Of course the Troys of this world, affected directly by the redundancies, were the first to give up sweets altogether, but as low-skilled labour went into oversupply, more and more humble households felt the squeeze and turned away from the quick, but now overly pricey fix of British household name sweets.

Mars and Cadbury and Thornton and other domestic competitors either folded or sought to diversify and invest elsewhere and soon the noble profession of chocolate engineer practically ceased to exist in modern Britain. The families of the abandoned workers moved to rent-controlled, out-of-town, state-built housing projects to wait for promised better times as their privately rented homes were reclaimed, refurbished and sold at astronomical prices to the executives of companies trading in ideas, rather than things.

Beware unintended consequences

Of course, there are silver linings in some clouds and over the next five years a remarkable drop in the rate of childhood tooth decay among the low-achieving classes was recorded. The government health spokesman, surprised but seeking to simultaneously explain and take credit for this welcome news, accredited it to the amazing efficacy of the new national curriculum which included compulsory classes in personal hygiene, civic duty and role play. That and the ever-increased budget of the NHS, despite the fact that dentistry had long ceased to be subsidised. Politics. You couldn’t make it up

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