Appreciating Western Civ Via Milk & Coffee

Yesterday, was running a bit of a fever, so stayed home. A couple Tylenols and hours of sleep later, I got up to make coffee.

I take my coffee white. When I opened the fridge, discovered I had choices:

  • whole milk;
  • low-fat milk;
  • skim milk;
  • half and half;
  • whipping cream;
  • canned milk.

In the pantry, there are even a couple cans of low-fat canned milk somebody picked up by mistake, I guess, and coconut milk, which might I suppose be used in coffee although it sounds unappetizing to me. And the fridge also had buttermilk, cheeses, sour cream, cream cheese – but let’s not go there.

Let us recap: in a nothing special suburban home in a nothing special suburb, surrounded by thousands of similar houses, a nothing special suburb dweller only two or three generations removed from farmers in Oklahoma, Texas and Moravia, at home because he feels slightly out of sorts, can open his nothing special refrigerator and find no fewer than six different ways (1) to take the edge off his morning coffee.

This coffee itself was brewed from beans shipped in from around the world, expertly blended and roasted by Peet’s, which employs hundreds of people just to get that coffee, and a couple dozen other blends and types, exactly right, grind it exactly right and put it in little bags for guys like me to make coffee at home.

Coffee was no doubt brewed that morning in thousands of houses in my city, millions of homes in this country, and tens of millions of homes and businesses around the world. In most of those places, people could choose among dozens of different types of coffee and many different price points prepared  and served many different ways. Or they could order tea. Or orange juice. Or water. Or nothing at all.

Every morning, billions of people get to choose among literally thousands of options what to drink in the morning. What’s more, few if any of those options run much of a risk: unlike a century or so ago, what you drink in the morning is extremely unlikely to sicken and kill you – those options were packaged and refrigerated and treated so as to prevent the very common diseases that used to make getting something to drink in the morning a bit of a challenge. (2)

I got to take the day off because I didn’t feel completely well. My father would have laughed that to scorn; I can only imagine how his father would have reacted, but those cows weren’t going to milk themselves, those pigs weren’t getting their own slop, those crops weren’t going to march themselves off to market. If you weren’t passed out with fever, you were doing your chores – not because granddad was cruel, but because *life* was cruel.

And granddad had it infinitely better than his granddad – he could go into town and pick up some coffee in a can whenever he wanted, as well as finished goods from all over the world – in a little town in Oklahoma. Yet the selection of such goods available to Ira Moore in 1900 would look ridiculous to us, like a bad garage sale. We can go to the mall! We can go on-line and order goods from around the world without getting off our well fed posteriors!

People sometimes imagine that all this abundance is the result of science. That’s not exactly right. Science might give you hints as to what might work to, say, kill some germs or grow more crops or get goods from point A to point B. But science provides no incentive or opportunity to get those things done.  Only when somebody says: wouldn’t it be great if… and then makes it happen does science make any difference to our lives.

Progress, like chance(3), is not a cause, but is a description – progress is made when the things improved outweigh the things harmed – when we take 100 steps forward for every 99 steps back.(4) In almost all cases these days, it takes a team of people some amount of time to make any Progress. We love, love, love our Lone Genius mythology, where an Edison or a Jobs single-handedly drags the world Into The Future(tm). Reality is much more mundane: Edison ran a lab with dozens of people in it; he was able to set it up once he secured financing. Workers, finance types, managers, not to mention customers for his previous inventions, were required before Menlo Park could start cranking out new inventions.

But much more fundamental even than that: An Edison must know he has the freedom to create. Financial backers must know they have the right to make some money. People must be free to spend money on the things invented. People must also exhibit more or less reasonable and predictable behavior in line with that whole freedom and rights thing. Wars, riots, famines, plagues and general lawlessness have to be kept to a minimum. Otherwise, you can talk all you want about America’s (correctly) vaunted creativity and can-do attitudes, but it can’t happen if people are slaves and money and property can simply be seized. The more people are enslaved and uncertain about their property, the less creative and ambitious they become.

Thus, I end up with half a dozen options for how to whiten my gourmet coffee right there in my own personal refrigerator. Solomon in all his glory couldn’t touch my coffee options! All because a mob of somebodies got ideas about how people would pay to have cold milk in all its manifold glories right in their houses! May they bask on their well deserved and well-compensated laurels!

  1. OK, skim milk in coffee is gross, and whipping cream is a bit of overkill, but, in a pinch? I’ve done it. I’m not proud. (OTOH mix them together – reconstituted whole milk! yay!)
  2. Ever wonder why every civilization has drinking rituals involving fermented beverage, boiled beverages, or both? When almost any water supply handy to a city is as likely as not a vector for dysentery, for example,  and there’s no city-wide systematic way to check it, clean it, and delivery it, what you drink takes on a more bracing quality. Got to kill the wee beasties. You can either boil it – and make tea or coffee – or ferment it – making beer, wine or hard liquors. Consumption of these liquids becomes ritualized, as you must hydrate or die yet you don’t want to die from hydrating. This situation has only ceased to be the case in most of the world in the last century; in many places, it’s still the case. Don’t drink the water, right?
  3. To say something happened by chance is merely to say we don’t know its causes – and nothing more.
  4. A vast improvement in our political and social lives could be made if it were simply and consistently recognized that all progress has costs, and that we must take a good hard look at those costs before we can determine if any progress has even been made. It’s a variation on the No Free Lunch theme.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Appreciating Western Civ Via Milk & Coffee”

  1. You may already have seen this but something along is Leonard Read’s I-Pencil from the Foundation for Economic Education. It’s probably more a celebration of modernity which I know has it’s own cautionary tail but it is kind of a marvel to behold what can take to make just one of our simplest tools and how a market can give us a this wonder.

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