Ghetto Grocers

Belle Waring must have started hitting the bottle early today, because she's acting like some kind of drunken minarchist and coming out in opposition to regulation of fast-food restaurants:

The most obvious response to this type of dietary do-goodery is to say that people just don’t want to buy these purported healthy alternatives, because if they did, there’d be somebody selling them to them already.

Nothing new here for regular readers of Catallarchy, but it's always a pleasant surprise to find common ground with the opposition. Unfortunately, she sobered up pretty quickly and went on to say this:

The only reason I have any sympathy at all for the impulse behind this (obviously stupid and illiberal) idea is that people in poor neighborhoods are subjected to paying more money for worse produce than people in richer ones. Crappy supermarkets with sad carrots and iceberg lettuce, or expensive bodegas with limited selection: these are not good choices, and do seem like a market failure. To this end, the attempt to move farmer’s markets into poorer neighborhoods seems good, as does the idea that opposition to big grocery stores in urban neighborhoods should be dropped.

I'm very skeptical of the idea that this is any kind of market failure, partly because produce is pretty obviously not a public good, giving us very little reason to expect a market failure, and partly because this problem is very selective about the neighborhoods it chooses to afflict. Seattle's Chinatown isn't a rich neighborhood. In fact, it's kind of slummy. But on every block there's at least one store selling good produce at decent prices.

The most likely explanation for this is that poor East Asian immigrants buy lots of vegetables, while the American-born poor don't. Fresh produce doesn't last long, so it doesn't make sense for a grocer to keep a lot of it in stock if he can't sell it quickly. It's not that the market has failed---it's just that it doesn't make economic sense to supply certain products in certain neighborhoods. And for those who do want fresh produce but live among others who don't, all is not lost: They can always take a bus or train to a store that has it.

As a bonus, here's my reply to a particularly ill-informed comment on the same post:

The problem of rampant obesity and attendant illnesses in a society with a market-driven health-care system, no doubt approved of by libertarians, is that the cost of health care goes up for everyone.

In a market-driven health care system (a phrase which emphatically does not describe the system we have in the US), insurers would charge different rates to different people based on perceived cost of providing care, so the medical costs of obesity would be shifted to the obese themselves.

It’s under a single-payer system in which there’s no real connection between what you have to pay and what it costs to provide you with care that people can most easily externalize the costs of unhealthful behavior. To the extent that obesity imposes costs on the rest of us, this is a result of too much government interference in the health care system, not too little.

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