In “Everybody Gets Rich,” an essay I contributed to The New Criterion’s “Future Tense” series (collected as Future Tense: The Lessons of Culture in an Age of Upheaval), I argued that there is a whole economics in the price of a pound of butter. Specifically, I recalled a scene from Stephen King’s 1978 novel, The Stand, in which a newly minted pop star goes home to visit his working-class mother in the Bronx. He notes with surprise that she has provided extravagantly for her prodigal son, having bought for his enjoyment not one but two pounds of butter. He wonders where she got the money — in the 1970s, butter was still quite expensive for working-class people.
By my calculation, a pound of butter ran just over $6 in inflation-adjusted dollars when Mr. King was writing The Stand. Today, a pound of butter costs on average less than half that, and with a bit of careful shopping can be had for less than $1. The most expensive butter I could find was at Whole Foods, and it was less than $4 per pound. (I am sure there is more expensive butter to be had, but I did not find it. My observation is that there is effectively no upper limit on food prices. Cult food items are like high-end watches: 90 percent of the market is covered by a relatively narrow price range, but the top 10 percent keeps going up ad infinitum. A survey of New York City restaurant menus reveals a $300 hamburger, a $1,000 omelet, and a $25,000 dessert. I am reminded of a certain rock-solid conservative pundit who, upon taking in the sight of bottles of champagne lined up across the dining room of a particularly extravagant Manhattan apartment, said to me: “Hell, maybe we should raise taxes on the rich.”)
My impression is that the television series Mad Men has an audience that is larger than The New Criterion’s readership (de gustibus, etc.) and so I have been very pleased that the show’s attention has been turned toward margarine and, by extension, toward butter. For those of you who do not watch the show, the advertising men that the story follows have been asked to come up with a fresh new ad campaign for Fleischmann’s margarine. Nobody has any substantive opinions about different brands of margarine; all margarines are alike in that their defining characteristic is that they are not butter. The challenge for Fleischmann’s is that it wants to position its product as the high-end, luxury version of margarine. It is more expensive than its competitors, but cheaper than butter, and the attraction of margarine as a category is that it is cheaper than butter. (Many margarines, then as now, sold themselves as healthy alternatives to butter, but it was really about price in the 1960s.) It is a particular problem for antihero Don Draper, who has grown so rich that anything so second-best as margarine cannot command his attention.
Ad Age, it will not surprise you, keeps tabs on Mad Men, and the butter/margarine issue was explored in its pages by a gentleman named (I am not making this up) Creamer, who writes:
Back in mid-to-late 1960s. margarine was a big deal. There were more than 500 brands on the market, all reveling in a long consumer revolt against butter. Between 1940 and the mid-1960s, butter consumption was lopped in half, while margarine consumption tripled.
Mr. Creamer is here somewhat neglectful in his history. Why was there a consumer revolt against butter? Margarine had the unfortunate luck of coming of age during the heyday of progressive corporatism, when central planning was the preferred economic policy. Margarine makers did not have anything like the clout of dairy farmers, and so a tax was imposed on their product, and then that tax was in short order quadrupled. Margarine in its natural state looks unappetizingly like lard, so margarine makers dyed it the pale yellow hue of butter from grass-fed cattle. This resulted in a series of bans upon yellow margarine. Margarine makers responded by including a tiny capsule of yellow dye in the packaging, allowing homemakers to dye their own margarine at home, circumventing the ban. This was a matter of public policy, bear in mind. But World War II made butter scarce, resulting in the relaxation of margarine controls. President Harry Truman, with the eager encouragement of the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers, “put an end to the oppression of margarine” in the words of Professor Lisa Wade of Occidental College. She tells the story at some length here, concluding with an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s The Uses of the Erotic. (Oxy students do get their sixty grand a year’s worth.)
Readers of The End Is Near and It’s Going To Be Awesome will not be surprised to learn that butter has continued to get better and cheaper year after year; like so many things that were luxury or semi-luxury goods within living memory, butter has become plentiful and cheap to the point of being utterly unremarkable — which is remarkable. As consumers, we are today in the position that Don Draper was a generation ago: A few pennies’ difference is not going to convince us to buy margarine if we want butter. We are simply too rich to care.
But corporatism is a powerful thing: The state of Wisconsin enacted a complete ban on margarine more than a century ago, and substantial restrictions on the use of margarine by restaurants remained until 2011. Think about that: A margarine regime enacted during the presidency of Grover Cleveland survived into the age of Obama, purely as a way for fat and happy dairy farmers to disadvantage their competitors while ripping off the toast-eating public. With that as a precedent, you can bet the family farm (dairy or other) that subsidies for politically connected energy companies, manufacturers, and the like will not be repealed until the radioactive mutant cockroaches who take over after our extinction manage to reinvent parliamentary democracy. But if they reinvent the windmill first, they’ll probably keep the subsidies.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going To Be Awesome.