The Corner


Not Exactly Satire

I am not sure whether The Onion here is being more serious than it usually is when it writes:

WASHINGTON—Admitting the startling discovery had compelled him to reexamine his long-held beliefs, His Holiness Pope Francis announced Tuesday that he had reversed his critical stance toward capitalism after seeing the immense variety of Oreos available in the United States. “Oh, my goodness, look at all these! Golden Oreos, Cookie Dough Oreos, Mega Stuf Oreos, Birthday Cake Oreos—perhaps the system of free enterprise is not as terrible as I once feared,” said the visibly awed bishop of Rome while visiting a Washington, D.C. supermarket, adding that the sheer diversity of flavors, various colors and quantities of creme filling, and presence or absence of an outer fudge layer had led to a profound philosophical shift in his feelings toward the global economy and opened his eyes to the remarkable capabilities of the free market. “Only a truly exceptional and powerful economic system would be capable of producing so many limited-edition and holiday-themed flavors of a single cookie brand, such as these extraordinary Key Lime Pie Oreos and Candy Corn Oreos. This is not a force of global impoverishment at all, but one of endless enrichment.”

The apparent frivolity of the free market, which seeks to satisfy every need and every taste, is a favorite target of its critics: In the Progressive Era, it was “unhealthy competition” or “destructive competition” diverted resources from the “rational” uses to which they could be put by enlightened central planners; Senator Sanders has his weird thing about how having 23 brands of deodorant (memo to Sanders supporters, incidentally) is somehow related to childhood hunger. The old doctrinaire socialists scoffed at the diversity of capitalist markets–who could need that many choices? Even our postmodern miserablists, like Barry Schwartz, argue that the proliferation of choices is bad for us, a drag on our mental health. 

It may be accidental, but The Onion is actually on to something here: Yes, trivial and over-indulgent as it may seem, our multivariate Oreo menu is precisely the case for capitalism.

I think often of a story I heard about East Germany in the days following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. (Socialism: An idea so good you have to be literally locked into it.) Under socialism, oranges were a rarity, one associated with Christmas. (The commies hated Christmas, but couldn’t quite keep it down.) If you were lucky, you might get a few oranges, or a small basket of orange for the family, at Christmas. And then, after socialism, suddenly: oranges. Oranges any old time, whenever you wanted them, cheap. On that front, every day was Christmas.

That Onion piece is pretty funny, if you never saw a Soviet grocery store back in the day, or if you haven’t seen a Venezuelan grocery store this week. 

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