Don't F@ck with our Food. Inflation, Shortages, Riots, Revolution
by Simon Black edited by Jon Little On the morning of October 5, 1789, dozens of women were looking for food at an outdoor market in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine neighborhood of Paris. But the store shelves were nearly empty. Bread in particular-- a staple of the French diet-- was in critically short supply. And what little bread the shops did have available was being sold for sky-high prices.
This was nothing new for French peasants; the government had mismanaged the economy so poorly that food supplies had been falling (and bread prices rising) for several years.
There had even been food riots and protests going back more than a decade to the mid 1770s. But the situation only worsened. People finally reached their breaking point that October morning in 1789, when a single young woman standing in corner of the marketplace began beating a drum, signaling the other women that it was time for another protest.
As they marched through the streets, more and more supporters joined, with some estimates as high as 10,000 people. Their first stop was City Hall in Paris, located at the Hotel de Ville; there, officials opened grain reserves to feed the protesters. But the mob’s anger wasn’t quenched.
At this point they didn’t just want bread, or even a single meal. They wanted revolution. So from there they set out to Versailles, the King’s palace outside of Paris.
It took them about six hours to reach Versailles, where, that evening, King Louis XVI met personally with some of the protest leaders. He made promises to give them more food, then later announced that he would voluntarily relinquish some of his power and accept a new bill of rights for the French people. But the crowd still wasn’t satisfied.
So around 6am the following morning, the protesters decided to enter the palace. Royal guards barely resisted this insurrection; they shot one protester, and one guard was killed.
But for the most part, people were easily able to access the inside of the palace where they freely wandered the halls as if enjoying a museum tour. By 1pm the protesters’ leadership had found the king and demanded that he accompany them back to Paris. He agreed.
The march back took roughly 9 hours, and it had the feeling of a parade. The crowd (which had grown to 60,000 by that point) was overjoyed, because it was clear that the King was at their mercy. And they were the ones in control.
There are so many similar examples throughout human history, and they all lead to the same conclusion: don’t screw up the food supply. Politicians can get away with an astonishing level of corruption and incompetence, and their citizens will tolerate it. But if enough people struggle to put food on the table for their families, trouble is coming.
Any politician with half a brain understands this lesson. Sadly it’s not clear if the people in charge today even have half a brain. Inflation has been rising for nearly a year. None of the so-called experts saw it coming. Even when inflation was obvious, their approach was to gaslight people and deny it. Then they told us that inflation was “transitory”.
Then when they finally admitted it was a problem, they said they’d consider doing something about it in a few months. After its two-day meeting this week, officials from the Federal Reserve are expected to announce that they’re FINALLY going to take some action to combat inflation… in MARCH. So just sit tight another month and a half. Hallelujah!
Unfortunately, any action the Fed takes at this point is “too little, too late”.
Today’s inflation is the result of a number of factors-- demand, supply, and money.
On the demand side, the federal government literally deposited cash in people’s bank accounts, fueling a surge in consumer spending. Yet on the supply side, they closed businesses, told people to stay home, and compelled companies to fire millions of heretical workers.
The end result is fewer goods and services being produced, at a time when people have more money to spend and the appetite to do so. This is what has caused rising prices. Yet on top of this mess, the Federal Reserve has been supercharging inflation by shoveling money into the US economy by the trillion.
Now they’re promising to reduce their money printing and promise to have a few tiny, symbolic interest rate increases. Sorry, but this won’t really move the needle, especially when it comes to food. Most people would be surprised at how labor intensive agriculture is. Certainly there are a number of crops (especially grain) that are fully mechanized throughout the entire process-- planting, maintenance, harvest, and distribution.
But many key food products require significant manpower at some point in the chain.
Meat, for example, is very labor intensive because of the number of people required to run a pack house operation. And many staple fruits and vegetables require an army of harvest workers to hand pick the produce. So now, because of Covid (and the government response to Covid) pack houses in the US are struggling to maintain staff. And finding enough harvest workers in America has become borderline impossible.
There’s also a major problem in US agriculture that so many farm costs, from fertilizers to fuel to even packing materials (like cardboard and plastic containers) are soaring. And these costs are all obviously passed on to consumers.
Container ports also continue to be a major bottleneck, as meat, fruit, vegetables imported from overseas are literally rotting off the coast of California. Increasing interest rates by 0.25% is not going to fix any of these issues. It won’t clear the ports, and it won’t bring the workers back.
Fortunately it’s not 1789 anymore. And even though capitalism is on the ropes, there’s enough of it remaining for now to prevent dire food shortages.
Talented people around the world are working very hard to ensure that quality food is being grown and delivered to consumers, despite every obstacle the government puts in their way.
So I’m not suggesting that food riots are imminent.
But rising prices? Absolutely. And that’s going to have serious implications for political leadership.
It’s interesting that the French Revolution is typically considered to have begun on July 14, 1789; that’s the day that revolutionaries stormed the Bastille armory in Paris. And its anniversary remains one of the most important national holidays in France today.
But back in 1789, the response to the storming of the Bastille was fairly tame.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, was coincidentally stationed in Paris in the summer of 1789 and witnessed everything. He wrote to John Jay on July 19th, just five days after the storming of the Bastille, “Tranquillity is now restored to the Capital: the shops are again opened; the people resuming their labours, and, if the want of bread does not disturb our peace, we may hope a continuance of it.”
So even Jefferson, who was incredibly astute, didn’t think that the storming of the Bastille was the start of a full blown revolution. It was only until three months later, when an angry mob had literally taken control of the King, did everyone realize the truth: people want change, and they’re not messing around. And it all started because of the price (and scarcity) of bread.