Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The New Bread

As a student of history, I once learned that most revolutions started as bread riots, and that there was no thing as sure to spark unrest as a spike in bread prices.
Bread riots in St Helier Jersey Channel Islands 1847
(Bread riot in the UK, 1847)

Living in Bulgaria the role of bread struck me. In a country where almost nothing was regulated, the price of bread was a matter of political discussion, and had recently been strictly regulated. Not so strange in an economical context where people had nothing but bread, and increased bread prices meant starvation.

Bulgaria has not left that economical paradigm behind completely - many people still live hand to mouth and precariously close to starvation. But for many Bulgarians this world is a fading memory. For these Bulgarians, as for Swedes, the price of bread has very little to do with your actual quality of life.

The central role of bread has diminished. Just as it was the life blood of an agrarian society, it has been replaced with the life blood of modern society - oil, or on the consumer market gas.

And just as bread prices once did spark activism - so is gas prices doing now. In Bulgaria, as well as in several other countries. Searching Google News for "protest gas prices" in the last week, gives articles about Bulgaria, the UK, the US, Lebanon, Yemen, Indonesia... that is just the first page with search results.

It is hard to imagine that a problem that strikes consumers in all these countries is caused by the national government. A more likely culprit would be the oil price, that will be the same in Lebanon as well as in Liechtenstein. When writing this a barrel of WTI costs 106 USD, and a barrel of Brent 125 USD.

But of course, it would be more convenient if the politicians could fix this. That is even what the Economist hoped for in their New Years issue.

My guess is that they would if they could, but that the  price of gas is outside of their control. Such a pity that everything we consumed is transported with the use of oil, and that expensive oil will make everything else expensive. Including the price of bread.

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