Forks, Coffee and Communism

Some thoughts on communism, sparked by buying coffee. I’m not an expert on the food and/or beverages industries, so I may have missed something important, but even if so the discussion will hopefully be suggestive of thoughts.

The various establishments that give freshly-prepard food (and hot drinks etc.) to people, who then take it away and eat it, do so by putting it into a container, of styrofoam or cardboard or foil, that cannot be effectively washed and re-used and thus gets thrown away. And end up somewhere like the Great Pacific Trash Continent (or whatever it’s called).

An individual or family who ate all of their food from containers which they then destroyed would surely be considered wasteful. Why does such waste happen with these food-giving-away establishments?

What would happen if they gave away food in re-usable containers, with metal forks, ceramic mugs, plastic tubs, etc? The immediate answer is, they would spend far more money on giving away these endless ‘proper’ implements, and their customers would swiftly acquire a needless glut of the same, and no doubt would simply throw them away. This would be an even more wasteful situation!

But wait! A glut of cutlery in one place*, and a dearth in another? Surely the answer is to set up some simple mechanism by which they go from one to other. I.e. eaters (that odd breed of person) hand in their surplus cutlery to some central, easily-located site. This site then distributes it back to food-providers. A great river-system of cups, bowls, and forks is created, ever-flowing, and carrying hot food along with it. Waste is eliminated!

Is there a problem? There might be a few worries about hygiene but I’d be surprised if it was technically infeasible to sterilise large numbers of bowls and spoons as effectively with better technology (e.g. vast dishwashers or gamma-radiation blasters**) as people currently do with soap and hot water.

The more serious problem is this: in such a scheme, nobody would ever have insufficient forks. If they needed forks, they could just get some with food, and then not return them. And without unprecedented cutlery-surveillance, this could never be detected and stopped.

Is this a problem? Among its advantages are that people can more easily move into new houses, for instance, and that people on low incomes can reduce their expenditures. On the other hand, surely if cutlery isn’t rationed, people have no reason to limit their use of it. What if everyone snaps up 250 sets?

But that hardly seems realistic. People are naturally limited in their use of cutlery. If you had 250 sets, what would you do with them? Build a fort? To put it another way, the only realistic reasons for having more cutlery that I can think of seem equally like good reasons, not wasteful ones (e.g. I have a lot of friends, a huge kitchen, and like to hold big dinner parties).

Ah, but. Now, nobody can make a profit selling such cutlery, except to that socialised distribution network. Moreover, nobody can make a profit selling disposable cutlery at all. And that socialised distribution network, by virtue of its relative centralisation, is a much stronger bargainer, has more power in the trade, and is thus able to demand lower prices and better quality.

That is, the interests of cutlery-capital*** are entirely ruined (and those dependent on them for work, though secondarily). What this reflects is that what is bought and wasted is nevertheless profitable. As a result, we are unlikely to see such a system as has here been sketched as long as capitalism remains (though it’s not impossible).

So what we have here is an example where straightforward and common-sense communism**** would remove a serious and entirely needless problem (waste) but seems like a crazy thought because it goes against the imperatives of capitalism.

*’Glutlery’ is the correct technical term.

**’Blaster’ may not be the correct technical term.

***’Capitlery’ is the correct technical term.

****’Communism’ is the correct term, not just ‘socialism’ – abolishing property not just in means of production but in something as simple as cutlery. That need not mean, note, that there are no individualised rights to cutlery – it might still be prohibited to go into someone’s kitchen and take all their knives, though more as a douche-y thing to do than as a ‘theft’, since they can be easily replaced. But these rights (‘possession’)  fall short of property properly so-called, e.g. in not including tradeability.

8 Responses to “Forks, Coffee and Communism”

  1. Colm O'Connor Says:

    I don’t think it’s particularly communistic. In fact I think it exhibits the worst thinking of those who adhere to the ideology. See, it’s actually technocratic, under the guise of being communistic.

    1) You would have to basically threaten every food vendor to do it, otherwise it just wouldn’t happen.
    2) It will probably be counterproductive – that is, it could end up with a lot of knives and forks and metal containers thrown away since there is no deposit station nearby. The environmental problem just got worse.
    3) You would end up with either gluts in one place (where do you put them?) and serious shortages in others (um, sorry, I can’t give you any food). Well, shit.
    4) You could profit from taking the cutlery. Just melt it down.

    Far from being straightforward and common sense, it is totally nonsensical and would require a hefty dose of threats to implement. What would you do with those who would rather give out colorful cups with their logo on?

    The problem is probably best solved by treating the problem as economic. Firstly, large amounts of trash – sure, that’s bad. But the reason is that the food vendors just don’t care. Once the trash is out of sight, it’s out of mind (and more importantly, off the balance sheet).

    The solution is to reintroduce it to the balance sheet. Impose a litter tax on anybody who gives out unrecyclable plastic cartons, create an infrastructure of recyling bins using the money and bingo, problem solved.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “1) You would have to basically threaten every food vendor to do it, otherwise it just wouldn’t happen…What would you do with those who would rather give out colorful cups with their logo on?”

    “The solution is to reintroduce it to the balance sheet. Impose a litter tax on anybody who gives out unrecyclable plastic cartons”

    So rather than trying to make vendors do X, which would involve threats and be unacceptable, we should try to make vendors do Y, by charging them money, which is not a threat? Why is the one scheme so unworkably aggressive and the other not?

    “2) It will probably be counterproductive – that is, it could end up with a lot of knives and forks and metal containers thrown away since there is no deposit station nearby. The environmental problem just got worse.”
    That’s possible, but depends on a: people’s behaviour, b: the incentives they are given, and c: the structure of the deposit system. You’ve given no reason to think that these factors will always produce the result you describe, just called it ‘probable’. That would be an empirical question to find out by experiment.

    “3) You would end up with either gluts in one place (where do you put them?) and serious shortages in others (um, sorry, I can’t give you any food). Well, shit.”
    This is also possible, but depends on such factors as a: how fluidly the system flows, and b: how much ‘extra’ cutlery is put in, to account for delays in circulation. But again, you just seem to assume that the worst would happen.

    “4) You could profit from taking the cutlery. Just melt it down.”
    I hadn’t thought of that – it’s a fair point that reinforces that this wouldn’t work if the rest of the economy was still profit-seeking. But within a communistic context this isn’t possible, because you can’t sell your melted metal.

  3. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    @ Colm O’Connor:

    I know of no coercion put into the way UK dairies operate, which is thus:

    Milk is delivered door-to-door in reusable containers.
    People consume the milk
    People put empty containers (rinsed) by the doorstep for the delivery person to collect and return to the depot, where they are sterilised and reused.

    Wastage through glass bottles being broken from time to time (or just not returned) is relatively small.

    This sounds a lot similar to the scheme outlined in the OP, and in fact I would suggest that the logical system for returning the used containers and cutlery through the system would be a personal basis: people buying food will either need it delivered (in which case delivery person collects used and rinsed containers, just like the milkman does) or else they will need to travel to the shop to collect the food, in which case it is simple to take along the used and rinsed containers and cutlery and hand them in at the entrance (or even just put them into a chute leading to the sterilization process). Again, some wastage via breakages or unreturned items may be expected, but in the same way as the system works well for dairies it can be expected to work well for food as well.

    What would you do with those who would rather give out colorful cups with their logo on?

    Again, our dairies have the answer: I remember the local dairies all had their logos embossed in the glass bottles so that they were advertising their wares. There is no reason why cutlery, containers etc could not carry corporate logos, especially if they are returned directly to the company by the consumer as I suggest above.

    Incidentally, the scheme of collecting forks to melt them down and sell them for profit sounds a lot like Homer Simpson’s plan to buy bacon and sell the grease for profit (that is to say, the outlay on the food part of the equation severely outweighs any possible return from the scrap metal value of the cutlery provided!)

  4. Colm O'Connor Says:

    >So rather than trying to make vendors do X, which would
    >involve threats and be unacceptable, we should try to make
    >vendors do Y, by charging them money, which is not a
    >threat? Why is the one scheme so unworkably aggressive
    >and the other not?

    Charging money is not a threat (although if you don’t pay, you might be threatened I guess). In any case, it is much lighter touch, since it leaves the choice up to you as to what to do about it, merely expressing that there is an environment cost to your actions (which currently businesses do not pay for, shifting the burden instead on to the state).

    What would you do if those who you wanted to participate didn’t want to do it? Typically the response in most governments is to resort to threats – financial carrots and sticks. Those costs can get out of control, too.

    Also, it doesn’t let the businesses themselves come up with creative solutions to the problem. It’s quite easy to say “well if they do we just implement theirs”, but once the infrastructure, department, etc. is set up to start this system, those who operate it will fight its dissolution tooth and nail, the rest of the population probably won’t care care enough to not let them have their way, so it would probably stay.

    This is at its heart the problem with technocracies.

    >That’s possible, but depends on a: people’s behaviour, b:
    >the incentives they are given, and c: the structure of the
    >deposit system. You’ve given no reason to think that
    >these factors will always produce the result you describe,
    >just called it ‘probable’. That would be an empirical
    >question to find out by experiment.

    Well, it would basically just depend upon the incentives. I’m assuming you’d get no reward for returning them. If they were, the litter problem would be less, but then, rewards cost money.

    I imagine it would also depend on the number of deposit stations. If it were easy to deposit = less rubbish. However, that also means more transportation costs, possibly even security costs of defending the deposit (people will steal them for scrap). Likewise, if they’re in high profile places, they’d be a fantastic place to stash a bomb (amongst all the metal). The security headaches double.

    >This is also possible, but depends on such factors as a: how fluidly the system flows, and b: how much ‘extra’ cutlery is put in, to account for delays in circulation. But again, you just seem to assume that the worst would happen.

    I’m basing this one on my experience with the bicycle systems in Paris, where you pay to pick up a cycle and then drop it off wherever you you want. Half the stations had no cycles (you couldn’t pick up), the other half were full (you couldn’t drop off). It annoyed me enough with the bike, and were there not a significant financial imperative (150 euro fine or something), I would have just left it there.

    This is partly a network topology problem, and you’re right it could be solved, but I suspect the cost (both environment and financial) of solving it would be quite high, and would mean making tons of unused cutlery which would take up tons of space.

    Additionally, you’d probably have to levy financial sticks and carrots on the people who use it in order to get it to work. Thus the system grows in complexity, and annoyance.

    >I hadn’t thought of that – it’s a fair point that reinforces that this wouldn’t work if the rest of the economy was still profit-seeking. But within a communistic context this isn’t possible, because you can’t sell your melted metal.

    That’s an unrealistic assumption. Markets spring up everywhere where somebody has a need and somebody else has a solution. Even when you try to stamp them out (as the soviet union did during the whole of its existence, and as the US/UK does with drugs, for instance), they still persist. It’s fantasy to say that they can be eliminated.

    Even if you managed to get a whole continent to operate under your system, there would still be other areas of the world which would operate markets (even if they tried to squish them too), and would willingly take lots of scrap metal.

  5. Colm O'Connor Says:

    >I know of no coercion put into the way UK dairies operate, which is thus:

    Which requires very little extra effort on the part of either the deliverer or the recipient. You just have to leave your bottles outside your house, and the deliverer is already going to your front door to drop them off.

    This system emerged on its own. No need to opt in or out. By becoming a customer you opt in.

    This system would not be the same. If I get a takeaway coffee or meal from a food stall, they don’t know where the hell I’m going to go. The infrastructure would have to cover the whole country, and you’d need regular delivery of cutlery from areas of high drop off to high demand. Suddenly it becomes a logistics network and I can tell you from personal experience that means it will be a NIGHTMARE to operate.

    >Incidentally, the scheme of collecting forks to melt them
    >down and sell them for profit sounds a lot like Homer
    >Simpson’s plan to buy bacon and sell the grease for profit
    >(that is to say, the outlay on the food part of the equation
    >severely outweighs any possible return from the scrap
    >metal value of the cutlery provided!)

    There would end up being large repositories of the stuff in order to assure that everybody had enough cutlery, to account for fluctuations in demand around the country. I guarantee that they would contain enough cutlery to ensure that it was worthwhile stealing, otherwise there would not be enough to account for the demand fluctuation.

    You could secure them but that would incur additional cost. Once you’ve accounted for that cost, the cost of securing deposit stations from bombs in high profile locations, the cost of incentivizing people to drop the containers off instead of dumping them and the environmental cost of the dumped ones, not to mention the cost of operating the network and shuttling containers around, it all starts to not become worthwhile anymore. You might as well just recycle.

    I am not talking about people stealing their take out cutlery a bit at a time, that would obviously be stupid.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    So ‘coercion’. In an ideal world, the way to get vendors to participate is very simple: don’t produce and sell them disposable cutlery. Then say ‘hey here’s some cheap cutlery, you want it?’ In a world without economic planning, where private disposable-cutlery producers are happy to sell them such, then I suppose I would say ‘ban such’, or perhaps phase them out over a test period. Is that coercion, to say that certain products can’t be produced and traded? If people could vomit them up from their own bodies, then yes, but insofar as it is simply a collective decision to dispose of our means of production in a certain way, no – it’s certainly no more coercive than the methods currently employed to lock up and psychologically damage cutlery-thieves, or more broadly the coercion involved in any form of property. Is an important freedom at stake? It seems to be ‘the freedom to pay high costs in order to impose an environmental cost on the world because such a trade seems desirable for some reason’. That doesn’t sound like an important freedom to me.

    Then this ‘technocracy’ point seems a little unclear to me. I said nothing about who would take on the powers of administering and directing such a scheme, and the sorts of tasks involved seem pretty comparable to the tasks of a cutlery-production company. Operate the gamma-blasters, load them into trucks and drive them, monitor the distribution and decide when to correct it – this sounds exactly like what private companies do all the time. Is the difference that they’re not subject to market forces? Then the difficulty is merely to devise forms of democratic accountability superior to that exerted by markets, which to my mind is a pretty low bar.

    “Markets spring up everywhere where somebody has a need and somebody else has a solution.”
    I think this is true, as long as we clarify that this must be a need so pressing as to be worth the substantial costs involved in entering an illegal market. I don’t think that many people are going to be that desperate for disposable cutlery, though scrap metal perhaps is more likely. I’ve posted more about this here.

    Regarding security, I find myself wondering why libraries aren’t being robbed all the time, or warehouses, or indeed any place where large numbers of goods are stored. It would require some security, no doubt, but it’s not obvious to me that this would be a huge problem, relative to any other location with lots of stuff. And how many people are going to want to steal it is also a variable, depending on things like 1) how many people have access to a big melty machine, 2) how poor are people, 3) how many people are willing to buy scrap metal of dubious origin.

    Regarding the claim that it would just not work, and that the costs of maintaining the deposit centres, encouraging people to deposit stuff there, and then ensuring an even distribution, I’m not sure there’s much argument I can make. We both agree that this depends on the balance between people’s willingness to participate, the costs involved in producing that willingness, the resources put into the system, etc. You ‘suspect’ that the costs would be prohibitive; I don’t. You have an anecdote about Parisian bicycles. I have little more than the observation that tasks of this kind seem to be accomplished by both state and private bodies every day. Without making the experiment (under a range of conditions) we won’t really be able to find out, and that’s unlikely to happen soon.

  7. Colm O'Connor Says:

    >So ‘coercion’. In an ideal world, the way to get vendors to participate is very simple: don’t produce and sell them disposable cutlery.

    What would you do to stop people selling them disposable cutlery?

    >Then say ‘hey here’s some cheap cutlery, you want it?’ In a world without economic planning, where private disposable-cutlery producers are happy to sell them such, then I suppose I would say ‘ban such’, or perhaps phase them out over a test period. Is that coercion, to say that certain products can’t be produced and traded?

    Yes. Sometimes it is necessary to ban, and to coerce (for instance to prevent you from killing me), but I honestly believe that this would be one of the dumber bans.

    >If people could vomit them up from their own bodies, then yes, but insofar as it is simply a collective decision to dispose of our means of production in a certain way, no – it’s certainly no more coercive than the methods currently employed to lock up and psychologically damage cutlery-thieves, or more broadly the coercion involved in any form of property.

    Nope, but I thought you were generally against coercion. If you’re actually just against what you consider *the wrong kind of coercion* then you’re no anarchist.

    >Is an important freedom at stake? It seems to be ‘the freedom to pay high costs in order to impose an environmental cost on the world because such a trade seems desirable for some reason’. That doesn’t sound like an important freedom to me.

    Is it not an important freedom to be able to turn on a lightswitch? Get in a car? Or even on a bus? Would you willingly give all of these things up an an attempt to restore eco-harmony to the world? The freedom to pollute is what allows us to do all of these things.

    And you seem to be forgetting that your system would also create its own waste and pollution. Infringing on others’ freedoms to pollute so that they can pollute in a different way smacks more of the Soviet Union than any form of real communism.

    >Then this ‘technocracy’ point seems a little unclear to me. I said nothing about who would take on the powers of administering and directing such a scheme, and the sorts of tasks involved seem pretty comparable to the tasks of a cutlery-production company. Operate the gamma-blasters, load them into trucks and drive them, monitor the distribution and decide when to correct it – this sounds exactly like what private companies do all the time. Is the difference that they’re not subject to market forces?

    Partly. It would operate along monopolistic lines, so it would solely be subjected to democratic forces, which have a tendency to pull in every direction (to account for everybody’s different agenda) and produce a rather haphazard and probably quite an inefficient organization – think: royal mail vs. DHL.

    >Then the difficulty is merely to devise forms of democratic accountability superior to that exerted by markets, which to my mind is a pretty low bar.

    I’m not sure what you mean by democratic accountability here, but I seriously doubt that you could devise a democratic economic system that optimized as efficiently as markets do. That’s a pretty high bar.

    Efficiency in such a system would be of primary concern, too, since it is what would keep the costs on participants down, and minimize waste.

    >Regarding security, I find myself wondering why libraries aren’t being robbed all the time, or warehouses, or indeed any place where large numbers of goods are stored.

    They are. Well, warehouses are. Libraries aren’t so much because books are difficult to fence. That said, my local library did have a serious problem with DVD thefts for a while.

    >It would require some security, no doubt, but it’s not obvious to me that this would be a huge problem, relative to any other location with lots of stuff.

    It would be possible, it would just incur a high cost.

    >And how many people are going to want to steal it is also a variable, depending on things like 1) how many people have access to a big melty machine, 2) how poor are people, 3) how many people are willing to buy scrap metal of dubious origin.

    Of course. I’m just basing this on the fact that there is a thriving scrap metal market currently, however.

    >Regarding the claim that it would just not work, and that the costs of maintaining the deposit centres, encouraging people to deposit stuff there, and then ensuring an even distribution, I’m not sure there’s much argument I can make.

    I believe that it could always be MADE to work. The question in my mind is not whether it could, but whether it is worth it, when there is another much simpler solution – which is just to encourage those same stores to use recyclable materials, and instead of building an entirely new infrastructure just for cutlery, just build on an already existing recycling network for plastics and paper.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “What would you do to stop people selling them disposable cutlery?”
    Fine them a little bit more than the revenue from the sale?

    “I thought you were generally against coercion. If you’re actually just against what you consider *the wrong kind of coercion* then you’re no anarchist.”
    Well given that anarchists exist, any sort of coercion that’s intrinsic to the very idea of society is obviously not something they reject. If people cared so much for their disposable cups they wanted to make a big thing of it, even at the risk of breaking away from the group’s economy, then of course it would be wrong to forcibly prevent them. But ‘coercion’ that consists in fining people to get them to follow the collectively-agreed rules about distribution of resources ultimately amounts to withdrawl of services, and not even of the sort that would lead people to starve. So calling it ‘coercion’ seems a stretch.

    “Is it not an important freedom to be able to turn on a lightswitch? Get in a car? Or even on a bus? Would you willingly give all of these things up an an attempt to restore eco-harmony to the world? The freedom to pollute is what allows us to do all of these things.”
    If it could actually restore eco-harmony to the world, I’d feel obliged to, though how willingly I can’t predict. But that’s beside the point. Being able to have illumination is an important freedom; being able to have it from a particular sort of lightbulb isn’t. Transportation is an important freedom, but being able to get the sort of car you want most isn’t – at least in my estimation. In short, I don’t really think the freedom to pollute per se is very important, and certainly less important than the right to a clean environment for those to whom it can mean life or death.

    “It would operate along monopolistic lines, so it would solely be subjected to democratic forces, which have a tendency to pull in every direction (to account for everybody’s different agenda) and produce a rather haphazard and probably quite an inefficient organization – think: royal mail vs. DHL.”
    Without wanting to get very much into royal mail vs. DHL, I’ll observe that royal mail is state-owned, which is quite a different ownership structure from communism.

    “I’m not sure what you mean by democratic accountability here, but I seriously doubt that you could devise a democratic economic system that optimized as efficiently as markets do. That’s a pretty high bar.”
    Our disagreement here is probably quite significant.

    “The question in my mind is not whether it could, but whether it is worth it, when there is another much simpler solution – which is just to encourage those same stores to use recyclable materials, and instead of building an entirely new infrastructure just for cutlery, just build on an already existing recycling network for plastics and paper.”

    That might work. It would be cool if it did. I think at this point we might as well agree to disagree.


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