Accuracy in Media

History is much longer than Vox seems to think it is. In a new piece, Vox reports that food prices were, even before this interruption from Covid, Ukraine and shipping costs, historically high.

This is, we have to point out, absurd nonsense. Food prices were at historical lows and even now are only fractionally above those historical lows.

Before the war in Ukraine, food prices were already at some of their highest historical levels due to high fuel and energy prices, droughts, and the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Russia’s invasion exacerbated them, pushing prices to record highs in March.

This simply isn’t true. One problem is that they are measuring food prices by the FAO index, which is based on the international trade prices of food. Absolutely no large nation imports anywhere close to all its food (of the rich nations, probably Britain does the most, with some 40% of the food supply being imports). The international price of food is not the price of food. Even in theory that international price is the price of food plus that of transport which is a rather different thing.

But it misses something very important. Something that Vox knows but hasn’t connected. Real incomes have changed – wages have risen, even after inflation. This is the same thing as saying the world has got richer, which it has. For example, from Vox again, about how the U.S. poverty line was calculated:

The multiplier of 3 was used because the average family of three or more spent one-third of their after-tax income on food in the 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey. If the average family spent one-third of its income on food, then three times the subsistence food budget provided an estimated poverty threshold.

That number is about 10% now (actually, 8.6% and that includes food eaten out, not something the poor of 1955 were doing much).

Food falls from one-third to one-tenth of the average family budget? In the only manner that means anything at all food has got cheaper. In fact, food has dropped in price by two-thirds, hasn’t it?

Now, it’s possible to think that we’re just nitpicking here, that we’re shouting about trivia. Except we’re not really. Because one of the things progressives – among whom we include all too much of the modern media – seem not to understand is just how dreadful the past was. How everyone was living in what we would now consider to be the most abject poverty. No, we don’t say today is perfect but we must be alive to the proper comparisons. Go back a century and more and 80% of a family’s budget was spent on food and rent and just food and rent. Everything else came out of the remaining 20% of income.

Vox markets itself as “explaining the news” and it ranks inside the top 100 news media outlets in the U.S. as it does so. It gains some 20 million visits to the site each month. It has influence that is.

Internationally traded food is high in price at present, that’s true. But that entirely ignores how incomes have risen over the decades for it is not measuring prices as a percentage of income, but by the number of $. Over any significant period of time, the only way of comparing prices that’s of any use is how much work people have to do to get something – the percentage of their income, that is. Food isn’t expensive by this, correct, measure, it’s still around the cheapest it has been since the invention of farming all those thousands of years ago.

Now that would be explaining the news, wouldn’t it?

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