Leith on life: Willy Wonka economics

The mere idea of a “limited edition” makes the novelty preferable
June 17, 2015

“Only once a year, on his birthday, did Charlie Bucket ever get to taste a bit of chocolate.” There—and note the force and poignancy that the disruption in word order gives Roald Dahl’s immortal sentence—is the very nub of Charlie’s world of longing and want. “On those marvellous birthday mornings, he would place [the chocolate] in a small wooden box that he owns, and treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold [my italics].”

That last phrase strikes home. Here is a fantastical economics of confectionery. Charlie’s life is defined by poverty. Willy Wonka’s factory stands as the antipole. The opposite of wage-slavery—as experienced in the factory where Charlie’s dad screws the caps on toothpaste tubes—is the ownership of the means of production; the factory where Wonka makes the product that renders toothpaste necessary.

The annual chocolate bar is like a bar of solid gold. The ticket that buys access to the chocolate factory is golden. The secrecy that attends the factory is the legacy of issues with intellectual property (Wonka’s magical recipes had all been ripped off in the past). When he finds a coin on the street—surplus!—Charlie buys one chocolate bar for the never-experienced pleasure of gobbling it up at once, and can’t resist buying another—the one with the golden ticket—to keep; cutting into the remainder of his windfall he will take back to his mother. I’m not being facetious in saying that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, when you get down to it, basically a fable about scarcity economics.

This isn’t all that perverse or surprising. Humphrey McQueen’s book on Coca-Cola, The Essence of Capitalism, sees fizzy drinks as a particularly pure way of looking at how American capitalism works. From the 11th to the 16th centuries, sugar itself (again, because of scarcity) was almost unimaginably valuable. According to Sidney Mintz’s 1985 Sweetness and Power, 13.5m people were killed or enslaved to produce it.

We now have the opposite problem: it’s superabundant. So to keep the market buoyant, as Marxists would see, you need not to increase supply but to manufacture demand—in the form of needless novelty and bogus scarcity. Does that work?

It works on me. What I am writing here is a hifalutin theoretical justification for my obsession with novelty sweeties. The words “limited edition” on the side of a packet of confectionery will draw me to it like flies to a cowpat. Halloween editions of Creme Eggs (Screme Eggs, obviously, with green goo inside); variant flavour KitKats; biscuit spin-offs from chocolate bars (Crunchie Biscuits—disappointing; though the chocolate lump spin-off, Crunchie Rocks, is amazing); chocolate bar spin-offs from soft-drinks (Tango Demolition bar—oddly delicious); soft-drink spin-offs from chocolate bars (Mars milk); ice-cream spin-offs from both…. All of these are, to me, limitlessly fascinating.

I know that these innovations will almost certainly be horribly sweet, synthetic-tasting and harshly perverse in flavour. I know that a simple Mars Bar (Roald Dahl thought it more or less the pinnacle of western civilisation) will be better to eat. But the mere idea of a “limited edition” makes the novelty preferable. Somewhere, deep down, is the fear I will go to my grave without tasting a cherry-cola-flavoured Curly Wurly. Brought to consciousness, that’s absurd. But it operates on my hand and my wallet.

What that suggests to me is that the law of supply and demand isn’t just a pricing mechanism: it’s wired into our souls. We crave scarcity. The most blissful vision of perfection Charlie and the Chocolate Factory offers is not access to Wonka’s phantasmagoria: it’s Charlie’s husbanding of his birthday chocolate. “At last, when he could stand it no longer, he would peel back a tiny bit of the paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble—just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue.”