Keynes, Hayek and orange peppers

I look at this packet of peppers, and I think: is this what the long history of human ingenuity has come to?
February 22, 2012

So the other day I go out to buy some peppers. Like all middle-class twerps in north London, I am now incapable of cooking anything that does not come with the imprimatur of Yotam Ottolenghi—master of the delicious but finicky fusion dish, ambassador for sumac and precise counter of curry leaves. The dish I’m cooking wants three red peppers, so I go to Sainsbury’s and find three peppers. In a pack: one red, one green, one orange.

I look at these peppers, and despair fills my whole heart. They told us—Adam Smith told us; Hayek told us; even Keynes told us—that capitalism, with certain minor adjustments to prevent the bastards ganging up on us, would serve the consumer. That as markets neared frictionless perfection, choice would burgeon and the minutest of our whims would be catered for.

No more waiting six months for BT to put in a telephone line and having three shades of brown Bakelite handset to choose from. No more nasty, gherkiny bit in your Whopper: you could “Have It Your Way.” The world would be a giant retail pic ‘n’ mix. Our lives would be bespoke. And yet here—ostensibly for no more profound reason than that it looks cutely like a traffic light—comes their refutation. You cannot acquire a red pepper without also acquiring a green one (which the recipe doesn’t require) and an orange one (which very few if any recipes require.) Take it or leave it.

I stand fuming in the aisle of my local supermarket, while sullen teenagers with earphones going tss-bomp tss-bomp tss-bomp tss-bomp shoulder past me towards the pouches of glutionous pre-fabricated stir-fry sauce, while mothers wheeling gargantuan three-wheeled toddler-wagons bark my shins and trolley-pushers back up and reverse into three-for-two sliced meats to let them past, everyone doing the “scoose, sorry, scoose, sorry” dance and wishing—on balance—that the earth would cease upon the stroke of midnight with no pain. And I look at this packet of peppers, and I think: is this what the long history of human ingenuity has come to?

Scoose—I mean, here I stand—ouch—after millennia of economic development—sorry—which have taken us from swapping pointy rocks—tss, bomp—to flying vegetables from one side of the world—scoose—to the bountiful fresh produce shelves of the other, where—ouch—they can be scanned by laser and—sorry—paid for with fiat money encoded in the electronic ether and—tss, bomp—cooked according to recipes that draw on the culinary traditions of five continents—scoose—yet these wretched vegetables are—OUCH!—so presented to the customer that you can’t buy three red peppers without also acquiring three green and three orange ones which will wrinkle like old scrota in your fridge, and paying nearly a fiver for the privilege. SORRY!

The bizarre thing, moreover, is that when, in larger stores or online, one is presented with the choice of buying single red peppers loose, they are more expensive: 75p each rather than the 55p per pepper that these three-packs cost. It simply cannot be the case that flogging loose red peppers is pricier to the retailer than flogging these multicoloured three-packs, with the need to grade them for size and colour, to affix sticky labels and to wrap them in landfill-clogging, seagull-strangling cellophane.

So either we are left to conclude that they are willing to lower their margins, just to persuade us to buy too many peppers—in the classic two-for-one marketing scam that fills all our fridges with the rotting vegetables of our good intentions—or to conclude that the only way they can get rid of orange and green peppers is to yoke them, like a sparkling old friend’s inexplicably boring husband stinking up a party, to their more desirable red counterparts.

A third possibility does suggest itself to me. It is that the market for peppers is a sinister ghost of the pre-crash financial services industry, and that in these smug little cellophane three-packs we can see an object analogue of the complexly tranched asset-backed securities that got us into all that trouble in 2008. Here is a package that, with its traffic-light colouring and shiny wrapping, and its innocuous title of “Mixed Peppers,” looks like an attractive investment for the capsicum-lover.

But the packet contains not only AAA-rated red peppers, useful in any number of recipes, but BB-rated green peppers (OK for retro 1970s-style rice-stuffed-pepper dishes to put vegetarians off coming to your dinner parties, and for intriguing-looking-but-not-very-nice salads), and orange peppers, which as far as I can tell have junk status: the equivalent of a toxic bundle of NINJA mortgages doled out to three-toed Appalachian meth-heads who make their marks on contracts with an inky thumb.

As finance has gone global, so (thanks to social media) has dissent. I therefore raised this grim situation online and have seldom if ever been so bombarded with responses. Occupy Archway Sainsbury’s, it turns out, is going to be even more fissiparous and vague a movement than its cousin on Wall Street. Everyone has a strong opinion. Some hate green peppers and love red. Some like only orange. One says that the three are simply the same creature at different stages of maturity, and that I will be happier if I think of them as Charlotte Church, Liz Hurley and Felicity Kendal. Many think, and are kind enough to imply, that I am a damn fool. But not one of my respondents says that they love all three and need them in equal quantities.

So, here I stand in the supermarket, vouchsafed a bleak vision of the age. Capitalism has failed us. I have seen the future, and it is the mini-mart.