Comparable worth at the supermarket...
A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann
No one can say the Economist had not earned his fate. After all, the
Grocer was getting his ideas from somewhere. It may be unfair to hold
the teachings of all against one, but the Economist was the one who was
there at the time. Besides, the Redistribution of Injustice device is
still in R&D.
What happened was this: the Economist was in front of me on line at the local B&Q. I'm not one of those snoops who sneaks peeks at other people's groceries, but his stuff stood out: a six-pack of All New Substance-Free Fizz and a frozen Mantra's Entree (granola pate).
Anyway, being good Gothamites, we practiced ovine virtues while waiting for the Grocer to look up from his Racing Form. Would that he hadn't; you see, that was when the trouble started.
The Grocer said: "Taxable garbage food." He hit one of the keys on his register. "Non-taxable frozen food." He hit more keys. He said, "Sub-total. Tax. Total. That'll be one hundred dollars."
The Economist had the bills half out of his wallet before he stopped to think. "Wait a minute... One hundred dollars for soda and a frozen dinner?"
"Yes, Sir," said the Grocer. "Worthiest prices in town."
"None worthier," said the Grocer. "The backward market price system has finally been consigned to the dustbin of history."
"Hmm... Well, how much for just the soda?"
"One hundred dollars."
"This is robbery!" Economists know all about robbery; plumbers know all about pipes.
"You have no right to say that! A fair, just, socially conscious means of assuring economic tranquility," said the Grocer. "Not robbery."
"But, but, but..."
"But nothing, buster. Doesn't everyone agree that I have a much right to a decent living as anyone?" The Economist's nod looked Pavlovian. "Well, then," said the Grocer, "look at these nails. Look at my teeth. Look how clean my hair is!"
"What does your hair have to do with the price of a frozen dinner?!?"
"Well... do you think any lawyer has nails that look as good as these? A dentist might do a better job on his teeth, and surgeons are said to keep their bodies fairly clean. But can any of them compare their nails to mine?"
Economist: "Your nails?"
"That's right, my nails." The Grocer's smile was smug. "Isn't it an established fact that the sole criterion of worth is value added by labor?" Another knee-jerk nod. "Well, then, which attorney has devoted more labor to his manicure than I?"
"Sorry, destiny won't wait. Irreversible historical trends are irreversible."
"Do you mean," asked the Economist, "that no matter what I'd selected, the price would be one hundred dollars?"
"I have done away with personal preference at this check-out counter."
"Then what would prevent me from buying three cart loads at the same price?"
The Grocer pointed to a sign over his head. It said: "Express Lane - Twelve items or fewer". He said: "Note that for once the message is expressed grammatically. In what architect's office will you find better English?"
"But there are no other registers!"
The Grocer looked smitten: "Would you let unbridled competitive forces deny me my right to my comparable worth? Now, if it's a bargain you want, grab ten of the fifty pound bags of Frisky Chow; that'd run you a hundred-ten at any other store."
"But I don't need five hundred pounds of dog food..."
"Tell me about it... Haven't you heard? This is the age of consumption for use, not profit."
"But, but, but..."
"But you agree that I'm as worthy as anyone?" The Economist's operant conditioning proved its effectiveness. "Then how can you deny me the value that my labor has added to my person? It's not just my nails, you know! Why, I go to the opera, I shop at Brooks Brothers, I finish the Sunday crossword puzzle. Comparatively speaking, I'm just as worthy as the next guy."
"Hold it..." The Economist looked hurt and confused.
I said: "I wonder if I could squeeze ahead..." The Economist looked up, but he didn't protest. He was mumbling to himself.
The Grocer pulled my purchases forward. He said: "Non- taxable produce. Non-taxable meats. Taxable baked goods. That'll be one hundred dollars."
"You'll take a check, of course?"
"A check..." The Grocer pulled at an eyebrow. "Well... I don't know about that..."
"But it's a perfectly good check," I said. "Finest paper, finest ink. I filled it in with a Cross pen. You won't see a worthier check all week."
I handed the check to the Grocer. He examined it minutely. "'First Bank of Oz'...?"
I said: "'Satisfied customers for over 450 billion nanoseconds.'"
"Account number minus seven?!?"
"A special arrangement. You see, I'm one of their worthier customers." I've added a lot of labor to my smile, so I quarried it to full value. "Perhaps the worthiest..."
"All right, all right," the Grocer sighed. "I'll take the check. Just don't start in with that 'worthier than thou' stuff."
As I was leaving, the Economist stopped me. "Wait," he said. "I think I've missed something..."
I smiled gently; true pity is a revolting thing. "Not something. Someone."