In 2015 a Minnesota YouTuber set out to make a chicken sandwich from scratch. It took him six months and $1,500.
Why? Because from scratch meant literally from scratch. From zero. He grew the cucumbers to pickle, the lettuce, tomatoes, and onions for garnish. The wheat to harvest and make the bun. He found a cow, milked it, and turned that milk into cheese. He had to travel to the west coast to collect sea water, to then boil it down to obtain salt, as there are no natural salt deposits in Minnesota. He grew sunflowers to produce vegetable oils to cook the chicken, then realized the immense pressure needed to extract oil from sunflower seeds, and built a homemade press to do so. He even slaughtered, plucked and cleaned the chicken. The entire six-month process netted him a, as he called it, a “not bad” chicken sandwich and a new found appreciation for the skills of farmers, artisans, and chefs. This eccentric exercise is also a great parable for a concept that has been unduly controversial as of late: globalization.
Globalization is why your chicken sandwich costs $4
The YouTuber’s experiment showed us how something as mundane as a chicken sandwich is complex, requiring multiple inputs. Today we can buy a chicken sandwich from a restaurant or make one relatively easy at home from ingredients bought at the store. But behind those solutions are foundations in trade between individuals. The farmers, machinist, and producers all trade with each other to bring the different ingredients of our chicken sandwich together. There was a time in which our diets were entirely dependent on what we could gather as a person or within our close familial or tribal group. To make a chicken sandwich, you had to bring the goods or services you produced to a central location and trade. Trading in products requires that the other trading partner wants what you have. So if you made fabric and wanted a chicken from the chicken farmer, you would have to find out if the chicken farmer wanted fabric. If he wanted rope instead, you would have to find a rope maker to bring in to secure the deal. It was expensive and kept down some goods you could have. The solution to this was to agree on a thing that everyone could assign a value to, and then trade that thing, that representation of value. That thing was money. And as money spread, in its various forms, it also spread the ability for people to trade. A spice merchant might have no interest in my fabrics whatsoever since he prefers fabric of a different regional style. But he is interested in my coin with the emperor’s head on it since wherever he goes in the emperor’s expanding kingdom, he knows he can buy what he really wants with that coin.
I offer this Econ 101 introduction to trade as I think it’s necessary to approach the controversial theme of globalization. Globalization has become a bad word. Brexit, Trump and the upcoming elections in Germany and France have signaled the rise of nationalism and protectionism. The costs of globalization have been derided and our national discussion has not done enough to discuss the benefits. This is likely due to the benefits, or at least non-negative effects, of globalization have been so deeply ingrained in our society we have largely ignored them or taken them for granted. We hold globalization as a big hefty term, symbolized by outsourcing, trade treaties, and bankers and politicians. We have forgotten that at its core globalization is simply trade. Trade not much different than the business that makes chicken sandwiches affordable. There are many things wrong with globalization and free trade. What it achieves in efficiency, getting us a bunch of things, it lacks in equity. There are those that suffer and prosper greatly at its fringes. But the solution to that isn’t isolation. The solution is to understand it better and fully appreciate its successes while mediating its moral failures. Globalization is here to stay; we aren’t going to stop eating chicken sandwiches.
I plan to write a lot more about trade and globalization. It’s a topic I find more interesting than anything else. So when I share ideas around topics like free trade agreements, outsourcing, and the plight of those left behind due to shifts in the industry, please remember at the foundation of all this stuff is the trade. The same trade that makes chicken sandwiches affordable.