The $1,500 Sandwich: An Ode to Trade

Sep 29, 2015 | Uncategorized

Do you grow backyard chickens? As a kid, my family did. And geese and ducks and rabbits. We didn’t call them ‘backyard’ chickens in those days. We called them ‘breakfast’ and ‘dinner.’ The chickens gave us eggs and…well, their very lives.

We also had a big garden, about half-an-acre big. Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, turnips, rutabagas, onions, asparagus, corn, lettuce, cabbage, horse radish, radish, kohlrabi and more.

With four growing boys to feed on a railroad carman’s salary, this was not a hobby. This was food on the table. None of this was free, of course, but we did it cheap. The chickens were bought at the sales barn and we cobbled the coops and rabbit hutches together with old salvaged lumber. The chicken wire was used again and again.

The seeds and sets for the garden cost money but it was mostly about manual labor and my dad’s deep knowledge about gardening.

I thought about all of this recently when I read a story about a $1,500 sandwich. You can find it here. It tells about the adventures of a young man who set about growing all of the things he needed for a chicken sandwich. The accompanying video shows him milking a cow then making butter, picking and grinding wheat for bread, growing cucumbers and making pickles, and so on.

The punch line is that it costs him 6 months of his life to grow, assemble and process all of the ingredients to make a common chicken sandwich, which in the end he declared as only okay.

The purpose of this exercise was to show the importance of trade. Long ago we moved away from being self-sufficient to specialization. Somebody knows how to raise and milk cows, somebody else knows how to make butter, wheat farmers grow wheat and others know how to process it into flour and so on.

While something is lost when we don’t know how to do many basic things for ourselves, the offset is higher living standards because many specialized experts combine their time and talent to produce high quality goods. The result is an $8 sandwich much better than the $1,500 self-produced one that costs much more time to make.

So, go ahead and grow our backyard chickens and garden. Just understand that in the end it usually isn’t about saving money. What does save you money is the free enterprise system which harnesses the self-interests of dozens of disconnected people to bring us the everyday things that we can basically take for granted.