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Ice cream economics

| Thursday, May 6, 2021

Picture this: vanilla ice cream, covered in melt-in-your mouth chocolate, then a sweet, gooey caramel, all enclosed by another layer of chocolate. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the Magnum Double Caramel Ice Cream Bar. If you’ve never experienced this culinary masterpiece, I urge you to walk to The Huddle right now and spend your precious flex points on this pinnacle of human achievement.

Maggie Eastland | The Observer
My Magnum Double Caramel Ice Cream Bar obsession has successfully infiltrated my friends’ tastes, including first year Sofia Stitt, pictured above.

Many evenings, after an unsuccessful trip to the dining hall, I have gone on a search for this particular gem. Needless to say, it never disappoints.

Just last week, I found myself marching to LaFun with a craving for ice cream. In that moment, I felt entitled to that Magnum bar, as if eating it was some form of ultimate justice, or perhaps a repayment for the stress of the day.

As soon as I opened the wrapper and took my first bite, I started to realize the absurdity of my Magnum Ice Cream Bar quest. Instead of scarfing down the ice cream as I usually would, I took a second to really appreciate my remarkable access to such a luxury. 

To synthesize Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and Leonard Reed’s “I Pencil,” this delightful ice cream bar came into existence not out of the dairy farmer’s will to provide a Notre Dame student with joy or the wood industry’s wish to create a special popsicle stick just so her fingers wouldn’t get sticky.

Instead, every player in the process of creating my source of bliss — from the cocoa farmers to the factory workers to the Magnum brand package designers — completed their step of the process out of their own self-interest. Every one of these producers likely contributed to the other final products too, from furniture to whey protein powder, through an interconnected system of trade.

Markets are perhaps the greatest example of human unity, yet they are remarkably driven by what seems to be the exact opposite — individual interest.

It’s easy to lose sight of progress, caught up in a cloud of worry about occasional issues within these markets, such as human rights infringements and poor sustainability practices. While these issues merit serious concern, it’s important not to forget the ice cream bar right in front of our face, so to speak. We often fail to recognize that earlier generations would be awed at the sheer availability and reasonable prices of modern products. Despite our perceptions, these issues can subside as markets grow and consumers become informed.

The news these days can be pretty gloomy, but there is still reason to savor that ice cream and hope in human progress. According to data from the World Bank, poverty has been on the decline in recent decades, decreasing from 42.7% in 1981 to 10.1% in 2015. Despite a global pandemic, markets went to work creating a vaccine and allocating resources amidst volatile supply and demand. Although the pandemic was a global setback, pre-pandemic research shows that the world is gaining ground in poverty, literacy, health, freedom, population and education, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t return to such growth after the pandemic.

Issues of inequality and oppression still plague many countries, but attending a school like Notre Dame makes me more optimistic than ever about stamping out these human downfalls. Even the privilege required to address these particular social problems, instead of the formerly pervasive problems of low life expectancy or widespread hunger, testify to progress.

While the cause of all this prosperity is up for debate, myself and many investors are willing to bet markets have played and will continue to play a role in creating prosperity. And of course, with more prosperity, come not only more ice cream bars but also more vaccines, books, computers and other life-improving products, hopefully for people everywhere to enjoy.

How can such a little ice cream bar have such big connections? I am asking myself the same question. Even though the Magnum Double Caramel Ice Cream Bar is quite possibly the greatest food ever conceived, I won’t tell you how to eat your ice cream (or your hot dog, for that matter).

What I will charge is that you find something to appreciate in your life and think about the complex, interacting forces that make that object or experience possible. You just might find that markets are involved.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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