Trade-War Notes: If McDonald's Served Cream Tea

THE world is becoming increasingly more global.

Like many cliches, even this fatuous-sounding one has a kernel of truth to it. Each of the different trading communities and pacts around the world - such as the newly initialed North American Free Trade Agreement, the European Community, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - is tending to homogenize economic practices.

As the coming of the railroads forced the world into standard time zones, the tightening network of world trade is forcing producers everywhere to reach for common standards of quality and price-competitiveness. More and more we find that a producer who can't play on a world stage can't play, period.

It starts with brand-name merchandise being available around the world. Or even not-brand-name merchandise: The American tourist buys a cuckoo clock in the Black Forest of Germany and returns home only to discover exactly the same thing at the local K-Mart.

The homogenization continues with services, even in areas like health care, where the services have to be provided in situ, one would think. But that may not be an absolute limit. Firms in the Philippines, for instance, are trying to "position" themselves as providers of retirement-living and long-term health-care services to affluent Americans.

Beyond something like this, however, expansion of the opportunities for services as well as goods across borders is a feature of all the new trade groupings: American Express, for instance, will soon be selling mutual funds throughout Europe for the first time, within the EC's "single European market." The transition to the single European market is not going to be without strains, but it should make a lot of difference in a lot of people's lives.

Beyond the mere efficiency of delivery of goods and services, however, the economic life of a society is tied to its cultural life. Our choices about what to buy and how to buy it are tied up with more than just the least-common-denominator question of who can deliver the most of the best for the least.

The Japanese, in their "inefficient" multilayered distribution system, have developed an important full-employment safety net for their society.

The earnest downtown redevelopment associations in small towns across America may be pursuing a narrow self-interest in trying to protect small merchants from encroachments by the superstores on the outskirts of town, but they are also promoting a more humane scale of town development, to say nothing of greater energy efficiency if they can get people to walk instead of drive.

The French farmers, protagonists in the almost trade war over oilseeds and white wine, are part of their country's collective self-image as a rural society, of an ideal of France as the breadbasket of Europe - never mind that by strictly economic standards, the breadbasket of Europe may need to be in the Americas and elsewhere.

And the teashops and cafes of Europe may not seem very efficient economic undertakings, but they play an important part in the culture of their communities.

Which gets us to the question, What if McDonald's served tea? This came to thought during a fast-food lunch break on a long trip a few months ago along the interstate highways of the American South. If there is a least-common-denominator dining experience, this is it.

But seriously, what if McDonald's served tea, not just hot water and a teabag in a foam cup, but a fast-food equivalent of a full-blown Devon cream tea, with scones and strawberry jam and clotted cream? One can imagine something called McScone, a prepackaged scone with a sort of tinfoil tent to protect the blobs of jam and cream within.

Of course, the point of afternoon tea is not to reduce it all to a package to go. It is not a refueling stop; it is an experience.

So I was reminded in London a few weeks after the original whimsy of McScone came to mind. In one of my favorite hole-in-the-wall teashops I saw the sign: "Please Note That We Are Not a Fast Food Restaurant. Our Food Is Freshly Made to Order."

I surveyed my table: a small pot of tea; pot of hot water; cup; saucer; two kinds of sugar, loose in bowls, with spoons, not the almost ubiquitous little envelopes one sees most places; actual milk in an actual pitcher, not the little plastic cylindroids with the paper and foil tops; little plates for cucumber sandwiches and cake.

To repeat, afternoon tea is not about economic efficiency.

Clearly, the benefits of ever-freer trade can be considerable. It may well be that consumer savings realized from keener competition mean that resources freed can be redeployed elsewhere, to the greater enjoyment of afternoon tea, for instance.

But if the homogenization of the single global market leaves our various communities no more differentiated from one another than the fast-food shops along the interstates, we will have lost much that is important.

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