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Capitalism & Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Article by Ike Brannon July 8, 2013 //   5 minute read

As a chocolate-chip cookie enthusiast, I have struggled through the first half-century of my life. My Peoria childhood left me utterly dependent upon the baking vagaries of my mother, who inexplicably let the quotidian tasks of raising four kids get in the way of keeping me regularly supplied. The local bakery was renowned for being the oldest bakery in the state, but its offerings predated Bismarck as well. Apparently Prussians weren’t fond of chocolate-chip cookies.

The store-bought cookies of my youth were uniformly lousy, and everyone knew it. While in high school, I would help the assistant manager of our corner grocery store taste test new cookies coming onto the market. We never came close to approving a new cookie to sell.

When I left town, I discovered that Peoria’s dessert desert was by no means unique. Continuing my quest through college turned up nothing to get excited about, save for a deli in Bloomington, Indiana, that would serve homemade cookies baked by a waitress on Fridays. I still send her a Christmas card.

I then moved to Wisconsin, down the street from a restaurant with a pastry chef who made a genuinely compelling chocolate-chip cookie. The rest of town agreed with me, and the entire baked-goods section would sell out by the end of lunch. I used my economics training to produce a detailed analysis showing that selling out so early was not a profit-maximizing outcome. They laughed at my report and went bankrupt within a year.

After a few years, I married a foreigner indifferent to cookies and uninterested in baking and took her to Washington, D.C. In this burg I am within walking distance of four decent bakeries, each of which offers a cookie better than anything I’ve previously been able to regularly buy, but not good enough to end my standing request that my mother and sister mail me cookies for my birthday.

Recently, however, I have stumbled across two different cookies for sale that are as good as any homemade cookie I’ve ever had: Tate’s Cookies are available at every grocery store, large and small, in my neighborhood, and Atwater’s bakery in Baltimore makes cookies that can be found at a stall at the neighborhood farmers market every weekend. For the first time in my life I can easily buy a satisfying chocolate-chip cookie whenever I want.

What’s the point of regaling the reader with my contented resolution to a lifelong, banal obsession? It is that capitalism — the relentless efforts of millions of people to build a better mousetrap or a better cookie — leads to innovations that can improve people’s lives. It’s easy for us to observe this when we look at smartphones and the thousands of apps developed for them, but innovation takes place everywhere.

When it comes to baked goods, innovation allows all sorts of people to spend $5 on a half-dozen cookies on a semi-regular basis. While the local farmers market may not be populated by the middle and lower class, Tate’s cookies can be bought in the slowly gentrifying Petworth neighborhood and the just-beginning-to-improve Anacostia area of D.C., as well as my yuppie-centric neighborhood. When I was unofficial cookie tester for my local grocer 30 years ago, the notion that people would spend that much money on a half-dozen cookies would have been viewed as outrageous — the “premium” cookies of the day, Archway, cost less than half of what my new favorites do, after adjusting for inflation. Today, desserts in general are less commoditized, and people are willing to spend more on premium ice cream, baked goods, or whatever satisfies their sweet tooth.

The benefits of economic growth go beyond the almost unbelievable technology gains we can so readily and regularly observe. Even though it may not interest most people, I’m sure there are others in my community who are as happy as I am about easy access to the perfect chocolate-chip cookie.