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Good Writing For Good Causes

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Mobile Register
March 15, 1995

Terrorism at the break of day

Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.
— H.L. Mencken

It makes the hair rise and sway like wheat in a gentle breeze to read stories that begin as this one does: “Two House members want Justice Department antitrust lawyers to investigate why Raisin Bran sells at $4.49 a box, Shredded Wheat at $4.19 and Captain Crunch at $4.09 a pop.”

Reps. Charles Schumer of New York and Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, both Democrats, suspect that four “industry giants” have cornered the market in cold cereal and are conspiring to keep prices artificially high.

Unable to think of anything more infuriating than an artificial price, we read on with smoldering retinas.

“Consumers are getting gouged at checkout counters all over the country,” says Mr. Schumer. “Why? Because the industry is immune from competition.”

But as the story unfolds, this antitrust theory topples and shatters like a bowl of cornflakes. Any consumer, for instance, who takes a gouging at the checkout could easily avoid it next time around. Why not select a generic cereal? They’re plentiful, and they’re far cheaper than the name brands.

Mr. Schumer feebly replies that the generic brands are hard to find on the shelves. But shoppers of less-than-average wit routinely and successfully prospect the grocer’s aisles. It’s not the sort of job that requires training at the Colorado School of Mines.

If the generics are hard to locate, so are the others, surrounded as they are by a dizzying array of alternatives decked out in gaudy boxes. More than 60 new cereals have been introduced in the last five years — which is an odd phenomenon in a market where competition is supposedly having the life choked out of it.

Anyone daunted by the cereal display faces a grand vista of options. One can handily break a fast, for instance, with a bagel, a muffin or a tub of yogurt. We once knew a young woman who drew her morning sustenance from a salami sandwich laced with barbecue sauce. When toning up for a marathon, Frank Shorter reports a satisfying result from Ding Dongs and Schlitz.

It is, therefore, preposterous to suggest that we need federal antitrust lawyers to keep Captain Crunch and a handful of accomplices from boxing us in. Messrs. Schumer needn’t worry about breakfast. Those two are permanently out to lunch.

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