Le problème du pain

Bread is one of the great pleasures of Paris.  The croissants melt in your mouth, the tarts have a crust that is to die for and when you break a baguette the bloom crackles perfectly and yet the inside is moist and chewy.  Moreover, I’m not talking about the best bread in Paris (which is likely the best in the world), I’m talking about the bread that you can find in any of thousands of neighborhood boulangeries and patisseries.  Why is the bread in Paris better than any that I can find in Washington?

Two answers come quickly to mind.  First, competition is intense.  Every neighborhood has at least half a dozen shops to buy bread.  Second, the French are used to high quality and will reject anything of low quality so tourists benefit from the informed local demanders.

I find both of these explanations wanting.  We do have artisanal bread in the United States and take a look at your local supermarket, competition on bread quality is intense.  At my local supermarket, there are dozens of different breads all of which compete with an on-premise bakery.

Furthermore, isn’t bread making about knowledge? – i.e. the paradigmatic example of a public good and one that is supposed to diffuse easily around the globe.  How difficult can it be to follow the recipe?  (I know, that is my point.) 

Comments are open if you have some ideas about why bread isn’t nearly as good in the United States as in Paris.  But you might also have guessed that I have a larger point in mind.

Le problème du pain is this – if it’s difficult to spread the art of bread making from Paris to Washington then how can we ever hope to spread democracy from Washington to Baghdad?


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