Picture yourself in England at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. If you have some skills as a part of the growing middle class, things look better every day. That life comes in part from unskilled workers driven into the growing (and filthy) cities who are more productive than ever before. The great symbol of the improving standard of living greets you in the morning as a cup of this once luxury beverage, tea. It comes from China, traded under the barrel of the guns of the Royal Navy through the new colony of Hong Kong. The latest in technology, the Clipper Ship, brings it to you with great speed and makes it possible to run this enterprise at a distance. The sun never sets on the British Empire, and tea is both its greatest commodity and emblem of success.
Today, in the waning daze of the American Empire that isn’t an empire, things could hardly be different even as they are the same. Coffee is the beverage of choice for 54% in the US. It has always been the workingman’s drink, but it is moving more yupscale – even though 35% of us still drink it black (as it is meant to be, damnit). It is shipped from tropical, underdeveloped nations in unromantic cargo containers as the second most traded commodity in the world by value ($15B per year), behind only oil. The nations that produce it are rapidly urbanizing into filthy cities. The trade is managed over the internet by a cadre of traders and speculators.
History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes like a street poet hitting a beat.