November 2, 2017

FOOD WEEK | The Big Red Buck: What is it Good For?

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3:00 A.M. is high time for a deflated, depressed-looking bag of Cheetos. My mind steers me like a sleepwalker down a flight of stairs and into the bowels of my dorm. The lounge vending machine flaunts its wares at me as its mechanical humming becomes a soft, seductive crooning. I insert my ID. Nothing happens. There is no squeak of electronic recognition that I have made a suitable sacrifice in the proper currency. I see in digital letters on the machine’s monitor: “cash only.” The Big Red Buck, my lovely BRB, is anathema round these parts. I check my pockets. I have no cash. One scene from the film American Psycho sees an ATM demand the murderously-unhinged protagonist to feed it a stray cat. I half expect the vending machine to ask the same thing of me. Feed me a stray pre-frosh.

It’s both fascinating and frightening to me to see how our concept of money has progressively grown into something scarcely even contained within reality anymore. Asking for tangibility of anything in the 21st century may smack of naiveté, but bear with me. Lines of code and digital transactions can run nations into the ground now. A Russian seated in the dim glow of his basement computer can, with the requisite know-how, steal from millions worldwide. Everything flows, said Heraclitus. So of course, money should flow too, across currencies, across borders, even from real to digital.

It’s the logical evolution of our monetary megastructure that it should become a self-contained pump, spurting abstracted money from one corner of the cyber-earth to the other. All I ask is that is that this mega-money highway be equitable and internally coherent. The case of the BRB certainly isn’t. Still, it’s all just damned digi-stuff anyway, isn’t it?

Let’s take a step back. Here at Cornell, x vending machine takes the BRB, y does not. X2 takes cash, and accepts 5’s and 1’s, but y2 only takes 1’s. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know why I don’t just shove pennies into the machine’s greedy coin-chomping maw.

Let’s take a further step back. Before I can take my god-awful Cheetos, I need to swipe my ID, a little piece of plastic. That way I can get the computer to say I have x fewer bits of digi-stuff in my digi-piggy bank. But then we encounter the aforementioned stumbling block: sometimes digi-stuff is not the proper legal tender!

There’s something else at work here. It takes me back to the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller, back when the company store was not so maligned as it is today, but was comparatively standard business practice. Debt Slavery Lite® let’s call it. Instead of universally exchangeable cash/check, it was à la mode for large companies to compensate labor with either scrip or a voucher, providing credit at a company-owned general store where workers could satisfy their basic needs and indulge their less basic ones. Something doesn’t smell right here, at least from the standpoint of market fairness: when you’re the only guy in town, and your entire workforce is in a state of quite abject dependency to you, what’s stopping you driving the prices to the skies? Not all that much. “Sometimes you gotta be an S.O.B., you wanna make a dream reality,” says Ray Kroc in Mark Knopfler’s “Boom Like That.”

Now, to return to the BRB: that is, after all, what is in question here. It is:

  1. Only accepted at a select few Cornell-affiliated food services,
  2. Essentially useless anywhere else,
  3. An inextricable part of the meal plan; you want to eat in the dining hall, you’ve got to buy some BRB’s.

You should be getting the same funny stench that you got from retrospectively considering the idea of a company store. Points (1) and (2) are not in and of themselves bad. The BRB is not a bad idea: it spares the consumer the awkward fuss of rummaging through pants pockets to find loose change at the register, and it likewise has a clearly defined limit per semester, allowing the consumer to easily budget spending on food items. What’s more, most of the places that accept BRBs are just as willing to take cash upfront.

That said, we ought to be circumspect. The point of the BRB should be, as far as I am concerned, convenience. For one thing, it isn’t always convenient. Picking between cash/credit and the BRB is as variable a gambit as switching tracks in the days before standardized, nationalized railroads: sometimes the tracks just don’t fit the wheel, so what do you do then? Go home without your Cheetos.

It’s therefore surprising to me that all Cornellians with meal plans seem to casually accept that Cornell-specific currency is just a natural, concomitant part of life as a hungry student. There’s no reason it needs to stay that way. When it’s made compulsory, when the student has no choice between enrolling in a meal plan and having to pay an extra several hundred dollars for a service he/she may or may not use, it really is just the company store redux.