Maybe the cold, unthinking marketplace really does enforce rationality after all, and as usual it starts with the small stuff.

Maybe the cold, unthinking marketplace really does enforce rationality after all, and as usual it starts with the small stuff.

Food prices are up, and that’s putting the squeeze on grocers. Here’s the essential math: a plastic grocery bag costs 2 cents, and a paper one costs a nickel. Upon such differences empires rise and fall.

It’s reported that some grocers are now retraining their employees to not overbag the pork chops and bananas. For example, if milk comes straight from the tree in a plastic bottle with a handle, why is a bag needed at all?

I have wondered this many times, just as I have been confounded by that ever-popular wrapping of an item in a plastic bag and then placing that inside yet another plastic bag.

Two cents at a time, this is dragging down grocery store profits, so the bean-counters for once are using their powers for good and decreeing an end to profligate plastic proliferation. No doubt someday soon this will become the object of a business school case study much like the fabled instance 20 or more years ago when some genius figured out a major airline could save $1 million a year by getting rid of the nice leaf of lettuce your lunch was served on.

Of course, genius No. 2 came along soon enough and just cut the meals altogether, truly a day of triumph for we sad souls who cling to idea that the marketplace inevitably delivers whatever consumers want.

Grocery stores go through billions – yes, billions with a “b” – of plastic bags a year, so like the banks and their creative fees they are scrambling for new ideas. Some discount chains even tell you to bring your own bags or pay a nickel for their theirs. Some go so far as to sell us – yes, sell us – reusable cloth bags with their brand stamped on the side, and some of us willingly pay money for a product meant to save someone else money.

When they get really desperate, the bean counters resort to common sense: Fill the bags to a reasonable level, and don’t double bag. Some are even issuing a gag order on that great conversation starter “paper or plastic?” The bagger is supposed to reach for the 2-cent plastic and only relent if the vigilant, persistent shopper insists on the full 5-cent paper extravaganza.

One major grocer, it is reported, had a companywide task force to study bag use. (Can you imagine the squeals of outrage if the government did something like that?) The task force met and came forth with a slogan for its baggers: When you’re done, add one.

Yes, I know. Common sense (like common courtesy) is rarer than it should be these days. We know that computerized cash registers have robbed a couple of generations of the simple ability to count back change. And now, do we really need corporation re-education efforts to tell 19-year-olds that a 10-pound bag of potatoes doesn’t need to go in another ... bag?

We might be worse off than I thought.