Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Lesson in Not Learning the Lesson

Well... As happens from time to time, the New York Times "Opinionator" blog just about gave me a brain aneurysm.

Mark Bittman, their "Food Columnist", wrote an article yesterday titled "A Food Manifesto for the Future", and as with most articles claiming to be a "manifesto", this one misses the mark by about a lightyear or two.

He starts off so well... He explains that American's diets are generally not very good, and that the way we currently produce food includes a great deal of waste and environmentally harmful practices and is of course (how could he write an article about food without this word!) isn't "sustainable".

For the most part, I'm inclined to agree... Fair enough, Mr. Bittman, do go on.

He raises some valid concerns, and then "in no particular order", he offers his thoughts on how to solve those problems and make America a healthier, better place with respect to food consumption & production practices. And he kicks it off with a great one!
"End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition.... Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow."
Fabulous, right!? 

Yeah... If only he stopped right there, and concluded that paragraph with, "...and these subsidies have radically distorted the market for both consumers & producers of food, they are unfair, they cost taxpayers money they cannot afford to spend and they encourage bad diets and bad practices while overriding the decisions of free people - thus, subsidies just shouldn't exist", I'd be a happy camper.

If he'd said that, then my brain wouldn't have exploded, and I could just forward his message along to everyone I know with my whole-hearted agreement.

But, predictably... He didn't.

Instead... Bittman stupidly concludes that in spite of the fact that 50 years of one type of subsidy have produced a bunch of harmful consequences to the American people, we should just subsidize different things, instead. For example, he suggests that we:
"Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages..."
But that's not enough! We should also:
"Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves."
...and, of course:
"Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution."

My brain hurts so much. How thick can you possibly get?? There's nothing intrinsically bad about corn or soybeans that somehow results in special unintended consequences when subsidized by the government. The problem is, as historian Burton Folsom, Jr. put it:
"Subsidies change the way the recipients behave, and these changes often work against, not for, them. That is the neglected argument against opening the door to federal aid in the first place; but it is an argument that needs to be studied and forcefully made."
Nothing makes this point more clear than a look at agricultural subsidies. Corn subsidies are the obvious place to start too, simply because it's somewhat easy to see a direct line of cause & effect.

We subsidize the crap out of corn - as Bittman noted above. That has the effect of encouraging massive increases in corn production, which lowers the price of corn and in turn encourages consumers to buy and use more corn.

But it doesn't end there... People aren't just eating more corn-on-the-cob, oh no! Subsidized corn has become cheap carbohydrates used in livestock feed, binding agents for processed food, ridiculously inefficient "renewable" fuel additive (only if you think using 36 gallons of water per mile is renewable...), and of course - as a processed sweetener.

I'm sure Bittman realizes that the high-fructose corn syrup that has become ubiquitous in most manufactured food products in America is purely a consequence of corn subsidies (and of the tariffs we place on foreign sugar producers, rendering real sugar more expensive).

Oh and, did I mention that thanks to the mandates for Ethanol and the subsidization of corn, world food prices are substantially higher due to the United States tossing perfectly viable export crop down the drain? Yeah... Unintended consequences are fun, aren't they?

But that's the thing... It's not about the damned corn! It's about the policy. Unintended consequences are a part of all economically significant government policy, and most people seem to be too short-sighted and ignorant of economics to grasp this basic fact. Bittman certainly is... Only someone without a firm grasp of economics, and a serious lack of critical thinking would think that the solution to problems created by market-distorting subsidies was more subsidies.

It doesn't matter if, today, we think that some other type of food is better or worse. The giant agribusinesses that have cropped up as rent-seeking agents sucking up current subsidies will simply shift their operations to become rent-seekers of the new kinds of subsidies, and the same types of problems (although, not identical, of course) will develop over time.

Brain surgery, this is not.

And what gets even more ridiculous is that Mr. Bittman makes exactly the same mistake all over again with some of his other brilliant recommendations! Again, he starts with a perfectly legitimate point, and then concludes something asinine. Check it out... Mark Bittman rightly points out that we should:
"Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating..."
Good point, man! The USDA most certainly has a conflict of interest there. You can't act as the major protector of agribusiness interests and be the United States' arbiter of good nutrition without major contradictions. And of course, this is why the food pyramid has always been such utter nonsense.

Explain how this makes sense...
So yeah, I agree, the USDA definitely has problems as an organization. As a government agency tasked with setting rules, issuing subsidies and "informing" the public, they become a prime target for rent-seeking agribusinesses. These businesses naturally hire lobbyists, and work for the passage of rules favorable to themselves. Go figure.

So what does Bittman propose? Expanding the role of government in food production! First, he argues that:
"...the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply."
What? The USDA is no good, so let's get rid of their powers, and shift them to some other agency...?

Maybe in Bittman's imagination transferring power from an organization with the initialism USDA to one called the FDA makes a difference, but in the real world... it doesn't.

Businesses don't care which regulatory body they have to lobby. As long as a given regulatory body has substantial powers that can make or break a company's future, and as long as there is a governmental body issuing fat subsidies, there will be companies lining up with lobbyists to influence those agencies.

Giving more power to the FDA won't help.

And oh by the way, the FDA has myriad problems of its own. It is already so over-protective about the "safety" of our food that it has made the sale of raw milk illegal, and it routinely denies approval for drugs which are already in use elsewhere because it's afraid to approve anything that might harm anyone at anytime. Maybe you are thinking, "So what? Being overprotective is good, right?".


Being overprotective with medicine leads to the needless suffering & death of millions of patients every year a helpful drug is kept out of US markets, and being overprotective with food often robs individuals of their freedom to choose what they want to eat, it robs Americans of many of the culinary traditions taken for granted in Europe and other parts of the world, and it results in the very kinds of factory-farming (which become the only operations big enough to effectively manage compliance costs) and giant, agricultural mega-corps that Bittman is writing against here.

Giving more power to the FDA isn't a solution... It's just a bigger problem.

Of course, Bittman doesn't stop there either... He follows that bit of nonsense up with a series of laws & mandates, sin/pigovian taxes and other ridiculousness that would be irrelevant in a world without subsidies anyway.

For example, he thinks we should:
"Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry... we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently."
...and, we should:
"Mandate truth in labeling..."
A lofty goal, but both rest on the assumption that Bittman's view of "good" nutrition and truth in labeling, not to mention what is or isn't "sustainable" are true - and yet he doesn't actually get into specifics on these points at all. The real money quote in all of this, however, is when he suggests that we:
"Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries."
Did you get that? This isn't nanny-state paternalism. Why? Because Bittman claims it isn't, of course!

Here's a hint: If you have to make the assertion that you're not a nanny-stater while advocating for government to have a remarkably pro-active role in deciding for individuals which foods they should & should not eat, deciding which companies and practices to subsidize and which to punish, outlaw & tax, and of all things what people are allowed to talk about and advertise... Uh... Yeah... You're a nanny-stater.

One of the worst, in fact.

Now... First off, I don't support tobacco & alcohol laws, or seat-belt laws - which are most certainly not public health issues (seat-belts which can only protect one person are now "public"?), and traffic lights & sewer systems don't need to be government provided... And all of it's a non-sequitur. I shouldn't support legislation curbing the "relentless" marketing of soda and other foods because it's none of my damn business what you put in your body, and it's way not my business to tell anyone what they can or cannot say - in magazines, on TV, in newspapers, books, websites, etc. As long as you are not directly threatening someone's physical well-being, or defrauding people by offering services or products you will not deliver, there is no legitimate role of government in advertising.

Advertising is first and foremost a free-speech issue. Basic Constitutional points aside, giving the government power to decide who can and cannot advertise their own legal products is the essence of the nanny-state! It is the state deciding that individuals are not smart, mature adults capable of making their own choices about what to put into their bodies - but that they are infants, easily confused and manipulated by pretty pictures and 30 seconds of mouth-watering prose.

Most of the "solutions" that Bittman offers here are either repetitions of failed policies that openly acknowledges don't work and have produced our current situation - which is patently stupid... Or... They are the most vile sorts of nannyism imaginable - his bare assertion to the contrary. At heart, Bittman is a food-dictator... He believes that he can make better choices than you can. He believes that he'll know which practices are sustainable, which aren't, and who deserves subsidies, and who deserves punishment.

In short - like all of the most arrogant statists, he believes that he is smart enough to make decisions for millions of people. But... He isn't.

We do need to end subsidies, we do need to get rid of the contradictory powers of the USDA... But we need to do that as a part of a general reduction in government involvement in our food. All they have done is cause problems - and that's all they can do. By overriding the decisions of individuals in a free market, government has made food more expensive, more wasteful in production, and less healthy. We don't need some new generation of meddlers coming up with new interventions "for our own good", we just need the government to get the hell out of the way and let freedom work.

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