Filed under: Eating and Justice, Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Food Policy, food politics, local v. industrial, Production, Regulation, Subsidies, Taxation
Readers of this website, if indeed any remain, deserve an explanation, if not an apology, for the long, unannounced, and unjustified hiatus this website has taken. I would like to spend a few words discussing why I stopped writing and where I find myself beginning again. I would like to think that my absence has been due to overwork and to a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the U.S. Presidential races. It is true that I have been both busier and more distracted this term than ever, but the real reason is, I daresay, rather more interesting than that.
I noticed back in November that my writings here, and those thoughts that I found myself wanting to put down, had taken an unexpected turn from food law and policy particularly toward, for instance, community planning and urban design; poverty and subsistence living; feminism and the politics of domestic labor, and I didn’t like where this writing was taking me. I found myself saying in person and thinking about writing here some Unserious Ideas of the sort that No Reasonable Person Thinks. Thinking and writing against the conventional wisdom. I started to think thoughts that I worried were radical. I was worried that I could start sounding like one, or indeed that I could become one, and that following food politics as I had could easily turn my writing on food into a continuous jeremiad against contemporary modes of being and behaving rather than a discussion of law and policy.
In December I experienced, without really knowing it, a certain deeply-ingrained cowardice of thought, and it was that cowardice which has made me stop writing.
Part of it is law school, to be sure. One of my professors joked a few months ago that our law school (which, it must be said, is a rather well-regarded school) is really good at churning out insurance lawyers. Despite its rhetoric about “Making a Difference” we are all far more likely to succeed in the current system than to change that system, and therefore, to the extent that the system is not good, to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Over lox and bagels one Sunday my roommate said much the same thing in a different context, about law school making cowards of us all. Law school teaches us to reflexively support the system. Show me a rule, a law, an institution, and law school has conditioned me to believe that rule, law, or institution does more good than harm. How could it not? The system works. If a law were doing more harm than good, it would be repealed. Law school teaches us to keep shifting in scope — where a policy clearly harms, for instance, a neighborhood, we shift to arguing that an alternative would harm the state. Law school makes us slippery, but it makes us a particular kind of slippery, a kind which supports the existing order in return for prestige and responsibility and a great deal of money.
All of these observations have been observed more cleverly and more convincingly elsewhere. What is bothersome to me is the realization that they could apply to me, and that they could apply unconsciously, insidiously. The choice is rarely so stark as being called into the darkened office of the powerful man and being offered a briefcase of money: that scenario is unsubtle and stupid. The choice is more often whether we will say and do the things that we think are true or right without considering whether they fit neatly into the conventional wisdom and the received order. This is the sort of lesson that we often think applies to teenagers and smoking, for instance, but I see no reason why it fails to apply to adults and professionals.
For me, I was uncomfortable presenting myself as a lawyer, even pseudonymously, who believes that our food system is dysfunctional from top to bottom. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t advocate that people should cook their own meals, in their own kitchens, from food grown in their own gardens and towns and communities. Lawyers who want to be taken seriously don’t challenge the reality that all adults have to work outside the home. We don’t challenge the reality that our economy is built on our inability to say, “I have enough. I don’t need a new car, a new house, a new video game system. I don’t need a television at all.”
Lawyers don’t challenge these realities because there are no clients who represent the interests of having enough. There are no clients in favor of putting away or throwing away the television set and spending that time putting in a garden. The local economy, the family-owned restaurant, the farm, the local manufacture of goods for local consumption — these things do not support the lawyer with his three hundred dollars an hour and his very expensive suit.
I am reading a friend’s copy of Wendell Berry’s excellent collection of essays, Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community and last weekend I came across, in the final and eponymous essay, the following paragraph:
The “conservatives” promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of “conservative” presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which one required the father to work away from home — a development that was bad enough — now requires the mother to work away from home as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of “liberals,” who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as “liberated” — though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as “liberated.” Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.
(To be sure, Mr. Berry is making the mistake of assuming that feminists who argue that woman should have the right to work outside the home are also arguing that woman should in fact work outside the home, however I can think of a significant number of feminists make exactly these two arguments, side by side. Mr. Berry’s greater point seems to be that participation in the larger economy opens oneself up to mistreatment, whether one is a man or a woman.)
It seemed to me that Mr. Berry was quite concisely making a point that I had clumsily hoped to make in Feminism v. Locavorism, and I felt suddenly ashamed. I had plowed through the preface to the book, “The Joy of Sales Resistance” with great relish and satisfaction (although I do not quite share Mr. Berry’s distain for hypertext). It is always heart-warming to find an author or a musician with whom one feels kinship, and I felt that in this book. But the further I read the more I realized how cowardly it was of me to have stopped writing here.
I think that as adults, we are inclined to discount the effects of peer pressure as something that only works on children. I think this is because we confuse the term “peer pressure” with the activities being pressured, and once we are no longer of an age that we can be pressured into those activities, we believe that we can no longer be pressured into any activities. We believe we are immune.
Moreover, because we associate peer pressure with teenage vices, we assume that, if an activity is good or at least morally colorable, peer pressure isn’t and can’t be the mechanism that encourages us to engage in the activity. We don’t want to think that we have to be coerced into doing what’s right. If it’s what’s right, of course we were going to do it all along, and not because we were pressured into it.
It gets a dirty name, this kind of pressure, because we are conditioned to see its presence only when its effects are bad, but the pressure has all sorts of effects. It socializes us. It protects us from offending others, and keeps us swimming with the school. I suspect that social pressures do a lot of good in the world in terms of making sure we get along as well as we do.
Wendell Berry again, from the same book:
A conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all of its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exist within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.
You see where this is going. What’s acceptable and unacceptable — the way we’ve been pressured into behaving — has a dark side in the area of consumption, in the way we act in an economy. Nobody wants Exxon-Valdez, but everybody wants to drive their own car. Nobody wants the last manufacturing plant keeping the small town alive to shut down but everybody wants to pay less and less and less for household goods. Nobody wants to work a 70 hour week, but everybody wants a big flat-screen tv in the living room, and surround-sound, and better clothes and a new car for every driver every couple of years, and we want to replace them all cheaply when they break or when something new or different is sold (see, e.g., the early obsoleting of DVD by Blu-Ray, or any of a thousand other consumer goods advertising arms races).
I don’t mean to say that we fail to connect the dots between cheap goods from overseas and crippled local economies. Many people are able to see the causal links, but are unwilling to pay the social costs inherent in changing their consumption habits. And those who insist that we should change those consumption habits are ridiculed as anachronistic, as unrealistic, as overburdened by an embarrassing devotion to the natural world. (See, for instance, the characters portrayed by Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg in the film “I [Heart] Huckabee’s.”) The notion that we should all stop driving, for instance, is dismissed as unrealistic without an examination of why it is unrealistic.
The dismissal extends, I should add, all the way up to policy decisions on the international financial level. According to economist Ha-Joon Chang, from his fascinating book Bad Samaritans:
“[Proponents of the neo-liberal free-trade agenda] like to present globalization as an inevitable result of relentless developments in technologies of communication and transportation. They like to portray their critics as backward-looking ‘modern-day Luddites’ who ‘fight over who owns which olive tree’ …. It is argued that there is only one way to survive the historic tidal force that is globalization, and that is to put on the one-size-fits-all Golden Straitjacket which virtually all the successful economies have allegedly worn on their way to prosperity.”
Of course, it is indeed unrealistic to suggest that USians give up their cars and stop buying so much stuff. The system has been stacked against those options, with the result that people who argue for these things come across as radicals. “I live 15 miles from where I work, and in the afternoon I drive my kids between oboe lessons and soccer practice. How can I give up my car? And who has the time, anyway, to buy and prepare local food?”
It’s a real, and valid, question, but it also reveals something of how our choices contribute to the system. The thing is circular: the system which makes unrealistic certain lifestyles is only a system because so many people are already making choices which contribute to it. I emphasize that I am not saying that there is anything wrong, in the abstract, with living 15 miles from where one works, or taking the kids to oboe lessons and soccer practice. I am, however, saying that these decisions have effects which, when aggregated, may and probably do cost more than they benefit.
However the argument that we should choose to limit our participation in “normal” activities is not an argument that people who want to be taken seriously are able to make. It is an argument against not the excesses of our economy but against its ground-state.
This is precisely the sort of argument that feels unseemly for a law-student to make, not only because it is the sort of argument that people don’t take seriously, but also because it runs against the existing order and subverts the conventional wisdom about freedom of trade and lowered transaction costs, about opening borders and the global economy. About, quite possibly, strong property ownership rights being a prerequisite for other human rights. It runs against a lot of things that I tend to believe, actually.
So I stopped writing. And while I would like to say that I stopped writing out of a genuine conflict of values, it seems to me that such a conflict would probably make for some pretty good blogging, and that the conflict wasn’t the real reason to stop writing. I think that the real reason was that, as a law student, and as someone who was, and is, looking for work in the legal community, I did not believe that I could continue to pursue this line of thinking and questioning, even in private, even under a false name like this.
The upshot of all of this — and I hasten to add this so as to avoid politically devastating charges of “elitism” — the upshot of all of this is not, I hope, for me to be relentlessly critical of virtually everything that U.S. and probably most first-world consumers (that is to say, “people” — and I often wonder at the objectification inherent in so ready a substitution) do on a day-to-day basis. I mean this on two levels. First, I would be deeply remiss, in the context of this sort of a mea culpa, to start pointing the finger around at other people for the simple fault of responding to the economic and social pressures that surround them. Certainly not after having spent so many words describing my own cowardice and how I believe it has operated in the context of writing on this website, to say nothing of how it has operated in my own consumption choices.
Second, it is important to distinguish between evaluating a person qua person and evaluating a person’s actions qua actions. This distinction is often missed in discussions of these sorts of categoric reforms by both sides, but more often (and, I suspect, deliberately) by those who argue in favor of the lifestyle quo ante. It is a rhetorical move that unfortunately seems to have a great deal of traction, and I hope to discuss it in a subsequent essay. For now suffice it to say that these arguments, the ones I have been barred by cowardice from making, should in no way be construed as critical of individuals or indeed of the larger institutions that make the first world such a varied, safe, and comfortable place to live.
The critique that others are making, and that I hope to add to, is of the systems put in place by those institutions, and of the culture fostered by those systems which serve not to increase an individual’s (particularly economic) choices but to limit them to the set of choices rigorously enforced by economic and social pressures. I hope to discuss these limitations in future essays, as they are numerous and complex.
This critique, as expressed in the world of food and food policy, has wound up creating some tentative alliances that make little sense in the current political spectrum. In an interview with “Crunchy Conservative” Rod Dreher, Michael Pollan apparently was “amused to learn that he’s got a following on the [political] Right … but he said that the more deeply he goes into writing about food culture, the more he’s discovering things that resonate with traditional conservatism.” To me, this is both intuitively correct and one of the best arguments that the traditional left-right categories are breaking down along new lines. Our politics will perforce evolve with our polities.
All of which is perhaps my way of saying that I am back. I hope to write three long-ish pieces a week and at least five smaller ones in between. I will probably have a few more editorial-type pieces to write as I try to come to terms with this new politics of food, but I have every hope of returning to writing about food and the law in short order. Thank you for coming back, and I hope you’ll stay.
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Farm Bill, Food and Energy, Food Policy, food politics, local v. industrial, Meat, Production, Quotations, Subsidies, Taxation
I was blessed in my childhood by having a mother who was very food-aware. We became farmers almost of necessity, as we were always very poor growing up: if we had not grown our own food, we would not have eaten. We never could afford health insurance, and because of this, my mother always sought to use food in place of medicine, and always sought prevention prior to illness rather than cure afterwards. “We can’t afford to get sick” she would joke, or half-joke anyway.
I never appreciated it at the time, because I saw our food as a mark of poverty and difference. Why should I have to suffer, i.e., not get to drink soda and eat fast food just because my parents were hippies and bad businesspeople? Field trips in school were particularly painful — other kids got to bring money and buy McDonald’s, I brought a big slab of homemade cornbread and a mason jar full of water.1 “Five dollars for lunch!” my mother would exclaim. “I can make lentil soup to feed all of us dinner and then lunch the next day for five dollars!”
My mother believes that food can replace medicine, that you could eat foods which kept up your immune system and avoid foods which depleted it. She had read studies on refined sugar, for instance, and always pointed out that not only does it rot one’s teeth, it apparently kills white blood cells. To my mother, it wasn’t that soda, for instance, or juice, was a pleasure which you should deny to avoid tooth decay and empty calories. It just didn’t make sense to drink it when water was free, for the same reason you wouldn’t pay somebody to hit you in the face with a shovel.
Naturally, I had a few years after I left home during which I ate all the foods that we kids weren’t supposed to eat. I think it’s interesting, though, how unintentionally I came back around to natural eating and food policy. I took a job at a deli in college and I loved it. It was down the street from my apartment and I was the opener; five, six days a week I would drag myself out of bed at six in the morning and run through the bitter cold (because it was always winter in those days, in my memory), and turn on the lights and make the coffee and set up the shops and do the preps and check in deliveries and try to make the morning cheerful for the early-birds and commuters. I loved it.
One thing led to another, I started working in food, and by the time I got to being a purchaser at Zingerman’s I had been cooking for a few years. I read Fast Food Nation and experienced two contradictory sensations. 1) During the act of reading the book I always really wanted a cheeseburger, and 2) every time I set the book down I didn’t want to eat anything that I hadn’t actually watched come up out of the ground. I kind of feel like that was a turning point for me. At the same time, I became very interested in the raw milk cheese ban and the science behind dairy production. What has struck me lately, thinking about this, is how holistic and connected all of these topics are. Raw milk takes you to e.coli takes you to grain feeding takes you to corn subsidy takes you to processed food and HFCS takes you to impending obesity crisis takes you to mediterranean diet takes you to local, seasonal eating and next thing you know you can’t. shut. up. about. food.
Which pretty much catches you up to the existence of Law for Food. Yesterday morning on my bike ride to school something else my mother used to say popped into my brain and stuck. Her friends used to ask how she managed to cook for all of us (and anybody else who happened by) the way she did (from scratch, often beginning with an armful from the garden or a quick trip to the root cellar) and she would explain that it was because didn’t work outside of the home. Then she would say how she believed that the peasant diet was the healthiest, most balanced diet you could eat. She would talk about how poor people can’t afford to get sick, so they don’t have the luxury of eating things that are bad for them, and she would also talk about the importance of the table, about how food builds community and how poor people have a better sense of community than the wealthy. Then she would say, and this always kind of confused me, “of course, nowadays you have to be rich to eat like a peasant.”
And it struck me how far I had come back around to seeing food the way my mother did, all those years ago when I was embarrassed to eat home-made food. It struck me that my mother’s little observation winds up being about the Farm Bill after all, and that, pace Marion Nestle, food is both love and health when your attitudes toward those things are in order.
Now, I realize how fortunate we were to have bought that farm outright, when my folks inherited some money, and that the reason we were able to eat so well was because we were land-rich and cash-poor. A lot of talk about nutrition can come across as unrealistic hectoring that doesn’t take into account the time and work constraints that we’re all under. Even if you own the land, growing your own food is a lot of work and requires a complete change in lifestyle and in attitude, and isn’t something everyone should or even can do. But we can do better than this. We can do better than inverting the economics of eating and promoting these unhealthy2 faux luxuries with the public funds.
Ultimately, the farm bill can never and should never put filet mignon on every table, but it can and does put ground beef — cheap, unsustainably-grown, overcrowded, medicated beef — in the drive-thrus and waterlogged cold cuts the lunchboxes. There are a lot of reasons, on the surface of it, to think that sustainable food, local food, and the rest of it are regressive; that what some of us are proposing is a return to the 19th century; that eliminating CAFOs and industrial food will raise the price of food, which will most hurt those who can’t afford local and sustainable food.
These objections do not make it past a surface analysis. Eliminating the farm subsidy means that the inverted food pyramid we currently consume will become a great deal more expensive; it means that Coke will no longer be price-competitive with water; it means that the marginal price difference between ethically-conscious meat and feedlot meat will diminish — reducing overall consumption of meat, making all meat more of a luxury and making ethically-conscious meat less of a luxury by comparison; it means we’ll be eating less food, but that the food we eat will be better. Most of all, it means we won’t be using federal money to make it easier for people without health insurance to buy foods that make them unhealthy, and harder for them to buy the foods that we all ought to be eating more of. It shouldn’t be necessary to own your own farm just to eat healthy.
1. This experience was formative in so many ways. For one thing, I have little patience now for parents who say that their kids just won’t eat vegetables. Eventually, they will, and even later, they will appreciate vegetables for what they are. For another, I will never be less than genuinely grateful for a home-made meal, no matter what. I resent the term “food snob” because I would rather have lentil soup with love than filet without. Because of my experiences in as a cook and seller of high-end food, and because I’m someone who frankly talks about food or food policy all the damn time, many of my friends say that they would never cook for me because they can’t cook well enough, and although I think they mean it as a compliment, it offends me a little. Early in our relationship, I was impressed when my significant other said to me, “I bet none of your friends ever cook when you’re around. I’d like to make you dinner.”
2. Lest we get into trade disparagement issues, I should point out that from a health standpoint everything is unhealthy when consumed in sufficient quantities, and that these quantities are different for different categories of food. It is simply a fact, though, that Americans in general overconsume in the fat and protien categories and underconsume in the vegetable and whole grain categories. From a health standpoint, there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating meat, just like there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating ice cream. There is, however, something wrong with eating ice cream at every meal, and the same thing is wrong with eating meat at every meal.
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Farm Bill, Food Policy, food politics, Production, Regulation, Subsidies, Taxation
Not news, exactly, and readers of this blog probably already know all of this stuff, but a fairly conservative friend of mine asked me my opinion of the analysis contained in Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times op-ed about the 2007 Farm Bill. I wrote the following in return, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen all of these points laid out on one page like this. Here’s a little cut ‘n paste magic from the email:
I think Pollan is exactly right, and what fascinates me about the Farm Bill debate is how it seems to have aligned so many different and traditionally opposed interests. Let me see if I have it right:
1) Fiscal conservatives, libertarians and economic commentators on the one side object to the farm subsidy because it distorts the market by causing farmers to plant more of a particular commodity than consumers would demand at the natural price and is therefore inefficient.
2) Animal welfare people object to it because the grain subsidy makes it cheaper to raise food animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) than via free-range. The situations at CAFOs place a great deal of strain on the cattle, which means that they require a great deal more antibiotics than they do if they are raised naturally — indeed the U.S. meat industry is the largest user of antibiotic medicine.
3) Environmentalists object to it for a number of reasons — CAFOs are terrible for the environment, for starters, and the kind of monoculture that big factory farms are planting to grow the subsidised crops destroys the soil, requires the use of ever-increasing levels of non-selective herbicides such as Round-Up as weeds develop immunity to the herbicide — and in recent times is requiring the use of genetically modified crops which are able to tolerate being grown in fields heavily laced with herbicides.
4) People who are taking a hard look at the immigration situation in the U.S. have come to discover that one of the reasons the Mexican corn industry went belly-up last year is the farm subsidy — and now there are some 170,000 Mexican agricultural workers without jobs and a lot of jobs in U.S. agriculture. The farm subsidy creates a situation in which we have to spend more money to keep immigrants out than we would if the economies of other countries were not placed at such a disadvantage.
5) On a related note, the farm subsidy is TERRIBLE for the economies of many third-world countries, for just the same reason: they have to compete with subsidised grain from the U.S.
6) Nutritionists tend to think that the farm subsidy is terrible for the American waistline because it subsidizes hydrogenated oils and animal products and high fructose corn syrup. Eliminating the farm subsidy would drive up the prices of many foods, but 1) most of those foods would be foods which are overabundant in the U.S. diet and which consumers ought to cut back on, 2) these prices are unnaturally low to begin with, and 3) the money saved on the Farm subsidy could, and should, in part be used to ensure that the truly poor do not starve. Indeed, the farm subsidy encourages all of us to eat things that are bad for us, but this encouragement become more and more pernicious the more a consumer has to stretch his or her food dollar.
The thing is, these are all sound economic arguments, and they all point to the same thing: the public interest and general welfare are not served by the farm subsidy as it is currently written. There is no metric to measure which shows that the farm subsidy is a good idea, outside of the share prices of big agribusiness. This legislation is corporate welfare in its most blatant and worst form. I highly recommend the first two sections of an essay entitled “That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen” by F. Bastiat, for some traditionally conservative, laissez-faire economic reasons why this kind of spending is a terrible idea.
I have also found an op-ed by Victor Davis Hanson about why the farm bill is a terrible idea from a straightforward economic standpoint. I have no desire to discuss national politics, but I should like to say that this may be the first time I have agreed with Professor Hanson about a topic unrelated to classical philology. Opposition to this farm bill comes from all sides of the political spectrum.
Filed under: Intellectual Property in Food, Regulation, Subsidies, Taxation, the-small-laws
In my comparative law class last year, we discussed at length the need for comparative lawyers to take a holistic look at the cultures which they are comparing before reaching their conclusions. It is often misleading to conclude that such-and-such a problem simply does not occur in the target jurisdiction when a strictly legal solution to that problem doesn’t show up in statutes and cases.
This article in Slate brings up the idea of extra-legal IP protection in two cases: magicians’ tricks, and chefs’ techniques and recipes. In neither case are the ideas and innovations that build a magician or a chef’s career protected at law, but that doesn’t mean that these markets don’t have extra-legal incentives to protect those innovations. Often the incentives are a function of the social network protecting its value and stability against outsiders and upstart. I thought you might appreciate this as a way IP is protected without recourse to the government.
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, food politics, Subsidies, Taxation
The U.S. Food Policy Blog has a lot of good writing on how the U.S. government is subsidizing the advertising of pork and pork fat products. This sort of subsidy raises all sorts of questions about the role of tax dollars in the U.S. health and obesity crisis. Most interesting is that the National Pork Board is claiming, in their 2006 Annual Report, to have invented McDonald’s McRib sandwich.
For those who don’t know, the National Pork Board is also responsible for the “Pork: The Other White Meat” and is a semi-governmental entity responsible for promoting the U.S. pork industry, which in take-home terms means promoting consumption of pork. The National Pork Board is funded by what are called “checkoffs” which are legally-enforced mandatory charges (read: taxes) imposed upon producers. These checkoffs are collected by the National Pork Board and are used to promote the pork industry.
In other words, the Federal government has created a lobbying organization, and has funded that organization by taxing producers of an industry. Those taxes are no doubt passed on to the consumer.
This is one of the reasons Michael Pollan is right when he writes at the beginning of The Omnivore’s Dilemma that “eating is a political act.” The purchase of pork by a U.S. consumer, even sustainably and ethically raised pork, contributes to the funding of an organization whose interests may run entirely counter to one’s own, and indeed to the physical health of the nation.