Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Luxurious Lifestyles

One of my favorite podcasts is American Public Media's Speaking of Faith. The most recent podcast revisits an interview from last year with Barbara Kingsolver, who chose to move her family to the mountains and live off of food that she grew in her backyard, supplemented by food provided by local farmers. Ms Kingsolver got a great deal of reward from doing this, as she expresses in the podcast. And, it's great. I applaud her choice and rejoice along with her in having done that.

If that was as far as it went, that would be the end of my comments. But she also tries to make the claim that her lifestyle was ethical, and implies that the lifestyle that most of us have with our food is unethical. There is a subtle advocacy for all of us to lead that kind of lifestyle, and I can't agree with that. One of the things that she says in the podcast is that we don't take account of the costs in the lifestyle that we lead. But I think she does a very poor job of taking account of the costs that would be associated with imposing that lifestyle on the rest of the world.

Her lifestyle is one of luxury. It's a byproduct of the fact that we're fantastically wealthy that some of us can choose that lifestyle. In the third world, that lifestyle is called subsistence living, and is generally considered to result in massive amounts of suffering. A few random thoughts from the podcast as I re-listened to it...

Early in the podcast she complains about not knowing where our food comes from, whether it be China or Argentina or elsewhere. Part of what raises her concern is the amount of distance that our food must travel and how much fossil fuels must be consumed in the transport. But I'm not sure that she's measuring correctly. She just assumes that using fossil fuels will release more CO2 into the atmosphere, but when measured, that assumption turns out to be bad:
Most notably, [researchers] found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
New Zealand is a *MUCH* more efficient producer of lamb than Great Britain. They have what economist David Ricardo called a comparative advantage in producing that lamb. Their advantage is so big that it makes more sense to ship the lamb than grow it locally. Additionally, commercial processing of foods allows for economies of scale that local growing simply can't match:
Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced. The average household in the United States generates one third less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico, partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products (such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.
That 2000 pounds of by-products become waste when a 1000 people harvest a chicken in their homes.

She claims that humans throughout all of history have eaten local organic food, up until the time of WWII. I don't know if that's false, so I'll simply take her word for it. She seems to think that this is a "normal way to eat". I don't understand why that makes it a good way to eat. Until very recently, women were at a lower social status than men. Many argue that this problem persists. When compared against history, male dominance over women is the norm. But I don't think it's good. Steve Landsburg argues that prior to the Industrial Revolution, all of humanity was poor. Which would suggest that poverty is a pretty normal state for us. I don't think that's good, either.

So the question is what makes eating local foods good and eating imported foods bad? The case really can't be made that importing is always worse for the environment. The case is hard to make that normalcy defines good. On the other hand, the amount of wealth that is created as a result of division of labor and specialization has greatly enriched all who take place in that trade. That wealth has directly reduced human suffering. Division of labor and specialization seems to me to produce more good than self sufficiency.

LOL! An excerpt is read from her book and she quotes the bible saying, "The harvest is bountiful and the labors few". She hears this and is amazed at how much food is growing in her garden, but that the labors were not few - she had a ton of work to do. I find it funny because it's a misquote. It should have been "The harvest is bountiful and the laborers few". The original quote means something completely different than how it was applied. But even so, if you were to interpret the quotes from the perspective of division of labor, the correct quote makes much more sense.

The biggest problem with a country getting rich is that the cost of labor goes up. Which means that the farmers are less willing to farm for low wages relative to the wages of everyone around them. They're better off trying to get some of the other jobs that pay more. In a market, there are two general responses to this:
  1. Send the work where labor is cheaper - which means we'll get our food from overseas
  2. Develop technology to replace expensive labor - which means it'll be mass produced
What does it mean that we see both #1 & #2? To Ms. Kingsolver, it means we're worse off. But what it looks like to me is that the labor market is too wealthy to produce food locally. There are more profitable things to do. Of course, when the government intervenes, they do things like create farm subsidies, which encourages more local farming, because farmers no longer see the need to chase after the better paying job.

She then goes onto say something that I agree with wholeheartedly: that the subsidies that our government provides to farmers distort the market. Unfortunately, she seems to think that it distorts the market away from local farmers. That is a surprising conclusion since those subsidies and trade barriers were enacted to protect the production by the local farmers, and combat competition from foreign products. In other words, the subsidies and trade barriers serve to cause us to buy more locally than we would without the subsidies and trade barriers.

She'd like to see more people buying locally to expand the market for local produce. But this ignores the economies of scale that mass production creates (as mentioned above). So expanding the local growers market means increasing the price of food. This is a great luxury item for someone who's wealthy enough to afford it. It's a horrible thing to impose on those who are not. (To be fair, I didn't hear her directly advocating imposing these things on people.)

She laments that we lack strong regional traditions in our food that tie us to our surroundings. But I see lots of local foods. For example, around here the barbecue is a matter of local pride. In Texas, it's steak. In Wisconsin, beer & cheese. New York has pizza. Chicago has a different type of pizza. California yet another version. She goes on to say that we're surrounded by cheap fats and carbohydrates and that what lines our bookshelves are diet books. That seems true to me. But even this is evidence that we're so wealthy that eating has not become the biggest problem that we face. To reverse this means becoming poorer. I don't like that tradeoff.

I want to say something about how this lifestyle was very enriching to her personally. I don't want to dismiss that. If it's something that would be enriching to you, go for it. But realize that choosing that lifestyle is a luxury item. It's entirely impractical for a single parent mom living in the inner city to do this kind of thing. That person will likely spend most of their time maximizing the time working at things their talents and gifts enable them to do. Which, in most cases, means outsourcing the production of food.

She's now going on about how our consumption has contributed to global climate change, and that Hurricane Katrina is evidence that our consumption comes with a price. Immediately, this strikes me as another case of "here's a bad weather event, see it's proof that global warming is causing problems". But that doesn't match with the data.

She claims that we're over consuming the world's limited resources and then bemoans the idea that if you can afford it, it's ok to use it. But that idea is exactly correct. The pricing system tells us about the relative scarcity of things. If the thing you are buying is cheap, then by the simple supply and demand, it's not very scarce. Moreover, as the thing gets more and more scarce, the price will go up to reflect the scarcity, and fewer people will buy it. Take a look at the number of people taking public transportation now that gas is more than $4/gal. Take a look at your local car dealers: they're all advertising high mileage cars. We're consuming less gas because the price of as has gone up. That dynamic is true for all goods and services. So when a good or service becomes more scarce, the pricing system signals us to consume less of it, and we do. If that's true, then we are not over consuming.

At the end of the segment she asks, "Do you think you can keep doing this without paying some kind of a price?" And that is, of course, a valid question. But I would respond with, "Do you think you can engineer change without also paying some kind of a price? What would you recommend we do if the price of change is higher than the price of not changing? How can you measure those prices without first understanding economics?"

UPDATE: Mike Munger has a very well written article that explains how the division of labor works and benefits us, by describing the market for pins. IMHO, the most salient part of that article is this:
I could make my own pins. Working hard, with some wire and some cutters and a file to sharpen them, I might make 100 or more pins a day. But my time is too valuable to spend that way. Likewise, we could make pins in my home state, North Carolina. But the amount of capital required to be competitive with world prices of 10,000 pins for $1 would be... well, it would be a lot. Too expensive, given all the other profitable investments available for capital in North Carolina. The same is the true for the U.S. as a whole: we could make our own pins, but it's cheaper to buy them, and exploit our own comparative advantage in activities where division of labor works for us, rather than against us.
I'll spare you from the really bad joke that starts and ends that article. But the point is this: division of labor in the food market has provided cheap and plentiful food. This is a good thing. It means that we can expend our creative energy and time on things other than food production. Blithely calling for the unwinding of that division of labor is a road to poverty and food crisis.


Alex Cull said...

An excellent post, and you have expressed exactly what is wrong with the "food miles" mentality. Now I have a vegetable patch in my garden, and enjoy eating the veg that we grow there. But I know that if my wife and I depended solely on the food we could grow on our patch, and what we could get by bartering with our neighbours, an enjoyable pastime would become a life-and-death chore from dawn to dusk. Reading about conditions during the Little Ice Age brought it home to me how vulnerable subsistence farmers are. One bad harvest you may survive, but two or three and you are in deep trouble. I think that anyone who looks fondly back at the past as an idyllic Golden Age of simplicity and oneness with Nature, should really make a closer inspection, without the rose-coloured specs. Such people IMO are like children who haven't yet realised just how much they owe to their parents' money and hard work.

Cyfred said...

Many of your conclusions are incorrect. Your claim that farm subsidies benefit small farmers is absurd. There isn't one person on any side of this issue who has done a resonable amount of researech on the topic who would agree with you. You could read about it yourself if you wanted to be well informed. Your personal knee-jerk gut feelings don't really count and are potentially harmful.

You said:
"She then goes onto say something that I agree with wholeheartedly: that the subsidies that our government provides to farmers distort the market. Unfortunately, she seems to think that it distorts the market away from local farmers. That is a surprising conclusion since those subsidies and trade barriers were enacted to protect the production by the local farmers, and combat competition from foreign products. In other words, the subsidies and trade barriers serve to cause us to buy more locally than we would without the subsidies and trade barriers."

mjh said...

Cyfred: Thanks for the comment. Please see my response.

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