By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The so-called free market for food

Jeff Jacoby writes in today’s Boston Globe:

[N]ot even Ted Kennedy would have suggested that Washington nationalize US food production or overhaul the clothing industry. It is precisely because food and clothing are seen as commodities, because we do leave their availability to the market, that they can be had in such abundance and diversity.

From the New York Times, Nov. 9, 2005:

Even as the Bush administration tries to persuade member nations of the World Trade Organization that it is serious about trimming agricultural subsidies, federal spending on farm payments is closing in on the record of $22.9 billion set in 2000, when the Asian financial crisis caused American exports to fall and crop prices to sink, pushing the Midwest farm belt into recession.

If export sales stay weak, this year’s subsidies could hit a new record. Just last week the United States Agriculture Department raised its projection of payments to farmers by $1.3 billion, to $22.7 billion. In 2004, the subsidies were only $13.3 billion.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writing in the Times on Sept. 9, 2009:

[F]ood system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

If Jacoby had wanted to argue against government health-care reform, he could have done it quite easily by using the food industry as his prime example. As Pollan and others have shown, we are awash in a sea of cheap, federally subsidized corn that has been transformed into oceans of sweet soda, unhealthy beef (corn is toxic to cattle) and a host of other dubious products that barely deserve to be called food.

Do we want the government to do to health care what it’s done to the food supply? It’s not an argument I would make. But Jacoby could have made it, and he’d have produced a much more valid column if he had.

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  1. mike_b1

    The government did nationalize the education system, however. And with outstanding results. Ironic that many of the same people complaining about health care went to public schools.

  2. lkcape

    Mr. B1, you consider the educational system as to having outstanding results? Most people would not agree with you.

  3. mike_b1

    Hehe, I knew you would chime in. The whole world comes to the US for education. How often do our students go elsewhere?

    Yeah, that’s what I thought.

  4. lkcape

    Colleges and universities, I would agree.

    But very few come for high-school….

    Which is where the great American education system is failing.

  5. Well, technically, people come here for HIGHER education, K-12.

  6. Oops, I meant to say people come here for HIGHER education, not K-12.

  7. BillH

    In this case, Mike is absolutely correct. All of these pre-university comparisons with U.S. and other countries are “apples and oranges”; no other country educates the with range, diversity and universality that we do. If we’re so awful, why does every nation in the world send their kids here for college (where, incidentally, U.S. kids compete very well)?

  8. lkcape

    People come here for college because 1) there are more of them, 2)the history of academic freedom, 3) the level of funding the colleges enjoy.

    Make no mistake, Univ. of Heidelberg, The Sorbonne, Oxford, and Cambridge compete very well with likes of that omnipetent HAAAVAAAD!

    Dan…care to comment on how well your freshman student is prepared for university life?

    To assess our high-school level education, go to a fast-food joint and watch them try to make change without the cash register doing it for them.

  9. mike_b1

    They don’t come for high school?

    Have you ever BEEN in a high school? They sure as heck come for high school, too.

  10. Amusedbutinformedobserver

    Modern governments have never been called in to perform any function until the private sector proved itself to be incapable. Education is one example. The minimum state standards for high school graduation today are the same in the poorest section of Worcester as they are in Wellesley; completely private school systems could not educate kids to a minimum standard, even now there isn’t enough money in those communities without federal and state help to get the job done. Public transportation is another — complain all you want about the MBTA, but if we were left to the Boston Elevated, Boston and Maine or the Boston and Albany, there would be a lot more cars on the road, a lot more roads to put them on, and most homes inside Route 128 would cost 7 figures. Same with the Postal Service, no private entity ever could or ever will make money with surface delivery of letters, so the government did it under a constitutional mandate and USPS continues to do a pretty good, although certainly not perfect, job.

    As for food, it’s the corporations that are influcting industrial food and it starts at birth — Gerber added sugar to baby food in the 1930s, not to please baby, but to make it taste better to Mom.

  11. Steve Stein

    Corn is toxic to cattle?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Steve: Oh, my God, yes. I strongly urge you to read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Cattle are unable to digest anything but grass. They are fattened up on corn basically to the brink of death.

      Here’s a good, short explanation from Sustainable Table. I don’t know the organization, but the I recognize what they’ve written as valid.

  12. Ben

    The production of major agricultural commodities is heavily subsidized. But in all other respects, US food production and distribution is a self-regulating market. I think this was Jacoby’s point. Government is very good at subsidizing and taxing commodities but very poor at the logistics of actually delivering food to consumers (remember the USSR?).

    Jacoby is quite right to mention that Ted Kennedy understood this – the Senator was behind the deregulation of the airline and trucking industries.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Ben: Again, read “The Carnivore’s Dilemma.” When you throw money at something, you get more of it — in this case, absurd quantities of corn. The market is self-regulating only to the extent that agribusiness has geared its entire reason for being around corn, because that’s what the government pays them to grow.

  13. Steve Stein

    Sounds like more fallout from the prominence of the Iowa caucuses.

  14. Ben

    Yes Dan, the food system in this country is heavily distorted by the government. You’re not making a point that I (or probably Jacoby) would disagree with. But I don’t think that changes the fact that food is produced and distributed by a very dynamic free market that offers many choices to the consumer. If it’s hard for you to find grass-fed beef, it’s only because consumers prefer the cheaper government subsidized product.

    But I’m certainly with you on abolishing agricultural subsidies – for the reasons you cite and more. Less government manipulation of the market would be better for the consumer and society, a fact that eludes Obama as he attempts to introduce more “competition” and “consumer choice” into our health care system.

    Oh, and as a Luso-American, I’ve long advocated replacing the school lunch program with giant cauldrons of kale and bean soup. Pollan would sooo dig that.

    • Dan Kennedy

      [F]ood is produced and distributed by a very dynamic free market that offers many choices to the consumer…. [C]onsumers prefer the cheaper government subsidized product.


      By the way, there is an alternative to government subsidies for Big Agribusiness and an entirely free market. Government could interview on the side of the public instead of the corporations.

  15. Ben

    Dan, if there is something that accounts for the choice available in US supermarkets vs. Soviet-run stores other than markets, I have yet to hear it. I’m not trying to be fresh here- I just don’t see any other possible explanation.

    • Dan Kennedy

      How can you fail to understand that the market has been completely distorted by perverse government incentives? You have a very zeroes-and-ones view of the world. If the food doesn’t all come from Agriculture Factory No. 1, then we must be living in free-market nirvana. People want to save money. People need to save money. And the most efficient way they can do that is to buy corn-laden crap that is cheap only because the government makes it so.

      Real food wouldn’t be more expensive than industrial food if the latter weren’t subsidized by the government, and if we factored in the cost of food-related disease.

  16. Ben

    It’s not nirvana, but damn, look around you! The inner city markets I shop at have an incredible array of produce, whole grains, nuts, etc. Not to mention the farmers markets. Watch the immigrants, they figure out how to eat healthy food on a budget. The problem is largely with America’s food culture today (just ask Michael Pollan). Believe me, even without cheap corn syrup, etc, Americans will still find ways to kill themselves with food. Food scientists will cook up new ways to kill us and they will be obligingly provided at bargain basement prices (the free market is a double-edged sword!).

    It’s interesting how we can both oppose agricultural subsidies and yet so completely talk past each other.

    (I wasn’t kidding about having beans and kale for school lunch – very poor people have lived very healthy lives eating these cheap humble foods)

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