Measured by practically any physical metric, from the quality of the food we eat to the health care we receive to the cars we drive and the houses we live in, Americans are not only wildly rich, but radically richer than we were 30 years ago, to say nothing of 50 or 75 years ago. And so is much of the rest of the world. That such progress is largely invisible to us is part of the genius of capitalism — and it is intricately bound up with why, under the system based on selfishness, avarice, and greed, we do such a remarkably good job taking care of one another, while systems based on sharing and common property turn into miserable, hungry prison camps.
We treat the physical results of capitalism as though they were an inevitability. In 1955, no captain of industry, prince, or potentate could buy a car as good as a Toyota Camry, to say nothing of a 2014 Mustang, the quintessential American Everyman’s car. But who notices the marvel that is a Toyota Camry? In the 1980s, no chairman of the board, president, or prime minister could buy a computer as good as the cheapest one for sale today at Best Buy. In the 1950s, American millionaires did not have access to the quality and variety of food consumed by Americans of relatively modest means today, and the average middle-class household spent a much larger share of its income buying far inferior groceries. Between 1973 and 2008, the average size of an American house increased by more than 50 percent, even as the average number of people living in it declined. Things like swimming pools and air conditioning went from being extravagances for tycoons and movie stars to being common or near-universal. In his heyday, Howard Hughes didn’t have as good a television as you do, and the children of millionaires for generations died from diseases that for your children are at most an inconvenience. As the first 199,746 or so years of human history show, there is no force of nature ensuring that radical material progress happens as it has for the past 250 years. Technological progress does not drive capitalism; capitalism drives technological progress — and most other kinds of progress, too.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Welcome to the Paradise of the Real: How to refute progressive fantasies — or, a red-pill economics”, National Review, 2014-04-24
December 10, 2014
December 1, 2014
In Reason, Baylen Linnekin looks at the FDA’s soon-to-be-implemented rules on menu labelling:
Earlier this week, the FDA released rules that will force food sellers around the country to provide point-of-sale calorie information to consumers. The rules cover chain restaurants, vending machines, “movie theaters, sports stadiums, amusement parks, bowling alleys and miniature golf courses that serve prepared foods.” The rules apply to foods and beverages — including beer, wine, and spirits — sold at these places.
Farley’s enthusiasm might have been tempered by research showing mandatory menu-labeling doesn’t work — and may even be counterproductive.
Because the new rules will cost more than a billion dollars not to stop the obesity epidemic and maybe make it better, some who have to spend that money aren’t pleased.
For example, that potato salad you buy at your grocery deli counter will fall under the new rules. That doesn’t sit well with grocery store owners.
“Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law,” said National Grocers Association president and CEO, Peter J. Larkin in a statement. “We are disappointed that the FDA’s final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members.”
As I wrote last year, the NRA, which represents restaurant chains across the country, supported the national menu-labeling rule as a shield against a growing, costly, and unworkable patchwork of different state and local menu-labeling laws.
It’s the same reason that food manufacturers, facing mandatory GMO-labeling pressure in dozens of states, counties, and cities around the country, are pushing for Congress to pass a uniform national GMO-labeling law.
Do I understand why the restaurant industry and food manufacturers are pushing for one bad federal law instead of hundreds or thousands of worse laws at the state and local level? Absolutely. Do I support such laws? Not at all.
November 30, 2014
Tim Worstall explains that the fuss and bother in European newspapers about the “market failure” in the chocolate supply is actually a governmental failure (a market sufficiently bothered by legislation and regulation):
The last few days have seen us regaled with a series of stories about how the world is going to run out of chocolate. That would be, I think we can all agree, almost as bad as running out of bacon. So it’s worth thinking through the reasons as to why we might be running out. After all, cocoa, from which chocolate is made, is a plant, it’s obviously renewable in that it grows each season. So how can we be running out of something we farm? The answer is, in part at least, that there’s some bad public policy at the root of this. As there usually is when something that shouldn’t happen does.
Here’s the basic story in a nutshell:
A recent chocolate shortage has seen cocoa farmers unable to keep up with the public’s insatiable appetite for the treat–and the world’s largest chocolate producers, drought, Ebola and a fungal disease may all be to blame.
Much of the world’s chocolate comes from West Africa so the disruption by the Ebola outbreak is one obvious part of it. But the shortage is not something immediate, it’s something that has been coming for some years. Ebola is right now, not a medium term influence. Drought similarly, that’s a short term thing, and this is a medium term problem. It’s also true that as the world gets richer more people can afford and thus desire that delicious chocolate.
Ahhh…the government is paying the farmers £1 a kg or so and the market is indicating that supply and demand will balance at £1.88 a kg. So, what we’ve actually got here is some price fixing. And the price to the producers is fixed well below the market clearing price (although the government most certainly gets that market price). So, we’ve a wedge in between the prices that consumers are willing to pay for a certain volume and the price that the farmers get for production. So, therefore, instead of it being the price that balances supply and demand we end up with an imbalance of the supply and demand as a result of the price fixing.
This is how it always goes, of course, whenever anyone tries to fix a price. If that price is fixed above the market clearing one then producers make more than anyone wants to consume (think the EU and agriculture, leading to butter mountains and wine lakes). If the price is fixed below the market clearing one then producers don’t make as much as people want to consume. This is why it’s near impossible to get an apartment anywhere where there is rent control. And if prices are fixed at the market clearing price then why bother in the first place? Quite apart from the fact that we’ve got to use the market itself to calculate the market clearing price.
November 12, 2014
In The Federalist, Daniel Payne explains what the food nannies really mean by the term “national food policy”:
In the past I have used the term “food system” as shorthand for the industrial paradigm of food production, but for Bittman et al. to talk about the “food system” in such a way exposes it for the ridiculous concept it really is. There is no “food system,” not in the sense of a truly unified body of fully interdependent constituent parts: the “food system” is actually composed of millions of individuals acting privately and voluntarily, in different cities, counties, and states, as part of different companies and corporations and individual businesses, in elective concert with each other and with the rest of the world. To speak if it as a single “system” is deeply misguided, at least insofar as it is not a single entity but an endlessly complex patchwork of fully autonomous beings.
Thus when the authors write about “align[ing] agricultural policies,” they are not speaking in some ill-defined abstract about government policy; they are talking about forcing actual farmers to grow and do things the authors want. When they write of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitoring “food production,” they are actually advocating that these federal agencies go after and punish people who are not farming in the way the authors want them to farm — and all this without Congress having passed a single law.
The authors are advocating, in other words, for a kind of executive dictatorship over the nation’s farmers, farms, and food supply. While it is unsurprising that they would use this dictatorship to attack the people who grow the food, it is also undeniable that this “national food policy” would target consumers as well. Such a “food system” cannot exist, after all, without people who are willing to purchase and consume its products.
The authors are not merely fed up with their big agribusiness boogeymen; they are also fed up with you for buying agribusiness products, and they want to use the government to make you stop. That you have broken no laws now, and will have broken no laws even after this “policy” goes into effect, is immaterial. They wish for the government to boss you around simply because your shopping purchases displease them. That they are too cowardly to come right out and say so is very telling of who they are—as men, and as advocates of the “public health.” Shame on them for being too spineless to tell the truth of their motives.
November 10, 2014
Patrick Basham on the nanny staters’ need to nag us about our food choices, even though most of their efforts are counter-productive:
Calorie counts on menus and menu boards are the food police’s unsubtle attempt to educate us into making ‘better’ choices. Most of us neither need nor appreciate this bureaucratic nudge.
In America, such mandates are included in the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) that kicked in this year. So, national restaurant chains are now required to disclose calorie counts in their menus. And three years ago in the UK, then-health secretary Andrew Lansley asked restaurants to ‘voluntarily’ label food with calorie counts.
Proponents of this policy believe that consumers are generally uninformed about their restaurant meals, especially the calorie counts. Therefore, providing consumers with this information will make a substantial difference to both what, and how much, people eat and, consequently, enable them to lose weight.
These assumptions are wrong. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that calorie counts are ineffective and potentially counter-productive for certain consumers. In fact, the vast majority of this evidence was available long (and in some cases, decades) before these regulations were rolled out.
Calorie counts do not produce the behavioural changes that their proponents envision. For example, over a decade of nutritional labelling, including calorie content, of processed food has failed to have any significant impact on obesity levels. Furthermore, studies have found that providing nutritional labelling brings about no net nutritional gains because consumers have a defined ‘nutrient budget’. This means that consumers tend to reward themselves for calorie or fat deprivation, for example, by increasing their calorie or fat content with another dish at the same meal or at a latter meal.
[…] consumers see labelling, particularly about calories, as a form of government warning: ‘Don’t eat this food, it has too many calories!’ The research evidence demonstrating the failure of such warnings is legion. In fact, such warnings can be profoundly counter-productive, as they can lead not only to the information being ignored, but to behaviour directly at odds with the health-based message. Identifying menu items as low-calorie or healthy can antagonise customers who see this as attempting to interfere with their freedom of choice.
This calorie count policy is also deeply inappropriate. The evidence suggests that it is not regulation designed to provide information for ‘informed’ choices, but regulation designed to change supplier and consumer behaviour based on the assumption that the regulator knows best.
Calorie counts are nothing more than a form of soft stigmatisation in which the government attempts to use calories to declare otherwise legal foods as, in some way, illegitimate. In effect, calories are really shorthand for the fact that certain foods are deemed ‘bad’.
October 31, 2014
Virginia Postrel talks to Samira Kawash about her book Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure:
It was, Kawash writes, the “first ready-to-eat processed food, the original ancestor of all our fast, convenient, fun, imperishable, tasty, highly advertised brand-name snacks and meals.” For more than a century, we’ve simultaneously gorged on the stuff and felt guilty about it. It’s an intensified version of our ambivalent and fickle attitudes toward abundant, convenient, mass-produced food in general.
“The candy that gives us some of our happiest experiences is the same candy that rots our teeth, ruins our appetite, and sucks tender innocents into a desperate life of sugar addiction,” she writes. “Candy joins the ideas of pleasure and poison, innocence and vice, in a way that’s unique and a bit puzzling.” Candy is, one might say, both trick and treat. With Halloween in mind, I interviewed Kawash by e-mail.
Question: When and how did candy become associated with Halloween? Was trick-or-treating just concocted to sell candy?
Answer: Would you believe the earliest trick-or-treaters didn’t even expect to get candy? Back in the 1930s, when kids first started chanting “trick or treat” at the doorbell, the treat could be just about anything: nuts, coins, a small toy, a cookie or popcorn ball. Sometimes candy too, maybe a few jelly beans or a licorice stick. But it wasn’t until well into the 1950s that Americans started buying treats instead of making them, and the easiest treat to buy was candy. The candy industry also advertised heavily, and by the 1960s was offering innovative packaging and sizes like mini-bars to make it even easier to give out candy at Halloween. But if you look at candy trade discussions about holiday marketing in the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween doesn’t even get a mention.
October 27, 2014
In The Register, news you can use!
A flock of sheep that are about to meet their maker at the abattoir got high on cannabis plants worth £4,000, after the drugs were ditched in a Surrey field.
“My sheep weren’t quite on their backs with legs in the air but they probably had the munchies,” farm shop manager Nellie Budd told local rag the Surrey Mirror.
“They haven’t had any other side effects but I’ll tell you about the meat next week.”
The stash of marijuana plants, which were each roughly three foot tall, were dumped at the edge of Fanny’s Farm in Markedge Lane, the paper reported. Budd’s shop was just 200 yards from where the drugs were fly-tipped, apparently.
Police told Budd that the cannabis had a street value of about £4,000.
October 19, 2014
Tracy McVeigh on a Dutch experiment to develop food crops that can be irrigated with salt water:
Here, on one of the Netherlands’ northernmost islands, windswept Texel (pronounced Tessel) surrounded by encroaching ocean and salt marshes that seep sea water under its dykes and into ditches and canals, an enterprising farmer has taken the radical step of embracing salt water instead of fighting to keep it out. And now he thinks he might just help feed the world.
Inspired by sea cabbage, 59-year-old Marc van Rijsselberghe set up Salt Farm Texel and teamed up with the Free University in Amsterdam, which sent him [researcher Dr Arjen] de Vos to look at the possibility of growing food using non-fresh water. Their non-GM, non-laboratory-based experiments had help from an elderly Dutch farmer who has a geekish knowledge of thousands of different potato varieties.
“The world’s water is 89% salinated, 50% of agricultural land is threatened by salt water, and there are millions of people living in salt-contaminated areas. So it’s not hard to see we have a slight problem,” said van Rijsselberghe. “Up until now everyone has been concentrating on how to turn the salt water into fresh water; we are looking at what nature has already provided us with.”
October 5, 2014
Here we should pause and ask an important question: What happened to France? To that savoir faire? And to French culture? To the country that we all loved enough to make allowances to put up with the casual hauteur and the studied rudeness? Because, after all, this was la belle France, and they could teach us a thing or two. They had something worth sharing.
But when was that? When was the last time you enjoyed, say, a contemporary French film? How many must-see French actors are there? Their most famous actor has now taken out Russian citizenship (and moved to Belgium). Name a living French painter worth the wall space. Name a great French musician. A novelist, apart from Michel Houellebecq — and the French hate him. Their vaunted cuisine has become a moribund tourist performance. Unable to change, terrified of innovation, France has become the Bourbons, who famously forgot nothing and learned nothing.
The language that committees of old academics protect, like maids fussing over a cabinet of bone china, has been ransacked, seduced, and impregnated with bastard usages by movies, pop music, the Internet, and the global need to speak English. And now even some French universities have begun teaching science and computing classes in English, because no one wants to come to France to study them in French.
The pre-eminence of French culture has evaporated, before our very eyes, within a generation. The fear that innovation might damage or detract from their weighty heritage has left it like an angry child, with its eyes closed and its hands over its ears, la-la-la-ing “Je ne regrette rien.” French civilization went from the brilliant clamor of the streets to the musty hush of the museum. Instead of creating, they have dusting.
A. A. Gill, “Liberté! Egalité! Fatigué!“, Vanity Fair, 2014-04
October 4, 2014
Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series.
The steward recommended the latter course, as it would come so much cheaper. He said they would do him for the whole week at two pounds five. He said for breakfast there would be fish, followed by a grill. Lunch was at one, and consisted of four courses. Dinner at six — soup, fish, entree, joint, poultry, salad, sweets, cheese, and dessert. And a light meat supper at ten.
My friend thought he would close on the two-pound-five job (he is a hearty eater), and did so.
Lunch came just as they were off Sheerness. He didn’t feel so hungry as he thought he should, and so contented himself with a bit of boiled beef, and some strawberries and cream. He pondered a good deal during the afternoon, and at one time it seemed to him that he had been eating nothing but boiled beef for weeks, and at other times it seemed that he must have been living on strawberries and cream for years.
Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either — seemed discontented like.
At six, they came and told him dinner was ready. The announcement aroused no enthusiasm within him, but he felt that there was some of that two-pound-five to be worked off, and he held on to ropes and things and went down. A pleasant odour of onions and hot ham, mingled with fried fish and greens, greeted him at the bottom of the ladder; and then the steward came up with an oily smile, and said:
“What can I get you, sir?”
“Get me out of this,” was the feeble reply.
And they ran him up quick, and propped him up, over to leeward, and left him.
For the next four days he lived a simple and blameless life on thin captain’s biscuits (I mean that the biscuits were thin, not the captain) and soda-water; but, towards Saturday, he got uppish, and went in for weak tea and dry toast, and on Monday he was gorging himself on chicken broth. He left the ship on Tuesday, and as it steamed away from the landing-stage he gazed after it regretfully.
“There she goes,” he said, “there she goes, with two pounds’ worth of food on board that belongs to me, and that I haven’t had.”
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
September 30, 2014
Tim Harford on the recent French government attempt to “fix” the declining quality of food served in restaurants:
“Each time I visit the city the food gets worse and worse.” Tyler Cowen, economics professor, foodie and author of An Economist Gets Lunch, despairs of Paris. Cowen isn’t the only person to lament the state of French cuisine. This may be why — in a quintessentially French move — the nation’s government has introduced a new law in an attempt to improve standards.
The quixotic law in question is public decree No. 2014-797, more popularly known as the “fait maison” rule, in which restaurants may use a new saucepan-with-a-roof-and-chimney logo on the menu beside any dish that is made on the premises. More accurately, the restaurants must use the saucepan-with-a-roof symbol to denote house-made dishes, but the definition of house-made is rather whimsical, thanks to French legislators.
The entire affair seems unlikely to improve French cuisine but it does provide a nice lesson in practical economics: regulation is a superficially appealing answer to life’s problems but often fails to provide real solutions.
A third problem is that the regulation may produce unintended consequences. Consider a chef who offers a fresh fruit crumble alongside a selection of factory-made cakes and puddings. By law, he or she must display the fait maison logo beside the crumble, implicitly damning all his or her other dishes. Such chefs might decide to offer no house-made dishes at all, rather than bring unwelcome questions to the forefront of their customers’ minds.
Policymaking is flawed and crude while the world is subtle and unpredictable. That is why regulations are often rigged from the start, are only peripherally related to the real matter of concern and have a tendency to backfire.
September 22, 2014
Published on 13 Mar 2013
Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen, Genome, The Rational Optimist and other books, dropped by Reason‘s studio in Los Angeles last month to talk about a curious global trend that is just starting to receive attention. Over the past three decades, our planet has gotten greener!
Even stranger, the greening of the planet in recent decades appears to be happening because of, not despite, our reliance on fossil fuels. While environmentalists often talk about how bad stuff like CO2 causes bad things to happen like global warming, it turns out that the plants aren’t complaining.
September 16, 2014
Rob Lyons charts the way our governments and healthcare experts got onboard the anti-fat dietary express, to our long-lasting dietary harm:
… in recent years, the advice to eat a low-fat diet has increasingly been called into question. Despite cutting down on fatty foods, the populations of many Western countries have become fatter. If heart-disease mortality has maintained a steady decline, cases of type-2 diabetes have shot up in recent years. Maybe these changes were in spite of the advice to avoid fat. Maybe they were caused by that advice.
The most notable figure in providing the intellectual ammunition to challenge existing health advice has been the US science writer, Gary Taubes. His 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, became a bestseller, despite containing long discussions on some fairly complex issues to do with biochemistry, nutrition and medicine. The book’s success triggered a heated debate about what really makes us fat and causes chronic disease.
The move to first discussing and then actively encouraging a low-fat diet was largely due to the work of Dr. Ancel Keys, who is to the low-fat diet movement what Karl Marx is to Communism. His energy, drive, and political savvy helped get the US government and the majority of health experts onboard and pushing his advice. A significant problem with this is that Keys’ advocacy was not statistically backed by even his own data. He drew strong conclusions from tiny, unrepresentative samples, yet managed to persuade most doubters that he was right. A more statistically rigorous analysis might well show that the obesity crisis has actually been driven by the crusading health advisors who have been pushing the low-fat diet all this time … or, as I termed it, “our Woody Allen moment“.
Rob Lyons discussed this with Nina Teicholz, author of the book The Big Fat Surprise:
Once the politically astute Keys had packed the nutrition committee of the AHA and got its backing for the advice to avoid saturated fat, the war on meat and dairy could begin. But a major turning point came in 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, led by Democratic senator George McGovern, held hearings on the issue. The result was a set of guidelines, Dietary Goals for the United States [PDF], which promoted the consumption of ‘complex’ carbohydrates, and reductions in the consumption of fat in general and saturated fat in particular.
By 1980, this report had been worked up into government-backed guidelines — around the same time that obesity appears to have taken off in the US. The McGovern Report inspired all the familiar diet advice around the world that we’ve had ever since, and led to major changes in what food manufacturers offered. Out went fat, though unsaturated fat and hydrogenated oils were deemed less bad than saturated fat, so vegetable oils and margarines became more popular. In came more carbohydrate and more sugar, to give those cardboard-like low-fat ‘treats’ some modicum of flavour.
Yet two recent reviews of the evidence around saturated fat — one led by Ronald Krauss, the other by Rajiv Chowdhury — suggest that saturated fat is not the villain it has been painted as. (The latter paper, in particular, sparked outrage.) As for fat in general, Teicholz tells me: ‘There was no effort until very late in the game to provide evidence for the low-fat diet. It was just assumed that that was reasonable because of the caloric benefit you would see from restricting fat.’
Teicholz also debunks the wonderful reputation of the Mediterranean Diet (“a rose-tinted version of reality tailored to the anti-meat prejudices of American researchers”), points out the role of the olive oil industry in pushing the diet (“Swooning researchers were literally wined and dined into going along with promoting the benefits of olive oil”), and points out that we can’t even blame most of the obesity problem on “Big Food”:
Which leads us to an important third point made by Teicholz: that the blame for our current dietary problems cannot solely, or even mainly, be placed at the door of big food corporations. Teicholz writes about how she discovered that ‘the mistakes of nutrition science could not be primarily pinned on the nefarious interests of Big Food. The source of our misguided dietary advice was in some ways more disturbing, since it seems to have been driven by experts at some of our most trusted institutions working towards what they believed to be the public good.’ Once public-health bureaucracies enshrined the dogma that fat is bad for us, ‘the normally self-correcting mechanism of science, which involves constantly challenging one’s own beliefs, was disabled’.
The war on dietary fat is a terrifying example of what happens when politics and bureaucracy mixes with science: provisional conclusions become laws of nature; resources are piled into the official position, creating material as well as intellectual reasons to continue to support it; and any criticism is suppressed or dismissed. As the war on sugar gets into full swing, a reading of The Big Fat Surprise might provide some much-needed humility.
September 13, 2014
Harris proposed that we should have scrambled eggs for breakfast. He said he would cook them. It seemed, from his account, that he was very good at doing scrambled eggs. He often did them at picnics and when out on yachts. He was quite famous for them. People who had once tasted his scrambled eggs, so we gathered from his conversation, never cared for any other food afterwards, but pined away and died when they could not get them.
It made our mouths water to hear him talk about the things, and we handed him out the stove and the frying-pan and all the eggs that had not smashed and gone over everything in the hamper, and begged him to begin.
He had some trouble in breaking the eggs — or rather not so much trouble in breaking them exactly as in getting them into the frying-pan when broken, and keeping them off his trousers, and preventing them from running up his sleeve; but he fixed some half-a-dozen into the pan at last, and then squatted down by the side of the stove and chivied them about with a fork.
It seemed harassing work, so far as George and I could judge. Whenever he went near the pan he burned himself, and then he would drop everything and dance round the stove, flicking his fingers about and cursing the things. Indeed, every time George and I looked round at him he was sure to be performing this feat. We thought at first that it was a necessary part of the culinary arrangements.
We did not know what scrambled eggs were, and we fancied that it must be some Red Indian or Sandwich Islands sort of dish that required dances and incantations for its proper cooking. Montmorency went and put his nose over it once, and the fat spluttered up and scalded him, and then he began dancing and cursing. Altogether it was one of the most interesting and exciting operations I have ever witnessed. George and I were both quite sorry when it was over.
The result was not altogether the success that Harris had anticipated. There seemed so little to show for the business. Six eggs had gone into the frying-pan, and all that came out was a teaspoonful of burnt and unappetizing looking mess.
Harris said it was the fault of the frying-pan, and thought it would have gone better if we had had a fish-kettle and a gas-stove; and we decided not to attempt the dish again until we had those aids to housekeeping by us.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
September 12, 2014
Indiana, like most states, has some odd laws still on the books from the immediate post-Prohibition era, including a “food requirements” rule that specifies that any establishment that serves retail alcoholic beverages must also maintain a restaurant on-site. That restaurant is required to serve certain specific food items. This is how the Bank Street Brewhouse complies with the law:
As you can see, this fully complies with the wording of the rule which requires “a food menu to consist of not less than the following:”
- Hot soups.
- Hot sandwiches.
- Coffee and milk.
- Soft drinks.
H/T to Katherine Mangu-Ward who has more on the ridiculous requirements.