Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bittman and Blah on Cheeseburger Freedom

From a Mark Bittman post at the Times:
If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly.
In this discussion, the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability.
That's the concluding sentences of an argument that industrial ag, as symbolized by the cheeseburger, has very costly externalities: it has a big carbon footprint, it contributes to obesity, obesity contributes to poor health, plus a handful of more minor effects. I've no problem with Bittman's pointing out the negative externalities, but I do have two problems with the piece:

  • First, if you're going to discuss externalities, fairness means you need to talk about positive ones as well.  The cheeseburger is one of the great American contributions to the cause of freedom.  It frees women to do something other than cook 3 meals a day, as my mother did.  Whether it's to pursue a career or just to get a second income for the family, that freedom, that ability to choose is important.  (Obviously men and children also gain more freedom, more choice as well, but women are the greatest gainers.)
  • Second, I find these words simply incoherent: "Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone".  I defy anyone to expand the statement in a way which makes sense.

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