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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Goo-Goo History: Or, Everything You Know is Wrong!

Via Joel Schlosberg, by private email. The NYT recently published an op-ed in honor of the 100th anniversary of publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Quoth Schlosberg: "as you might expect, it describes the 'official' interpretation to a T." Indeed:

“The Jungle,” and the campaign that Sinclair waged after its publication, led directly to passage of a landmark federal food safety law, which took effect 100 years ago this week. Sinclair awakened a nation not just to the dangers in the food supply, but to the central role government has to play in keeping it safe. But as the poisonings of spinach eaters and Taco Bell customers recently made clear, the battle is far from over — and in recent years, we have been moving in the wrong direction....

As a result of Sinclair’s crusade, Congress passed the Food and Drug Act, which had been effectively blocked by industry.

The only problem with the official version is that it's just about a 180-degree reversal of the truth in every detail. To get around the Art Schlesinger mythology, all you have to do is read Gabriel Kolko's The Triumph of Conservatism, a brilliant work of New Left history on the role of the regulated industries in formulating "The Great Trust-Buster's" regulatory agenda. You see, the big meatpackers were already subject to a federal inspection regime. The federal government had adopted the older system at their behest in the late nineteenth century, when an embarrassing tainted meat scandal threatened their market in Europe. The federal government at the time adopted inspection regulations for all meatpackers engaged in the export trade. It was a classic example of cartelization through the state: the meat exporters, which happened to be the largest firms, for all intents and purposes adopted an industry code enforced by the state. It was exactly the kind of code an industry might have adopted on its own initiative, with the added benefit of being non-defectable. So the costs of compliance were not a competitive issue between the big packers. There was only one drawback: it didn't apply to the small packers that didn't produce for the export market. What TR's Meat Inspection Act did was bring the small packers into the regime, to remove the competitive advantage they received from their exemption.

USA Weekend recently ran a similarly goo-gooish puff piece that used the e. coli spinach scare as an object lesson on how safe American food is, thanks to the efforts of "our government."

Thanks to the efforts of the CDC, FDA and USDA, our food supply is among the safest on Earth, and, if a problem arises, they're on top of it.

Golly gee whiz! Just close your eyes after reading this, and you're magically transported back to the 1950s: Watch those wonderful, grainy black and white educational films with countless loaves of Wonder Bread speeding down the line, and similarly endless ranks of pasteurized milk in quart bottles on their way for pickup by the friendly guy in the white truck! See the panoramic view of rippling Midwestern wheat fields with giant machinery rumbling through! Hear that up-beat industrial music in the background! Imagine the menacing face of Immanuel Goldstein, shouting insane gibberish! Oops, wait--wrong propaganda film.


There's one thing this pleasant myth conveniently leaves out, though:

Where does this particularly virulent strain [of e. coli] come from? It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms....

When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

In other words, the source of the problem is the very model of factory farming the USDA was created to support. That's right: those nice people that do such a swell job handing out all those crutches are the same ones who broke our legs. What's that you say, girl? Timmy's in trouble?

As Roy Childs put it, liberal intellectuals are the running dogs of big business.

10 Comments:

Blogger Adam B. Ricketson said...

By coincidence, I was looking at "the budget chart" blog yesterday and they did a breakdown of federal ag subsidies based on product.

By far, the largest category goes to (drumroll)-- feed grains!

January 12, 2007 6:25 AM  
Blogger iceberg said...

This was printed just a couple days ago in the the NY Sun:
"The vanguard of progressive beef is the grass-fed category. Although the term "corn-fed" has long been associated with classic Midwestern heartiness, cows aren't supposed to eat corn, or any other grain. They're ruminants, which means they're supposed to eat grass out in the pasture. Corn has become our primary cattle feed mainly because government subsidies have made corn so inexpensive, even though it makes the cattle sick. That's why corn-fed steers require so many antibiotics and other chemical supplements."

January 12, 2007 8:28 AM  
Blogger John Markley said...

USA Weekend recently ran a similarly goo-gooish puff piece that used the e. coli spinach scare as an object lesson on how safe American food is, thanks to the efforts of "our government."

It's funny how so much statist advocacy works this way- if the government screws up, that somehow proves how essential the government is. You hear it when a building burns down because government inspectors were incompetent or corrupt, when a plane crashes because of a safety problem the FAA failed to catch, and of course after all hell broke loose in New Orleans after the hurricane hit and the government failed to protect people. Of course, if the private sector screws up, that also proves that the government is essential.

Iceberg: Intriguing stuff on why cattle are fed what they're fed. I didn't know that, though considering the degree to which the government screws with agriculture I shouldn't be surprised.

January 12, 2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger John Markley said...

USA Weekend recently ran a similarly goo-gooish puff piece that used the e. coli spinach scare as an object lesson on how safe American food is, thanks to the efforts of "our government."

It's funny how so much statist advocacy works this way- if the government screws up, that somehow proves how essential the government is. You hear it when a building burns down because government inspectors were incompetent or corrupt, when a plane crashes because of a safety problem the FAA failed to catch, and of course after all hell broke loose in New Orleans after the hurricane hit and the government failed to protect people. Of course, if the private sector screws up, that also proves that the government is essential.

Iceberg: Intriguing stuff on why cattle are fed what they're fed. I didn't know that, though considering the degree to which the government screws with agriculture I shouldn't be surprised.

January 12, 2007 10:09 AM  
Blogger John Markley said...

Gah! Sorry about the double post.

January 12, 2007 10:10 AM  
Blogger Adam B. Ricketson said...

Here's the link to the budget graph blog, referenced above:

mmm… Farm Subsidies

January 12, 2007 2:12 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Subsidies aren't the only way governments can make cereal grains cheaper. Trollope's North America records that maize prices dropped in what was then simply called the "West", as an unintended consequence of government action that closed the Mississippi to trade in the early 1860s. Farmers were even burning their crops for fuel.

January 13, 2007 4:21 AM  
Blogger back40 said...

Maize isn't cheap now, due to the demand by ethanol plants. Dairymen and feedlots are hurting. And, it's supposed to get worse as more plants come online.

As a grass farmer I benefit. The premium prices I need for my premium product are easier to get as the cost of maize goes up, and the cost of "twinky beef" goes up too. I'm also in demand as a heifer raiser for dairies since I can raise them on grass cheaper than they can on maize. They used to pay $1.00 a day for that service but I can get a little more now.

The cost of food in general may rise as competition for land from bio-fuel operations drives up the cost of food and fiber. It's food, fiber and fuel now.

January 13, 2007 7:34 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Back40, you might be interested in an article in last week's Economist (maybe someone can find a link?). It described how a Texas feedlot was working with the biofuel sector, providing dried cow dung as feedstock for some of their ancillary operations. This produced syngas that was used in the operations. Also, some of the post-fermentation product could be fed to cattle (though not pigs or chickens).

This means that biofuel may not have quite the co-elasticity of demand with beef as we might have hoped. But the method used sacrifices the nitrogen content of the manure; you would need to use alfalfa or something to avoid that renewably. But it has struck me that this sort of producer gas is the most economically efficient, since it is a by-product with no additional direct costs. It would make sense in farm power equipment.

The point about biofuel competing with food production is very real. It was pointed out as a theoretical possibility that didn't actually apply, in Nassau Senior's early 19th century work on "Wages". He showed that industrialisation doesn't compete for wages, unless it competes for agricultural feedstock.

Many moderns don't stop to look at these originals and just take it as an article of faith that technology "can't" hurt, when it can in special cases that don't usually come up. Well, biofuel - done wrong - is just precisely one of those cases. Done by incompetents, ecofriendly policies can be very people-unfriendly (which might also mislead anyone who suffers from any bungling, so that they get angry with the ecofriendliness not the bungling).

January 14, 2007 1:18 AM  
Blogger back40 said...

Hi Lawrence,

I have kept up with some of the various fuel/feed issues. There are various systems that take in wastes from animal feeding operations as feedstock for anaerobic digesters that produce methane. A reverse relationship also exists where the wastes from ethanol plants are fed to animals, just as the spent grain from alcohol distilleries has always been used. The wastes produced in turn by the animals could be used as feedstock for digesters to make methane. In general, the output of each system can be the input to another until all energy has been extracted.

A recent MIT study determined that it is only when the spent grain co-products of ethanol production are used as animal fodder that more value is produced than is consumed in the production of the grains and ethanol. But even that may change as more ethanol plants come online and use less desirable fossil fuels such as coal to provide the energy needed for production. It will still be profitable but that is largely due to various subsidies. It doesn't make any sense from a physics perspective though it does from an economics perspective.

This will all change when ethanol technologies advance to the point of not needing grain. When they can digest leaves and twigs rather than just starchy grains then more of the primary production of plants can be exploited. When our energy systems get as efficient as a cow's rumen then even the grass will be too precious to feed to animals.

A sidewise issue is that ethanol may not be a sensible objective for bio-fuel. When a low temperature pyrolysis system is used to gasify biomass - which produces hydrogen and oxides of carbon, leaving bio-char, a charcoal like substance containing the majority of the carbon in a durable form useful as a soil amendment - the gasses can be used to produce various fuels as well as fertilizer, with no undesirable co-products.

January 14, 2007 11:13 AM  

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