Category Archives: politics

2010 Year in Review, Part II: The Non-Recipes

2010 nonrecipes collage

A Record of Sticking Places

In September, Lauren Berlant wrote the following description of writing on her blog, Supervalent Thought

Most of the writing we do is actually a performance of stuckness.  It is a record of where we got stuck on a question for long enough to do some research and write out the whole knot until the original passion and curiosity that made us want to try to say something about something got so detailed, buried, encrypted, and diluted that the energetic and risk-taking impulse became sealed and delivered in the form of a defense against thinking any more about it. Along the way, something might have happened to the scene the question stood for:  or not.

At first, I thought of that as something that applied only to “serious” writing—to articles or book chapters that unfold over months or years. But in retrospect, I think it’s actually one of the reasons I started this blog: to have a place to delve (even if only shallowly) into the kinds of questions that were distracting me from writing my dissertation and then seal them up so they’d stop cluttering my thought process. At some point in the process of writing most of the longer, essayish posts, I get sick of the topic and just want to be done with it. So I finish it, and even if I haven’t entirely resolved the question I started with, I feel released from thinking about it at least for a while.

However, the blog hasn’t quite had the intended effect of freeing me up to write the dissertation because, unsurprisingly, getting mentally “free” takes up a lot of the time and energy I ought to be spending on that other, more important “performance of stuckness.” And the whole idea of having a mentally “clean slate” before I deal with my dissertation was probably always a hopeless ambition.

So this part of the retrospective on the year is also a sort of penitent offering to anyone who’s come to appreciate or even maybe expect this kind of content. In the next six months, I need to finish and defend and submit my dissertation. Also, I’m getting married. Between the two, I’m probably not going to have the time to do a lot of longer posts on culture/history/politics. I’m toying with the idea of taking excerpts from the dissertation and editing them into blog-friendly essays on the weekends. But in case I don’t end up having the time to post much of anything substantial for at least the first half of 2011 and that makes you sad, maybe there will be something here that you missed or might be interested in revisiting.

Special Series

Image from Look at this Fucking HipsterHipsters on Food StampsA three-part look at the bogus “trend” piece published last March in Salon about college-educated people using food stamps to buy organic, ethnic, and otherwise non-subsistence-diet foods and what it says about food & social class in America:

Part I: The New Generation of Welfare Queens—A critique of the article that places it in the longer history of concern about how the poor eat

Part II: Who Deserves Public Assistance?—An analysis of the comments and some of the myths about social class and poverty in America they reflect

Part III: Damned If You Do-ritos and Damned If You Don’t—An attempt to explain the contradictory trends of patronizing vs. romanticizing the poor and how they eat and what kinds of contemporary anxieties the bogus trend of hipsters on food stamps might be a response to

Responses to Food, Inc.—Posts related to the film (and the broader agendas it gave voice to) and how they distort the picture of the American food system and confused their audience.

I never got around to going through the list of suggestions at the end of the film. Perhaps I'll get to it in 2011.Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket—An interrogation of the film’s premise that “looking” at the food system will lead everyone to the same conclusion

Part II: Is the Food More Dangerous?—The film suggests that industrial animal agriculture is responsible for the deadly strain of e coli that killed at least one innocent child, but it turns out that’s not true. Grass-fed cattle have less generic, harmless e coli but the same prevalence of 0157:H7.

Price, Sacrifice, and the Food Movement’s “Virtue” Problem—Why a food “movement” predicated on spending more or making sacrifices is necessarily limited to the privileged few.

The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig—Why not every farm animal can or should be “grass fed,” and the ecological argument for vegetarianism.

The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig, Part II: Cornphobia—On the epidemic of irrational fears about corn inspired by Michael Pollan’s books and the documentaries he has appeared in.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-AidWhy agave nectar Greenwashing alert.isn’t “natural,” healthy, or (probably) more delicious than other sweeteners.

Part I: Natural, My Foot—Agave nectar isn’t an “ancient sweetener” used by Native Americans, it was invented in the 1990s and involves a process almost identical to the one used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup.

Part II: What’s Wrong With Any High-Fructose Sweetener—Why agave nectar, with up to 90% fructose, isn’t a healthier substitute for sugar.

Part III: The Mint Julep Taste Test and Calorie Comparison—The results of a comparison between agave and simple syrup-sweetened mint juleps and some number crunching that shows you could theoretically cut a small number of calories by substituting agave for sugar, but not if you use the recommended amount, which is calorically identical.

Why Posting Calorie Counts Won’t WorkCalorie counts are already appearing on menus across the country, and will soon be required for most chains. This series explores why they won’t make Americans thinner or healthier. 

Another thing I didn't mention--many of the calorie counts are being posted as "ranges" that take into account all the forms of customization, which makes the numbers even less useful. What are you supposed to do with the knowledge that a burrito has somewhere between 400-1400 calories?Introduction—A brief run-down of the reasons I don’t think the policy will work as intended.

Part I: The Number Posted is Often Wrong—What you see on the label is not always what you get, and the difference isn’t entirely random. 

Part II: Most People Don’t Know How Many Calories They Burn—The problem of calorie ignorance isn’t one that can be fixed with an educational campaign—people don’t know how many calories they burn because they can’t know, because it changes, especially if they change their diets.

Part III: Calorie-restriction Dieting Doesn’t Work Long Term—A meta-literature review of three decades of research on calorie-restriction weight loss that shows again and again that by far the most common result of dieting is weight loss followed by regain. And an explanation of why the National Weight Loss Control Registry isn’t a representative sample.


Health

Probably my favorite post because writing it helped me get over/through that rough patch.When What I Want Isn’t What I Want: Temptation and Disordered Thinking/Eating—Not about nutrition, but about mental health and how easy it is to fall into into negative thought patterns about food and body image, even if you think you’re “beyond” all that

Salt Headlines That Make the Vein in My Forehead Throb—Irresponsible news media reporting about public health research, and especially comparisons between the relative merits of cutting salt  and quitting smoking, may be hazardous to my health

Stop Serving Assemblyman Felix Ortiz Salt in Any Form—A plea to the restaurateurs of New York to teach Mr. Ortiz a lesson handed down from fairytales about what it would be like to eat food without salt.Unless you are a rabbit or a chicken, cholesterol in your food does not automatically translate to cholesterol in your veins.

Things that Won’t Kill You Volume IV: Saturated Fat, Part II: Cholesterol Myths—No one, not even Ancel Keys, ever thought you should avoid dietary cholesterol. Volumes I: High Fructose Corn Syrup, II: Fruit Juice, III: MSG, and IV: Saturated Fat Part I went up in 2009.

Things That Might Kill You Volume I : Trans-fats—Why you might want to avoid trans fats, including things with “0 grams of trans fats per serving,” which still contain potentially non-trivial amounts.

HFCS Follow-up: What the Rats at Princeton Can and Can’t Tell US—A review of the study claiming rats consuming HFCS gained more weight than rats consuming table sugar

Food Policy & Politics

I'm still sometimes uneasy trying to choose between better-for-the-environment and better-for-animals and often end up buying Omega-3 enriched eggs because so far at least it seems like those eggs might be measurably different and healthier.You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or  more delicious—A review of the evidence for and against specialty eggs, concluding that they might be marginally more humane but come at an environmental cost.

Good Egg Update: Someone’s Keeping Score—Explaining the Cornucopia Institute’s guide to specialty eggs

A Food Policy & Politics Christmas Wish List—Seven things that might improve the U.S. food system

Robots

Who Says Robots Can’t Taste? On Cooking Robots and Electronic Noses—A survey of cooking robots and  anxieties about electronic incursions on the acts of cooking and eating

Ingredient Spotlight

The first three listed below were stand-alone posts without recipes. The others were also collected in the 2010 recipe retrospective, but I thought they might merit inclusion here, too, because they involved some research beyond just looking at a few recipes and cooking something.

I'm still not totally satisfied by what I was able to find--the active chemicals have been identified, but it's still a bit of a mystery how they work the way they do. The Sweet Science of Artichokes—Why they make things taste sweet after you eat them

Morel Time in Michigan—How to identify morels and tell them apart from vague look-a-likes.

Meet the Paw-Paw, aka the Michigan Banana—A tropical fruit for the American midwest, with its very own Johnny Appleseed. 

Two on the Tomato: The Official Verdict in the Fruit v. Vegetable Debate and The Case For Tomatoes as Dessert—On the Supreme Court case that ruled tomatoes a “vegetable,” and why there’s still a debate about them even though there are lots of other “vegetables” that are botanically fruits. And how to use them to substitute for sweeter fruits in dessert recipes.

Cheddar-Garlic Biscuits: In Defense of Garlic Powder—Why garlic powder is so maligned, and a culinary defense.

The saffron crocus--each bloom produces 3 pistils, which must be harvested by hand during the brief window when they bloom, before sunrise because the flowers wilt in the sun. Jonathan Franzen and Joël Robuchon-inpspired Rutabaga Purée—On the root vegetable’s biggest fans (some of whom use it as a curling rock), its many detractors, and its supporting role in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections.

Now in Season: Sour Cherry Pie—What makes sour cherries different from normal pie cherries, and the science of flaky pie crusts.

Deviled Eggs with Saffron Aioli—On the history of deviled eggs and why saffron is so expensive.

Pork Chops with Cider Reduction and Greens—A review of several theories on why pork is so often prepared or paired with apples.

Recipes with History

These were all in the recipe round-up, but again, they have something to offer aside from cooking instruction. New annotations to explain what else you might learn there.

Benedictines and Pimento Cheese Sandwiches for Derby Day—On Miss Jennie Carter Benedict of Louisville,  Kentucky and the shaping of an “American” cuisine for the emerging middle classI'm still tickled by the idea that a reality television show can have a soul.

Jook (Chicken and Rice Porridge)—On the cross-cultural phenomenon of prescribing bone broths and particularly chicken broth-based soups as a healing or restorative food.

Lemon and Herb Chicken Drumsticks—On the history of Labor Day and the relationship between food and holidays

Sourdough-risen Whole Wheat Bagels and the Sweetness of the Old World—On the fetishization of a humble roll with a hole, its origins in the Jewish diaspora and why you don’t have to use “malt extract” to make it authentic (but why some people think you do).

Introducing Ezekiel and How and Why to Make a Sourdough Starter—A brief history of sourdough starters and why so many of them are named “Herman.”

Buckeyes, Shmuckeyes, or if you prefer, Peanut Butter Bon-Bons—How buckeyes became Ohioan and Not, I suspect, bluffin' with her muffin. Ohioans became buckeyes, starring General Ebenzer Sproat and President William Henry Harrison.

Sourdough English Muffins: Of nooks and crannies and double-entendres—Muffin nationalism explained, and also how muffin became a slang term for women and various parts of their anatomy.

American Pumpernickel—Devil’s Fart Bread! The history of Old World and New World rye breads.

Baguettes, regular or whole wheat—On the history and Frenchification of long, skinny, crusty loaves of bread.

A Sourdough-risen Challah Trinity: Braid, Loaf, Knot—The history of challah from tithing to the temple to European decorative braided breads. 

Homemade Peeps and Chocolate-covered Marshmallow Eggs—On this history of the candy, from the therapeutic uses of the mallow flower to the contemporary, mallow-less confection.

A Food Policy & Politics Christmas Wish List

Santa baby, just slip sustainable aquaculture
under the tree, for me.
Been an awful good girl, Santa baby,
So hurry down the chimney tonight.

I wonder if she's asking for a garbage-fed pig, too. Also, I love that it looks like she's saying, "Santa, how could you? Why, I've never heard of such a thing!"From flickr user duluoz cats

Dear Santa,

I know I can be a bit of a “negative Nancy.” I spend a lot more time criticizing existing policy and reform efforts than offering alternatives or solutions. Of course, that’s partially due to the fact that not all policies need alternatives—the flip side of a lot of my apparent negativity is that I have a much sunnier outlook on the U.S. food system than many self-identified foodies and people associated with the “food revolution.”

For example, I’m down on most anti-obesity initiatives because I don’t think obesity causes serious diseases or death. I’m open to evidence to the contrary, but in all the epidemiological studies I’ve seen (including the ones cited by the WHO and NIH when they redefined “obesity” to a lower BMI range) BMI isn’t even significantly correlated with an increased risk of mortality until you get into the territory of severe or morbid obesity (BMI 35+). The number of Americans in that category has been growing since 1980, but it still amounts to less than 5% of the U.S. population, far less than the 30-60% of overweight or obese Americans usually cited as the evidence that we’re in the midst of an obesity “epidemic.” Americans on average aren’t much fatter than they were 50 or 100 years ago. The “typical American diet” high in refined grains and sugar probably isn’t optimal for human health (for reasons other than that it makes most people fatter), but it nonetheless enables many people to live long, relatively healthy lives.

What with the kids in laps and such, I'd think Santa might be more concerned about keeping his Ginger *down*, but what do I know?From Found in Mom’s Basement.

I think we’re doing somewhere between okay and great on several other fronts, too. Although imperfect in many ways, the industrial food production and distribution systems are sometimes more efficient in terms of total inputs and carbon emissions per calorie or pound than small, local farms—environmentalists should celebrate the spread of no-till farming and possibility of safe GMO crops that increase yields with reduced water, nitrogen, or phosphorus needs. Illnesses caused by food-borne pathogens are probably less common now than at any point in our country’s history (and new estimates about the incidence of food-borne illness are even lower). For anyone who’s interested in novel foods, there’s probably never been a better time or place to be an eater. The ever-increasing flows of people, goods, and information around the world have made everything from far-flung regional specialties to ancient recipes to innovative taste experiences more available to more consumers than ever.

Of course, that doesn’t mean things couldn’t be better. So here’s a list of seven changes I would like to see in how people produce, consume, regulate, and talk about food in the U.S. It’s a bit of a motley assortment—if there’s one thing people in the “food movement” seem to agree on it’s that food is implicated in our lives in a myriad of interconnected ways. I think there’s room for improvement in multiple realms. 

Is it just me or does this look like 1950s-era photoshopping? I'm skeptical that that dude's cheeks were actually that rosy, and wonder if maybe he wasn't really wearing that hat or holidng that magic kit. From flickr user HA! Designs

1. More Garbage-fed Pigs. This might be impractical, or ultimately less efficient than just feeding them  corn, but it certainly seems like it would make sense to feed more restaurant and/or home kitchen waste food to pigs. That might require revisiting some recent changes in state and local laws—according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, the practice of feeding pigs garbage in the U.S. has “declined in recent years because of stricter federal, state, and local laws regulating animal health, transportation, and the feed usage of food waste.”

1940s wartime poster from the UK, from the Mary Evans Picture Library, which will sell it to you as a mousepad or jigsaw puzzle. Click.According to George Monbiot, similar changes in the UK have caused the percentage of edible grain in pig feed to double from 33% in the early 1990s to over 60% today, replacing crop residues and food waste. He claims that was largely an overreaction to fears about mad cow disease, even though there’s no danger in letting pigs eat meat and bone meal. Given that it’s now apparently against English law to feed kitchen scraps—even vegetable matter—to pet pigs, I’m inclined to believe him.

I’m all for food safety, but perhaps we could re-examine whether recent laws about the feed usage of food waste are really protecting pigs and people from disease, or just preventing us from making good use of garbage. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows how much food gets thrown out. Legal or not, I’ve heard about some people buying kitchen slops from restaurants to feed their pigs, and that sounds like a win-win: the restaurant profits from their garbage, and the hobby farmer gets cheap, high-quality pig food. I’m imagining something like that, but on a grander scale. Could we increase the amount of food waste in pig feed to 60-70% nationwide? Get on it, Santa.

2. More funding for food stamps. Not only do they prevent poor people from having to choose between buying food and paying the rent, they also provide the best stimulus “bang for the buck.” The biggest disappointment of the new school lunch bill is that it’s partially funded by cuts in federal funding for SNAP. If you’re the type to get your panties in a bunch over the possibility that a handful of underemployed college graduates might use them at Whole Foods, just remember 1) that’s probably not hurting anyone and 2) it’s not how the vast majority of food stamps get used. From Economix, click for link

3. More sustainable aquaculture. I love fish, but it’s getting hard to keep track of what kinds are safe and ethical and I’m worried about declining ocean stocks and the ecological impact of farmed salmon. Some promising developments I’ve heard about in the last year are aquaponics and farmed barramundi. More please?

4. Living wages for farm and food industry workers. Congrats to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who finally won the $0.01/lb raise they’ve been fighting for since 2001, which may raise their average annual income from $10,000 to $17,000. But that’s still pretty terrible. The low cost of fast food that people like Pollan complain about is almost certainly due more to the declining cost of labor in the last three decades than to farm subsidies. Thirty years ago, most meatpacking jobs were unionized and paid decent wages. I want that back.

Of course, it’s possible that if that happened, everyone else ( at least in the bottom 80% of income earners) would need help paying for the increased cost of food. So I guess this is a two-part request, and it’s probably the “big ticket” item on the list: I want more equitable income distribution. As Ezra Klein argued on the Washington Post site recently, there’s no reason to take our current rates of income inequality for granted.

In 1969, for instance, the average CEO made 26 times what the average worker made. Today, it’s closer to 500 times.

Not so in Japan, where “it’s indecent for rich people to make too much money because, after all, these are collaborative endeavors.” I’m not saying everyone needs to take home an identical paycheck, but I have a hard time believing the work and expertise of the average CEO is worth 500 times the work and expertise of their average employee. Or that the bankers who made deals with Magnetar deserve exponentially greater compensation than the people who spend all day every day picking vegetables or disemboweling beef carcasses. If that’s too much to ask, how about this for starters: everyone who works full time should be paid enough that they don’t qualify for food stamps.

5. Less “local,” more “low-impact.” I think the locavore movement has good intentions, but proximity is a poor proxy for things like the carbon footprint of food, largely because transportation only accounts for approximately 11% of the energy used in the food system—most of the rest is used up in water delivery, fertilizer production and application, harvesting, processing, packaging, heated barns and refrigeration, and the gas or electricity you use in your own kitchen.

Photo by Carbon Trust, featured in G-Online, click for storyJames Williams suggests that watchdog groups should calculate “life cycle carbon counts,” and the European Union has introduced “carbon labels.” I’m in favor of that, even though I’m not sure how practical it is. Perhaps some of your local farmers drive their produce to a single market in a new, energy-efficient vehicle while others drive old trucks, half-full, to a dozen markets every week. Despite the complications, someone might be able to come up with some ballpark regionally-specific estimates for commonly-purchased produce, and develop a “rating” system similar to the Seafood Watch guides you can print or download.

More broadly, I’d like to see the popular discourse shift away from the obsessive focus on locality, which corporations have already successfully co-opted. Are farmers in California or sub-Saharan Africa really any less deserving of your support than some guy who happens to live 50 miles away, especially if the former can get you a greener product? Sometimes thinking “global” may require buying “global,” not local.

6. Less condescension, more compassion. No more telling people they should be buying local, organic  heirloom beets instead of sneakers and cell phones. No more sneering at people who shop at “Whole Paycheck.” For the rich and the poor and everyone in between, I just want a cease-fire. I’m tired of people scolding other people or claiming the moral high ground because of where they shop, what they buy, how they cook, or what they feed their kids. This cuts both ways—it’s as annoying when people berate vegetarians for being stupid hypocrites or sneer at insufficiently-adventurous eaters as it is when people criticize fast food eaters and get smug about having a CSA share (or even having a particular CSA—I’m looking at you, Tantre shareholders).

No more of this passive-aggressive crap either. No one lectures people about how they ought to make their own clothes, but surely most of the same arguments people make about homemade food apply. Homemade clothes would probably be better-quality (at least once the maker has some practice and skill). They could be made with local, organic textiles free from chemical dyes and designed to suit individual tastes and needs instead of being made in factories and shipped halfway around the world. Wearing them instead of ready-made clothes would reduce your dependence on and support for unethical labor conditions and the culture of cheap, disposable wearables. And yet people are much more willing to accept that some people just don’t have the time to make their own clothes.

I’ve heard people say things to the effect of “it’s about priorities” in response to those who claim that some people don’t have time to cook. Well, duh, it’s about priorities. What is “I don’t have time,” if not a different way of saying, “It is less important to me than the other things I have to do”? No one saying “I don’t have time” is claiming they’ve got fewer hours in a day than anyone else, just that more important things are occupying those hours. What “it’s about priorities” doesn’t explain is why anyone thinks they should be the one to tell someone else what their priorities should be. If you have time to cook, or make your own clothes, bully for you. What I’m asking for is that people stop assuming the same is true of anyone else. Better to assume that most people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. The fact that someone else’s life looks different than yours doesn’t make theirs inferior—nor does it make yours inferior, which is the fear that I suspect drives most of that kind of condescension anyway.

TeacherPatti wrote about a similar issue last week in the fabulous post titled “A Different Life.”

7. “Public health” policy that focuses on health instead of thinness. Thinness is a really poor proxy for health, for reasons I’ve already mentioned above. Policies that focus on calories, BMI, and weight-loss are all designed to make people thinner—not that they’re likely to succeed at that either. If we really wanted to make people healthier, we’d stop advocating calorie-restriction dieting, which is more likely to make people fatter and less healthy in the long-term. Instead, we could devote resources to encouraging physical activity and decreasing sugar consumption. And maybe in the process we could start promoting acceptance of a wider range of body shapes and sizes, which might in turn help people develop healthier relationships with food. More on this topic before and I’m sure, again in the New Year.

I know that’’s a lot to ask for, Santa, and I know you’re a busy guy. I don’t actually expect to get any of these things, and perhaps it’s better that way—as multiple fairy tales and clichés warn us, wishes can be dangerous, volatile things, prone to tragic backfiring. In the realm of food, that seems especially true. Policies that might be better for the environment often seem to be worse for animal welfare or human health; reforms that might be better for nutrition might be bad for the environment or leave some people hungry. The food system and its effects are so far-reaching and complicated that change is never going to be simple. I’m prepared to be happy with whatever you can swing this year.

Best regards to you and Mrs. Claus,

Margot

p.s. Happy Holidays.

nomnomnomFrom Roar of the Tigers

Hipsters on Food Stamps Part III: Damned If You Do—ritos and Damned If You Don’t*

And what's a facebook reference without some irresponsible comparisons? This group has more facebook fans than 7/9 of the most popular pages for Ghandi, 2/3 of the pages for DFW, at least 5 of the pages for MLK Jr., at least one of the pages for "The Moon," and both "WAFFLES!!!!" (4 !) and "WAFFLES!!!!!" (5 !)

To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.
It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.

Oscar Wilde 
 

Patronizing the Poor but Fetishizing Peasant Foods

One common response to the anger elicited by last month’s Salon article about hipsters on food stamps is: *yawn* nothing new, seen it before, everyone loves to hate people on welfare, tell me something I don’t know. And that may be partially justified—I gestured to some of the historical precedents in the first entry, both in the title, which was a reference to the myth of the welfare queen famously promoted by Ronald Reagan, and in my discussion about the home economics movement. Progressive Era social reformers were really concerned about what new immigrants to America were eating and made (completely unfounded, obviously) connections between foods associated with immigrants, like pickles, and all the other stereotypes they had about them—their stunted growth, laziness, excessive attachments to their mothers, lack of self-control over their unruly sexual urges.

sometimes I think I can't love The Onion any more, and then I find shit like this (from 1999): http://www.theonion.com/articles/corporatewelfare-recipients-are-they-eating-steak,672/Those kinds of myths—the idea that pickles make you horny or that poor, black women have kids out of  wedlock in order to game the system—gain traction in part because they appeal to existing prejudices about the poor and in part because they enable dominant social groups to project the things they are most afraid of being onto the poor, so they can distance themselves from them. It’s reassuring to a lot of people if laziness and sexual excess look like a black single mother on welfare instead of a white-collar worker who comes home and watches hours of television every night and might be unfaithful to his or her spouse (or desire to be). It’s much more convenient if “gaming the system” looks like a Black woman or Latina who lives in subsidized housing and uses 50 different social security numbers to collect thousands of dollars a month in welfare and drives a Cadillac, instead of like a corporate lobbyist who pushes for roll-backs of labor and environmental protections or like an executive who does all he can to cut workers’ salaries and benefits in order to maximize profits and shareholder dividends…and drives a Cadillac.  

The history of stigmatizing the food of the poor is probably as old as social classes themselves, or least as old as capitalism and the emergence of the middle class(es) in the 18th C. The expansion of the middle class in that period is one reason a lot of scholars give for the proliferation of silly “grammar”** rules like not splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions at about that time. The middle classes have always had a lot to gain by making very clear distinctions between their way of speaking, dressing, and eating—which is always the  "right” way—and the culture of the poor—which is not just different, but “wrong.”

However, there’s also a long history of romanticizing the poor and glorifying how frugal, resourceful, or admirably un-fettered by material needs they are. This seems especially true in terms of food—as suspicious and critical as many home economists were of immigrant foodways, they also  looked to them for inspiration in developing cost-efficient and palatable meals and idealized their thrift. Bertha Wood, in the same book that criticized the “overstimulation” caused by Eastern Europeans’ taste for pickles, had far kinder things to say about Mexican food:

When not too highly seasoned, Mexican dishes are very tasty…. Only lack of variety and the use of hot flavors keep their food from being superior to that of most Americans.

In the 1980s, romanticization of the poor took the form of a widespread fetishization of “peasant” foods, especially in the growing world of California-inspired haute cuisine. The peasant food craze seems to have roots in the 1960s/1970s countercuisine and the hippie rebellion against the food industry. But the food of the international proletariat didn’t appeal to the Patrick Batemans of the world because they were a way to eat in solidarity with the oppressed classes in the global south. Instead, for the yuppies who adopted them, I think they were a way to mitigate the stain of elitism or food snobbery. “Peasant” foods are authentic, not pretentious. Their presence on the menu implies that that the gourmet aesthetic is based on some sort of objective standards of deliciousness, not subjective and arbitrary ideas about sophistication.

Peasant foods helped create the illusion of a culinary meritocracy—any kind of food can be “gourmet” if it tastes good enough. Of course, it’s not a meritocracy. The foods associated with the American poor, like Velveeta and Doritos, are totally ineligible, even though both would be probably be considered works of culinary genius if they were created by Wylie Dufresne or Grant Achatz. But the appearance of culinary democracy belies the arbitrariness of food aesthetics and the cultural hierarchies they reflect and reinforce.

To get back to the probably-apocryphal trend of “hipsters” living large on food stamps, I think that the differences in the way stigmas and stereotypes about the poor manifest in different historical periods matter as much or more than the commonalities. What strikes me most about the responses to the Salon article is not so much the occasional virulence—although that is often startling—but rather the division between the first two of the four camps I described in the second entry:

1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.

2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.

I think these warring camps represent two of the most pressing middle-class anxieties about food right now: the obvious one is the fear of fatness and all the guilt and shame attached to eating or desiring anything seen as “fattening,” like “junk” food, but the less obvious one that the first camp seems to reveal is an anxiety about food snobbery or perhaps overconsumption more broadly. In other words, perhaps part of the reason so many commenters were so quick to try to dictate thrift and asceticism to the poor is because they feel guilty about their own “splurges” and aren’t sure that spending more money on organic or gourmet food is wholly justifiable. That may even be one of the reasons many readers bought Salon’s paper-thin story, assumed it was a real phenomenon, and even made their own unfounded assumptions about what kinds of things foodies on food stamps might buy. Just like the specter of obese poor people buying frozen pizzas and soda with their food stamps is a useful whipping boy for fat shame, the “hipsters” on food stamps with their heaping bowls of curried squash drew attention because they’re the ideal target for foodie shame.

Outraged Sheeple

My issue comes with shopping at Whole Foods which is much more expensive then Safeway or buying wild salmon which is $26.00/pound. Sardines have just as many health benefits as salmon at a fraction of the cost. Fresh herbs are $1.99 – $2.99 a pack but can be grown in a kitchen garden for next to nothing. Mint chutney is expensive, especially at ethnic stores.If a single person qualifies and can shop in this fashion every day then 1) he or she is receiving too much money or 2) they run out of money mid-month and are getting money from somewhere else (mommy and daddy) and should not qualify to begin with.—pjamma

First, a brief reminder that the “hipsters” in the story merely sauntered in proximity to chutney—none of them bought any of it, as far as we know. But even if they had—sure, it’s more expensive per oz than ketchup or salad dressing but it’s comparable to flavored cream cheese and probably used more sparingly and moreover, who is anyone else to dictate what condiments food stamp recipients buy? It is beyond ridiculous to presume that every single purchase someone makes on food stamps should be optimally cost-efficient. Sardines are, indeed, cheap and by most measures, healthy. They’re probably even sustainable. But does that mean people on food stamps should have to eat them to the exclusion of the occasional piece of wild salmon (again, not that there’s any evidence of a mass trend of salmon-buying on food stamps in the first place)?

Yes, according to many of the people who commented on the article:

This makes me sick. I have no problem with people who need help, but spending tax payers money on food like wild caught salmon is ridicules.—michele32

I can not justify buying organic/high end food with food stamps!I love sushi, but I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if it was bought with food stamps. If you feel the need to do so, buy it on your own dime. And while you’re at it, instead of asking the government to assist your educated palate, maybe you should be asking Mom & Dad. Obviously they gave you the taste of the good life to begin with, which you feel you are entitled to. So this is where my husband’s tax dollars are going, so you can enjoy organic vegetables??? I find this appalling.—KathyI

We live on ramen noodles, and spagetti, and things that are inexpensive. It makes me sick that hipsters would brag about buying gormet foods while living on assistance. If we cut off people who abuse the programs or cheat the programs, or spend their assistance on things not related to living expenses then maybe they honest people who really need the help can get it.—samjean

It must be nice for the government to feed these people steak,or chicken and rice. When I make less than 20,000 a year and turned down for food stamp’s more that 5 times in the last 3 year’s "I make too much to get food stamp’s" ,but these people are living high on the hog so to speak on food stamp’s this makes me mad—splweapons 

Food stamps are supposed to help needy families provide basic nutrition for their families. Why should our hard earn tax dollars be paying for someone to live high on the hog? How often do we walk into a grocery store, it’s snowing and 30 degrees, and see a woman walking around in nice clothes, big jacket with a cart full of stuff, very little food, and children wearing inappropriate clothes, or shoes? I see it more often than I’d like to. Then we get to the check out and they’re standing at the register paying for the food items with food stamps and then pulling out a wad of cash to buy their “stuff”. Kids are crying, "Mommy, I want this, I want that!" And she tells them, "Shut up, we don’t have the money." Then out in the parking lot, I see her put her children into an Escalade.–crebrew

The Cadillac reappears! But the best example was the one I quoted in the first article:

ONLY BASIC foods should be OK for food stamps.
No chips, no cakes, no artisinal breads, nothing fancy.
It’s not fair for those of us who are not on food stamps have to to pay for the largess of those who are.
There are millions of non food stamp people buying beans and rice to save money while food stamp folks can buy fun food?
No, that isn’t right.
If I could wave a magic wand…I would say ONLY basic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains are OK for foods stamps. Not much else. –Soliel

Sorry to be repetitive with the quotes, but I’m afraid I sort of let this speak for itself. In light of at least one of the comments I got on the first post, I realized that maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about the fact that there are already pretty strict guidelines about who can receive foodstamps, what kinds of foods they can purchase, and how much assistance they receive. The amount is based on the “Thrifty Food Plan,” a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet established by USDA. No one gets more benefits in order to purchase wild salmon or the rabbit that one of the article’s subjects remembers fondly—which was probably a “splurge” meal that stands out from all the meatless vegetable, bean and rice concoctions they usually get by on. Food stamps don’t pay for “largess” or “living high on the hog.”

I suspect that these people, so eager to add further restrictions to how food-stamp-qualified people allocate their relatively-meager benefits, are basically projecting anxieties about their own excesses.

Better Than Doritos

On the other side, there are plenty of people willing to endorse even wild salmon, as long as it means this group of poverty-stricken people might not get fat.

With rising obesity epidemics and other diet-related health issues so prevalent in our culture, why would we want these folks to spend their meager allotment on highly processed foods laden with fats and high fructose corn syrup instead of organic carrots, salmon, and other healthy items?—terribletink

I have absolutely no problem with this. Its about time that food stamps were used for real food. Its about time that people really learn how to cook how to cook food as opposed to buying canned food and chips. Its the best way to stretch a buck. It also take’s away from the profits of the like’s of Nabisco, Nestle and all of those other corporations who don’t care and produce corn and other products. I’m totally fine with this.—tweeders1

Oh no! Not corn! I think we have Michael Pollan to thank for that. But wait, there’s more:

I am, as a 58 year-old public school teacher (living on teacher retirement–boo!), more offended to see people, especially parents of young children, use their "food stamps" to buy high-carb, high fat, cheaper foods for the kids and spending their cash on cartons of cigarettes and six-packs of beer. Cheers to someone who can make a good diet from the money for which the government says they are "qualified"!—gkcook

They are buying in the store rather than McDonalds and they are getting something healthy and cooking it well. So exactly why are they being potrayed here as a source of anger? Should people suffer and eat junk food that makes them diebetic (which those working for would have to pay for) instead of buying something healthy at the store and cooking it?—aburkett

One commenter even suggested that the “hipsters” be allowed to continue their extravagant ways, but only as long as they teach other “traditional food stamp recipients” how to cook:

Perhaps a solution that could make more people happy would be requiring them to take more traditional recipients shopping, and to teach them to use ingredients with which they may not be familiar to cook simple, flavorful, nutritious meals. They might even see teh benefit of public service. –SalliganeG

What a convenient solution–reform both of them at once! Make the abominable hipsters useful by forcing them to teach real poor people how to eat, and at the same time, rescue the poor from the dreaded Velveeta cocoon*** by teaching them about how accessible and virtuous rice and beans are. SalliganeG conveniently encapsulates everything I find objectionable about both camps—they’re equally patronizing to people who buy "real” food on food stamps and people who buy Velveeta and seek to prescribe one “correct” way of eating for everyone.

Even if the commenters follow their own prescriptions (which I doubt), who are they to tell anyone else how to eat? And no, “taxpayers” doesn’t cut it. The taxpayers’ representatives have already codified restrictions that correspond with contemporary cultural norms—as noted, the benefit cap is based on a food plan that couldn’t possibly include many or frequent excesses, and there’s a firm ban on things like alcohol, tobacco, and hot foods. You could probably add caviar and fois gras to the list of banned foods without affecting 99.9% of food stamp recipients, but if the remaining .1% wants to eat cabbage soup for most of the month to save up for one luxurious meal, does anyone really benefit from stopping them?

The Slate Big Money article that was critical of the Salon article also lays out the narrow middle ground that food stamp recipients are expected to walk:

Whether they are unemployed single mothers or young singles with pink Chuck Taylors and experimental facial hair, the best thing food-stamp recipients can do to both avoid criticism and live more healthfully is to avoid both the gourmet mint chutney and the Funyuns. And it helps to wait until you’re back on your feet before you shop at Whole Foods. You can get plenty of inexpensive, healthful foods at your Safeway (SWY) or Kroger (KR).

This also neatly encapsulates both the guilt about “junk” foods people know they “ought” to avoid and the conflicted relationship to costly premium foods that people tell themselves are nutritionally or culinarily superior to justify the expense, but probably purchase largely because of the aesthetic and ethical hierarchy that has way more to do with social class than nutrition or taste. Mint chutney and wild salmon are today’s un-split infinitives. Funyuns are the terminal prepositions. And the warring camps reflect the central contradiction of cultural capital: style and taste only work to reinforce class distinctions if the markers of the middle-class are confined to the middle class; however, the hierarchy must be ideologically justified. It’s a problem for class distinction if poor people can afford salmon; it’s a problem for the taste ideology if they don’t want it.

And perhaps what’s even more distressing is that all the concern about how the poor eat, or should eat, or who should determine how or if they get to eat ultimately distracts from the issues that cause people to apply for food stamps in the first place. And no, I don’t mean majoring in the humanities. As can only be expected in a nearly-500 comment thread, someone else has already said it better:

The real problem is that even people who have jobs often make so little money that they qualify for supplemental nutritional assistance. Working at places like Walmart does not pay enough to rent a place and pay utilities. Many of the Walmart employees are on foodstamps as a result. You are paying into the welfare system to help walmart continue to pay and treat employees badly. Instead Walmart should be required to pay a living wage. Instead of complaining about people on foodstamps….ask why you are being required to rescue and subsidize greedy corporations.—Francisco369

Amen, Francisco369. That concludes my ranting on the Salon article, meaning maybe I can get back to ranting about Food, Inc. sometime next week.

*I know, it’s terrible. I was compelled by forces greater than my shame.

**Not what linguists would call “grammar.” However, that’s what the people who codified some of the new prescriptive usage rules in the 18th C. called it—e.g., Robert Lowth’s 1762 book A Short Introduction to English Grammar. That lives on in the way teachers refer to usage and style lessons and how many people think about prevailing usage conventions. Some of my facebook friends have recently joined a group called “THEY’RE going THERE with THEIR friends. It’s called grammar, use it.” And I’m just waiting for someone else to start a group called something like “Its not a grammatical mistake; its a usage error. Learn the difference, you hypocrite.” [Okay, just because if anyone points out the “error,” I may actually cry, yes, I know that it should be “it’s” in both instances instead of “its"…that’s the joke, folks.]

***Gael Greene’s phrase, not mine

Hipsters on Food Stamps Part II: Who Deserves Public Assistance?

Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing.–Oscar Wilde

avocado is another tricky one: relatively expensive and often considered delicious, but technically "fresh produce" and generally considered to be healthy despite being high in fat; how would the people who would have food stamps restricted to virtuous, non-luxury items feel about it? would it matter if it was organic? image from Look At This Fucking Hipster http://www.latfh.com/search/avocado

It’s been a couple of weeks, so first a brief recap: in the first entry, I looked the recent article on Salon about “hipsters” using food stamps to purchase luxury foods, which was maddeningly imprecise about the employment and financial circumstances of newly-qualified food stamp recipients and what they’re actually buying, as opposed to merely sauntering past. Relying almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and rumor, the original article seemed designed primarily to build on popular stereotypes about “hipsters” and elicit outrage about this potentially-apocryphal trend in food stamp use.

In less than a week, the article attracted nearly 500 comments (Salon closed it down at 473). I didn’t read all of them, partially because a few themes emerge pretty quickly and they all start to sound the same. Here are the primary camps:

1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.

2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.

3. Critics of the article and the sheeple—a number of people brought up the work requirement for food stamps (which has been temporarily lifted in most states by the emergency relief act). Others noted that people qualify for some set monthly allotment of food stamps so it’s not like they get more assistance if they choose to purchase expensive things. This was often expressed as a hope that this article or the idea of hipsters taking unfair advantage of the public food assistance wouldn’t be used as political leverage against food stamp programs or welfare in general.

4. Critics of welfare qua welfare—a lot of people who commented on the article seemed less concerned about what people are buying with food stamps than the fact that anyone who might be described as a “hipster” would qualify in the first place: 

My issue lies with the fact that young, healthy, educated people are receiving government assistance in the first place. Rather than sully their precious hipster cred with some dreaded, uncool job such as waiting tables or manning the counter at Borders, these spoiled, art-damaged infants decide to go on food stamps. –SadieG

I belong to the third camp, which is basically what the first entry covered. I’ll look at the first two responses in more depth some other time. In this entry, I look at the misconceptions and anxieties expressed by this last group of comments and explain why some people find the idea of educated, young people being the recipients of food stamps—whether they’re using them to buy ramen or rabbit—so very infuriating.

Choosing to Be Poor

One of the main factors in this flavor of outrage is the mistaken assumption I discussed in the first entry that people have to be unemployed to receive food stamps. What seems to rankle the welfare critics is their belief that that young, able-bodied, educated people must be unemployed by choice and thus responsible for their poverty. SadieG was far from alone on this:

These are able-bodied 20/30-somethings with education. Granted, the job market is extremely weak but I have a hard time believing these people truly exhausted their options. Did they look into fast-food, janitorial services, retail? Those types of jobs have lots of turnover, so there’s almost always something available. Did they look into picking up a trade? I would say the chances are No – these type of jobs don’t fit into their self-image as an artist or whatever. So, even though this is a situation of their own making – they’re expecting the government to subsidize their lifestyle. And its all being paid for by people who actually bite the bullet and work at jobs they don’t necessarily love do what they do in order to support themselves and their families and not be a burden to society. Yeah, its pretty appalling. –CBFE

I don’t like that food stamps and unemployment are so readily handed out to people who are arguably unemployed or underemployed by choice for years at a time. –ohthatkate

It amazes me that people can insist on saying they would never do anything they consider "beneath" them, that is never some kind of job that is not "art related", and therefore status-y, but still have no problem taking charity handouts. These people need to either find a way to make a living or face reality. –Luccianna

Maybe a degree in post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes wasn’t such a wise choice after all. —Senator Neptune

The author of the original article didn’t actually specify whether the people she interviewed were unemployed, and none of the people she interviewed said anything about refusing jobs that were “beneath them.” However, her anecdotes certainly implied that this trend was largely driven by Even making $10/hr working 35 hrs/wk, a single wage-earner in a family of three would qualify for $288/month in food stamps: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226unemployed artists and people with humanities degrees. For many readers, the anecdotes clearly spoke louder than the dismal unemployment statistics she mentions or the fact taking a low-wage job you might be overqualified for wouldn’t actually disqualify you from receiving food stamps.

As the original article notes, unemployment rose by 176% between 2006 and 2009 for college-educated people between the ages of 20 and 24. The biggest caveat attached to the recent economic “recovery” has been the persisting unemployment disproportionately affecting young people. Increasingly, even for people with college degrees, unemployment or underemployment isn’t a choice right now.  

But even setting the reality of the job market aside, let’s take this brand of outrage to its logical conclusion: if it’s wrong for people with college degrees (or certain kinds of college degrees) to get food stamps, then presumably, that should be added to the list of disqualifying factors. In light of the specific ire directed at the arts and humanities, the exclusion could be limited to graduates with degrees in the actual analog of Senator Neptune’s “post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes.” It wouldn’t even be difficult to enforce—I’m sure the administrators of the program could check for applicants’ degree history just as easily as they can verify that senior citizens in the program have no more than $2,000 in assets, and there wouldn’t even need to be a debate about what counts—states could just use the CIP codes for the “humanities” assigned by the U.S. government.

Based on that system, a low-income college graduate who majored in something like math, astronomy, or sociology could still get supplementary nutritional assistance, but one who majored in history, linguistics, or philosophy would be out of luck. Would that really make any more sense or better fulfill the goals of the Food Stamp program? Are people who study art history and end up working minimum wage jobs any more culpable for their poverty than sociology majors? Should the government really deny assistance to people with the naïveté or gumption to major in poetry writing, but extend benefits to journalism majors who chose to ignore the fact that the profession they were training for was in the middle of a precipitous decline?

Especially in the current economic climate, no one is guaranteed a job—let alone one that pays more than poverty wages—regardless of how much education they have and what kind. Aside from unfairly punishing people whose particular interests or talents might not have been well-served by one of the sciences or a pre-professional program, this kind of policy might well discourage people from finishing their degree if they don’t have guaranteed employment. College drop-outs would at least still have a safety net. It might also discourage students who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds from majoring in English or History.

The primary faulty assumption these comments seem to rely on is that if you have a degree, you should be able to get a job, and if you can’t, you have done something wrong—gotten the wrong degree, been unwilling to accept menial or low-paying work, failed to consider all your options, etc. And therefore, taxpayer dollars shouldn’t go towards making your life even marginally more tolerable.

The Meritocracy Myth

If white kids with educations – who should be entitled to the good life – end up on food stamps, that bodes ill for everyone. Clearly they must be cheating or bad people, because good people can avoid such problems.—softdog

People tend to attribute the especially fervent faith in meritocracy in the U.S. to the “Puritan work ethic” or the fact that from its founding, America was seen as a “land of opportunity” and mobility in contrast with class-bound Europe. Although opportunity has never been as universal as the American Dream suggests, the idea that hard work could get you farther in the U.S. wasn’t entirely a fiction for at least the first two centuries after the nation’s founding. According to Joseph Ferrie’s analysis of U.S. and British census records from the 1850s through the 1920s, more than 80% of the sons of unskilled men born in the U.S. during that period moved to higher-paying, higher-status positions while fewer than 60% of the sons born in Britain did so. The economic prospects for non-white, female and immigrant Americans were considerably bleaker, but throughout much of the 20th C., intergenerational income mobility in the U.S. increased regardless of race, gender, or nation of birth.

the closer the mobility,percentages are to 20, the greater the mobility, http://www.bos.frb.org/economic/nerr/rr2002/q4/issues.pdf

Intergenerational  income mobility—or the chances of making more money than your parents—began to fall sharply in the early 1980s and have been declining ever since according to a 2008 study. Families have also become less likely to move out of their starting income quintile in recent decades—the panel study whose results are shown in the chart to the right found that between the 1970s and 1990s, the chances of a family moving up or down the income ladder decreased. As a result, contrary to popular belief, class structure in the United States in 2009 is less fluid than it is in countries like France, Germany, Britain, Denmark, and Canada.

Nevertheless, survey research suggests that the vast majority of Americans not only still believe in the possibility of mobility, that belief has actually increased even as mobility has declined. In 1983, only fifty-seven percent of respondents claimed to believe it was “possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich” and thirty-eight percent said it was “not possible.” In 2005, eighty percent  said they thought it was “possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich,” versus only nineteen percent who said it was not possible. And people are not only increasingly likely to believe that mobility is possible, they also tend to say that mobility is increasing rather than decreasing. The most popular response to a question in the 2005 survey about the “likelihood of moving up from one social class to another” now compared with 30 years ago was “greater” (forty percent).

from the great series on class published in the NYTimes in 2005: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/national/20050515_CLASS_GRAPHIC/index_03.html

What these statistics suggest is that the myth of meritocracy isn’t just some historical holdover from America’s Puritan roots—it’s an ideology that has become far more dominant in the last few decades. It’s also worth noting that the “rags to riches” stories associated with Horatio Alger emerged in the Gilded Age, another period of dramatic income inequality and relatively low mobility. Of course, there are lots of reasons why people might want to believe that hard work pays off and talent and effort are reliably rewarded in any era. It enables people to take credit for their success and represents a kind of basic fairness. But I think the reason faith in meritocracy increases as the prospects of mobility and job security decline is that it also offers a form of false but powerful reassurance that becomes more compelling in periods of insecurity and stagnation.

The myth of meritocracy makes people think that they can insulate themselves from failure or poverty by simply making the “right” choices. The more threatening those things get, the more people cling to the myth. To accept the alternative—that making the right choices can’t protect you and systemic instabilities make everyone vulnerable—means that no one is safe.

But of course, that’s the whole point of social welfare programs. No one is safe. Especially since the recent recession, when even many elite law school graduates have been unable to find jobs—or at least ones that will ever enable them to pay back their debt—it’s not just artists and the mythical majors in “post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes” faced with lingering unemployment or underemployment. The idea that people choose to be poor because they can get food stamps or that food stamps represent some excessive government largess is, at best, willful ignorance.

Coming in part III, more thoughts on the various ways people in the first two camps are basically in the same camp—although they disagree about the details, they both want to impose their own ideas about how people should eat on the recipients of public assistance.

Against the Soda Tax

awesome depth of field courtesy of Stephane Pompougnac http://www.flickr.com/photos/vox_efx/3063389109/

Although many states already tax soda (usually a fraction of a penny per ounce), a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine on the potential benefits of a $0.01 per ounce tax on "soft drinks, energy drinks, sports beverages, and many juices and ice teas" has re-ignited the debate about whether or not we need a national soda tax. Back in July, Obama said a sin tax on soda was "an idea we should be exploring" in an interview with Men’s Health although in the recent panic about industry profits and personal liberties, the White House has been quick to note that they haven’t yet and have no plans to propose anything like it. 

Most people probably already know how the two sides shake out: promoters argue that soda makes people fat (which allegedly makes people sick and thus incurs social costs) so the tax would have the dual benefit of reducing the costs associated with obesity and generating money that would help cover health care costs (or balance state budgets). Opponents argue that soda isn’t morally distinct from many other elective behaviors that sometimes (but not always) contribute to disease and health care costs, and as soda consumption is inversely correlated with income, taxing it would disproportionately burden those least able to pay.

All of those are actually pretty complicated claims, some of which I’ll try to unpack below the jump but here’s the short version: even promoters admit that the tax isn’t likely to meaningfully reduce obesity or the diseases associated with it (note: not caused by it, as there’s still no reliable evidence that fatness causes any disease besides osteoarthritis, and anyone who wants to hear more about that should consult Paul CamposThe Obesity Myth, J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics, Glen Gaesser’s Big Fat Lies, and/or Michael Gard and Jan Wright’s The Obesity Epidemic). That means the only real argument in favor of the tax is that it would raise money. But everyone agrees that it would be a regressive tax. So unless you think that collective costs like state budget deficits and health care reform should be disproportionately shouldered by the poorest citizens, there is no good reason to support the soda tax (and this goes double for ill-considered suggestions that we just axe corn subsidies instead—also after the jump).

1. Even advocates claim the tax would only lower demand modestly. According to a study that hasn’t been published yet (referenced in the New England Journal of Medicine article) the price elasticity of soda is –0.8 to 1.0, meaning if the price of soda is increased by 10%, consumption should decrease by 8-10%. The $0.01 per ounce tax would actually increase the cost of a 20 oz soda about 20% (unless you’re buying it at a sporting event), so presumably it should decrease consumption by up to 20%. I’m a little skeptical about that, and am looking forward to seeing how they determined its price elasticity, but I sort of doubt that soda is "unit elastic" meaning the percent change in demand will always be approximately equal to the percent change in price. Unit elasticity usually relies on the assumption that a good is readily replaceable—perhaps they assumed that tap water serves all the same dietary, social, and psychological functions as soda? Or that regular soda drinkers will switch to diet if there’s a $0.15 to $0.20 incentive? Nonetheless, their simultaneous insistence that this tax would address state budget problems or fund health care in any meaningful way is predicated on the fact that it’s not likely to decrease demand significantly. Most soda consumers will be more than willing to pay another dime per can of soda.

2. Although sugary drinks have probably contributed to the relatively small average weight gain over the past few decades, no one really thinks soda alone is what’s making people fat. Even for people who might reduce their soda consumption as the result of a sin tax, The New England Journal of Medicine estimates (conservatively by their own admission) that people would probably compensate for an average of 25% of the lost calories by eating or drinking more of something else. If people rely on soda as a source of a "sugar buzz" or have what might be called an "addiction" to sugar, it seems likely that they would compensate with other sugars. Some might substitute with diet soda, but it’s worth noting that longitudinal studies suggest that people who drink diet sodas actually have a greater chance of being obese than people who drink regular sodas. The causal arrow is almost certainly obesity—>drinking diet soda and not the other way around, but if drinkers of diet soda are more likely to become obese than drinkers of regular soda, that certainly challenges the notion that soda is a necessary cause of obesity. The relationship certainly isn’t as linear as the relationship between cigarettes and smoking, which it’s often compared to. And proposed "twinkie taxes" that would levy other calorie-dense, low-satiety and vitamin-poor foods haven’t gained any political traction because just like soda, it’s possible to consume things like frappucinos, Doritos, Wonderbread, instant ramen, or "fast food" remain non-obese. Plus, unlike soda, each of those does contain nutrients generally recognized as desirable. Despite all the cultural stigma and personal shame associated with some "sinful" foods, the healthfulness and morality of most things we eat and drink turns out to be a little too tricky to legislate.

3. The idea that this tax would be limited to "sugary" drinks is almost certainly not going to work in practice. Restaurants and gas stations aren’t going to start charging a different price for their diet soda and unsweetened iced tea than they do for their regular soda and sweetened iced tea, especially when they have self-service soda fountains. While there’s actually nothing more objectionable about taxing unsweetened iced tea or diet soda than regular soda (less, probably, if the former are more likely to be consumed by wealthier people), there’s a good reason the supporters of the tax aren’t calling for it: there’s no moral defense of a tax on soda water or unsweetened iced tea. No one thinks plain soda water makes people fat or causes disease (okay, I’m sure someone somewhere does, but they probably also think crystals heal people and agave nectar is "natural" and microwaves communicate your private personal information to the aliens who abducted Kennedy). 

Some people, even those who are opposed to the tax like Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason.com, have suggested that we could just eliminate corn subsidies instead. Mangu-Ward notes that the projected annual revenues from the soda tax are, coincidentally, just about equal to the subsidies we pay to corn farmers. Joe Weisenthal makes a similar suggestion over at The Business Insider.

The first problem with this idea is that, as I’ve mentioned before, the farm cost of the corn in soda is only 1.6% of the price. Less than 2 pennies of a $1.20 bottle of soda go to the farmers who grow the corn that becomes high fructose corn syrup. Even if the elimination of the subsidies doubled the price of HFCS, the cost of soda would only go up a cent or two.

The second problem is that not all subsidized corn becomes HFCS. Less than 12%, according to the National Corn Growers Association. Most of it, as anyone who’s seen King Corn or read Michael Pollan knows, is used to feed livestock (how much exactly is a little unclear; I’ve seen a number of claims that eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production, but those may be outdated because of the rise of ethanol. Still, the most recent stats I could find on the NCGA website claim that 42 percent of U.S.-grown corn is fed to domestic livestock. The upshot: a substantially larger part of corn subsidies go towards feedlot beef than soda).

Rather than having a comparable effect as taxing soda, Mangu-Ward’s plan is far more akin to a tax on feedlot beef. And that, more even than the power of corn growers, is what would make it politically impossible. Weisenthal mysteriously suggests that it would be politically easier to eliminate "any subsidies that go towards high-fructose corn syrup," as if the industry behind the most-produced crop in the country and all the industries that rely on it have less clout than the "soda industry."

For the record, I’m not opposed to higher beef prices on any moral or economic  or even nutritional grounds. I’m not convinced that corn-fed beef is a necessary part of a healthy diet (although nor am I convinced that it’s necessarily unhealthy either, as the effects of dietary saturated fat and cholesterol seem highly dependent on what else you eat them with), and I suspect that the mass production of cheap meat might contribute to a number of environmental and social ills. I am all for reforming the seemingly-outdated system of agricultural subsidies that encourages certain kinds of farming and discourages other ones, but honestly, I don’t know exactly what that reformed system should look like. And I doubt Mangu-Ward or Weisenthal do either. I suspect that simply eliminating subsidies for the commodity grown in the largest quantities is not the best way. And in any case, it wouldn’t increase the cost of soda, fund health care, or fix state budget crises. As ever, not all simple answers are best.

Against the Whole Foods Boycott

Perhaps because Whole Foods looms large in my dissertation research, or maybe just because it’s actually gaining some traction, friends and colleagues keep asking me what I think about the consumer boycott some people are calling for in response to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s August 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about health care reform.

The short version: I don’t agree with Mackey’s argument, but I think the boycott is ill-conceived. I think a better way to express your disagreement with Mackey is to write your own letter/op-ed and send it to your legislators and news providers.

The long version:

Lest anyone think I’m taking the side of a great admirer of Ayn Rand who infamously posed as "rahodeb" (an anagram for his wife’s name, Deborah) on the Yahoo! Finance Bulletin Boards to talk up his company and his haircut and criticize Wild Oats, I’ll start with why I disagree with the op-ed. First, he confuses the "intrinsic ethical right to health care" that some people, like the UN (see article 25), claim people theoretically should have, with the constitutional rights people do have when they are citizens of the U.S. (or Canada, or the U.K.):

Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This "right" has never existed in America

Even in countries like Canada and the U.K., there is no intrinsic right to health care.

Woo tautology. Even if you don’t agree with the UN that medical care is a basic human right, you can appreciate this logic: any right intrinsic to humans is, by definition, an intrinsic right whether they live in Canada or Myanmar. Ethical claims about intrinsic rights address what rights people should have by virtue of being human, not what rights they do have according to a constitution. Whether a right is constitutionally protected or that protection is enforceable are separate issues with no bearing on their intrinsicness. Intrinsicosity. Intrinsicicity. 

Mackey is also blurring two different arguments here: 1) whether or not humans have an "intrinsic ethical right" to health care and 2) whether the government or the market would do a better job of providing health care. Although his logic may be muddled, it’s clear which side he takes: 1) no and 2) the market.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #1: Is Health Care an Intrinsic Ethical Right?

It’s very difficult to separate the right to medical care from the right to life (which even Mackey would have to acknowledge, as it’s in the Declaration of Independence). While frequently interpreted as the right not to be actively killed, there’s no effective difference between shooting a healthy person and denying life-saving treatment to a dying person. As some other UN covenant with a long and sober name elaborates (article 6), the right to life suggests that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life," and illness can be just as arbitrary as murder.

Of course, this gets complicated because some illnesses (like some murders) are not arbitrary, and some of the ways they’re not arbitrary depend on voluntary behaviors, like smoking or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Also, many things other than life-saving treatments are encompassed by "medical care."

It seems pretty clear that the right to life encompasses the right of children to be vaccinated against potentially-fatal diseases. It’s much less clear whether or not it encompasses the right to abortion, relationship counseling, sex change operations and hormone therapies, addiction treatment, erectile dysfunction, and conditions that may be largely cosmetic like acne or balding. And it’s probably safe to say that the right to life doesn’t imply an intrinsic right to free health care for anyone who can pay.

Like illness, ability to pay is often–but not always–arbitrary. Characteristics beyond a person’s individual control affect their ability to accumulate wealth, and fortune is fickle, but people also make choices that affect their personal wealth–for example, deciding to get a Ph.D. in the humanities instead of a J.D. (not that the latter is a guarantee anymore either).

THAT SAID, a health care system that allocates care based on the ability to pay would undoubtedly cause some people to be arbitrarily deprived of life. So Mackey’s free market system would, in fact, violate the intrinsic ethical right to life-saving care, and that’s why he has to claim there isn’t one. I think he’s in the minority with that belief–there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the idea that health care shouldn’t be a privilege of the wealthy, and that if you show up to a hospital in cardiac arrest, someone ought to take care of you whether or not you can pay them anything. And if we’re going to collectively pay for emergency life-saving care, it’s also in the collective interest to pay for preventative care. It hurts everyone when insurance companies deny coverage to people based on pre-existing health conditions or yank their coverage once they get sick. Several of Mackey’s proposed reforms were designed to ameliorate some of those problems, but his plan would inevitably leave many people uninsured.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #2: Is the Market the Best Health Care Provider?

What strikes me as the most compelling reason for a public option, as a layperson whose understanding of this is admittedly incomplete, is that the fact that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on health care despite the fact that something like 46 million people or fifteen percent of the population are uninsured and still ranks lower than many countries with universal universal health care on "overall health system performance" according to the WHO.

Also, given that no one’s proposing getting rid of existing private plans, if they’re really so much better than the public option, they should be able to out-compete it. I know there are concerns about a public plan being so dominant that it could dictate terms to doctors and hospitals, so obviously there would need to be protections. However, I think it would inevitably be more efficient for consumers if people weren’t trying to extract annually-increasing profit.

The idea that competition and profit motives make businesses more efficient because they have to compete or die whereas public services that have no incentive to streamline their operations become bloated mistakenly assumes that efficiency is the only/best way to profit. As private health insurers have found, denying sick people coverage is an excellent way to save money, and sometimes spending a lot of money on things like lobbying and public relations delivers a greater return than simply providing the service they exist to provide. A taxpayer-funded insurer that didn’t have to spend money on those things would be a lot more efficient, and people might indeed be incline to switch to an insurer that wasn’t as likely to screw them to benefit stockholders or executives.

OKAY, SO NOW THAT WE’VE ESTABLISHED I HAVE NO LOVE FOR JOHN MACKEY

It doesn’t make any sense to boycott Whole Foods because of this op-ed. There are two primary reasons people are calling for a boycott: 1) they disagree with Mackey and/or 2) they are upset that he made his beliefs public or that he was given such a high-profile platform on which to do so. Unfortunately, even when the primary motivation is #1, the boycott only targets #2. That’s not "censorship," like some people are claiming (see comment threads on facebook and elsewhere), but both reasons are questionable motives for a boycott.

Ad Hominem Boycott

For any shoppers truly concerned about the political beliefs of CEOs, there was plenty of evidence long before the op-ed that John Mackey was an unapologetic libertarian who supports free market capitalism. In the 2000 election cycle, he gave $2K to Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne. But honestly, if you’re concerned that some fraction of the money you spend on groceries might end up supporting someone whose politics differ from yours, you should probably look in to self-provisioning.

Shopping at a store doesn’t necessarily endorse or financially support its CEO’s every political belief. Take any other CEO and any other political or philosophical belief: would it make sense to boycott Williams-Sonoma if its CEO wrote an op-ed or gave an interview or organized a street theater performance in which he expressed the opinion that all recreational drugs should be legalized or that the universe was created by a divine or supernatural being?

I don’t think it would. If the company discriminated against employees with conflicting beliefs, or in some other way caused harm and suffering with their business practices, sure. (Which some people think Whole Foods does, and that would be a fine reason to organize a boycott). But John Mackey expressing his opinion about health care reform =/= nefarious corporate policy. And as far as I can tell, neither John Mackey nor Whole Foods as a company are funding any direct lobbying efforts. All of which makes claims like the ones Russell Mokhiber makes particularly over the top:

The problem with Mackey’s campaign is that it results in the deaths of 60 Americans every day due to lack of health insurance.

Mackey is responsible for these deaths as much as anyone. (@ Common Dreams)

It way overstates the power of Mackey’s personal beliefs and his op-ed, to call it a full-on "campaign" or hold it responsible for the fact that people right now may be dying due to inadequate insurance. Mackey has not, with this op-ed, personally denied anyone health care. The most damage this op-ed could have done is convince someone with political leverage that a public option is a bad idea (and it seems unlikely that this column would have been the deciding factor—it’s just not that convincing). If he has, you’re not going to change their minds by throwing a tantrum, attacking Mackey personally, or refusing to shop at Whole Foods.

If you disagree with Mackey and want to address the potential harm done by the op-ed, the best thing you can do is to write a letter of your own. Explain why you think his proposed reforms would be inadequate without a public option. Send it to your legislators and local papers. Post it on your blog. Send it to the Wall Street Journal. Boycotting the grocery chain he oversees doesn’t do anything to address the claims he made in the offending op-ed, it’s just an attempt to punish Mackey for his personal beliefs about health care reform.

The real target

Effectively, the boycott doesn’t punish Mackey for having stupid, tautological beliefs about the human right to health care, it punishes him for expressing those beliefs in a highly visible way. Which, apparently, a lot of people calling for the boycott are totally fine with:

If Whole Foods shareholders were to start to wonder whether having their corporate brand dragged into the health care debate is really a smart use of their assets, I would call that a good thing. (@ Yglesias)

He has his right to speak his point of view. I have the right to take my money elsewhere.(@ Daily Kos)

as long as this dispicable preson [sic] of a ceo makes statements like he did, and now as long as this same ceo sits on your top foods board and represents your company, i refuse to buy from whole foods market any more (@ Whole Boycott)

In principle, I don’t believe there should be economic boycots [sic] based on political speech that doesn’t rise to the level of hate speech or the like. In reality, there are large scale boycotts by rightwing corporate America of progressive media outlets and rightwingers have no qualms about boycotting progressive business owners. (@ Comments from Left Field) 

The last one is my favorite: "In principle, I think this is a bad idea, but if rightwingers do it…"

Sure, not everyone gets to air their personal beliefs in such a high-profile way, but if the concern were really about where he got to express his opinions, the boycott probably ought to target the Wall Street Journal for giving Mackey column space. That would raises a whole separate set of issues about privilege and political influence, newsworthiness, and op-ed balance, and I think ultimately, the editorial choice is pretty defensible. Mackey is the CEO of a company that provides different kinds of health care benefits to thousands of employees in countries with different kinds of health care systems. That doesn’t make Mackey’s opinion the only or most worthwhile one, but it’s certainly a reason to think he might have some sort of useful perspective, and publishing his column is neither an endorsement of his opinion nor does it preclude the publishing of other, contradictory opinions. But that argument is moot anyhow because I haven’t seen any calls for a boycott of the WSJ.

Boycotting Whole Foods instead suggests that executives ought to keep their political beliefs concealed, even when they might have something to contribute to the debate or when publicizing their beliefs might alert consumers to policies and political contributions that might actually be unfair or harmful and really would merit an organized response. We’re better off being able to keep tabs on the politics of major companies’ executives and using boycotts to protest unfair, harmful corporate policies. Sure, some people are taking this opportunity to complain about Whole Foods union-busting again, but that’s a sidebar. The message of this boycott is "Shut up, Mackey," and maybe "rightwingers have no qualms" about that sort of thing, but I do.

I’ll write about my general ambivalence about Whole Foods some other time…suffice to say I don’t shop there often enough for my participation, or non-participation, in the boycott to make even the most trivial difference. However, I think this boycott does more harm than good, and it makes me want to shake my fist impotently at people whose political beliefs I probably mostly share and tell them to get off my side.