Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reasons to be Local

[Or "I hate economists", parts MMCCCXLI and MMCCCXLII.]

So here is Arnold Kling piling onto a discussion (he's 3rd in a chain that started in the NYT) of economists mocking locavores, people who believe it's gennerally better to eat food produced locally. The crux of the libertardian argument is that the price of a vegetable accurately reflects all the costs that went into making it, particularly energy, so that buying local (if it is more expensive) is not really any better for the environment and may well be worse.

There are at least three responses to this that I can think of (aside from "fuck off"):

- Economics takes as axiomatic that people's preferences are unassailable. So if some hippies want to pay more for locally produced produce, who are you to tell them otherwise? Obviously they get more utility out of it. It's not like it's hard to discern the sometimes vast differences in quality between locally-grown produce and stuff that's been industrially produced and shipped across the country.

- Underlying the locavore ideology is a set of beliefs that may or may not be accurate but must be addressed in any sensible discussion. Among these: the idea that prices do not accurately reflect energy usage because of the massive subsidies given to petroleum-based economy (including highway construction and fighting trillion dollar wars in the Middle East). Some locavores believe that it's a moral duty to compensate for these distortions even at the cost of paying more at retail.

- Another value underlying locavorism is that local is better because it's more reliable and there are fewer intermediaries between producer and consumer. There is actual value in being able to look the grower of your beets in the eye and converse with him. There is value in having a short supply chain because it reduce the potential for adulteration.

And there's the feeling of unease at the astounding reach and complexity of global economic webs. This may be easier to see in the context of manufacturing. Sure, it's nice to be able to afford cheap stuff from China, but (a) sometimes it has poison in it, and (b) it makes us dependent on a bunch of heathens who don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. Validly or not, it is easier to imagine a farmer two counties over as being a good guy than one two countries over.

I myself don't entirely buy into this sort of view, which might as well be called localism, which underlies a lot of the ecological, foodie, and other movements, especailly here at the southern end of ecotopia. It has elements of fear and reaction to it; in its extreme forms you end up as a survivalist hoarding guns and trying to grow all his food in the backyard because when the apocalypse comes, you can't rely on anybody. And it seems to be somewhat of a conservative, romantic reaction to the triumph of globalized capitalism -- which needs a response, but somehow farmer's markets don't seem quite adequate.

The flippant, arguments presented by economists illustrate very clearly the extraordinary poverty of thought produced by the crappy economic ideology exemplified by libertards. They are just so enraptured by their abstract models of how markets work that they don't bother to see if they actually apply to the actual world.

On a slightly more elevated plane, here's a couple of comments I made on Robin Hanson's blog. Hanson seems a lot smarter than Kling, but in these posts and elsewhere you can see a deformation professionelle not very far below the surface, a determination to reduce the complexity of social dynamics to some kind of univariate maximization of "status" or "utility". Blah. Not that that is not a useful stance sometimes, but really, what a boring way to view the world.

[[update: I forgot to mention that Kling is a corporate shill who used to write for the propaganda mill Tech Central Station. This piece that trashes Open Source as communism and praises Microsoft is a good example -- that its predictions were entirely wrong is somewhat forgiveable given that it was written in 2003, but check out the ad banner at the bottom.]]


Anonymous said...

Anybody that decides what to eat on the basis of an "ideology" deserves our pity. So does anybody that decides what to eat solely on the basis of its price. The former is a fanatic and the latter a philistine. Personally, I prefer food that tastes good.

The "locavores" would make sense to a larger number of people if their appeal was to gastronomy rather than to cranky concerns about environmentalism, energy usage, "feelings of unease about the reach and complexity of global economic webs," etc. Such posturing about food seems mildly ridiculous. It is an attempt to make a moral issue out of what are properly questions of taste and practicality.

Locally produced food often tastes better than that produced at a distance, because it is fresher, and in the case of many vegetables and fruits, has been allowed to ripen properly rather than being picked green with the expectation of spending a long time en route to the point of sale. What sensible person would not prefer a freshly picked tomato from his own garden, or failing that, from a local farmer's market, over one bred to be picked by a machine while still hard and unripe, shipped half-way across the country, and allowed to sit for weeks in the produce department of a big-box store?

I prefer to trade with local grocers and butchers as opposed to big-box stores for practical reasons. In my experience, they're more attentive to their customers, offering personal service where there is none at large chain stores. They're also more attentive to their sources, because products of high quality sell themselves. My local butcher will cut steaks, roasts, poultry and fish to order if he doesn't have what I want in his cold case. In more than one instance I've found his prices cheaper than those at nearby supermarkets, too - there are fewer middlemen. My time is valuable to me - I can get in and out of the smaller local merchants with what I want more quickly than it's possible to do at the supermarkets. Finally, I know that if I don't patronize the local merchants, they may not be there when I want them in the future.

mtraven said...

People have been applying ideology to food consumption rules since the beginning of time. What do you think Kashrut, Halal, and the thousands of other food taboos are?

Other than that we seem to be largely in agreement. Yes, sensible people prefer fresh local food over industrialized food; the libertarian economists are the one with the ideology that blinds them to this.

Anonymous said...

Kashrut and Halal are superstitions, not ideologies.

mtraven said...

Kashrut may not be exactly an ideology but it's hardly a superstition. You don't know what you are talking about. And the point was merely that people's food choices are always based on a wide variety of not particularly rational beliefs.

William Barghest said...

Localism seems like such an ideal, that I cannot believe it can be arrived at by careful calculation of how to best optimize the economy in the face price distortions due to transportation subsidies. And the fact that it is food centered (food being such a common vehicle for social ritual) is even more evidence that we are dealing with a social phenomenon, than an analysis. I think it is not a serious response to the complexity of global economic webs, and were it actually carried out would result is disaster. Rather its purpose seems to build a symbolic economy in which one participates at ones leisure. A cathedral constitutes the cosmography in miniature. So the farmers market represents the idealized economic universe, but not the real one, and its purpose is to create a community experience, not to enact the pseudo-economics of its theology in the wider world (or one should hope).

Anonymous said...

Kashrut says that one should not eat the meat of animals that do not both have cloven hooves and chew the cud; that one must not eat fish without scales; that one must not serve meat with milk. Why? Because the forbidden foods are "unclean" - eating them is displeasing to God? How does that not qualify as a superstition?

There is perhaps an element of primitive sanitary practice involved: a barbarous people whose understanding of illness was magical rather than scientific might look upon a person who contracted trichinosis from eating inadequately cooked pork, or food poisoning from tainted oysters, as the victim of divine wrath, and conclude that eating such victuals was displeasing to God. How a people as generally intelligent as the Jews can continue to observe such foolish beliefs is a testimony to their social inertia.

The fasts or food restrictions prescribed by the Abrahamic religions (e.g., at Passover, Lent, or Ramadan) are justified somewhat differently than simple food taboos, in that they are conscious commemorations of some event important to the religion, and represent self-sacrifice in honor of its ideals. Such self-sacrifice may not be entirely rational, but it at least bears the stamp of some higher reasoning as compared to kashrut or halal.

"Ideology" seems to me to describe a product of rational thought. Rational thought may be wrong, but it at least isn't dredged from the abyss of atavistic spook-ridden fears.

mtraven said...

Superstitions are beliefs; kashrut is a ritual practice. They are just different types of things.

To see the difference, maybe it's useful to imagine applying science. You can in theory disprove a superstition (eg, maybe you can do a statistical analysis and show that Friday the 13th is not a particularly unlucky day) but you can't disprove kashrut, because it's primarily a set of practices rather than a set of beliefs.

Anonymous said...

But what are the ritual practices based on? Superstition.

The Christian Eucharist is certainly a ritual practice, based on the belief that the ritual transforms bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. You certainly don't believe that, and based on the feelings you have often expressed about Christians I have little doubt that you'd happily characterize it as a superstition.

Why are you not willing to apply the same analysis to your ancestral ritual practices? Are you afraid to admit they are based in just as irrational a conceit, and that people who follow them must therefore either be active believers in a superstition, or inertial followers of practices they know to be founded upon barbarous absurdities ?

mtraven said...

I have little doubt that you'd happily characterize it as a superstition.

Kindly don't put words in my mouth. I've written quite a bit on religion, so maybe you should respond to what I actually say rather what you think I would say.

My attitude to religions, my own included, is more-or-less anthropological. So my attitudes to kashrut and the Eucharist are roughly equivalent.

This conversation is getting boring and off-topic. Yes, religious beliefs and practices generally don't make a lot of sense to from a rationalist viewpoint. This is not news.

mtraven said...

Barghest: you are right that there is a lot of symbolic signalling going on with locavorism and related practices. However, I'm writing from the SF Bay Area and our local lifestyle experiments have a way of becoming part of the mainstream culture after a decade or two. Eg, organic food, once strictly a hippie lifestyle accessory, is now for sale in the Piggly Wiggly and elsewhere in flyover territory.

Joseph said...

A suggestion for a motto: Think where you act and act where you think.