Thursday, July 31, 2008

Being careful not to take kavips out of context (at 10, 2, or 4)

WARNING: long wonkish post alert. Skip this one if you're expecting concise, pithy, political news.

kavips latest post on the salmonella scare is not only thoughtful and informative about the issue itself, but it contains what I might call a meta-message.

Far too often we end up in these kinds of discussions stuck between two poles of opposition: the Statist view that everything could be solved if only the FDA has more money, more inspectors, and more authority; and the Libertarian view that if we just leave them alone market forces will solve everything.

There usually isn't even a continuum: you're at one end or the other.

Which is why it is so refreshing (in a Dr. Pepper sense, natch) to read this piece.

kavips is a progressive, and kavips believes in the need for the public sector to have oversight of critical infrastructure items like our food supply.

On the other hand, kavips is also intellectually honest, and admits that the evidence suggests with respect to food traceability that the private sector is the one leading the way:

When asked what problems this outbreak illuminated for the Produce Marketing Associations, Bryan Silberman of Newark, Delaware said that the tight grasp on information being held tight to its chest by the FDA, made assisting in the investigation difficult....

So what is needed? Dr. Acheson of the FDA, laid it out specifically: more money to inspect. more money to train. Often the field investigators showing up at farms, came from other FDA departments such as pharmaceuticals. These people hadn’t a clue of what to search out, and had to call there on the spot, their department head in order to get the right questions needed to ask the farmers…

One trend currently occurring is that as American companies go to Mexico, they are taking their best practices with them and insisting that their practices be enforced within that local market…

Whereas private industry has stepped up with innovation, the weakest link in our defense against pathogens on produce, is the underfunded FDA which is struggling under the Bush cuts.

The industry’s current estimate is that more than 50% of produce companies have their data on electronic records… Mandatory tracing is something that the entire industry could reasonably adjust to. Tracing was not the problem. Within hours or days we can trace right up to a single farm. But at what cost? That is the limitation. Agencies, federal and state, with no funds cannot send agents out into the field. So far no proposed legislation has been proposed

Florida growers informally and voluntary adopted a tomato model of tracing distribution which will be implemented by the agriculture department of Florida and may perhaps be used nationwide someday…

Notice that in this presentation both the growers and the bureaucrats are presented as being genuinely interested in reaching a workable solution to the problem of putting healthy food on the tables of American citizens. Aside from the fact that the growers stand to lose (or go out of) business if their products are not trusted, I have this silly thesis that people who grow food don't get into that business to poison their customers.

This raises two important issues for thoughtful people at all points on what used to be a continuum of interest:

1) Recently most of our news coverage and political punditry around industry/consumer/government issues--especially in terms of issues that involved questions of safety, regulation, and testing, have been presented in diametrically oppositional terms. That's in part because of the nature of the industries which have been subjects of the debate: tobacco and oil, especially. It's easy (and sometimes even justified) to create the mental label BIG TOBACCO or BIG OIL to use in those sorts of discussions. But it's not very helpful, because it fosters a common misconception that large industrial, manufacturing, or agricultural sectors of the economy have a decided interest in producing inferior products or harming their own customers. In reality, it's not in the interest of growers to do things that make people distrust food, it's not in the interests of auto makers to produce unsafe vehicles, and it's not in the interest of pharmaceutical companies to market unsafe medications.

In fact, big food voluntarily pours millions into its own inspection processes, big auto spends millions of producing safety innovations, and big pharma spends millions on medical research...

Yet all of these bad things do happen (remember the Ford Pinto's gas tank and Vioxx?). Why? Because while market forces and the profit motive will resolve most of these problems in the long run, that short run can involve lots of death and other harm. Leading me to....

2) The primary difference between industry self-monitoring and government regulation is (no, strike that, should be) the time frame of response. Industry self-monitoring, driven by market forces, is generally an excellent, cost-effective vehicle for dealing with long-term trends and establishing routine systems of accountability. But the market does not turn on a dime, and the market does not react to anomalous emergencies. There has to be a third party organization capable of reacting quickly to short-term emergency scenarios. And--much as I viscerally hate to admit it--there are times when somebody has to have the legal authority to shut things down in the short term, without argument and without respect to market forces.

This observation, kavips, is not going to win me any points from other Libertarians. But you have come a long way out of the normal progressive mindset, so in good faith it's important to meet for a real discussion.

Ideally, from a Libertarian perspective, such interventions might, in a future world, be handled by private foundations that are independent of the government. But there currently exists no road to get there from here, and the world of the past in which governments played no role in (to be situationally specific to our topic) agricultural product quality control is an imaginary past created for ideological purposes

I encourage anyone who disagrees with that statement to read and digest Fernand Braudel's three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, wherein you will find that at least since medieval times city, regional, and State governments have always been involved in monitoring and regulating the quality of food supplies.

But what Braudel reveals (possibly without realizing it--he's dead, so I can't ask him) is that governments had fewer powers to use in that regulating, and the systems that evolved were--in the modern political sense--hybrid, dynamic systems that involved balancing the roles of the State and the Market against each other. Neither entity had the ability to dominate the system.

This is not true today. Over the past two centuries the power of government has dramatically expanded, and while the wealth of corporations has also ballooned, it is indicative of a changed balance that corporations must work through influence (either above or below the table) because if mobilized they cannot withstand the regulatory power of government.

This has led (in a highly condensed, simplistic sentence) to the development of an "either/or" ideological breakdown: either government regulates everything (Statism) or government regulates nothing (Libertarianism). Approaches that might be considered "in the middle," like so-called managed capitalism or China's experiment with limited economic freedom in an authoritarian state have not been exceptionally successful because both are still solutions being imposed by a government that lacks many serious limitations to its regulatory powers.

The Framers of the US Constitution did a bang-up job in the late 18th Century of erecting limits around government while still trying to give it sufficient power to balance against the market. But over the past two centuries, as the times and the technologies have changed, we have little by little eroded those limits in response to specific situations. Then those specific erosions have become precedents, and we have depended upon them rather than having new conversations about the powers and limitations of government.

This is critical. Far too many of our discussions about the powers of government or the role of market forces are conducted not with an overall view of the nation, but with respect to specific crises or specific industries. Those debates tend to become highly politicized, and less rational the longer they continue.

That's why the nuanced understanding of kavips' original post (see, you thought I'd rambled off and forgotten it, didn't you?) made me happy. Finally, here's a liberal progressive willing to discuss the joint responsibilities of State and Market, and to report as objectively as possible what each is doing well and poorly.

It's not an end in itself, but it could be the beginning (at least here in Delaware, where we all know each other) of a mutually profitable discussion.


Anonymous said...

Mutual and profitable discussion perhaps, if both were not so darned long...

Stay tuned later for a response. Right now I have to work on my disguise for tonight's premiere social event.....


Steven H. Newton said...

when worlds collide: the destruction of civilization

when atoms collide: the destruction of matter

when wonks collide: the destruction of interest (in everybody else) :)

Anonymous said...

Being wonkish by nature, I could not help but notice that the link at your article's top, leads nowhere.

Steven H. Newton said...

fixed. thanks.

is it wonkish or narcissistic to attempt to follow the link back to yourself? :)