Sunday, January 19, 2014

the government versus the market

Liberals roll their eyes when they hear that market-driven solutions can solve certain problems more quickly and efficiently than government-driven solutions can. "Do you really want individual corporations policing themselves when it comes to, say, food standards?" they ask. The implication is that it's insane to risk food poisoning and death in the wider population: strict government regulations head those problems off at the pass: with regulations in place, there need be no unnecessary sickness and death.

I don't think the liberal position—at least regarding food safety—is unreasonable. The market-driven approach would indeed work in a Darwinian way: people get violently sick after eating at Restaurant X; the meat supplier is discovered; no one buys meat from that disreputable supplier; that supplier withers away, and safer suppliers of meat take over. The restaurant, meanwhile, goes through a period of PR damage control and rebranding, and comes out stronger, having vowed to hold its new suppliers to high standards for the public's sake. Problem solved. In the meantime, a few people get sick or even die, yes, but you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Liberals find this position cold and unfeeling, and again, when it comes to food safety, I'd normally say that they have a point.

But if government takes upon itself the role of watchman, then quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who's policing the government? To be trustworthy in terms of how it regulates the food industry, the government must implement at least two fundamentals: (1) stringent regulations and (2) consistent enforcement. Alas, a recent news item appeared in which we discovered that fully half of American chicken meat is tainted with superbugs. How on earth did this happen? Federal poultry inspectors are, in theory, on the job every day, looking out for the public's welfare. It seems, though, that they've been sleeping on the job, which isn't very reassuring. So there goes fundamental (2), consistent enforcement.

Today, my virgin eyes nearly melted in their sockets when I clicked on a link that a friend and ex-coworker of mine, Rob Schulz, had displayed on Twitter.* The image I saw was probably the most disgusting thing I had seen in weeks. Here—I'm nothing if not a man who likes to share. Have a look for yourself:

Rob was rather naughty not to have added a warning or some sort of commentary. That is a truly, truly disgusting image. I have no knowledge of bovine biology or anatomy, so I have no clue as to what that green sludge oozing out of the cow's cavity is. Is it an analogue of feces? Is it the result of an immune response? The accompanying article seems to imply that we're looking at evidence of disease. All I can think is that the sludge is a sickening travesty of soft-serve ice cream or of "Exorcist"-style demon puke. I don't think I'd be too far amiss to guess that, whatever that fluid is, it's pestilential. I can't begin to imagine the smell.

The article has this to say:

Meat From Diseased Animals Approved For Consumers

WASHINGTON - The federal agency overseeing food inspection is imposing new rules reclassifying as safe for human consumption animal carcasses with cancers, tumors and open sores.

Federal meat inspectors and consumer groups are protesting the move to classify tumors and open sores as aesthetic problems, which permits the meat to get the government's purple seal of approval as a wholesome food product.

"I don't want to eat pus from a chicken that has pneumonia. I think it's gross," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project. "Most Americans don't want to eat this sort of contamination in their meals."

Delmer Jones, a federal food inspector for 41 years who lives in Renlap, Ala., said he's so revolted by the lowering of food wholesomeness standards that he doesn't buy meat at the supermarket anymore because he doesn't trust that it is safe to eat.

"I eat very little to no meat, but sardines and fish," said Jones, president of the National Joint Council of Meat Inspection Locals, a union of 7,000 meat inspectors nationwide affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees. He said he's trying to get his wife to stop eating meat. "I've told her what she's eating."

The union is battling related Agriculture Department plans to rely on scientific testing of samples of butchered meats to determine the wholesomeness of meat, rather than traditional item-by-item scrutiny by federal inspectors. A 1959 federal law requires inspectors from the Agriculture Department's Food Inspection and Safety System to inspect all slaughtered animals before they can be sold for human consumption.

The Agriculture Department began implementing the new policy as part of a pilot project in 24 slaughter houses last October, and plans to expand the system nationwide covering poultry, beef and pork. The agency this month extended until Aug. 29 the time for the public to comment on the regulations, and won't issue final rules until after the comments are received.

Who watches the watchmen, indeed. So: so much for fundamental (1), stringent regulations. The article does address fundamental (2), though; it claims that federal food inspectors aren't asleep at the switch: they're overworked and dealing with impossible quotas. Here:

But Jones and consumer groups say production lines are moving so fast that they can't catch all the diseased carcasses, and some are ending up on supermarket shelves.

"When I started inspecting, inspectors were looking at 13 birds a minute, then 40, and now it's 91 birds a minute with three inspectors. You cannot do your job with 91 birds a minute," Jones said.

I sympathize with the beleaguered inspectors. They're in a tough position. But systemically speaking, this is exactly the sort of potentially dangerous mediocrity toward which government-driven solutions tend, and these two news items together—news about tainted chicken and news about slackening inspection standards—do not paint a rosy picture for liberal advocates of top-down measures. The sludge seeping out of that carcass is a perfect metaphor for governmental incompetence.

This isn't to say that I believe a market-driven solution would be light-years safer or better. Maybe it would; maybe it wouldn't. Leaving it up to individual meat processors to police themselves could also lead to green-sludge events like the above. A profit motive, in the context of competition, has the potential to work economic wonders, but it can also morph into corners-cutting, which would put the public right back where it currently is: vulnerable to sickness, and maybe even death, from substandard meat.

That said, it might be time for a bit of extreme reparadigming. But can We the People persuade the government to release its death grip on meat inspection?

*I'm not on Facebook, but I was able to see the link's content after clicking, so I assume the link will work for you, too.



Maven said...

I think everyone should read (or re-read "The Jungle," by Upton Sinclair. 107 years later, and I dare say, we're worse off than the times within which the book was written.

John said...

I actually think market forces would do a better job (or at least as adequate) in food safety. What we didn't have back in Sinclair's day was a host of hungry liability lawyers looking for someone to sue. As you note, all the regulations and inspectors aren't doing anything that companies motivated by profit wouldn't do themselves. A batch of bad meat (USDA approved!) nearly took down Taco Bell a few years back.

But the real fallacy is this almost religious belief in government power to make things right in the world. It boggles my brain. Back in my days as a lefty, my fellow travelers all recognized the government was not to be trusted. Nothing has changed--was Watergate worse than NSA spying or IRS retaliation against political enemies?

But even if you don't believe the government has ill-intent (and for most the most part I don't believe the bureaucracy is evil), it still comes down to the basic fact that the government is incompetent at most of what it tries to do. Trust me, I saw that sausage being made for 34 years and I have no illusions about government efficiency or effectiveness. Obamacare is just the latest example.

Our massive federal government is impossible to hold accountable. We need get back to basics at the national level (as the Founders intended), and let state and local governments deal with everything else that requires some government intervention. And I'm not talking about Big Gulps.