The author of an editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal is worried because Obama intends to provide one billion dollars to the "Food Police," who will use the money to regulate the nation's supply of tainted food, instead of letting market forces decide how it should be allocated.
It's funny how times change. It wasn't very long ago that the most important test of government policy was whether it comforted security moms, who saw the safety of their children as non-negotiable, and therefore mistrusted John Kerry for being a windsurfer.
But now, the timeless conservative vision of women as safety-obsessed nurturers of the innocent runs up against the stark reality of the corporate bottom line, which means that the inspectors of peanut-butter factories must be cast as a new Holy Vehm. "Security moms" who have a problem with this are cordially invited to get bent.
The president will ask Congress for $1 billion in new funds -- for starters -- to add FDA inspectors and modernize laboratories. He further announced the Agriculture Department is moving ahead with a rule change banning sick or disabled cattle from the food supply.There's only one possible answer to that:
"There are certain things only a government can do," Mr. Obama said. "And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and do not cause us harm."
If "government is the answer," why is there a problem?This is nearly too nice to talk about. Why does anyone use poppers, or huff solvents, when you can get precisely the same giddy euphoria from glibertarian kōans like this one, gratis and free of charge?
If medicine is the answer, why is there disease? If prison is the answer, why is there crime? If contraception is the answer, why is there unwanted pregnancy? If education is the answer, why is there ignorance? If anti-discrimination laws are the answer, why is there bigotry?
Or to put it another way, if perfection is unattainable, why fucking bother?
After a crescendo like that, the rest of the article can't help but be anticlimactic. The gist of it is that market forces and corporate branding are adequate to protect smart people from food poisoning, because smart people would rather eat at a bright and cheerful fast food restaurant than at some low-rent hash house filled with bikers and hippies and freelance abortionists and rats the size of poodles.
This theory can't survive a cursory rundown of the outbreaks of foodborne illness over the last decade or two, the most serious of which were serious precisely because they involved popular brands and therefore affected far more people than some filthy diner along the Ohio Turnpike. (If brand management is the answer, why are people getting sick from eating at McDonald's?) Furthermore, it's not obvious that people who choose to eat at non-branded restaurants deserve to get sick or die, just because they happened to be "adventurous."
Here's a riddle for you:
Should budget shortfalls require federal food regulatory agencies to shut down tomorrow, do we really believe manufacturers who have spent billions building up the reputations of things called "Cheerios" and "Campbell's Soup" would immediately start ignoring the long-term costs of adding harmful adulterants to make better short-term profits tomorrow?The short answer: "Yes. Of course. What kind of demented fucking mongrel idiot doesn't understand that, at this late date?"
The long answer: We've seen some evidence, over the years, that insufficiently regulated businesses will do anything they can get away with in pursuit of short-term profits (cf. AIG, W.R. Grace). Also, this is a silly argument, because it assumes that the manufacturers necessarily believe that the adulterant in question is harmful, despite reams of industry-funded thinktank boilerplate that tells them otherwise. In other words, the editorial wants us to consider the problem in terms of radical evil, instead of the wishful thinking that more commonly gets American businesses into expensive or even deadly trouble. There's also the fact that regulation ideally prevents business from making excessive or fraudulent claims for their products (e.g., "eating three bowls of Cheerios per day will ward off the suppurating gleet!"), which can be as dangerous in some cases as adulteration.
By now, you probably have a pretty clear picture of the worldview we're dealing with: Business r00olz, government dr00lz, and the Invisible Hand will save everyone who's worth saving. That's not a very popular outlook in these dreadful times, so the last few paragraphs are devoted to a dystopian vision in which the fascist Obamabot Food Police come down on our crash pads and communes, and seize the zucchini that we were gonna, like, bring to the Dead show and barter for some weed:
Would HR 875 effectively ban seed banking and small-scale organic farming? Would it allow the Food Police to trespass on private property to "check our vegetables"? Would it mandate 24-hour GPS tracking of farm animals? Could lands and crops be seized for "non-compliance"?Of course it'd be safe! 'Cause the thing is, see, large-scale factory farms who've spent billions of dollars to build their brands would never dream of using dangerous or unproven fertilizers or pesticides, or producing food that was in any way unwholesome. That'd go against the dictates of rational self-interest. As would creating an elite counterrevolutionary force that goes door to door looking for heirloom tomatoes to trample.
A lot can be justified under the rubric of "food safety." Do we really believe granting a monopoly to large-scale factory farms, with their standardized artificial fertilizers and pesticides, is safest for our health and nutritional needs in the long run?
What is this maniac talking about, you ask? Well, it seems that Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) is married to a consultant whose clients include Monsanto, and has introduced a bill that might conceivably become law, after the usual process of bickering and compromise and obstructionism and extortion and posturing. If that happens, it's conceivable that Obama might include it as part of his billion-dollar food-safety initiative. And if that happens, it's conceivable — just barely, provided you're crazy — that a new monocultural Staatssicherheit will make backyard gardens illegal, even though HR 875 currently doesn't provide for any such thing. Translation: Obama wants a billion dollars for teh Food Police, and you will soon have to pay Monsanto royalties for growing radishes. RIP America: 1776-2009.
Tom Philpott finds these worries to be groundless, as does Food and Water Watch. Without arguing in favor of HR 875, I notice that it contains provisions that might not appeal to the death-before-regulation crowd, including increasing the inspection of food plants and requiring imported food to meet US standards. Presumably, that's the real problem here, and all this nonsense about outlawing "backyard gardens" is intended to rile survivalists who are busy stockpiling food and guns against the coming Obamapocalypse.
In summation: Alarmism about food safety is misguided, actual outbreaks of mass poisoning notwithstanding, but alarmism about imaginary "Food Police" is perfectly sensible. Nothing's more important than the safety of our children, except for the principle that government shouldn't and can't protect them from anything but terrorism, collectivism, and rap lyrics. Security that doesn't have a 100-percent success rate is basically worthless, so let's give that billion to the Pentagon instead. You can trust the government to give people lethal injections or bomb foreign capitals, but not to conduct the occasional spot test for E. coli. You can count on big business to do the right thing for consumers...unless it might be influencing a "far-left" member of Congress, in which case Liberal Fascism is practically a done deal, and we don't even get organic arugula out of it.
At the risk of repeating myself, the road towards a non-insane conservatism seems to be an exceptionally hard one to travel.