Tom picks up on a piece of economic illiteracy from Michael Pollan:
Michael Pollan was on Fresh Air a moment ago. It's part of his world/public radio tour in support of Farmer In Chief, last week's NYT Magazine article asking the next president to adopt better agricultural policies. I heard him giving pretty much the same spiel on a Philadelphia-area NPR station over the weekend, too.
I don't want to quibble with the man's larger crusade, but he keeps making one particular point that really bugs me. Pollan is fond of pointing out that since 1960 the average American household's spending on food has dropped as a share of income, from 18 percent to 10.
I'm pretty sure this is dumb. Or half, dumb, anyway. I'm sure food has gotten cheaper in absolute terms, and that those savings have been paid for in animal suffering and environmental cost.
But it's also the case that household income tends to increase faster than the rate of inflation, while human nutritional requirements do not. Wikipedia says that real median income has increased about 30% since 1967. Unless I'm missing something, that means that if a family used to spend $1800 on food, today they spend $1300 -- not $1000, as Pollan implies. If median household income data was available for 1960, rather than 1967, you can bet that the differential would be smaller still. And if you consider the fact that household size has declined from 3 to 2.6 people since 1967, the gap shrinks even more.
I sort of approve of Michael Pollan's larger crusade. I think in general it would be nice if we ate less processed food, and had a better idea about things like the American food chain's extraordinary reliance on corn. I'm with him on farm subsidies. I think things like fertilizer runoff need attention. And obviously, I would like farm animals treated better.
On the other hand, processed food tastes good, and to note the obvious, not all of us can spend hours each day lovingly hand-preparing our food from scratch, nor afford to pay others to do same. And the notion that cheaper food is some sort of a disaster is frankly terrifying. Cheaper food is, literally, the foundation of modern civilization; it is why so many of us can afford to do something besides spend all day seeking sustenance.
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