News posts from JTE's Archive


Food Glorious Food

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

Michael Pollan is our second favorite writer on food. (Hey, we’re Chelsea Green after all. Our own writers are all tied for first.) Ezra Klein also likes Michael Pollan, and Pollan’s recent NYT Magazine article got Ezra thinking (and blogging) about food issues. And then readers of Ezra’s blog got to commenting. And that lead Ezra to write this interesting post, “Why is bad food cheap?

Put aside the externalities. The weight gain and the chronic diseases and the carbon pumped into the atmosphere. Bracket it, as my college political science professors used to say. There’s a tendency to believe bad food is simply cheap. We make it like that because it saves us money. Sometimes, that’s true. More often, it’s not. Bad food is subsidized. Take high-fructose corn syrup. These days, the average American consumes almost 60 pounds of the stuff each year. Forty years ago, they consumed a pound or two of corn-based sweeteners. What happened? Well, high fructose corn syrup was invented. But that wasn’t enough. It’s not — or at least, was not — naturally cheaper than sugar. It’s subsidized:

He also takes on the example of concentrated feedlot production of meat animals. Again: it’s not the “free market” that makes them a cheaper system for producing meat, it’s badly conceived and politically inertia’ed subsidy policies. I spend my fair share of time harshing on “free markets,” but I’m not foolish enough to think that that’s the only system that can fail. Sometimes it is definitely the lesser evil.

Anyhow, reader comments to that posting led Ezra to draft yet another on the food topic that clarified some of what he was trying to show, and you might want to see that as well.

But more interesting, to me at least, was what was still to come. (That Ezra really likes his food blogging!) This time it was more on the political side of the “political economy” equation.

I have enormous respect for Pollan as an author, so it’s odd to say this, but I think some of the problem here might have been in the writing. The discussions of subsidies — the key issue in food policy — is subsumed within section one’s discussion of polycultures. They exist in the piece, but not clearly, and not with sufficient force. Sections two and three, on “reregionalizing” food and changing our food culture, are important, but from a policy perspective, rather muddled. The polycultures portion did come first, so there’s evidence that Pollan thought it most important. But I think he’s focusing on the wrong end of the issue: We need to dismantle the subsidies before we can really talk about incentivizing different agricultural behavior. To do otherwise is to put the tractor before that weird machine that sprays pesticides.

Laskawy also links to the Q&A with Pollan, where he engages the political economy of the issue. And I’d argue that this is actually a more compelling and important idea than anything that appears in the actual piece:

Corrupted taxes, hidden taxes, and the chicken boom

Friday, October 17th, 2008

The US Department of Agriculture has a projected fiscal-year 2009 budget of $95 billion, out of which $1.1 billion is intended for “food safety” programs. The current US population is 305 million. That makes for an average (which really isn’t a good measure for this kind of thing, but is the handy one) of $311 of taxes, per person, going to the USDA as a whole, and a whopping $3.61 per person going towards “food safety.”

Do you feel safe?

Apparently, there are quite a few people who do not. In recent article in the Valley News (“What’s That Clucking Sound? Chicken Coops Are Popping Up All Over,” p. C1, 9/13/2008; link is to paper’s site, but the article is not available online) about explosive growth in interest in keeping some backyard chickens, William Craig writes

When I analyzed the chicken-farming urge that had me chatting up hatchery employees in Lonesome Dove, I didn’t diagnose it as an economic alarm bell. I was, I thought, thinking positive, imagining the unbeatable flavor of truly fresh eggs, the pleasure of serving my family pure, healthy food. But how “positive” is the knowledge that much of the food in our markets is distinctly, dangerously unhealthy? That awareness is a big part of the chicken boom, according to Jacques. People want “control over what’s in their food,” he says, and many are buying organic chicken feed. It “costs twice as much, but people are still doing it. … The satisfaction of knowing what’s in (the egg) is tremendous.”

So tremendous, in fact, that West Lebanon Supply has had to stop selling organically raised birds. Small suppliers can’t compete with the demands of big buyers such as the southern states’ Winn-Dixie grocery chain, which is charging as much as $6 for a dozen organic eggs.”

Woof!

I don’t buy many eggs—I’ve never much liked them—so I wasn’t sure how different that was from the cost of conventional eggs. Well, the most recent (September 15, 2008) organic poultry market report from the USDA lists large organic eggs as having a wholesale price between $2.65 and $3.00 per dozen. It also lists organic broiler chickens as wholesaling for between $2.01 and $2.14 per pound. (Data on lots of different organic “farmgate” and wholesale prices are here.)

At the same time, conventional eggs are wholesaling for a projected $1.50 to $1.56 per dozen and conventional broiler chickens for $0.78 to $0.79 per pound. (See the March 2008 report “Egg prices skyrocket”. These figures are for the first quarter of 2008, so be aware that the data sources are a little different between the organic and conventional. But it should be good for ballpark figuring.)

That makes a markup for organics—at the wholesale level—of something like 80% for eggs and 165% for the birds themselves. I’m not sure to what extent the retailers add an additional markup—I doubt they are reducing it at all. So let’s call that the minimum premium people are paying for eggs and chicken because they don’t trust that the conventional versions are good for themselves, their families, or the environment. This report from December 2006, “Organic Poultry and Eggs Capture High Price Premiums and Growing Share of Specialty Markets,” goes into it in more detail.

Similarly, the wholesale price premium for broccoli in June 2007 was over 200% and for carrots 124%.

Overall, the organic food market in the U.S. is now over $16 billion, and rising fast. If we assume that the average premium for organic food across all food types is 50%, that means we’ve paid an extra $5.33 billion for our organics, and that’s probably a conservative estimate for the average price premium. But that’s okay, better safe than sorry when it comes to pulling statistics out of your rear end.

Even if we go way conservative and say the premium people are paying is only a total of $2 billion each year, that’s double what the USDA spends on “food safety.” So treat that organic price premium like a hidden tax. If the USDA were doing its job, if it weren’t a bought-and-paid-for front for large-scale agribusiness, you wouldn’t have to worry about “conventional” food because it would be as safe and as healthy and as environmentally responsible as organics are now. You could buy the lower priced food and still feel pretty good, instead of fearful.

[Photo courtesy of protohiro]

Call for entries: great stacks of firewood

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Firewood is back in style, as the cost of heating with oil, propane, and natural gas has been rising for several years. Those who are curious about alternatives to the traditional fossil-fueled boiler should check out Greg Pahl’s Natural Home Heating or David Lyle’s classic Book of Masonry Stoves. The Hrens’ Carbon-Free Home also has good tips on reducing your heating needs and getting your heating from more sustainable sources.

But heating with wood isn’t just about the heat. Wood becomes a part of your life in a way that oil never can be, and, for the most part, that’s a good thing. It can sometimes feel like drudgery when you do it, but stacking wood also has its benefits—not least of which is the chance to engage in a little creativity. For example, this most ingenious firewood “cabin” that I saw in the yard of a neighbor of mine, pictured above.

Here are a few more snapshots of the cabin.

Do you have a particularly good looking, or creative, or strange, or dangerous, or large, or otherwise interesting wood pile, or have a neighbor with such? Upload some photos to the photos sharing site of your preference and put the link in the comments below.

Why nationalize the banks?

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Ezra Klein, with the assistance of some blockquoting, explains why the (temporary) nationalization of banks accomplishes more than just loaning/injecting money into them, even for the same overall amount of public money being spent. Doing so is the only way of cutting the “Gordian knot” of distrust between the banks. (Though, if you read the comments to his post, you’ll see a suggestion for an alternative knot-cutting option.) Is inter-bank distrust a big deal? This morning’s NPR story suggests it’s super-duper big.

Right war, wrong battle

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

The problem with the Bush/Paulson bailout plan is not—I repeat, NOT—the paychecks that financial corporation CEOs receive. Ezra Klein noted this yesterday as well. (With follow up today.) The NYT is now reporting that “Paulson Gives Way on CEO Pay.

Sure, it’d be frosting on the cake to have rescued corporations impose caps on their CEO’s salaries. But in the big picture? Big whoop.

  • It will not in any way affect whether tax payers are left holding the bag.
  • They will find a way around it and end up richer than you and me and everyone who reads ChelseaGreen.com put together. You know that, I know that, Congress knows that, Paulson knows that, so let’s not kid ourselves.
  • If this “concession” allows the current proposal to get through Congress, it will have been the greatest example of faux compromise in quite some time. It will have exchanged all hopes for responsible action with Jr. High level vengeance. We might get a little schadenfreude pleasure out of it, but it will be those Wall Street CEOs who get the last laugh, the kind of laugh that comes with seven or more zeros after it.

    Financial bailout lowdown

    Monday, September 22nd, 2008

    Ezra Klein at The American Prospect blog offers some good summaries of the problems with the Bush/Paulson bailout plan, and links to more necessary analysis. This, unfortunately, is the sort of thing that tends to be a done deal (and Klein’s post on Senator Dodd suggests just that), but on the off chance that understanding the situation a little better now is useful, I recommend you check it out.

    Example:

    As we rush our way through the bailout argument, it’s worth being clear on the distinction between losses and collapse. The crisis is not about the possibility of Wall Street suffering sustained losses. It is about the possibility of Wall Street seeing a series of firms collapse. But Paulson is conflating the two…. The problem with the bailout plan is that we’re supposed to be buttressing Wall Street against the possibility of collapse, but Paulson went a step further and constructed the government’s approach to help protect against loss….

    Anyway, read up and down his recent set of posts. It’s sobering, but instructive.

    [Photo courtesy of wwhyte1968]

    The Wall Street bailout, LIHEAP, and Amartya Sen

    Thursday, September 18th, 2008

    Lying in bed this morning listening to the national and local news: central banks around the world are shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars as fast as they can at the various financial corporations tottering on the brink of catastrophe; and meanwhile, in little ole Vermont, our Congressional delegation is working hard to get a few more millions of dollars added to this year’s LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) budget, to help people out who can’t afford to pay for the energy that helps them avoid freezing to death.

    Propping up Wall Street is an ugly thing, but, sadly, necessary. (Is it too much to ask if this necessary evil is done the right way?) These guys really are “too big to fail,” at least the way the current economy is built. Let’s hope this all will help increase the pace of the Transition Movement, and other similar efforts, so that we aren’t all connected to the wellbeing of the global profiteers.

    Helping people avoid freezing to death is also necessary, wouldn’t you say?

    Being the nerd that I am, this juxtaposition of grand crisis vs. below-the-radar misery reminded me of some of Amartya Sen’s work. Sen is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, one of the more philosophical and less mainstream economists to have won the prize. One of his most “famous” (within economics circles, at least) research efforts had to do with the different ways that democratic and totalitarian states deal with problems. His main examples were of post-independence India and Maoist China.

    In China, the government preferred to allow tens of millions of people to starve to death during the late-1950s famine, rather than reveal to the world that there was any trouble in the “workers’ paradise.” Given the Communist Party’s totalitarian status, it did not have to fear that it would lose power from within.

    In India, on the other hand, the democratic function of politics meant that a government that failed to react to a crisis like a famine would be challenged severely and likely lose power. The result is that India has reacted swiftly (if not always quite swiftly enough) to famines. While famines killed many tens of millions during the British colonial period, they have not led to massive death counts since the country gained independence.

    But democracy doesn’t come out all hunky dory in this story. While India (and democracies in general) are pretty good at reacting to large crises, they are often terrible at reacting to ongoing miseries. And so it is that in India, over the years since independence, millions of people have died from non-famine related malnutrition and other poverty-related problems. But because these deaths are not concentrated in time or location, there’s not a political movement that builds up to demand change. So ignoring, or at least not giving nearly enough attention, to the poorest of the poor can continue to be a democratic government’s policy for decades on end, even when this results in millions of cumulative deaths.

    And the totalitarian states sometimes come out ahead on this angle: the Chinese Communist Party’s creation of a universal healthcare system and other pro-poor policies meant that, even under Mao, many of the poorest of the poor in that country received the help they needed under “normal” circumstances, and millions of deaths were avoided that would probably have happened without the Communist influence.

    Alas, it’s a complicated world, filled with gray from top to bottom.

    So here we are today, seeing the democracies of the world unite in the face of a common enemy: the “money famine” that has erupted following decades of insane deregulation of the financial industry, with the fallout from the housing market bubble (which was easy to perceive if anyone had cared to look for it) as the straw that broke the industry’s back. And here we are today, in “the greatest democracy in the world,” scrimping and scrounging to find the money necessary to keep our neighbors from freezing to death this winter.

    If I weren’t so above partisan politics, I might just say this is time for some change we can believe in.

    The size of illegal tax shelters vs. taxes and wages paid

    Thursday, September 18th, 2008

    One of the most shocking tidbits in Robert Kuttner’s new Obama’s Challenge has to do with where Obama could come up with the money to pay for the programs Kuttner recommends. Nearly half the money Obama would need—at least $300 billion—could come from having the IRS crack down on illegal “tax shelters” that are used nearly exclusively by the richest sliver of the American population. In Kuttner’s words, “the consensus among tax experts is that at least $300 billion of taxes owed by the richest Americans go uncollected mainly because IRS enforcement resources have been diverted from audits of tax shelters used only by the wealthy onto audits of working Americans.” (Obama’s Challenge, p. 29; Kuttner cites this report as his source.) This is due largely to the fact that, under President Bush, the IRS has focused its enforcement efforts on “the little guy,” auditing lower-income tax payers and largely ignoring the creative accounting that allows the richest of the rich to avoid paying their fair share. (And that’s on top of the fact that Bush’s tax cuts already give the richest among us a legal free pass to avoid paying a truly fair share.) (See this and this and this.)

    $300 billion in illegal tax shelters being ignored by the IRS!

    You might wonder, as I did, just how much money is $300 billion? How does it measure up relative to how large our overall economy is?

    Well, it is 25 times more than all the Federal income taxes paid by families making less than $100,000 (adjusted gross income) in Ohio in 2006. From another angle, it is 25 times more than all the Federal income taxes paid by the 3.5 million non-richest Ohio families in 2006. (Source: IRS, “Tax Year 2006: Historical Table 2 (SOI Bulletin)–Ohio,” [Excel file] found here.)

    It is 50% more than all of the wages paid to all employees in all occupations in Ohio in 2007 (excluding self-employed). (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, “May 2007 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates Ohio.”

    It is only slightly less than all wages paid to all workers in the construction industry—throughout the entire United States—in 2007. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, “May 2007 National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: Sector 23 – Construction.”

    So next time someone says—or next time you are tempted to say—“we can’t possibly afford any new government programs,” keep this in mind. If the IRS would only crack down on illegal tax shelters used by the crème de la crème of tax cheats, we’d be sitting one heck of a lot prettier than we have been trained to believe.

    [Photo courtesy of le Korrigan]

    The cost of a barrel of oil relative to workers’ wages

    Thursday, September 11th, 2008

    [Thanks to eagle-eyes of a friendly reader, numbers below regarding the equivalent number of years of labor have been corrected. --JTE (4/30/09)]

    So yesterday I noted Rob Hopkins’ trivia that a liter of oil (if I guess correctly the volume of the bottle he holds in the video) contains the same amount of energy as a human expends in about five weeks of work. That really shocked me, so I’ve emailed him and asked for his source. He got his numbers from this PDF. It says, more specifically (on p. 8), that a kilogram of petroleum contains the equivalent in energy to about 24 working days, or 200 hours, of human physical labor.

    That got me thinking: if you were going to hire people to do the work that you get from burning oil, how much would the human-labor equivalent of a barrel of oil cost?

    Barrel of oil = between 125 and 154 kg. To keep these calculations “conservative,” I’ll go with 125.
    x 200 = 25,000 equivalent hours of human labor
    = 5,000 625 work weeks (assuming 40 hours per week)
    = 104 13 work years (assuming 4 weeks off each year for vacation and holidays)

    How much does human labor cost these days? Here are a few examples from the manufacturing sector for the year 2006 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (table 2), all converted to US dollars. The oil price is from the Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2008 (table 12).

    Country Average hourly wage in manufacturing “Wage” equivalent of a barrel of oil
    Norway $46.31 $1,157,750
    USA $29.60 $740,000
    S. Korea $16.87 $421,750
    USA (current Federal minimum wage) $6.55 $163,750
    Brazil $5.90 $147,500
    Philippines $1.36 $34,000
    ———— —— —————-
    Barrel of Oil (in 2006)   $59

    Even at the “horror” of $200 per barrel, that does kind of put our energy addiction in perspective. These numbers are so insane, I do have to wonder if something is just plain off, but assuming the source numbers are even vaguely in the right ballpark, the take-home message remains: this slide down the back of the oil peak is going to be pretty interesting.

    One further thought: it might make more sense to compare the usable energy in the oil than the total energy. Following that logic (if so it be), and the fact that (according to this site) the ideal efficiency of a diesel engine (my proxy for the efficiency of oil in general) is 56%, then let’s apply a conservative conversion factor of 40% to the kilogram of oil. Accordingly, this brings down the equivalency of a barrel of oil to 10,000 hours of human labor (or nearly 42 5.2 work years), and in terms of equivalent wages, that barrel of oil works out to:

    Country Average hourly wage in manufacturing “Wage” equivalent of a barrel of oil
    Norway $46.31 $463,100
    USA $29.60 $296,000
    S. Korea $16.87 $168,700
    USA (current Federal minimum wage) $6.55 $65,500
    Brazil $5.90 $59,000
    Philippines $1.36 $13,600

    As Rob’s source notes for the United Kingdom, the use of fossil fuels increases UK physical productivity by a multiple of something like 70 to 100 versus an economy that relied only on muscle power. “Cheap” doesn’t begin to describe the deal we’ve been getting for oil. Well, obviously not cheap in the long run, seeing as the worst costs of using oil are coming to us in the future. I guess you could say this has been one whammy of a “buy now, pay later” scheme. That bill is going to come due. How well will you be prepared?

    [Image courtesy of woodleywonderworks]

    Burn Calories, Not Fossil Fuel

    Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

    A recent article in the local paper profiled an elementary school teacher who had biked across the continent this summer, and was proselytizing about bikes to his students now that school is back in session. His motto is “burn calories, not oil,” which I’ve borrowed for this post. Thanks, teach!

    Meanwhile, I’ve learned today that a new website is up and running: The Human-Powered Home. It’s the latest entry into the web-world dedicated to bikes, treadles, and cranks in lieu of motors, a subject I’m personally passionate about. (A couple years back I assembled what was supposed to be a bike-powered generator, but it didn’t work. Then, before I could perfect my muscle-powered rig, I got waylaid into creating new muscles to help in the struggle—my two daughters—and so haven’t found time to get the sucker up and running. Fellow Chelsea Greener Jesse McD is planning on usurping my glory and getting it to work himself. Thanks, Jesse!)

    My favorite news tidbit from the HPH? A piezoelectric dance floor in London. That’s right—with every step you take, you create electricity to help light up the disco. Talk about getting the party started right!

    This reminds me of a bit of trivia gleaned from Rob Hopkins [in the video here], author of our new Transition Handbook, to whit, that one liter of petroleum contains the same amount of energy as a human expends in about five weeks worth of work. Holy cow! And this stuff only costs $130 a barrel*? We really do live in a fantasy world.

    So go get inspired. If you’re going to have a Carbon-Free Home and you also want some of those useful advantages of modern times, like blenders, coffee grinders, washing machines, and so on, consider putting your body to good use.

    * Ignoring all the hidden costs, of course, which add up to many tens if not hundreds of dollars in equivalent value; plus many, many values that simply cannot—and ought not—be made in dollar equivalent.


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