March 31, 2009

identity politics

Ezra Klein just wrote a piece arguing that we should ensure that food prices reflect the various externalities (health, environmental, etc) so that consumers can make good choices. It's a policy concept I definitely favor, but I still hated the piece. Why? Because the thrust of his argument is that "[a]t the end of the day, the best information a consumer has is always the price of a good." That, in fact, we are consumers first, and that it makes little sense to ask people to think about food in any way other than as a commodity. This is a philosophy of human identity that I hate, that feeds into the sense that our lives are and should be primarily oriented around a marketplace rather than around relationships or ideas or values. It's capitalism as identity. One lovely aspect of the food movement - and especially about local food from farmers we can meet - is that it gets people to think about the whole web of interactions that happen when you buy a half-gallon of milk or a chicken sausage or a basket of potatoes, and to see those as not simply a matter of exchanging cash for commodities. I find it pretty condescending for Ezra to claim that people (presumably people other than him and other foodies) just can't understand those connections and thus have to be told what to buy via price, and that there's no hope for moving in a different direction. And yes. Yes I realize that the anti-commodity food movement is often very elitist, but it doesn't have to be; and I think living in Philadelphia, where local food is much more practical and accessible has helped me realize that.

Changing price signals is great policy, but it's crap philosophy.

No comments: