What You Should Think About Abundance

November 22, 2007

“Abundance never spreads; famine does.”

–Zulu proverb

To describe economics as “the study of scarcity” is reasonable enough, as far as gross oversimplifications go. On the other hand, to follow such an assertion with arguments about the world itself being nothing but a set of scarcities is just plain wrong. In many instances demand for a good or service does exceed supply. Yet there are also instances where it does not. As most of the nation overeats alongside family and friends on this Thanksgiving Day, it is hard to overlook one form of American abundance.

Agricultural outcomes in the United States have as much to do with market economics as a commercial airline flight’s safe landing is a function of the shifting winds. By that I mean disasters may occur naturally, but on balance it is a planned activity. Agricultural policy does not so much influence as directly shape shape the menus in our restaurants and the inventory on supermarket shelves.

Not only does this engineered abundance have trade advantages — it also addresses vital security and public health concerns. Despite all our science and technology, harvests can still be fickle. If an unexpected blight or a bad turn in the weather devastates output from a particular region or with a particular crop, others will have the strength to pick up the slack. However vulnerable depending on foreign oil may make us, it would be an even greater vulnerability to become dependent on foreign food.

This is not to say that agricultural imports do not have, legitimately, a vital place in modern agricultural policy. Imported foods contribute to dietary diversity, which tends to be a healthy phenomenon. Given our own surpluses, we retain the option to turn inward in time of emergency. Also, save for art and media, food commerce may be the most culturally influential form of trade. All in all, trading food with our neighbors in the world is good for us, good for them, and good for our relationships as well.

Still, because of the safety provided by ample production, it has long been American policy to support domestic food abundance. Everyone has the potential to benefit. In regions where delicacies are produced, less is consumed locally as staples can be shipped in from afar for less than the value of goods from a fresh harvest. This is a benefit for people rich enough to incorporate delicacies into their daily existence. For everyone else, it means that food prices tend to be low and agricultural price shocks caused by nature can be avoided through reasonable dietary change.

Today there is new thinking on American agricultural abundance. Serious policy analysts do not dignify anarcho-capitalist twaddle about going unplanned and exposing our national stomach to the full force of the elements. However, there is much talk of revising planning guidelines in order to address the obesity epidemic. Policies established in the first half of the 20th century are still shaping the food intake of Americans in the 21st century. In a complex “chicken and egg” relationship, growing consumer interest in a healthy diet is accompanied by growing expert interest in agricultural policy reforms.

These reforms would shift focus away from heavily processed items and promote health by making whole foods more available to consumers. If the alliance of officials and corporations pushing for reform has their way, the national strategy that coordinates planting, harvesting, livestock feed, livestock slaughter, etc. will maintain or even elevate the level of satisfaction provided by supermarkets and fast food chains while inverting a key relationship. Under standards established in the 1950s, raw materials suitable for heavily processed products tend to be highly abundant while raw materials suitable for service after minimal processing remain scarce.

This situation drives corporate activity such that fattening foods are where the easy money is. Turning that trend upside down rewards companies that were innovative in the pursuit of brand identities related to healthier eating while removing the incentive for entrenched entities to maintain a keen focus on stimulating demand for unhealthy food. Getting out of this rut is only possible because a long-standing policy of abundance places government in the proverbial driver’s seat. Just as American nutrition improved with the original wave of coherent national agriculture policy, pending reforms off up the prospect of a new wave of improvements to be followed by gains in childhood development and general national health.

In debates about health care policy, there tends to be an implicit assumption that the United States is incapable of doing what dozens of other civilized nations have already done — pursue systematic abundance to produce consistently superior outcomes than the nation endures at present. It is very much a failure to see the forest for the trees. It may not be possible to engineer a surplus of every possible health care good or service, just as it is not possible to maintain a nationwide surplus of every possible fruit and vegetable. Yet it is possible to undertake sensible coordination of activity and deliver a general abundance to the benefit of all.

Agricultural policy first worked its magic in the United States through an emphasis on cereals and dairy products. Once upon a time, a good bowl of Wheaties swimming in fresh milk was the epitome of health food. By the same token, in a nation where millions have no involvement with physicians and millions more only turn to modern medicine after experiencing a health crisis, just delivering universal preventative care would be an enormous step forward. No doubt there is more to public health than getting virtually everybody to participate in routine checkups, but that measure alone would enable tremendous gains. It would actually conserve medical resources by decreasing the extent of time potentially crippling problems go untreated. If labor productivity gets a boost as well, that is hardly cause for complaint.

Yet too much of today’s thinking is afflicted with misconceptions. It is a misconception to think that sound planning could not generate a useful degree of medical abundance. It is also a misconception to think that providing ever-greater advantages to America’s top income quintile will somehow cause their abundance to become some sort of universal phenomenon. The past three decades of American economic history constitute one monolithic denial of trickle-down theories. On the other hand, it does seem to be the case that hardships are not so clearly self-contained amongst America’s poor.

Infectious microbes are no less at home in the bodies of the rich than they are in any other human beings. Contagion has no respect for net worth. Also, since most of America’s economic dynasties rest on corporate ownership or other forms of working investment, the rich suffer from degraded returns on those investments even as the poor suffer more directly whenever preventable illness leads to lost productivity.

Then there is the question of atmosphere. Wealthy Americans do not take an oath to avoid ever having any empathy with working class citizens. Defense of the “right” of the rich to not support universal health care is also an attack on the “right” of those same people to be better protected from disease, enjoy superior returns on domestic investments, tap into a more fit labor pool when launching new ventures, and live in a generally happier society. There is no choice that is not a choice.

As we settle down to dinner this day, we do well to honor the tradition of expressing thanks for our blessings. Though not perfect, the existing collaboration of farmers, corporations, and bureaucrats has accomplished much in the feeding of our nation. Even with all its flaws, a “do more with less” approach to working the land seems to have succeeded in principle. Given the resources and financial inputs devoured by our existing health care institutions, it would seem American endeavors in that area are presently guided by a “do less with more” paradigm.

In truth, that reality is an unpleasant side effect of being misguided by a popular paradigm that forbids even discussing the pursuit of abundance in our capacity for healing. Yet I believe it is a pursuit well worthy of the effort, including the effort to dispel false narratives about unresolvable scarcity. Should we, as many other nations already have, manage to achieve useful abundance in medicine, then our nation will enjoy a new form of strength. Universal health care would be a particular relief to the poor, but its indirect benefits would substantially improve circumstances for the rich too. Were it part of the American way of life, then on future days of Thanksgiving we might all know one more blessing to be counted . . . or at least one more useful abundance to take for granted.