Paradox Watch: Can you love Alice Waters and Capitalism?

I read two articles this morning.  The first was from Charles Krauthammer on whether President Obama may have finessed policy realities for political gain.  As expected, it was quite good.  K-Hammer usually gives voice to my already cynical beliefs about political arguments.  He also threw in some analysis from Greg Mankiw; always a pleasure:

Mankiw puts the Obama bait-and-switch in plain language. “Translation: I promise to fix the problem. And if I do not fix the problem now, I will fix it later, or some future president will, after I am long gone. I promise he will. Absolutely, positively, I am committed to that future president fixing the problem. You can count on it. Would I lie to you?”

For those of you who don’t read RealClearPolitics, or the Washington Post, you can read the rest of the article here.

The second article surprised me. 

This item was published in City Journal with the title: “America’s Food Revolution.”

First, a quick bit of background.  Over the last few months, I have been reading–and reading about–Michael Pollan, David Kessler, and others all the while searching for nuggets of wisdom interspersed between the usual anti-corporate rhetoric.  As an aspiring culinary adventurer, I do enjoy the hunt for food and nutrition wisdom.

With that in mind, I was surprised to discover City Journal’s Jerry Weinberger to be a fellow traveler on this path.  He sarcastically dismisses those who think that captialism’s reign has past and goes on to count the many blessings of American entreprenuership and even–gasp–of globalization.

But in telling the story of America’s rise to culinary greatness, Weinberger cites Alice Waters (the Berkeley-living, slow food loving, activist chef who wants to regulate every pesticide and genetically modified food) as one of the instrumental catalysts.

He writes:

Were they to read the [Alice Waters/Chez Panisse] “creed,” most conservatives would be amused by its blather about “sustainable practices” and “farmers who know their seeds and soil” and even “wine makers who know what their grapes have known.” But the basic culinary insights embedded in the blather are important: really good food can’t be thought up in a chain-food corporate boardroom where shareholders must come first; a menu should have only so many items on it; the ingredients can’t all be available 365 days a year; and they are always best when local.

Didn’t this guy just get done praising globalization and snarking at its discontents?

Apparently you can believe in free markets, global trade, small businesses, and fresh tasty food.

Like Krauthammer, Weinberger eloquently gave voice to something I already had a dim hunch about: the reasonableness of supporting such an apparent mix of contradictions.


  • September 21, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    What about capitalism demands faceless outsourcing and globalized supply chains? Only when we crown the term “efficiency” are beauty and locality condemned to miserly subservience. If prices and wages are simply “conveyors of information” as capitalism tells us, it is the consumer who inputs the terms of value, not the financial system. The information that prices and wages convey is how to distribute efficiently … but efficient (or effective) for what end? If we are assuming a totally cost-minimizing and self-serving consumer … then that is one thing. But people are (1) often irrational in their consumption, and (2) able to make the market efficient to the ends they express value for, by expressing those values in their purchases.

    If it seems impossible to change an entire groups consumption practices … the point is rather to say that the system does not necessitate cost-minimizing practices ad absurdum. However, there is also a good point here about moral practice in free markets. We do not make moral decisions about the whole market, but rather we make moral decisions (or cost minimizing decisions) about ourselves, and those will influence the way producers produce. The art of moral macrocosm is not me choosing to make the whole economy moral by choosing the right item to purchase. Instead, it is about making a moral decision for myself, which the productive forces will adjust themselves to. Cost minimization is a part of that … but in economics the financial system is not bracketed from the social system.

  • September 21, 2009

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Bryan: The opening question in your comment comes across as a pejorative straw man. Neither I nor Weinberger claimed that capitalism demands faceless outsourcing and globalized supply chains. Even so, I think there are many circumstances in which outsourcing and global markets are quite good. I think you’d be hard-pressed to prove that they are bad in all cases. Weinberger defends both of these practices as positive contributors to the rise of good American food.

    Who are you accusing of believing that everyone is a cost-minimizing consumer? This strikes me as another straw man. I doubt most people focus on minimizing costs. Whether they are consumers or entrepreneurs, I would wager most people focus on maximizing value.

  • September 21, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    I’m not arguing against you, but with you. All I mean to say is what you have said: that there does not need to be a contradiction slow food (or other “inefficient” consumer practices) and a market system. There only appears to be a paradox because the general assumption is that capitalism demands large business, the predominance of name brands in all things, and prepackaged everything. I am simply stressing that this does not need to be the nature of a capitalist system. I am not arguing against all globalization, but against an assumption that capitalism necessarily requires all things to be globalized, and that local practices are anathema to it. I am for both, in their respective places.

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