In his second chapter, Michael Pollan reveals two important things. The first is that he believes that ethical norms are created by a mythic state of nature. And since that mythic state of nature was long ago, far away, and mute on top of that, the standards that come from this state of nature need to be (helpfully) supplied to us by Michael Pollan.
“If, as has sometimes been said, the discovery of agriculture represent the first fall of man from the state of nature, then the discovery of synthetic fertility is surely a second precipitious fall. Fixing nitrogen allowed the food chain to turn from the logic of biology and embrace the logic of industry. Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum” (p. 45).
So the fall was not rebellion against God, eating what He told us not to eat, but rather figuring out how to eat at all. Pollan thinks the fall from the state of nature was learning how to grow food in rows, and trying to feed someone other than yourself. Picking huckleberries would be okay, I suppose, so long as you didn’t have a bucket. If you had a bucket, then you could pick more than you needed, and that would create temptations to share. And that would be agriculture, which was a calamitous fall.
And then the second fall came within the last century, when we learned how to feed even more people than we were able to do originally. The way back to innocence, therefore, is to become hunter/gatherers again. Since that is obviously not possible, we are left to live our lives in a cloud of food guilt. With this definition of a fall, ladies and gentlemen, there will never, ever come a savior. But also rememer that not getting you a savior is kind of the point.
The second thing revealed in this chapter is that Pollan doesn’t understand economics at all — although he thinks he does.
“For as long as people have been farming, fat years have posed almost as stiff a challenge as lean, since crop surpluses collapse prices and bankrupt farmers who will be needed again when the inevitable lean years return. When it comes to food, nature can make a mockery of the classical economics of supply and demand” (p. 49).
What? When grain is scarce, prices don’t go up? What he is actually saying is that lean years are tough on people, and abundant years aren’t, but I think we already knew that. He tries to couch this sentiment under an observation about the law of supply and demand. But this is like writing about a family grieving after a loved one has died in a plane crash, and observing that this disaster made a mockery of the law of gravity.
In the background is Pollan’s assumption that the law of supply and demand needs a little enlightened help from the Department of Agriculture, the very ones who made the Royal Mess that Pollan describes throughout this chapter. Since doing that was such a disaster, let’s write something to convince everybody to do it some more (Prov. 23:29-35)
Bear with a string of observations for a moment. The bad guys are “exponents of laissez-faire economics” (p. 50), and we learn later that Wall Street and Washington conspired to change FDR’s agricultural policies, thus unleashing “a plague of cheap corn” (p. 50). He notes later that big buyers like Cargill “took a hand in shaping the farm bill, which predictably came to reflect their interests more closely than those of farmers” (pp. 52-53). He also says that corn “has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics” (p. 56), which was an interesting trick that I didn’t quite follow.
Pollan refers to “the inflation rate for groceries” which “reached an all-time high” (p. 51). Inflation rate for groceries? I feel like I am watching the evening news and the weather guy says that the temperatures overnight will be “in the low forties for grocery stores.” The anchor might reply, “Ummm . . . isn’t that the temperature for everybody?” Price increases are not the same thing as inflation. Inflation is a monetary issue, creating the optical illusion of price increases across the board.
Pollan approvingly quotes a farmer he is interviewing for this chapter, and this man, George Naylor, says, “The free market has never worked in agriculture and it never will” (p. 54). All these statements combined reveal that Pollan doesn’t know what supply and demand are, he doesn’t know what laissez-faire economics are, he doesn’t know what free markets are, and he doesn’t know what inflation is.
And the irony is that answers to the (very real) problems that Pollan describes should even be obvious from reading this chapter of his book. Regulations of market transactions will always favor those who are big enough to hire a battery of lawyers and lobbyists to steer the favorability perks their way. The answer to this problem is not to clamor for a mound of new regulations, in a serene and child-like faith that in drafting the legislation the politicians will somehow follow the advice of some farmer in Iowa that they never heard of. If legislation is for sale, it will always go to the highest bidder. Those who will never be the highest bidder but who, like George Naylor, insist that it remain for sale, do not really deserve the right to complain about what happens to them.
The solution is genuinely free markets, which is just another way of saying that legislation concerning market transactions ought not be for sale in the first place.
Pollan points to a bunch of failures that have come about as a result of crony capitalism, what I have elsewhere called crapitalism. He then blames the free market ideas that were never tried for the failure, and urges a system that will allow the next generation’s crony capitalists a chance to shake down the farmers of their future day. In the passage from Proverbs cited above, it is as though someone like that went on a bender, woke up with a red hot spike in his head, and then moaned, “Well, that’s it for tee-totalism for me.”