A Politics That Will Kill Us

August 11th, 2009 at 2:52 pm David Frum | 72 Comments |

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Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney often joked during the primaries: “Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.” Try that joke the other way around, ed and it doesn’t work, search does it?

Meat-eating is right-wing, unhealthy everybody knows that! We even describe a rip-roaring conservative speech as “red-meat.” Crunchy granola is correspondingly left-wing. Whole Foods is liberal fascist, according to Jonah Goldberg, while Wal-Mart is bad for America, according to PBS’s Frontline.

These stereotypes have a basis in reality, for sure. There are more Whole Foods stores in Massachusetts’ 617 area code than in both Carolinas; more in Chicago and Evanston than in all of Georgia. Meanwhile, the state of Alabama supports only one Whole Foods store, but three Ruth’s Chris steakhouses. Mississippi: 0 Whole Foods, 3 Ruth’s Chris.

Yet the stereotype equally bumps up against certain contradictions. I happened into my nearest Whole Foods on Saturday. Among other things, I bought a half gallon of milk for $3.79 – almost double the price I could have paid at Walmart. For my money, I got organic milk from cows raised on grass rather than corn.

I prefer that my children drink milk free from pesticides, herbicides and artificial hormones. I am relieved not to contribute to the promiscuous overuse of antibiotics in cattle, hastening the development of anti-biotic resistant superbugs. If the extra tariff secures more humane treatment for the dairy cows on which we depend, that’s welcome news too.

As I bicycled the groceries home in my “I used to be a plastic bottle” recycled Whole Foods bag, I must have looked the image of a northwest Washington progressive. Yet it is very easy for me to imagine how the cultural polarities on food might have been reversed.

I can imagine a cultural left that fumed: The local family farm is as obsolete as the two-parent family! If you have an extra buck and three quarters burning a hole in your pocket, David Frum, why not give it to the panhandler on the corner rather than an overpriced dairy? Before getting exercised about the welfare of milk cows, how about some concern for the child prostitutes of the Third World or the underprivileged here at home?

Likewise, I can imagine a cultural right that championed premium milk in exactly the same way that it now champions luxury cars and $20 cigars. Or that worried as much about its own health and nutrition as it did about the strength and fitness of professional athletes.

No, it didn’t work out that way. But it easily could have – and could still again.

From the time of Teddy Roosevelt until the day before yesterday, it was the American right that worried more about the fitness and strength of the American population. (While the left tended to dismiss such concerns as imports from militaristic Prussia – as indeed they were.) It was President Eisenhower who founded the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, President Nixon who empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor pesticides, and President Reagan who allowed himself to be photographed lifting weights. (He looked good at it too.)

This history was much on my mind as I recently read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (More exactly: as I listened to it on long bike rides with my wife through the farm country of Prince Edward County, Ontario.)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been a blue-state bestseller over the past three years, summoning educated Americans to a closer engagement with the origins of the food they eat. Pollan wittily marches readers up and down the food chains that lead to four finished meals: a McDonald’s family feast consumed in a car on a California freeway, an organic dinner made from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods, a dinner whose ingredients come from a single farm, and a dinner that the author hunted and foraged for himself.

Along the way, Pollan introduces readers to the vast American system of industrial agriculture: to the effects of farm subsidies and the operations of agribusiness – to the health and wellness effects of processed foods and excess fats and sugars – to the moral and economic tradeoffs embedded in all our eating, including the eating that goes by the name of “organic.”

Pollan lives in Berkeley, teaches journalism, and used to edit Harper’s. That’s a biography demarked with with red flags for the conservative reader. Pollan cannot resist the occasional grand pronouncement about “capitalism” and its machinations. That’s an irritatingly unconsidered remark. Pollan’s hopes for a different kind of agriculture rests exactly and wholly upon the wealth generated by free markets. It demands a very high level of per-capita income to afford milk at $3.79 per half gallon.

Unconsidered remarks aside, however, Pollan’s work ought to appeal to the market-minded reader. Pollan does some of his best work identifying the wasteful externalities concealed by agricultural subsidies. The corn that feeds Walmart’s cows may be genuinely cheaper than the grass that nourishes the cows yielding my expensive milk. But it’s not quite so much cheaper as the Walmart shopper thinks. The price of a bushel of corn averaged $2.74 between 2002 and 2007. But the federal government guarantees a price closer to $4. The difference comes in the form of a check from the federal Treasury.

There are other externalities too in American agriculture. The one that worries me most is the as yet unexacted cost of the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. As antibiotics are used more, bacteria mutate to defeat them. By some estimates, 18,000 Americans died last year from drug-resistant infections. The routine use of antibiotics to defeat the infections that arise in overcrowded and under-sanitary feedlots is an important accelerant to the evolution of drug-resistant superbugs. If milk at $3.79 saves you from untreatable illness, you might think it a more economical purchase than it looks at first.

Preventable suffering of animals could also be regarded as an externality. Americans care about the animals they know: It’s estimated that Americans spend some $40 billion a year on the care of their pets. Yet the cow or pig you eat is as intimate a part of your life as the dog or cat with which you live. If Americans understood what the lives of those cows or pigs looked like, I wonder whether they would begrudge the extra cents per pound it would cost to ameliorate these animals’ living conditions. As wealth increases and living standards improve, that price becomes easier to pay – and harder to justify not paying.

One of my favorite passages in Matt Scully’s Dominion makes the point that more advanced societies can afford to abandon practices that were once essential. Eskimos might have no choice but to harpoon whales. We do. In the same way, food practices that can be justified in a poorer era that struggled to make meat accessible to the poor at all may cease to be justified in an era when the average American eats a pound and a quarter of beef per week – and when poorer Americans eat more beef than richer Americans do.

That last point raises the issue in the American diet that deserves greatest concern: its effect not on the eaten, but on the eaters.

Half of adult Americans are obese. (Two-thirds are overweight.) Among under-19s, about one in three is overweight and one in six obese.

Americans are much fatter than they were a generation ago. While obesity is a gathering problem through the developed world, America is home to a greater proportion of dangerously fat people than any other country.

Obesity and its common health consequence diabetes account for about one health dollar in nine spent in the United States. While the obese live about as long as everybody else, they suffer many more health problems through life, from bad knees to depression to cardiovascular disease.

Behind this trend are many causes. The spread of fast food is one obvious one. Teenagers now eat typically between 3 and 4 fast-food meals a week, with each additional fast food meal being associated with weight gains of between 0.9 and 1.7 pounds, depending on the length of time the eater has been consuming fast food.

Federal subsidies to corn, federal tariffs against sugar, and genuine improvements in the efficiency of corn production have together created a new market in super-cheap corn sweeteners. They show up in everything from sodas to toothpaste. These new sweeteners have not displaced sugar – Americans simply added corn. In 1967, the average American consumed an already excessive 114 pounds of sweeteners, per year, almost all of it in the form of cane sugar. By 2003, the sweetener ration had jumped past 140 pounds, more than 60 pounds of it in the form of corn sweeteners. Soda pop seems to be the prime culprit: the average American now drinks nearly a gallon of soda per week.

When I wrote about this problem in my book Comeback and proposed that conservatives ought to take it seriously as a public health issue, an offended National Review reviewer was led to question whether I still had any conservative instincts at all.

And yet obesity – and especially child obesity – is at least as proper a subject of government concern from a conservative point of view as single parenthood.   Conservatives correctly realize that a society with a lot of single parents will require a bigger welfare state. Since conservatives prefer a smaller welfare state, conservatives have a stake in sustainable family patterns. Yet obesity also creates a demand for government programs, even more directly and expensive than the costs of single parenthood. Here’s a paper from the Texas Department of Human Services that estimates that Type 2 diabetes accounts for 9% of the state’s Medicaid budget, about $192 million per year. If diabetes continues to increase at the current trend line, by 2030 the disease will consume somewhere between 13% and 20% of the state’s Medicaid budget. Since that budget is likely to grow substantially (DHS hypothesizes by between 6 and 8 times), the paper projects that type 2 diabetes will cost the state more than $1.5 billion per year by 2030. If that’s not a public health crisis, what is?

The policy response to this crisis is not obvious. And yet there are some immediate steps that make sense. State governments should ban soda machines from schools. Local governments should adopt zoning ordinances that prevent the siting of fast-food restaurants within 1000 yards of schools. (Research suggests that the near presence of a fast-food restaurant causes a 5% increase in student obesity.) Impose a steep excise tax on high-fructose corn syrup.

Over the medium term, Congress should work to shift federal aid to agriculture away from supports for specific crops – corn, soy etc. -  to subsidies for the use of land for farming of any kind.

In the end, however, the impact of public policy will likely prove modest. Conversely, the more responsible approach to food and nature recommended by Michael Pollan and his admirers is the very epitome of conservative individualism and personal responsibility.

I sometimes get invitations to conservative “smokers” – evenings where money is raised for a conservative cause over martinis, thick corn-fed steaks, and three courses of cigars. Think for a minute of the message embedded in such evenings: “Come support a politics that will kill you!”

We live at a time when it is becoming possible for human beings to live well and strong for longer than ever imagined – when children can enjoy the company of parents, grandchildren of grandparents for decades of activity and joy. Industrial agriculture offered abundance at an environmental and health price. The advance of technology now permits us to transform an agriculture of quantity into one of quality with greater health as the surprising prize. Conservatives celebrate the total quality revolution in manufactures as a great American achievement. Why not in food too?

Drop the fried nuggets, and put on the walking shoes; push away the super-sized burger and rediscover the taste of real beef. Of course conservatives respect the freedom to make bad choices. But why celebrate bad choices? Why accept obesity and coronary disease as “conservative”? Why dismiss health and wellbeing as liberal? Don’t conservatives champion the “culture of life”? Then what on earth are we doing with cigars in our mouths and colas in our cupholders?

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72 Comments so far ↓

  • Spartacus

    Jim Pier,

    I’m not sure what characterizations of the Right you’re referring to because you did not provide quotes. However, if you’re speaking of the notion that tax cuts are not an economic panacea, that the Right has endorsed anti-intellectualism (a.k.a. Palinism) and that hyperbolic inflammatory rhetoric is bad politics, these are positions that Frum has expressed on NM, which I agree with and, more importantly, appear to be borne out by the facts. If you believe these positions are not characteristic of the Right, then you should provide a convincing argument to the contrary.

    As for reasoned arguments and ideology, we all have an ideology that shapes the way we view things. But when real-world facts show that our view is wrong, most intelligent and reasonable people will question whether their ideological assumptions and theories are correct, and they will change their view. But most modern conservatives seem immune to this kind of introspection.

    Lastly, I don’t have zero respect for all conservative thinking, but even if I did I don’t see how that necessarily means my thinking is shallow. It is possible that all conservative thought with which I am familiar is very poor.

  • Jim Pier

    Sinz54 said
    “The reason why your locally grown produce seems to taste fresher than the supermarket variety, is not due to how it’s grown”

    I disagree in some cases. Various types of produce have been bred to increase their hardiness and to resist damage during harvesting and transport. Take, for instance, a standard grocery store tomato – thicker outer wall and firmer so it will hold up as it gets across country. Ditto for apples and no doubt some others. In those cases home grown is better from the get. There is no comparison between a home-grown tomato and the average store-bought one, even if they are equally fresh.

  • Jim Pier

    “annab // Aug 12, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    An obesity tax is another excuse to create a nanny state and a way for the government to grow unchecked. Rather than taxing twinkies and french fries, why not advocate for healthier lifestyles and personal responsibility when it comes to eating. The government shouldn’t be in the business of coercing healthy behavior through taxes on products it deems ‘unhealthy’.”

    Amen. We need to take that line of reasoning to the next step, which is that the government needs to stop subsidizing unhealthy behavior. By socializing the cost of unhealthy lifestyles through our quasi-socialized health insurance system, soon to be totally socialized it would appear, the obese are getting a free ride on the backs of the healthy.

  • Jim Pier

    spartacus said;
    “Since Reagan, conservatism has started to look more and more like libertarianism, which condemns practically all intervention and taxes by the government.”

    Sir, those have always been conservative principles, going back to when conservatives were called Liberal in the 17th and 18th centuries. Where libertarians differ significantly is primarily on foreign policy and national security, and on social conservatism. May I indulge in a quotation of Thomas Jefferson:

    “Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

  • Jim Pier

    spartacus said:

    “the Right has endorsed anti-intellectualism (a.k.a. Palinism) . . . . ” and on and on ad nauseum.

    My objection to your boring litany, besides its banality, is its monolithic treatment of “the Right.” Maybe someone else gets my gist and can explain it to you.

  • Jim Pier

    spartacus said:

    “But when real-world facts show that our view is wrong, most intelligent and reasonable people will question whether their ideological assumptions and theories are correct, and they will change their view. But most modern conservatives seem immune to this kind of introspection.”

    Ah, yes, the old ‘If my opponent would only think rightly — that is to say, as I do — then he would recognize the error of his position, drop it forthwith, and immediately adopt mine, which is without a doubt the correct one, as supported by all the facts’ line of argument. This approach can quickly devolve into a pointless exchange between opponents who never hear what the other says. It is an exquisite expression of your intellectual arrogance. You have not demonstrated conclusively that your ideas are supported unequivocally by the facts, as you have convinced yourself you have done. Politics does not lend itself to such definitive resolution of questions. Your contention that you have done so is indicative more of your ignorance and ideological blindness than it is of the validity of your claims or the error of my principles and positions.

  • Jim Pier

    spartacus said:

    “It is possible that all conservative thought with which I am familiar is very poor.”

    How generous of you! You have gone ahead and made my point, so there is no need of my elaborating.

  • Jim Pier

    Oops – sorry, the Jefferson quote came from his first inaugural address.

  • Spartacus

    Jim Pier: “My objection to your boring litany, besides its banality, is its monolithic treatment of “the Right.”

    Your objection is to Frum’s boring litany because he is the one who made the argument that the Right has adopted Palinism, tax cuts as a panacea and hyperbolic inflammatory rhetoric as the GOP playbook. Of course, I agree with him and, apparently, most of America did too that last time it counted.

    Your failure to cite any GOP/conservative leaders who eschew these approaches demonstrates you’re inability to disagree on the merits.

  • Spartacus

    Jim Pier: “It is an exquisite expression of your intellectual arrogance. ”

    Strangely enough, I only feel arrogant and superior when exchanging posts with you.

  • Spartacus

    mchenise: “Yes, obesity is a problem in this country, but are zoning ordinances on fast food restaurants and excise taxes on HFCS really going to make that big of a difference?”

    I don’t know about zoning ordinances, but if the experience with falling rates of smoking is any indication, tax increases will certainly have a substantial impact. At least that’s been the experience of California.

  • Jim Pier


    One more time, dragging Mr. Frum into your corner is not helping you. I suggest you either defend yourself on the merits or not at all.

    “Your failure to cite any GOP/conservative leaders who eschew these approaches demonstrates you’re inability to disagree on the merits.”

    Is that the case? Why don’t we begin with you providing me with support for your claim, as that is what is in dispute? As far as I’m concerned, there are no prominent conservatives who demonstrate the characteristics listed by you. (And don’t tell me ‘Frum says so’ please.) Since you began with the pejorative characterizations, give me specific people on ‘the Right’ who embody them. I will then either have to agree, or try to refute your case.

    Spartacus said: “Strangely enough, I only feel arrogant and superior when exchanging posts with you.”

    I suppose I was a bit too aggressive there. Sorry.

  • Jim Pier


    “Of course, I agree with him and, apparently, most of America did too that last time it counted.”

    Congratulations on the election. Yawwnn. Old news. Having won an election is not evidence of having been right. It is evidence of having somehow managed to tally more votes than the opponent. This could as easily be done by dishonesty, charisma, or bribery as by advocating good policy or showing leadership. What have the victors done with the power with which they have been entrusted so far?

  • greg_barton

    Jim, did you say that when Bush was elected?

  • Spartacus

    Jim Pier: “Why don’t we begin with you providing me with support for your claim, as that is what is in dispute? As far as I’m concerned, there are no prominent conservatives who demonstrate the characteristics listed by you.”

    Tax cuts as an economic panacea: George Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al.

    Anti-intellectualism (a.k.a. Palinism): George Bush, Sara Palin, Fred Thompson, Joe the Plumber, Sean Hannity, et al.

    Hyperbolic, Inflammatory Rhetoric: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, James Inhofe, Joe the Plumber, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, et al.

  • Spartacus

    Jim Pier: “Having won an election is not evidence of having been right. It is evidence of having somehow managed to tally more votes than the opponent.”

    It is evidence that most people agree with the assessment that the GOP/conservatives are stuck on tax cuts, anti-intellectualism and hyperbolic, inflammatory rhetoric. It is not dispositive evidence, but it is strong evidence that, combined with the dispassionate confirmatory assessment of other GOPers such as Frum, Voinovich, Tom Davis et al, is compelling.

  • Spartacus

    Jim Pier: “I suppose I was a bit too aggressive there. Sorry.”

    Not a problem. Apology gladly accepted.

  • sinz54

    Spartacus & Jim Pier: A political party runs out of steam when its platform ossifies into dogma, in which old policies continue to be invoked in new times without bothering to test their continued relevance. And what once was radical becomes obsolescent dogma eventually.

    In the 1970s, the Dems were in that position. The stagflation, worsening balance of power in the world, and newly ignited culture wars were not susceptible to solution by New Deal policies, yet that’s all that the Dems had to offer–continuing homage to FDR.

    By 2000, the Repubs were showing signs of that same ossification. The economy had grown substantially in the prior 20 years. Why did Bush need to propose yet more tax cuts? What problem were these tax cuts supposed to solve?

    Supply-side economics, including tax cuts for the sake of igniting growth, which had helped jump-start a recovery in the 1980s, were less relevant now that many Americans paid more in SS payroll taxes than they did in income taxes. And the Cold War was over, leaving the GOP’s hawks with a lot less to do. They found their new enemy in Saddam Hussein (NOT so much radical Islam)–with disastrous results for the nation.

    What are the major points in today’s GOP economic platform other than cutting taxes? is there ever a time, boom or bust, inflation or recession, when tax cuts are NOT a good idea?

  • DFL

    You bring up good points and asked good questions, sinz. The Republicans have ossified. They have no real coherent program for the dire times in which we live.

  • hopitab

    One angle I think you didn’t consider: liberals will tend not to believe so much in the benevolence of agricultural practices, are more in favor of regulating food production and, lacking this, are probably more inclined to choose organic companies. A pro-business outlook tends to be more accepting of letting corporations regulate their pesticides and drugs.

  • Spartacus

    sinz54 // Aug 13, 2009 at 8:29 am – you’re right.

  • jasonburke

    Reminds me of the “Crunchy Con” writings of Rod Dreher, where I first read them at the National Review. As long as ‘mainstream’ conservatives insist on extolling the “free market” public attraction to junk food, soda, and a high fat diet – I will continue to be repulsed. This was a great review to convince me otherwise. I really enjoyed this book, and being more mindful of what I eat. It is great to read Frum echo the views that eating healthy and local is simply good, plain, delicious common sense. As Dreher said-

    “Learning from wisdom and lived experience and preserving the humanity and life of one’s “little platoon” by living accordingly: What could be more conservative than that?”

    Time to go get some more food from my farmers market….