Friday, March 30, 2012

Is the Pink Slime Issue Just A Matter of Consumer Preferences?

Previously I made a post entitled ‘Pink Slime: What is Seen and Unseen.’ Having made its way through some social media channels, it has received some interesting comments. A couple common arguments that seem to stand out, not only in my posts, but also in other articles could be generalized as follows:

"This is how the free market works. Supply chains will adjust. This isn't a unique situation that requires any further analysis. It doesn't stand out among the millions of other choices consumers make on a regular basis between numerous other products."

"Why even mention it. So what if consumers are uninformed. Education and evidence are really irrelevant to this issue (or any issue for that matter) because people are irrational. "

These comments really help to clarify the real issue here. The supply chain is really at the heart of the issue for many of those slamming pink slime. Its not pink slime in and of itself that is their only problem. They don't like modern food supply chains (think ADM, Monsanto, Wal-Mart), and if they get their way, our food supply chains would more closely resemble the balkanized gasoline market, with all of the restrictions and the required bottlenecking boutique of gasoline blends etc. and of course the high prices.

If I thought this were simply about food preferences, food choices, and consumers making decisions based on those preferences, and the markets  responding, then of course this would all be a moot discussion. Those that simply choose to avoid finely textured lean beef, are not necessarily the problem. The goal of the purveyors of the pink slime propaganda isn't simply to persuade consumers to choose alternative products, but to build the sentiment that will support coercive government intervention in the market place. (as has happened in other states with laws regarding 'child labor', ‘dust’ regulation, 'CDL  requirements for operating farm machinery', 'battery cages' in egg  production, 'gestation crates' in pork production, fat taxes, sugar taxes, salt  taxes, hormones, antibiotics, biotechnology...pick your technology,  ingredient, and regulation).

From fiction to reality, biotechnology, 'pink slime', pharmaceuticals, modern  food supply chains and processing, (name your villain) are all contemporary  analogs to 'Rearden Metal' from the book Atlas Shrugged. When Dagney had to go out on her own and  start the 'John Galt Line' it was in fact largely in part a response to the loss in demand as a result of the dynamics of public opinion regarding Rearden Metal, penalized for being virtue. Given the negative public perception and the heavy burden of the regulatory environment for the railroads, Taggert Transcontinental stock was plummeting.

Recognizing this dynamic between public opinion, market forces, and the regulatory apparatus and making it known is essential to the  perpetuation of a free society. As Don Boudreaux of George Mason  University states so well:

"What matters mostly – overwhelmingly – is the climate of opinion. And so affecting the climate of opinion for the better seems to me to be, by far, the only long-term means of ensuring the stability of a free society."

But, can we really affect public opinion for the better? Are people obstinate and irrational in their views?  Is evidence irrelevant?

 "Reason, my dear fellow is the most naive of all superstitions...logic is a primitive vulgarity" -Dr. Pritchett, Atlas Shrugged.

 Is evidence always and everywhere irrelevant, or is it just minimized by propaganda and undervalued in general?  Does the assumption of perfectly rational behavior have to hold to make these arguments, or to approach these issues utilizing the analytical way of thinking that economics teaches?  Should we just assume that all behavior is mindless and throw in the towel?  That would certainly relieve many of us a lot of stress and of course, that's what the interventionists like Dr. Pritchett in Atlas Shrugged wanted people to think. They desire a public that has grown disdainful of facts and evidence, looking to intellectuals and politicians to make things right.

But, as Steve Horowitz points out in his textbook 'Lessons for the Young Economist':

“When we look at the world and try to make some sense of it, one of the most basic and crucial distinctions we all make—usually without even realizing it—is the difference between purposeful action versus mindless behavior...The lessons in this book apply to purposeful actions performed by
conscious people who have goals in mind.”

As Dr. Horowitz goes on to explain, even if people often 'miscalculate' or aren't "perfectly rational people" the logic of economic thinking holds. As Economist Peter Boettke states:

"The great free market economic thinkers from Adam Smith to F. A. Hayek never argued that individuals were hyper-rational actors possessed with full and complete information, operating in perfectly competitive markets.... Efficient markets are an outcome of a process of discovery, learning, and adjustment, not an assumption going into the analysis."

And in fact, blogs, even 'micro bloggers' with just a few thousand imprints or less, all have a role to play in adding to this pool of knowledge. Even if they are preaching to the choir (i.e. read mostly by like minded individuals) they provide an arsenal of ideas that help everyone to better structure their thoughts, and share them with others, and occasionally someone that may actually change their mind.  Not everyone is a general like Bodreaux and Roberts at Cafe Hayek,  but given this war of ideas and the role they play in a free society, every soldier counts. Post by post, line by line. While its origins are disputed, the quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson is no less true:

"The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

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