Why Eliminate Water Subsidies when we could Reform Our Entire Society?

I love the Gastropod podcast. The hosts do a great job of trying to explain the historical debates concerning food in a charitable and careful manner. Their guests also tend to be very careful.

But the guest from the September 15th, 2020 episode about beef in the US was not nearly so careful. It’s a curse, really, to listen to a great podcast, only to have a portion of an episode ruined because a guest was allowed to spout on a topic outside of their expertise.

John Specht, a history professor at Notre Dame, committed such an offense that irked the heck out of me:

“Any reform is likely to make beef more expensive. So what that means is, I think, to avoid a charge of elitism, we have to recognize that changing how we produce our food has to happen in concert with building a more just society. We need to think of ways to make people better able to afford better-produced food. And we can’t just focus on one facet of that story. We have to think holistically about that. And what that means is that this is an even bigger challenge of what already was a big challenge. But it’s also perhaps even more powerful and even more important.”

Let me first say that I have no doubts concerning Dr. Specht’s knowledge concerning the history of beef in the US. If it’s like the rest of his Gastropod interview, I look forward to reading his book and I suspect that it is stellar. But the above quote has nothing to do with history and everything to do economics, public choice, and political economy. The above quote is why I can’t take seriously many people’s claims about what the ‘good’ is and how to achieve it.

  1. Any regulation or legislation that introduces additional requirements for beef producers will, almost certainly, increase production costs. I’m not sure what a ‘just society’ means to Dr. Specht, but I’m sure that it’s not an objective thing (knowable or not) that aids in analysis.
  2. We need to think of ways to make people better able to afford better-produced food.” Luckily *we* don’t need to think of that. We don’t have the local knowledge of the beef market, nor the potential markets that beef-processing laborers face as alternatives (it’s different for everyone). The age-old, classical econ answer for improving people’s real incomes is to increase their productivity. Even if the labor supply for beef processing is perfectly elastic, and all increases in productivity accrue to the firm, the result of constant wages is a *partial* equilibrium conclusion. In general equilibrium, beef processing skills are probably partial substitutes for some other labor activity. This means that skilled employees can move to other sectors, employers, and industries. *We* don’t have much say aside from policy that makes productive innovation and skill accumulation easier.

Dr. Specht makes the problem out to be worse than it is and the solution to be more difficult than it is. We don’t need to reform an entire social and economic system. We don’t need a new political system that somehow, against all incentives, reflects compassion for beef processing laborers. That’s more than government can achieve.

Government *can* get out of the way. It can ease pathways to working legally in the US, which would reduce the labor abuses in which beef firms can indulge. Legal employment alternatives increases the opportunity cost of laborers. Government can stop subsidizing cattle hydration through water subsidies to ranchers. Reducing the number of cattle, and demand for meat processing laborers would cause fewer of these workers to be employed in what many consider an unpleasant job. With perfectly elastic labor supply, there is no decrease in wages. In general equilibrium, the decline in wages is small if there are many other firms that would demand the unemployed manual labor.  Further, the decline in the quantity of beef produced would make the marginal carcasses more valuable. Employers will likely desire more skilled and better-compensated labor to carve the more valuable inputs. Importantly, the better compensation comes, not from a re-orientation of societal values, rather, from the higher opportunity cost enjoyed by labor that is more skilled.

But removing subsidies and permitting more foreign-born workers aren’t the reforms that are proposed by the likes of do-gooders. Do-gooders want to feel responsible for their good. It’s not enough for them to get out of the way – no one receives praise for permitting others to engage in hard work. Typically, it’s the hard-workers who get that credit. Do-gooders mistake proactivity with good intentions. The result is a desire to employ government in activities that are doomed to failure due to imperfect design and adverse incentives. The incentives provided by markets are inadequate – not for firms, but for the people who desire a prominent role as caring managers.

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