Friday, March 26, 2010

What if Maine produced all of its own food?

Last night I attended a presentation by Cheryl Wixson called the Maine Local Twenty, which introduced 20 foods that Maine could potentially produce to feed its residents if a big wall was built around the state.

Now some of these listed foods are specific items, like carrots, while others are broad categories, like seafood. That's not worth griping about because the point is to see if Maine could feed itself with any number of foods that can be found here, not to narrow it down to some arbitrary number.

And no, we wouldn't all die from scurvy. We could get vitamin C from Maine tomatoes.

The other 17 entries are blueberries, apples, potatoes, carrots, beets, salad and braising greens, garlic, cabbages, onions, winter squash, milk, cheeses, eggs, ground meat, maple syrup, honey, dry beans and grains.

Some of the questionable benefits touted from this restricted menu include antioxidants from the blueberries (which is forgivable) and the homeopathic healing ability of garlic (which is not). Wixson didn't spend much time talking about homeopathy, except to call it the "Russian Penicillin."

That's one of the biggest problems I have writing on localist issues. Our world views are very far apart because we're playing with different sets of facts. I know homeopathy is bunk with total confidence, and I have serious qualms with some of the other recurring themes; organic production, isolationism, anti-fossil fuel, anti-genetically modified organisms, etc. Because of this, I have to choose my battles on what facts to focus on, and I don't expect to hear things I agree with very often.

Which totally set me up for some happy surprises with Wixson's talk. She made a compelling argument for deregulating Maine food companies - such as ending a stupid law that Maine chickens can't be slaughtered at the same farm where they live. After all, she said, businesses proudly put their labels on their products, and it's in their best interest to keep their products safe.

It was like she was channeling Milton Friedman. She also hinted at Bruce Yandle's Bootlegger and Baptist theory, that the people calling for regulations sometimes have selfish interests in mind, and not the safety of the public.

If that wasn't enough, she discovered David Ricardo's beautiful theory of Comparative Advantage. Wixson told the 70 assembled localists (and me) that she grows her own vegetables, and has a exchange worked out with someone where he gives her lobster and she gives him vegetables.

I think she undersold how great this is. She has access to lobster without having to get a boat, a trap, some bait, a yellow plastic outfit and a gun.

The gun isn't for shooting lobsters, it's for scaring off lobster thieves and trap saboteurs. Being armed is an integral part the Maine lobster industry.

Instead of casting off into the sea, when Wixson wants lobster she just grows more vegetables at home. She already has the skills and the equipment. By trading with a lobster specialist, she is able to make herself wealthier in terms of food variety. This doesn't come at the expense of the lobsterman, he benefits too. Both parties are wealthier because they specialized and traded.

Even if the lobsterman happened to be a skilled gardener - perhaps more skilled than Wixson, they could both benefit from trading because specialization is so much more productive.

What would an "independent" Maine look like?

Even though Wixson demonstrated the beauty of comparative advantage - whether she knows the history of the idea or not - she does not have a solid foundation of Adam Smith to truly understand the relevance. Smith argued that if another nation can produce something cheaper than a domestic producer, than you should just go out and buy it.

It's not fair to compare Wixson to a mercantalist the way I do with most localists because she was silent on exporting. She said Maine produces more blueberries and potatoes than it eats, which means some of the crop is exported out of state, but her plan never said if those exports should stop or continue.

Instead, her plan detailed a Maine that is self-sufficient in terms of food.

There's a reason self-sufficient societies have always been subsistence societies, according to Don Boudreaux, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University. On the "buy local" episode of EconTalk, Boudreaux said:

"They have this notion that much of what we today enjoy as wealth would somehow be out there and still be available, but it would just be available from people that you know, rather than from strangers. In fact, much of our wealth today would disappear if we gave up exchanging globally. It would just go away."
Now how is that claim justified?

I'm going to steal an example from Pop Internationalism, Paul Krugman's amazing book on international trade. I don't feel bad about taking it because he took it from James C. Ingram's 1983 International Economics textbook.

Suppose Wixson found another person to trade her vegetables with, a rancher who is so productive he will trade her twice as much meat as any other rancher in Maine. That rancher would be praised as a marvel - a visionary who's innovative farming techniques will make Maine wealthier. Sure, a lot of the other farms will have to copy his methods or risk going out of business, but people accept that's how markets work.

However, an investigative reporter reveals the rancher is a fraud. He was simply selling Wixson's vegetables and buying meat out of state with the money. No one is willing to trade or buy from him again.

Small farms are never going to be as efficient as large farms. That's how economies of scale work. Sure, all 50 states could each build one large carrot patch, one large pig sty and so on, but that still wouldn't be efficient enough. They would still irrationally follow meaningless political borders - state lines.

I realize a lot of the localists think large farms are immoral, and this isn't the place to delve deeply into that subject. However, suppose they were right. Gains from specialization is a basic economic concept, and there's nothing in the rule to suggest that those gains come exclusively from moral compromises. If there are bad things happening on those large farms, they could be erased. A large good farm is more productive then a series of small good farms.

If Maine wanted to produce all of it's own foods, there would be a lot more jobs in agriculture in Maine. But as I've said before, this is not a good thing. Paul Krugman called this a "paradoxical principle" in 1995:

"The kinds of jobs that grow over time are not the things we do well but the things we do badly. The American economy has become supremely efficient at growing food; as a result, we are able to feed ourselves and a good part of the rest of the world, while employing only two percent of the work force on the farm. On the other hand, it takes as many people to serve a meal or man a cash register as it always did; that's why so many of the jobs our economy creates are in the food service and retail trade. Industries that achieve rapid productivity growth tend to lose jobs, not gain them."
Relying on local foods is a purposely inefficient scheme. If the number of people needed to produce our food went up to twenty percent of the population, those workers would have to abandon other careers - like medical researchers, artists or social workers. But it wouldn't matter that we didn't have people available to fill those jobs, the cost of food would jump up and a lot of those jobs world be cut as well. The opportunity cost would be staggering.

Alan Moore wrote about a young man resigning from the patent office in Victorian England because he believed "everything had already been discovered or invented." thus there was no further use for a patent clerk. I'm unsure if that anecdote if real or not, but the mindset is important. As Jared Diamond said in Guns, Germs and Steel, freeing people from food production gives them time to invent and discover new things. This is where wealth comes from.

Wixson's plan would make Maine more like a poor African nation than anything else. There would be a lot of poverty and some jobs would need to come from out of state. We would be able to import technology from out of state, assuming Maine was the only place that decided to try this and that people weren't fed up with it within the first year. We would have to forsake a lot of luxuries, more than supporters realize, because of the loss of wealth.

Having more potential trading partners to pick from means more chances of saving money. However, the localist strategy grossly limits trading partners. It means we only have small, inefficient producers to pick from. It's a recipe for poverty.

While it's true we wouldn't waste our money on stupid things like singing fish plaques and spinning rims, we would also miss out on important things like new communication technologies, medical care and comfortable housing.

Some of Wixson's supporters argued we will return to ancient farming techniques, like plowing with oxen, because we're going to run out of fossil fuel and the world will collapse. This is a lot more far fetched than people realize, and it wasn't part of Wixson's argument, but it is important to address. What I didn't understand is that some of them seem to welcome this regression.

After all, one of them said, those people were able to feed themselves. Yes, that's true, but that's pretty much all they did do. They didn't have nuclear magnetic resonance imaging or X-rays, they had leeches. They didn't have the Internet, they had books. There were no cars, only horses. Sure, some of those things are still fun (except for the leeches) but life was a lot harsher than we romanticize. Our standard of living would go down much more than they realize.

This argument, that the world is very different today and all the old rules of economics must be thrown out the window, comes up all the time. It wasn't true before, and it's not true today. Petroleum is just a single resource and it can not be critical enough to change what we know about economics.

The basics of economics are very real, scientific concepts and people who attack them are not sophisticated experts who seek to overturn a dusty, antiquated idea. They are enthusiastic guessers who don't understand them.

I want to stress that I'm not saying localists are stupid. Far from it. Some are agriculture and botany experts. What they aren't, however, is economic experts. And since this is a question of resource distribution, economics is the relevant field to study.

Why should Maine bother to feed itself?

Wixson's talk focused on if Maine could feed itself, not if it should, so I asked her directly what are the best reasons we should switch to her plan, and what trade-offs we could expect. I informed Wixson what kind of blog I write and she still answered my questions civilly, and she deserves a lot of respect for that.

The biggest issue to her was food security. Her example was last summer Maine had a fungal infection from tomato stores, which traced back to the much-maligned "big box stores." Her group argues that trading with other states runs the risk of bringing out of state crop diseases with it.

Well yes, it does, but that's a lot more circular than Wixson realizes. The people hurt by the tomato blight, according to her own website, were gardeners who bought partially-grown plants - not professional farmers. The tomato blight hurt a lot of people, but it wasn't like tomato blight was unheard of in Maine before. From the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in 2008:

"Early blight of tomato, caused by the fungus Alternaria solani, is perhaps the most common foliar disease of tomatoes in the Northeast and is also common on potatoes"
I don't want to completely write this off. We can insulate ourselves from some crop diseases by shutting down our food borders. The questions is, at what cost? There is still the risk of Maine-based crop diseases spreading within the state, but she didn't argue to only buy from the same town - or the same street. That would insulate it even further, but the costs are a lot more obvious.

Our current food pool is still vulnerable to food contamination, like the spinach scare a few years ago. However, that risk would still exist in her plan, but it would be concentrated to specific producers. I'm not sure that would be any safer, and once again there is a heavy cost to using that system.

Wixson said again and again that America only has a three day supply of food, and some large disaster could cut off our shipments of new food. She said she solves this by keeping a well-stocked root cellar of Maine-produced food for herself.

Well first of all, we've had a lot of large disasters in America, and we've always been able to get food through, so I don't find this as scary as she does. But more importantly, if running out of food is a problem, then couldn't we solve it simply by keeping canned food in our basements? That's what the Mormons do.

Behind security, Wixson listed economics. That is the focus of my blog, and I feel I've already done a bang-up job at burying the buy local economic myth. If not, maybe David Henderson or Karen Selick are more convincing.

Wixson does not recognize her plan's vast trade offs, which I've already gone over. She said the only trade off will be our food variety will be smaller.

But this will give us "a deeper appreciation for luxury goods," she said. Which I completely agree with. She shared a personal story - and my mother has told me the same story about my grandfather - about Christmas in old Maine. There was a tradition of getting a single citrus orange in the toe of your Christmas stocking, and that would be the only orange you see all year. Because of this, you appreciated that orange a lot more.

Of course this is correct. It's like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Charlie gets to have a chocolate bar, which is a rare treat for someone as poor as him. However, this is clearly just a demonstration of poverty in action. We could achieve the same results by making everyone homeless for 51 weeks of the year. We would absolutely love the one week we got to sleep indoors, but does that sound like a sensible thing to do? Why should we impoverish people in order to heighten the thrill when that poverty is temporarily lifted?

But there is one sneaky detail I've left out and Wixson included this on her list of reasons - and I completely agree with her. She genuinely gets a kick from knowing the food she eats is from Maine. She loves organizing her root cellar - she said she spends several hours doing so each week.

Wixson does not go to grocery stores, and instead works in her garden, trades with other food producers and spends time in the root cellar. She clearly loves doing all of this, and it saves her the chore of the grocery store. Therefor, it's completely rational of her to live like this. She can afford the time and cost of eating Maine foods, and she would be miserable if she didn't have that option.

And other localists feel the same way. It makes perfect sense for them to live like this. Other people, like me, don't feel the same way. I don't care what side of the New Hampshire border my food came from, or what side of the American border for that matter

The people of Maine have a wide diversity of views on this issue, and the best solution is for people to simply buy the foods they want. The localists are able to drum up a market for what they want, and I'm still able to buy food from away.

Maine already produces its own food

The most important thing I want to stress is that Maine already produces all of it's own food.

Back to her vegetables-for-lobster exchange. What if instead of producing vegetables, she produced firewood and traded that for lobster? In that limited world, there are now three ways to produce lobster: lobstering, gardening and chopping firewood. This will save the lobsterman the trouble of getting his own firewood, and both parties benefit.

But hold on, someone is exchanging firewood for food - doesn't that mean there will be less food? No, again, the lobsterman will catch a little more lobster and waste less time on his own firewood. Everyone ends up doing what they're best at.

It makes no sense to only exchange food for other types of food - but that is what her argument boils down to.

Would it change anything if the lobsterman lives on the New Hampshire side of the border? Not one bit.

In the real world, Mainers go to work and do their jobs. Instead of directly trading one resource for another, they change those resources into dollars and trade with those. Money is just a proxy for resources, and it's a lot easier to find trading partners by using money.

Whether a Mainer is gardening or welding iron together, that labor produces the food Maine residents eat. It's a beautiful system and it already works fine.


  1. "Smith argued that if another nation can produce something cheaper than a domestic producer, than you should just go out and buy it."
    What about factoring in the joy someone might get from buying local as part of the benefit of that good that they are buying, in that it gives them pleasure to think they are supporting someone local?

  2. Actually, I just reread this blog post again, more thoroughly this time, and realized you had already answered this question!! Here, in this part: "But there is one sneaky detail I've left out and Wixson included this on her list of reasons - and I completely agree with her. She genuinely gets a kick from knowing the food she eats is from Maine. She loves organizing her root cellar - she said she spends several hours doing so each week." Sorry!

  3. Just ran across this posting and as a "part time" economist I think you did a bang up job of debunking the localvore myth. Keep up the good work.