Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Foods miles" are the thin edge of the wedge

Yesterday economist Steve Landsburg wrote a critical post about Stephen Budiansky's recent piece in the New York Times demolishing the concept of food miles, the same piece I praised last week. Landsburg overstated his case and while absolutely correct in his larger point, he completely misread Budiansky's tactics.

Landsburg made the argument that the price of a product is an accurate measurement of all the resources that went into it, instead of into competing needs, then added:

Budiansky ignores all that to focus strictly on energy consumption. But the quality of our lives depends on a lot more than energy consumption, so Budiansky’s narrow-minded computations are strictly loco.
That's unfair to say. A focus can be narrow without being narrow-minded.

Budiansky wrote a piece blasting the myth of food miles, sending shrapnel to non-local places with its bold thrust. He directly confronted the activists on one of their major claims and showed they have it backwards.

Landsburg, on the other hand, made a claim someone like myself will find convincing, but will bounce off the noggins of localists because they distrust economics. In Landsburg's own words:

Markets are not perfect, so the price of a tomato does not, with 100% accuracy, reflect the social cost of acquiring that tomato. But in most circumstances it comes damn close, and in virtually all circumstances it comes a lot closer than Budiansky’s sort of crabbed accounting.
That's the flaw. The localists will simply reject his argument with a wave of their hand, as they do to all other market-based explanations. They will simply say that the price fails to capture negative externalities and will overemphasize the impact of agricultural subsidies. Those arguments are very wrong, but they will cram them into the thin gap Landsburg left open and go about their merry way. It doesn't matter that local production has negative externalities too, or may receive subsidies. The opposition is not a pool of critical thinkers.

There's nothing wrong with criticizing people on the same side of an issue for making a poor argument. I have done it here too, and I see no virtue in establishing solidarity to resist localism.

But the "buy local" argument is so vast, with so many flaws, that I've spent more than a year blogging about it and I still have plenty of ideas that I haven't written yet. Budiansky never claimed to write the definitive critical essay of localism. Neither have I, and I don't think it can be done in less space than an entire book.

Until that book is written, people like me will continue to poke holes in the sides of this issue with the goal of winning people over to our side.

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