Food for thought, or empty calories?
Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture! Pollan wrote a letter to Obama on food policy (posted on here: "Sun food is local food"), and it turns out (kudos to the staff) that Obama actually read it. I'll start with the exchange, and through circuitous paths arrive at some suggestions on method for a critique of the coming Obama administration, ending where I started: with food.
Pollan's letter is worth re-reading in full, but here's an excerpt:
It may surprise you [Obama] to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food.
You will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them. Let me explain.
 After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study.
 You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.
 The impact of the American food system on the rest of the world will have implications for your foreign and trade policies as well. In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food.
[OBAMA] I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.
Yep. It would have been excellent had Obama gone on to actually advocate some food policies -- there's that pesky demand for detail, again -- but instead Obama soars up to the 30,000 foot level:
[OBAMA] That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.
But wait. Before we look at what's true across the board, there's a key policy issue on food about which Obama is silent. Bradford Plumer:
[N]ote what's missing: Our agricultural system's also built on artificial subsidies for overproduction that, at this point, do far more harm than good. The very subsidies that Obama... still supports. So, uh, maybe it's time to stop snuggling up to King Corn.
Meaning: It's difficult to see how the country will get from point A (petrofood) to point B (Pollan's sun food) if we continue, through subsidies to industrialized agriculture, to base our diet on corn syrup, the SUV of plants. That's why it's worse than useless to say OMG He "READ THE ARTICLE. And COMMENTED ON IT!"; the real question is how Obama will take action based on his reading, in concrete policy terms*.
Back to Obama at 30,000 feet, where pesky policy details disappear:
[OBAMA] For us to say we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that's going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation. In conversations with folks like Warren Buffet, Larry Summers, and the other people that I've been spending time with on this, I described it as we've got a boat with a lot of leaks and we need to get it into port. That's what the financial rescue package is about. But once we get it into port, once the credit markets are functioning effectively, then it's time for us to go back to the fundamentals of this economy. Now, the one other point I want to make about this, though, we can't divorce the energy issue from what I believe has to be the dominant political theme underlying everything -- the economy, healthcare, you name it. And that is restoring a sense that we're growing the economy from the bottom up and not the top down. That's the overarching philosophical change that we've got to have.
(Parenthetically, let's all hope and pray to the God(ess)(e)(s) Of Our Choice that Obama, Volcker, Summers, et al., aren't just inflating the next bubble, which will be green (after the dot com bubble, and the housing derivatives monster crash bubble that just burst). Because, to my simple mind, it looks like economies that are based on financial manipulation, as opposed to actually making things that people need, generate bubbles (via) because that's the only way for Big Money to make money**).
That aside, it all sounds great. Even, dare I say, FDR-like (as opposed to Milo Minderbinder-like). Here's why I'm skeptical, and liberals and progressives should be, too:
Who does Obama listen to? I find his invocation of Larry Summers and Warren Buffet frightening rather than re-assuring. The Sage of Omaha, for example, controls Moody's, the rating service whose faked over-valuations of toxic assets were a key cog in the financial machine that created today's financial debacle. And Larry Summers is who he is. I mean, really -- do you think Obama's going to be influenced more by an article in the Times Magazine, or by Summers and Buffet?
What about Obama's base? As I've consistently pointed out, one lesson we need to take from the Bush years is the idea of a President's base as a policy driver. One reason -- besides Versailles -- that Bush was able to do so much damage with impunity is that he had the Christianist base that would never, never desert him. We don't know that the Obama movement will become a permanently institutionalized presence, but the possibility is certainly real, and the base seems to be motivated by Obama the charismatic individual, rather than by policy concerns. So, when I hear Obama say the economy needs to grow from "the bottom up and not the top down" I think two things: First, that doesn't seem to be how Obama plans to govern; the vision is to come from the top. And if Conway's Law applies to governmental energy projects as well as corporate software projects, then Obama's economy won't grow from the bottom up at all (which, come to think of it, would be just fine with Volcker and Summers). Second, that isn't what Obama's base is demanding. If you really, really want to help the people at the bottom and help the economy, then you need to be advocating for policies like HOLC and single payer. But the Obama Movement never demanded those policies (or anything else, for that matter). Hillary's base, drinking in policy detail at her Town Halls, did -- and were thrown under the bus during the primaries. So if Obama's base isn't demanding policies that work bottom up, why should we believe that Obama will push for them?
What about Obama's priorities? The "boat" with "leaks" metaphor is brilliant, but note the policy outcome: "[O]nce we [who?] get it into port." Well. Leave aside the results of the Bush + Reid + Pelosi + Obama + Paulson bailout, which at best show the boat no nearer port and still leaking, while the first class passengers cheerfully shove everyone else out of the lifeboats; what does this metaphor say about Obama's priorities as shown by the legislative record? Like the rest of the Village, Obama's putting the top (Big Money) ahead of the bottom (everyone else) -- even when, as with HOLC, policies that help the bottom stabilize the top as well. It's all well and good for Obama to muse now about "overarching philosophical change", but the time to do more than talk was at the maximum point of leverage, which was before the bailout was passed. And when we lookd under Harry Reid's Christmas tree of a bill, we found the wooden arrows, instead of anything that helped us.
So, I'm pleased that Obama reads something more than evangelical mini-sermons from My Utmost For His Highest.
But the skeptic, or cynic, or realist in me says that an excellent reading list doth not a President make. I like concrete policies and I don't trust visions unless I see the policies that give the visions life; hope, but verify.
One way to look at the above interview -- and to start thinking systematically about how to hold Obama accountable -- would be to look for the commonalities and continuities between Bush and Obama, rather than the differences. That is, after all, what the Village is looking for, since it supported both candidates. You might then look at Bush and Obama as two iterations of the same package: Leader 0.9 and Leader 1.1***, say. And where Leader 0.9 was buggy and had, to be kind, usability issues, finally crashing disastrously, Leader 1.1 has a much spiffier interface and more robust engineering, while potentially including every working feature of Leader 0.9.
Let's start with Obama's over-riding pre-occupation in the interview above: Energy. Well, that was Bush's over-riding pre-occupation, too. Bush's plan ("When in doubt, use brute force") was to seize Iraq's oil; Obama, the upgrade, is at least thinking of an approach that's less crude (while being careful to keep at least one war going, in Afghanistan). A second goal Bush had, as the culmination of thirty years of Conservative striving, was to replace Constitutional government with authoritarian rule. This goal, with the connivance of both parties and the entire Village, he achieved. Whether Obama will rationalize and consolidate Bush's authoritarian gains, or roll them back, remains to be seen; on the one hand, we have words: The Charlie Savage's Globe Q&A, speeches from nominees, and so forth. On the other, we have actions: Obama's legislative record (FISA), and the deep unwillingness, shared by the entire Village under the soothing label of post-partisanship, to restore the rule of law by holding lawbreakers accountable. And third, Bush used shock doctrine tactics to achieve his goals, from the Patriot Act, through AUMF, through the Bush + Reid + Pelosi + Obama + Paulson bailout. And, as this interview shows -- "lurch from crisis to trance" -- Obama is fully aware of these tactics (second usage example). How Obama uses those tactics is an open question, but based on his actions during the bailout, I'm not sanguine.
So, in summary I'm suggesting that now is exactly the time for liberals and progressives to exercise their critical thinking skills and be Shrill. Only in that way can Obama's words are transformed into actions that comport with our values and interests. Two potential critical tools:
1. Recognizing and calling out continuities between Bush (Leader 0.9) and Obama (Leader 1.1). We may feel -- deeply hope -- that there is no continuity; but feelings aren't facts (and in any case, unity guarantees continuity).
2. Saying what's left unsaid: For example, to bring matters round to food again, saying (a) that agricultural subsidies for corn are a key driver in our bad, not to say evil, food policies, and that (b) Obama is silent on the issue.
And to close the circle with food: Sign this petition. It would be great to see Obama doing some simple, concrete things to support food that is good, clean, and fair. He could plant an organic garden at the White House. He could support Community Gardens in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. He could even have a Slow Food Convivium as a state dinner. Why not? These are all simple and small actions Obama could take immediately, on the ground -- and not at 30,000 feet -- that would powerfully symbolize a complete break with the Bush era.****
Hope but verify. And verify Obama's performance against our interests and values. Don't believe the hype.
Enough of this length discourse on method for now. This wasn't an easy post to write, and I probably need to revise it, but no time now.
NOTE * Here again, Obama's vote for FISA [cough] reform is troubling; all the reading at Harvard Law and the University of Chicago culminated in a vote to gut the rule of law for large corporations and trash the Fourth Amendment. Words do matter, but the legislative record matters more. In fact, there seems to be a little cottage industry devoted to studying Obama's reading and making hopeful predictions.
NOTE ** Perhaps we can translate the post's anodyne "even if you know there's a bubble, it might be smart to go along" to "it's all about the fees".
NOTE *** I bumped Obama's Leader Version number from 1.0 to 1.1 because he was severely tested in the primaries, where he lost the popular vote among Democrats despite overwhelming advantages, both financially and in the press.
NOTE **** Also, the optics would be fantastic. Smiling kids, gardens, vegetables from their garden to the White House table; hard to better that, and it would be a narrative that cycles through the seasons, too.
CONCERN TROLL PROPHYLACTIC No, I don't hate Obama. The interview is impressive; we're looking at verbal and intellectual skills here (assuming the interview wasn't rewritten, of course). So I can see why the creative class is willing to cast their critical thinking skills aside, just when they're most needed. My, or rather the problem -- leaving aside the primaries, for which I wish I had a bill of indictment (literally so, in the case of the TX caucuses) -- is that when the package is unwrapped, you get a legislative record that includes FISA and the bailout, and does not include HOLC or single payer, and therefore doesn't match either my interests or my values, or those like me. Fine words butter no parsnips.