Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Food for thought

[This post was inspired by my exasperation with those who insist there is absolutely no way anyone can honestly and intelligently question the value of a Single-Payer Health Program. There is another side to this of course and I’ll take a more sober look at it in a later post - after I get this out of my system.

All quotes are taken from the FAQ page provided by Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization that supports passage of HR 676. I’ve done a straight word substitution but have not changed the import of any of the quotes.]

In a post about why the Left’s distrust of government does not make them run screaming from the idea of government-run health care/insurance, Reclusive Leftist begins with a cartoon. Labelled “Crazy Ideas” it shows four vignettes:

- Privatized Fire Depts: A fireman waiting to be paid before rescuing someone from a burning building.

- Privatized Police: A policeman waiting to be paid before pursuing a mugger.

- Privatized Food Safety: A woman shopping in a grocery store accompanied by her own scientist.

- Privatized Healthcare: A chauffeur holding the door to a limo so a fat-cat can exit to be welcomed by a doctor. The sign on the doctor’s office says “Paying members only” while a family of four huddles on the sidewalk outside, obviously unable to enter and obtain healthcare.

Imagine there's a fifth vignette:

- Privatized Grocery Shopping: A chauffeur holding the door to a limo so a fat-cat can exit to be welcomed by a grocery store manager. The sign on the grocery store says “Paying members only” while a family of four huddles on the sidewalk outside, obviously unable to enter and obtain groceries.

It’s no more emotionally manipulative, invested in class warfare, or fear-mongering than the fourth vignette. It’s also at least as accurate. There are people in this country who cannot afford to buy food. The more money you have, the better food you can buy. If you can’t afford to buy food, you’ll die prematurely. If you can’t afford to buy good food, you - and especially your children - may suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. And if you can’t afford to buy good food when you’re pregnant, your child can be damaged beyond repair. So I propose a Single-Payer Grocery Store Program.

Now some people will say we don’t need a Single-Payer Grocery Store Program to help those who cannot afford food. Instead, we can simply provide the poor with enough help so they can shop at private grocery stores. These deluded people claim providing these so-called “food stamps” would take care of the problem of those who are too poor to shop at a private grocery store without any need to completely re-make a system that works well for most people. There are so many problems with this claim that I hardly know where to begin. Suffice it to say that these so-called “food stamps”:

would be used to help purchase food in our current fragmented system. The administrative inefficiencies and inequities that characterize our system would be left in place, and we would continue to waste valuable resources that should be going to food purchases instead.

No one can argue with that. Surely our grocery store system is one of the least efficient of all industries. There’s no question we need some type of mechanism to make sure food gets to eaters and, in turn, eaters’ money gets to food producers but the system we have now is a disaster. All the different grocery stores with all their different stock and all their different deals with food producers - way too much administrative overhead. Why, within a fifteen-minute drive from my home I have six (seven if I drive fast and there’s no traffic) grocery stores - including two Whole Foods and two King’s Supermarkets. And that doesn’t even begin to count the endless array of drug stores that sell canned soup and fresh milk; the delis that sell necessities like boxed mac and cheese; or the gas stations that provide orange juice along with motor oil.

Besides the sheer number of grocery stores, the sheer variety of products is incredible. All the fruits, all the vegetables, all the different oils for crying out loud: vegetable, corn, peanut, safflower, olive. And all the different brands of each product! Do we really need 3, 4, 5, 8 different brands of canned diced tomatoes? And that’s just plain diced tomatoes - don’t get me started on the ones with pepper and onions, the one with Italian seasonings, the ones without salt. Packed in juice or packed in puree? Small or large can? I mean, really.

Plus, as overstocked as the grocery stores are up here in the Northeast, they’re nothing compared to grocery stores in parts of the country where land is less expensive. There are Wal-Mart grocery departments in the South that are so large you need a box lunch and a GPS to have any chance of getting out alive.

Sure, some people argue that compeition is a good thing but is it really? After all, the poor food producers have to negotiate different deals with each grocery store company; that’s time they could spend growing more grapes or canning more tuna. As for the variety of products, if cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes work equally well in a salad why does anyone need to buy the more expensive one? And how competitive are the grocery stores with each other anyhow? They all use the same business model: try to pay the food producers as little as possible while charging the eaters as much as possible. It’s no wonder the tyranny of the profit margin leads some - possibly most - of them to try to pass off old produce, sub-standard eggs, and meat that’s on the edge of expiring.

No, no one can honestly argue that our current food system, with so many grocery stores with such a wide variety of foods and so many brands of each type of food, is the most efficient one possible. Surely we could provide food far more efficiently if we put the government in charge of grocery shopping. The system would be simple. We’d all pay a little extra in taxes to fund a Single Payer Grocery Store Program. Then we’d each shop for whatever food we need. No money would change hands: we’ve already paid our taxes and the Single-Payer Grocery Store Program would pay the food providers. The food producers would deal with only one bureaucracy and that one bureaucracy could get food really, really cheap since it would be the only game in town.

Things would have to change a little. We’d want to get rid of all those duplicate stores and of that endless proliferation of products and brands so we’d set up a Grocery Planning Board (GPB) to decide what groceries and grocery stores we really, really need:

A grocery planning board would be a public body with representatives of eaters and grocery experts. The representatives would decide on what food, non-food and deli services should be covered, based on community needs and food science, and allocate capital for major new grocery stores based on assessments of where need is greatest.

Of course the groceries the GPB decided we really, really need would be the only ones the Single-Payer Grocery Store Program would pay for. And we wouldn’t want anyone getting groceries outside the SIngle-Payer Grocery Store Program. After all, if rich people can get avocados and first cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil simply by paying for them out of their own pocket, who is going to have the political clout to pressure the government to provide them for the rest of us too.*

It is true that this plan will result in some job loss: lots of people who work in private grocery stores will be out of work. But some of them will find jobs in the Single-Payer Grocery Store Program and for the others we can set up a “jobs conversion program which would protect the incomes of displaced clerical workers until they were retrained and transitioned to other jobs.” This shouldn’t cost very much; it’s not like we’re in a recession or anything so all these people will find jobs pretty easily. The executives and the higher level employees are on their own, of course: they’re so rich they don’t need our help.

And it’s not just efficiency that makes a Single-Payer Grocery Store Program the best policy; it’s also fairness. The Single-Payer Grocery Store Program is much more fair both practically and philosophically. As a practical matter, do we really want to make a man who is is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and big-boned spend more for food than a woman who is 5 feet tall and petite?

Grocery shopping should be organized as a public service, like a fire department. A food system organized as a business is discriminatory and accountable to no one. At some point in our lives all of us will predictably need food. Hence grocery shopping is unlike any other form of shopping; we all are involved.

And the philosophical superiority of a Single-Payer Grocery Store Program is crystal clear:

We can use the tax system to create equity in the way we fund grocery shopping, but we should also expect equity and efficiency in allocation of our food resources. Distributing food resources according to human needs is possible only if we eliminate the private grocery stores and establish a publicly administered system.

Obviously, then, no honest, intelligent person can deny that a Single-Payer Grocery Store Program is the only food system that makes sense. Only politicians who are seeking political advantage by deliberately misrepresenting the Single-Payer program could possibly argue otherwise. And only citizens who have been brainwashed by those politicians could fail to understand how much they and their families would benefit from a Single-Payer Grocery Store Program. Politicians so ignoble and citizens so incredibly stupid or incredibly ignorant have no place in the political discourse on such an important issue.


* The section I am cribbing from here actually says:

Studies in New Zealand and Canada show that the growth of private care in parallel to the public system results in lengthening waits.

Now, maybe it does - no links to the studies are provided. But causal analysis is a very tricky thing and unless the chronology is as plain as the "Before" nose in a plastic surgeon’s advertisement, I’d be inclined to wonder if it’s actually the other way round: lengthening waits are driving the growth of private care.

1 comment:

Beard said...

This is a really enjoyable allegory. I don't think the parallel holds up, but I don't have time to sort through it right now.

But if you haven't read Kurt Vonnegut's fabulous short story "Harrison Bergeron", run right out and get it. You'll see why I recommended it.