enough! and then, somewhat more than enough


Michael Pollan was on Fresh Air a moment ago. It’s part of his world/public radio tour in support of Farmer In Chief, last week’s NYT Magazine article asking the next president to adopt better agricultural policies. I heard him giving pretty much the same spiel on a Philadelphia-area NPR station over the weekend, too.

I don’t want to quibble with the man’s larger crusade, but he keeps making one particular point that really bugs me. Pollan is fond of pointing out that since 1960 the average American household’s spending on food has dropped as a share of income, from 18 percent to 10.

I’m pretty sure this is dumb. Or half, dumb, anyway. I’m sure food has gotten cheaper in absolute terms, and that those savings have been paid for in animal suffering and environmental destruction.

But it’s also the case that household income tends to increase faster than the rate of inflation, while human nutritional requirements do not. Wikipedia says that real median income has increased about 30% since 1967. Unless I’m missing something, that means that if a family used to spend $1800 on food, today they spend $1300 — not $1000, as Pollan implies. If median household income data was available for 1960, rather than 1967, you can bet that the differential would be smaller still. And if you consider the fact that household size has declined from 3 to 2.6 people since 1967, the gap shrinks even more.

Of course, the picture is much more complicated than just a dollar amount. I’m sure we eat out a lot more, eat more processed food, eat more meat, pay more for specialty food and less for staples, and generally eat in ways that support Pollan’s thesis. But this particular argument about income is a bit dishonest, and I wish he’d quit using it. Nutritional needs do not scale with income.

This is a pet peeve of mine with economic arguments about consumption in general: they tend not to pay any attention to the limits of human biology. This is why I’m similarly suspicious of estimates of exploding per capita bandwidth consumption. Yes, our bandwidth needs will continue to increase. But the human nervous system has its own bandwidth limits, too. Maybe there’ll be one more video resolution revolution — HDTV2, let’s say (pending the invention of a more confusing acronym). But to go beyond that will require video walls — they look cool in Total Recall, but why would you pay for something larger than your field of view? — or three-dimensional holo-whatnots. I’m sure the latter will be popularized eventually, but I’ll probably be pretty old and confused by then.

The human fovea has a finite number of neurons, and we’re already pretty good at keeping them busy. Personally, I think that household bandwidth use is likely to level off sometime in the next decade or two — there’s only so much data that a human body can use. Our bandwidth expenses as a percentage of income will then start to fall, both because the growth in demand has slowed and because income continues to rise, but also because the resource itself will continue to get cheaper as technology improves.

That won’t constitute proof that we aren’t spending enough on bandwidth, though. It’ll just mean that we’ve found some other stuff to spend our new money on, rather than simply ramping up our budget linearly. (My guess: hyper-ipods.)

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Tom Lee


  • THANK YOU. This drove me insane in the NYTimes article, especially with his non sequitorial juxtaposition of it to the rise in health care spending (because an aging Baby Boomer population going on Medicare wouldn’t have anything to do with that. nor would people living longer in general. nor would the discovery of expensive treatments for formerly untreated diseases. nor would shifts in how we spend the rest of the national budget. we could go on but I don’t have all day). Not to mention that it seems the statistic is an average of percentages of household income, and the super-rich have gotten ever richer (not that I know this for a fact, because it’s not like Pollan ever tells us where exactly his statistics come from). Grr. Okay. I could keep poking holes in this, but basically, I agree with you that it’s dishonest, and it pisses me off, and I’m glad to hear someone else saying so.

  • Whant Mr. Pollan wants is some sort of way to raise the price of cheap food (not food that he approves of) that is not a tax. Then, when the poor people can’t afford it, he will want a tax on people with “too much money” to transfer their money to the poor to enable them to afford the food. He can’t ask for a real tax on cheap food because that would sound terrible, but if he can figure out a way to increase the cost of cheap food and transfer wealth, then he gets the results he wants.

  • I think that’s a bit paranoid, rxc. If you follow Pollan’s work it’s quite clear that his concerns are centered around public health, environmental sustainability and the minimization of suffering by animals. Asserting that he’s after wealth transfer for its own sake is ludicrous.

By Tom Lee