Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Food, Inc.

When I was younger, milk was delivered to our home in bottles by a man in a truck. Was this natural milk, made by a cow and squeezed from her by hand that very morning? We thought so. Yet, then as today, almost everything was processed by machines. Even the cows were pumped by machines; and the milk had gone through a pasteurization process before being delivered by a truck that had been manufactured in a factory. Even the glass containers for the milk were made in a factory.

To get fresher milk and eggs back then, you might have had to live next door to a fellow who had a cow and chickens. Or you’d have to have your own cow and chickens. If you wanted fresh meat, you’d have to kill one of the animals with your own hands, cut them open, cut them up and put them on the grill right away…a pretty messy process. I’ve seen it done on many occasions. To avoid disease from spoiled food, you would need a refrigerator if you could afford one. The only refrigerators we could afford back then were little metal “boxes” where my father placed a block of ice. Today this is all done in factories so we don’t have to get our hands dirty, spill blood all over the place and work three times harder just to be able to eat.

Being a commentator today, even a self-appointed one like me, is a grave responsibility. It involves more than merely thinking emotionally about important issues. It involves understanding how ideas work in the real world and how basic premises influence the various views in the public arena. When I write about ideas that influence people, I should assume a high standard and be responsible about what I say. However, the same should apply to those other people who also comment on the issues. There is only one reality and because of this there is only one truth. We can’t all be right. Some of us are wrong.

For instance, my view of man is that he has the capacity and the need to use reason in order to survive. And as an economic participant in society, he must purchase the best products for the best prices. He must do business with people who offer products that provide tangible benefits at prices he can afford. This is the seldom-discussed “consumer” side of an economic transaction; not only does a thoughtful person want the capitalist to provide products that benefit him, but he insists on it. He will not do business with someone who is harming him.

This view of man is based on a more fundamental premise that each entity operates according to its own nature, according to the defining characteristics that it possesses. The view that man survives by means of reason does not imply that each man is rational in everything he does. Nor does it imply that man is infallible or omniscient. What it means is that each person has the capacity to use reason, and more importantly, he cannot survive without the use of reason. His reasoning capacity is his distinguishing characteristic; it is what makes him different from all other animals. And since survival is the key motivation for all living creatures, the need to survive requires that man use reason in his dealings with reality and with other men.

As I wrote in my blog post Anti-capitalism, the Evil Idea Part 3, “Capitalism is based upon a moral principle that each individual has a right to keep the product of his labor. That labor consists, not only of the precious time a person spends to make his product or deliver his services, but also of the value that his thinking is able to bring to the purchaser. The transfer of money in a voluntary trade makes it possible for the purchaser to get value from the seller and for the seller to purchase valuable products as well. This is not a zero-sum transaction; it is plus-plus.”

If you think correctly, you will also realize that reason is fundamental to man’s survival. This means that man can only survive when his reasoning capacity is allowed the freedom to function. This view leads to the development of man’s rights, especially property rights, capitalism and limited government.

Yet, today, we are told that capitalists cheat us and get rich with no economic consequence to themselves. All they need to do is use clever advertising and we’ll buy their worthless and unnecessary products. And, we are told, because of mass production, they are doing it on a massive scale. Unbridled capitalism is a scourge to the common man, they say. It takes his money, leaves him spent and then forces him to go to work so he can spend even more money on their unnecessary junk. The road to capitalism is strewn with the dead bodies of exploited workers and consumers. Everywhere there is devastation while the fat cats light their cigars with dollar bills. Is this true?

Those who hold this view of capitalism usually believe that there must be a select “few” men who can protect you from the damage done by greedy capitalists. You would be supported in this view by your teachers and university professors who would tell you that man’s senses are incapable of understanding true reality and only the state can ever really know what is good for the collective. Yet, the price of being protected by those few “specialists” is the sacrifice of your freedom and a limitation on the number of products that are available to you. This is the attitude of many government bureaucrats today and especially those on the left who want a “nanny” state to ensure that people are taken care of.

I think my view of man is the correct view. Man does indeed survive by means of reason and if you look around, wherever you see benefits to men in society, you see the work of reason and free markets. Tall buildings, even small buildings, super highways, rockets to space, restaurants with delicious foods, televisions, computers, iPhones, iPads, everything that today benefits your life directly was the result of human beings looking at reality and deciding how to create life-saving, time-saving, energy-saving and even pleasure-producing goods. And, since reason is necessary for your survival, you have to be perceptive enough to understand those benefits before you purchase them.

If your view of man is that he is evil or incompetent by nature, then your views on other issues that are derived from this view are cognitively wrong. In fact, any interpretation of reality based on those views, inevitably favors false solutions that do not work. In other words, if your fundamental premise is wrong in the real world, anything you do that is based upon that premise will also be wrong. For instance, the view of Marxists that capitalists are out to make a buck by any means is not verified by history. This view of the capitalist is “cognitively ill-founded” and leads to waging a constant war against capitalism that is destructive of real people. Indeed, this lie leads them to advocate economic and political systems that have been proven to be huge failures throughout history.

A good example of the correct view is provided by Andrew Bernstein in his book, The Capitalist Manifesto. It reveals an appreciation for the true nature of one capitalist named John D. Rockefeller and his accomplishments:

“…Rockefeller was a stickler for cutting costs. He built his refineries efficiently and saved on insurance. He employed his own plumbers and “almost halved the cost on labor, pipes, and plumbing material.” Barrels for oil cost $2.50 a piece; but by buying his own timber, kilns and wagons for transportation, Rockefeller reduced the cost per unit to 96 cents. He plowed his profits back into the business, buying bigger and better equipment, generating significant economies of scale. He hired chemists to develop hundreds of new by-products from each barrel of oil, including paint, varnish and lubricants.”(1)

Other commentators on Rockefeller would say that he cut prices in order to drive his competition out of business or to absorb them into his own business and that he was a thief who knew how to monopolize the industry of oil production. Which view is correct? I suggest you consider the views of the people who bought his kerosene product. They bought his products because it was in their self-interest; it was the moral thing to do.

Bernstein tells us “The final result of Rockefeller’s genius was inexpensive oil for the common man.”(2) Certainly, Rockefeller helped the common man of his time, but even today, he is helping you. Bernstein:

“…Rockefeller wrote one of his partners: ‘We must…remember we are refining oil for the poor man and he must have it cheap and good.’

Millions were now illuminating their homes for ‘one cent an hour’ with the inexpensive kerosene made available by Standard Oil – and for many Americans ‘working and reading became after-dark activities’ for the first time. By the 1880s oil stoves were widely used in the United States, particularly in rural regions, and also depended largely on Rockefeller’s company for affordable fuel. Later, Standard’s supply of cheap gasoline played a significant part in Henry Ford’s ability to dramatically upgrade American’s system of personal transportation….”(3)

As you can see, Bernstein’s view of Rockefeller and other capitalists is that they were benefactors who gave us a number of free gifts in return for the pennies we spent on their products. Not only did they provide products we needed but they also gave us additional benefits for which we did not pay. His kerosene product cost less than that provided by other companies and this made American’s buy more of it so they could read at night and, when Henry Ford came along, he made it possible for those same Americans to have the gift of liberated human energy through a new invention that transported them from place to place. It gave every American more freedom, more leisure, more pleasure, more privacy and even the ability to earn more money, all within the budget of the common man. The common man did nothing to receive these gifts; but he would never have received them without the existence of men like Rockefeller and Ford.

But, we are told, these men stole from us and made us poor. They were liars, thieves, cheats and lustful debauchers of the American fabric. In fact, Rockefeller’s company was forced by government to be split into a number of other companies, many with which we still deal, because the government thought he was creating a monopoly. This brings me to a similar attitude now being advanced regarding the food industry through a movie called Food, Inc., that I recently watched on my computer screen. This movie showed me the negative view of the people who run large food processing facilities and it reveals that the lie about capitalism continues in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Early scenes in the movie showed huge factories where Tyson chickens were processed. The intent was to “expose” the company for creating “artificial” chickens that are raised to be larger and processed according an automated process that reduces costs. Pictures of desiccated meat presumably sent for consumption, food poisoned with feces as well as the camera crew’s unsuccessful efforts to take shots of deliberately darkened rooms intended to signify secret doings and possible animal cruelty, populated the screen while commentators talked about shifty practices and low standards of food preparation as if they were reporting facts rather than carefully arranged images.

Yet, these scenes looked familiar to me. They reminded me of my own industry which was UPS transportation services (for 27 years). I recalled the smooth efficiency of a UPS sort facility where millions of packages are processed nightly and sent on their way to their recipients. I recalled that the UPS system, as efficient as it is, was still not perfect. Nightly some small percentages of packages were damaged which resulted in lost merchandise and damage claims.

I remembered the care that UPS took to notify customers of damaged packages and the ease with which a customer could receive a claim number and be reimbursed. This was customer service, the department where I spent many years issuing claim numbers and inspecting damaged packages in order to help our customers reduce future damages. I learned that even in highly mechanized industrial processes, every system has problems that, in the overall scheme of things, are minute in comparison to the overwhelming value provided by these processes.

The first thing you are told in the Food, Inc. film is that food production today is only about branding, not the quality of the food, not the authenticity of “natural” farm-raised animals, but advertising that creates a false image of quality, natural farming and close-to-the-earth values. The Food industry, according to Food, Inc. is making us believe that their food is all about American values; that it is clean and naturally made. Instead, they say, the truth is that most of our foods are made in huge factories and produced in large quantities at a rate that boggles the mind. Once you see what is really happening, they think, you will realize that Madison Avenue food branding is nothing but deception.

Not only is the branding for processed foods deceptive, they tell us, the quality of the food is poor and we are buying food that makes us sick, makes us fat, and is priced low because of farm subsidies. The alternative? Natural organic farming that produces quality foods in the old trusted ways.

What does all this have to do with John D. Rockefeller? Well, he and a few other fellows such as Carnegie, Ford and Casey made it possible for us to live today. They pioneered the development of the assembly line and reduced the cost of producing hundreds of different products while also increasing the quality of those products. Our lives are immeasurably better because of these processes and products.

But because our educators and politicians have a bias against capitalism, we believe the lies in movies such as Food, Inc. They tell us that capitalists are nothing more than unscrupulous scoundrels out for the buck. They have denigrated and ridiculed these people so much for so long that we’ve lost the ability to look at reality and see them for the great benefactors they were and are. And because we believe that man is an imperfect creature by his very nature, it is easy for us to conclude that the enemies of capitalism are right, man can't possibly create anything beneficial, man is essentially a fake.

Gordon Gekko is not a capitalist but a pardigm for the left’s view of capitalists. Because of the movies, many Americans have come to believe that the pardigm is reality. It seems so obvious to them that business people are nothing but a bunch of crooks that deserve ridicule and regulations. What a perfect scheme for the shakedown artists in government who want to demagogue the issue of capitalism and freedom.

True capitalists were and are hard working dynamos with the intelligence to creatively use capital investments, natural resources and factories to produce needed products of high quality delivered to your local store so you can drive a few blocks, pull out a little plastic card and cheaply buy those products that feed you. In fact these men were so successful that you can now cheaply buy a book manufactured through a similar highly efficient production process about “Robber Barons” and learn to hate the very men feeding you.

As for me, I have a different cognitive perspective. I look at the full meaning and history of capitalism and not at the propagandized version based on Marxist lies. I see the full value of capitalism and I admire the people who are creating these massive factories that feed so many millions of people. I am proud that I live in a country where so many people can be fed so nutritiously for so little expense. Today’s food processors are following in the tradition of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Jim Casey when they create these impressive facilities that reduce the prices of our food and make them more nutritious, not less. It is truly impressive and magnificent what Tyson has accomplished.

The technique of Food, Inc. is called "muckracking". Muckracking is based on the lie that there are unintended consequences to the practice of improving production. Muckrackers focus on a small part of a business process and distort its meaning and intent in order to gin up a scandal. The basic philosophy beneath muckracking is the Marxist idea that business people are charlatans who would sacrifice the well being of their customers for the sake of a buck.

But is it true that businessmen are willing to sacrifice peoples’ lives for the sake of making a profit? As with UPS sort facilities, most manufacturing processes are carefully planned and built to last. If a particular company is using poor practices, these practices show up on the products they make and the consumers will become aware of them as they compare those products to others on the market. As a business person, you would never want to sell something defective or improperly labelled because you know that lawsuits could develop and customers can stampede to other products if you are caught. The best regulator in the free market is the capitalist who is taught by the consumer what he wants, how he wants it and at what price. Government could never be as efficient.

And, equally as important, capitalism is based on the scientific process. By utilizing highly expert people in planning and designing manufacturing systems, producing highly nutritious foods through scientifically-developed knowledge, capitalists are able to participate in the process of constantly improving their products – in order to beat their competitors at gaining customers. This process has been going on since the advent of the capitalist age and the result is the ability of capitalists and customers to have better, more successful lives and constantly diminishing prices. In the process, they also happen to create jobs.

Capitalism encourages honesty and good intentions because it is based on the freedom of all parties, but especially on the freedom of the purchaser to buy products that are in his self-interest. An intelligent buyer must, as a matter of self-interest, buy products that are good for him. As a consumer, it is my responsibility to myself to know about the products I buy, how they are made and whether they are healthful. If I decide that something is not good for me, I will not buy it and no one can make a dime by deceiving me. This is called the free market and the most important person in that market is the intelligent consumer who decides for himself what is in his best interest. As Rockefeller correctly understood, I want it “cheap and good”.

When you see muckracking movies like Food, Inc., you should know that there are two sides to every story and this movie only shows the side of the anti-capitalists who produced it. Look to your own experience. Like myself, some of you have worked in factories and know them to be based on one goal, to provide the absolute best product for the lowest cost possible. I've worked in factories where they made brain probes and these facilities were hospital-room clean...and it was my job to make sure the product met the highest standards.

The muckrackers are haters of human progress. Their goal is not to help you live a better life but to diminish the value of the capitalist system in your mind. In effect, they are creating anti-branding in order to accomplish their anti-life goals. Were these people able to know a truly better way to make food, they would have started their own companies and competed against those they criticize. Since they can’t be adequate judges and since their basic premise is that man is incompetent to judge and decide, they can only deceive you about the great accomplishments of capitalism.

Consider what would happen if the public decided to stampede away from processed foods and toward “natural” foods. The increased demand for “organic” foods at lower prices would require that the makers of these foods find more advanced and more automated production processes such as those that Tyson Foods uses today.

And here’s the basic hypocrisy. This movie and the makers of it are doing nothing more than another form of “branding”. In fact, the movie is about creating a new (or old) brand known as “natural” foods which have been around for decades. Presumably, organic farming is better, more healthful and it can be delivered to you for twice the price.

(1)The Capitalist Manifesto, Andrew Bernstein, UBA, paperback