Category: Food

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On Rural-Proofing and Labor Markets

In my last post, I introduced the concept of “rural proofing,” a practice most commonly associated with the antipodean world.  Today, I’m returning (in my final post as outgoing guest blogger) to talk about the benefits of rural proofing in relation to legislation pending in several states and now also a feature of Trump’s budget that would that makes receipt of public benefits (including Medicaid) dependent on being in the workforce. This issue implicates how broadly (geographically speaking) we define labor markets, which is something courts have occasionally weighed in on.  My particular concern is fairness to rural residents whose labor markets are limited, and who may face structural obstacles to participating in the labor market–most obviously the lack of child care and lack of public transportation.  (These are, incidentally, obstacles I noted in this recent Wall Street Journal article about “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’.“)

Even before Trump’s budget was released a few weeks ago, Arkansas and Maine were considering imposing work requirements on Medicaid recipients.  The New York Times reported here on the Arkansas proposal, and the Wall Street Journal reported here on the Maine proposal.  Jennifer Levitz observed in the latter that this is not Maine’s first effort at making benefits contingent on work:  Governor Paul LaPage ushered in a similar requirement for SNAP (food stamps) in 2014, and it’s drawn criticism:

But Maine’s approach is drawing criticism from advocates for the poor, who say jobs, volunteer positions and transportation to either of them can be hard to come by in rural pockets​with persistent unemployment. They say those losing the assistance turn to charities instead, increasing demand at food banks.

One in four food-pantry users said he or she had lost food-stamp benefits in the past year, according to a statewide study co-released in February by Maine’s largest hunger-relief agency, Good Shepherd Food Bank.

This reminds of this recent report on NPR about increased demands on rural food banks.  By the way, Arkansas has a SNAP work requirement similar to Maine’s:  “able-bodied adults without dependents cannot receive food stamps for longer than three months unless they are working, volunteering or getting job training for 20 hours a week.”  Not surprisingly, perhaps, food pantries also loom large in the Arkansas story.

Here’s an excerpt from this week’s New York Times story on cuts to SNAP and disability benefits under Trump’s proposed budget.  The story quotes Beth Orlansky, advocacy director of the Mississippi Center for Justice, regarding rural and job market struggles among others faced by that state’s poor population.

While asking people to work might sound like a good idea “in the abstract,” [Orlansky] said, a state like Mississippi — with large pockets of poverty, sprawling rural communities and some of the highest rates of people on disability and food stamps — does not have enough jobs in the right places. Most people receiving food stamps and disability are doing some sort of work, but they need better skills and education to rise above poverty wages.

All of these stories feature interesting commentary on work ethics and work norms, and why work is a good idea.  As someone raised in a working class family where work was king and the work ethic was off the charts, I appreciate the sentiments and largely share them.  Here are a few, from folks on both left and right, from the Arkansas story.  One (white) man working part time as a security guard for $10/hour described how he had lost his food stamps when he was unable to work while recovering from surgery:

I went from being able to eat vegetables to eating Hamburger Helper every day.  I think most people want to work, but I also know a lot of people work when it’s not necessarily in their health’s best interest.

That man lives in Blytheville, population 18,272, in the far northeastern corner of the state, some 60 miles from Memphis, the largest major city nearby.  A 55-year-old unemployed white woman who had previously worked as a custodian was interviewed outside a food pantry near Little Rock.  Nancy Godienz said:

I’m glad we have it, but people should have to do something for it.  This is America, right? You’re supposed to work for what you get.

An African-American man who manages operations at the Stewpot, a soup kitchen in Little Rock, said

If you’re of able mind and body, you should be able to make something happen for yourself.  But some people just don’t want to work — they’re too taken care of.

So these quotes show the deep commitment of middle America to work–when it is available.  But the stories also make clear that the line between being employable and not being employable is often a broad and fuzzy one, and that reminds me of recent stories here, here and here about the high(er) rate of disability in rural America.  As Chana Joffe-Walt suggests, the higher rate of disability in rural places seems linked to the narrow, less robust and undiversified nature of rural job markets.  (BTW, that story drew enormous criticism from the left as being anti-disability, including here and here).  Here’s an excerpt that gets right to the issue of rural job markets in relation to disability:

One woman I met, Ethel Thomas, is on disability for back pain after working many years at the fish plant, and then as a nurse’s aide. When I asked her what job she would have in her dream world, she told me she would be the woman at the Social Security office who weeds through disability applications. I figured she said this because she thought she’d be good at weeding out the cheaters. But that wasn’t it. She said she wanted this job because it is the only job she’s seen where you get to sit all day.

Joffe-Walt was initially skeptical that Ethel struggled to imagine a job that would accommodate her pain, but then she started looking at the local job market in Hale County, Alabama (population 15,000) to see what jobs were available:

There’s the McDonald’s, the fish plant, the truck repair shop. I went down a list of job openings — Occupational Therapist, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, Truck Driver (heavy lifting), KFC, Registered Nurse, McDonald’s.

You get the picture.  Rural jobs markets tend to be quite limited.  Combine that with the rural challenges of transportation infrastructure and childcare deficits, and you can see why making the receipt of benefits contingent on work doesn’t make a lot of sense.  (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons it might not make sense even in urban areas, but I’m focusing on rural difference here).  Indeed, this mismatch, if you will, was the focus of my 2007 law review article for a symposium marking the 10th anniversary of welfare reform, PRWORA:  Missing the Mark:  Welfare Reform and Rural Poverty.

So it seems public benefits, including unemployment insurance and social security, is  one arena where rural-proofing would help law- and policy-makers understand and respond appropriately to rural difference.  And in that regard, I refer interested readers to another source here (ponder, in particular, the lede) and to just one case about rural labor markets in relation to unemployment insurance:  Parsons v. Employment Security Commission, 71 N.M. 405 (1953).

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Economic Dynamics and Economic Justice: Making Law Catastrophic, Middling, or Better?

Contrary to Livermore,’s post,  in my view Driesen’s book is particularly powerful as a window into the  profound absurdity and destructiveness of the neoclassical economic framework, rather than as a middle-ground tweaking some of its techniques.  Driesen’s economic dynamics lens makes a more important contribution than many contemporary legal variations on neoclassical economic themes by shifting some major assumptions, though this book does not explore that altered terrain as far as it might.

At first glance, Driesen’s foregrounding of the “dynamic” question of change over time may, as Livermore suggests, seem to be consistent with the basic premise of neoclassical law and economics:   that incentives matter, and that law should focus ex ante, looking forward at those effects.   A closer look through Driesen’s economic dynamics lens reveals how law and economics tends to instead take a covert ex post view that enshrines some snapshots of the status quo as a neutral baseline.  The focus on “efficiency” – on maximizing an abstract pie of “welfare”  given existing constraints —  constructs the consequences of law as essentially fixed by other people’s private choices, beyond the power and politics of the policy analyst and government, without consideration of how past and present and future rights or wrongs constrain or enable those choices.  In this neoclassical view, the job of law is narrowed to the technical task of measuring some imagined sum of these individual preferences shaped through rational microeconomic bargains that represent a middling stasis of existing values and resources, reached through tough tradeoffs that nonetheless promise to constantly bring us toward that glimmering goal of maximizing overall societal gain (“welfare”) from scarce resources.

Driesen reverses that frame by focusing on complex change over time as the main thing we can know with certainty.  In the economic dynamic vision, “law creates a temporally extended commitment to a better future.” (Driesen p. 52). Read More

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A silly game for those at AALS and the blogger event

Someone thinks they can tell what your politics are based on what you drink:

Consumer data suggests Democrats prefer clear spirits, while Republicans like their brown liquor. Democratic drinkers are more likely to sip Absolut and Grey Goose vodkas, while Republican tipplers are more likely to savor Jim Beam, Canadian Club and Crown Royal. That research comes from consumer data supplied by GFK MRI, and analyzed by Jennifer Dube of National Media Research Planning and Placement, an Alexandria-based Republican consulting firm.

I assume a political consulting firm wants to know this data so that it can target potential voters, especially those likely to vote and vote a certain way.

Then again, I wonder at the biases here. It does not look like the brand scatter relates only to price. So bourbons may be more favored in Republican areas. But San Francisco, that conservative stronghold, has a an excellent run of rum and whiskey focused bars.

Maybe the best idea is to be equal opportunity as a drinker. Start with gin, move to rum, have some wine, close with whiskey or port. Or drink cocktails. In the words of Radar O’Reilly “Uh, sir, if you’re thirsty. Compliments of Colonel Blake. Scotch. Gin. Vodka. And for your convenience all in the same bottle.”

For now, enjoy guessing what your colleague’s drink says about their politics.

Addictive by Design

I was honored to see Prof. John Banzhaf weigh in on a recent post on wellness programs. That post suggested parallels between the addictiveness of tobacco, and that of many food products. Little did I know the NYT was about to publish a blockbuster article on exactly that issue:

[In a 1999 meeting of food industry leaders,] [t]he first speaker was a vice president of Kraft named Michael Mudd. . . . As he spoke, Mudd clicked through a deck of slides — 114 in all — projected on a large screen behind him. The figures were staggering. More than half of American adults were now considered overweight, with nearly one-quarter of the adult population — 40 million people — clinically defined as obese. Among children, the rates had more than doubled since 1980.

Mudd then did the unthinkable. He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”

Fast food lawsuits are looking more prescient by the day.

Illustration: Via Engadget article on interactive ad patents.

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Food, Hunger, Science, and Data

Recent readings and the time of year lead me to two lessons. First, for those of us who can, let’s give to those in need. Second, let’s use science, data, and reason to guide policy. Extreme views for or against modes of farming and issues of the environment lead to mistrust, failures, and, in this case, starvation. Starvation should not be an issue on the table for the 21st century. Questions of efficacy and safety can be addressed. The information is here. The time to use it is now.

Maybe it is the time of year when food feasts like Thanksgiving and the season of holiday giving make me think about simple, direct need and especially hunger. Whatever the reason, today that fundamental issue is upon us more than ever. The Times reports “Millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their parents, many once solidly middle class, have lost jobs or homes during the economic crisis, qualifying their families for the decades-old safety-net program.” The numbers are stark: “The number of students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year from 18 million in 2006-7, a 17 percent increase, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the meals program. Eleven states, including Florida, Nevada, New Jersey and Tennessee, had four-year increases of 25 percent or more, huge shifts in a vast program long characterized by incremental growth.” More than 3 years ago I wrote about the problems of a stigmatized school lunch program. I don’t know whether that system has evolved, but “apparently many of these formerly middle-income parents have pleaded with school officials to keep their enrollment a secret.” Society’s tendency to look down on the less fortunate is absurd. I am not sure what can be done about that. But perhaps we can reconnect with efforts to provide food across the world. The hard part could be the tensions between industrial farming and the organic movement. Yet, good science and data could show us a way out.

A Long Now Foundation seminar by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future shows that rather than combat, we can sue data and reflection to marry these efforts. Sustainable food should: Provide abundant safe and nutritious food…. Reduce environmentally harmful inputs…. Reduce energy use and greenhouse gases…. Foster soil fertility…. Enhance crop genetic diversity…. Maintain the economic viability of farming communities…. Protect biodiversity…. and improve the lives of the poor and malnourished. (He pointed out that 24,000 a day die of malnutrition worldwide, and about 1 billion are undernourished.)

That is a tall order. As the speakers noted organic farming works well and mitigates the problems of pesticides, (Data point: “Every year in the world 300,000 deaths are caused by the pesticides of conventional agriculture, along with 3 million cases of harm.”). But organic techniques can’t address all the diseases and pests out there and “Its yield ranges from 45% to 97% of conventional ag yield. It is often too expensive for low-income customers. At present it is a niche player in US agriculture, representing only 3.5%, with a slow growth rate suggesting it will always be a niche player.” Genetic engineered plants (often not allowed under current regulation) can fill the gap.

According to the report of Dr. Ronald’s part of the talk, “One billion acres have been planted so far with GE crops, with no adverse health effects, and numerous studies have showed that GE crops pose no greater risk of environmental damage than conventional crops.” Examples include, cotton, papayas, and rice. “About 25% of all pesticide use in the world is used to defeat the cotton bollworm. Bt cotton is engineered to express in the plant the same caterpillar-killing toxin as the common soil bacteria used by organic farmers, Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt cotton growers use half the pesticides of conventional growers. With Bt cotton in China, cases of pesticide poisoning went down by 75%. India’s cotton yield increased by 80%. Other pest management techniques are needed but genetics can do much work. Hawaiian papaya was going extinct from ringspot virus, but a GE solution inoculated the fruit and the saved the industry. As I have written, basic food supply is a huge problem and rice is a key example of that. Dr. Ronald’s work on rice is impressive. The data: “Half the world depends on rice. In flood-prone areas like Bangladesh, 4 million tons of rice a year are lost to flooding—enough to feed 30 million people.” Her work developed “a flood-tolerant rice (it can be totally submerged for two weeks) called Sub1. At field trials in Asia farmers are getting three to five times higher yield over conventional rice.”

Seems compelling to me.

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The Pink’s Paradox: excessively long food lines as overly strong signals of quality

There is a great hot dog joint here in Los Angeles called Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs.  I love their delicious chili dogs.  I am a huge fan of the location’s classic L.A. style (parts of the best film ever made were filmed on the site, and there’s a probably false rumor that Orson Welles got obese because he was addicted to Pink’s chili dogs).  They’re located a quick drive from where I work.  And I never, ever go there.

What explains this apparently counterintuitive result?  Why don’t I patronize this nearby beloved eatery more often, or at least some of the time?  My reason is simple:  The wait is way, way too long.  Pink’s doesn’t  just have a 15-20 minute wait at meal times like many local eateries. Rather, at almost any time of day, the line to get a Pink’s chili (or any other) dog snakes through a few switchbacks, up La Brea, and back into their parking lot, frequently lasting a good hour.  At peak times, the line has been said to approach 1.5 or two hours (and here, I’m going on word of mouth because, as you’ll gather from this post so far, I’m deterred by the long line and haven’t actually experienced it).

Classic L&E would suggest that this isn’t a paradox at all, and that the line merely reveals the unusually strong preferences of the public for Pink’s chili dogs, meaning that they really are worth the interminable wait.  And while this is an empirical question, and while tastes are subjective and highly variable, I can’t buy that account.  I can understand waiting in line for hours, say, to obtain critical medical services, or in a bread line in Soviet Russia where the only alternative is starving.  I can even imagine waiting in line for a couple hours to get tickets for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see your favorite performer appear live.  But for chili dogs?  No way.  Something more than simple preference satisfaction has to be going on.

So what explains the Pink’s paradox?  Why is it that demand for these chili dogs continues to grow, even as the experience costs and actual costs associated with its food increase at an even greater rate (and appear to swamp the benefits of eating even the tastiest chili dog)?  And what does this tell us about the rationality (or irrationality) of line-waiting generally?  I discuss possible conjectures responding to each of these questions below the fold.

Read More

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Church-owned Cows and Inflation

I recently taught Sherwood v. Walker, the famous case involving a Michigan cow named Rose 2nd of Aberlone, as well as a number of other mistake cases in contracts dealing with cows. I’ve got bovine jurisprudence on the mind. It seems that the same is true for Eugene Volokh, who recently noted a case involving a “church owned cow.” The cow in question was owned by the Mormon Church and seems to have negligently collided with a motorcycle. In the interests of extending our jurisprudential understanding of cows, I can’t resist adding another twist to the church-owned cow story.

The Mormon Church’s involvement in agriculture is a legacy of the nineteenth century practice of Mormons paying tithing in kind to the church. As a result of this practice, in the nineteenth century, the church acquired large herds of cattle as well as other food stuffs. It then issued so-called “tithing scrip,” which was in effect private currency. The holder of scrip could redeem it for foodstuffs, including beef, at church storehouses. The scrip then circulated as money, in effect providing liquidity to the perpetually cash starved economies of the Intermountain West in the nineteenth century. Because the currency was in effect backed by cows, however, it was subject to some odd monetary pressures. For example, when a particularly harsh winter killed off a large proportion of the church’s cattle herds, it was forced to reduce the purchasing power of tithing scrip at church storehouses because there simply wasn’t as much beef available as previously. The result was price inflation as the value of the scrip declined.

As part of its efforts to raise revenue during the Civil War, the U.S. government passed a series of banking acts designed to decrease government borrowing costs. All nationally chartered banks were required to hold their reserves in the form of treasury bonds, and non-federally chartered institutions were hit with a heavy tax on the notes that they issued. The effect was to slap a punitive tax on any bank depositor who did not loan his or her savings to the U.S. government. During the 1880s federal prosecutors in Utah decided that the various scrip-issuing bodies of the Mormon church were subject to this tax, and demanded decades of back taxes, eventually killing off the scrip and replacing it with currency issued by federally chartered banks.

Taxes. Regulation. Inflation. Cows. Some things never change.

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Death on a Factory Farm

I caught a few minutes of HBO’s new documentary Death on a Factory Farm the other night. It focuses on an undercover investigation of a hog farm in Ohio, the graphic footage of abuse it revealed, and the legal case that followed. It was so disturbing that I actually had to turn it off, but then again I’m a vegetarian – it’s those who are not that need to watch.

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Orthorexia

Another report on hyperparenting. The New York Times reports the emergence of children with such strongly instilled food concerns they are afraid to eat. Doctors have coined the term orthorexia for the phenomenon.

Recently, I passed a mother and child of about 3 or 4 years old standing before a pretzel vendor. Here is the conversation I overheard:

Child: “Mommy, I want a pretzel! I want a pretzel!”

Mother: “Jennifer, a pretzel is 300 calories. Are you sure you want to spend 300 calories on a pretzel?”

Child: “I want a pretzel! I want a pretzel!”

Mother: “Jennifer, I want you to think about this. If you spend 300 calories on the pretzel, you won’t have those calories left for later.”

Child: “I want a pretzel! I want a pretzel”

I don’t know whether the child received the pretzel. But whatever happened to “No, you’ll spoil your appetite”?