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Economics*

24 March 2009

I am a student of Economics*. I feel the asterick is necessary since I do not feel most peoples’ conception of Economcs is the same as mine.

What do you hear when you hear Economics? The “dismal science”? Capitalism? The stock market bubble? Alan Greenspan? The “Invisible Hand”? Ridiculous hypotheses of hyper-rationality?

That’s not what I think Economics is. My conception of Economics is based on two premises:
(a) can best be summed up in a quote of my Macroeconomics professor: “In Ecconomics, more is not better. The right amount is the right amount”. Economics is, at it’s heart about finding equilibria, the intersections of two lines. Economics does not dictate that growth is primary measure of a successful economy. Those are assumptions that society (and politics) apply to their interpretation of economic data.
(2) All economics processes should be considered in the long term. I know the short term considerations are nice because they have so few exogenous variables to take as given and so many externalities to disregard. But I feel it’s unrealistic. Mostly in that I feel most businesses and economies would like to exist in 10, 20, 50 years from now. Those that don’t probably are planning on being exploitative and should be regarded with suspicion.

Consideration of Economics in the Long Run changes many important factors:

Firstly, business practices, reputation, adaptability, reinvestment become much
more important than annual profit rates. Sustainability becomes the watchword.

Furthermore, in the long run, the exogenous becomes endogenous, and externalities are internalized. While economies may be “open”, the Earth is still a closed system. In the Short Run, the small view, the Outside world is so large and other that it is disregarded. However, in the Long Run, anything you do to affect the closed system eventually affects you. This is especially true for environmental externalities. Yes, you can pollute the atmosphere, empty the aquafiers, overtax the soils. The reserves of clean air, fresh water, fertile earth seem just waiting for exploitation. It seems like a good idea in the Short Run. But in the Long Run, well, if you use it all today, there won’t be any left tomorrow. The air will be unbreathable, water scare, soil dead. What will you do then?

Thinking only in the short term is easy, yes. But it’s also crazy, suicidal, even. We’ve been binge drinking oil all evening, what will we do in the morning when we wake up with a splitting hangover and an empty keg? What were we thinking, we’ll ask. But we know the answer: we weren’t.

Realistically, we should scrutinize models of business, of politics, of society, not just to see if they work well, but to see if they work well in the long term.

Again, to quote my Macro professor, there are two lessons economics teaches you:
#1 (Microeconomics): Markets are wonderful.
#2 (Macroeconomics): Markets are not so wonderful.

Both of these are equally important. In my opinion, solving the problems raised by the second issue are more interesting.

I believe that the principles of economics can be used to analyze endevours for their Long Run potential.

I am a sutainable economist.

Love,
Herbert.

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A Post-Technological World

10 March 2009

So here’s my prediction of what the buzzword of a peak-oil age will be:
“Smart”.

Smart-growth, smart-grid, smart-farm, smart-card smart-transit.

After decades of being told that increased machine power would make our lives easier and full of leisure, most of these Smart systems will not refer to AI or computer-regulated efficiency. Instead, there will be a rally for human power. Especially in agriculture, the only way to create an efficient sustainable system is to apply the human evolutionary advantage of reason and memory to it. Less money and resources will be spent on machines and chemicals, and more brainpower will be consumed by our work. We will have less leisure, but we will have more life.

Nothing will be more important than education, which itself will need to change. It needs to become more diverse, cultivating to the specialized intelligences that different children have. It needs to be more far-sighted, teaching the basics of how our world functions, how we need to treated, and how to problem-solve and how to learn for a lifetime. It needs to encourage a greater variety of post-graduation options; university is not for everyone.

We need to work more, so to work the earth less. Human energy is the most renewable resource we have.

Love,
Herbert.

So What?

1 March 2009

I have posts to make up about The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Hope’s Edge (I’ll get to them…), but at the moment what’s on my mind is The Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, ed. Vadana Shiva.

Talking with Prof. Everbach a couple of weeks ago, he asked me, “So what?” I’m doing all this reading and learning about what’s wrong with the current food system, and how people think it should be, and their philosophy as to why it should be like that. But, so what? What am I going to do about it? How am I going to change things? What needs to be done?

The Manifestos are about what needs to be done on a global-political level, and I mostly agree with it. Food doesn’t take well to be commoditized like shoes or computers: it doesn’t travel well: food is best cultivated and distributed as locally as possible, and global legislation should favor a localcentric, diversified system rather than globalcentric, industrialized approach.

This makes sense to me; the agro-industrial complex doesn’t need the support of the WTO and FAO to thrive; it has enough power from it’s sheer size. The global trade organizations should work to promote a competitive market, which means protecting the interests of the small players. Furthermore, trade should be encouraged as a benefit, not an expense, to the local economy, which means local industries, agriculture especially, should be supported.

The other major premise of the Manifestos deals with the agricultural biotech industry. Besides a staunch position against GM foods generally, they are adamantly opposed to the patenting of seeds and lifeforms, a cause very dear to my heart. For one, I don’t know how they prove that there is no “prior art”. Two, it discourages crop diversity, and encourages dangerous monocultures. Three, GM crops rarely delivers on the promise to be more productive, and are more expensive than their natural counterparts, and sterile seed prevent farmers from being self-sufficient or financially independent, and make them completely dependent on the whims of industry year after year.

The Manifestos are directed towards change in government and intergovernmental organizations. Which makes sense. Agriculture is not capable of thriving in a free market, as it is full of externalities (such as pollution, soil degradation, diversity loss) as well as serves a market with a fairly inelastic demand. Or course, much of regulation is saving the industry from itself, as unsustainable practices will come back to harm the business in the long run. Also food security, biodiversity, and agricultural independence are public goods that the market has no reason to provide on it’s own.

However, while I have strong opinions at the policy level, and have much support for those striving for governmental change, I feel a pull towards the other end of the movement, to the personal, “grassroots” level.

There is a lot of argument among food advocates, I’ve noticed, as to which is more important: change on the personal level or change on the policy level. I don’t see why the answer can’t be “both”. Policy change is important: we need a political environmental that’s supportive of small farmers, high-quality local food, that provides consumer education starting in grade-school, that regulates using the precautionary principle in favor of consumers instead of industry, prevents the patenting of life, and understands sustainable solutions.

Those are some big tasks that require a huge amount of advocacy time and energy. However, no less important than making the government fertile and receptive to positions of Good Food, is making the consumers, and ourselves, fertile and receptive to the cause. The system is broken from above because we have offered no resistance from below. People need to take their food, their health, their lives back. Education on the personal and community level is crucial to raising awareness. Kitchen gardens, CSAs, guerrilla gardens, community gardens are all necessary to provide empowerment and connection with the cause. It is important that we get in touch not only with where our food comes from in nature, but the people it comes from: not mere consumers but “co-producers”, as Carlo Petrini advocates. There need to be people who interact with local communities, providing information, sparking discussions, fostering connections, organizing initiatives. Controlling your own food supply provides security: it protects your children health, it provides a buffer when money is tight, it creates a satisfaction unachievable in consumption, it keeps money and work within a community. Food is power.

We cannot merely say “this needs to be done”. We must do. We cannot hope to change the world if we are unwilling to first change ourselves.

Top-down, bottom-up…all efforts are needed. And when we meet in the middle, we shall feast and dance.

My poetic side is starting to take over, so I should stop here.

Love,
Herbert.

“She turned me into a newt!”

28 February 2009

…but I’m getting better.

What a waste of a week. I caught a sudden plague last Sunday, and am only now starting to get better.

But that explains my lack of updates …Or my lack of anything productive in the past week. No cooking, no classes, no cleaning, no reading, no writing, no classes, no dancing…

I can’t remember the last time I was that sick. But it seems to be clearing up, as suddenly as it on set. As soon as I catch up on sleep, I will hopefully be back to normal.

So, back to work…

Love,
Herbert.

Plagues, Financial & Viral

22 February 2009

B and I have the plague. A very obnoxious, achy plague. B is worse than me, but I have a midterm tomorrow. Fun.

In the meantime, please watch this nifty video that very prettily explains the current financial crisis:

(hat tip to Ultranurd)

Love,
Herbert.

Summer Plans

22 February 2009

Oi, what a week. In any regard, I now know what I will be doing come this summer.

Thanks to a Summer Social Action Award from Swarthmore, I shall be spending this summer working at Walthan Fields Community Farms! I am very psyched. Besides more mundane stuff like helping with web development and events planning, I should be doing such nifty things as designing/implementing education workshops, helping out in the children’s garden, figuring out how to build a solar oven, and writing recipes. Squee! Also, Waltham is just outside of Boston; I shall be staying with B and will get to see all of my many Nifty Bostonian friends.

Other Plans
Swarthmore Alumni Weekend in early June
Aniticpation/World Con in Montréal in early August
SWIL Vacation in Maine in late August.

Love,
Herbert.

Theophobia

17 February 2009

This blog is quickly becoming more about religion than food. Granted, the two are rather closely related for me, but that’s for another post.

I realized today during a discussion in Religion & Ecology. We were talking about Judaism’s view of the Creator-Creation relationship, and the professor asked if one of us could recite and explain the significant of the Shema. After several moments of silence, I reluctantly answered, as it seemed no one else would. My voice shook and my face flushed hot and red. What was wrong?

I was afraid, religion. Afraid of what? Afraid of being identified as Jewish? Afraid of being wrong? Afraid of being judged?

And that, I realized, is my primary hesistation to explore religion. I have other reasons; philosophical ones, social ones (this is touched on with regard to Judaism here), but this is the personal one.

I am afraid of not being taken seriously.

I often feel even now that I’m not. Why should I be? I’m young, I’m an optimist, I’m emotional, I’m often random, even absurd in my humor, and, truth be told, I’m something of a ditz. I suppose I often do play the fool. But for the most part, when I am being serious, I am taken seriously, for which I am thanful.

The main way I am not taken seriously is that my conceptions about the importance of food is often tolerated as an eccenric zeal. It’s a passion of which I derive much pleasure and recreation, to be sure, but it is also a topic I consider of earnest importance to not just how I view the world, but how the world needs to change.

And that is just one belief, one considered mostly harmless. If I was religious, what would happen then?

I fear that my beliefs would not be taken seriously by my areligious family; I am already rather “out there” to them. I fear dismissal from my friends, even my significant other, many of whom are cynical.

I fear alienation from the religious community I might choose. For being an outsider, for not being of the proper upbringing or culture, for having interpretations (such as those about food) which are considered against the grain. I fear denial, the assumption that I am “not one of them”, to not be taken seriously as a community member.

More grandly, I feel it would limit my ability to influence this world that I feel so desperatly I need to change. A religious idenity would give debators the power to label me as a “religious radical”, to accuse my beliefs of having no basis in secular reality, science, economics, fact. I want a voice that is not so easily dismissed. But can I have one if it is accented with religion?

And I fear it would mean I could not take myself seriously. For many of the same reasons as why I fear others would not. How could I not doubt my own motivations, just as I now doubt my motivations for wanting to find a firmer spiritual base? I am so emotional already; haven’t I been told that such emotion should be controlled, not released? How could I not doubt that my beliefs exist out of a personal weakness, a lack of strength to accept the world as it is in all it’s brutal truth? Would it be a denial of my skeptic, economic upbringing to accept and not to challenge? Much less the issue of how could I believe religion…how could I believe myself?

I know many of the above fears might seem irrational, even silly. But that’s what fear is I suppose, and it is a fear I cannot dismiss so easily.

Love,
Herbert.