August 10, 2013

Tom Friedman: Farmers Are Kinda Like al Qaeda


Thomas Friedman
(Photo courtesy NY Times)

Is Thomas Friedman the dumbest columnist in America? Short answer: yes. Long answer: hell yes:

Our film crew came to look at the connection between the drought in Kansas and the rise in global food prices that helped to fuel the Arab uprisings. But I stumbled upon another powerful environmental insight here: the parallel between how fossil fuels are being used to power monoculture farms in the Middle West and how fossil fuels are being used to power wars to create monoculture societies in the Middle East. And why both are really unhealthy for their commons.
He goes on to draw some sort of allegorical connection between Western "monoagriculture" and radicals Islamists who want a "monoculture":
What is going on in the Arab world today is a relentless push, also funded by fossil fuels, for more monocultures. It’s Al Qaeda trying to “purify” the Arabian Peninsula. It’s Shiites and Sunnis, funded by oil money, trying to purge each other in Iraq and Syria
Corn farmers are like al Qaeda. Soybean farmers the Taliban. And moisture farmers -- the ultimate in monoagriculture? Well, I guess they're Hezbollah.

But seriously, this guy is a noted "intellectual" on the Left. So, you'd think he would have read Adam Smith.

"Monoagriculture" is just what Adam Smith called "task specialization". When one person -- or one nation -- does one job he tends to do it very well and the thing he produces tends to be much, much cheaper. This isn't advanced economic theory, and it's something that all schools of economics agree upon -- even neo-Keynsians, like Friedman's idol Paul Krugman.

Forget Adam Smith. Even Karl Mark understood this.

You know what we call farmers who aren't engaged in "monoagriculture"? Subsistence farmers. And the occasional hippie.

The defining characteristic of which is this: they are dirt poor.

What Tom Friedman says about monoagricutlure uses more fossil fuels and water than it's alternative is true. Those things do cost more. But what he doesn't tell you is that the substitute for these things is labor.

So, you don't want to use a modern tractor or harvester? Try picking corn by hand or reaping wheat with a scythe. Sure, less greenhouse gasses emitted. Sure, there's less of a chance for catastrophic failure of a crop.

But it's also way more expensive! So, too, when farmers aren't allowed to specialize. Food becomes more expensive. There's a reason farmers in Idaho tend to focus on potatoes and farmers in Mississippi on soybeans. This isn't rocket science, and it's not advanced economics.

If rocketing food prices helped cause the Arab Spring and its consequent unrest in the Middle East, as Friedman argues, then let's see what the price of basic staples like corn or potatoes will be when farmers are forced to "diversify". Which is just another way of saying "planting less of it in lieu of something else". It's more expensive that way.

And then to draw some sort of comparison between that and ... al Qaeda? Because .... diversity!

I'm surprised he didn't try to work in Trayvon Martin into the argument. Because of diversity!

Which once again goes to show that stupid ain't just a river in Egypt.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 07:05 PM | Comments |