Guns or butter? (A slippery question)


There is a certain lesson that echoes from childhood about priorities. I shan’t trouble you with a sketchy recollection from the dusty book of Things My Father Said; you might start to think I have a complex about him.

I probably do.

Er … anyway, moving right along, a question of priorities. British commentator Mark Steel, writing for The Independent, notes,

It’s so difficult, apparently, to work out how to solve the food shortages in Africa. Because the price of food has just gone up, the way prices do sometimes, caught by a freak gust of wind or flare from the sun or something and whoosh, up they go, whether it’s oil or an Olympic Games or rice and it’s just bad luck.

Combined with the growing population, it means there’s no simple way of stopping millions of people starving. But fortunately the same laws don’t apply to other essential items, such as arms. That’s why you never get reports saying: “What with the booming population and rising prices, there just aren’t enough weapons to go round.

“The crisis is so deep there are now allies of America without access to a single cluster bomb, and in one region of the Congo warlords have to share one flamethrower between two. Charities have sent out truckloads of Tomahawk missiles to Uzbekistan but the queues of government officials go back across the hills, and the fear is that for some this shipment may have come too late.”

And aid programmes require summits lasting several days, followed by statements about tying aid to trade deals, that begin: “You don’t solve the problem of hunger simply by giving people food.”

So while getting food to the hungry seems impossible, there has been a 37 per cent increase in global arms spending in the past 10 years, which raised last year’s tally to $1,204bn. Those of you who don’t understand economics might wonder why there can’t be an agreement to only spend $1,203bn instead, then wander round Sainsbury’s buying a billion dollars’ worth of food and take it to people who are starving, especially as Sainsbury’s currently have a special offer of a free box of Shredded Wheat if you spend a billion dollars or more.


One of my favorite barstool speculations is simple enough, and I find myself reviving it of late as the world faces what seems aptly described as a food crisis. Simply, the problem is not necessarily that there is not enough food. Rather, the problem is the system of distribution in place. Indeed this idea has seen practical expression of late. Bill Maher made a frustrating point in April on an episode of Real Time, discussing the food issue with guest Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

ALI: And children in African countries, famine drought, standing on garbage heaps, is the kind of most familiar picture I know. So, when I listen to Americans and other people in the west, you know, talking about poverty here and things being bad in America, I always think, oh, wait until you get to Africa or parts of Asia, parts of Latin America. So, it’s very relative, all of that.

Biofuels – when I – I was born in 1969 – when I was growing up, biofuels wasn’t a problem. What was a problem was the whole subsidizing of farmers in the west, and them—

MAHER: [overlapping] Still goes on.

ALI: [overlapping]—that still goes on. What was also, and has never been spoken about, is the habits, religious dogmas and the way of life of the people who are starving themselves. So, if you look at the current crisis now, you’d say, “Okay, listen to the World Food Program. Give them – give them the $700 million they’re asking for. Take care of the – take the emergency out of the way, then deal with the dumping and the subsidies. But, then ultimately, we have also to get down to the choices that people make, and the dogmas, the ignorance, the superstition, the mistreatment of women. And all of that combined is what brings people in so-called “developing countries” go from one crisis to the other.

MAHER: And, could I add one more thing that starves people? Eating meat. Because the amount of grain it takes to feed the cattle, when you eat that high up on the food chain, it starves people lower on the food chain. It takes an enormous amount of resources to make a pound of meat.

More recently—okay, earlier today—bioethicist Pete Singer considered the issue for American Public Media’s Marketplace:

Why are we in the midst of a food crisis when world production of food per person has actually grown steadily since the 1960s?

The answer is that we’re not eating the food we grow, sometimes not eating them at all, sometimes wasting at least 80 percent of them.

100 million tons of corn is turned into biofuels that go into our gas tanks. That’s a lot less corn for people to eat.

But most corn isn’t eaten by humans; it’s eaten by animals and that’s the biggest part of the problem. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 756 million tons of grain plus most of the world’s soybean crop are fed to animals and that amount has increased sharply in recent years as Asian nations have become more prosperous and their populations have started eating more meat.

When we use animals to convert grain and soy into food we can eat, they use most of the feed to keep warm and develop bones and other parts we can’t eat. So we’re wasting most of the food value of the crops we feed them. In the case of cattle, at least nine-tenths of the grain they eat is squandered.

Now here’s the thing: I don’t actually disagree with Maher or Singer. In a time when basic necessities are brought into such sharp focus, we cannot turn our backs on celebrity moralizing or utilitarian analysis simply because it seems trendy or cold. But I do think there are aspects of the meat question that tread back to the problem of priorities.

When I was in ninth grade, our school attempted to incorporate some economics into our social studies curriculum. It was a disaster, as near as I can recall, leading to my idea for a Museum of the Insane and Deranged, which seems rather redundant given the availability and nature of modernism and avant garde. Nonetheless, one factoid that stuck with me over the years is that even in our corner of the Universe, in the farm country east of the Cascades, large quantities of grain were going to waste; small mountains of wheat, for instance, going to waste because nobody bought it.

And while many of the lessons of my youth—in this case, my father’s explanation of news media content, “Somebody’s gotta pay for it”—will haunt me to my dying day, something about that wasted grain has always bothered me.

In truth, I do not know how much grain goes to waste in eastern Washington these days. I do not know how the numbers look for farmland across the nation. And I certainly have no reasonable clue about how much grain could be produced if we dropped American farm subsidies put in place to ensure that the market never suffered too great a surplus.

Add that all up: Is there 756,000,000 tons of grain to be found there? (How much does a bushel of corn or wheat weigh?)

What I’m getting at is that while a crusade against eating meat will certainly make some short-term differences in the availability of some grains, this sort of pop-culture grasping after straws will not have much impact in the long term. After all, somebody’s gotta pay for it.

And let’s face it: In the marketplace, scarcity keeps prices high. Indeed, for years, the worst possible disaster our domestic food production could face was a massive surplus leading to a collapse of prices. Our priority over the years has been to manage prices. High prices, obviously, are something Americans are willing to work with, but heaven help us if the prices ever fell too low.

The question, then, was financial. The priority, in the end, was money.

Which brings us, after a fashion, back to Mr. Steel’s consideration of weapons and food. Quite obviously, a basic concern such as food is a lesser priority than the arms trade. It often seems that the basic components for human prosperity are game pieces moved strategically about the board in pursuit of higher priorities, the things that really count: money and power.

Of the dogmas, ignorance, superstition, and mistreatment challenging the developing world, it seems that people might never recover or catch up if they are forever scrabbling over the next mouthful. Certainly, a billion dollars at Sainsbury’s plus a bonus box of Shredded Wheat will not solve the problem. But as economic and aid policies look to fostering trade—asking hungry people to work themselves out of hunger—it seems damn obvious that such plans will go better if, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali put it, we “take the emergency out of the way”.

And while the cynic might point out that certain interests—e.g., the arms industry—might have reasons to want people to stay hungry, would that not be part of the point? How is it that making war, with all its nationalistic and patriotic trappings, is of such priority? Economically, there is no future in solving hunger; this, at least, seems to be the conventional wisdom of today. I sincerely hope to be wrong about that, and in the long run I expect I am. Because when people are producing economic resources instead of consuming them, when they are working instead of waiting in relief lines, there will be that much more money to go around, that much bigger a financial pie to slice up and fight over.

Which, of course, will lead us back to guns if the fight gets fierce enough.

If the human endeavor ends in extinction, our epitaph should read, “This is what we wanted.”

After all, these are our priorities.

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