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Food, Industrialization, Urbanization

Stumbled across an interested series of posts (first one here) on the history of English food written by Rachel Laudan. Laudan is writing in response to an old blogpost by Paul Krugman, written in 1998, that used English food’s putative crappiness to demonstrate the bad equilibrium thesis. Essentially, the thinking is that a free market can get caught in a “bad equilibrium” where only bad goods are supplied because decent ones have never been available, and hence generate no demand. This applies to English food, Krugman assumes, because England’s early industrialization and urbanization caused the English to be exposed only to the poor-quality, mass-produced foods that industry can muster to satiate an urban populace. Hence, because the English had never tasted good food, they never demanded good food, and in the absence of a compelling demand, suppliers produced only bad food, and so the English only bought bad food. Vicious circle.

You get this sort of gnostic thinking in economics pretty often; to Krugman’s credit, the original post was for a fluff piece on a blog, and bloggers do have to wax intelligent often and in so many words. But Laudan proceeds to dismantle the notion that industry or cities mean bad food, thankfully without delving into any of the assumptions that make the bad-equilibrium thesis appear compelling. Instead, she dives into the fine-grained details of food history, exploring the notion that cities are conducive to poor food (They’re not, and if you think about it for a moment, that should be obvious: where do you find the finest cuisines? In the provinces or in the capital?), and then investigating how industrialized food-production unfolded, historically (food was a latecomer to the industrialization party). She does not mention abstract demands meeting abstract supplies in an abstract market and coming to equilibrium; instead, she presents historical evidence that shows that urbanization and industrialization need not bring about mushy peas and and sad meat pies. An upcoming post will present Laudan’s own thoughts about what was at play in the historical development of English cuisine.

(It should be noted that none of Laudan’s points actually contradict the bad equilibrium thesis. But the whole example of English food itself begs the question: who’s to say that English food is bad? Of course, the thesis doesn’t really explain much, anyway. There will always be more proximate causes for the operations of a market than an abstraction about supply, demand, and utility.)

The exercise in food history is interesting in and of itself, of course — I found the statistics on caloric intake and bread and the amount of money a family spent on bread to be highly informative: brings new resonance to slogans like Peace, Land, Bread — but more interesting is what it says or suggests about how various forms of industry have coexisted, and might in the future. At least from the perspective of anyone interested in maintaining the productive capacities of industrialization while not foisting pink slime onto the food supply.

Categories: Notes.

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