The insignificance of man in the face of modern magazine publishing

Nothing demonstrates to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy like his inability to unsubscribe from a magazine.

(All right, fine: Lots of things demonstrate to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy. But this one is particularly stupid, and sufficiently banal that I can laugh at it, unlike, say, losing my job, which was less obviously humorous.)

Here’s what happened. I used to subscribe to a hipstery sort of design and decorating magazine called ReadyMade, full of the sort of things I’d have wanted to make and do in my impoverished twenties. I read it in my late thirties out of ironic nostalgia for my own youthful irony. That magazine went out of business with six months left on my subscription, which I had been unlikely to renew anyway, and the parent company (Globo-Zines Inc.) sent me Better Homes and Gardens instead, a thoroughly un-hipsterish and unironic publication and one whose design notions I had even less desire to emulate. I see that the two magazines have ostensibly the same purpose, but the demographics are completely different. The one ran ads for new releases by twee little indy bands; the other shills Campbell’s soup. And where ReadyMade at least pretended that you were actually going to do some of the projects described in its pages, Better Homes and Gardens doesn’t seem to. It seems designed solely to sell paint.

I usually ignore it until my daughter spots it and unsheaths it from its plastic wrapper. (ReadyMade didn’t come wrapped in plastic, but arrived with its cover charmingly, insouciantly crinkled.) She’s a junior art director, so she finds this kind of thing fascinating. Her contribution to Sunday dinner is folding the napkins into boots and butterflies. But even she can’t get anything out of BHG, except for one article in the December issue on tying bows from ribbon. Being homeschooled, and raised in part by me, she makes fun of it mercilessly. Continue reading “The insignificance of man in the face of modern magazine publishing”

How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)

Last week I was trying to figure out what portion of their incomes Americans spend on food. (Why is a long story.) A lot of numbers are bandied about, but usually by people trying to make one political point or another, and it was more difficult than I expected to nail down anything reliable. But I managed to find out not only what people at various income levels do spend on food, but also what they’d have to spend in order to eat a healthy diet. The answers were, respectively, more than I thought… and considerably more than that.

The claim I most often read is that American food is ludicriously cheap. By historical and global standards, it is — but how cheap? The Gates Foundation reported last year that only 6 percent of Americans’ household expenditures went to food, compared with more than 10 percent in most of Europe and 35% in India. Their point is that the world’s poor spend a great deal more of their money on food than we do, which is true, and they intend to fund agricultural research so that the rest of the world can have cheap food like we do. Mother Jones republished the Gates Foundation’s bar chart to make a different point, that Americans spend very little — probably too little — of our incomes on food, and that this cheap food is possible only because we subsidize large-scale agriculture through taxes and externalize costs to the environment, to animal welfare, to workers, and to our health. (Since 1995 we’ve given $277 billion in subsidies to just 38 percent of U.S. farms, including more than $100 billion just to produce cheap corn and soy, most of which goes into various processed foods, most of which are far more caloric than nutritious and are by nearly every standard a major reason so many Americans are overweight.) This is, I think, also true, and we’re paying for those cheap calories through our health care expenses.

But I question this 6 percent figure. It seems impossibly low, and the Gates Foundation’s chart is drawn so vividly that it makes me suspicious. (Why is the bar for India’s food expenditures several times taller than the bar for all its expenditures? Even if the numbers are wrong, the chart is exaggerated for visual effect.) So I dug a little deeper. Continue reading “How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)”

Local ground and rhetorical ground

Benjamin Cohen writes on Grist this week (“What bean-counting ‘contrarians’ miss about the local-food movement”) about some issues I’ve been mulling over since getting involved in the “local food movement” a decade ago — namely, the terms of the debate. Cohen takes on writers who have reduced ethical consumption to a single metric — typically greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or energy efficiency — and who have then used that metric to deny the value of eating local. The problem with this approach, Cohen says, is that no single metric can assess the value of something as complex as a food system; as he puts it, “regionally configured food systems are about more than energy.”

So, for example, Stephen Budiansky argues that the damage done by the fossil fuels he consumes driving back and forth to the farmer’s market negates the good he does by buying food locally; Cohen responds that Budiansky takes fossil fuel use as a given — something most local food activists would like to change — and deliberately removes taste, freshness, and community from his rhetorical framework.

I’d go further in my critique, and it’s a critique that cuts both ways. Continue reading “Local ground and rhetorical ground”

A fable

The king of Ustreasia was a wealthy man, wealthy beyond compare. His kingdom was peaceful and lovely, and his people were hardworking and kind and ethical, for the most part. But for all the riches of his kingdom the king’s true pride was his herd of elephants. And what elephants! Bulls all, with slashing tusks and stamping feet and trumpeting calls that echoed throughout the capital. For generations the royal trainers had taught the elephants to march in procession, to carry the king and queen upon their backs. They passed the knowledge of their profession on to their children and were respected with soldiers and priests. The people watched the royal parades and felt pride, and visiting rulers smiled in appreciation of such well-kept animals. Continue reading “A fable”