Sunday, May 28, 2017

Single payer food?

I heard a revealing conversation on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday, featuring Scott Simon, the usually soothing and empathetic Cubs-fan voice of my Saturday mornings, and  Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith.
SIMON: This budget would also... mean deep cuts to the food stamp program....
After some waffling about farm subsidies,
SIMON: Well, let me ask you this bluntly - is every American entitled to eat? 
SMITH: Well, they - nutrition, obviously, we know is very important. And I would hope that we can look to... 
SIMON: Well, not just important, it's essential for life. Is every American entitled to eat? 
SMITH: It is essential. It is essential. 
SIMON: So is every American entitled to eat, and is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor? 
SMITH: I think that we know that, given the necessity of nutrition, there could be a number of ways that we could address that. 
SIMON: So you would vote ..  for a budget that cuts food stamps? 
SMITH: I want to look at an entire budget, look at all of the details. I'm still sifting through the details of the newly released budget. But we know that Congress ultimately has the say. I look for there to be a lot of changes made in the House and the Senate to the president's budget. 
SIMON: Congressman Adrian Smith from Nebraska, thanks so much for being with us, sir. 
SMITH: Thank you. Have a good day.
[My emphasis.]

It really speaks for itself and I should just stop here. But as this is a blog, let me expand on the obvious.

Notice the progressive-passive voice. "Is every American entitled to eat?" Just who does what to whom?

The direct answer to the question, as posed, is, "Yes. Every American is entitled to eat. And on just what planet do you live that you think there are laws prohibiting Americans from eating?"

Since the question as posed is nonsense, we know it must have a hidden meaning. The hidden subject of the sentence, is  given the food-stamp context, the federal government. What Scott means is, "Is every American entitled to have the Federal government tax other citizens to pay for his or her food?"

Stop and savor the power of the subject-free sentence, the difference between the stated question and its real meaning.

Even to that one the answer has to be no. There is no such law, right, or entitlement. That is a simple matter of fact. Scott knows that too. So, what Scott really means is, "Don't you think the Federal government should establish an entitlement that every American can have the Federal government pay for his or her food, from funds raised by taxation?"

On the third time, he almost actually said what he meant, with "is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor?" Though "food stamps" is a pretty wimpy subject of a sentence. "Should the federal taxpayer be the ultimate guarantor through the food stamp program" is more accurate.

Obviously, Simon knows this -- that we're talking about a taxpayer funded federal program, not an abstract right to eat. (That in response to some comments.) But that just makes it worse, because it is then deliberate. Or perhaps so deliberately repeated that the obfuscation of subject is unconscious.

Then there is the "to eat." Death by involuntary starvation is essentially unknown in the US today.

There is a nutrition problem -- obesity and type 2 diabetes.  There is a real money issue behind that nutrition problem -- if takes money and time to avoid sugar and high fructose corn syrup. And food stamps (SNAP really) are poorly structured, as they pay equally for bad food as for good food. They are as much if not more agricultural subsidies than actually making it possible for people "to eat." Scott said so:
SIMON: ... Doesn't it also, the food stamp program, also help farmers who produce the food that's bought?
"Farmers" means large agribusiness.  Scott did not ask a second time here, when the Congressman dissembled, and it would have been fun had he done so. "Oh you Republicans pretend to be free-market, and here you are defending farm subsidies."  But he didn't ask a second time here. And lest you think me unfeeling, I actually support targeted nutrition programs, focusing on better food. Feeding subsidized sugar to schoolchildren is unproductive in a hundred ways.

But "to eat" is another Orwellian substitution. Scott not only hides the agency behind his question, he substitutes the specter of hunger, of starvation -- are Americans entitled to eat -- for a serious issue.

We're talking here only about undoing some of the recent expansion of food stamps. 40 million Americans receive food stamps. Really, in 2007, were there millions of starving people walking the streets of America, begging for handouts to hold off the grim reaper, before the Obama administration expanded SNAP?

Scott is substituting a moral argument -- yes, we do not let people starve -- for an unrelated political one -- should the Federal Government subsidize 40 million people's food purchases and a bunch of agribusinesses' sales.

A colleague sent me this a while ago, from Dave Burge, "the funniest man on Twitter," which pretty much sums up Scott's argument:
"To help poor children, I am going to launch flaming accordions into the Grand Canyon." 
"That's stupid." 
Scott reveals deeply the deliberate confusion among "progressives," between your right to do something, to purchase a good or service from another, and an "entitlement" to have the Federal government pay for it by taxing others. No, you do not lose "access" to something just because you have to earn the money to pay for it. But by deliberately confusing the issue, and repeating the mantra over and over, they can ride the moral authority of the former to the illogical conclusion of the latter.

It is rare for a news interviewer to persist with a question, and three times rarer still. Usually the routine is, ask question, politician ducks, move on. As Scott did earlier on agricultural subsides, where he really could have caught the Congressman. By asking three times, Scott reveals he thinks this really is a  zinger, the "aha, so just when did you stop passing secrets to the Russians?" sort of question every reporter dreams of.

I felt for the poor Congressman -- this is just the sort of interview where I kick myself on the way home for reacting too much to the polite voice and not quickly enough jumping to battle with the blinding idiocy in front of me.

NPR wonders why people view it as an intensely partisan politicized organization, the government-subsized (through the charitable donation tax exclusion as well as directly) Fox News of the left. When it's this deeply ingrained, you probably can't see it. Single-payer food is apparently so taken for granted around the NPR studios, that this seems like a scoop. At least Scott interviewed a Republican, something NPR seems to do less and less of lately. But perhaps it's hard to get people to submit to this sort of thing.

Launch those flaming accordions.

Update: In case it wasn't clear, this post is about language not policy. SNAP may be great. SNAP may be a colossal waste of money and a subsidy to big agriculture. The point is about the argument for SNAP that "every American is entitled to eat." Even good policies can be supported by terrible arguments.

Update 2: I would be a lot more for SNAP if it didn't pay for ridiculously unhealthy food. OK, I'm a libertarian, gorge yourself on high fructose corn syrup if you want -- but not on my dime. Ok, actually, I'm paying for your diabetes, so maybe not even that.

Update 3: Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, approves of Simon's great gotcha scoop, and does him one better, writing,
That exchange should put in perspective the real and present danger Trump poses...But taking away Americans’ food is very tangible, and a real possibility.
So now reducing or reforming SNAP is Trump taking away American's food. He swoopeth down from above and graphs the hamburger out of starving children's hands.

Update 4: Readers coming here from Noah Smith's health care rant, see here for a response.


  1. While I agree that creating new rights out of thin air is a frustrating new trend, acting like the interviewer was posing the question as one of negative rights is clearly not right. Using the phrasing, Orwellian though it may be, of "entitled to eat" does not suggest that the interviewer thinks some ominous force is preventing poor Americans from eating. It's like when Paul Ryan talks about improving "access" to healthcare markets; even if the AHCA improved market accessibility through whatever means, it is not a semantic point that it would decrease the amount of people who have "access" for all intents and purposes to healthcare. Only someone who thinks of access in a purposefully narrow way would think otherwise.

    1. "Using the phrasing ... of "entitled to eat" does not suggest that the interviewer thinks some ominous force is preventing poor Americans from eating" -- Actually yes, it does. The entire intent of this phrase is to imply that, if you cut food stamps, you are preventing poor Americans from eating. The purpose is to cast the opponent as an evil boogeyman who just likes to starve people. To argue otherwise is either disingenuous or naive.

      As John correctly points out, the goal is to establish as synonymous the right to access something and the right to force others to provide it to you.

    2. I agree the phrasing presumes that people ought to be able to eat, but you are confusing the positive for the negative sense of the right. For example, I think everyone has a right to life, which entails not being killed; the government stops people from harming me, and that is a negative right, something that cannot be done to me. When the interviewer asks whether people are entitled to eat, he is asking about the opposite kind of right, a positive one, one which is ensured by the government taking deliberate action, as opposed to preventative action.

      The reason the interviewee doesn't directly contravene the question's hazy phrasing is because he too benefits from not having to say, "I'd rather let people starve than say they have a right to food that the government must provide." It's a fine policy position that many classic liberals would support, my point is that the semantics of it are not objectionable (to my mind) in the sense that Dr. Cochrane asserts. I think the phrasing is direct in what it refers to, a positive right. It may be Orwellian if you think he's being slippery, I'm unsure on that count.

  2. -Is the sky blue?
    -No, it does not have feelings.

  3. Two things on this:

    1. Food stamp numbers followed the economy (rising and falling with the unemployment rate) until roughly 2002. Food stamp usage has been increasing since then independent of the unemployment rate. So it wasn't just Obama.

    2. Adding a nutrition component to food stamps is problematic. Nutrition advice has changed over time, with fatty and high cholesterol foods the concern in the past, sugar today's concern, and who knows what in the future. Between changing opinions on nutrition and the fact that food stamps are part of the Agriculture Department I'd rather put up with food stamps used for junk food than making people work through ever changing regulations about which foods are "healthy".

  4. Food insecurity affects 1 in 7 households, call it 15m households or 45m individuals. Benefits are $115/mo on average per household -- and when is the last time you spent less than that per weekly grocery store visit, let alone monthly? Hunger, or imminent fear of hunger, is debilitating and destructive (cf Mullainathan). GAO has found de minimis levels of fraud and abuse -- SNAP actually helps hungry people eat. The program is effective at reducing food insecurity, and it's even countercyclical. Federal policy is effective in this space, at the cost of 2% of federal tax revenue. If there is a better proposal to deal with this widespread, significant, costly, and existential problem I'm not aware of it. Kids have to eat every day, sometime more than once, and yet the Cubs win the World Series no more than once every 36,500 days (+/-). I don't think Scott Simon is the problem here.

    1. The post is about language not policy. Inability to stick to the point is very interesting

    2. Exactly! So many wrong arguments unrelated to the original post that it would take another, probably longer, just to tell why each one of them is stupid.


  5. The question is "Does everyone have a RIGHT to food?". If so, how do you satisfy that right without violating the rights of others? To pay for this right the government must confiscate the property of others, thus violating their property rights.I'd prefer that the exercise of one's right not encroach on the rights of others. Your right to free speech doesn't prevent my free speech. Who or what you worship doesn't affect what I chose to worship. As Jefferson said, "It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg".

    The western first world countries are the only places where poor people are fat.

    In the days of the Roman Republic (not the days of decline to bread and circuses) if you were poor and starving the government would help you out IF you worked, and they had plenty of jobs for you to do.

  6. This language is pervasive everywhere sadly. Fighting it seems to require equally bombastic rhetoric.

  7. Obviously, the writer writing "this is about x" is not enough to convince certain readers that the content is about "x".

    I don't want to come off as a -insert accusation here-, but as a matter of syllogism, it is true that Simon's statements are thoroughly incoherent.

    Statement 1: So is every American entitled to eat, and is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor?

    Statement 2: So you would vote for a budget that cuts food stamps?

    The constitution does not abolish the prerogative to eat so the first clause of the first statement always evaluates True and is therefore a meaningless question - or matter of factly, bad code. Why invoke a conditional operator to evaluate an expression you know the singular answer to?

    I must admit there is an ambiguity to the word "and". Are we talking about a matlab - && or a pythonic AND or a simple &?

    Nevertheless, I presume the statement: "So is every American entitled to eat, and is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor?"
    will always evaluate false because I see "and" and not "or" or "xor", considering the secondary clause cannot formally evaluate without raising an error anyways. Properly, the second "that" in "that ought to be" makes me wonder what "that" exactly is, because it's nonsense to "be a guarantor" [let's ignore proper grammar for the matter] for presumably "to eat" to which there is no law against anyways.

    But Simon's second statement begins with a "So", as a 'so therefore', as if he wrote a function that took 2 input argument wherein one false assertion (by his own poor coding) guarantees 1 output argument: "you would vote for a budget that cuts food stamps".

    Exactly where did Simon map out a sequence of first order logic that relates anything to "vote" "budget" "cut food stamps"? I must assume that Simon must have started his interview with: "if my statement is syllogistically incorrect then you would vote for a budget that cuts food stamps". Then sure. Otherwise, his repetition of unnecessary statements when he can instead use words that actually contain meaningful content makes me wonder - not about his moral constructs - but on other things, like what I should eat for lunch.

    1. Jason,
      You must be a computer programmer.

    2. While I appreciate the direct nature of your phrasing, "The constitution does not abolish the prerogative to eat so the first clause of the first statement always evaluates True and is therefore a meaningless question", is a very poor piece of constitutional interpretation. Not even Justice Gorsuch would say such a strange thing about the nature of rights in this country. You will probably not find the right of the government to arrest people without a warrant either, but here we are, arresting people without warrants. The examples are countless, I'll leave you to debug your reasoning.

    3. I'm imagining a solicitor at the Supreme Court answering a question, "well Justice Kagan, the Constitution does not establish a right to citizenship that cannot be revoked upon immaterial lying on citizenship application forms, the answer evaluates True, you should not remand." It's a strange combination of Constitutional ignorance and formal computer syntax designed to render your opinion in some higher echelon.


  8. Simon's argument was good. Anyone can apply for food stamps and, if all requirements are met, can receive them. SNAP is an entitlement, so it is not unreasonable to state that every person is entitled to eat.

    1. That's a good point. But then why ask a question? Perhaps a question is, "shouldn't everyone who is currently entitled to eat via SNAP payments be allowed to continue doing so?" Or "shouldn't the requirements for SNAP payments be easier to meet?"

    2. Uh...It's important to ask the question because the policy of ending SNAP might be predictated on believing that not all people in our society are entitled to eat. The interviewer was trying to clarify what the politician (the policy maker) believed that could be a reason for opposing SNAP. I don't see the huge semantic problem that you do.

  9. I've been thinking a lot about the use of the word "access" lately as well. It's a sloppy substitute for whatever you mean to be saying and is usually followed by a garbage argument. Talk about not having "access" to health care, healthy food, etc. really means "it costs more than we'd like" or "is prohibitively expensive for some people." Just say those words instead. Over the next 5 years the entire meaning of the word "access" will change. It paints the picture of people being stopped at the front door of the supermarket or hospital and told to go away. Which -
    whether that is sort of what ends up happening anyways if someone doesn't have enough money to pay for the good or service - is not the correct framework to help solve the problem.

    Nobody ever talks about lack of "access" to private jets, diamond rings, or other luxury goods.

  10. "Entitled" has a pretty standard meaning in government speak. It is not about legality or rights. It is a binding expectation that taxpayers will provide the item entitled. I think both Simon and Smith had that same understanding.

    My take away is that some politicians are very poor at turning a question into an opportunity to make a carefully worded statement. To attempt to honestly and directly answer any question is a disaster. Questions are traps or poorly worded and the only safe thing to do is to make a statement. Boring is good.

  11. Actually, I use food stamps as an example of why a single-payer healthcare system is a silly idea. We want everyone to have access to adequate nutrition, but the government doesn't provide tax-funded food to every American at government-owned super markets. The problem underlying the language is the self-serving need to feel morally superior to others. Ironically, if instead of engaging in vague and often nonsensical moralistic debates, we focused the discussion on the objective at hand and the costs and benefits of the various means of achieving it, several thorny issues would have been resolved by now. Pinker, one of the greatest cognitive scientists of our time, has often talked about this.

    1. Wrong. In the supply chain of getting food as an entitlement to the beneficiary of that entitlement, the retail component of that supply chain is not the limiting factor. So, of course, there would be no need to bring up the ridiculous notion of government-owned super markets. The limiting factor is the money to pay for the food, which is what SNAP directly addresses. Thus, the question goes back to whether or not you think all the members of our society are entitled to eat something, even when they don't have the resources to pay for their food. We can argue about what and how much food they are entitled to, but if you feel they are not entitled to eat, as a politician, you should be forced to at least acknowledge your belief.

    2. I think you missed the point. You are correct on everything you wrote about food. But the exact same applies to the provision of health care, or health insurance. If government-owned super markets are a silly idea, government-owned hospitals or health care insurers are an equally silly idea for the exact same reasons. Yet many of the proponents of a single-payer system or, worse, a national healthcare system base their position on the notion that health care is a right. What food stamps illustrate is that one does not imply the other.

      On your other point, you obviously didn't get one of the points of the post. Saying that someone is entitled to eat is not the same as saying that others should be forced to feed them. Nobody is stopping people from eating, so in that sense yes, they are entitled to feed themselves. But that is not the same as saying that they have the right to force others to feed them. Now, we may decide that having the government provide access to food or healthcare to those who cannot afford it is desirable, moral, whatever. In fact, I agree. But saying so doesn't make food a right any more than saying that we should subsidize public transportation makes transportation a right.

    3. @Constantine,

      You write:

      >>you obviously didn't get one of the points of the post. Saying that someone is entitled to eat is not the same as saying that others should be forced to feed them. Nobody is stopping people from eating, so in that sense yes, they are entitled to feed themselves. But that is not the same as saying that they have the right to force others to feed them.

      That's a bit of casuistry on your part. Saying that something is a "right" in a moral or legal sense (hence an entitlement), in fact, does mean that on a normative level, the force of the state (or some other social collective) will be used to enforce such a right. Thus, if eating (or more correct, not starving) is an entitlement, it follows that normatively we are OK with the state enforcing such a right. (If rights or entitlements are not enforced, then in what sense do we have them?)

      >>Now, we may decide that having the government provide access to food or healthcare to those who cannot afford it is desirable, moral, whatever. In fact, I agree. But saying so doesn't make food a right ...

      Actually, stating that gov't will provide a service or good such as food or healthcare IS equivalent to establishing it as a right, as the state is the final guarantor of rights in society. Thus, having the state provide something is akin to viewing that thing as a right of some sort.

    4. Actually, that's not true. Take the right to free speech or life. The government does not provide you with the ability to express a thought or to live. It prevents others from depriving you of something you are naturally endowed with. This is not the same as forcing others to provide something to you that you are not naturally endowed with. This is an old but important philosophical question: can someone have a right to something whose production requires someone else's labor? If we say yes, this means that the government can force those who produce that good to provide it to everyone else. It is not just semantics, the implications are important. If food or health care are truly rights, the government must force doctors or farmers to work and provide these goods if they wouldn't do so voluntarily (e.g. Regardless I'd they get paid or not). Now, maybe it's just me, but any idea whose logical implication is that forced labor is legitimate makes me very uneasy.

      Finally, if we say that the government should make sure that every person can afford food or health care, is it the same as saying that those things are a right? Absolutely not! People have empathy. We feel bad when we see others subjected to extreme suffering, so we benefit when we prevent such suffering. Why can't we rely on charity? As Greg Mankiw has pointed out, because of the free-rider problem (antipoverty programs are, in that sense, similar to other public goods like parks). But the justification matters. Here, we are supporting these programs because we, who pay, benefit, not because the recipients have a right to those services (a notion with the uncomfortable implications described above).

    5. @Constantine,

      Again, the libertarian strikes with unnecessary mental gymnastics to justify, essentially, deprivation.

      Context matters. In the context of having a prosperous society, the right to not starve is clearly about redistribution. It is not about forced labor in a ficticious "early state of nature" nonsense. Given that we have a prosperous society, in the sense that we can provide basic food nourishment to almost all our members, should members not view this as a "right" in the sense of entitlement that will be enforced by government force? That is the question before us.

      I don't here your nonsense argument being applied to financing our ridiculous military and police budgets, as perceived security has been de facto anointed the status of entitlement or right. That Cochrane and so many "libertarians" are silent on the forced spending that goes to maintain our military adventures is very telling. It is very telling in the sense that you are clearly prioritizing certain types of redistribution as acceptable. When I hear more principled stances against excessive military spending or policing or see some support for movements like BlackLivesMatter, then I will believe you guys are sincere.

      Otherwise, it remains pure casuistry.

    6. To my unknown friend, an advice: resorting to the use of epithets (e.g. nonsense, unnecessary mental gymnastics, etc.) sends a bad signal. It indicates that you cannot offer a logical rebuttal. So does grouping people who disagree with you under a label (e.g. libertarians), then constructing an unrelated straw-man argument (black-lives matters, military spending, etc.) and employing an angry self-righteous tone to suggest that those who disagree with you are morally inferior (as our host put it, "why do you hate poor children?"). There is a list of fallacies on Wikipedia. Please check it out and see how many of them you have committed in just two paragraphs. Given this, a response seems to be a waste of time. But your rhetoric illustrates several of the points our host tried to make, and since I am looking for an excuse to procrastinate, I will take one final shot.

      First, for the record, I am in favor of greater funding of anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit, I support daycare vouchers to low-income working mothers, etc. Hence, I think it is clear to everyone but you that I am not at all trying to justify deprivation. As well, I don't even know what makes someone libertarian, let alone if I am one. However, in the interest of fairness, I should point out that people who are generally viewed as libertarians or libertarian-leaning like Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Gary Johnson, etc. have repeatedly spoken out against US military involvement, against stop and frisk, against mandatory minimum sentencing (you should read Rand Paul's article on CNN which mentions the racial implication of the policy), etc. Of course, if you are willfully blind, you will believe what you want to believe no matter what the evidence tells you.

      Second, on the issue at hand, repeating the same claim does not make it any truer (add this fallacy to the ones I have listed above). This is not a debate about redistribution. It is a debate about rhetoric and justification. Making something a right goes way beyond redistribution. Redistribution is about transferring income from those who have more to those who have less. It does not require telling poor people what goods to buy with that income. Moreover, people can avoid contributing by simply refraining from formal employment. If I have no paid job I have no income to be taxed. As well, if I leave the country, I am exempted from the tax. So to some extent, redistribution requires some degree of consent from the person being taxed. Nobel-laureate economist James Buchanan has written some fine papers on this. Making a good or service a right takes away all consent. If the government is to guarantee that right, it needs to ensure its provision to every one, poor and rich alike. Maybe achieving this goal will result in redistribution from rich to poor, but that would simply be a consequence. To guarantee the right, the government must take away from the providers of the service deemed as "right" the option to refuse its provision if doing so would compromise its availability. I can't help but think of the "Arbeit macht frei" sign at Auschwitz. I really hope that you will be able to figure this out at some point.

  12. I listened to that same interview & found myself shouting at my radio, "No, you fool! He's trying to trap you in a corner where he can say that choosing to reduce the budget by cutting back SNAP means that you want poor people to starve!"

    Smith could just have responded that the number of SNAP recipients grew by "x" percent since the financial crisis (don't even mention Obama!), and with the improving economy & job market not as many people are solely dependent on the program, but since no one voluntarily gives up freebies, raising the threshold for SNAP is one way to trim beneficiaries at the margin. And, no one wants poor people to starve. Say it.

    If Republicans don't realize that they're going to get hit with this type of question with every budget reduction proposal, and prepare short, to-the-point answers, then they're downright stupid & they need to be replaced.

    Finally, I've yet to be persuaded that "food insecurity" is anything more than a weasel-word phrase that depends solely on personal & unverifiable responses to surveys. Just about every county I've ever lived in had a food bank, and the municipal gardens in my current Colorado county contributes its seasonal fresh produce to the local food bank.

    No one in the United States of America need starve.

  13. Great post! Please keep pointing out episodes like this because it truly is helpful to be reminded of how easily language can lead to sloppy thinking.

  14. With 66% of Americans Obese and Overweight, and the only thing necessary to lose weight is to eat _less_ food, I have to question the whole food stamp program from a Public Health standpoint. 300,000 Americans/year die directly as a result of Obesity, and more from indirect means.

  15. I agree with your broad point: that language matters, that it shapes and reveals how we think about issues, and that NPR is not an objective news source (Do you know of one?).

    But your interpretation of Simon's question was also ideological. You quickly place it into a libertarian context, and we're immediately into familiar territory for this blog: poorly designed government programs, corporate subsidies, the right to tax.
    This is all good stuff--I always learn a lot from your posts.

    As an upstanding center-left person, I may put the question into the context of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen's capability approach to political philosophy--proper nourishment is one of Nussbaum's core capabilities.

    One could just as easily but it into a Marxist context and run.

    Why can't Smith take the question and run, himself? Or pivot and push back?

    Aren't you just being grumpy?


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