Regular readers know, my favorite left-of-center blogger is Walter Russell Mead, over at The American Interest. The reason Mead is so interesting is that, unlike the Paul Krugmans and Ezra Kleins of the world, he’s willing to challenge liberal shibboleths, recognizing that for liberalism to be more relevant, it needs to be more intellectually robust. At times he writes almost like a conservative, although he’s not. This morning is one of those posts:
Wal-Mart has hitched its wagon to the local food train, but not to save the planet. It’s the money. As Darrin Robbins, Wal-Mart’s senior manager for produce told the Wall Street Journal:
“We can get chili peppers from Florida all day long, but at the end of the day that is not necessarily the best model for us” … “I’m going to pay a higher price in Ohio for peppers, but if I don’t have to ship them halfway across the country to a store, it’s a better deal.”
It turns out that in the age of high gasoline and transportation costs, local produce is ultimately cheaper.
I’ve written before that Walmart is doing more for the planet than Greenpeace; this is just more proof. A ruthless focus on price and efficiency is the best way to reduce humanity’s environmental footprint.
I think his conclusion is right: companies dislike waste more than most Greenies do – it hurts the bottom line. Usually Greenies are wasting someone else’s time or money. This doesn’t mean that some companies wouldn’t willingly forgo all sorts of reasonable environmental protections if they could, although it’s worth noting that the worst environmental disasters of the last century were centrally planned by the Soviet, and this century’s are shaping up to be centrally planned by the Chinese.
Nevertheless, I think he misses a more subtle point. Those higher gasoline and transportation costs are real, and they are the result of governmental policies, usually pursued by Democrats specifically in order to drive up fuel prices. They’ll admit this during primaries. Wal-Mart is simply responding to incentives.
The problem, of course, is that “buy local,” unless is some specialty item, almost always means a lower standard of living. It makes you more dependent on a smaller base of supply, and decreases out-of-season availability. If the local crop fails, you still have to import the food from farther away, at the higher cost. I don’t have data to back this up, but it would also make sense that the availability of long-haul refrigerated units for produce would decline along with demand, which adds even more to the marginal cost of replacing a local supply gone missing.
The country always undergoes a series of local crop failures which go unnoticed by consumers. Now they’ll be more likely to notice those failures, and more likely to hear someone other numb-nut attributing it to your air conditioning, as well. So not only do we bear the cost of food, we also have to put up with the sermonizing.
Mead’s incredibly insightful about larger social and economic trends, so it’s a shame to see him missing a trick on this one.