Thursday, May 22, 2008

Another Trillion Here and There

Between the reckless spending by the Bush Administration and the (apparently futile?) attempts of economists like Joseph Stigliz to restore some sense of reality to the numbers that confront us, the media have pretty much inured us to the idea of a trillion-dollar price tag. Nevertheless, it is worth at least a pause to consider the report that the BBC NEWS Web site ran under the headline, "Food imports 'to top $1 trillion.'" This particular price tag comes from the findings of a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); and, while I regard this group as a reputable body, I have at least one question about the reasoning, at least if the BBC report is reasonably thorough and accurate. The problem is a classic "dead moose on the table," the omission of a factor that other sources have taken to be critical and appears to receive no attention from the FAO. That factor is the role of market speculation, which, as the Financial Times reported at the beginning of this month, was being taken so seriously in India that their finance minister was considering a "blanket ban on trading in food futures." If we have learned anything from our years under the Bush Administration, it is that, when the talk escalates to more than nine figures, the "walk" is no longer down the path of financial theory but is, instead, guided by purely greed-driven motives. Thanks to Thomas Friedman's "gospel of globalization," those motives can be exercised on a global scale in any market, whether it is the manpower to run a call center, the price of loans issued by a bank, or, in this case, the cost of staple foods.

There are those who will take this as a sign that we should all become locovores. This may work for some of us; but it overlooks the plight of developing nations, which are often sorely lacking in arable land and/or the seeds to plant on that land. Thus, while the FAO should receive at least some credit for shoving another trillion-dollar price tag in our faces, they really should have done a better job of getting down and dirty over why this number came to be in the first place.

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