Economic Update: How Capitalism Shapes our Food

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In this episode, Prof. Wolff presents updates on the economic aspects of the Covid pandemic: lockdowns vs vaccines, scientific debate vs corporate advertising, long-term vs short term costs, the billionaires made by profiting from vaccines, and false claims of vaccine profiteers. In the second half of the show, Prof. Wolff is joined by former NY Times food-critic Mark Bittman to discuss his new book "Animal, Vegetable, Junk."

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes — our own and those of our children. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to devote today's first half to a discussion of some of the economic dimensions of the covid experience we're still going through 14, 15 months after it first hit most of the world beyond China. And I want to do that in part to try to begin to clear up some of the conflicting and contradictory comments, claims, promises, threats that are filling the world these days and making it very hard for you, for me to understand in a solid way what's going on. So let me begin by illustrating my point.

There are some voices that are telling us that there's an extremely dangerous variation of covid coming from India that has reached Great Britain and is causing havoc there. However, there are spokespersons for pharmaceutical companies telling us that the existing vaccines are adequate and effective against the strain. There are other voices telling us that's not the case. Germany recently said they would not allow anyone from Britain to fly into Germany and cited as the reason the fact that despite considerable vaccines in Germany, it's too dangerous to allow those folks from England who might be carrying the strain. You get the picture. What sense is one to make of it?

Here's another example. The government in Japan is desperate for the Olympics, scheduled for July, and the Paralympics, scheduled for August, to happen. And these will bring tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of tourists and enthusiasts for athletics to Japan. That's an important financial interest of the Japanese business community. So the government wants it to go ahead and makes all kinds of statements about managing the covid problem. But the medical establishment in Japan says crystal clearly, we can't handle it, we cannot manage it, we should not have the Olympics, or at the very least postpone them.

Very big questions are involved here. So I want to talk to you about the economics that are going on. On the 13th of May, the Centers for Disease Control here in the United States dropped the requirement for masks and social distancing, inside, among vaccinated people. Immediately a split developed between the governors of New York and New Jersey. Mr. Cuomo in New York said, oh great — we'll open up the economy, and we'll be back to normal. He did that as of, I believe, the 19th of May. The governor of New Jersey made no such decision, said it was much too unsafe, and that he wouldn't open things up until at least June or beyond that.

Then there's a whole question of this vaccine about which we are making so much. How does anyone know whether a person is or isn't vaccinated? It is childishly easy to replicate the cards that are given to people when they get a vaccine. It's not known how long the vaccine's effects will last or how variable the lasting will be among people. We have already lost huge numbers of frontline workers — people in the transportation industry, in the health industry, in the food-handling industry — who were in fact infected by the people they came in contact with. The whole logic of lockdowns, as it was practiced in places like China and New Zealand, was in order to control the spread so you wouldn't have to rely on a subsequent cure, which would take months, if not years, to find.

That's a very old debate between the economics of preventive versus curative care. Lockdowns prevent the spread; vaccines are something that happens after the spread has already been allowed to happen. That's certainly the history of covid. Here's a little statistic to make you wonder: Fifty percent of the New York City Police Department at the end of May remained unvaccinated. There are many reasons why people choose not to do that, but it is a very serious question if you're going to use vaccines as a rationale or a measure of what to permit and what not to permit.

Here's what I want to stress in all of this mess: The costs are staggering. Loss of life, we know. Illness, we know. Here's another economic cost you may not have thought about: It is known that getting this disease can, and likely will, have long-term effects on many parts of the human body for decades to come. The cost to our Medicare and Medicaid systems is incalculable, except we know it's huge and it will last a long time. Choosing not to lock down, which we did as a society, and choosing instead to put our eggs in the basket of vaccines, cost us an enormous amount of money, and therefore demands for an economist like me to give an explanation. What happened here? Why was this choice made?

Here's the blunt answer: Lockdowns are not good for business. Especially if you have a lockdown and you decide as a decent society to maintain the incomes of all the people who can't go to work when you really lock down. So the business community is terrified. It's not going to make money because that's what a lockdown means, production doesn't occur. But it is going to be taxed (that's its fear) to sustain the incomes of the workers who aren't working. They're not producing profit, which is what they do when they work, but they're still costing you a wage — either that you have to pay or the taxes you pay for the government to cover their wage.

Therefore, lockdowns are what businesses don't want. Vaccines are much better. Your workers keep working. People can keep shopping. You convince them, hopefully without lying, that it's safe, and you don't suffer the risks to your profits, the risks of higher taxes in the form that you might face if there were lockdowns. That has to be understood as absolutely fundamental. Then, as I'll say in a few minutes more in detail, the vaccine producers, of course, stand to make a fortune. And as I'll show you, that's exactly what they're now doing, is making a fortune.

So you have them pushing for vaccines; they don't make money out of a lockdown. And you have the rest of the business community clearly preferring the reliance, over time, on a vaccine to the immediate costs in profits and tax increases from a lockdown. And then we have the more general problem, which I call advertising. And I want to hammer at this with you, if you allow me.

A capitalist has to sell the output of whatever his or her company produces. They have to go out there and get people to buy it. All the rest of what they do is nice, but if they can't sell the final product, it all turns to a disaster. So it's understandable that they will go to extraordinary lengths to persuade you to behave in such a way as generates profits — that is, buy what they sell — rather than do something else with your money. We've set this economy up to do that. So we don't just get bombarded telling us, buy this soap, drink this drink, buy that food, wear these clothes, but we are also confronted with a capitalist health-care system which says, solve your medical problems this way, because it's profitable, not that way, which isn't. That's not because they're mean or nasty people; it's because that's the way the system works. They're rewarded when the company makes profits, and they're punished when it doesn't.

That's a very dangerous way to set up your medical system. And that's what we're learning now, because we're seeing lockdowns — which could have, and should have, been the preventive priority — having been shortchanged in favor of something else that's profitable. That's not the way to handle your health problems. It's one thing to understand that scientists can honestly disagree. That's a reality; we have to face that. But adding into the scientific disagreement the relentless pressure of highly rich corporations using lots of money to intervene in the conversation, with arguments that are designed to make profit for them, not to make scientific argument — wow. That's a self-destructive behavior of a society.

I want to conclude the first half of today's show by talking a little bit, as I promised, about how things are going for the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines. I'll begin with this: The world has nine new billionaires over the last six months, eight months, and they are, these nine new are, all people involved in producing vaccines. Isn't that interesting. Topping the list of the new billionaires are one who sits at the top of the Moderna Corporation, Stéphane Bancel, and Uğur Şahin, the CEO of BioNTech, which has worked together with Pfizer to produce that company’s vaccine. Both of the CEOs of Moderna and BioNTech are now worth $4 billion each. Oh, they've done real well. Then too, the Chinese have become billionaires — those involved in the top levels of the CanSino Biologics Corporation, whose covid vaccines have been approved now in China. And by the way, the information about these billionaires coming out of the vaccine business comes from Forbes Magazine, which keeps a record of the richest people on this planet.

Here's another index of how things have gone. Since February of 2020 — that's a little over a year ago — the shares of the Moderna Corporation have gone up 700 percent. The shares of BioNTech have gone up 600 percent, and the CanSino Biologics stock in China up 440 percent. Wow. If you take the nine billionaires, the new ones, they together are now worth $19.3 billion of wealth. And that's the price it would take right now to provide vaccines to 780 million people on this earth. But the money isn't being used for that because it's collecting in their bank and stock-brokerage accounts.

The CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, recently gave a statement saying they expect $26 billion in sales of their vaccines in 2021, earning them — this is according to the CEO — a 30 percent profit. He claimed that they took a lot of risk. They didn't. The BioNTech Company they worked with got a fund, a big fund, from Germany. They took very little risk. He claims they took $2 billion. He's agreeing that he's going to earn 30 percent on $26 billion. I did the math. That's 7.8 billion for a risk of two. No real risk. The government was going to buy it all.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. As we continue to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Economic Update, I want to thank all our supporters, and especially the Patreon community, whose support has made, and continues to make, this show possible. If you haven't already, please go to patreon.com/economicupdate to learn more about how you can get involved in the work we do each week. Please be sure to also follow us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Stay with us; we'll be right back with our special guest, Mark Bittman, one of this country's leading writers and analysts on the subject of food.

WOLFF: Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. It is with great pleasure that I welcome to our microphones and our cameras Mark Bittman. He's the author of over 30 books, including the How to Cook Everything series and most recently, and the topic of today's conversation, his new book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk. He wrote for The New York Times for over 30 years and was the United States’ first food-focused op-ed columnist for a major newspaper publication. He has hosted two TV series and been featured on others, including the Emmy-winning Years of Living Dangerously. Mr. Bittman is now Special Advisor on Food Policy at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and Editor-in-Chief of The Bittman Project. So, Mark, first of all, thank you for joining us.

BITTMAN: Pleasure to be here.

WOLFF: All right. Let's jump right in to this work that you've done, which is absolutely fascinating for anybody interested in food — and by definition, that's all of us. What is industrial agriculture? And why have you written in criticism of it? And how urgent is this issue for us?

BITTMAN: You know, just to riff for one second about how we should all be interested in food — that is, of course, true. One of my favorite lines in the book is that we are all eaters. And we are all eaters; it’s one of the things that binds us. And one of the things that I hoped would come out of this book is a greater understanding of why food is so important. I mean, we all talk about it all the time, we all are thinking about our next meal, we all love to talk about food, but we don't all address and think about where food comes from and what it's for.

Industrial agriculture basically means that 100, 150 years ago when almost everything was being industrialized, that went for agriculture also. So the picture that “big food” or “big ag,” or whatever you want to call it, wants to paint in your mind of the happy nuclear family farm of two or three blonde adults, and their two blonde children, and their dog, and their couple of cows, and so on — that doesn't exist. Farming happens on huge plots of land, for the most part — a thousand acres and more. Most crops, almost all crops, are commodity crops. That is, they're grown for sale and profit, not for nutrition or to aid people in eating well. Animals, of course, are farmed in factories and treated as if they were widgets. We can get into that if you like.

And all of this amounts to a system that puts profits first and eaters last. Remember, we are all eaters, but we don't all profit from industrial farming that doesn't really take into account the nutritional value of the food that it's producing. In fact, we have a public health crisis based largely on industrial agriculture. It is terrible for the environment. I'm talking about everything from pollution to climate change to actual poisoning of our water, our air, our soil. I can't think of anything else, but that's enough!

WOLFF: Tell me, what is agroecology — because I want people to become a bit more familiar with the very language and concepts that you use.

BITTMAN: I mean, there is a problem, there's a problem here, and the problem is that there's no — “agroecology” is the most descriptive term that's useful in talking about how we can move agriculture to a better place. It's a combination of the words “agriculture” and “ecology.” And ecology not only in the sense of how do we treat the environment better, which is sort of the common sense, but ecology in the sense of we are all one. Humans are all one. Humans and other species are closely bound. Humans and the earth are also closely related. That's really the study of ecology. And to apply what ecology learns to agriculture brings us to a completely different place than the one we're at now. And again, it's not just about protecting the environment, but about protecting workers, about producing better food, about building community and regional agriculture, about building local and regional economies — which is something I'm sure you talk about all the time.

WOLFF: Yeah, I'm taken with, and I want your reaction to, the sense that I have, and that I think many Americans have, as well as folks in other countries, that we really are living at a time when the profit motive governs everything — the chemicals put in the food; the materials taken out of the food; how it's packaged; how it's filled with salt, or fat, or sugar. It's this endless sense. And yet at the same time that we worry about an obesity crisis, we seem immobilized from addressing the capitalist nature of the food industry — the way in which, as you said, profit for a few dominates something as fundamental as the food we put into our bodies every day. How do you explain, how — you know, you've spent a life studying this. Why the disconnect? Why do people see the bad results but don't want to confront the basic cause here?

BITTMAN: It's not just food, of course; it's almost anything you could name. I mean, if we look at food, we see a system that works for people in power, and works for the 20, or 30, or even 40 percent of people who are doing well enough to kind of benefit from the people in power. So for people like you and me, the food system works pretty well. It doesn't mean that it won't have an impact on our lives, on climate, on the environment, but it works pretty well. The same is true of transportation. I mean, if you need a car to get to work, and you have a car, you think the transportation system is working. If you don't have a car, then you don't think it's working. But the people who have the power, most of the power, to change things have cars, eat well, do okay in the current economy, and so on.

So there's a way in which these become moral questions to those of us who are doing okay in this world today. Are we committed enough to changing things so that, even though personally we're not suffering much, or in fact are thriving, are we willing to work to change a system that is obviously not to everyone's benefit, and is obviously to the detriment of the world at large? Those are the kinds of questions we have to ask, I think.

WOLFF: Yeah, I think so too, because it seems systemic. There's no point in getting angry at the food company executive. He or she is doing what they're rewarded for doing. They're making money for their company. They're selling their potato chips, no matter what is in them, etc., etc. Unless we change that system, hoping to appeal to these people even on the grounds of a basic morality — that doesn't seem to have worked real well.

BITTMAN: I mean, it's the same with every issue you can think of. The minority who suffers most can decide to try to cause a revolution, and it usually fails. Or they can try to ally themselves with progressive elements of the majority and try to build a movement that actually is capable of changing things. It doesn't matter what issue you think about. Food is a legitimate issue, and I think is ignored way too much, but income equality, racism, gender discrimination, transportation, health care — you name it — it's the same fundamental issue. And it is, as you just said, it's systemic.

WOLFF: Tell me. That very perspective means I want to ask you the question: Do you see that issues around food and/or agriculture, may they be somehow more mobilizing? In a sense, you're writing a book because somewhere you must believe that getting these ideas across is itself a contribution to a kind of mobilizing of people to recognize what you just said.

BITTMAN: Look, I've been either a journalist or an activist for 50 years, and I don't have the key here. But I do think that by identifying issues that can be changed in the near future, in food or in any other arena, we encourage people to continue to be active and to say, well look, we got better pesticide controls, or we got antibiotics out of the food supply, or we limited the marketing of junk food to kids. These are all food issues. If we can do those things in the next two or five years, aren't people encouraged to then move on to other serious issues — raising animals better, protecting the land better, and so on — and getting a sense of our own power and getting a sense of the best uses of activism? But the short answer to that question is I don't know. But I think about it a lot!

WOLFF: Tell me — and this is a little off the subject, but yet again — I'm struck that we've been now educated to value what is called “organic” food. In other words, food that is at least less polluted, with fewer pesticides, and all the rest. But then the system comes back and arranges the supermarket so that if you have more money, you can afford the organic materials, but if you don't, it's almost like the system is saying, well, we're going to mess up your body. You're just not rich enough for us to have taken the extra care that would enable you to afford going over there and getting that tomato rather than the one you're picking up at this point. There's almost the system's revenge, even when some advances are made.

BITTMAN: I think the system will provide for anyone with money. And it's not particularly prejudiced in that way. So if poor people get more money, there will be better food for them. The system has no problem selling you whatever food you can afford. And if you can only afford hyper-processed food, ultra-processed food, that's what you're gonna get. If you move up the economic ladder, and you can afford fresh fruits and vegetables and so on, they'll be there for you. There's no such thing really as a food desert. There are only parts of the country and parts of different cities where there aren't enough people with money for supermarkets to justify operating in those places. Supermarkets, per se, are agnostic. Food producers, even, are agnostic. They're not racist, or anti-poor people; they just go where the money is. And the money is where wealthy people are.

WOLFF: That's right. That's what the system is, absolutely. Tell me, do you find anything interesting or attractive in the notion that agriculture could be organized as worker co-ops, rather than as profit-driven, hierarchical, capitalist enterprises?

BITTMAN: I do, but I think that's down the road a bit. I think what we need to talk about, the two issues we need to talk about, before that can happen are what reparations really means. I mean, I know you know this, but it's always worth saying that most of the land in the United States was appropriated, stolen, from indigenous Americans, indigenous people, who lived here. And then that land was redistributed to mostly white European males. And that was what the Homestead Act was.

So we have an unequal and unfair distribution of land, which is a great source of wealth in the first place. So how do we repair that damage? And what do we do about the existing lands? How do we do what amounts to land reform to try to get land into the hands of people who will work it cooperatively, who will farm it for mutual benefit, who will farm it and steward the soil and the rest of our important resources?

That will, I think, be a cooperative venture. But we have to first make reparations, we first have to do land reform, and we have to have good examples of what cooperative ventures mean in other spheres.

WOLFF: Very well said, Mark. Thank you very much. I wish, as always, that we had more time. But I really do encourage people to go get a copy of Animal, Vegetable, Junk, and you'll get a lot more of the wisdom of Mark Bittman that way. Thank you very much, Mark, and I look forward to the next time we can have lunch together.

BITTMAN: Me too, Richard. Thanks for having me on.

WOLFF: My pleasure. And to all of my listeners and my viewers, I hope you found this as interesting as I have, and I look forward, as always, to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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About our guest: Mark Bittman is the author of more than thirty books, including the How to Cook Everything series and Animal, Vegetable, Junk. He wrote for the New York Times for more than three decades, and became the country’s first food-focused Op-Ed columnist for a major news publication. He has hosted two television series and been featured in two others, including the Emmy-winning Years of Living Dangerously. Mr. Bittman is currently the Special Advisor on Food Policy at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and the editor-in-chief of The Bittman Project.

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  1. Lessons from ongoing Covid disaster:  https://www.insidernj.com/murphy-alone-not-really/
  2. Pharma sales and profits generate new billionaires: https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/21/business/covid-vaccine-billionaires/index.html

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  • Mike Hayne
    commented 2021-06-28 22:05:53 -0400
    Is the economic update Libsyn I subscribed to a real site? What should I do?
  • Richard Wolff
    published this page in Latest Releases 2021-06-28 08:04:39 -0400

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