FF Daily #436: Michael Sandel on limits of markets

July 29, 2021: Is organic food sustainable; China’s curious tech battle; A dog’s life

Founding Fuel

[Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash]

Good morning,

In What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel, who is known for his fantastic series of lectures on justice, cites an interesting example from the US in the early 2000s. It might be especially relevant to our times when, as Gita Gopinath, Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, pointed out, the rich have become richer, and the poor poorer. How about transferring some money from the rich in the form of ads?

Sandel writes: “In the early 2000s, many cash-strapped cities and towns were tempted by an offer that seemed too good to be true. A company in North Carolina was offering new, fully equipped police cars, complete with flashing lights and backseat jail bars, for $1 per year. The offer came with a small condition: the cars would be covered, NASCAR-style, with ads and commercial logos.

“Some police departments and city officials considered the ads a small price to pay for police cruisers that would otherwise cost about $28,000 each. More than 160 municipalities in 28 states signed up for the deal. Government Acquisitions, the company offering the patrol cars, signed contracts with interested towns, then pitched the advertising space to local and national companies. The company insisted the ads would be in good taste—no alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or gaming ads would be accepted. Its website illustrated the concept with a photo of a police car with McDonald’s golden arches across the hood. Among the company’s clients were Dr Pepper, NAPA Auto Parts, Tabasco hot pepper sauce, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Army, and Valvoline. The company also planned to approach banks, cable television companies, car dealerships, security companies, and radio and television stations as potential advertisers.”

Sandel then goes on in his typical style summarizing the arguments for and against the idea. However, eventually he writes, “In the end, however, the North Carolina company did not deliver any police cars. In the face of public opposition, including a campaign to dissuade national advertisers from participating, it apparently gave up, and it has since gone out of business.” 

That’s not the end of the idea itself, but that’s a story for another day. 

In this issue

  • Is organic food sustainable?
  • China’s curious tech battle 
  • A dog’s life

Have a good day.

Is organic food sustainable?

Food production in large parts of the world was ramped up and famines have become a thing of the past after technologies to create food at industrial scale became all pervasive. But we’ve witnessed the downsides to it as well. To keep production going, the soil must be pumped with insecticides and pesticides. It plays a significant role in creating a toxic ecosystem that creates more toxic food. This awareness is why more people have started shifting to foods created using sustainable practices such as organic farming. 

So, when Matt Ridley, one of the finest science writers of our times, took a position against organic food earlier this week, he had our attention. 

“This is primarily because organic crop production relies on animal faeces as a fertiliser, an obvious vector for potentially lethal pathogens such as E.coli, but also because organic crops can be prone to harmful mycotoxins as a result of inadequate control of crop pests and diseases,” he wrote.

“Sure, organic agriculture is sustainable: it sustains poverty and malnutrition”

“[I]ndependent research published in Nature has shown that if England and Wales switched 100 per cent to organic it would actually increase the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our food supply because of the greater need for imports. Scaling up organic agriculture might also put at risk the movement’s core values in terms of promoting local, fresh produce and small family farms.”

We’d love to hear what you think about this. 

Dig deeper

China’s curious tech battle

There’s something curious happening in China and we’ve been trying to place a finger on what’s going on. The government is systematically going after its homegrown technology giants such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent among others. Why? If anything, these are the kind of companies that can counter the influence American entities such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook wield. 

But technology commentators such as Noah Smith have pointed to something curious. “[N]otice that China isn’t cracking down on all of its technology companies. Huawei, for example, still seems to enjoy the government’s full backing. The government is going hell-bent-for-leather to try to create a world-class domestic semiconductor industry, throwing huge amounts of money at even the most speculative startups. And it’s still spending heavily on A.I. It’s not technology that China is smashing—it’s the consumer-facing internet software companies that Americans tend to label ‘tech’.”

Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, has an interesting perspective to offer as well. “My answer is simple: it’s about political power. In fact, if we frame the question differently, the answer becomes readily apparent: ‘Why is the autocratic leader of the Chinese Communist Party attacking media companies that directly reach almost everyone in the country?’ Because size, reach and control of consumer data gives them narrative power comparable to what the Party has. Further, the ability to tap foreign capital gives them more freedom, albeit of the kind with Chinese characteristics. The Party doesn’t like that. And Xi likes it even less. That is why he moved aggressively to pre-empt a challenge to the Party’s narrative dominance and preserve its monopoly on power.”

Dig deeper

A dog’s life

(Via WhatsApp)

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Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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