Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ineffeciencies in the US

This post is a response to George Bush's assertion that the Indian Middle class is the "root" of the world food crisis.

Americans, "stratospheric-gas prices" notwithstanding, are indeed the planet's pampered children. In this post, I will point out a few inefficiencies in the American way of life: a consequence of having more per-capita resources than the rest of the planet - and devising a system to exploit these abundant resources to the hilt: free market capitalism.

Since denying "man-made" global warming (and evolution, for that matter) is such a passionate pursuit for the disciples of Limbaugh, O'rielly, Hannity and (presumably) Dobbs, I will refrain from looking at inefficiencies from a global warming perspective. This does not mean that I count myself as a global warming denier (the term "skeptic" sounds a little too erudite for a disciple of Limbaugh). I want to prove that the American way of life is grossly unsustainable - and would still have been unsustainable had the world not been boiling over.

Vehicles for Everyone

Does everybody in this country have to be driving? Even if they have to be driving, why SUVs? Why not a Honda Civic or a Toyota Corolla?

Don't answer these questions. We know why Americans* drive their Ford F150s. They could afford to. Fuel was cheap. That's because the rest of the world (China, India, Africa...) was so poor that the Americans* could do their consuming for them. And fuel was so cheap that mass transit was never a priority for most parts of America. (If you go to Houston and utter the word "mass transit" in a bar, I am convinced that people will look at you like you're an alien from outer space).

Meat, Wastage and Biofuels

It might trouble a few people to know that the pigs, cows and chicken that Americans* raise to eat are better fed than actual human beings in Asia and Africa.

It is fairly well established that consuming meat is more environmentally unsustainable than eating vegetables (I won't even go into the ethics of causing a sentient being pain - and into carbon foot-prints.). Food from plants (American* attitude towards plants: "That's what food eats!") tastes extremely good - and has all the requisite proteins and carbohydrates . And it does not need animals fed with what lots of people on this planet cannot afford.

In my younger days, when mum used to run around the house attempting to shove some food down the throat of a recalcitrant yours-truly she would inevitably meet with stern resistance. But then she would say "Think of all the people who don't have enough to eat! You're lucky. Throwing food is a terrible idea.". These statements would usually suffice in humbling yours truly into consuming the remainder of the solids on the plate.

In stark contrast, when I turn on the TV, I see Dr. Sanjay Gupta (that CNN "fitness" mascot, ironically of Indian ancestry) advising the hoi-polloi to push half-full plates away to avoid resembling an obese sphere. Food wastage in the US is as American as that half apple pie in the trash.

A distorted subsidy policy encouraging the conversion of food into fuel has been ranted about before. So I won't sound off on it here.

Huge Mansions; Climate Control

What's worse than living in a castle with six bedrooms, seven bath-rooms, three massive living rooms, two kitchens the size of the average inner city apartment and an outdoor swimming pool? Air conditioning the whole damn place.

The place I have described above is a typical upper-middle class American house. (The more "liberal" Americans add on a little solar panel on top of the house to power a reading light).

I still have no idea why kitchens, bath-rooms, foyers and corridors need to be air conditioned. Air conditioners are energy hogs (running that hermetically sealed compressor kills you). If the whole world decided to live like this, I am sure the then World-President-Equivalent would be Bombing Mars (or something) to take over their oil. (The disconcerting fact is that China and India (less so) are beginning to try to live like this - as Bush contended in his speech).

Other inherent inefficiencies include 42" plasma TVs, 23" monitors (like the one I am using to type this post on), that huge 120 page monster that is the Sunday News-Paper, massive distances in most American Cities, to name a few.

I would like to emphasize that I do not hold Americans responsible for these massive inefficiencies. Americans are rational agents - as greedy as any other average human being. It's just that they managed to create a system of free-enterprise that allows people to get whatever they want. Anybody would have acted like this if they had all they wanted. Not to be forgotten: America has only 30 people per square kilometer - compared with India's (and Japan's) 330.


unicorn said...

Haha, quintessential human tendency, you waste as much as you could and the moment you see some one else hogging on your plate you start complaining.

But, on the other hand rap, doncha think that even Indian agri industry needs a serious revamp?

Our agri industry is growing at sluggish 2-2.5 % for last decade.

Instead of students flooding for IT industry, there shall be some policies which would encourage brain power into agro industry. And more over if the current trend continues we see many indigenous farmers migrating to cities for better living.

Having said that, we also need to look into ways of improving our agro productivity, might be the right time for Green Revolution part 2.

Teddy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teddy said...

There are two problems with Americans, and why the problems that you describe so well are far from being fixed.
The first problems is that American's are basically people of privilege, and people of privilege do not react or change unless someone of privilege communicates to them what they are doing. For example: if a man is being called sexist by a woman it is easy for him to disregard what she is saying. But, if a man is being called sexist by another man he is more likely to take into account what he is saying. The problem is that there are basically 300 million people of privilege in America, which means at least 150 million people need to speak up. Unfortunately only about 120 million of Americans vote and half of them do not think there is a problem.
The second problem is that Americans are a consumer and material culture. We like our stuff. When you ask someone to give up their house for a small version, or their SUV for a small car they get offended. But, one of the very important points that you described was because it is cheap to live as a material consumer. However, this is not going to be true in the future. So, hopefully we will see a change in culture, not necessarily because they want to change but because they are forced to economically.

Rap said...


Oh.I'm not worried about Indian agriculture. Primarily because increasing food grain prices will automatically take care of it.

I believe markets are incredibly good at taking care of such situations. (Unless the government tinkers with them too much.)


I'm not sure I see eye to eye with you on the "people of privelege" angle. I don't expect people to change their ways unless there's an economic incentive to do so (or an economic disincentive from not doing go). I don't think human beings, at a collective level are hard-wired to make sacrifices. It's just selfish agendas that make the world tick.

My optimism stems from the fact that the future does not look rosy anymore from an energy perspective - as you noted in your comment.

In this flat world, clearly, efficiency is of paramount economic importance. The good news is that the American system of free market enterprise(a very robust system, I might add) is good at doing what is economic.

Anonymous said...

so you mean to say that markets cannot take care of these ineffeciencies?

Rap said...


When one compartmentalizes the world into rich and poor locales, rich economies will respond to market forces only in the rich regions. Till now, inefficiencies that I spoke of were not considered inefficiencies in the rich world. They were taken for granted.

When one views the whole planet as a whole, clearly, what the rich world takes for granted is hedonistic overindulgence for an overwhelming majority of human beings.

With globalization, and more importantly, the awakening of the third world (read China, and India), the effect of closed borders will tend to reduce a bit. An emphasis on efficiency is going to be a direct consequence of increased demand all over the world.

Why I fear markets can't take care of efficiency is that, the world still is not flat.

The west (America in specific) is an isolated fantasy-land - primarily because it has only 36 people per square kilometer - and more resources per square kilometer (compared with some African desert nation).

Markets will, in my opinion, yield true efficiency ONLY WHEN THE WHOLE WORLD IS BORDERLESS - from a human and market capital point of view.

But this will result in a spontaneous reduction in the American (or western) standard of living. A political non-starter.

America's (and the world's) markets aren't free, for that very reason. And that's why they can't be efficient. There will be a gradual trudge toward true effciency in the global sense thanks to increased global demand - but this will take too long.

Consider a poor country on the other hand, which has lower per capita resources than the planet's average (by virtue of having 338 people per sq. km - higher than any large nation in the world - even Pakistan and China).

Free markets in India will demand ingenious innovations to make do with extremely scarce resources. And hence the $2500 car - and plenty more to come, I hope.

Anonymous said...

Great analyses, RAP.