The Unsustainability of the Word 'Sustainability'
There's a petty joy in watching your intellectual opponents overreach to the point of self-parody. I felt some of that petty joy while reading a recent articlefrom New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman. In it Bittman discusses the plight of workers in the food service industry. Before I get to the self-parody part I want to talk about the crux of his article.
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (Photo credit: mallydally)
Of course there's nothing wrong with worrying about low wages. But first note that industries that employ service sector workers tend to be competitive, with lots of local employers competing to hire labor, and so are not very likely to be price setters but rather price takes. So it's not like they are extracting monopsony rents.
So why the blame of the businesses that employ these workers? If as a society we collectively object to people earning less than a certain amount, then why should the moral burden of paying the bill fall on the businesses that hire them? Yes, the businesses benefit from those workers, but so too do the workers benefit from the businesses. And so do the customers. And so do their landlords, and the grocery stores they shop at, and the school districts to which they pay taxes. Life is full of mutually beneficial exchanges, it is unclear from a moral perspective why the burden should fall on those with whom workers exchange labor for wages.
Worse than the condemnation of employers for failing to pay a high enough wages (whatever high enough might be) is blaming them when we as a society do decide to subsidize poor people. I've seen paragraphs like this from Bittman a thousand times before:
There are societal considerations as well as moral ones: Food workers use public assistance programs (including, ironically, SNAP or food stamps), at higher rates than the rest of the United States work force. And not surprisingly, more than a third of workers use the emergency room for primary care, and 80 percent of them were unable to pay for it. These are tabs we all pick up.
They are tabs we all pick up because we have decided it is worth it. It was voters collectively, not just the employers of low income workers, who elected to spend this money. Why should the bill fall on employers? Furthermore, the amount of assistance needed to achieve a given standard of living would be less if those who sell food, rents, housing, and clothing to low-income households charged lower prices, but do we blame them for 'the tab'?
There may be good economic arguments for having employers bear some of the burden of raising worker salaries, and in fact in a future post I'm going to argue something like that, but you won't find those arguments from people like Bittman. Instead just moralizing and vague blaming. But all of these arguments so far from Bittman are common, and none rise to the level of self parody. That, he saves for his final paragraph:
If you care about sustainability — the capacity to endure — it’s time to expand our definition to include workers. You can’t call food sustainable when it’s produced by people whose capacity to endure is challenged by poverty-level wages.
I suppose Bittman's thought is if you haven't been convinced at this point that 'sustainable' is a meaningless word then you never will, so he might as well wring a few more drops of positive affiliation out of it. One must wonder though, in what sense are the current low wages in the food service industry unsustainable? Are these workers going to implode if they have to endure more years of these wages? Or is Bittman himself going to implode out of angst? And how many more years? When will the implosion(s) occur?
As Bittman uses the word and intends it to be used it is nothing but a meaningless buzzword loosely associated with progressive policies. Of course sustainability can be a meaningful word, but if used meaningfully, and not as Bittman does, it's pretty indefensible. David Friedman made this case best when criticizing his university's sustainability policies:
....I think a reasonable interpretation, based on the word itself and how I see it being used, is that it means doing things in such a way that you could continue doing them in that way forever. If so, the idea that sustainability is an essential, even an important, goal strikes me as indefensible.
To see why, imagine what it would have meant c. 1900. The university existed, it had a lot of students and faculty. None of them had automobiles. Many, presumably, had horses. Sustainability would have included assuring a sufficient supply of pasture land for all those horses into the indefinite future. It might have included assuring a sufficient supply of firewood. It would, in other words, have meant making preparations for a future that was not going to happen.
In any case, I encourage Bittman to continue watering sustainability down to meaninglessness. Better to be a meaningless word than an indefensible one.
I'm an economist at Moody's Analytics, where I cover labor markets and other aspects of the U.S. economy. My opinions expressed at this blog are his own and do not reflect the views of anyone but myself, and all the other usual blogging caveats apply. I can be reached at ada... MORE