How Many Deaths Is Cheap Chicken Worth?
A common belief that regulations are a burden on businesses is challenged by Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken.
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
1. If you want to be a good boss you will want regulation (likewise good economists). If that surprises you, Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken shows you’ve caught a virulent strain of bad ideas about business.
2. McKenna’s meaty history shows “how antibiotics created modern agriculture” but also antibiotic-resistant superbugs (our prevailing pecking order puts profit above deadly risks).
5. Before 1945 scientists knew ill-suited antibiotic use would breed resistant bacteria—eradicating easy-to-kill kinds clears space for hardier bugs to evolve and thrive (livestock now consume ~80% all antibiotics).
8. Consider now-popular “free market” ideas. Did voluntary transactions self-organize well? Did businesses behave responsibly? Did bad choices harm only bad choosers? If not then, why now?
9. Not choosing industrialized meat is no defense (e.g., meat-plant bugs spread to a hospital infecting 4,000 newborns killing 24 mothers and infants). We inhabit a microbial commons, rife with “tragedy of the commons” risks.
10. Can we afford to remain oblivious to the obvious? Isn’t it clear that, as in sports, if all players aren’t held to decent standards, good guys lose to prepared-to-cut-corners folks? Unregulated games can become “scoundrel cascades,” where race-to-the-bottom pressures push decent players to match the worst sins to stay in the game.
12. Here cost-benefit-style thinking misleads—how many deaths is cheap chicken worth? 40,000+ annually? Well “markets” have already “decided” that, while risking millions more deaths (post-antibiotic era plagues).
13. In every market externalizing costs increases profits. Handling such dysfunctional incentives is hampered by an unhealthy alliance between backseat-driver theorizing economists and opportunistic bad businesses (—>”How Economists Turned Corporations into Predators”).
14. It’s an amazing case of sophisticated-seeming abstractions creating concrete stupidity. It’s far from the only “free market” example (e.g. claiming corporate taxes hinder growth, while actual “good” entrepreneurs testify not). Garrett Harding complained some economists sprinkle ideas such as “externality” like “pixie dust” before reverting to reality-denying toy-model math-ogling games.
15. Interestingly, my opponents on regulation are often also correct (—>3 regulation resistor types). Many bad counterproductive regulations exist. But that means we must consider the concrete particulars, not abstract idealizations like “permission-less innovation.”
16. Running a good (decent, effective, unharmful) business requires level-playing-field regulations
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
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