Value Subtracted



April 29, 2006

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If there is a test case for the proposition that corporate property regimes lead to the improvement of a commons, then it is food. More specifically, it is the traditional foods of a particular culture. No one owns these. Here in the Philppines, no one owns the idea of pansit which is a kind of noodle dish, or of skewered chicken, or of shucked corn roasted on a street corner. These are part of a food culture; and according to our leading economic lights, they should therefore stagnate into a culinary puddle of lassitude and waste. Who would improve that which they do not own?

Well, it turns out lots of people will. There is pansit and roasted corn and a multitude of soups and stews that I forget the names of on just about every corner — just as, in the U.S., the common ownership of pizza and moo shu pork has not deterred countless restaurant owners from concocting their own versions of these. To the contrary, it is in the culinary commons that invention is most alive. I can treat you to a lot more varieties of moo shu in San Francisco than I can varieties of a Big Mac. That is because there are no varieties of Big Macs. The corporate property regime has frozen it in place, to change only when a hulking legal and marketing bureaucracy permits.

What then about the quality of the food, by which I mean its capacity to feed and sustain the body? Over the last few days I have been trying to think of a country in which the invasion of corporate food, with its attendent copyright and patent regimes, has resulted in better nutrition — which is to say, better food. Is there one? To my knowledge, the usual result of these culinary enclosures is worse nutrition, and more fat.

Like most traditional diets, that of the Philippines is based on a home-grown grain, which of course is rice. To that is added the animals raised on farms, mainly chickens and pigs, and the fish that are abundant in the oceans and streams (or were until the pesticides came.) Then there are the bananas, coconuts, mangos and the rest that grow abundantly as well, plus some sweet potatoes, swamp cabbage and the like. It is basically a healthful mix. Filipinos traditionally are lean and strong. Men who look almost wispy in their NBA shirts and flip flop sandals regularly hoist large sacks of rice on their backs and carry it long distances.

In recent decades however corporate food has come, which is another way of saying fat food. The results have been predictable. Yesterday’s Philippine Star, one of the national dailies, ran a story on the expanding girths of people here. In just the last five years, the percentage of males with a high “waist to hip ratio” — i.e.. fatties — has tripled. Among females, those with abnormally large waists has almost quadrupled. That’s in five years. None of this will be surprising to anyone who has spent time here, and watched the kids pile into Jollibees, the fast food chain that is beating McDonalds.

To be more precise, they drag their parents into Jollibees. When my wife’s village got electricity a few years ago, I asked people what the major change had been. Their kids were nagging them to go to Jollibees, was the answer I heard most often. This, with rice, chickens, pigs, bananas, et al, literally right outside their doors. The displacement of a food culture starts with the commandeering of the culture of communication, especially via the public airwaves.

Let’s be more specific. A Filipino favorite is grilled skewered chicken, sometimes called inasal. This stuff ranges from the good to the screamingly delicious. (Not all Filipino dishes appeal to those without a taste for organ meats and the like.) There is an inasal place in the provincial capital of Iloilo where you can get a skewer and a good serving of rice wrapped in a banana leaf for 55 pesos, which is $1.10. Next door is a Mcdonalds, where the equivalent platter has one piece of fried chicken and a scoop of rice, also for 55 pesos.

McDonalds has subtracted chicken and added fat, plus its hulking corporate overhead. That’s pretty much all it has done. Economists call this “value added,” because it generates sales that exceed the costs of production. But economists live in a mental world of monetary abstraction that is oblivious to the actual nature of that which is produced and sold. In reality value — food value — has been substracted, and fat and sugar put in its place.

That is pretty much the norm for corporate enclosures of the food commons. How often does a corporation actually improve what nature and a local culture have created? Grain becomes a delivery vehicle for fat and sugar called “children’s cereal.” Water becomes cola, which delivers mountains of sugar, plus the drug caffeine. (In the beginning it delivered cocaine; hence the coca descriptor. There are exceptions, I’m sure; but they are exceptions. The general role of the corporation in a nation’s food is to junk it up and help make people fat.

Tragedy of the commons? Sounds more like a tragedy of the corporate to me.

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