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Difficult Words #5: Illth

You may not know it, but food is cheap. As a percentage of total family income, food is cheaper, actually, than ever in history, anywhere. Families in the United States spend an average of 10% of their income to buy food. That is not an accident. It’s policy.

Blame it on the 70s, when an enormous sale of wheat to the Soviet Union collided with a bad harvest. The result was skyrocketing prices and political blowback from the American electorate. So Nixon turned to his Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, and told him to make it go away.

Boy, did he.

What he did was trash the New Deal era system that lent farmers money to keep grain off the market, thus preventing the overproduction spiral that always crashed prices. Butz replaced it with a system that just paid the farmers for the grain they couldn’t sell. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a huge incentive to grow as much grain as you can, regardless of whether there’s a market for it. But by changing the government’s role from supporting farmers in tough times to subsidizing lower prices, Butz vaporized the public protest.

He also told the farmers that he expected them to “get big or get out” and indeed they did. Harvests rose and so did the acres planted until US farmers were putting out 500 extra calories per consumer per day. Farms weren’t the only ones on their way to getting big.

These days, you can see Earl Butz’ living legacy in the form of fat. The United States is the fattest nation on earth, with 35% of the population obese (not overweight, mind you, obese). In the doctor’s office, obesity eats up 17% of our total medical spending, or $168 billion dollars. Projections, by the way, are calling for that number to climb to $344 billion in 2018, a full one-fifth of total medical spending. Call me a pessimist, but I have to believe that number will climb as the obese population ages.

But I know you came here to find out about illth, not 70s era ag-policy.

So, “illth.” WTF, right? The first thing to know is that it’s a real word which you can find in Volume VII of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was coined in 1860 by John Ruskin, the English writer, artist, philanthropist and all-around too-smart-guy-with-spot-on-taste. Ruskin, from his vantage point in the cockpit of the industrial revolution, realized that reality had outpaced the language. In an era of spectacular explosions of riches and astounding leaps in material culture — that is, the stuff that we have access to — there was something else happening, too. That something was the opposite of wealth, which he termed illth.

To really grasp what he was after, you need to understand that we live with a pretty impoverished notion of “wealth.” Though “wealth” can include having money, it’s a word that was never meant to mean “rich,” or at least it didn’t before the financial services industry redefined it. (They’re also redefining “services” as servitude, but that’s for another day.) Wealth comes from the the Old English word “weal” which meant well-being in mind and body and life.

This confusion between having riches and leading a rich life is not a new thing. Take, for instance, Epictetus. Born a slave, he wound up in Rome, where his master was a secretary to Nero. That vantage point gave Epictetus a first-hand view of exactly what kind of life money can buy you, and it seems to have inspired him. Still enslaved, he began to study philosophy. By the time he was in his 40s, he’d not only freed his mind, but his body, too. Living and teaching as a philosopher, he came to define wealth as consisting “not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” Maybe that’s why Emperor Domitian banished him from Rome.

So, what we’ve really got is a predilection reinforced by a spelling mishap, because if we read “wealth” as “well-th” then “ill-th” becomes clear. Illth has a much-less-elegant 20th Century counterpart, “bads,” which is the evil twin of “goods,” as in manufactured goods. So, when our world manufactures a “durable good” like a car, it’s also manufacturing “durable bads” such as depleted mineral resources, air pollution and preventable deaths like the 40,000 people killed by cars each year in the US.

Illth is the underbelly, the downside of the upside, the cost to us and the world that sustains us, of the things we do. Just as the original wealth came in the form of agriculture, so did the original illth.

In Mesopotamia, the first cities rose by harvesting the wealth of the irrigated fields that surrounded them. When those fields harvested more illth (in the form of salted soils from the same irrigation practices) than wealth, those civilizations vanished. Tragic, for Mesopotamia. But in the big picture, not such a big deal, because Mesopotamia was a very small dot on a very big world.

A few thousand years down the road, it’s harder to be cavalier about illth. Exhibit A: fossil fuels, source of the wealth that has brought us — among other things — cars, artificial light, air travel to anywhere, iPhones, and the nitrogen that largely comprises 50% of the bodies of the seven billion people living on earth. Fossil fuels have also brought us the illth of a climate rapidly becoming fundamentally incompatible with the conditions under which all of human civilization has evolved.

The big problem with illth is that we simply don’t want to believe it’s real, and so we find ways to make it hard to talk about it — like not having the vocabulary. What’s more, and what’s perhaps even worse, we also make it hard to count it.

As you may be aware if you’ve ever heard any politician talk ever, “growth” is the thing that will cure all ills. (Armed with your new vocabulary word, you can translate these utterances into an Orwellian “wealth is the cure for illth.”) The measuring stick for growth is Gross National Product, or GNP, the sum-total of all economic activity in the country. The problem with GNP is that it’s math by morons. What do I mean by that calumny? That GNP only knows how to add, and never subtract.

Let’s take the Deepwater Horizon disaster as an example. Buying an oil rig = plus. Staffing and drilling = plus. Catastrophic explosion and oil spill = not subtracted. Hundreds of thousands of man-hours on cleanup = plus. Destruction of entire fishing season in the Gulf = not subtracted. Buying 1.8 million gallons of highly toxic oil “dispersant” = plus. Pouring 1.8 million gallons of highly toxic oil “dispersant” into the ocean where the fishing happens = not subtracted. Deaths of eleven rig workers = not subtracted. Restitution payments by BP to just about everyone = plus.

You may be wondering, why is nothing subtracted? The answer is a profound window into the mind of your average economist. Because no one wants to buy spilled oil, dead wildlife and dead oil rig workers, they don’t have a price, and therefore do not exist.

In case this is all too depressing, here it is in joke form, courtesy Alastair Mackintosh’s inspiring book, Soil and Soul. Paraphrased—

An economics professor and his student are out walking when the come across a pile of dog-doo. The professor stops and says to his student, “See that? Eat it and I’ll give you $20,000 bucks.”

The student stops to perform the cost-benefit equations he’s been taught and, knowing the workings of the market’s invisible hand never fail, gets down, chows down and collects.

The continue their walk. The student, however, finding it difficult to focus on the benefit to his wallet because of certain other aesthetic and therefore unpriceable costs, spots another pile of doo. “Tell you what, Prof. If you eat that, I’ll give you $20,000 bucks.”

The Professor stops to perform the cost-benefit equations himself. Because they’re the exact same thing he taught to the student, he arrives at the exact same conclusion. So he gets down, performs the labor and collects his fee. They walk on.

But the student — you know how students are — he can’t stop thinking about it. Finally: “Listen. We’ve both spent $20,000 but each of us still has the same as we started with. We’ve both eaten shit, but neither of us is any better off.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” the Professor replies. “You see, we’ve just increased the GNP by $40,000!”

By the lights of GNP’s mathematical certainty, this is not a joke. You and I, absent any equations, know exactly how the balance of costs and benefits really plays out.

According to Herman Daly, our oldest-living non-magical-thinking economist, if you were to actually subtract illth from the wealth, you’d end up in the red, particularly in energy-intensive, technology-dependent, highly-financialized countries like the one I’m sitting in now. But since our economists (regardless of party affiliation) don’t know how to subtract, it’s a very large, very invisible problem. Illth is the Dark Matter of our economy, the dominant force that we cannot directly detect. But we can find its footprints everywhere. In fact, it’s kind of horribly fascinating to watch illth creep past on cat feet, leaving decay, being counted as wealth.

Let’s go back to those plus-size Americans (I wonder if polluting the language with sad little euphemisms counts as illth?) It’s unsurprising that the illth of paying farmers to make food that no one needs oozes through the food industry and makes us ooze outward. But it doesn’t stop there.

For instance, sheets. Turns out that if you’re bigger, you wear out sheets faster. Same with shoes. So, those extra sales of shoes and sheets are counted towards the economic “productivity” of the nation. You find the same thing happening down at the fire station.

With more and more of their client-base getting bigger, it was only a matter of time until fire departments and hospitals needed to start changing equipment. Because of this, we now have “bariatric” gurneys. They’re bigger, sturdier and wider so they don’t tip over. They’re battery powered and have motors to raise and lower the patient, because EMTs were injuring themselves doing it by hand. These gurneys also have a ring where you can attach the cable from a winch, which is considered the safest way to load bariatric patients.

The winch itself, you will find in the new bariatric ambulance that goes with the bariatric gurney because the new gurneys don’t fit in the old ambulances. Now the bariatric ambulance is $40,000 more than the old style ambulance, coming to a typical total of $110,000 dollars. The bariatric gurney is four times the cost of what it replaced, about $4,000 each.

So it goes, in just about every direction. The runoff fertilizers flow to the sea where they create the world’s biggest dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Agribusiness relentlessly plants to earn their subsidies, and the Iowa topsoil, built up over millennia, just blows away. All that corn makes meat so cheap that portions get supersized and tagged with the word “value.”

The illth is real, its subtractions moving in mysterious ways, appearing in unsuspected guises like the bottom line on your health insurance, or the cost of gulf shrimp. But the most subversive trick, the one that’s most invisible and most dangerous, is the way that we mail the bill for illth to the future.

Unlike all of us, the planet itself isn’t getting any bigger, which means that whatever goes around will, eventually, come around. That brings us back to Mesopotamia, or as we now call it, Iraq. Those soils that were destroyed by irrigation never recovered; the unfunny irony is that the globe’s first grain producing region is now at the heart of the most grain-import-dependent part of the world. For Mesopotamia, future illth is now and has been for thousands of years.

There’s the price of food, and there’s the true cost of that food. Try to remember that the next time you think you’re getting gouged at the farmers market with the $6-a-dozen eggs. And if you’re still having a hard time coughing up the cash, pause to consider that their $2-a-dozen counterparts at the grocery store are really a shell-game, a distraction, a condolence, a sop that draws your attention from the pickpocket behind you.

The Romans had a term for this, panem et circenses — bread and circuses. In Rome, that meant free food and entertainment to distract the masses from the fact that the empire was being run by a rich elite for the benefit of that rich elite. We have “value meals” and a universe of “content delivery systems” that do the same thing. Nixon, whatever his faults, knew what the Roman emperors knew — and Marie Antoinette didn’t — that food is special. That ordinary people have an emotional response to its cost. That when they sense that their ability to put food on the table is imperiled, they get unreasonable. They start gathering in the streets. They start fantasizing about how much nicer everything would be if their leaders were in jail or dead. Just ask the people of the Arab Spring nations, every one of which found the price of their staple foods rising beyond the redline FAO number of 210.

But I wouldn’t worry about bread riots breaking out here. The new farm bill has just passed that branch of the legislature that we named after its Roman forebear and, as always, the bread will be well-subsidized. So will the corn-based, screen-time-friendly snacks that we can use to continue our growth while watching the circus clowns sell games in the app store as they jump, wave and blow horns just loudly enough to blot out the sound of the envelope coming through the mail slot. You know the one. It’s got red letters printed on the outside. And a stamp that tastes like illth.

The Ruins of Ur by NathanM

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