Lessons of the Listeria Outbreak: Do Locavores Make Us Less Safe?

As the death toll from listeria in cantaloupe reached 25 this week, marking the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in a quarter-century, some industry insiders are placing blame on the local foods movement. On economic grounds, they may have a point.

The contaminated melons were traced to a self-described small farm in Colorado that the FDA said had “poor sanitary” conditions. The FDA reported Wednesday that it found listeria in numerous areas of the farm’s packing facility, including a floor drain, a produce dryer, and a conveyor belt. Standing water and poorly designed equipment created “the perfect environment for listeria growth and spread,” according to one FDA expert. The farm claimed to have passed an outside audit just days before the outbreak that has sickened more than 100 people and devastated the cantaloupe industry. Farmers in California are plowing their crops under because of the collapse in demand.

The Orwellian Efficiency of a "Being Fat" Tax

The Danish policymakers who implemented the world’s first “fat tax” last week are remarkable not for their directness in addressing the growing Western challenge of obesity, but for their indifference to the plight of the poor, their deference to political correctness at the cost of economic efficiency, and their willingness to punish certain segments of society.

The Danes may have been the first, but headlines throughout the western world assessed the likelihood of other countries to follow, including this one. A fat tax in the U.S. (or the U.K. for that matter) would add to the growing thicket of regulations across local and federal jurisdictions intended to address weight gain and the external costs that obesity imposes on society— both through higher private insurance premiums and ballooning government outlays for the uninsured.

Whether the tax will improve health outcomes is an empirical question that won’t be answered for several years or more.

Green-Collar vs. Blue-Collar Jobs: A Difference in Name Only?

Amid ongoing inquiries into the prudence of government loans to failed solar firm Solyndra, and a spate of other bad news on the green jobs front, there is growing concern that the green economy may not be the juggernaut President Obama promised when he vowed after his election to invest $150 billion to generate “five million new green jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.” To counter critics, the administration is greenwashing large swaths of the economy—defining “green jobs” down to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from what we used to call “manufacturing jobs.”

Green jobs are central to arguments that new environmental regulations should be pursued even in a down economy. Supporters of the policies, like California’s carbon cap-and-trade system, claim that even if the cost of regulatory compliance causes job losses in the traditional economy, the regulations will create jobs in the green economy. And green jobs are better jobs, as the President says: high paying, reliably American, and yielding environmental benefits.

Success of the green economy supports the economic defense of environmental policy, which may explain why administration officials were on Capitol Hill last week defending the notion that millions of Americans, from bus drivers to car makers, are employed in “green jobs.”

Examining the EPA Cave-in: Does the Broken Window Fallacy Apply?

Did President Obama get the economics wrong earlier this month when he abandoned stricter air-quality rules, wagering environmentalist loyalty in a bid to avoid job losses from strict new ozone standards? Paul Krugman thinks so, calling the decision to wave off the EPA a “lousy decision all around.” But is Krugman right?

The short-run job-creating move, Krugman contends, would have been for Obama to promulgate the new ozone regulations, which would have forced firms in hundreds of counties across the country to replace and upgrade capital in order to comply with new, stringent pollution abatement requirements. He asserts that because the U.S. economy is in a liquidity trap, wherein conventional monetary policy is insufficient to induce firms to spend, the regulations could have accomplished what the Fed cannot. In such a "world of topsy-turvy,” as Krugman says, the usual rules of economics are thrown out, and even the “Broken Window Fallacy” ceases to hold.

Your End of Days: Would Life-Length Testing Save the Government Money?

A Spanish company announced this summer that it can help determine when people will die by using a blood sample, a $700 test, and research that earned three American geneticists the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009. Though the test has its critics, and though it won’t offer an exact date for one’s death, it does promise to reduce uncertainty about longevity by examining a tiny part of DNA that reveals biological age as opposed to chronological age. Successive generations of the test are likely to improve in predictive power.

Our ignorance about an individual’s longevity is the source of a number of problems. Many of them are personal, but some have implications for society writ large, and taxpayers in particular. So one wonders: if the government can make you confront the calorie content of your diet, can it also make you confront your mortality?

If the government were to mandate “life length” testing, it could help resolve the intractable lifetime savings problem. Pervasive under-saving among households is a result of our impatience, to be sure, but it is certainly also a consequence of the fact that no one knows how long his savings need to last. Save too much and you miss out on having fun when you're alive. Save too little and you end up broke and reliant on the social safety net that taxpayers fund.

Mandating Calorie Counts: Has Libertarian Paternalism Gone Too Far?

Staring at the menu board on a recent and rare trip to a California fast-food chain, I was stunned by the cost of a milk shake: 880. Eight dollars for a milk shake, really? Well, no. That was the cost in terms of calories. But I would have gladly traded that in dollars and cents to be spared the knowledge of how many calories my post-triathlon race reward would cost me. Feeling sufficiently guilty once confronted with the calorie content, I downsized and saved a couple hundred calories. But I left feeling dissatisfied and unambiguously worse off.

This kind of experience could be coming to a restaurant near you by January, when the FDA plans to roll out mandatory calorie labeling regulations approved by Congress in the same bill that authorized ObamaCare. At chain restaurants with more than 20 locations, you won’t be able to avoid the calorie information, which is prescribed to be posted on menus and menu boards near prices and printed at least as large. So much for the days of blissful ignorance.

While the calorie labeling law is intended to improve health outcomes for individuals, it is effectively a government-mandated guilt trip and a sign that libertarian paternalism—the seemingly benign notion that “choice architects” can “nudge” people to make better decisions for themselves—has gone too far.

Carbon Taxes in Canada, Solar Shutdown in Massachusetts: Climate Lessons For California

Recent news delivered two different verdicts on two different climate policy experiments, both of which carry lessons for California and its delayed carbon reduction plan. The first, a revenue-neutral carbon tax in British Columbia is “a winner.” So says The Economist. But the second, the Massachusetts front of President Obama’s green jobs initiative, is a failure. What else to conclude from this week’s bankruptcy filing by Evergreen Solar, a recipient of millions in federal stimulus dollars and state subsidies?

There are lessons in both stories for lawmakers in the U.S., especially our environmental policy frontiersmen in California, who in 2013 will impose the only carbon policy outside Europe to rival that of our northern neighbor in its seriousness and aggressiveness.

Why California's Push for Rooftop Solar is a Foggy Idea

Would you trust your neighbors with billions of dollars of public money to invest in a clean energy future? If you live in California, this isn’t a hypothetical question.

California Gov. Jerry Brown last month announced his intention to rely on “tens of thousands of little decisions” by Californians to develop a 12 giga-watt renewable energy infrastructure by 2020. In remarks at a UCLA clean energy conference, Brown embraced distributed solar generation in order to avoid the pitfalls that often encumber large-scale renewable energy projects, including the capital costs of transmitting energy from far-flung deserts and hilltops. Furthermore, rooftop solar panels and Cameron-esque windmills also pose little threat to desert tortoises or sacred Native American sites, so they are less apt to be caught up in the kind of litigation that has delayed major renewable projects.

But energy policy that relies on distributed generation has its drawbacks. Perhaps most notably, it forsakes economies of scale. It also places infrastructure investment decisions in the hands of homeowners, who, as this space has suggested, may not make socially optimal—or even individually rational—choices.