By Wayne Roberts
Politicians at all levels are promising more cuts to government expenses without any cut to services. For politicians, this is better than a gift that keeps on giving. It’s a promise they can keep on promising.
For most of the past 40 years, North American and British politicians have been promising to cut the size and flab of government without touching basic public services.
It’s time the Vatican classed this as a miracle: that today’s politicians can repeat the same old promise to cut fat without cutting services, with as much populist credibility as ever.
Never mind where all the flakey flowers have gone, find out where all the flab has gone and we’ll get to the meat of the matter.
Despite all the promises I keep making to myself to stay calm and centered while others choose their personal paths to planetary destruction, the ways of the miracle came clear to me after cussing a report on the release of the UK-based World Cancer Research Fund’s 850-page study linking red and processed meats to bowel and colon cancers – second to lung cancer as a cancer killer, and seemingly as preventable.
Responses to this research gave me the clue I needed. To figure out what got cut during 40 years of cutting flab without cutting services, you just need to follow the empty words, dead silences and non-events.
Professor Alan Jackson, chair of the medical panel which reviewed the evidence on meat and cancer, made this recommendation. “People who want to reduce their risk should consider cutting down the amount (of red and processed meats) they eat,” he said. What about people who don’t know there’s a risk, I wondered — perhaps because the report got virtually nil media coverage, or possibly because there are no warnings to go along with the fat food ads beamed out to infants, or maybe because there are no warnings on the meat labels that adults see when buying? And why should people feel content to merely consider cutting down, as Professor Jackson advises, rather than taking doctors’ orders and actually cutting down? And why should they not go beyond cutting down, and actually reduce to one modest serving a day, as indicated in the research?
But I quickly reminded myself not to get in a snit about a mere professor who simply reports on research and isn’t trained in the ins and outs of recommendations to the general public.
Then I saw the recommendation of the English medical officer of health, Professor Dame Sally Davies, who said “people who eat a lot of red and processed meat should consider cutting down.” I wondered if medical officers of health from 40 years ago, before fat was cut but no services touched, would have suggested that drivers should consider wearing seat belts, or drivers who speed a lot should consider slowing down near schools and children’s playgrounds. Did old-style medical researchers and officers of health put all the onus of considering on individuals?
I also wondered if what had been cut when no services and only fat got cut was what used to be called general fiduciary responsibility, the government’s duty of trust and care?
I wondered if there’s a law codifying that change because no reporters even bothered to get the no comment from UK politicians, or to ask North American politicians if they might consider this report and its implications for sky-rocketing medical costs for chronic disease.
Then my mind wandered to how major food trends of the past 40 years have gone unregulated. Plastic bottles, no problem. Styrofoam and paper cups, no problem. Drive-through take-outs of junkfood that flaunt anti-idling laws, no problem. TV and internet ads pitched to infants, no problem. Setting up junkfood outlets near schools, no problem. Selling caffeinated drinks to children, no problem. Vendor carts selling foods known to cause heart disease, no problem. Mergers of corporate giants and corporate takeovers of small competitive upstarts, no problem. Sales of food imports sprayed with pesticides and produced with labor practices illegal in the importing country, no problem. Genetic engineering unlabelled and unregulated without any authority from legislative votes, no problem. Radiated foods unlabelled, no problem. Foreign corporate purchases of farmland, no problem.
This list is getting pretty long, but I’ve barely started.
Widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides that increase global warming emissions, no problem. Processed foods laden with salt at levels known to cause heart disease, no problem. Corn sugar unregulated, no problem. Deep discounts on supersized portions, no problem. Sugary and fatty snacks advertized and sold everywhere, including gas stations, no problem.
Then my thoughts wandered to trends that have remained marginal and not taken off over the last 40 years, and noted they’ve all been subject to the long arm of the law.
Vendor carts that sell nutritious and fresh street foods, big problem. Products that truthfully advertise “no GE ingredients,” big problem. Government health ads that encourage eating less fat, big problem. (Eat more lean meats is fine; less of anything is a no-no.) Community gardens in parks, big ordeal. Farmers market in public space, big ordeal. Small home-based groceries in residential neighborhoods classified as food deserts, big problem. Splitting up large farms into a series of affordable small farms in rural areas, big problem. Selling unpasteurized milk with a clear label, huge problem. Farm-based food processing, huge ordeal. Selling food grown in a community garden, big problem. Government purchasing of local and sustainable food, big ordeal. Local slaughterhouses supporting local farms and humane animal practices, huge ordeal.
Laws requiring corporations to serve some public purpose: dead letter. But new laws and regs aplenty for charitable foundations, boards and services, along with time-consuming forms required for grants or permits to non-profits — nice for lawyers, accountants and professional fundraisers but chronic migraines for people in the social service and environmental trenches, who, of course, need to be closely watched. No good deed goes unpunished.
All of which explains how government cuts are quicker than the eye. Not cutting old services diverts the public’s untrained eye while the trick is performed in two other areas.
First, in a dynamic capitalist economy, new services and products developed by major corporations are what matters, so regulation of old services can be grandfathered for at most a generation. But small and local businesses using age-old technologies and services end up taking the full weight of old-style red tape.
The second piece of magic is even trickier: it’s not services that people need to keep their eye on, but public rights to protection –what Welsh food scholar Kevin Morgan calls the government’s “duty of care” — especially for the weak and defenseless, the very people most limited in resources as they “consider” their choices.
A word to the wise and well-informed, with no regard for getting the word out or having the word count for something, cannot be deemed sufficient.
(Adapted from NOW Magazine, June 9-15, 2011)