Food Lines at the Global Factory

A recipe for lean years.


The Lean Years: Politics in the Age of Scarcity, by Richard J. Barnet, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980, 349 pp,. $12.95.

Richard Barnet, founder and codirector of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, State Department advisor during the Kennedy administration, author of six other books and coauthor of Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations (1975), has blessed us with another book. Its main thesis, understandably obscured, is that hunger, unemployment, and scarcity of water and energy are due to…capitalism. Socialist planning on an international scale can bring global abundance in unspecified ways.

"Scarcity is a product of political and economic organization," says Barnet. "Scarcity is real because the control of resources is planned in such a way that much of the world does not have enough." Take it from X and give it to Y (but don't let food get outside your region or let foreigners get in). "National dependence on foreign minerals," he adds, "like the nation's dependency on foreign oil, is a consequence of private corporate decisions." Even more explicitly: "Capitalism requires the unrestricted right to turn public resources into private wealth."

A secondary theme is a romantic vision of "village life" and the "disappearing peasant"—essentially a now-familiar plea for deurbanization and demechanization. "The mechanization of agriculture," notes Barnet, "has sharply reduced employment possibilities in the countryside." Throw away the tractors and go back to manual labor and the pastoral bliss of the Middle Ages.

Food is treated as a natural right or resource, as in "the global maldistribution of water is even more pronounced than the maldistribution of energy or food." From this Garden of Eden theory of farming comes the "bedrock principle" that every person on earth "has a vested right to a decent minimal share of world resources by virtue of having been born."

Barnet does not try quite hard enough to conceal his regard for Soviet-style socialism. He openly admires Marx, Engels, and Lenin; cites Monthly Review and the Progressive as sources; and says naive things like, "Socialists call for abundance for the many rather than the few." "The most impressive achievement of socialist societies," he opines, "is that thousands who lived rote lives under the old regime are now awake." The cheerful Polish workers, for example.

Predictably, then, Barnet treats government as synonymous with enlightenment and virtue. "The triumph of the oil companies," he writes, "has been their ability to…discredit the idea of government at the very moment when planning in the public interest is so obviously needed for survival." With this perspective he manages to blame gasoline waiting lines on the oil companies, citing an opinion poll as "evidence" and never even mentioning the Energy Department. He favors a government monopoly on oil imports (which would simply make it easier for OPEC to detect members who undercut the cartel price). He suggests that we need a "democratic planning system" and that "it may be necessary to nationalize" the oil companies.


This is the flavor of the book. Its most distinctive feature is an unsurpassed flow of inconsistency and contradiction. Barnet favors both central planning and community control; he opposes both the rising price of wood and cutting down trees; he deplores the uranium cartel but favors a cartel "to support mineral prices"; he loves renewable resources but hates burning wood.

• On one page, we worry that "more and more goods are now made in the poor countries…to be consumed in the industrial heartland." A little later, however, we find that "one out of every six jobs in the U.S. and one out of every three acres are devoted…to exports to poor countries." In the poor countries, however, "only a sliver of the population can afford cars," though elsewhere we learn that over the next decade US auto companies "are counting on the market in Asia and Latin America to double and the African market to triple."

• "The more global the market," says Barnet, "the more the giants prevail." Turn a few pages, and the problem becomes the "unique opportunities companies from small countries have to take markets away from giants." A few more, and we are reminded that "in 1947 the U.S. produced 60 percent of the world's steel; in 1975, 16 percent."

• "Growing parochialism in the United States" is deplored, but Barnet says "local and regional self-reliance should be promoted," with Boston apparently growing its own wheat.

• There are "462 million people actually starving," but "hunger can be eliminated with a 5 percent increase in world food production."


The casual reader is deluged with gratuitous, unsupported assertions. For instance: "a growing middle class around the world is eating better. But hunger is also increasing." A growing middle class necessarily means fewer rich or fewer poor, and Barnet surely doesn't intend to say there are fewer rich.

"The population explosion," claims Barnet, "has far outstripped the capacity of the Global Factory and its extensions in the service sector to provide enough jobs. Since the U.S. labor market is merely a division of the world labor market, the effects of global oversupply are felt here." Howling nonsense, of course. Employment growth has far outpaced population here and wherever else some economic freedom is allowed.

"Industrial nations," he writes, "are in a position to keep prices of commodities low and manufactured goods high." That venerable myth was debunked by a UN group of experts way back in 1975.

When statistics are given, they are often conspicuously meaningless: "In the Third World," says the author, "the unemployed and the cruelly underpaid make up 40 percent of the work force." This is like saying poor countries contain poor people.

From 1972 to 1977 the Europeans "reduced their oil imports 1.7 million barrels a day," which Barnet attributes to greater efficiency. But most of Europe was in a boom in 1972 and a slump in 1977, not to mention the help of North Sea Oil in reducing imports. He contrasts the European imports measured in barrels with US imports measured as a percentage of energy use, which is deliberately misleading.

"The energy consumption in rural India," boasts Barnet, "is one-fiftieth what it is on U.S. farms." Sure. And if we followed the Indian example, millions would starve to death.

On rare occasions when the research is reasonably careful, Barnet drops all the necessary ifs and buts whenever he wants a dramatic conclusion. "Keeping the cities ablaze with light powered by nuclear generators," he says, "is valued more than the thousands who are fated to die from radiation-induced cancers." His only support for this figure, which the reader has to remember from 214 pages earlier, is that "a number of studies now suggests that the incidence of cancer deaths is 6 to 7 percent higher among workers in nuclear plants than among the general population." No footnote, of course, and other cited studies contradict the weak conclusion.


Efforts at economic analysis range from barely literate to incoherent. For example: "Another reason minerals are bound to become more expensive is the increasing role of the metals speculators. In dollar volume, commodity speculation is the world's biggest industry. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that $50 trillion in foreign exchange is traded around the world each year" (emphasis added). It is clear that the author hasn't the foggiest idea that there's a difference between metals, commodities, and currencies.

He goes on to explain that "the volume of dollars circulating in the world is perhaps twenty times the volume of world trade, which means that dollars are being traded not as currency to buy goods but as commodities themselves." More gross ignorance, this time of the difference between financial assets (like Treasury bills) and transactions money, neither of which has any relationship whatsoever to the volume of world trade.

Somebody is quoted saying that labor-intensive technology can provide "more than ten times as many jobs as capital-intensive plants for the same output." That is true by the definition of labor-intensive and says nothing about whether or not the "same output" could be sold at a price that would cover costs (much less pay "decent" wages).

Rather than cope with any opposing arguments or evidence, Barnet invariably tries to attribute evil motives to the opposition. An enormous body of evidence linking the length of unemployment to the generosity of the dole is dismissed as being simply "fashionable" among "those with regular paychecks." It may be fashionable, but is it false? Barnet's book, too, and many others like it, is fashionable among the well-heeled.

And here is a classic use of the conspiratorial innuendo: "Jeffrey A. Nichols, president of a corporation doing economic research for oil companies, is not disturbed by his clients' profits." Actually, Jeff Nichols is a young economist with Argus Research, where I used to work; he certainly is not president of that firm, and the Argus clients are mostly small brokers and banks.

There is the customary sneering at the tastes of the boorish masses, apparently required in "liberal" literature. The American people have a "mania for motion" and "indiscriminate consumption." "There is something faintly obscene about the extravagant use of water in the American home." There is a "national passion for roaming the highways," and the interstate highway system is simply a "playground for the nation's cars." "In the U.S. the annual 50,000-plus highway deaths are accepted as the price of progress. Individual comfort and idiosyncracy are valued more than the preservation of life."

This sort of thing may sell in Cambridge and Scarsdale, but it really is quite silly. Transportation of people and goods does involve costs and risks; the failure to transport people and goods would have them also. Nobody has even hinted at any viable alternative to existing methods of transportation, except for minor changes in what vehicles we use and how efficiently they operate. To assert that highways are "playgrounds" and using them is an "idiosyncracy" shows how far fashionable rhetoric can stray from reality. Barnet and his food supply should travel by horses on dirt roads.

The attitude toward poorer nations is equally maternal: "It is now commonplace," we're told, "for the husband to take a disproportionate amount of money to buy cheap consumer goods—a bicycle or a transistor—instead of food needed for the children." Again: "Ten percent of the population of Seoul live in shacks; two-thirds of them, it is estimated, used to be rice farmers." (As rice farmers, of course, they had their own rural estates.)


Despite all the wailing about Third World poverty, the book's proposed reforms are not exactly humane. More like murderous. "The goal for the world food system should be maximum self-reliance of nations and regions." The world needs "austerity programs for the rich" (like Jamaica and Cuba), plus a tough minimum wage. "To achieve full employment may require greater protectionism," as in 1930. Rich countries should also keep out migrant workers, because "they are competing for jobs and costing cities money for welfare."

In this country, "federal policy should encourage smaller farms because they are more saving of both soil and energy." No farms at all would save even more soil and energy. Barnet claims "there is a considerable literature from underdeveloped countries which suggests that productivity per acre declines as farms become larger" (emphasis added). But what has that got to do with US farming?

Putting it all together, we have here a poisonous recipe for mass starvation in the Third World. The United States should not let in foreign goods or people nor sell food abroad. The developing countries should tax success and arbitrarily raise labor costs. If a country can't grow enough food, too bad.

The Lean Years is an ostensibly serious book about genuinely serious topics. Unfortunately, about every other page contains a factual error or an unsupported assertion; the space between is filled with conceptual or analytical bloopers. We end up with a collection of unreal statistics patched together with cute phrases and illogical contradictions. Anyone seriously concerned with the plight of people who live in poor countries would be better advised to buy their products, sell them yours, and hire illegal aliens.

Alan Reynolds is vice-president of research at a major US bank and a contributing editor of REASON. His Viewpoint column appears here every third month.