Creative Destruction

A frequently parroted headline in recent weeks has been, “The Food Chain is Breaking.” If you’ve been in one of our local grocery stores when the meat counter was empty, you might be inclined to agree.

Another school of thought has considered the food chain broken for some time now. More accurately, over the last couple of generations we have transitioned from a food “web,” multiple networks of small, local and regional producers and processors, to a food “chain” of monolithic international corporations with centralized processing and distribution. It is much easier to break a chain than a web.

Much of the shift is due to the ascendency of predatory crony capitalism as ever-growing multinationals destroyed or digested smaller companies. There are fewer banks, fewer news outlets, and fewer locally owned businesses for the same or similar reasons.  

Part of the shift is a natural consequence of cities that grew while rural areas were depopulated. Family farms became suburban developments and factory farms replaced small holdings.

The pandemic is exposing the weakness inherent in monolithic systems, but it is also revealing the sickened state of factory farming. There is no shortage of food, but as processing plants shut down, cows, pigs, chickens and produce are being destroyed because hobbled processing plants and backed up transportation cannot move it fast enough.

Let’s look at that phrase, “fast enough” a little closer. Produce is perishable and freezer space is already near capacity, but what about livestock? Why can’t cows graze and chickens peck until they can be processed? The answer is in the Frankenstein nature of factory farming. Cows and chickens bred and hormone treated for rapid growth quickly become so obese if they live past a certain date, that the meat becomes much less valuable. Between the cost of feed and the loss of value, it’s cheaper for the factory farm to destroy the animals than to preserve them.

While the monoliths struggle to keep supermarkets supplied, the remaining smaller, local and regional producers are more flexible. They can and are adapting. This is great if you happen to live near one or have been able to find one online to replace what the grocer can’t currently supply – and you can afford to do that. There just aren’t enough smaller producers to go around.

The vulnerabilities of monolithic food production are not the only weaknesses that have been exposed. The monolithic modern diet has also been called out. There has never been a day since the pandemic officially began that there was not food in the stores. Fresh and canned vegetables and beans and rice have been abundant, but we have been led by media dramatists to the verge of panic because we might be denied our daily hamburger or dose of bacon and eggs.

Never mind that the volumes of beef, chicken and pork, pork, chicken and beef that we consume are a historical anomaly, or that there are millions living among us who can’t afford ribeye steak, but somehow manage to feed themselves. I don’t know of a single vegetarian who is frantic because the meat counter might be empty tomorrow.

But rather than inconvenience the insatiable appetite for meat that Americans have, the President felt it necessary to use the Defense Production Act to attempt to force meat packing plants, where many of the poorest and least educated among us work, to stay open.

So many things are changing right now that it’s hard to keep up.  The economist, Joseph Schumpeter, might have described this volatile time as the process of “Creative Destruction,” which is the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

Socialists, particularly Marxists, ran with the idea of creative destruction to predict that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself from within. We disagree. Creative destruction simply mirrors processes as old as time. Devolution precedes evolution. The old breaks down to make room for the new. The sturdiest tree in the forest becomes a home for woodpeckers, a slowly rotting log, and food for a new generation of trees.

Trouble always seems to occur when we attempt to artificially preserve anything past its season. Thus, we’re many trillions of dollars in debt. Our tolerance for change and uncertainty is so low that we can’t allow the economy to follow it’s natural cycles. We have banks too big to fail and airlines that need government bailouts, and a stock market that can’t be allowed to crash.

At some point in the future, and I think it will be sooner rather than later, we may find ourselves standing at a kind of crossroads. The destination will be the same, whichever route we take, but I think the journey will be much more pleasant in one direction than the other. I think that our two largest generations, who rarely see eye to eye, will unwittingly conspire to take a hard turn toward socialism and an even more totalitarian state – or we will allow creative destruction to proceed and embrace the changes that a new generation of entrepreneurs will bring us.

The elder generation desires to finish its run without losing affluence or a sense of social security. This generation is the natural ally of corporate America and the financial elite who have warped space-time itself and deformed the monetary system beyond recognition to keep the stock market from crashing.

The rapidly growing ranks of unemployed and underemployed younger Americans will look to government to either guarantee their livelihood (Did you cash your $1200 government check yet?) Or take a bigger role in directing our lives for the greater good.

And there you have it, a plausible explanation for government growing larger and more coercive under both democrat and republican leadership.

There was a time in this nation when there was a bridge spanning generations and demographic groups and diverse opinions. That bridge was faith in the future, and, particularly, faith in who holds the future. (Hint: It wasn’t government.)  We were more than capable of embracing change and tolerating uncertainty. Now we cower from it. Perhaps it’s time we re-examine that faith.  

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