Last week, Peaceful Dumpling reported on Nobel Prize-winning economist Alvin Roth’s prediction that meat eating is on its way out. This was based on a Time magazine piece (print edition; 1/13/2014) by columnist Joel Stein; but unfortunately, the piece greatly misrepresented Professor Roth’s view, which was for the next 100 years, not for 2014–among other inaccuracies.
Meanwhile, Peaceful Dumpling article quickly went viral–so much so that at the time of our phone interview, Professor Roth had been forwarded the link from a family member. Here’s what he really thinks about the morality-based constraints on markets, the economics of food, and the future of veganism. Read on for Professor Roth’s vision of how veganism will grow–and why you might consider not eating carrots.
Factory farming evolved to produce meat in the cheapest and most efficient way possible. As an economist, do you think that there is an economic cost to factory farming?
Factory farming rose at a time when we were worried about feeding a large number of the population. Fortunately, in America we’re no longer worried about malnutrition. Instead, we’re now concerned about chickens being abused. So our welfare focus has shifted—and insofar as economics deals with increasing welfare (utility), factory farming can be seen as an economic problem.
Could you tell us about your work in real-life market design based on how “repugnance” drives the market?
Repugnance doesn’t exist in every market, but it can constrain certain markets. Take organ transplant market, for instance. People don’t need two kidneys to survive, and they can live healthy lives with just one. But you can’t sell me a kidney, and you can’t go buy a kidney. This is because there is a repugnance to selling of organs. That contributes to a situation of mass shortage. Right now, there are approximately 100,000 Americans on the wait list to receive a kidney transplant. So I helped design a kidney-exchange program where an incompatible donor-patient pair can “trade kidneys” with another incompatible donor-patient pair. This solution didn’t arouse repugnance like selling of organs.
What about examples of repugnance as it relates to food?
It is illegal to sell horse meat for human consumption in the state of California. It is not illegal to kill horses in California, because it is assumed that there might be circumstances where putting down a horse is more humane than letting it suffer. This law isn’t something passed down from the horse-loving cowboys in the Old West—it was actually passed in 1998. So that was when Californians decided that it is repugnant to eat horse meat, so much that it was declared against the law. But in the lean years after WWII, Americans did eat horse meat. The Harvard Faculty Club served “chicken-fried horse meat with onion gravy” until 1985. So that change in attitude happened both recently and relatively suddenly.
Notice the difference between “Disgust” and “Repugnance” here. If you enjoy eating cockroaches, it might be considered “disgusting” but not “repugnant,” though I might not go over to your house for a dinner party. So, there is no law against selling or eating cockroaches, not only because the demand there is quite small, but because there is no moral connotation.
I imagine that if such changes happen, it would be gradual. Our understanding of “cruelty” can change. So before we outlaw eating chicken, it is far more likely to see banning of battery cages and the worst treatments.
It’s worth noting that repugnance isn’t universal; it can evolve regionally or even locally. So I predict that meat eating won’t go away completely.
Consider same sex marriage, for instance. It’s legal in sixteen states, but it’s not only unrecognized in 28 other states, it’s unconstitutional. So repugnance is expressed locally, and two seemingly incompatible paradigms can co-exist side-by-side.
What’s certain and more universal is that there is a change in the notion of animal cruelty. There will be localized reaction to that change—so if New York state becomes vegan, Texas on the other hand might ban some forms of industrial livestock production.
As an economist, your job is to ensure the balance of supply and demand; and in most of the cases you’ve worked on or written about, like legalizing organ sales or even dwarf tossing, repugnance seems to be a constraint on markets. Is there any case in which repugnance was a good thing from an economic perspective?
There is the example of the slave market. Once people became repugnant to trading and owning slaves, the slave market collapsed—but we’ve settled, universally, that it’s a good thing. A good economic model isn’t just one where people can buy or sell anything they want; it’s about increasing welfare (utility). We decided that slaves have rights, and that their welfare matters more than the frustrated wants of the would-be slave owner.
Can this be compared to animals? What if we decide that animals have rights and that their welfare matters more than the frustrations of the would-be meat eater?
That’s certainly a possibility. There are already animals for which we make an exception, like horses or whales or chimpanzees. In our culture, we’ve decided that whales are too intelligent, in some sense too near us, to be eaten.
And what really is the difference between a whale and a cow? It seems to me that a whale is no closer to us, in appearance or nature, than a cow—and that humanity has a greater shared history with the latter. So what’s stopping us from changing our minds about eating cows?
More Americans currently believe that whales have higher intelligence, and a capacity to anticipate and fear death—but whales weren’t always considered off-limits. Early colonialists continued the European practice of hunting and eating whale, and in the 1800s, of course, we hunted whales for oil, and I’m sure the meat wasn’t wasted, either.
With more studies proving the intelligence of cows, their anticipation of death and will to live, people may well change their attitudes toward them, just as they did with whales.
Some skeptics of veganism argue that if there is no market for cows, chickens, pigs, etc., that these domestic animals would eventually die off—and that would be worse fate for these species.
That is an assumption based on what hasn’t happened. For instance, think about children. You can have a few children and have enough resources to raise them lavishly—or, you can have many children and not have enough for each child. So we’re concerned about the children’s utility here, which can serve as a metaphor for that of animals. And you can’t regret the happiness of children you never had–or that of the chickens that were never born because there wasn’t a market for their meat any longer.
How do you envision the growth of veganism?
Instead of focusing on making people repugnant to meat, promote the positive aspects of vegan eating. Remember that repugnance can grow or fade.
Get allies and recruit people who are more in the middle of the spectrum, who might be undecided, neutral, or at different levels of vegetarianism. Form a coalition with people who are in it for different reasons—such as those motivated by health or aesthetic reasons.
And join with people who are on even more extreme end of the plant-eating spectrum, such as Jains, who avoid harming even plants and don’t eat anything that comes from the ground. To them, you eating a carrot might make you an assassin. So remaining open-minded is very important.
An assassin for eating a carrot? That’s a bit harsh. I think I subscribe more to the Peter Singer school of thought, where concept of self and will to live count more than pure ability to regenerate.
But what if one day we realize that carrots can think? Things might change.
Last question: what’s your favorite vegan restaurant?
I live in San Francisco, where there are a lot of vegan places. Millenium is a great place to go with friends and family who might have dietary restrictions or keep kosher. The nice thing about vegan restaurants is that anyone can eat there.
Alvin E. Roth is the Craig and Susan McCaw professor of economics at Stanford University and the Gund professor of economics and business administration emeritus at Harvard University. He works in the areas of game theory, experimental economics and market design. He shared the 2012 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.
Read more about Professor Roth’s work on his blog on market design.
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Photo: Duncan C via Flickr; Chris Campbell via Flickr