Paul Krugman’s terrible column on food safety reminds me why I haven’t missed the Times op-ed columnists since they went subscriber only. Krugman tries to make the case that recent E. coli outbreaks are somehow the fault of Milton Friedman. Here’s his logic:
1) The Bush Administration loves Milton Friedman (I wish!)
2) The Bush Administration has never instituted strict new food safety regulations
3) E. coli outbreaks have occurred
4) It’s Milton Friedman’s fault you’re throwing up
As Russel Roberts at Cafe Hayek points out, E. coli outbreaks have happened under all kinds of regulatory environments. When you move a lot of food, it’s the kind of thing that happens. Without researching why these problems are occurring, it’s just as reasonable to suspect that they’re a failure of regulations as they are of markets.
Krugman didn’t do this research. Instead he relies on two very incidental bits of evidence. First there’s this:
What we do know is that since 2001 the F.D.A. has introduced no significant new food safety regulations except those mandated by Congress.
So the FDA actually has instituted significant new regulations. They’ve just been mandated by Congress, not the president.
And then there’s this:
This isn’t simply a matter of caving in to industry pressure. The Bush administration won’t issue food safety regulations even when the private sector wants them. The president of the United Fresh Produce Association says that the industry’s problems “can’t be solved without strong mandatory federal regulations”: without such regulations, scrupulous growers and processors risk being undercut by competitors more willing to cut corners on food safety. Yet the administration refuses to do more than issue nonbinding guidelines.
Citing this as evidence displays an astonishing degree of ignorance from a professional economist. When existing industry players call for supposed public interest regulation, that should immediately send up a red flag that what they really want is to squeeze out potential competitors. Strict regulations will almost certainly put up barriers to entry in the food industry. Whether they’ll actually make things safer is far less obvious. At no point does Krugman explain what regulations he’d like to see put in place, how they’ll deal with imported food, and whether or not they’ll be cost effective.
I claim no expertise in the food handling industry. I’m naturally inclined to the free market position on this issue, but I’d have to do a lot more research before I’d make the case for it — especially if I was making the case in one of the world’s most respected newspapers rather than on an obscure weblog. Krugman’s use of recent food scares to score points against his deceased ideological opponent is just pathetic.
Update 5/24/07: Reason weighs in on the market vs. regulation.