Saturday, May 24, 2014

Foie Gras Writ Large

A story this morning in the Wall Street Journal tells of a seeming squabble in Japan. There the head of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) is pressuring the Prime Minister to implement spending programs. The BoJ has already printed plenty of money, but that action does not seem sufficient to cause big-time economic growth in a country that has suffered from deflationary tendencies.

Reading this quite early in the morning—thus still half-submerged in my subconscious—my mind spontaneously produced memories of childhood. The memories were of a woman stuffing geese with kernels of maize. She stuffed about five geese every morning. She’d sit on a stool, a deep bucket of corn next to her, and holding the poor bird’s beaks apart, she would push the corn down into its throat. I was dumfounded for a moment—until the relevance came with a rush.

Geese were then—and still are—force-fed to cause them to develop overlarge livers which, after their slaughter, are turned into pâté de foie gras. I discovered today that France is the largest producer (18,450 tons in 2005)—and Hungary is second (1,920 tons). As today so yesterday. Even as a child I found this practice odd. The geese hadn’t seemed to like the massive meals they found themselves forced to ingest.

Lest it be thought that this practice —and the enjoyment of foie gras—was exclusively a product of Christendom, I reproduce here the illustration that Wikipedia uses from an ancient Egyptian bas relief (link). The image is quite realistic—for a piece of art that somewhat suppresses what really took place. As I remember it, the woman who did the stuffing used one hand to force the beaks apart while using her other hand’s index and middle fingers to reach deep into the poor bird’s gullet.

With this I now come to the association that brought this image out of the past. It might sound naïve to sophisticates in economics, but I firmly hold that a mature economy need only grow at a rate that matches the population’s growth. That rate in the United States was 1.6 percent a year in 1960 and  0.7 percent in 2010. Why then do we seem unhappy unless Gross Domestic Product grows at around 4.5 percent? Is it because the quality of life, economically speaking, must always be increasing? Increasing until peanut butter and jelly are replaced by foie gras for breakfast? Force-feeding, technically known as gavage-feeding (from the French word derived from “stuffing”) is what a consumption-culture is really all about. Our improvement of the Egyptian technique, which dates from 2500 BC, is that we manage the force-feeding by mere advertising. Not only is such a technique, applied across such vast ranges of ordinary life, unsustainable in the long run, in the short it also, incidentally, leads to a explosion of obesity that, oddly, is resistant to amelioration by mere persuasion. Have we reached the stage of unsustainablity already? Maybe. Our papers are also filled with dread news that retail giants are staggered by dropping demand. The consumer seems suddenly resistant to the call that it is stuffing time. What will happen to the Gras National Product?

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