Archive for August, 2009

What do we support when we support affirmative action?

August 13, 2009

Alternate post title: When all you have is access to the GSS dataset, everything starts to look like a GSS variable.

To expand on my reply to Jeremy under this post, it is important to distinguish between support for (or opposition to) affirmative action in principle and support or opposition concerning concrete affirmative action programs or policies. I believe that support for affirmative action is funnel-shaped: many Americans are, to steal from George Orwell,

… the sort of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental aims of [affirmative action], who has the brains to see that [affirmative action] would ‘work’, but who in practice always takes to flight when [affirmative action] is mentioned.

Fewer, but still many Americans – “a plurality, if not a slim majority” – will confess their support to affirmative action in some general fashion, the vaguer the better. Then the funnel continues narrowing. Fewer support affirmative action policies, such as quotas or preferential hiring, and by the time you get down to cases, such as the misadventures of Ricci and Co. in Connecticut, the opposition to affirmative action seems insurmountable.

I would argue that this isn’t just a matter of tricky wording on survey questions. Affirmative action policies often reflect a general desire to even out the playing field, rather than any precise or reliable data about what works or will be popular. As a result, I believe, there is a group out there of people who would support some sort of affirmative action program(s), but may oppose specific manifestations of affirmative action, particularly in high-profile cases such as Ricci, or, earlier, the University of Michigan’s infamous affirmative action system for undergrads.

Somewhere out there is a data set better suited to addressing the empirical questions of whether this group of affirmative action proto-supporters exists, how big it is, and how much influence it might wield. Until then, all I’ve got is this half-baked analysis of data from the 2006 General Social Survey. I looked at the results for two items: one asking respondents to indicate their support for preferential hiring and promotion of blacks, and another asking respondents to indicate their support for government aid to blacks. Throughout, I make the assumption that the latter item represents a (more) general principle of affirmative action, while the former represents a (more) concrete policy or set of policies. The wording of the two questions is as follows:

(Preferential hiring)
Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks should be given preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring and promotion of blacks is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your opinion — are you for or against preferential hiring and promotion of blacks?

(Government aid)
Some people think that [blacks] have been discriminated against for so long that the government has a special obligation to help improve their living standards. Others believe that the government should not be giving special treatment to [blacks] . Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you made up your mind on this?

Filtering the data for cases that have valid responses to both items, I obtained the two following tables, breaking down the frequencies of each response to the two questions. (Click for readable size.)

Preferential hiring

Government aid

Forfeiting originality, here is how I interpreted this data in my earlier comment:

So what’s going on here? By the most conservative interpretation, nine more people in the sample (1%) support generic “government aid for blacks” than the more specific (but still very vague) “preferential hiring and promotion.” More likely, this difference is greater, since the aid question included a “middle-ground” option (AGREE WITH BOTH), but the preferential hiring question did not.

What this says to me is A.) that our best chance at broadening support for affirmative action is to reach out to the 1% (but probably more) in the middle who are sympathetic to the principle but hostile to a specific program … Sometimes, the solution will lie in modifying the affirmative action program under consideration rather than demonizing its opponents. Also, B.) that arguments in favor of affirmative action must be made differently for the principle than for specific programs: general arguments about chronic racial inequality may sway people’s minds on the principle, but they will likely win few new allies for the programs.

Mere hours after I wrote this, I realized that there were probably more than 9 people in the sample who supported the principle but opposed the policy. The hypothesis I should have been testing was whether more people favored aid and opposed preferences than favored preferences and opposed aid. Given my limited toolkit, I reached straight for a crosstabulation of the two variables:

Crosstab of “preferential hiring” and “government aid,” column percentages

First things first – there is a clear (and statistically significant) positive correlation between support for preferential hiring and support for government aid. However, in the cells which buck this correlation (along the counterdiagonal) there does appear some evidence of the phenomenon I have been suspecting. To wit: 99 respondents (10.54%) support government aid but oppose preferential hiring, while only 23 respondents (2.45%) oppose government aid while supporting preferential hiring. This result is slightly more exciting than the “1%” comparison of the separate frequencies tables above.

Again, running with the assumption that “special [government] treatment” is more of a principle and less of a policy than “preferential hiring and promotion,” this analysis seems to lend some credibility to the existence of a layer of “proto-support” for affirmative action: individuals who favor the spirit and aims of affirmative action programs, but may disagree with the implementation. To wring some implications out of this mess:

  • As above, we must be aware of the difference between support for a principle and support for a policy. As far as affirmative action goes, recognizing that there are people who favor the former and object to the latter is crucial. This means that not every defense of an affirmative action policy needs to go down as if the overarching principles are under attack. Particularly, we should reach out to anyone who might be a proto-supporter – perhaps even working with them to reform affirmative action policies so that they might become effective and palatable.
  • Taking a broader view, however, any stratum of proto-support for affirmative action seems wedged between much heftier blocks of true believers. Those who reject the idea of affirmative action may or may not be swayed by arguments about racial inequality, but they will almost certainly not be persuaded to like affirmative action policies so long as they believe their backing principles are false.
  • I suspect that tailoring the affirmative action message to these different constituencies is harder than it might seem. Tweaking and rebranding affirmative action programs might appeal to the proto-supporters, but would further convince the diehard opponents that affirmative action is being “shoved down their throats.” On the other hand, speaking directly to the roots of the hardcore opposition – “racism, ignorance, selective observation” – is likely to leave the proto-supporters feeling spurned and insulted.
  • And that’s all the original and unoriginal opinions on the matter that this no-statistical-package-having blogger cares to share at present. I should add, as I had originally replied to Jeremy,

    Of course, I could be entirely wrong and misdirected about this, and twisting the data beyond recognition, but that’s for you to decide.


    That’s what I get for cheerleading

    August 13, 2009

    In this post, I argued that Cash for Clunkers would stimulate overall consumer spending, not just spending on cars. Well, the first month of data is in, and two findings stick out:

  • Automotive sales went up.
  • However, retail sales as a whole declined unexpectedly.

    In light of this, I freely admit that I had been too optimistic about Cash for Clunkers. However, I would caution against writing off the program altogether – its effect may have been too small to counteract some other factor(s) which depressed retail sales; and some of its effects, particularly in buoying auto manufacturing, may not have come into play yet.

    The Times reports on the rest of July’s retail sales data:

    The Labor Department reported that retail sales fell by a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent from June, and were 8.3 percent lower than a year ago. Economists, who had been expecting an increase of 0.7 percent, called the numbers a sobering reminder of the persistent weakness in consumer spending, which makes up 70 percent of the United States economy. …

    Consumers spent 2.4 percent more on motor vehicles and automotive parts last month compared with June as the government’s popular “cash for clunkers” car-purchase program got under way, but any money that flowed into the pockets of car dealers seemed to come at the expense of other businesses.

    Retail spending excluding sales of cars and car parts fell 0.6 percent. People spent less on furniture, electronics, appliances, books and music, implying that American consumers are still wary of the weak job market and an uncertain economic recovery.

  • Scoring Affirmative Action

    August 12, 2009

    Jeremy Levine, writing for the outstanding Social Science Lite, has this to say about his uncle’s brush with reverse discrimination:

    According to my uncle, his interviewer immediately apologized as he entered the room. ‘Look, I hate to say this,’ the interviewer said. ‘But there’s no way we’re going to be able to hire you. If you were a woman or black, I’d hire you on the spot. You are totally qualified, but we’ve got to fill our quotas.’ Naturally, my uncle was none too pleased, commenting plainly (but forcefully) that acts of “reverse discrimination” are unfair. I did my best to defend affirmative action policies, discussing their historical necessity, noting their negligible affect on white male employment, and even waxing philosophical about the entitlement associated with staking claim and ownership over falsely constructed “spots” in colleges or the workforce. It was all to no avail, though. Cliché as the phrase is, my uncle was “passed up” for the job, and there wasn’t much I could say. …

    See, claiming reverse discrimination is a lot like recounting your golf score. It’s always the one or two bad rounds that leave the deepest, most painful impressions. You always remember the bogey on the 9th hole, but never the birdie on the 10th. Somehow, the abundance of good holes are taken for granted, while the one or two missteps are amplified and taken as indicative of the entire round. Sure, my uncle remembers getting passed up for the job with the University of Michigan—an event that (probably) happened the way he said it did. But, in the process of recounting this single experience, he forgot about a lifetime of job interviews in which he directly benefited from his whiteness or his gender.

    I’m a fan of affirmative action, but Levine’s scoring system rubs me the wrong way. By this metaphor, we can simply tally up the successes and failures of two individuals – one white, one black – and, when their “life scores” are equivalent, we will know affirmative action has succeeded. Correspondingly, so long as their “life scores” – educational attainment, success in the labor force, wealth accumulation, etc. – remain different, we know just what to do: slap a handicap on the “higher-scoring” individual that would level the playing field. That would be the crude affirmative action program which had tripped up Levine’s uncle.

    With apologies to Keva Silversmith, sometimes golf isn’t the sport most metaphorically applicable to life. In the case of affirmative action, I think we’re dealing with something more akin to a poorly-run powerlifting meet. One competitor shows up armed with a singlet and a pair of Chuck Taylors; another – in the latest quintuple-ply squat suit, spring-loaded bench shirt, and knee wraps that could contain a small nuclear explosion. Both are expected to perform their best on the platform. At the end of the day, the geared lifter blows the raw lifter’s total out of the water. Now what?

    The geared lifter in this example is the archetypal “privileged applicant,” and his equipment stands for all the accoutrement of privilege. The raw lifter, if you will, is then the “underprivileged applicant,” and the difference between the lifters’ scores is – well, you can figure it out. In any case, here’s the issue: obviously, pitting the two against one another as is is unfair to the latter. What is not so obvious is how we might overcome this unfairness. Here’s what won’t work:

    1. Stripping privilege away from the privileged applicant. It’s impossible, from a public policy standpoint, to retroactively “cancel” privilege. It might work in theory, but there is no practical way to do it.

    2. Forbidding the privileged applicant from drawing on his privilege. Again, another option that sounds nice, but even in the most ruthlessly objective selection processes, privilege has a way of giving its holders a boost.

    3. Handicapping the privileged applicant in the selection process. This is the instance of reverse discrimination that Levine recounts. The problem is that, unlike golf, life offers no clear way to identify the right handicap for each player. Here the powerlifting counter-metaphor comes in handy: no one knows how much supportive gear adds to lifters’ totals, since this number depends on many different factors. Hence, perfectly fair competition of geared against raw lifters is not practical, since any handicap on the former is bound to be inaccurate and arbitrary. This goes double for affirmative action programs. We can tell that (most) white applicants have advantages over (most) black applicants that have nothing to do with their qualification for the position. But what we can’t tell is just how big this advantage is for any specific white applicant – let alone “white applicants” as a group. That’s why, at the end of the day, the specifics of many affirmative action programs are indefensible: these programs are written from a general aim to overcome privilege, rather than from specific information about the advantage privilege confers.

    For all this, can we even have affirmative action programs that are both fair and effective? I believe so. The key is to honor the principle of fair treatment. It is not fair to turn an applicant away on the basis of his race, no matter how this would affect the year-end Diversity Report. On the other hand, it is perfectly fair to assist underprivileged applicants before, during, and after the selection process, that they might accumulate at least some of the advantages enjoyed by their more-privileged co-workers. By extension, it is perfectly fair to target underprivileged communities to help their members with education, job search, homeownership, and so on.

    I suspect that many other supporters of affirmative action won’t like my take on it. They might rightly point out that this offers no guarantee of equal opportunity – to say nothing of equal outcome. But they would forget that equal opportunity isn’t as simple as having the same golf handicap. Under the reign of equal opportunity, everyone would have more or less the same shot at success, but owing to time and chance, some individuals would still come out way ahead. Regardless of how it is written, the successful affirmative action program will be that which preserves this individual variation in outcomes, while minimizing (in this case) the corresponding racial differential.

    Let Them Eat Cabbage

    August 11, 2009

    For an atheist, Christopher Hitchens sure does put a lot of faith in predestination. It’s not the kind about going to heaven, though; Hitchens believes that Bill Clinton need not have visited North Korea to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee because – get this – the North Koreans were going to release them anyway. In the man’s own words:

    The two young women were picked up in March and released in August. That means they spent almost half a year in the North Korean prison system. Yet to judge by the photographs of them arriving back on U.S. soil, they were in approximately the same physical condition as they had been when they were first unlawfully apprehended. … Ling and Lee had obviously not been maltreated or emaciated in the usual way that even a North Korean civilian, let alone a North Korean prisoner, could expect to be. The logical corollary of this is obvious. The Kim Jong-il gang was always planning to release them. They were arrested in order to be let go and were maintained in releasable shape until the deal could be done. …

    As of last week, and as the result of a huge investment of time and energy and prestige and forced politeness, we can now claim to have reduced the North Korean prison population by exactly two, and they were going to be released anyway. In return, we have immensely gratified and flattered the man who kidnapped them and who makes a daily mockery of international law. There was even “remorse” expressed. But guess by whom? Not by the slave master who makes his territory impossible to enter and impossible to leave. A lousy day’s work.

    I don’t write much about foreign policy in this space, mostly because of my ignorance in these matters. However, even I can tell that Hitchens’ reasoning is patently stupid. First, Hitchens forgets that the role of government is to serve and protect its citizens – not least when those citizens are held captive in a hostile foreign country. By his own admission, Hitchens had been to North Korea. I doubt that if he had been detained, we would have gotten from him a heroic statement directing his government to forfeit rescue efforts. Pending any evidence to the contrary, I conclude that Hitchens views imprisonment by a brutal dictatorship as bad for Christopher Hitchens, but okay for his compatriots.

    This brings me to the second point: Hitchens’ baseless conclusion from Ling and Lee’s appearance that they were going to be released anyway. No one knows what the North Koreans would have eventually done with Ling and Lee. It is plausible that they have not been as mistreated as they might have been so far precisely for the reasons Hitchens identified. However, it is naive – especially of a curmudgeon like Hitchens – to assume that this treatment would have continued indefinitely. If and when the North Koreans ceased to see the journalists as an excellent bargaining chip, nothing would have prevented or even dissuaded them from shipping the two to a labor camp.

    Finally, Hitchens’ tone suggests that he favors either ignoring or bullying the North Korean government. Neither of these measures have succeeded in the past: when bullied, North Korea only grew more antagonistic; and when ignored, it staged dangerous, belligerent stunts to regain the world’s attention. I may not know anything about foreign policy, but I think there is a better way to deal with North Korea: reciprocity from the moral high ground, as famously articulated by Ho Chi Minh* at the start of the Vietnam War:

    Everything depends on the Americans. If they want to make war for 20 years then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards.

    * I am not arguing that Ho held the moral high ground, only that he had claimed it.

    But wait … there’s more!

    August 8, 2009

    Bob Herbert has a way of writing columns that pretty much sum up all the commentary I could possibly want to make about a given current event. His piece on murderer George Sodini was no exception:

    I was reminded of the Virginia Tech gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in a rampage at the university in 2007. While Cho shot males as well as females, he was reported to have previously stalked female classmates and to have leaned under tables to take inappropriate photos of women. A former roommate said Cho once claimed to have seen “promiscuity” when he looked into the eyes of a woman on campus.

    Soon after the Virginia Tech slayings, I interviewed Dr. James Gilligan, who spent many years studying violence as a prison psychiatrist in Massachusetts and as a professor at Harvard and N.Y.U. “What I’ve concluded from decades of working with murderers and rapists and every kind of violent criminal,” he said, “is that an underlying factor that is virtually always present to one degree or another is a feeling that one has to prove one’s manhood, and that the way to do that, to gain the respect that has been lost, is to commit a violent act.”

    Comparison to the Tech murders? Check. Acknowledgment that America is steeped in a culture of violence? Check. Condemnation of Sodini’s infantile but all-too-common strain of misogyny? Check. Focusing on power as a key concept in contextualizing this horrific crime? … Nope.

    Herbert follows the lead of feminist bloggers in framing Sodini’s murders exclusively as a matter of destructive misogyny. (Is there any other kind?) His conclusion reads:

    We would become much more sane, much healthier, as a society if we could bring ourselves to acknowledge that misogyny is a serious and pervasive problem, and that the twisted way so many men feel about women, combined with the absurdly easy availability of guns, is a toxic mix of the most tragic proportions.

    For comparison, here’s Jill at Feministe:

    Sodini was clearly an unbalanced and aggressive man who fixated on women and blamed them for his problems. The same cultural misogyny that enabled Sodini to blame women for his own social ineptitude and aggression also underwrites “The Game,” and informs people like Roissey’s interactions with women. It glorifies male dominance and relies on male entitlement.

    On one level, it is painfully obvious that Sodini’s acts were a manifestation of a violent hatred of women. But something doesn’t quite add up here: was misogyny all that caused Sodini’s rampage? As Jill Tubman notes, such accounts tend to ignore that Sodini’s racism seemed as powerful as his misogyny, and that his targets were just as likely to have been black men:

    Clearly [Sodini] was deeply troubled. But I’m not sure that insane really covers it this time. He knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to kill himself and take his ex-girlfriend and a bunch of young white “bruthr”-banging “hoez” with him (in his sick mind). … This is the part of the dark secret lurking in surburbia/disturbia and should be the stuff of all our nightmares: the intense racial anxiety, confusion, fear and rage some whites are feeling & how they plan to express it.

    The point is not to discount the role Sodini’s misogyny played in spurring his acts, or to sweep under the rug the acuteness of violence against women. Rather, it is to see Sodini and his ilk in full: men who are disgruntled not only against women, but also against minorities, immigrants, people of different religions, and on and on. And what seems to stand at the origin of this hateful cascade is power, or more precisely the lack thereof.

    How could have something as nebulous as “lack of power” precipitated mass murder? Certainly, Sodini fulfilled all the requirements for privilege: white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, etc. However, judging by his blog, Sodini didn’t feel very privileged. In fact, right up until pulling the guns out of his gym bag, he more or less had been letting the world roll right over him:

    No matter how many changes I try to make, things stay the same. …

    I predict I won’t survive the next layoff. That is when there is no point to continue. RIght now, life is bearable and I can get by indefinitely. Something bad must happen. The paycheck is all I have left. The future holds nothing for me. …

    It is difficult to live almost continuously feeling an undercurrent of fear, worry, discontentment and helplessness. I can talk and joke around and sound happy but under it all is something different that seems unchangable and a permanent part of my being. I need to realize the details of what I never accomplished in life and to be convinced the future is merely a continuation of the past – WHICH IT ALWAYS has been. (emphasis added)

    From this text, it appears that what was eating George Sodini, above all, was his perceived lack of power. He couldn’t get what he wanted – one of “30 million desirable women” – and, moreover, saw no way towards getting what he wanted. How his mind ran with that thought to the conclusion of murdering innocent people is chilling and tragic, but it doesn’t tell us about the roots of this social dysfunction.

    I think – and this is where this post moves into the territory of unsubstantiated opinion – that the democratization of power in society has had the unfortunate side-effect of creating a class of people who feel entitled to power, but for whatever reason are unable to claim it. A graduation speech by Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind:

    Free Enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes. They just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise.

    This isn’t quite genuine “Free Enterprise” we’re dealing with here, but the idea is similar. Some men, mostly white, but sometimes not, can’t get what they feel they deserve. They might be anti-social, emotionally stunted, undateable or unemployable, but in their minds all they see is society’s unfair rejection of their claim to power, and power’s fruit – success. They might seek escape in weird subcultures, but, shamefully often, they reach for violence as a desperate means to attain fleeting power.

    The difference between this perspective on Sodini’s crime and its interpretation as “strictly” misogynistic is subtle, but I think it matters. By the latter account, if somehow someone could have re-educated Sodini out of his misogyny, he might have never gone in for mass murder. But as I see it, if it’s not one thing, it’s going to be another for his type: Sodini would have channeled his perceived powerlessness into hating, and possibly killing, someone else. Steve Albini, who started his career impersonating psychopaths with shocking accuracy, captures this sentiment best:

    I started out hating myself and when I’m through
    I’ve gotta have something to hate, and I guess it’s you
    Man’s gotta have something to hate, guess I’ll do
    And when I’m through with myself, I’ll start on you.

    Can’t Get No Satisfaction

    August 1, 2009

    Mary Katharine Ham, writing for the Weekly Standard, compares the Obama administration’s Cash for Clunkers program to “the KFC grilled-chicken giveaway.” And that’s by far not the most troubling thing about her post. Rather, the low point – indeed, the wide canyon – comes when Ham criticizes Cash for Clunkers for its success. The government actually got people to buy new cars? that are more fuel efficient? The horror!

    Many Obama-supporters on Twitter* today have argued that the program is only a failure insomuch as it is a great success. You see, the Obama administration simply revealed the tremendous demand for $4,500 hand-outs fuel-efficient cars, and should be congratulated for that. The utter lack of competence, planning, or understanding of incentives is not an indication of the federal government’s unsuitability to mucking around in the private sector, but a reason to invite more mucking.

    Here’s the deal. Conservatives have long argued that in this recession, no amount of government spending will have a lasting effect until consumer spending and production rebound. This critique has all but ruled out any government program as successfully stimulating consumer spending and the private production of goods and services. For example, take this Forbes piece from last February:

    If the Bush spending plan can’t productively stimulate the economy, what government economic plan can? None. Production does not need stimulation from the government; it needs liberation from the government . What a productive, dynamic economy requires of a government is that it restrict itself to protecting property rights from force and fraud, and refrain from interfering in free production and trade.

    In a time when consumer spending is beginning to seem more like playing financial Russian Roulette than fulfilling a civic duty, this critique is implausible. If consumers are holding off on consuming, no sane producer would fail to roll back production. You can’t force demand for something by merely making it – witness the unsold inventories of retail goods that have piled up as this recession dragged on.

    But you can force consumer demand by subsidizing it. And that’s what we’re seeing with the Cash for Clunkers program. When people are paid to buy new cars, they will buy new cars. There is no way to get around this – unlike the Arizona incentive for alternative-fuel vehicles Ham mentions, which did not stipulate that owners actually use alternative fuels. Every check cut under the Cash for Clunkers program stands for a new car purchased: no exceptions. And as demand for new cars increases, the production of cars – particularly their production in the U.S. by American workers – will be bolstered by this government action. Under the paradigm of conservative economics, we are witnessing nothing short of the impossible.

    * Ham cites Twitter as a source not once, twice, or even thrice, but four times in a short post. In Twitter veritas.

    Why Food Snobbery Is a Tough Sell

    August 1, 2009

    Writing for the Times,* Michael Pollan laments the (de-)evolution of televised cooking, and ends, as always, on a prescriptive note:

    The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

    Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.

    According to Pollan, there once was a beastie that roamed this great land freely, showing up at American homes every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Its name was “Real Scratch Cooking,” and it brought joy to the heart of every man, woman, and child. Then, some evil corporations came along, and with a few engineering tricks and a little TV showmanship, convinced Americans to banish Real Scratch Cooking from their lives. And that, in a nutshell, is why Americans are so fat and unhappy nowadays.

    Now, why would Pollan spin such a fanciful tale? First, I will delight you with an obscure and irrelevant literary reference:

    It could be said that there was no one like Michael Pollan in the whole Republic. The Republic valued his services. He was of great use to it. But, for all that, he remained unknown, though he was just as skilled in his art as Chaliapin was in singing, Gorky in writing, Capablanca in chess, Melnikov in ice-skating, and that very large-nosed and brown Assyrian occupying the best place on the corner of Tverskaya and Kamerger streets was in cleaning black boots with brown polish.

    Chaliapin sang. Gorky wrote great novels. Capablanca prepared for his match against Alekhine. Melnikov broke records. The Assyrian made citizens’ shoes shine like mirrors. Michael Pollan was a food snob.

    See, Pollan has a vested interest getting us (back) into Real Scratch Cooking, because, as an inveterate food snob, he would love nothing more than to have his particular brand of snobbery validated by others. Oh, he may be a well-meaning snob, earnestly convinced that doing things his way (or, really, his and our ancestors’ way) is good and right for everyone. But the only thing that would explain his “my way or the highway” approach to Americans’ cooking eating habits is regular snobbery, not overwhelming concern for the public good.

    An analogy to Pollan’s writing comes immediately to mind: he is to food as a less profane Mark Rippetoe would be to fitness**. Oh, the two might motivate beginners in their respective fields to dig deeper, and even rope in some gen-u-ine newbies (fresh meat?), but their simple, authoritarian pronouncements – “cook food from scratch” and “squats and milk,” respectively – adapt terribly to the education of the masses.

    We can see proof of this in the comments section on the Pollan piece. There, some Times readers offer legitimate pushback:

    Cooking, like everything else, requires practice and repetition. If you cook fairly elaborate meals regularly and don’t exercise like an Olympian there’s a good chance you’re going to get unhealthily fat. Some people also may not be as thrilled by the effort of cooking and clean up as seems to be assumed. There’s a world of difference between the lovely fantasy of the beautiful, trim, industrious woman removing the baking bread from the oven and serving it to her gorgeous, always-appreciative family and the reality.


    I believe this article overlooks one factor that heavily affects the time people spend cooking, especially single young people: It’s often not economical to cook certain types of food if you work irregular hours and/or don’t have a family. Besides the time factor (which is significant), it’s sometimes hard to justify spending $50-100 on the ingredients for a meal that will only feed one person, when I can go to a restaurant and get the same meal for a fraction of the cost.

    Or even,

    I think the whole “foodie”/locavore/annoying Alice Waters” culture which shows disdain for the Food Network types contributes to the lack of cooking in this country. It’s great to know how to cook a “from scratch” meal and I enjoy doing it because I love cooking. However, some others who can cook well often seem to look down on those who assemble meals or buy takeout for whatever reason.

    I’ve seen them in action. I’ve seen them get invited over to people’s houses and then sneer to me (because they know I can cook) about the green-bean casserole and the parmesan from the green can on the pasta and how the host served Trader Joe’s wine instead of the good wine they, the great cooks, brought as a gift.

    I quote these comments at length not only because I agree with their arguments, but also because they come from (presumably) a variety of people, and not just one crotchety blogger. To intellectuals and foodies and intellectual foodies Pollan’s snobbery may hold truth and comfort, but below this rarefied realm, the fetishism of Real Scratch Cooking has only a shaky appeal.

    Lest this post be elongated even further, here is a list of just a few reasons why exhorting the American people to return to Real Scratch Cooking may be a bad idea:

  • Cooking takes time. This is the stupidest possible objection to cooking from scratch, but it holds immense purchase on our habits. It is stupid because it is so obvious – of course doing something well takes time – but it is still a legitimate objection: many Americans are not willing or not able to sacrifice hours out of their day to cook from scratch what they could cook or obtain otherwise.
  • Cooking takes money. In theory, cooking can be cheaper than eating out or relying on prepackaged or “nearly-ready-to-eat” foods. In reality, cooking entails many hidden and not-so-hidden costs that can quickly outweigh the nominal savings. For example, a half-pound of roast beef from the deli might cost $5; an equivalent quantity of steak might cost only $3. But to realize this savings one must avoid the following expenditures: the cost of other ingredients (oils, marinades), the cost of tools (grills, skillets, roasting pans), and the cost of excess raw ingredients, should the steak not come in a handy .500 lb package.
  • Cooking takes skill. Sure, practice makes perfect, but going from zero to kitchen hero is a process that would entail a good deal of unsavory errors and frustrating pitfalls. Asking people who don’t know how to cook to learn Real Scratch Cooking is much like asking people who have never learned to walk to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
  • Cooking takes motivation. Let’s face it – not everyone fantasizes about spending precious leisure time in front of the stove, or, as the first comment above notes, picking and cleaning up after dinner. Some people just aren’t going to be interested in labor-intensive forms of cooking no matter how much Pollan and his disciples might browbeat them. There are compelling reasons why cooking from scratch might be enjoyable, but there are many equally compelling reasons why people might just not want to do it.

    These are but a few of the possible objections to Pollan’s adoration of Real Scratch Cooking. Others include, but are not limited to: the false equation of home cooking with healthy eating; the elitism of asking people to turn cooking and eating into a hobby; and the lack of any suggested alternatives for people who may not want or be able to pursue the foodie lifestyle as prescribed.

    If we shouldn’t lecture people to drop everything they’re doing and get started on their “Real Scratch Cooking” re-education, then what message should we be disseminating about cooking, food, and their intersection? I believe the answer lies somewhere short of all-out Pollan-esque snobbery, but far beyond the laissez-faire approach of, say, the Intuitive Eating folks. Particularly, to have mass appeal and mass applicability, food manifestos should strive to offer a good-better-best continuum of food practices. For example, starting the day off with cereal and milk instead of a box of donuts is good; frying a couple eggs to serve with toast is better; and cooking a delectable omelet is best – or some such progression. This principle can be applied to all aspects of eating and (maybe even) cooking: an easy option just about anyone can try; a superior option requiring just a bit more time, money, skill, and motivation; and a very good option that would also be most difficult to execute. The downfall of advice that has its roots in snobbery – as does Pollan’s advice to return to Real Scratch Cooking – is that is addresses only the last category, giving the majority of people, who are unwilling to go to those lengths, neither aid nor comfort.

    * Link via the U.S. of Jamerica.
    ** I owe the comparison to the Brass Tack.