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Why Mark Bittman Should Weigh in on Food Policy

"I'm qualified to speculate about policy but I'm not really qualified, in Washington, to talk about policy. The soda tax is an interesting proposal. Ending some of the subsidies that have proven so destructive over the years would be a good thing. But I'm not going to be part of those discussion. I'm -- and I'm not being modest here -- not qualified to be part of them."

That's New York Times food writer Mark Bittman talking. I'm sympathetic to his point. I even find it admirable. But -- and just like a blogger to make the case for diving into topics you don't know about, right? -- I don't think it's an appropriate approach. Not on food policy, anyway.

If amateurs leave teaching physics to the experts, then physics gets taught by the experts. That's a good thing. And in the perfect world, we'd leave farm policy to the experts too, and the experts would make our farm policy. But we don't live in the perfect world. And so when we leave farm policy to the experts, we actually leave it to the lobbyists. And this is true for a lot of second or third-tier issues. The only people who spend their days bugging Washington to implement their policy preferences are the people who are paid to do so. Most people don't care about those issues. Others care a bit but spend their time elsewhere. And others care a lot but don't feel they possess the technical expertise.

That's true, they don't. They shouldn't be policy czar. But no one is offering them that position. And providing expertise to policymakers is just one of many roles. Another is to provide a non-industry perspective. Another is to provide evidence of a grassroots constituency for proper action. Another is to communicate basic ideas clearly (Congressmen are not always experts themselves). Bittman doesn't have to lead the discussion. But he shouldn't walk away from it. Because if he, and others like him, leave, the only people left will be those being paid to stay. Plus, anyone who can communicate these ideas this clearly really needs to take a seat before the Senate's Committee on Agriculture.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 21, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Next: Good Policies Need Good People


Thanks, Ezra. This is a very clear illustration of an obvious, but too often overlooked, point.

Posted by: dockboggs | May 21, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

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