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Sausagemaking: not as awesome as some would have you believe

sausageknife.JPGMatt Yglesias doesn't like it when people compare the legislative process to making sausage.

Comparing the operations of the US Congress to those of a sausage-maker is a huge insult to the sausage industry. You may or may not think that the sausage-making process looks “gross” in some sense, but the fact of the matter is that sausage is delicious. The other day, I made some pesto from scratch. It was good. I served it over pasta with some sausage braised in cider vinegar, and that made it better. Because sausage is delicious. Sausage-making, whether you want to make it or not, is the way you make delicious sausage. If there were some better way to do it, people would do it that way instead.

The US Congress isn’t like that at all. The idea that it’s some kind of gross-looking sausage-making process is, at heart, part of the culture of flattery and egomania that’s made the place so dysfunctional. The implicit moral of the sausage analogy, after all, is that like sausage-making it looks bizarre but is actually the best way to make the product. Actual congressional legislation-writing, by contrast, looks like things like the President proposing to cut agricultural subsidies to the wealthiest farmer, that idea being dead-on-arrival, and nobody being even slightly surprised because everyone knows that the committee system and the over-representation of rural areas make it impossible to contemplate an even vaguely rational approach to this.

I think this is too kind to sausagemakers. The expression emerged in a more Upton Sinclair-esque era, when sausagemaking really was gross and dirty and unsafe, but producers let all of that go on because it was also profitable to serve a product that had a bit of rat and a bit of a worker's finger in it. The most profitable way to make sausage and the best way to make sausage are very different, and we've got a lot of regulations that try to narrow that gap.

But even today, mass-produced sausages use animals that are not well or sustainably raised and parts of the animal that are not the most delicious parts, and producers mask the taste and production with intense flavorings and vague packaging. This isn't done because it's the best way to make sausage, but because it's the most cost-effective way to make sausage. Using traditional cuts from heirloom pigs might make for better sausage, but the major producers wouldn't even think of doing that because they need low costs to satisfy shareholders, and they're good enough at obscuring the worst of the production process that customers don't complain.

That said, the hot Italian sausages you can buy at Costco are still delicious, and make your meal better than a meal with no sausage at all. But they would be a lot worse without regulations on the meat industry. And the health-care bill will be a big improvement, and will make our country better than if there was no health-care bill at all. But it would be a lot less useful without a substantially private medical industry figuring out ways to save people's lives. Governments and market both have failures, and happily, the failures are different, and one can often step in to ameliorate the flaws of the other.

Photo credit: James M. Thresher/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 30, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Next: Sen. Bernie Sanders: Health-care bill could spark "a revolution in primary health care"

Comments

Ezra's tired.

Posted by: inkadu | December 30, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Mmmmm, sausage....

Posted by: MosBen | December 30, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

See, if you take the joke like this, and pin it to the board like this, using these clips and pins, and then you hammer this screwdriver through the center of it's head, then everyone will clearly understand why the underlying analysis could have been more sharply done. And we will all be better people.

Posted by: shorthope | December 30, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

You know, Ezra, I think highly of you. I read your blog often, and generally find that your opinion is the right opinion. But I can't, for the life of me, understand how you (and Yglesias) can talk about the torture and slaughter of sentient beings without even mentioning that you're talking about the torture and slaughter of sentient beings. You've mentioned here before the malignant effects that meat-eating has on the climate, but I can't recall you ever lamenting the horrific treatment of animals. To be clear, there is no justification for the pain and trauma we inflict on these animals. The fact that the process of slaughtering them is "gross" and driven more by profit than producing "delicious" sausage is secondary to the fact that it's morally indefensible. Now, no one is perfect, and we're embedded in a society where the products of animal exploitation are ubiquitous. This, of course, makes avoiding those products terribly difficult. But it doesn't change the fact that it's indefensible, and I wish that intellectuals like you and Matthew would take the time express some societal guilt when talking about it.

Posted by: johnclevenger | December 30, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Counterpoint: meat is delicious. Price my buffalo steak or salmon at its social cost, including GHGs, so that I'm paying a fair cost, and I'll continue to eat it with as much moral guilt as any other carnivore.

Posted by: etdean1 | December 30, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of sausage-making, where is the Sanders interview which was here a minute ago???

Posted by: bmull | December 30, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

There is nothing in the leftism practiced by Klein that could lead to pity for animals, such as expressed by a previous poster. Don't look to him for that. He's all about power and dominion. It takes a humbler perspective than his to see animal suffering.

Posted by: truck1 | December 30, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Well said, Ezra.

Posted by: keilprti1 | December 30, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I agree with your overall point, but you have mis-dated the comment about law and sausage. It doesn't date from the Upton Sinclair era at all.

The remark is often attributed to Otto Von Bismarck, but in fact it was by American poet John Godfrey Saxe in 1869, and quoted in a Cleveland newspaper.

Upton Sinclair wasn't born until 1878, and his book on the US meatpacking industry (The Jungle, still a good read), wasn't published until 1906.

Posted by: ec3663 | December 30, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Dear me, truck1 is tedious. He's a walking cruelty case.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | December 30, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

--"[Sausage] would be a lot worse without regulations on the meat industry."--

There's Klein again, doing the Valley Girl thing to the government's sausage.

Posted by: msoja | December 30, 2009 11:43 PM | Report abuse

I wrote a piece about sausage making and legislation a few months ago, defending sausage making and objecting to the negative way it is characterized most of the time. But I never posted it, because my kids told me no one would be interested. So, it's interesting to see what you have to say about this whole process. My point was that you can make great sausage if you are careful about what you put in it. And the more you know about what is actually in it, the more respect you will have for the final product. When you compare that to making legislation, the analogy fails somewhat. The more we know about how legislation is made (deals with Nelson and Landrieu, etc.), the less respect we have for the final product. But hey -- make your own sausage at home. It's really great!

Posted by: LindaB1 | December 31, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

I always thought the point of the saying was not the process but that all sorts of nasty bits go into sausage, parts we would never cut out of a pig and serve by themselves.

That said, sausage is delicious, and knowing that much of it comes from the sweepings of an abattoir floor doesn't bother me. It's cooked. Nor does killing cows and pigs to eat them.

Posted by: CDRealist | January 1, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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