A Modest Critique

A not uncommon flaw in many thinkers is what we might call, “fail to scale.”  In other words, a good idea emerges for solving a limited problem, and certain people immediately jump to the conclusion that this same solution can be applied more broadly, without taking into account the additional problems that arise from greater size and complexity.  One example of exactly this problem has come across my field of view recently.

In 1729, noted economics expert Jonathon Swift made a modest proposal to solve the Irish problem, to wit, the eating of Irish babies.  Though never fully implemented, no good criticism of this plan has ever been made, nor, in fact, could be.  The difficulty comes in because today more and more economists are suggesting we expand this policy to include, not just Irish babies, but all of the poor.

Since the time of Swift’s writing, however, the world has changed sufficiently to make this impossible. Consider that as of 2013, median household income worldwide was about 10,000 dollars. In the US, most households gross less than $40,000. Anyone can see this means that there is no shortage of poor people, and so, at first glance, exploiting this food source would seem to make a good deal of sense.

In reality, the cost to butcher, render, prepare the poor and bring them to market (not to mention FDA testing) requires semi-skilled workers, who are, today, for the most part, exactly the ones who are unemployed or under-employed (and, at least in the US, generally without healthcare, thus making them unreliable as a workforce). The result is that we find ourselves in the situation where the only way to actually exploit the poor as a food source would require them to perform all of the required labor. It ought to be obvious that, while it may be possible to convince them to butcher themselves, each step after that becomes increasingly impractical.

As much as I admire those who have followed in Mr. Swift’s footsteps, I’m afraid other solutions must be found.


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31 thoughts on “A Modest Critique”

  1. You fail to see the critics’ point. The economics of scale combined with modern technology mean a few people can do the work of many. As automation continues to take work from most people, the choices for the rich will be to permit socialism or grant a viable Basic Income or slaughter babies. I have no doubt which they will in their wisdom choose.

  2. I see no mention of the benefits of deep AI learning and robotic workers here. This is a multiplicative factor, and would require very little effort to fully automate the entire process from artificial wombs, to automated slaughter houses, to self-driving delivery systems, to Amazon’s fully-automated stores. I suggest that the brand name ‘Eloi’ be used for the final product, and the company name be Morlocks, Inc.

  3. Surely, there must be some way where we could get 50% of the poor to butcher, render, package, ship, promote, distribute, market and sell the other 50%?

  4. Maikjon, I must agree that our host is far too pessimistic. As Jay Gould observed long ago, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

  5. I would argue, as counterpoint, that the poor make for unsatisfying meals because their diet isn’t particularly conducive to healthy, free range protein. On the contrary, we must try to explain to the elite that their own progeny, raised as it is on the finest of foods and beverages (rather like Kobe beef), is far more suitable to their discerning palates.

    As to the problem of what to do with the wealth of the elite after they have consumed themselves, well, I’m sure we can come up with a few ideas.

  6. Here’s an alternate proposal. There are about 7.5 billion people in the world. An average person takes around 2000 calories per day to maintain body weight. There are around 110,000 calories in an average human body.
    This means it would take eating about 137,000,000 people a day to maintain body weight (on a straight human diet).
    The top 1% of people would account for 750,000,000 people. So, we could either have a feast week of the top 1% or add in some starches and stretch that out to a year’s supply fairly easily. (Or even concentrate on the .1%)
    Eat the rich!

  7. In a few years automation will be at an advanced enough stage ensuring the practicality of such swiftonian policies. And then I read previous comments oh well. I return to the chorttled masses in preparation for my eventual consumption.

  8. Math error: The top 1% is 75,000,000, not 750,000,000. Other than that, I think this idea is a go. If necessary we can make up the difference by butchering anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to cook tender rich people well-done.

  9. I sometimes speculate on which options will be available – and how to direct the choices, for when most everything gets produced by very few people. If we have a tiny amount of wealthy rulers, they will want us happy with where the rest of us are. Their biggest irritant is us using up all of the beaches they want. But even providing a universal minimum income will be easier for them than war – provided we are content. Then they can compete with their peers without worrying about us.

  10. Did I start this? I might have, by hearkening back to Swift in response to Steven’s plaintive cry for a final solution to income inequality. As he noted, the poor are expensive to kill.

    And as he points out here, even when they can be made palatable and profitable to kill, there remains the problem of labour. Always labour.

    And yet we know the solution to this — the workers must own the means of production. Once the necessary slaughterhouses and equipment and restaurants are made available by the state to the fifty percent of workers necessary to accomplish the task, the remaining fifty percent can be tasty Trailertrash McNuggets in no time.

  11. Steven. Horrified to note that not only have you gone off the deep end, but others have followed you there. The easiest solution is to cut out medical services completely and start a war. Result: an Immediate plunge in population, leaving lots of yummy food and wine for those who are left.

    Oh. You wanted a different idea. Sorry.

  12. I believe many people tend to over complicate the problem and this leads to a naturally over complicated solution. The best and simplest solution not only addresses the problem of food shortage but also the problems associated with the rising cost of health care, the transportation of the food to markets around the globe, the social economic repercussions such as inflation to a sudden increase in jobs and wages for the poor and even the secondary issue of union labor creating problems for the entrepreneur. I have it on good authority that thanks to a loop hole previously unexploited to its full potential even the expense of FDA food testing and standards can be avoided.

    The simplest solution is to allow the poor, each individual that is, as I said there would be no Union messing about, to simply eat himself.

    I would suggest starting with the toes but please note I am not a doctor so this should not be taken as medical advice. Salt available upon request.

  13. I know of a number of SF/F books, but can’t think of titles right now, where those killed on the battlefield are used for food, and species that are appalled by humans “wasting” the dead. Those killed would not be very tender, but they would tend to be muscular. Transport from battlefield to market could be a problem.

    I’m more in favor of eat the rich.

  14. Hmm… the merely wealthy are probably the least appealing to eat: tough and stringy due to personal trainers and fad diets, with too many contaminants in the form of questionable supplements and recreational pharmaceuticals. The richest may fall somewhere between that and your traditional “fat cat”.

  15. If only we could set up a situation through decades of divisive politics and 24 hour cable news ranting where a portion of the working class hated a different portion of the working class so much that they could barely see…oh wait. We already have that, huh?

  16. Kragar:That spurred an interesting thought. A 24/7 news channel that actually had the interest of the working class would be a very interesting thing.

  17. Steves: left-leaning TV media never seems to pan out for long. Either they get sold to a right-wing asshole, or they do so well that the owners get rich and change sides, or something. Name an exception.

  18. True. For it to exist, it would have to be the organ of actual party, with a program and principles. And I could be wrong here, but I think that by the time a revolutionary party reached the point where it had the resources to do that, we’d already be in a revolutionary situation. Revolutionary parties remain small and apparently isolated until social crisis brings them forward, at which time the grow with astonishing rapidity. So, yeah, I’d say you’re right.

  19. I tried to make a movie about this! Unfortunately, not enough people care about the poor if they’re alive. We got like, $5 and a couple of recipes..

  20. This is a silly thread! (I’m not being confrontational, simply pointing out the obvious, that everybody can see it’s a silly thread.)

    I liked the Eloi/Morlocks comparison. Also the several comments that mention Basic Income. I really do see this as a viable future solution, and, as someone said, far easier than war or eating people.

    However: I have to say, skzb, I’m disappointed! That you didn’t do any kind of a thread on the UK General Election; not even to compare Corbyn to Sanders or something. I’m complaining here as you leave me nowhere else to complain.

    I’m afraid I’m a bit fed up of that site you favour, wsws.org, at the moment: as all they do is whine and moan (+ promote conspiracy theories; pontificate pompous-sounding philosophies, etc.) Come on with their now usual boring and simplistic refrain “they’re all the same,” etc. Completely disregarding the fact that fairly narrow (ideological) differences can lead to very significant differences in policy: which in turn leads to VERY different ome comes for a lot of “the little people”. Small differences = widely separate outcomes!

    Anyway: SEP haven’t run anyone in UK this time. So really: they can’t talk.

    So what’s your opinion? (More important than Morlocks meet Swift, I think.)

    Yes, I’m a socialist, all right. The social democratic kind. I guess that makes mea Corbynista.

  21. If you actually think the WSWS has ever said, “they’re all the same” then I can only suggest you begin by actually reading it. If you’re not going to bother to read, it would seem really stupid on my part to waste time writing to you.

  22. Apparently Jonathan Swift is required reading for English Lit majors, and all of you have read this essay. When will Steven Brust become required reading for English Lit majors? I would have been contending for this, but ran out of money before receiving my doctorate. Perhaps someday I will continue my education, but I feel downhearted since the economy crashed.

  23. This is all part of the prep work for your sequel to Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, isn’t it?

  24. A good friend designs specialist robots. Two years ago his work was to automate a particular job a particular meat-works disassembly line in Australia.

    Not because robots are cheaper than workers there, but because this particular job, removing this particular cut of meat, caused a lot of strain injuries even for the rather large muscular blokes who did it.

    The job is to swing a meathook high and *chunk* it deep into the carcass that is going past, pull it towards you, slash with a blade in the other hand at just the right spot, and then yank down brutally hard on the meat-hook to rip the flesh from the carcass.

    When the robots rise up, my mate Trav will be at fault.

    But until then, here is the solution to your problem: Automate blue-collar jobs, arm the robots with meathooks and blades, and eat the poor.

    You’re welcome.

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