Popping Techno-Utopian Bubbles

Peter Van Doren explains that debates over the use of new technologies typically focus on ethics rather than efficacy.

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Peter Van Doren and Will Duffield join us today to discuss a variety of topics including; designer babies, driverless cars, and “non-slaughter meat”. It may seem as though that these topics are not obviously related, but with any new or emerging technology there is a blowback response from potential users or consumers. In these three very different fields, reactions have been mixed. More importantly, it may be impossible to predict the consequences of fully adopting any of these emerging technologies that seemingly make our lives better off.  

Could we get to a point where everyone will be designing their children? What will the future of car-sharing be? How is technology and innovation hindered (or helped) by the culture of adoption? Should we be hesitant to adopt new technologies that we perceive as making our lives better? 

Further Reading:

Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned, written by Michael Moss

ABC TV settles with beef product maker in ‘pink slime’ defamation case, written by Timothy Mclaughlin

Regulation Magazine Fall 2018

Gene Editing Needs to Be Available to Everyone, written by Noah Smith

Iceland Close to Becoming the First Country Where No Down’s Syndrome Children are Born, written by Dave MacLean

Related Content:

Welcome to the Sharing Economy, Free Thoughts Podcast

In the Economy of the Future, You Won’t Own Your Kitchen, written by Pamela J. Hobart

Ride-Sharing Services Aren’t a Problem, They’re a Solution, written by Aeon Skoble

[music]

00:06 Paul Matzko: Welcome back to Building Tomorrow, a show dedicated to the ways technology and innovation are making us healthier, wealthier, and wiser. Okay, maybe not wiser… Okay, okay, definitely not wiser. But on the theme of wisdom, today, we’re going to explore some of the hopeful future scenarios that are currently popular among technologists, including self-driving cars, designer babies, and meat that’s not meat. With me is my regular co-host, Will Duffield, who runs the prototype column for libertarianism.org, and we are talking today with special guest Peter Van Doren, who is the editor of Regulation Magazine and Cato’s in-house expert on the regulation of transportation, labor, housing: The three sectors where you spend almost all of your time every single day of your life. Welcome to the show, Peter.

00:54 Peter Van Doren: Thanks for having me.

00:56 Paul Matzko: Here’s how we’re gonna structure today’s show: So Will and I will take turns setting up the most bullish possible interpretation of how a currently emerging tech might transform society for the better. Then Peter is gonna help us assess just how realistic these outcomes are from an economic and regulatory perspective. So, Will, how about you start us off with designer babies? What do you want your Franken-baby to be like?

01:22 Will Duffield: Hopefully like me, but…

01:24 Paul Matzko: Tall, good-looking, brilliant, right?

01:26 Will Duffield: All of those traits that I have, of course.

[chuckle]

01:31 Will Duffield: We’re seeing a couple means of altering who our offspring are likely to be by either selecting from a host of potential embryos that could become that child or even tinkering with their genetic code in order to potentially select for specific traits. Now a lot of that sounds like science fiction, but the cost of IVF has fallen dramatically and is putting embryonic selection into the hands of a wider variety of would-be parents. As well, we’ve seen, when it comes to animal populations, a great deal of exciting research with regard to the ability of CRISPR to select for specific traits. So, people are now expecting that in a couple decades, they’ll be able to design the child of their choosing. How realistic is a scenario like this?

02:35 Peter Van Doren: My sense is… Well, first of all, just the disciplinary silos we bring to this discussion in terms of the traditional economics of regulation perspective that I would bring to bear, nothing in my training actually helps me deal with this question. So I’m winging it a lot.

02:57 Will Duffield: [chuckle] That’s good.

03:00 Peter Van Doren: My understanding of the genetics comes from reading the New York Times and The New Yorker and the Atlantic. And lately, what I’ve been reading is that the supposed ability through CRISPR of… And then the mapping of the human genome to, in effect, design babies with various traits and then without various negative traits may be vanishing as fast as we can approach it, kind of like in Star Trek or something. So, I’m not… So I wouldn’t be surprised 20 years from now if we look back at this discussion and think that we were kind of ahead of possibilities, certainly for selecting for things that are complicated traits. Some of the articles I’ve read lately suggest it’s not one gene that turns on or off; it’s like a mess of genes that turn on or off and then make proteins and then interact with the environment in very complicated ways, so that that sort of possibility may be difficult.

04:10 Peter Van Doren: On the other hand, eliminating some single-gene horrible diseases seems to be a more promising possibility. But even then, again, just from what I read, notice that there… So this falls into religion and culture and norms and values, everything other than economics, and so, I’m winging it here. But I’ll say the following: I have seen… Certainly there are some parents… Well, we now have the possibility, the technological possibility, called “abortion,” and we have early fetal genetic testing for some rare, very negative chromosomal diseases, and parents are informed of Down syndrome and other such genetic anomalies, and there are many more people than I certainly would have thought that think it immoral to have an abortion, to eliminate that person from existence, because of the likely very medically intensive, very limited existence, that they will have while they live.

05:29 Peter Van Doren: And so, I can see this ending up being not a scientific debate at all but rather a very… Given America and given religion and given how many different religions we have and given abortion and how volatile and difficult a topic that is, has been and is, I can see this just adding more gasoline to that fire and kind of the science ends up being probably not what people will be discussing but rather why and whether one should have children and what should they be like, and that many people, more than you would think, even well-educated people, may be very opposed to this kind of scientific possibility.

06:29 Paul Matzko: Hmm. Well, there was an article not that long ago about Iceland which was trumpeting its success in essentially eliminating Down syndrome, that the abortion rates for… They were doing fetal testing, and essentially, they’d approved… Something like 99% of all suspected cases of Down syndrome were being aborted. And this played very well in Iceland obviously ‘cause the government was trumpeting the results, but in the United States, there was a wave of negative coverage often from the new religious right, from Evangelicals, Catholics, other religious groups who were angry about the idea of what amounts to destroying an entire population of people because of chromosomal defects. So…

07:18 Peter Van Doren: That’s sort of what I would suspect, that… Across cultures, and I hadn’t thought of northern Europe, but you’re quite right that the northern Europe is less officially religious and yet has state-sponsored religion and many have argued there may be a relationship between that. America was founded by isms that fled various places for various reasons, and those isms are strong and… So… Do you know about the case, let’s see, it was in The New Yorker I think, right? The… So… Oh, goodness, this was a child that was declared legally something or other, and then the parents disagreed and it was transferred to a hospital in another state and kept alive through life support for 10, 12 years? Something like that, and… So…

08:19 Paul Matzko: Or the UK example, I’m trying to remember the name, was it Tommy or… There was a… And are they gonna be allowed to air flight them to the Vatican? The Pope is going to… He’s gonna go to the Pope’s hospital, and all the, again, basic disagreements between religious and non-religious communities, medical communities, over, “Okay. We have the technology to do some fairly remarkable things when it comes to selecting embryos, when it comes to end-of-life care, keeping people alive on ventilators.” It’s not often the tech itself that’s the point of disagreement, whether or not the tech works; but whether or not you should use it, the ethics of the use.

09:00 Peter Van Doren: Again, I think that’s a Cato kind of argument, which is, could we get to the point where we… These issues, everyone could decide for themselves and their own children rather than the state deciding, “You have to live this way and you have to live this other way,” and so… ‘Cause once you interject a kind of zero-sum abortion-like thing into politics, which is, “This is bad, and I define it bad not only for me and I don’t do it, but I don’t want you and your family to do this as well,” then it’s just zero-sum. “Either you win or I win, and we fight to the death until there’s more of us or more of you,” and that’s… Abortion discussion has been for me an unpleasant political reality my entire life, and I wish we could find some way out of it, but I don’t… But if people think this way not only about their behavior but about other people’s behavior, then… And if this designer baby thing is along those lines, it’s a hellish future.

10:08 Will Duffield: And you already see expressions of a sort of zero-sum concern with regard to more of the far-fetched genetic editing ideas. Noah Smith had a column about a year ago now, concerned with the potential distributional effects of the wealthy being able to select for the most intelligent of their potential offspring, and what inter-generationally, particularly if there are attempts to restrict access to this technology, but the wealthy can still jet around the world to jurisdictions where it’s legal. You can find yourself in a scenario in which any state attempt to prevent this technology from being used and thereby generating inequality ends up generating yet more inequality, as those with the money to use it go where they can.

11:05 Paul Matzko: Yeah, you can imagine a literal class of Übermenschen who have been selected for desirable traits that gets rid of neurodiversity, that has the… Plus the advantages of socioeconomic class, of going to elite schools, of… And since that tech will be available to those who are wealthy first, there will be a lag before mass adoption. You can imagine all the political, economic, and social implications of that kind of structure, social structure, that could emerge from that. So, let’s move on to our next topic. [chuckle] Depressing opening [chuckle] with designer babies, but I think this next one is something that’s gonna be even more in Peter’s wheelhouse, dealing with transportation policy, and that is the idea that in the next, say, 20 to 30 years, we will see the end of the personal automobile as we know it. Now even the most bearish car experts at TechCrunch Disrupt predicted that a majority of personal vehicles will be fully level-five automated, that means without a steering wheel, within 20 or 30 years, though some suggested China would get there first.

12:23 Paul Matzko: In this age of driverless cars, it’s been suggested it won’t make much sense to own your own vehicle. After all, why pay for a car that spends like 20 hours a day sitting in parking lots, sitting in driveways, baking in the sun, and silently depreciating in value? It’s a terrible financial proposition. Why not instead pool together with a few dozen, hundred, a few thousand, other people to own a share in a self-driving car fleet, so while you are at work, that car is zipping around taking other people to work, right? It’s a more efficient use of cars. You just tap the car-share button app on your phone, a few minutes later, a fleet car pulls up to your house to take you to work, to shopping, to the newsstand to buy the latest issue of Regulation Magazine, wherever you wanna go.

13:13 Paul Matzko: Now again, in theory, this means more efficient use of vehicles, which means fewer cars per person. Right now I think the rate’s like 1.8 cars per American household. That also means the capital costs of car upgrades, of car maintenance, that would be pooled, it would be amortized across the fleet. All of this would mean that it should become cheaper to have access to a car’s “stream of service,” to cite Mike Munger in his book Tomorrow 3.0. This expands access to cars to people currently unable to afford one. And given that cars are the second largest expense in most people’s budgets, that could demonstrably improve consumer finances. And since self-driving cars are safer than human drivers, that means fewer fatal accidents. Kids might one day regard stories of great-great-uncle Brett who died in an automobile accident, like we do stories about polio or typhoid, some…

14:13 Will Duffield: Is this the pro-natalist argument for self-driving cars? I kinda like it.

14:17 Paul Matzko: It sure is, you like that?

14:18 Will Duffield: I’m on here for this. Yeah.

[laughter]

14:20 Paul Matzko: You’re on board, you’re on this corner. So, Peter, you do transportation policy. What do you think the prospect of this is? What are the proponents of this vision potentially missing?

14:33 Peter Van Doren: I guess for analytic purposes, I think I would separate two things you mentioned: One is whether cars are automated or not, and two is whether we share them or not. I guess I’m… My sense is… I know I’m supposed to be the economist here. You gave the economist argument, and my sense is we’re forgetting culture. And even though economists don’t know what culture is, I guess some of it, it exists.

[chuckle]

15:03 Peter Van Doren: And I guess, again, I cannot imagine… Well, for me, getting a car and owning it and then petting it on Saturdays and then washing it and then keeping it clean, I do not want anybody else in my car. I could not conceive of it. I would not want it. I would not use… But I can’t conceive of anyone using my home. I would never consider Airbnb to rent my home, that’s just creepy to me.

[laughter]

15:33 Peter Van Doren: I know that… And if I were young, I mean, I just… I never crashed on people’s couches, and I just… Hotels, they’re there for a reason, et cetera, et cetera. But you’re just… That’s just my idiosyncratic, weird Dutchness or something.

15:50 Paul Matzko: This segment brought to you by the National Hotel Industry Association of America. [chuckle]

15:54 Peter Van Doren: So anyway, I’ll just be upfront that those are my… So, then the other thing is people use their cars as extensions of themselves. They store everything in them. I mean, I have old friends… I have friends who just throw everything they’ve ever eaten in the backseat and never touch it. And so, the… So for people like that, sharing… A, people wouldn’t wanna share their car; and B, when I get in my car, I want the radio to be set to the stations I want, I want the CDs, I know that dates me, that I want in the player, I have my sunglasses on the right-hand… I mean, you just… You to have to take everything in and… So, I think the whole sharing thing may make sense for younger people… Again, it’s… If you’re price-sensitive and this gets you access to a vehicle sooner in your life than you otherwise would have, fine. But we already have taxis and Uber and Lyft, where you already have the options to share the driverless feature.

17:00 Peter Van Doren: The whether or not we’ll have automated cars, again, my nostalgia, the sort of… I like driving in the country on the weekends on roads that have curves and whatever and… But when I talk to younger people, particularly if you live in cities, that’s not what driving’s about. But if I’m in the country on weekends driving my 1986 Alpha, I cannot imagine not having a steering wheel and not being able to do that… That being illegal, because I’m… I’ve resisted technological change. But for… I get the throughput argument… I mean, I get the notion, I see lots of bad drivers out there, and if we all were closer together and computer-driven and all of that, the throughput of our current transportation road system would be much greater, and we’re gonna need that. So, automation might be endogenously adopted under congestion pricing if we had that anyway. The whole sharing thing, I’m… Just but that… I’m probably idiosyncratic on that.

18:06 Will Duffield: I think there is something to it when you think about the sort of vulgarities of public transport, having gum on your seat that sticks to you, and taking all of that to your car doesn’t seem like a winning proposal. Now from an efficiency standpoint, when we bring culture into the usual expectations we have around self-driving cars, do we end up with, or are we likely to realize, the oft-anticipated efficiency gains? I.e. If instead of people buying shares in a fleet of self-driving cars, they simply buy one for themselves, and perhaps instead of just going out in it, they send it out to do errands for them? You could end up with a scenario in which cars are on the road, or more cars are on the road, and you still don’t really eliminate the parking issues or anything else we would expect to…

19:15 Peter Van Doren: Well, certainly the history of transportation innovation is anything, anything that makes driving more easy, but we don’t… Price-driving means there’s more driving. Alright, so there, econ does come into play. So, anything that people perceive is making their lives easier that isn’t priced is gonna lead to more, whatever that thing is, and so more congestion… So, we’re gonna have to have congestion pricing, we may need to have it even on local… Right? If we get congested and you can’t build any more streets and you can’t… And then because of more centralized jobs rather than decentralized, more people have to come downtown, New York will grind to zero, nobody will be getting… Now they’re not getting around, but literally everyone will be in an automated car going nowhere. And then we’re gonna have to have congestion pricing on every street all the time to keep all these automated wonderful things off the road.

20:16 Paul Matzko: One of the things you mentioned it, that making people’s lives easier leading to a certain level of adoption, people want stuff that make their lives easier in a way that’s kind of, I guess, less price-sensitive. I mean, some of this is a function of, “If you make things cheaper, more people will do it.” Sure, so if you make car ownership cheaper, it might not lead… Or car use cheaper, it might not lead to fewer cars; it could just lead to… We’d probably have… Everyone will have the same number of cars; they’ll just do more, drive more miles, ‘cause they don’t need people behind the wheel anymore. But one of the things I was thinking of, it uses two innovations, techs, that are currently being used. So, you can have your car have keyless entry for Amazon packages, so rather than them leaving your Amazon box on your front step, Amazon currently has a program where you give Amazon couriers access to your car so they can put the box in your trunk where it’s safer.

21:19 Paul Matzko: We also have, essentially, grocery pick-up services. Walmart does it, other companies do it. You take… Someone picks your groceries for you, loads them… You just drive to Walmart, they load the cars in the trunk. So you add on top of that a driverless car, and yeah, from work, you just say, “Here’s the groceries I want, go pick them up,” Walmart loads ‘em in your car using a keyless function unlike what Amazon currently uses. You can see how close we are to that kind of system, but I think your point, Will and Peter, that this might not actually lead to the kind of efficiencies on the road that I laid out my scenario are at. It might not lead to that at all. That’s a good thought. I mean, at the same time, there are those gains. Any kind of system where you’re saving lives on the roads is going to lead to a pressure to make people-driven cars. And we’ve teased this on the show before, the idea that someday, it’s not only a question of, will most cars be self-driving cars? ; you can imagine a tipping point where there’s pressure to put you and your 1986 Alpha…

22:32 Will Duffield: Off the road.

22:32 Paul Matzko: Off the road entirely, because who wants this older driver who’s veering around corners on Sundays like a madman, putting young people at risk? No, no, no, we gotta get rid of that. And so maybe you’ll only be allowed to drive your Alpha on a closed track. It has to be put on a self-driving car trailer to get there, ‘cause you can’t trust it on the roads. You can imagine that kind of future world.

22:58 Peter Van Doren: Yes, then they’ll… They’ve already done it, but then the old codger called Peter will be… I’ll be at the door with my shotgun, you’ll take…

[chuckle]

23:08 Peter Van Doren: Clint Eastwood, right? You’re gonna take the cold… What was that phrase? The… I forgot.

23:12 Will Duffield: “From my cold dead hands?”

23:13 Peter Van Doren: Yeah.

23:15 Will Duffield: It’s Charlton Heston.

23:15 Peter Van Doren: Charlton Heston, alright. See, I mix up my old white guys.

23:18 Paul Matzko: The emotionally repressed old white guys. It’s a… It’s hard to [23:22] ____.

23:22 Peter Van Doren: It sounds more like the basis for a Cake song. They’d tell him he can’t drive and he just goes out and doesn’t stop. I don’t know, I mean, you already see sub-cultures of people with very expensive race cars that just trailer them to the track to drive. Drag racers. But I don’t wanna… It’s interesting. We go through Frederick County, Maryland on weekends, and these wonderful, beautiful country roads and there’s no one on them and the hills are rolling, and there’s usually a whole bunch of old guys on motorcycles and people like me and then some pickup trucks. And that’s… I know, I’m… But… So, to give that up seems… I would resist.

24:13 Paul Matzko: Well, we have kind of an indication of how that works. There was a point in time where nostalgia for the days when you and your dad often bought an old beat-‘em-up and rebuilt the engine yourself in the garage. This was like a marker of what it meant to become a man in the ’70s and ’80s. Right.

24:34 Peter Van Doren: I did. We did. And now the cars are computers that happen to have wheels. And my brother and I took apart a 1964 Dodge and a 1970 Chevy Vega, probably, and learned how everything worked. And that’s not possible now.

24:52 Paul Matzko: No.

24:52 Peter Van Doren: And I wonder about that.

24:53 Paul Matzko: So we accepted that transition, the same thing could be true for driving itself.

24:57 Will Duffield: True. But I don’t know if you’d end up seeing a totalizing ban. I mean, today, if you have a horse and carriage, you can take it on the road. You can’t take it on the interstate, but you can tool around Frederick, Maryland in a horse and carriage if you want to. So it might just be kind of like that.

25:17 Peter Van Doren: Sure. The Amish, the Amish.

25:19 Will Duffield: Yeah.

25:20 Peter Van Doren: Where I grew up in northern New York, actually, there’s lots of Amish conflict over… Because they’re farmers and they have… Anyway, there are lots of car-buggy crashes, and the St. Lawrence County officials and district attorney have had to wrestle with how to deal with matching the 20th century and the 18th century together.

25:46 Paul Matzko: Imagine doing that with the 21st century.

25:48 Will Duffield: Peter and his old Alpha causing trouble.

25:51 Paul Matzko: So, apparently, the moral of the story there is that… ‘Cause a lot of the Amish exceptions, legal exceptions, are a function of religious freedom. They’ve been able to successfully argue in court that “We need to be allowed to drive our buggy and carriage on the road because… “

26:04 Will Duffield: Is that…

26:05 Paul Matzko: Yeah.

26:05 Will Duffield: Well, other people can go out with a horse and buggy, though.

26:09 Paul Matzko: Well, if they can, it’s because of the protections…

26:11 Peter Van Doren: Well, actually, their issues with the New York State were they’re against colors. So all you have to do with a slow-moving vehicle is have a slow-moving vehicle triangle on the back of your… And they resist that because it is ostentatious, because it’s colored.

26:29 Will Duffield: Yeah. So I might paint the chrome black.

26:30 Paul Matzko: But the… The exception got carved out, though. Even if non-Amish people could enjoy it, it got carved out because of the kind of religious freedom exemptions. So the key, clearly, Peter, is that if you wanna resist the trend of self-driving cars, you need to form a religious group around car ownership and maintenance and self-driving. Okay, well, why don’t we move on to our next subject? And for this one, why don’t we go to you, Will? I titled it “Where’s the beef in the lab?”

26:58 Will Duffield: Yeah. It’s, I guess, getting around lunchtime here in the studio.

[chuckle]

27:03 Will Duffield: But we’ve seen a couple… A number, a plethora, even, now, of efforts to create meat in the lab without killing any animals. And a lot of people who, either for ethical or to some extent health concerns, don’t consume meat now are very excited about this. There are also potential environmental upsides. So back in 2013, the first lab-grown burger was eaten in the Netherlands for the eye-watering price of $330,000. Since then, however, the cost of this sort of artificial, in a sense, meat, has fallen. And they’re currently expecting that we’ll see it in stores in the next year or so at a markup from meat but certainly not an incredible one. Now in terms of the environmental context here, there’s a thought that growing meat in this way could cut the amount of land required by almost 99%? If I’m…

28:27 Paul Matzko: Yeah, like do it in a lab, I guess, rather than a bunch of fields. [chuckle]

28:31 Will Duffield: Even in terms of the inputs and all of that…

28:33 Paul Matzko: Yeah, mm-hmm.

28:34 Will Duffield: Wow. And from the chef’s perspective or the gourmet, you can grow only the cuts of meat you want. So if you want fillet or a particular kind of marbling in your steak, you can know that you’re going to get that and not waste any other bits of an animal that you aren’t going to consume. So, it’s possible that in our lifetime, people will be hitting an inflection point where they’re consuming more lab-grown or they like to call it “non-slaughter meat” than they’re buying from farmers or ranchers. And obviously, that’ll frustrate the farmers and ranchers. So you’ve already seen the US Cattlemen’s Association lobbying the USDA to demand that cultured meat not be allowed to be called “meat,” or “beef,” or treated as an animal product. And this seems as though it’s to some extent an extension or the next frontier of a number of fights we’ve seen between legacy food producers and folks trying to create either more ethically- or environmentally-friendly versions of their product. So, Peter, are we likely to see this meat in stores soon, and if so, what kind of conflict will attend it?

30:09 Peter Van Doren: You’ve described the conflict very well, which is there’ll be fights by the legacy producers and they will use their lobbying efforts to try to engage in labeling fights, as you’ve described. What is meat? What isn’t meat? What’s dairy? What’s not dairy? We’ve already actually gone through this, and I’m surprised… Well, I’ll bring it up, since… Which is we had a fight over margarine versus butter.

30:38 Paul Matzko: Oleomargarine.

30:39 Peter Van Doren: Oleomargarine, which was a product of industrial chemistry, right? Polyunsaturated fat was made and formed. So the big issue in the State of Wisconsin was, could it be colored, because what this product looked like would be like Crisco.

31:02 Will Duffield: Yeah.

31:02 Paul Matzko: Yeah.

31:03 Peter Van Doren: When it comes out of the… But butter is yellow, a block of…

31:08 Paul Matzko: Pale goop, gray Crisco.

31:10 Will Duffield: Don’t put Crisco on your toast, what?

[chuckle]

31:13 Peter Van Doren: So, there were laws. If memory serves me correctly, Wisconsin in particular being the dairy state, Wisconsin, it was illegal to sell colored margarine. I don’t… I should have… I did not look up the history, but there were court cases, I don’t know if it went to the supremes or not, but eventually, coloration was allowed. Now the irony of all this, of course, is that this particular new industrial food called “margarine” turns out to have trans-fats and turned out to be just horrible for our health, but we didn’t know it at the time. It was thought to be better than… In my lifetime, we’ve gone through this whole innovation being better, dairy being bad, and then now it’s all been flipped on its head, which is the innovation turned out to have been horrible, and we now have banned trans-fats. And so, now margarine is still sold, but not… It’s not made the way it was originally, so. But yes, the… So the meat folks and the…

32:24 Peter Van Doren: We’re having this with milk as well, which is, consumers are being misled about oat milk and this milk and that milk in the organic sections of stores, and… But I’m seeing some blowback, which is the dairy industry actually isn’t getting very far. Sort of a basic American sensibility, which is people sort of… People understand what they’re doing and they know that almond milk isn’t milk, and et cetera, et cetera. So, the dairy industry, at least, is not getting far in its attempts to ban the use of milk to describe. I’m less aware, because it really hasn’t come forth yet, about whether the Cattlemen’s Association’s attempt to define meat in a certain way will be more successful.

33:13 Paul Matzko: So, on the topic of milk, FDA Chairman, Scott Gottlieb, has entered a quote for the ages while ruling that almond milk shouldn’t be allowed to be called “milk,” because in his words, “An almond doesn’t lactate.” Which is undeniably true, there are no lactating almonds. But the question…

33:31 Will Duffield: And also completely besides the point.

33:33 Paul Matzko: Besides the point. It’s as if there’s vast numbers of consumers out there who thought that they were lactating almonds in little sheds being milked regularly, which is ludicrous, the lack of trust in consumers. But I think this is an interesting thing you’ve pointed us to, Peter, which is there’s almost the… It’s very narrative-driven, so, each side in this argument, your legacy producers, your new tech-fuelled insurgents, are trying to seize on the right narrative to win consumer approval. So, if you can frame it as, as you mentioned, Will, “slaughter-free meat,” it’s like you get your cage-free eggs, your slaughter-free meat. So you’re appealing to the kind of… The animal rights consciousness and…

34:23 Will Duffield: Or that Oatly and oat milk, I’ll call it “oat milk producer,” which was not allowed to call its oat milk “oat milk,” and instead fell back on the slogan, “like milk, but made for humans.”

34:37 Paul Matzko: Yeah. [chuckle] That’s pretty good. So, again, I think we’ve come to this with designer babies, we’re coming to this again now. It’s… The tech actually seems pretty good, and the cost estimates, you’re seeing this declining cost of cultured meat, there’s clear advantages to it. There might be unforeseen ill consequences. Maybe we’ll find out in 30 years that actually, cultured meat is killing an entire generation, like trans-fats, who knows? But you see the use case of the tech is pretty good. It’s a question of culture when it comes to adoption or not, which is something kinda beyond economics and beyond even tech.

35:17 Will Duffield: And from a regulatory standpoint, when we do see these attempts to limit how something can be labeled, what legs are the restrictionists standing on? Are they able to draw upon, say, anti-adulteration laws when you talk about coloring margarine? Or how does the regulatory system get enlisted in this anti-competition effort?

35:49 Peter Van Doren: Well, most successful, maybe all, but certainly, most successful regulatory coalitions consists of what we call “Bootleggers and Baptists,” the most famous article ever published in regulation by an economist.

36:07 Will Duffield: Bruce Yandle?

36:09 Peter Van Doren: Bruce Yandle, right, way back. It was… The subtitle was “The Education of a young FTC economist.” And the metaphor persists, and correctly so, which is: So, incumbent producers wanna use the state to restrict competition, that’s a constant; it is not a variable. Once one has made a lot of money selling something, one would like the money to keep coming in, and we could… I think we could perfectly empathize with that sentiment. And one can use freedom of speech granted under the Constitution to then say, “The newcomers are slime, are bad, are no good,” and you can do all the negative advertising you want about the newcomers. But what if people adopt that product? Well, then you go to the state, and then you need a philosophical rationale which de-legitimizes the competitors. That’s where the “Baptist” part of the “Bootleggers and Baptists” come in. So you need activists who have a normative view that comes from somewhere, be it religious or philosophy or culture, and then they say the new product is bad from their point of view, and so the Baptists and the bootleggers form two… They form an electorally useful coalition of people who gained economic advantage from a regulation, and then people who morally want the regulation to come in because of the set of views they have that resonate with the wider public in some way.

37:51 Will Duffield: So here you’d have Cattlemen and GMO skeptics?

37:55 Peter Van Doren: Could be, yes. They’re… Think of the… Yes, that’d be a good example, which is the… There’s this… Among some upper middle-class people, there’s an odd anti-scientific odor, the anti-vaccine crowd, the anti-GMO crowd and their Franken food, and this and that and the other thing, and these are not poor… These are usually college educated but non-science people who object to something called “product of a lab” and who love something called “nature,” and they may often be environmental, and you could think of it as a quasi-religion, and they’re out there and they vote and the cattlemen will exploit that view and then say, “This regulation prevents all this stuff you don’t want from occurring,” and yes, the cattlemen benefit, but that’s…

39:00 Paul Matzko: I’m thinking here of there was a bit of a panic a few years ago over pink slime, do you remember pink slime?

39:06 Peter Van Doren: Yes, I wrote, yes.

39:08 Will Duffield: Oh. Yeah.

39:08 Peter Van Doren: It was…

39:10 Will Duffield: I assume I’m still eating it, and that nothing’s changed.

[chuckle]

39:13 Peter Van Doren: Well, actually, it was irradiated beef, right? If you wanna stop E.coli…

39:17 Paul Matzko: Mm. Mm-hmm.

39:17 Peter Van Doren: If you wanna stop E.coli infections, which are just horrible. Why would anyone be… Well, you can expose ground beef that… Because of the way ground beef is made, the possibility of E.coli contamination in the slaughterhouse is not zero, whereas with steaks and things that are cut from the center, but once you throw the remnants of a carcass into a grinder, then whatever bacterial infection or viral infection exists or remnants exist, that then is spread through by the grinding process and it’s in everything. Well, then how could you stop that? Well, one is cook it to above a certain temperature, but then that’s well-done and then that’s not very tasteful. So the other way is to irradiate the beef. The second was this pink slime, they used an ammonia exposure process. They used… They exposed this very cheap ground beef to ammonia in the slaughterhouse and…

40:24 Paul Matzko: It kills the bacteria.

40:25 Peter Van Doren: To kill the… Well…

40:28 Paul Matzko: Sure.

40:28 Peter Van Doren: That didn’t… People did not like the sound of that and…

[chuckle]

40:33 Peter Van Doren: It was… It’s very cheap, and it was used in a federally subsidized… At school lunch programs and things like that. So it was very, very, very cheap and culturally offensive, and it did not… It died a very loud death, I guess would be the way to…

[chuckle]

40:53 Paul Matzko: So it’s not used anymore in the federal program and…

40:56 Peter Van Doren: Well, I think the… I mean, it… Yeah, I think either it’s used and I don’t know about it and it went away or it’s still there but it’s very quiet, or the uproar sort of resulted in the manufacturer losing out because they just couldn’t sell it.

41:12 Will Duffield: So was it an op by the folks who produce beef irradiation machines?

41:17 Peter Van Doren: Was it a…

41:18 Will Duffield: An operation PR campaign, you know? Thinking about… Trying to find the bootleggers everywhere.

41:27 Peter Van Doren: I don’t know. It’s… I don’t know.

41:29 Paul Matzko: I do remember during the… There’s a lot of breathless 6:00 AM news stories at the time about it, and definitely, I don’t know if the Cattlemen’s Association specifically, but there were a lot of legacy producers who said, “See? This is why you need real meat for our kids. Our kids deserve the best, not this fake stuff,” and… Yeah.

41:50 Peter Van Doren: The irony is that the pink slime was the real stuff; it was just… It had been discarded… I mean, it was going to more marginal marginal cuts that were then ground, and the question was how to make it safe for mass consumption without E.coli possibilities, and this industrial process was the way to do it.

42:09 Paul Matzko: It looked bad, and once you show tracking shots of a tube of meat paste coming out… Once you see how the sausage is made, you can’t unsee it. I think it is a good reminder that it’s easy for us to have this… For tech… For technologists to have kind of a teleological narrative of progress, which is a fancy way of saying things get better and better and the right side will triumph in the end. But sometimes culture, narrative, religious concerns will trump things just because… Even if they are technologically or economically preferable or superior. There is no guarantee that oleomargarine wins out over big butter. There is no guarantee that pink slime will [chuckle] win out over whatever else, right? And the same thing applies here to cultured meat. This is a site of contest; there are no guarantees. I think with that, we should wrap up for today. So, thank you, Peter, for coming on the show, thank you, Will, and until next week, be well.

[music]

43:20 Paul Matzko: Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy our show, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. To learn about Building Tomorrow or to discover other great podcasts, visit us on the web at libertarianism.org.