Cohen and Krugman

In “This Column Is Gluten-Free” Mr. Cohen moans that it’s good that people are more demanding, but the epidemic of food intolerance has gone way over the top.  Prof. Krugman considers “Something Not Rotten in Denmark” and gives us an example of a welfare state that taxes heavily but enjoys high employment and general prosperity.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I was in Venice a few weeks ago and friends reported seeing a restaurant menu with the following important message emblazoned it: “We do NOT serve gluten-free food.”

It was easy to imagine an exasperated Italian proprietor, driven to frenzy by repeated requests from Americans for gluten-free pasta, finally deciding to cut short such exchanges with this blunt pre-emptive blow.

Rough translation: My way or the highway. If you don’t like my pasta the way la Mamma has always made it, try someplace else.

Gluten is the main protein component of wheat, rye and barley. Wheat was first cultivated about 12,000 years ago and it’s safe to say gluten has never had as hard a time as in recent years. The hunter-gatherer turned cultivator would be appalled at what he has wrought. Free associate from the word “gluten” these days and you’ll probably come up with poison.

This column, by the way, is gluten-free. Please feel at liberty to read on.

There has been a huge and mysterious rise in celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. According to the Mayo Clinic web site, four times as many people suffer from celiac disease as 60 years ago, and roughly one in 100 people are now affected. Why is unclear. Perhaps it’s the way gluten products are prepared today, or even, some have suggested, the result of a bored immune system looking for new targets.

But of course the gluten-free trend is not just about multiplying celiac sufferers. People decide gluten must be bad for them because they see shelves full of gluten-free food at supermarkets. Forms of food intolerance, whether to wheat or dairy products or something else, have reached near epidemic levels among the global middle class.

Special dietary needs are all the rage. Allergies, real or imagined, multiply. One in five Britons now claim some form of intolerance, yet a 2010 Portsmouth University study found the claims were often unfounded. The narcissism of minor differences finds expression in the food-intolerance explosion: Having a special dietary requirement is one way to feel special in the prevailing “me” culture.

But I don’t want to show the intolerance of the omnivore for faddish food particularism, however overblown it may be. There’s a lot that’s good in food fetishes.

People are more aware of what they eat and how they want to feel as a result of what they eat. They are more demanding, with instant access to the information they need to make shrewd dietary choices; and they are surely not wrong to blame processed food and manipulated food and greater pollution and stress for certain allergies.

The political, it often seems, has become personal. Where people wanted to change the world, now they want to change their bodies. Wellness is a political pursuit because it involves choices about food that will impact the planet. Eating local or eating organic or both are lifestyle statements that have become engaged political acts. The pursuit of wellness, increasingly tied to the pursuit of beauty and agelessness, stands at the heart of the current zeitgeist. I eat well therefore I am.

People, if they have a choice (and it’s worth recalling that much of humanity still does not), are eating better. That’s good. But there is also a downside that has to do with self-indulgence, commercial manipulation, the rampant anxiety associated with “affluenza” and narcissistic fussiness.

Some years ago I was told about the experience of a London caterer who had provided the food for a birthday party for Lord Carrington, who is now 96. The caterer asked if any of the aged crowd had special dietary requirements. There were none among the many octogenarian and nonagenarian guests. They were happy to eat anything.

More recently, another friend told me of her sister’s experience with a large house party in Scotland last summer. When the sister inquired about any special dietary needs, many requests came in, particularly from the younger crowd. Hardly anyone aged between 18 and 25 was up for eating anything. One young woman wrote: “I can’t eat shellfish but I do eat lobster.”


If people over 80 will eat anything, yet people under 25 are riddled with allergies, something unhealthy is going on — and it’s going on most conspicuously in the most aggressive, competitive, unequal, individualistic, anxiety-ridden and narcissistic societies, where enlightenment about food has been offset by the sort of compulsive anxiety about it that can give rise to imagined intolerances and allergies.

Overall, I’m with the Venetian restaurant owner making his stand for tradition, la Mamma and eating the food that’s put on your plate. Gluten has done O.K. by humanity for upward of 10 millennia. It’s bad for some people, but the epidemic of food intolerance has gone way over the top.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

No doubt surprising many of the people watching the Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders cited Denmark as a role model for how to help working people. Hillary Clinton demurred slightly, declaring that “we are not Denmark,” but agreed that Denmark is an inspiring example.

Such an exchange would have been inconceivable among Republicans, who don’t seem able to talk about European welfare states without adding the word “collapsing.” Basically, on Planet G.O.P. all of Europe is just a bigger version of Greece. But how great are the Danes, really?

The answer is that the Danes get a lot of things right, and in so doing refute just about everything U.S. conservatives say about economics. And we can also learn a lot from the things Denmark has gotten wrong.

Denmark maintains a welfare state — a set of government programs designed to provide economic security — that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. Denmark provides universal health care; college education is free, and students receive a stipend; day care is heavily subsidized. Overall, working-age families receive more than three times as much aid, as a share of G.D.P., as their U.S. counterparts.

To pay for these programs, Denmark collects a lot of taxes. The top income tax rate is 60.3 percent; there’s also a 25 percent national sales tax. Overall, Denmark’s tax take is almost half of national income, compared with 25 percent in the United States.

Describe these policies to any American conservative, and he would predict ruin. Surely those generous benefits must destroy the incentive to work, while those high taxes drive job creators into hiding or exile.

Strange to say, however, Denmark doesn’t look like a set from “Mad Max.” On the contrary, it’s a prosperous nation that does quite well on job creation. In fact, adults in their prime working years are substantially more likely to be employed in Denmark than they are in America. Labor productivity in Denmark is roughly the same as it is here, although G.D.P. per capita is lower, mainly because the Danes take a lot more vacation.

Nor are the Danes melancholy: Denmark ranks at or near the top on international comparisons of “life satisfaction.”

It’s hard to imagine a better refutation of anti-tax, anti-government economic doctrine, which insists that a system like Denmark’s would be completely unworkable.

But would Denmark’s model be impossible to reproduce in other countries? Consider France, another country that is much bigger and more diverse than Denmark, but also maintains a highly generous welfare state paid for with high taxes. You might not know this from the extremely bad press France gets, but the French, too, roughly match U.S. productivity, and are more likely than Americans to be employed during their prime working years. Taxes and benefits just aren’t the job killers right-wing legend asserts.

Going back to Denmark, is everything copacetic in Copenhagen? Actually, no. Denmark is very rich, but its economy has taken a hit in recent years, because its recovery from the global financial crisis has been slow and incomplete. In fact, Denmark’s 5.5 percent decline in real G.D.P. per capita since 2007 is comparable to the declines in debt-crisis countries like Portugal or Spain, even though Denmark has never lost the confidence of investors.

What explains this poor recent performance? The answer, mainly, is bad monetary and fiscal policy. Denmark hasn’t adopted the euro, but it manages its currency as if it had, which means that it has shared the consequences of monetary mistakes like the European Central Bank’s 2011 interest rate hike. And while the country has faced no market pressure to slash spending — Denmark can borrow long-term at an interest rate of only 0.84 percent — it has adopted fiscal austerity anyway.

The result is a sharp contrast with neighboring Sweden, which doesn’t shadow the euro (although it has made some mistakes on its own), hasn’t done much austerity, and has seen real G.D.P. per capita rise while Denmark’s falls.

But Denmark’s monetary and fiscal errors don’t say anything about the sustainability of a strong welfare state. In fact, people who denounce things like universal health coverage and subsidized child care tend also to be people who demand higher interest rates and spending cuts in a depressed economy. (Remember all the talk about “debasing” the dollar?) That is, U.S. conservatives actually approve of some Danish policies — but only the ones that have proved to be badly misguided.

So yes, we can learn a lot from Denmark, both its successes and its failures. And let me say that it was both a pleasure and a relief to hear people who might become president talk seriously about how we can learn from the experience of other countries, as opposed to just chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”



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