The Liberty and Prosperity Challenge
by Ari Armstrong, July 11, 2007
During "The Liberty and Prosperity Challenge," scheduled for the entire month of August, my wife and I will spend no more than $180 jointly on food, or less than $3 per person per day. We will donate every dollar we save out of that budget to the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). Others may participate in the challenge by agreeing to donate the same amount of money either to ARI or to the nonprofit of their choice.
Our challenge is a direct response to the "Food Stamp Challenge" of early June, during which various public figures spent no more than $3.57 per day for food over the course of a week. The point of that challenge (and of various newspaper reports that followed) was that eating on the "average" food-stamp budget is difficult if not impossible, and therefore tax subsidies for food stamps should be increased.
However, many of these public figures wasted money on foods that provide little nutrition for their cost. My wife and I set out to prove that we can eat well on less than $3 per person per day (to use the lower, alternately cited figure).
Moreover, as Tom Blumer pointed out (as I have reviewed), the "average" food-stamp allowance is less than the total grocery budget available to food-stamp recipients. Food stamps are distributed according to calculated need, and recipients with higher incomes are expected to spend more personal funds on food.
As I summarized when discussing our previously proposed challenge, "A two-person household can receive up to $284 per month in food stamps. My wife and I are prepared to eat on a joint budget of less than $180 per month over a span of six months. In other words, we're prepared to spend (at least) 37 percent less on food than what people taking food stamps are assumed to have available for food."
However, the six-month challenge, called The Serious Food Economy Challenge, had an important condition: "for each dollar we come in under budget over that period, supporters of increasing the food-stamp subsidy have to collectively pay $10 to a nonprofit of our choice."
The specified deadline for supporters of increasing the food-stamp subsidy to respond to the six-month challenge was July 10. That date came and went with only two people responding, each pledging $100, far below the minimum threshold.
The two people who responded, Russell Weisfield and Stephen Raher, have earned my respect, as they have demonstrated their commitment to holding a serious discussion about the matter.
The rest, including Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Denver Human Services Manager Roxane White, and Diane Carman and the editorial staff of The Denver Post, obviously don't even believe their own propaganda. If they really believed that $3 per person per day for food is inadequate, then they should have happily accepted our challenge in order to prove us wrong. (The six-month challenge was well-publicized, featured on this web page and in a media release as well in a June 22 Speakout in the Rocky Mountain News.)
However, while my wife and I are disappointed by the spineless (lack of) response by advocates of food-stamp increases, we are determined to demonstrate our point with the new, simplified challenge. If anyone complains that a month-long challenge is shorter than the proposed six-month challenge, I will point out three things. First, our challenge is still four times as long as the Food Stamp Challenge. Second, advocates of higher food-stamp spending had every opportunity to back the six-month challenge. Third, the amount of time that will be required for me to document the challenge will be significant, and a month of such documentation is ample to demonstrate our point.
Furthermore, we will assume a number of handicaps not faced by recipients of food stamps, including the following:
* As mentioned, our budget of $180 is actually "37 percent less on food than what people taking food stamps are assumed to have available for food."
* We will not accept any free food or food discounted by charitable organizations. We will not accept any food from friends.
* Will will not use our Costco membership to purchase food, nor will we use our food dehydrator to prepare food for use during the month of August. (Note that we may choose to purchase food off-budget for dehydration to be used entirely after the month of August.)
* We will not join with others to purchase food in bulk.
* During the month of August, we will not eat any of the tomatoes that are now ripening on our vines.
* We will not drink any beer or wine outside of the alloted budget, because those drinks contain significant calories. (Food stamps don't cover alcohol, though, as my mom has suggested, food stamps can free up personal funds for items like tobacco and alcohol.)
The Liberty and Prosperity Challenge is a more than rigorous test of whether a person can eat well spending less than $3 per day for food. Once my wife and I pass the test, I expect claims regarding the alleged inadequacy of the budget to cease. (I suppose that asking the other side for retractions would be futile.) In the sections that follow I address related issues.
Why "Liberty and Prosperity?"
I picked the title, "The Liberty and Prosperity Challenge," for two basic reasons. First, I wanted to point out that, as a consequence of living in a largely-free society, even the poor in America today are generally far better off than were people of average means prior to the Industrial Revolution. As Dinesh D'Souza has pointed out, the greater problem among America's poor is obesity, not starvation. By historical standards, $3 per day for food represents magnificent wealth. And America's poor also generally earn the skills and knowledge to move into the middle class.
Second, I wish to promote greater liberty and prosperity by using the challenge as a platform to advocate individual rights, free markets, and economic liberty. I oppose the welfare state, which by its nature redistributes wealth by force. I oppose political controls on the economy that infringe our rights and reduce our wealth. I advocate property rights and voluntary association. By donating the unspent portion of the $180 budget to ARI, I know that I'll be aiding an organization that consistently fights for individual rights and free markets.
Other people who wish to help support the challenge can donate to ARI or a nonprofit of their choice one dollar for every dollar we save out of the total budget of $180. Such supporters may send me 200-word summaries touting the virtues of their nonprofits of choice. So long as the text is sent to me before August, I will publish those summaries in this document [link added August 1]. (I'm at ari[**AT**]freecolorado.com, with the appropriate alterations.) Note that I might not agree with the practices or goals of any other nonprofit mentioned.
Will the Challenge be Difficult?
Despite the self-imposed handicaps of the Liberty and Prosperity Challenge, my wife and I are really not worried about the challenge. In fact, it's not even very challenging. With a little planning, any normal adult can eat well on $3 per day.
Here are the three basic tricks: 1. Don't go out to eat. 2. Purchase only inexpensive foods with high nutritional value, plus a few inexpensive sweets. (For most food I'll spend well under $1 per pound.) 3. Cook food in bulk, then refrigerate or freeze it for future meals. This saves time. This is not rocket science. This isn't even that difficult. Frankly, the hardest part about the challenge will be publishing the results (though not going out to eat will also be an inconvenience). The only open question is how much we can save out of the total budget.
Nevertheless, some people have wondered about our ability to successfully navigate the challenge. For example, in his nice review of the six-month challenge, Blumer wonders what the penalty is for going over-budget. But it's just not possible for us to go over budget. We'd have to intentionally waste money to do so. Nevertheless, I did agree to accept a penalty for going over budget, had the original challenge gone into effect. (A penalty for the Liberty and Prosperity Challenge is a moot issue.)
Weisfield wrote to me:
You're food challenge intrigues me in part because I think you'll find other problems besides just staying under budget. The blandness of the food comes to mind after all, most spices and sauces would put you overbudget. Additionally, I hardly believe that expired milk is what we really wish to promote for food stamp recipients. Nevertheless, I am prepared to pledge a total of one hundred dollars to this challenge (given at either at the beginning or the end - whichever is fine by me).
I'll address the question about milk first. In fact, the only milk that we currently purchase is on mark-down (plus we occasionally use dehydrated milk). Generally milk is marked down when it's within a few days of its expiration date. I don't think I've seen milk for sale more than a day after the expiration date. Obviously, milk is not always available on mark-down; stores try to sell milk well before it expires.
Regarding alleged blandness of inexpensive food, over the past couple years I've come to appreciate the natural flavors of food -- flavors that many people cover up or destroy. For example, my wife and I often eat a dish I like to call "Pile of Lettuce." Plain lettuce of different varieties can be surprisingly flavorful, if you give it a chance. Of course, I do plan to purchase some spicier foods, including onions, garlic, hot sauce, and cinnamon. None of these items is a budget-buster.
Will the Diet be Nutritious?
**Disclaimer: I am not trained in nutrition or medicine. None of my comments is intended as nutritional advice. Consult a trained professional for any question or action regarding nutrition, medicine, or health.**
Yes, the diet will be nutritious. However, I do want to make a few qualifications.
The appropriate basis of comparison is not the "perfect" diet (however defined), but rather the average American diet. The point is that, even on a limited budget, we can eat better (nutritionally) than most Americans do. While I will make some general notes regarding the nutrition of the diet, I don't plan to conduct detailed nutritional analysis.
Also, most people do not eat the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals every single day or even on any particular day. Instead, intake fluctuates by day. Thus, an analysis of daily intake could be misleading (if anybody wants to conduct a more detailed analysis). To give an example, one of my friends went on a diet during which he ate nothing every other day, then whatever he wanted every other day. Pointing out that he failed to meet the dietary guidelines 50 percent of the time would be pretty silly. Average intake over a span of days is more revealing. For instance, we may drink a bunch of milk on one day, then eat more beans and rice the next day, etc.
Finally, even though the point of the challenge is to spend significantly less than $3 per person per day, we are by no means going on an emergency, subsistence diet. We could survive on a small fraction of the money that we'll actually spend. Our goal is to achieve a comfortable, low-budget diet of above-average nutrition. (My guess is that the nutritional value of our diet will be dramatically better than that of the average American diet. I will be irritated, therefore, if some smart-ass critic complains that our diet is not "perfect" but ignores the comparison to the average diet.)
One thing I do plan to do is purchase ground flax seeds. This costs a little over $2 per pound. Why the extravagance? According to one producer, a tablespoon of flax offers 1.2 grams of Omega 3 fat. By comparison, "an Omega 3 enhanced egg... can have levels as high as 350mg," and the enhanced eggs I've seen on the shelves have considerably less. So I plan to buy regular eggs, forget the wild salmon, and eat flax. (I've also glanced at a first, second, and third article about flax.)
When Green is Mean
The environmentalists are so busy "saving the earth" that they have apparently forgotten all about the poor. I have not looked extensively at the technology of running cars on corn juice. But it has all the appearances of an idea driven more by the politics of wealth transfers than actually doing anything to provide an efficient type of "alternative" energy. (As with all technologies worth developing, if it can provide energy economically, it needs no government subsidy or support.)
In a June 28 article, Victor Davis Hanson describes some of the effects on the price of food:
If hundreds of planned new ethanol refineries are built, the U.S. could very shortly be producing around 30 billion gallons of corn-based fuel per year, using one of every four acres planted to corn for fuel. This dilemma of food or fuel is also appearing elsewhere in the world as Europeans and South Americans begin redirecting food acreages to corn-, soy-, or sugar- based biofuels. Corn prices in America have spiked. And since corn is also a prime ingredient for animal feeds and sweeteners, prices likewise are rising for poultry, beef and everything from soft drinks to candy... [T]oday's total farm acreage is either static or shrinking; land for biofuels is usually taken from wheat, soybeans or cotton, ensuring those supplies grow tight as well.
Let them eat ethanol, I suppose.
Taxing the Poor
Speaking of screwing the poor, "federal, state and local governments raise revenues in a number of ways that are regressive, taking a greater portion of the incomes of the poor than the rich," notes a June paper from the National Center for Policy Analysis.
Unfortunately, the paper is limited to newer trends, as suggested by its title: "Taxing the Poor: A Report on Tobacco, Alcohol, Gambling, and Other Taxes and Fees That Disproportionately Burden Lower-Income Families." The paper does not, for instance, review the fact that the Social Security tax, a budget buster for low-income workers, is collected regressively.
The following is among the paper's interesting findings:
Poorer taxpayers are also disproportionately burdened by excise taxes imposed on 'necessities,' such as gasoline, utilities and telephone services. Since lower-income households spend more of their incomes on these items, they pay a greater share of these taxes. For instance:
However, other sections of the paper are less likely to elicit sympathy. The poor tend to purchase more lottery tickets, smoke more ("One-third of lower-income adults smoke versus one-fifth of middle- and high-income earners"), and spend a larger portion of income on alcohol ("The portion of income spent on alcoholic beverages by the lowest fifth of earners is double that of middle earners and more than three times that of the highest earners, on the average").
I reject proposals to institute or increase "sin" taxes. However, the proper reason to oppose such taxes is that they violate individual rights, not that they hurt the poor disproportionately. Gambling, smoking, and drinking also hurt the poor disproportionately, so if the only consideration were the impact of taxes on the behavior of the poor, then arguably the "sin" taxes should be increased dramatically in order to effectively prohibit the poor from "sinning." (Of course, this would merely create black markets in those goods, leading to various other social pathologies.)
There is a broader issue here that the cited paper skirts: poverty is fundamentally a state of mind, not the number of bills in one's wallet. To cut to the quick, poor people who waste their limited funds on tobacco, alcohol, and lottery tickets aren't behaving thoughtfully or responsibly. Such irresponsible behavior as excessive gambling, smoking, and drinking often are related to other irresponsible behaviors, such as slacking at work and in the classroom. Most poor people move into the middle class within a few years. Generally, the habitually poor remain so by their own choices and behaviors.
This is not to deny institutional barriers to escaping poverty. While government-run suburban and yuppie schools (e.g., Cherry Creek, Boulder) serve their students relatively well, inner-city schools often fail their students completely. The poor have a particularly difficult time navigating restrictions and red tape imposed by politicians and bureaucrats on economic activity. Prohibition laws fund gangs and incarcerate many young black males with hardened criminals. Welfare institutionalizes dependency and splintered families.
While the American economy remains sufficiently free to allow the poor to move into the middle class, it is sufficiently controlled to dramatically increase the difficulty of the move for many.
$3 per day for food? No problem
The following Speakout appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on June 22. (The paper's editors selected a different title for the print edition.)
$3 per day for food? No problem
To read various newspaper accounts of the Food Stamp Challenge, one would think that journalists have never looked around a grocery store or given much thought to nutrition on a budget.
The challenge asked politicians and public figures to eat on less than $3.57 per person per day in order to "prove" that tax spending on food stamps should be increased.
For example, a June 11 story in the Rocky Mountain News ("'I couldn't afford an onion'/Food stamp test leaves city exec hungry and tired") states, "Roxane White, manager for Denver Human Services, said she went to bed hungry and was tired most of last week" while on the weeklong challenge. Yet we learn in the same article that White spent $5.46 on "7 instant soups" and $7.45 on "five prepacked frozen meals." Why did the article fail to point out that instant soup and frozen dinners offer low nutrition for their cost?
Recently I've purchased a gallon of organic milk for $1, potatoes for 20 cents per pound, bananas for 25 cents per pound, and red-leaf lettuce for under $1 per pound. A 10-pound bag of dry pinto beens costs less than $7, I noticed.
My wife and I decided that we could each easily eat on less than $3 per day. We're so confident about this that we've decided to do it for a full six months, not the mere week of the original challenge.
There is just one catch: For every dollar we come in under budget, supporters of increasing the food-stamp subsidy have to collectively pay $10 to a nonprofit of our choice. For more detailed rules, please see FreeColorado.com.
Both my wife's family and my own had some financial difficulties when we were children. That didn't stop my mom from providing her kids with good, nutritious meals. She told me that for a time she spent on groceries what in today's dollars amounts to around $1 per person per day. My mom also pointed out that she's observed food-stamp recipients load up on poor-quality foods like cookies and potato chips, and then spend their own cash on tobacco.
There is, of course, a broader issue here. What is the appropriate role of government-run welfare, if any? One side holds that income should be more evenly distributed by political force. I believe that individuals have a moral right to control their own income and associate voluntarily with others. Thus, I would like to see welfare phased out.
What is the appropriate way to help the poor, then? A free economy is a prosperous economy. Unfortunately, various economic controls, such as labor restrictions and protective tariffs, put some low-skilled workers out of a job and artificially increase the cost of some goods.
The poor pay a greater portion of their income to the Social Security tax than the rich do. True, most poor people soon gain the experience and knowledge to earn more money. Yet remaining legal barriers to their advancement should be removed.
Beyond that, voluntary charity is the best way to help those truly in need through no fault of their own. Voluntary charity respects the rights of donors, who are able to decide which charities are worthy of support. A dollar given in voluntary charity is more likely to be spent prudently than is a dollar taken by force for a tax program. Charities that must earn your donations have a better incentive to spend resources wisely.
On the narrow debate over food stamps, the Food Stamp Challenge hardly shows that food-stamp welfare should be increased. My wife and I are prepared to prove it.
Ari Armstrong, a resident of Westminster, edits the Colorado Freedom Report (freecolorado.com).