03/12/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

Sequestration, Scarcity and America's Values

There's only so much to go around. At the end of the day, that common sense reality has resulted in many of us learning a new term of late -- sequestration. Sequestration was originally a legal term that generally referred to court's confiscation of valuable property and locking it away for safekeeping. This was done to prevent it from being used up (or abused) before any dispute over its ownership could be resolved. 

While many of us may need a primer on sequestration, few of us need any help grasping the concept of scarcity. Scarcity is the fundamental economic problem of having seemingly unlimited wants and needs in a world of limited resources. This is economics 101 today, thanks to the work of British economist, Lionel Robbins, who enshrined the notion when he penned his now classic definition of economics in his 1932 essay on the nature and significance of economic science. He offered the basic definition of economics that stuck... "the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses." It may seem simple, but Robbins was so brilliant and his contributions so important that the library at the London School of Economics now bears his name, testimony to how his leadership there coincided with the ascendancy of LSE to the top rung of the academic ladder... at least the one that leads to the tip-top of the world of smart people and economics.

Indeed Robbins was right in defining our problem. Scarcity is a reality; had we been listening we would have all learned that in 8th grade economics. Gold is valuable because there's not that much of it, not in comparison to other rocks anyway. This isn't news, but the human family is learning and re-learning tough lessons about limited resources all the time. And while wasting them may never have been smart, it is certainly no longer acceptable. We have long been reminded of scarcity of oil, and more recently scarcity of water has been at the forefront of our minds. Perhaps the scariest of all scarcity issues is food, where Malthusian projections of calamity have long loomed with concerns of an overpopulated planet.  

Robbins' 1932 definition came just in time for much of the world to spend the next half a century ignoring its implications. With Americans leading the way, wealthy nations engaged in a form of wasteful, conspicuous consumption that burned up and squandered scarce resources at a rate we now realize overheated our entire planet. Driven by scarcity, today we are starting to right our wasteful ship, with much still to learn and plenty of room for a more sensible approach to our collective use of everything from oil, to water, to food.

Yet just as the pendulum had swung too far towards plenty, if we are not careful it could swing us just as out of whack towards scarcity. So while a healthy view of scarcity can drive hard choices like sequestration, it could also become a boogie man, a tool in the hands of hand-wringers who tout it in mythological proportions. Oil was supposed to run out in the late 1880s, then again in the 1920s, then in the 5'0s, the '70s... but we seem to keep finding more. Water is increasingly in short supply in places where humans have settled over the last half a century, yet basic science tells us that, other than minuscule amounts from random meteors, we have basically the same amount of water molecules present as the dinosaurs drank.  

So while scarcity is a hard truth, it's an odd truth in that it can, at times, be easily twisted into a myth. At least that's what Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins argued in their landmark 1977 book, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. The narrative of hungry people in a planet that cannot sustain them is not true, said Lappé and Collins. Nearly ten years later, in 1986, they penned another classic, World Hunger: Twelve Myths, in which they demonstrated convincingly that there was more than enough food being produced in the world. The ensuing 25 years have been kind to their theories as well. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did when they wrote World Hunger despite a 70 percent population increase. According to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, the world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with 3,500 calories a day.  Their site provides the following insight:

"That's enough to make most people fat! And this estimate does not even count many other commonly eaten foods--vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. In fact, if all foods are considered together, enough is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes two and half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs."

If you are like me, this sounds shockingly like a little good news to cheer our sequestered minds. Let's be clear... hunger is no myth! The growling stomachs that torture millions of the world's children are not "mythical" or imagined. They are very real. The myth is that we do not have the ability and the resources to do something about it. The good news is that the most powerful country in the world is also the most generous in world history. The country that offered the Marshall Plan to the conquered rather than the historical boot to the neck is still as generous as ever. So while the right-headed scientists in the various fields of hydrology, petroleum engineering and nutrition all warn us that the hard truth of scarcity in all these areas demands we curb our wasteful ways, it does not give us license to throw up our hands in despair. Moreover, it also does not give us permission to misunderstand the purpose and definition of sequestration and hide behind it as an excuse to do the wrong thing.

If sequestration is the safekeeping and locking away of valuable property to prevent it from being used up or abused before any dispute over its ownership can be resolved, then both common sense and common decency demand that we are not too quick to declare our ownership (and with it the right to waste our own stuff if we want) of things like food that are not so scarce to us but very scarce to many humans on our planet. Common decency is all about our long-held values which, by the way, side with every major religion and ethical code in demanding that the hungry citizens of the globe be fed. Common sense conveniently happens to also be our strategic interest. As the current French intervention in Mali shows, unstable places on the globe can and will become a safe haven for extremists who wish us no good. The truth is that a strategically-applied foreign assistance budget -- in conjunction with a strong defense -- each represent shrewdly spent dollars when dollars are scarce. Allowing sequestration cuts to gut our foreign aid, however, will undermine both America's strategic interests and our values. And since we are so split in our opinions of how to best spend scarce, and now sequestered dollars, perhaps we could all pause and listen to a guy who had a little experience with governments and budgets.

"What they can do because of our assistance, we don't have to do. And we should never forget that we aren't buying friends; we're helping friends.  We're helping them open the roads of enterprise and opportunity for their own people, helping them build their own institutions of pluralism and democracy, and helping them defend themselves." -- President Ronald Reagan

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