December 27, 2015
I got a survey this week asking about my experience getting my car serviced at Williams Volkswagen here in Lansing. I’m very happy with the service department at Williams, by the way. I’ve bought three cars from them in the decade I’ve lived in Michigan. But the survey sent by Volkswagen of America kind of bugs me. It requires you to answer on a scale where “satisfied” is a middling response, and even “excellent” can be topped by the response “truly exceptional”. I’m of the mind that “truly exceptional” things are rare by nature. After all, how could the service I get by “truly exceptional” if excellent, prompt and thoughtful service is what I have come to expect?
But I have learned that Volkswagen of America penalizes dealers who are less than “truly exceptional,” and so I dutifully check that box at every opportunity in the survey. It’s the inflationary expectations that really drive me to distraction. After my China trip, I picked up a book by Yang Jisheng about the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962. I was writing a little bit about this last week. Millions of Chinese died from hunger and many of those that survived were forced to eat leather, tree bark and even human flesh in order to so. For the first three years of the famine, those who tried to call the dire situation to the attention of the authorities were ostracized, removed from their jobs and often physically beaten. Victims of this violence added to the overall death toll.
You may be wondering what this has to do with my Volkswagen, but the connection here is inflationary expectations. Famines are seldom caused by only one thing, and there were drought conditions in 1959 that reduced the size of the harvest by eight to twelve percent. That would be enough to cause problems, but not starvation, and certainly not on the scale that actually occurred. The root cause of the famine as reported by Yang (and other scholars agree) was different. The official government policy at the time was to calculate how much food would be needed for the local population, and to requisition the balance to be kept in government controlled storage facilities. This was actually supposed to be a famine-preventing policy, one of those ant and the grasshopper things where the wise and thrifty government was putting things aside for a rainy day. So we have the drought plus this socialist vision of food security, but that still doesn’t add up to famine.
The tipping point came because government officials felt themselves under pressure to demonstrate the ongoing success of China’s experiment with socialism by reporting a year-to-year increase in total production from every industry, including agriculture. They felt that they had to show that productivity was “truly exceptional” every time they made a report, and this meant that this year’s harvest had to be at least fifteen to twenty percent bigger than last year’s. And indeed, according to Yang, those that didn’t play this game were punished and replaced by someone who would. In fact, yields were relatively steady except in the drought year, and even then would have been enough to feed the local population (including their pigs, chickens and goats).
But if the government thinks that the harvest is truly exceptional, then decision making by the central authorities will demand that the “surplus production” (e.g. the overage beyond what is needed for immediate consumption) be appropriated and set aside for that rainy day. By 1959, this inflationary spiral of expectations had grown to the point that when the government officials came down to requisition the putative surplus, they in fact seized every kernel of edible food that had been produced that year in many of China’s most agriculturally productive provinces. With literally nothing to eat, peasant farmers in the rural areas were thrown into the dire straits that eventually led them to scourge the countryside for anything that would quash their raging hunger.
There’s one more ripple. Officials who couldn’t scrape up the expected amount of overage from these “truly exceptional” harvests accused people of holding out, of being “capitalist roaders,” and of having right-leaning tendencies. And that, of course, led to more beatings and another inflationary cycle of rhetoric and unrefutable expectations. The famine was, in truth, a case where careless use of language produced a human tragedy of epic proportions.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University