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FARE-talk is to provide an enduring conversation about contemporary topics relevant to food, agricultural, and resource economics.

Standards: Recipes for Reality - July 15th, 2011


Brady Deaton: My guest today is Dr. Laurence Bush. He and I will be discussing his forthcoming book titled Standards: Recipes for Reality. The book will be published by MIT Press. Laurence Bush is university-distinguished professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University and co-directs the Center for the Study of Standards in Society. Larry, thanks so much for joining us.


Laurence Bush: Good morning, Brady. It's a pleasure to do so.


Brady:  Larry, after reading your book, I saw in every newspaper I picked up the issue of standards, and I found it was particularly relevant to the area of agriculture economics, but before I focus on those issues, I'd like to just start off broadly, and ask you about what you mean by the idea that standards are the way and the means by which we construct reality.


Laurence Bush: Yeah. The thing about standards is that they very, very quickly become taken for granted objects, whether they are texts, or they are physical objects, like for example, weights and measures. These things take on a taken for granted character, and as a result, become part of the reality that we expect. For example, if I get in a car that I've never seen, the cars are sufficiently standardized, and I can very quickly figure out how to drive that car. It doesn't require any special training. Once I've learned how to drive a car, I can drive any car.


Brady: In your book, you have a number of examples that are fascinating, and I wonder if you might just talk about some of the ways that we encounter standards that we might not think have found your discussion about time, and railroads, and the albino rats in the laboratory experiments particularly compelling. Could you pick a couple of those examples, and just discuss them?


Laurence Bush: Sure. Let's talk about the ones you mentioned, and maybe we'll move on to some others. If you take the example of railroads, obviously one realizes immediately that in order to have a system of railroads that crosses your entire country, you have to have the same track gauge. That part actually didn't occur in the United States until the 1880s, and was largely the result of building the transcontinental railroad, and deciding that a particular gauge was going to be used for that, and then gradually moving towards that being the standard gauge for all railroads. More complicated than that, and equally important, perhaps maybe even more important, was the fact that until something that used to be called railroad time, and that we today call standard time was developed, riding on trains was an extremely dangerous affair. Let me give you an example. Most railway tracks were single track lines, so that meant that if a train were to leave one end of the line, it had to arrive at a crossing somewhere, where there would be a siding.

It would pull off, and wait for a train coming the opposite direction to go past. Since you didn't have standard time, that is to say, every little town had its own time, what that meant was that it was very difficult to predict where those two trains were going to come to the crossing point, where they have to go past each other. The result was an enormous number of head-on collisions. There were several ways to solve that. The most obvious way to solve that was to build two tracks, but to build two tracks was quite an expensive proposition, especially if there wasn't sufficient freight on the line to justify a second track. The ultimate solution was the creation of standard time, which allowed a given train to leave at a particular time that would be immediately knowable to people on the other end of the line and thereby to ensure that the trains would manage to pass each other at a point where there was a siding, and wouldn't collide head-on.

I think that's just a few of the standards, but to that we would of course have to add that there needed to be standards for the track bed, so that trains that were heavier wouldn't sink into the mud. There had to be standards for bridges. There had to be just an enormous array of standards for the railways, and they had to be distributed across an entire nation, at the very least across an entire nation. In Europe, of course, they had to be distributed across many nations. Even today, there are several European nations that have standards that are not compatible with the most common standard, so Spain, for example, accepting its high-speed trains that have just recently been put in, all of the other lines in Spain are simply not compatible with the standards in the rest of Europe. You literally have to get off a train at the border, walk across, and get on another trainer. Obviously rather time-consuming and clumsy kind of thing to have to do.

One of the other cases where you find standards is in science itself, so for example, in order to produce rat studies, of which there are literally tens of thousands now, you had to have standardized rats, and starting in the 1930s, it was a major effort to create standard rats. Standard rats were not your typical sewer rat. That would probably be rather nasty. It would be of enormous genetic diversity, would have a rather poor diet, and an enormously variable diet, and the idea was to produce rats that had a standard diet, had a standard amount of exercise, had a standard genetic base, and that were relatively gentle in their demeanor, and would not resist human care. Doing that required the actual production of a detailed manual that went through everything from cage size to the position of water dispensers in the cage, to the kinds of specific nutritional elements that needed to be in the feed, and specific genetic types that were desirable.

Today, if you are a scientist who uses rats in the work, you will have to go and buy those rats from one of three or four companies that produce particular rats that are designed for particular kinds of scientific studies. Picking the rat that you find out of the sewer would actually make your results rather useless.


Brady: I think what's so compelling about those two examples is that if standards play a central role in coordinating our understanding of time, and developing our knowledge, i.e., the albino laboratory rat is central for scientific study, it's not surprising that we're seeing the role of standards in all of the issues that we're addressing. What this word standard, how is it ... How do you differentiate it? How is it associated with other similar words, like regulation, or law?


Laurence Bush: I think there's undoubtedly an irreducible ambiguity there. Standards, for example, may be produced. A good example would be building codes. The standards that are used in building codes are developed by the private sector. They're developed by architects, plumbers, electricians, and so on, and those are then adopted by government agencies and turned into law. There's a rather ambiguous border between standards and laws, but of course most standards are not legally required. That is to say, they're not written into law. They are at least in principle voluntary, although avoiding those standards is often nigh impossible, or extremely difficult and expensive. Even if the standard is not a legally regulated standard, it is necessary to pursue it. I think, again, I don't think there's any way you can clarify this. This is an ambiguity that's built into our behavior, so at certain times, certain things are seen as standards.

For example, until recently, whether or not smoking was allowed in a particular restaurant was up to the owner. These days, in most cases, smoking is legally prohibited in restaurants, so what was a private standard, what was a voluntary standard, becomes a law. The reverse, of course, occasionally occurs, although that tends to be relatively rare, where things that were in law are deleted, and left to the product sector. The other point I would emphasize here, too, is that given the enormous amount of technology that's constantly being developed, enormous number of products, processes, services that are constantly being developed, that there is a continuing and extraordinarily important need for new standards, without which these things literally can't function. A good example would be all of the IT information that ... I'm sorry, all the IT products that are available, which require literally thousands of standards. If I developed a new super duper computer that could do many, many things that are currently unavailable on existing computers, but I couldn't plug that into the larger system, so I couldn't connect it to the internet, I couldn't make it talk to other computers, I couldn't share files and so on, it would be essentially useless.

It's all those standards that allow compatibility, and what in the computer science community is known as interoperability, that make that kind of stuff possible. These are constantly changing, constantly being updated, constantly being modified as new technologies arrive.


Brady: Do you see that the role of standards has changed over time? Are there more of them, or are they changing in character, or have they always been this essential means by which we construct order in the economy, or amongst relationships between people?


Laurence Bush: I think there are two parts to the answer to that question. First, I think there's no question that over time, the number of standards has increased markedly. That's partially a function of the production of, mass production of various kinds of goods and services that starts in the 19th century. Once you start to produce things en masse, you wind up producing things that are in some sense standardized. Late 19th century, you see a huge movement to create publicly available standards, to do things like, for example, reduce the number of different kinds of screw threads, to reduce the number of track types that are used by trollies in the streets. You see a massive effort starting roughly in the 1880s to standardize these things in order to make markets function more effectively, but what you then see in the late 20th century is an explosion of standards, because while standards were used to standardize up until roughly the mid-20th century, and to some extent they still are, starting in the late 20th century, you also see standards being used to differentiate.

The auto industry is probably the place where this first starts, if you look at the switch from Henry Ford's famous any color as long as it's black to General Motor's differentiation of the market by virtue of having different standards for different vehicles, and has of course different prices, different characteristics of different vehicles. You can also see it of course in the agricultural area, with Heinz's development in the late 19th century of his famous 57 varieties of pickles. Those varieties, each of which was standardized, and remain standardized, changed the market for pickles rather dramatically from a single product to 57 different kinds of products.


Brady: Since we're heading in that direction, let's talk about the role that standards have played in the agriculture sector, and perhaps let's start with a general discussion of that, and then we'll move into some more specific questions.


Laurence Bush: Standards actually played relatively little role in the agricultural sector, with a few exceptions until the 1930s. The first area where standards developed, which was really early in the century, was in the grain tray, where it became obvious that trading grains sack by sack was an extremely laborious process, and the sheer volume of grain that was being moved around made it more and more difficult to do that. Standards were developed in Chicago that allowed grain to be treated as liquid, and allowed grain to be standardized by using a certain set of characteristics, such that any sack of number two wheat was the equivalent of any other sack of number two wheat. That was a huge change in the way in which the agricultural, the wheat, the grain sector was organized. It changed the way in which people treated grain. They didn't treat it anymore as something that had to be inspected sack by sack. They treated it as something that could be bought and sold at a distance.

If somebody told me they were going to sell me so many bushels of wheat of a particular grade, we could negotiate over the price, but we didn't actually have to physically inspect it after that point. That only was, that was confined largely to the grain sector, even up through until the late thirties, early 1940s. In fact, one of the USDA yearbooks in the 1940s is a long article that talks about how standards for various kinds of agricultural commodities are incompatible across state lines. They talk about I believe it was peaches, and how peaches from the state of Washington had to be removed from the boxes they were in, and regraded in order to be brought into California. This was of course enormously expensive, enormously time-consuming, and it blocked the movement of many, many agricultural commodities across state and sometimes even city lines, because what constituted, say, a grade A egg in one city might be considered a grade B egg in another city. It was very, very time-consuming.

Gradually, most of this, though not all of it, most of this kind of unnecessary differentiation disappeared, and you wound up with a set of common standards for most widely-traded agricultural products.


Brady: The grain was, were those initially private standards or public standards, and your book describes this distinction a lot, so maybe you can help differentiate the two of those.


Laurence Bush: In the case of grain, we started off with private standards, and the problem that you had was the difficulty in coming up with ones that would be acceptable over the entire nation, and perhaps even globally. It was all too easy with private standards to claim one thing, but actually deliver something else. For example, the US has been exporting grain since even the late 18th century to Europe. By the mid-19th century, we were exporting fairly significant quantities, and Europeans complained that they thought they were getting one thing, and they got something else. Finally, in the early 20th century, the state entered into that, and the US government took standards that existed, modified them a bit, and produced a set of official, legally-mandated standards for use in the grain trade. What that meant was that if you put a label on a particular quantity of grain, whether it was a truckload, a rail car load, a ship load, and you said, "This is number two wheat," you had to be able to demonstrate that indeed it was number two wheat, or you wound up paying a rather significant fine.


Brady: One of the issues that you kind of brought out there was this role of, well, private standards are facilitating trade by essentially reducing the costs of transacting, but your book argues that that is one explanation of the increasing role of standards, but that's just one dimension of it. What are the other ways that we should be thinking about the role of standards?


Laurence Bush: Again, as I mentioned as implicit in the title of the book, standards are ways in which we produce realities. Today, in the US grain market, nobody thinks twice about buying and selling grain that have particular standardized characteristics, and there are no or almost no quarrels over those kinds of things. In contrast, prior to that, there were constantly quarrels about the qualities of things that were delivered. Moreover, if you want something ... Let's say you wanted to use the grain for some very specialized and unusual use. You might discover that those standards actually are an impediment to you, because it may be that the particular characteristic that's of interest to you is not measured by the standards at all. In that case, you have to basically start from scratch. You have to develop a set of specialized standards that allow you this new use, and of course, I should emphasize that one of the paradoxical things about standards, and grain standards are no different than others in this respect, is if they're constantly being revised.

There are new uses. There are changes in the product itself. There are, for example in the case of grain, there are obviously genetic improvements that are made. There are improvements in harvesting equipment, and as these things take place, the standards have to be revised in order to keep up with the changes that occur in the world.


Brady: I think that's a very important point that your book draws out, and I was reflecting a bit on USDA organic as I was reading the book. There was 10 years of fairly contested discussions about what would actually constitute organic. Yet most of that discussion is lost perhaps on the people who purchase organic. One issue that you raise is that these standards are kind of invisible until you are dealing with the creation of perhaps a new standard, or the standard itself is being contested. I'd like to read you a headline, and just have you reflect on it a little bit in the context of our discussion about the movement from private standards to more public standards. This is from the New York Times, July 7th article written by William Newman, and I'm just going to read you the title. Egg Producers and Humane Society Urging Federal Standard on Hen Cages. What's going on there?


Laurence Bush: What's going on here is that there are already standards available. There are so-called enriched cages that have been developed, and that the United Egg Producers and Humane Society have pretty much agreed are an improvement from their vantage point over the previously-used cages. The problem is that what is happening here is that different states, California, for example, have passed laws that have different specifications in them. I think what United Egg Producers was concerned about, quite understandably, was that if you have different rules, different laws in different states, it's going to be extremely difficult to move these products across state lines. It's also going to be difficult for companies that operate in several states to operate in conformity with the law. I think part of this move is to head off a proliferation of laws that are contradictory in character.

The other aspect of it is that while the majority of layer producers produce according to the standards that are currently available, that are private and voluntary, there's a still a significant number that do not, and so making this into a law is a way of ensuring that basically all have to compete on the same, if you wish, level playing field.


Brady: All right. In contrast to that, I want to read you another headline about the local food movement, and your ... One of the things that we can't go into as much detail in your book is your book spends a lot of time helping you understand types of standards, and what you call a tripartite standard regime. A good deal of your book helps us break down these kind of issues, and I wonder ... I'll read you this, and I can read it to you again if it's not clear. If you might just reflect on it with respect to the tripartite regime of standards that's developed in your book, and by tripartite, you're talking about standard certifications, and accreditations. This is from the Globe and Mail, Saturday, July 2, 2011. The title is The Local Food Movement Goes National, and the excerpt I want to read you is as follows. "Local Food Plus, a nonprofit that issues its private certification to progressive farmers who conform to a tough set of sustainability and production standards written for the agency by a crack team of agriculture and environmental experts."

They're describing the nonprofit that issues private certification to farmers who conform to standards that are written by, as the writer Jessica Leader notes, a crack team of experts. What's going on there, Larry? Can you unpack that a little bit?


Laurence Bush: I think what's going on here, I'm not familiar with this particular case, but what's going on here is an attempt to improve the production conditions, improve in the sense of making them more sustainable, by a particular group. What they're doing apparently is using scientific information, and probably other things as well, but scientific information to develop a set of standards which they're then certifying, particular farmers are using. Let me back up a minute here. You mentioned the tripartite standards regime. Basically, what has occurred mainly in the latter half of the 20th century up to the present is not just an explosion of the number of standards that are out there, but an explosion of certifications, usually third party certifications, that is certification by somebody who's not a party to the exchange, that a particular producer, for example, is producing in conformity to a particular set of standards.

Then an accreditation system that accredits the certifiers as being knowledgeable and competent enough to actually do that certified. What's interesting about that is that's all taken place in the private sector. If you wish, it's the creation of a new kind of governance that did not exist until relatively recently, with a few minor exceptions, but which is now becoming quite commonplace, so commonplace that in fact there are two major international accreditation organizations, the International Accreditation Forum and the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation, that accredit certifiers of various kinds, so for example, in the agricultural sector, it might be somehow like, say, Davis Fresh, that is certified to go around and see to it that the standards, whatever those standards might be, are being used by the farmers who claim they're using them, and they're being used correctly. That then becomes, in some instances, a particular selling point on the market.


Brady: I thought this tripartite regime of standards was particularly useful in understanding all of these systems of standards and labeling that are becoming increasingly commonplace in 21st century agriculture. I had in mind the organic example, where if a farmer is claiming to have an organic produce, they must be following a certain set of standards, and they must be certified, and then there's this process whereby they're checked, and that's what you're talking about in terms of accreditation. What I was interested in is about, is there's a variety of different ways that that person gets certified, and you talk about first party certification, second party and third party certification. I guess the one we hear the most commonly is third party certification. Can you discuss that in the context of perhaps organic?


Laurence Bush: Sure. If I am a farmer, and I want to produce to the organic standard, I can obviously, just like anyone else, I can read the standard, and I can attempt to implement that standard on my farm. What certification does is that it says that you must be certified before you can use that organic label. You have to find an accredited certifier, and that certifier has to come to your farm, and inspect it. It has to do, engage in a variety of tasks. They might be checklist tasks. They might be the examination of the way in which the farm is managed and so on, a whole series of things that are in that list. They will say, "Yes or no, you are either certified organic," that is to say you are meeting the standards, or no, you are not meeting the standards. You need to do the following things in order to be able to comply and use the label.

That kind of certification has become fairly commonplace, and of course, while for purposes of this podcast, you're interested in agriculture, it's worth emphasizing that if you type in the word "certify" or "certification" into a search engine on the web, you will discover literally millions of certifications of people, certifications of things, certifications of processes, so this is something that's taken place across society as a whole. It's not in any way unique to agriculture, although obviously it has some rather significant effects on agriculture, as it does on other sectors.


Brady: A good portion of your book examines the idea that these standards are a form of governance, are a form of creating order in the economy. You link it to a certain period of time, I think what you term as neo-liberalism. Could you just discuss that briefly?


Laurence Bush: What occurred in the late part of the last century was a move away from government regulation, direct government regulation, and you see this with the Reagan presidency in the United States, with the Thatcher regime in Britain, and a variety of other things going on in other nations. As you certainly remember, when Reagan was president, he talked a tremendous amount about deregulation, and many government regulations were relaxed or eliminated during the Reagan regime. What's interesting, however, is that in almost every instance, they were replaced by private standards of one sort or another, because without private standards, it's extremely difficult to operate in the marketplace. For example, corporate community talks incessantly about what they call freedom to operate, that is to say the ability to engage in various kinds of activities without finding that their path is blocked in one way or another.

Indeed if markets are relatively unfettered by regulation, the positive side from a corporate perspective is freedom to operate. The negative side is the possibility that you're going to wind up with enormous amounts of goods that are of shoddy quality, or that are unsafe, or that have other problems associated with them. What's happened is that corporations, especially the largest ones, have used the supply chains that they're at the end of, and I'm talking here mainly about retailers, they've used those supply chains to coordinate and lock in producers to particular sets of standards. They've used that by virtue of that tripartite standards regime we talked about. For example, if you're a Wal-Mart, or a Kroger's, or any of the other large supermarket chains, you are setting standards for your suppliers. They may be standards that have to do with productions. They may have standards that have to do with packaging. They may have maybe standards that have to do with stocking the shelves, all sorts of standards that are developed.

Basically they are take it or leave it standards. That is to say if you want to trade with us, you conform to these standards. Otherwise move on, and I would argue that what's happened is that many of the things that were being done as government regulation are now equally regulated, maybe even more regulated, but they're regulated by private entities of one sort or another. Individual companies, groups of companies for example, in Europe, in the agricultural field, there's what's known as global gap, which is a collection of supermarket chains that have an agreed upon set of standards, but whether it's individual companies, or it's groups of companies, the point is that this is a kind of governance that looks curiously very much like government regulation, but actually doesn't have some of the positive things that we associate with government regulation, such as appeals processes, separation of powers, and various things of that sort.

One of the problems I see with this tripartite standards regime is that it doesn't conform to some of the basic notions of democracy that we would normally expect to see if things were done in the public sector.


Brady: One part of your book that helps us examine this emerging world of standards is that you provide some, what you call general guidelines for thinking about building new and assessing standards. I was wondering, I think there's roughly about 11 in your book, but I thought they were very interesting, and I was wondering if you might pick a couple, and just talk about them. One of the areas, for example, is actionable standards, and path dependence, but feel free to pick the ones, any one that you like and maybe develop it a bit.


Laurence Bush: One aspect, I would argue, is that in some instances, maybe even in all instances to some degree, standards do violence to someone, and therefore one of the points that I make is that in developing standards, one ought to try to do minimal violence. What do I mean by that? I mean that certain kinds of things are going to be very costly, certain kinds of things are going to be problematic in terms of meeting the standard for some subset of, for example, producers. One of the things that I argue is that one, in developing those standards, ought to ask, "Is this going to do minimal violence to producers?" That is to say, is it going to have the effect of putting some class of producers out of business, or requiring them to do extra work that is really not going to have much effect on the final product, but is going to meet the standard nevertheless? Doing minimal violence, it seems to me, is one of the key criteria that ought to be co-imposed or at least requested of standards developers.

Another is whether or not the path dependence of the standard is problematic. All standards to some degree that is path dependence. That is to say once you start down the line with a particular standard, it's awfully hard to deviate. We talked about railway tracks, and standard time. If tomorrow morning we discovered that a railway trackage that was an inch wider would actually be more effective, it would be virtually impossible to implement that without major changes. Similarly, standards for example, things like 110 volts electricity, changing that to some other unit, say, 220, which is commonly used in much of the world, would be an extremely expensive and difficult task. The reason is because the path dependence, once you've gone down a particular line, once you've gone down a particular standard, it's very difficult to back up again. One of the questions I would argue ought to be asked with the creation of all new standards is, is the path dependence here going to be such that it narrows the possibilities, narrows the kinds of things that we're able to do, or is it going to be one with relatively minimal path dependence, allowing us to move in other directions?

I guess a third one I might mention is that standards need to be actionable. There are enormous numbers of standards out there that are really not actionable. You look at the standards, you scratch your head, and you say, "Well, now, just exactly what is it that I'm supposed to do with this standard? Is this standard actually going to be actionable in the sense that I know precisely what it means that I need to do in order to conform to it, or is it so general that indeed anyone could conform to it with minimal change in their behavior?" That's sort of the flip side at which, if you wish, of doing violence. Violence is often done when standards are over-specified, standards that are unactionable, or standards that are under-specified.


Brady: When I'm in the airport, and I hear that we're at yellow warning, and I have no idea what that means, that might be an example of a-


Laurence Bush: I think that it would be an excellent example. [inaudible 00:37:56] What are you supposed to do? It's entirely unclear whether there's any way you could or should change your behavior based on that warning. In fact, most people who travel frequently listen to that and basically ignore it, because there isn't anything you can do about it.


Brady: Larry, I think we're approaching the end of the podcast. Your book covers a tremendous number of issues, some of we've only really scratched the surface. I wanted to give you an opportunity, if there was one or two issues that you wanted to discuss, that maybe we haven't covered.


Laurence Bush: One of the things we haven't talked about, which I think is really important, is how it is that standards are always symmetrical, that is to say, a standard for some thing or physical process is always a standard for people, and standards for people are always linked to various kinds of material objects of one sort or another. For example, if we have a standard for, say, organic production, it's a standard, on the one hand, for physically what you have to do in order to produce organic goods. On the same time, it is a standard for the people who produce those things. There's no way around that. Similarly, if we're talking about standards for education, or healthcare, those are standards on the one hand for people, but they're also standards for myriad physical objects, textbooks, tests, the way in which classrooms are organized, and so on. The point is that all standards are both about people and about things. Even if the standard says nothing about people, it makes all sorts of implications about people's behavior.

Similarly, standards would say nothing about things, and only talk about people invariably involve various [inaudible 00:40:03] of physical objects.


Brady: When I finished reading your book, and I got to the last paragraph, I thought you eloquently captured what your book set out to accomplish, and I'd like to congratulate on that, and I thought one way to end the interview might be to ask you to read that last paragraph.


Laurence Bush: I'd be happy to do so. It goes as follows. So the next time that you tie your shoe, drive your car, go to the hospital, drink a cup of coffee, take a class, or engage in any of the activities that together make up everyday life, think of the myriad standards that are involved in those activities. Think of the power that standards have and must have over all of us. Ask yourself who established those standards, and what justifications they used in establishing them. Think of who wins and who loses as a result of standards. Think of what virtues and vices are made manifest through standards. Ask yourself whose rights are supported and whose rights are abridged as a result of standards, and perhaps most important, ask yourself how standards might be used, modified, or transformed to produce a more just and caring world.


Brady: Larry, thanks for joining us.


Laurence Bush: It was a pleasure, and good luck with your series.


Click the following link to listen to the audio recording of Standards: Recipes for Reality.

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