The Corner

Politics & Policy

But Why Is Guatemala Hungry?

A woman searches for food at the garbage dump of the La Terminal food center, one of the largest food markets in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2015. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

I really, really don’t want to be on the “Nicolas Kristof Wrote Something Dumb” beat, but, Jiminy Cricket!

Kristof has taken a trip to Guatemala, with a young woman from Arizona State University in tow. “My annual win-a-trip journey,” he writes. Reporting from Guatemala, he discovers that many Guatemalans do not eat very well, with sometimes horrifying consequences.

Kristof, who has been feeling a little literary of late, interposes snippets of high-end conspicuous consumption with his tale of Guatemalan woe. The headline reads: “The World’s Malnourished Kids Don’t Need a $295 Burger.”

Ah, but they do. That is exactly what they need.

Guatemala has many hungry children. “In another world,” Kristof writes, “on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the restaurant Serendipity 3 offers a $295 hamburger. Alternatively, it sells a $214 grilled cheese sandwich and a $1,000 sundae.”

(I am not sure about the word “alternatively” in that sentence; I believe the word he is looking for is “also.” These are And People we’re talking about, not Or People.)

Kristof never gets around to saying what he believes to be the relationship between the $295 hamburger and the hungry kids in Guatemala. All he offers is: “Something’s wrong with this picture,” i.e., cheap moralizing. Guatemala’s hungry children deserve more than posturing.

The lesson we usually are meant to take from these juxtapositions is that the luxury of the rich causes the deprivation of the poor, that we should “live simply that others may simply live.” But that does not really stand up to five seconds’ critical thinking: Do you know what they do not have very much of in Guatemala? Restaurants selling $295 hamburgers. And do you know what they do not have very much of on the Upper East Side? Children stunted from starvation.

There is a lesson in there.

The economic arrangements that produce the $295 hamburger also produce the abundance that ensures practically no one in the United States is starving to death for purely economic reasons. Hunger, like genuine homelessness — sleeping-on-the-street homelessness, not living-in-cramped-quarters-with-people-I-would-rather-not-live-with “homelessness” — is in the United States a phenomenon that has little to do with economic exchange (much less insufficient production) but is instead mainly the product of addiction, mental illness, and — worse — the terrible condition of being a child dependent upon someone who is an addict, mentally ill, or indifferent.

The average occupancy of Los Angeles County homeless shelters is less than 80 percent. They are not forced to turn people away because they lack resources — instead, one in five beds go empty. Millions of Americans eligible for food assistance never apply for it. Many food banks are underutilized, not overstretched. The regulars sleeping on the streets in Manhattan or in the subway stations — and if you live or work there, you know who they are, because it is the same handful of people day after day — are not there because no material is available to them. They are there because their direst needs are not strictly speaking material in nature.

As Rich Lowry and others have argued in these pages, what really ails urban America is a massive failure of the mental-health system, not a lack of shelter beds, tuna sandwiches, or truncheons.

What Guatemala needs is capitalism. But what capitalism needs are physical security, property rights, an independent judiciary, political stability, the rule of law, and a functioning civil society. Guatemala does not have these.

(And, since I can hear you without actually hearing you — you, over there, the hippie with the greying ponytail and the sandals and the smirk, before the words “United Fruit Company” ever even come out of your mouth: No, the United States is not without some culpability in this.)

It is easy to mock other’s luxuries and indulgences. (Don’t believe me? Visit the United Arab Emirates.) Perhaps Kristof, relaxing in an airport lounge somewhere, will meditate on that. But his dudgeon will not feed a single hungry child.

Monsanto does that.

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