Paul Graham Disappoints Again

I used to think Paul Graham’s essays were awesome; then I started to think they completely sucked. I thought I saw a glimmer of awesome today but it didn’t last.

You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss” is an appealing sentiment. So I started reading the essay with interest and even agreeing with it. Then I got to this bit —

Indeed, food is an excellent metaphor to explain what’s wrong with the usual sort of job.

For example, working for a big company is the default thing to do, at least for programmers. How bad could it be? Well, food shows that pretty clearly. If you were dropped at a random point in America today, nearly all the food around you would be bad for you. Humans were not designed to eat white flour, refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated vegetable oil. And yet if you analyzed the contents of the average grocery store you’d probably find these four ingredients accounted for most of the calories. “Normal” food is terribly bad for you. The only people who eat what humans were actually designed to eat are a few Birkenstock-wearing weirdos in Berkeley.

If “normal” food is so bad for us, why is it so common? There are two main reasons. One is that it has more immediate appeal. You may feel lousy an hour after eating that pizza, but eating the first couple bites feels great. The other is economies of scale. Producing junk food scales; producing fresh vegetables doesn’t. Which means (a) junk food can be very cheap, and (b) it’s worth spending a lot to market it.

If people have to choose between something that’s cheap, heavily marketed, and appealing in the short term, and something that’s expensive, obscure, and appealing in the long term, which do you think most will choose?

The purpose of food is to keep people alive and functioning. The “bad for us” foods do an admirable job of this. Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are things you need to stay alive, and you can get them from peanut butter and donut sandwiches* as well as Tofu and Wheatgrass Surprise.

The difference between the health of somebody who eats a hippie diet and who eats a “white trash” diet is infinitesimal compared to the difference in health between somebody who eats a “white trash” diet and somebody who is actually malnourished. Malnourishment consists of failing to get the basic carbs, fats, protein, and the like, that you need to live, not in failing to get adequate wheatgrass.

There are huge parts of the world whose well-being would be immeasurably improved if they could eat the “terrible” diet that unenlightened Americans eat.

So… it’s completely wrong-headed to think that people eat “bad” foods because they taste good but are not good for you. They may or may not taste very good, but they’re good for you in the fundamental sense that they keep your body from being malnourished. In fact, the main way they’re “bad for you” is social: they mark you as being a member of the underclass. Our Sort of People shop only at Whole Foods, don’t you know.

So that’s Graham for you. Keeps making analogies to programming from domains about which he thinks he knows something but is completely ignorant. It’s probably quite true that we’re not meant to have bosses, but I can’t work up the prima facie faith that Graham might have something useful to say about that fact that I would need to even finish reading his essay.

UPDATE: Jeff “Coding Horror” Atwood is equally impressed, but he tackles the content o the essay instead of getting sidetracked completely by a metaphor, like I did.

*jbm: you’ll notice I’m not defending meat-eating in particular here! Just proletarian eating.

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