What I am Regretably not Hearing in the Genetically Modified Food Debate

Earlier this summer Cosmos host and generally likable guy, Neil DeGrasse Tyson released a video arguing that people who oppose laboratory created genetically modified foods were misguided. He used the often repeated argument that we have been genetically modifying foods for years, through hybridization and selective breeding.

While I am not against modification of organism through laboratory means per se, I cannot imagine anyone who is against such things finding this augment the least bit persuasive. To quote Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum “we shouldn’t pretend that millennia of creating enhanced and hybrid breeds tells us anything very useful about the safety of cutting-edge laboratory DNA splicing techniques.” Tyson’s argument strikes as be one of those arguments that seems more interested in annoying, confusing and dismissing the people it is addressed at, than it does in taking their concerns seriously. In this way it reminds me of the arguments associated with privilege theory which despite making good points often alienate the very people who most need to develop and understanding of them. For more on this topic I recommend this piece by Cathy Reisenwitz.

While I do not object to using cutting edge techniques to genetically modify organism I do find it highly problematic that the results of such splicing can be patented, that governments are involved in funding and directing these lines of research and development in collusion with big business that we are moving towards sheltering those who grow them from liability above and beyond the already excessive liability protection that big business normally receives. It seems to me that Monsanto and other large agribusiness firms are using government collusion to further their control and domination of the world’s food supply, at the expense of ordinary producers and consumers.

As I have argued before, I favor a legal regime in which government is neutral to the development of such technology and no one is allowed to contaminate the crops of others or sell what they have produced under false pretense.This unfortunately is not what I see happening.

Mean while the only debate I am hearing on this topic comes off as being rather superficial. I rarely hear anyone from the pro-GMO side question whether they should be patented or what role if any government should have in RD or liability protection. It seems that supporters of this technology unconditionally support its expansion and any policies that will promote this, while those who oppose it also do so unconditionally. This strikes me as a complicated issue and the last thing that is needed is for the discussion to be dominated by two dogmatic sides which lack any nuance. This is a promising technology but I fear it is being introduced in a manner that will further the goals of big business rather than those of ordinary people and it is regrettable that I hear so few people making this point.

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Kennels Confessions: When is it OK to Lock Up Your Dog?

Warning, this may be one of my more self-indulgent posts but hear me out. A while back, my significant other and I recently had to make a last minute overnight trip out of town. Unfortunately our regular pet sitter of choice was out of town at the same time and we had no choice but taking our midsized dog, to a “Pet Hotel” on the day of our departure. Financially speaking this arrangement was a much better deal than our usual sitter, but it seemed a bit unfair to our dog, to say the least. 

Our dog was still quite young, and was not accustomed to being confined to small spaces, as he was to for much of his stay in this facility. In fact, he was still not particularly accustomed to spending, large amounts of time alone. Though my partner and I both work, one of us is often at the house. There are of course, times when we both do leave the house, and our dog is left in the backyard. These times were initial quite stressful for our dog. He has become somewhat more accustomed to them now, but still begs to be let in as I head out the front door.

He of course was noticeably shaken at this “pet hotel”, and as my partner and I left and he showed this by letting out loud whimpers. He was placed in a small fenced in area with a little wooden dog house on one in and a few square feet of floor for him to move about outside it. This small spaced was adjacent to several identical spaces occupied by other dogs of various sizes. I am told that while he was there he was fed well and was taken for a walk on at least one occasion. When we arrived to pick him up, he was happy to see us and in the times since he does not seemed to be phased by the experience at all. Dogs I am told do not have particularly good short term memories.

In spite of this, I still feel a little troubled about leaving a creature that I have cared for all this time to be imprisoned in a small space for an extended period. Dogs are intelligent creatures and ours did nothing deserve such treatment.The whole experience very much ate at the voluntarist sensibilities, which I all so often express on this blog. I think I will do whatever I can to not have to use such a facility again in the future.

That said, maybe I am a bit misguided here, as countless dogs are kept in such places while their owners are away and I don not ever hear about it making any noticeable impact on them. Also it does serve to remind me that most of us eat animals that lived in far worse conditions for far longer periods, and so few of us think anything of this. Perhaps we have significant double standards when it comes to our own pets as opposed to other animals of comparable intelligence. Zoos to are also filled with creatures that are confined, though these days I am happy to see more of them keeping animals in relatively nice simulated habitats. 

Overall, I am not too happy about the experience, though as best as I can tell my dog has forgotten it completely.  Either way I am curious if anyone else has any thoughts or guidelines as to when it is appropriate to confine their pets in such a way and under what circumstances.

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Why I like Ralph Nader’s proposed Anti-Corporatist Left-Right Alliance

It has come to my attention that Ralph Nader (the consumer advocate and repeat third party candidate who regardless of what one thinks of him really needs no introduction) has recently put out a book titled: Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. The book apparently discusses what Nader sees as the recent trend of traditionally-right leaning libertarians and traditionally left-leaning progressives working together in opposition to such things as the warfare state and various forms of corporate welfare.

I have not yet read the book but I like the idea of the development of such an anti-establishment left/right alliance. This is specifically an alliance that is in opposition to such things as massive military spending and build up and international-warfare, the Obama Administration’s ongoing Drone Program, as well as opposition to such things as the Patriot act, the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs and the general militarization of the police. This is in addition to opposition to massive bailouts for big business, and what have generally become recognized as corporatist economic policies (that is government intervention that benefits big corporation at the expense of the tax payer and consumer). I tend to find that both the small government types as well the progressive types who can find common ground on these issues can often find common ground on what are generally called social issues like legalizing marijuana, if not outright abolishing the war on drugs, as well as openness to marriage equality and even things like legalizing prostitution. All of which of course are things I have personally advocated on this blog.

In both camps I see a willingness to question things like tort-reforms that favor big business, overly long lived patents and copy rights, and what I see as generally corporatist international trade deals like NAFTA, or the US involvemnt with Noe-liberal international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Any moves to get issues like these into the general conversation would be highly welcome from my point of view. I have to wonder to what extent Nader’s book discusses other thinkers and movements who I suspect would fit comfortably in his alliance. I am thinking of people like Dean Baker who’s free E-book the Conservative Nanny State gives an excellent introduction to places where progressives and libertarians should want to cut government, much to the chagrin of the conservative establishment. I am also thinking of course of left libertarians and individualist anarchists like Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier or Sheldon Richman who in my opinion take the potential of such an alliance to it’s ultimate conclusion. 

Anyway, I hope Nader is correct that a general anti-establishment and anti-corporatist left/right alliance with a possible openness to radical ideas could really shake things up, because it is well past due.

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Why not have Full Technological Unemployment?

I recently came across this excellent video CGP Grey and felt the need to share it:

His videos tend to be well made, and highly informative. I highly recommend of them to all my readers. This particular piece gives an excellent exploration of the inevitability of technological unemployment, that is the possibility that we are now able to automate so much of the work that needs to be done now, that we will gradually run out of work for humans to do. This is different from previous technological expansions in that our capacity to automate, mechanize and robotize is expanding at an exponential rate, far faster than at any point before.

I have written on this topic here, at the excellent abolishwork.com (a site I also highly recommend) and have said that I actually favor the idea of full technological unemployment, or more accurately full technological retirement. That is I would like to see a world where machines do all the work and humans are free to enjoy the activities they please.

Part of the reason the automation we have had over the past century has not contributed to this to happening is that the current system has a lot of policies in place that make the population way more dependent on conventional wage labor than they would otherwise be. The state has made a lot of the self-employment/semi-employment alternatives illegal or more expensive and risky than they would otherwise be. Since so many of us have to work for someone else (on terms highly favorable to them) to pay off our basic expenses the immediate benefits of automation go to people at the top of the organization and the rest of us are still expected to work long and hard to to get access to the abundant goods that are so easy to produce. This is not to mention that government policy has generally been in favor of promoting the 40 work week in the last several decades and labor has not been strong enough to undermine it, as explained here.

Also we really do still live in an economy that is based on scarcity, when we in the developed world appears to be on abundance. Simply put the current system is set up so one has to work in order to feed themselves. This made sense when there were endless life sustaining tasks needed to be done, but it hardly makes sense now that we are literally running out of things for people to do. This topic of this need for restructure is given surprisingly good treatment in this episode of the Cracked Podcast, though it hosts seem a little bit more sympathetic to the understandable, yet still in my opinion problematic idea of a guaranteed minimum income. That may be a topic for a latter entry however.

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Let’s Stop Calling People “Illegals”… It’s Dehumanizing.

A few years back in the run-up to the 2012 US presidential election, an exchange happend that stuck with me during one of the debates between the Republican contenders. The now recently indicted Texas Governor Rick Perry told former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, “You hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year?” Perry declared this “the height of hypocrisy,” and arguably had a point. Though Romney never specifically hired an illegal immigrant, his lawn care company did. He saw to it that one of the illegal immigrants, (whose employment with Romney was the subject of a critical piece from the Boston Globe) was fired. Despite this Romney continued using the same company, which continued using illegal immigrant labor. Romney responded to Perry’s assertion, by explaining that he told the company: “Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”

This sparked a huge reaction because it made Romney (who was already gaining a reputation as an opportunist, willing to adopt whatever position is politically expedient) look as though his primary grievance was not the illegality of what the company was doing, but how it would impact his campaign. Many media outlets went on extensively about how dishonest this made Romney look and questioned his integrity. All of these are important things when considering a candidate, but I was disturbed by the complete lack of concern by the media outlets that our presidential rhetoric had fallen to such a low standard. Is it considered acceptable for them to refer to other human beings as “illegals?”

The term is dehumanizing, dismissive and reflects an “us versus them” mentality. One can argue that it is no worse than calling someone that commits a murder a murderer. After all, these people are here illegally. I disagree. A murderer is someone who has been convicted of committing a murder. Calling a person an illegal is dehumanizing and often racist. Being in the United States without papers may be illegal but hardly criminal in the same way as a murder. It doesn’t make sense, and comes off mean. Illegal immigrants are people. They have real lives and real concerns and a great many of them hard working and contribute to society. Calling them degrading names is not respectable or consistent with human decency, especially when it comes from the very people campaigning to be government leaders.

The context of these debates only seems to make the issue worse, and the candidates are trying to outdo each other on their supposed toughness. They want to be the most xenophobic and reactionary on the issue. Let’s not mention the racist connotation. The word does not conjure up images of boarder hoppers from Canada. In world where blatantly racist language is not permitted on television, this term seems to be catching on because it is a viable substitute.

It is an appeal to the type of voters who believe that the government’s job is to protect American culture. It is the government’s job to protect the rights of its citizens from others so that they can pursue whatever cultural practices they choose, as long as they do not harm others.

Whatever you think the appropriate policies for dealing with illegal immigration are (and I’m sure there is a wide variety of positions about it), Americans and especially our political candidates can talk about it without having to resort to name calling, veiled racism, posturing, and attempts to appeal to the most bigoted voters. Public figures can and should do better. This is a sad reflection on the state of discourse on this subject of illegal immigration. Whether you agree or disagree, with me about this term, I hope you agree that the issue of how we talk about other humans, especially in the political sphere is worth discussing and taking a look at once in a while. Note I am not trying to censor anyone, nor am I advocating using any kind of force to coercion to get people to stop using the term. I am simply asking that we show a little decency.

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Why not Legalize Immigration? (and a few other suggestions)

Over the past several weeks, I have been hearing various stories of often very young immigrants from Mexican and central America crossing into the United States in great numbers. It view this as a humanitarian crisis and support anyone who has been doing anything to help. A friend asked me what I thought of this as well as immigration in general and a few thoughts came to mind. 

First off, I favor letting those who have made it here stay. My understanding is that many if not most of them do even have family to be returned to, and I think they are honestly better off here in the states. Generally speaking I am in favor of allowing people to freely move across the earth’s surface as they please (with the exception of allowing them to invade the justly acquire personal property of others, however one defines that). I tend to favor generally open borders. I tend to find it that so many self styled conservatives, small government types and free market types are so bent on restricting the crossing of boarders. After all boarders are barriers to trade and free association.

I also dislike the fact that we have a large class of people who are in the US working but have to live in constant fear and suffer various kinds of abuses because they have no legal standing and the people who employ them can turn them over to the authorities to be deported at anytime. It is especially troublesome since it is often easier to enter the country illegally than legally and the distinction between legal and illegal immigration strikes me as irrelevant to the persons actual situation. An illegal immigrant can come here and work his butt off while a legal one can come and live off the welfare system, this hardly strikes me as fair or sensible.

My stance is only reinforced by the fact that US drug policy has also played major role in creating the chaos that immigrants crossing our southern boarder are seeking refuge from. This is not to mention that these central American kids are coming from a region where the US has a long history support nasty dictatorships, exploitative (literal) banana republics and murderous death squads, and this I’m sure has contributed to the general poverty and instability of the region. On some level a case could be made that this is a humanitarian crisis that the US contributed to and that it should take some responsibility by providing for the needs of incoming refugees. Additionally the usual incoming flows of immigrants from Mexico, are here in part because NAFTA has forced their country to buy (often US government subsidized) American agricultural goods, undermining the local rural economies.

This is not to mention that much of the neoliberal structural adjustment reforms that many of the Latin American countries were subjected to (at the behest of the World Bank and IMF) largely, took government held resources, (often stolen from the general population) and handed them over to multinational companies. Furthermore, I have to question whether expanding things like American Corporate liability and entity norms, and the enforcement of US patents and copyrights into these countries has really benefited the local populations much.

That said, a line has to be drawn somewhere, there are going to be limits to the US taxpayer’s willingness and ability to feed clothe and school every any kid who can make it across the border and we do not want to create a situation where we are attracting increasingly more people by giving out free amenities. I do think it is perfectly reasonable that they should be protected by law enforcement as well as have access to emergency services. I hated seeing those Fox news pundits who seemed to imply that the local emergency people should not have answered the calls requesting water or emergency assistance. Ultimately If we are ever forced to choose between cutting back on the government services we offer or restricting the freedom of those wishing to enter the country, I prefer the former. I dislike the idea, of restricting freedom in order to cut down on the demand for using government services. This why I do not particularly like seat belt laws or the various types of “sin” taxes.

That is why I generally favor allowing people wish to come and live here peacefully to do so and I also support getting rid of the drug war, NAFTA and the above mentioned agricultural subsidies. In addition to these, measures I favor doing what we can to make it easier for immigrants and working class people to get by without many of the obstruct attempts by working class people to support themselves or stretch their budgets. This means getting rid of zoning laws and regulations that arbitrarily limit how many non-related people can live in one home, or that make it difficult or impossible do things like starting restaurants, barber shops, or day care centers from one’s home (or taxi services from one’s car). Additionally I tend to oppose zoning restrictions that prohibit people not only from operating businesses out of their homes, but also forbid them from growing foods in their yards or keeping animals like chickens on the property. Additionally, I think people should be freer to build things out of local supplies that they are able to scrounge or get for cheap. Building codes that require all building designs to be signed off by a licensed architect basically give people looking to build a choice equivalent to having either a steak dinner or starving. Additionally I would like to see policies that would make it easier for people to settle in unused pieces of land or abandoned buildings, and eventually get to own these places if they are able to reside on them long enough or convert them into livable homes.

That generally summarizes my thoughts on immigration issues in the United States. Thanks for reading.

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10 Disturbing Attitudes of the Pro-Israel (or pro-Palestine?) Commentariat.

Editor’s note: The following essay comes from Wilson Report contributor Laurie Thompson. Enjoy.

The comment section takes no prisoners. It doesn’t pull the punches. It reveals our biases and lays bear the ongoing bitterness we can’t seem to shake. Here are some of the more disturbing pro-Israel comments, boiled down to their essence.  Some of these will pop up as pro-Palestine arguments as well. They are in no particular order.

1. “We could be more cruel than we are. Thank us for showing mercy by not  being more cruel.

It’s more like “We’re as cruel as we can get away with, without fear of serious international action against us, which is, frankly, a shocking degree of cruelty.” It’s like when there’s some complaint about the police unnecessarily injuring someone in an arrest, and then the response is “just be glad no one died.” It’s horrendous.

2. “My actions are your fault. You left me with no choice.”

Sometimes people really do have no choice. Or rather, no choice that stops the violence. For example, if someone jumps at you and starts punching, you may have no choice but defend yourself with violence, at their expense, because you fear for your own life. Certainly, some nations have (and continue to have) essentially no choice but to fight back violently against  powerful oppressors. In other cases, one may choose from a range of options including diplomacy, sanctions, making alliances with more moderate factions/winning over moderates, international pressure… you get the idea. A level of skepticism is sorely lacking in sorting out those who fight because they need to and those who fight because it’s politically advantageous or it gives them a sense of satisfaction. Beware of anyone who says violence was the only choice, and then when presented with other realistic options (I mean truly realistic and reasonable options), rejects them.

3. Related: “There are only two options: attack or let yourself be attacked.”

Essentially, there are those who think that in order to stop the conflict, “we have to get them to leave” or “we have to get them to die.” But think clearly here, are either Hamas or the IDF simply going to “leave” or “die” under any realistic future scenario? Is attacking ever going NOT provoke a counter-attack? I suppose you could argue that one side might simply “give up” and decide “that’s it, we’ve been conquered, goodnight everybody” but really? I mean really?? If every attack is followed by a counter-attack, if neither side ever lets the other side “get the last word” (and by word I mean bomb or missile), then simple math suggests it will not end, not any time soon. The only way it ends is if there is another option.

4. “They are unreasonable too. Let’s talk about their unreasonableness.”

This merely derails the discussion and deflects responsibility. It doesn’t really add anything useful.

5. “This could all have been prevented if only they had given in sooner to our demands/signed the such-and-such agreement

Well they didn’t. Maybe that agreement or those demands were crap because the people on “your” side couldn’t agree to give more concessions. Or maybe the deal was just fine and dandy, but there was some disagreement on the other side, and some of “them” totally would have signed it because they really wanted peace, but they were derailed by people with their own agenda. Or maybe those demands were made so long ago that it wasn’t really “them” but rather them-plus-some people-who-aren’t-alive-anymore-minus-everyone-who’s-been-born-since-then, and so you can’t really blame the entirety of the current “them” for the oversight of the past “them.” Maybe you shouldn’t treat “them” as a monolith, but understand some nuance in who “they” are. Or maybe you aren’t really interested in revisiting the deal and trying anew, maybe rehashing the bitterness over the failed deal is merely another rhetorical cudgel you can swing against “them” to prove how it is “all their fault” because “history.”

6. “It’s all their fault because history.”

History should be taken seriously, for obvious reasons. Historical wrongs are wrongs just the same, no matter how much time has passed. We should try to right these historic wrongs and make amends as best as possible, absolutely. But there is no history that can justify cruel and intentional killing of innocents today. And yes, children are innocent in war, no matter who their parents happen to be or who they might grow up to become. Let’s look at what’s happening now – what’s happening today. Today’s cruelty costs lives and gains nothing. It includes not only the bombing and killing, but the restriction of freedom and the resulting loss of prosperity. This is the ongoing crime. This is the crime that must be righted before you’re likely to build up the kind of trust necessary to deal with history.

7. “But seriously, our cruelty is nothing compared to this other cruelty over here.” Or “Who amongst you wouldn’t do exactly what we are doing in our situation?”

Sometimes it’s a legitimate complaint that those people commenting from afar are expecting those more directly affected to act as self-sacrificing angels, and then blaming them when they fail to live up to an expected level of sainthood. But this comment has to be judged within the balance of power. Those with more power (including more money, more military might and more powerful allies) have the ability to safely and comfortably choose a less violent path. They can choose ethics and compassion without fear that their saintliness will earn them nothing but death and poverty. The ones with power are the ones that have to put on their grown-up pants, extend the olive branch, and hold themselves to a higher standard.

8. “When we kill them, their deaths are their fault. No, seriously, when we kill civilians in their sleep it is their own fault.”

This is a whole category of comment in itself, but it ranges from “they could have built more bomb shelters/crawled into dirt holes (see comment section here) to prevent themselves from dying from the weapons we aimed at them” to “essentially they are using their own civilians as hostages/human shields to deter us from attacking them” all the way up to the full-blown-nonsense of “they want their own people to die because it makes people sympathize with them and it makes us look bad, so when we kill their children it is actually them killing their children.”

It follows from the false premise of “we have no choice.” You see, if the other side is using civilians as hostages/human shields, we have no option but to kill them, including the hostages/human shields. If they happen to die from our killing them, well it was because they insufficiently protected themselves from our killing.  Apart from hypocrisy (many countries have military operations near civilian residences) and a lack of realism (you really think they should dig pits in the ground and stick themselves in them for all of the 28 days of conflict? What about when they have to eat/work/go to the bathroom?) it betrays a lack of empathy and dehumanization of the other side. In the current conflict this is a sentiment almost exclusively deployed by pro-Israel commentators. Obviously Palestinians have suffered most of the deaths, so they must be extra-at-fault for killing themselves?

9. “It’s their responsibility to end this.”

Possibly the most childish of the childish comments, this is the total abdication of responsibility, and it is more hypocritical the more powerful the person who says it. Notably, this sentiment is likely to spring forth from the mouths (or keyboards) of commentariat from the U.S., willfully or un-willfully ignoring the role of the U.S. in all Middle East conflicts, especially in Israel and Palestine.

10. “Our religion is better. Our culture is better. Our god wants us to win.”

Ok, this one is an obvious one, I admit. Granted, not everyone involved in the conflict is very religious and it’s not all about religion. But the concept that you are just simply “better” or “more deserving” because your god is totally awesome and he wants you to have this-or-that so you should totally have – that’s just never going to be productive ever. Honestly, I’ve seen this sentiment across the board, from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine folks. And it isn’t just a Judaism/Islam thing either – the Christians want in on this action too. Of, course, I can’t say for sure if one side is more likely to use this argument, but the U.S. audience obviously sees the pro-Israel argument-from-religion as most compelling. Granted, it’s unlikely these commentators represent the majority opinion of Israelis or Palestinians, or of people within their own religion. Still, the religious fervor is disturbing.

If we are ever going to get anywhere as a species, we have to accept that people who don’t share this religion or that religion are still people with lives of the same worth and the same deservingness of rights. We have to accept the possibility we might be wrong about our religious beliefs. Yes, even you. Yes, even those beliefs. This is a big thing to ask, I know, because even people who are not in conflict-torn areas sometimes stubbornly refuse to question their own beliefs – even (or especially) the beliefs that cause suffering.

11. Bonus! “Both sides share the blame.”

This comment is as unhelpful as “it’s all your fault,” even if it seems less extreme.  It just lacks any nuance or helpful content. It’s often used like a bat to swipe away criticism of a particular person or organization. As in: “Hey, I think the UN should look into potential human rights violations by Israel against the Palestinians…” “That’s not fair, both sides share the blame.”

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