Monthly Archives: February 2012

They just cannot believe their opponents have more honest motives than they

A random observation for the day.  The NYT reported that an American of Chinese birth recently traveled to China and was detained and tortured by state security officials (fortunately, just in an ad hoc street cop kind of a way, not sent-to-Guantanamo style) because he engages in the mildest of human rights activism, particularly posting to Twitter.  Apparently they mostly wanted his Twitter password, which could only serve to let them hijack his account and mimic him, since public broadcast of all the info that is there is kind of the point of Twitter.

What struck me about the story, beyond the always useful reminder about the behavior of governments and our “important partners” in China, was the following:

In a phone interview on Monday from his home in Fremont, Calif., Mr. Ge described how the agents, infuriated by his assertion that bloggers in the United States were volunteers and not government-sponsored agitators, demanded that he turn over his Twitter password.

That seemed vaguely familiar.  Kind of like the cries from members of the anti-tobacco extremist industry when confronted with human rights or good-science activists who challenge their bullshit, accusing people of doing it under the secret employ of industry.  Low-lifes like Chinese government thugs or paid astroturf activists simply cannot understand that someone might take a principled position and devote their time because they simply care about the world.  Since said thugs personally would never do something they were not getting paid for, they reason (to the extent they are able), no one else would either.

Of course, I realize that this is not the story for everyone.  Some pro-government thugs in China etc. might be decent people who simply have no access to honest information and have been brainwashed — it is not that difficult to persuade idealistic young men to become monsters.  Western “public health” activists have no such excuse, though in fairness to them, presumably many of them are just lying as part of their jobs and do not genuinely believe that everyone who calls them out is as dishonest as they are.

As a side note of warning from that story:

In the end, Mr. Ge and his captors came up with a compromise: he did not reveal his password but logged on to Twitter and allowed them to peek inside his account. “The truth is I have nothing to hide,” he said.

Unfortunately, he might as well have just given them his password, because he undoubtedly did so, as the reporter should have known if he read his own newspaper’s article about how Chinese and Russian officials are adept at installing password stealing software and otherwise breaking into computers.  Companies with security concerns have taken to not allowing employees to take their computers or phones to these countries or log in from there, bringing only temporary burner devices that they sometimes then forbid from ever plugging into the company network based on the assumption that the spyware is so good that it cannot be removed.  A good lesson for all of us.  And don’t forget that the border guards even from “free” countries sometimes seize and search computers, your email, etc. when you come through customs, even entering your own country — Canada did it to me once.

Unhealthful News 202 – Annoyed by demand, attacking supply

My colleagues in the UK are currently reporting on the disturbing proposed regulation that would impose a minimum retail price on drinks, on a per-unit-of-ethanol basis.  This is justified based on (false) claims of increasing public health impacts of alcohol, but it is immediately obvious to any clear thinker (a group which apparently includes 0.3% of members of that country’s parliament) that the penalty will fall on those who buy inexpensive drinks, not those who drink inadvisably.  That is, this interference in the market by rich people will have almost no effect on rich people who already choose expensive drinks instead of the bargain brands (including those who are problem drinkers), but it does take money from the poor and gives it to corporations.  It would probably financially punish poor people who drink too much without substantially changing their behavior, though I suspect that inflicting punishment is what a lot of the proponents really want anyway.

In the US we famously love the free market.  Unfortunately those who want to intervene to stop demand they do not like still think they should blame supply, but the free market leaves them using the free-market version of regulation, lawsuits.  Specifically, it was reported that a Native American nation located in the state of South Dakota

sued some of the world’s largest beer makers on Thursday, saying they knowingly contributed to devastating alcohol-related problems on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The tribe said it wanted $500 million in damages for the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation. The suit … also names four beer stores in Whiteclay, a Nebraska town near the reservation that, despite having only about a dozen residents, sold nearly five million cans of beer in 2010. The suit names Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide, SABMiller, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MillerCoors LLC and Pabst Brewing Company.

Make no mistake:  Being concerned about problem drinking in many North American aboriginal population is reasonable.  But the solutions lie with the consumers or the circumstance that create the demand, not the merchants.

What exactly were the defendants in this case supposed to have done?  What would have happened if one of those manufacturers had refused to supply towns near the reservation?  No doubt their local distributor would raise an outcry, prompting concern nationwide about possible future arbitrary cutoffs.  Moreover, there would inevitably be cries of racism, quite possibly by the same people who are leading the lawsuit.  But the most important effect would be that the others on the targeted list would increase their shipments to the area to make up the shortfall.

So, could all manufacturers agree to stop the shipments?  That would almost certainly be a violation of US antitrust laws, for good reasons.  And even if they could, this would all depend on the assumption that no one in Nebraska owns a truck and can figure out the nearest place that they are still shipping to.  I have seen Nebraska, and there are a lot of trucks.

What about those retailers.  Surely they must have known that most of their sales were going to people who live on the reservation and not the other eleven guys in town.  Of course they did.  So should they have been saying “we don’t serve your kind in here” when someone from the reservation walked in?  Yeah, that would be a great plan. 

But, the argument might go, it was not that they were treating Native Americans equitably, but that they existed to serve them.  Fair enough.  But what could any of the four do?  Shut down?  That would just boost the sales of each of the others by 25%.  What if they all agreed to shut down (setting aside the problems of illegal collusion, accusations of racism, etc.)?  Well, gee, I wonder if perhaps there might be another enterprising soul around who might want to open a new store.

Of course, all of these speculations are absurd, because these merchants had no reason to want to curtail their operations, even apart from the fact that it would not work.  The suppliers responded to the demand created by the residents of the reservation.  When the tribal elders decided that their own people were not being properly obedient about drinking, they decided to re-aim their commend-and-control approach.

Undoubtedly the lawsuit will invoke a comparison to the gun manufacturers who supply a few retailers with an absurdly huge quantity of their product (a product that is intended to kill people, despite that silly claims you hear about cigarettes being “the only…when used as intended”).  But in the gun case, it is evident that the sales are being illegally diverted.  The huge supply of alcohol is arguably used unwisely much of the time, but this is not illegal activity that the suppliers are obliged to stop.

So that brings us back to the UK solution:  Since the private market will not (indeed, cannot) attempt to thwart these consumption choices that someone in power does not like, some believe is up to government to use force.  Government could theoretically shut down sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska, or impose a minimum price there.  That would make the aforementioned guy with the truck a black marketeer, but that would not change his existence as a profitable entrepreneur. 

So they would need a bigger law, like the one we have that keeps people from unwisely consuming heroin.  Oh wait, oops.  Well perhaps, as with heroin, the US military could just invade and occupy the place that grows the raw material.  So where do they produce the raw materials for beer?  Really?  Nebraska and South Dakota?  Well I suppose that is convenient.  Maybe as long as they are there, they could pick up where they left off in the 19th century and massacre those annoying problem drinkers, solving the problem once and for all.

I can hear my colleagues in the UK cringing as they read that, fearing that someone in their government might read it and think it is a good plan.

"Ethical Eating" mini-course syllabus

To my regular readers: This is obviously not a regular entry for this blog.  I needed somewhere to post an outline and reading list for this three-session course, and this blog seemed like the easiest place.  Moreover, someday it might be useful for someone else, and maybe some of you will want to read it, so I might as well put it someplace easy to find.
To those outside the primary target audience who might find this:  The class is being taught at Main Line Unitarian Church, in response to a Unitarian Universalist initiative, and thus the emphasis on UUA document and other faith-based material which I would not include for a different audience.  However, the UUA approach is very much a secular activist-left approach to the topics, and I believe that anyone who is interested could study or borrow this curriculum without even noticing the provenience of the documents if the letterhead was stripped off (for those not familiar, the UU is probably the least religious of any American church, if that makes sense).
Disclaimer: This is my own volunteer work; it does not represent the views or official curriculum of MLUC, UUA, the Humane Society of the United States, or any other organization.
I will update this throughout February 2012 as a working tool (without flagging what is an update) but it will then become a regular published fixed document.
To those participating in the class or considering it:  I understand that this is a casual discussion-oriented evening gathering, and you are not my graduate students, so please do not panic about how much I have here.  I like to be organized and to provide extra background and reading for anyone who wants to really delve deeper, but I am not going to assume that anyone did all, or indeed any of the readings.
Course Overview
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) recently made “ethical eating” part of the discussion about worldly and spiritual ethics that UU congregations are asked to consider.  The ethics of choosing food involves its impacts on treatment of agricultural animals, on the natural environment, on the human-affecting environment, on producers and other consumers, and on one’s own health and social life.  As worldly ethical questions go, dietary choice tends to be relatively simple technically (it is easy to understand the suffering experienced by food animals, though the environmental impacts are a bit more complicated).  But it tends to be particularly thorny from the perspective of ethical judgment.  As a result, this class will necessarily include some technical material, but will mostly focus on ethical conundrums.
My relevant background includes two decades of studying (teaching, writing about) animal well-being, agricultural and environmental economics, and the study of ethics, as well as a passing background in nutrition and consumer behavior.  Content will draw upon the UUA statement about ethical eating, material from my colleagues at the Humane Society of the United States, my own research, and lots of other material, highly distilled down to three classes.
The format will be primarily led discussion, based on some information from suggested readings and brief background talks.  Topics will include:
The environmental impacts of food choices
-dietary choice is among the most important choices people like us make, in terms of environmental impact; for most middle-class Westerners it is the most important
-in particular, a meat-centered diet causes greater environmental impact than most any choice you can make, including land use and causing more energy use and greenhouse gas emissions than anything other than flying a lot
-choices like eating organic or more “natural” foods turn out to have minimal impact; eating locally and in-season helps, though, as do some other choices
The ethics of eating animals
-the secular ethical concepts of animal rights and animal welfare, and religious concepts such as dominion
-understanding animal agriculture practices and differences
Food as a standard consumption choice
-food as a consumer good comes from companies that differ in how they treat workers (the same is true for all other goods, but we consume more food, so it is arguably more important)
-treatment of slaughterhouse workers is among the worst in the US, and that of migrant harvesters is quite bad too
-food can be produced by people who have no access to other productivity options, so food markets have greater effects on the world’s poorest poor than other goods; public policies matter a lot more, but individual choices can have a small impact
-the UUA statements include the common misconception that there is a strong connection between dietary choice and hunger; however, it turns out that others’ hunger is caused by forces that have nothing to do with our food choice
-food policies can affect hunger, but probably not in the way you think
-we will cover the basic economics needed to understand what really causes or reduces hunger
The conundrum of making ethical choices that affect social norms, health, comfort, and family values
-unlike most actions we might take to as acts of ethics, dietary choice is impossible to look at as a technical matter or simple contribution of one’s resources
-how far does it make sense to personally deviate from common practice in pursuit of more ethical actions?
Session 1 – Overview 

The first session will touch briefly on all of the points in the above outline, and the following material.  My plan before the start is to focus the second session on issues relating to food animals and the third session on environmental impacts (both of which will be briefly addressed in the first session.  I will also prepare follow-up material on other topics based on what generates the most interest in the first session.
As an opening point, it is useful to figure out what ethical behavior means (hint: many of the points in the UUA documents have little or not ethical importance by any standard notion of the term).
The UUA statements about ethical eating is the motivation for this class. This consists primarily of a Statement of Conscience and a longer Study Guide.  These documents are almost perfect for teaching about issues related to food and ethics; unfortunately, this is because the perfect teaching tool includes the most important good points, but also all of the common errors.  The Statement presents idealistic goals, which combine well-presented critical ethical issues with politically popular red herrings, combined with proposed solutions that include the most promising and important options, but mostly would do nothing to further the goals.  (The Guide almost seems to intentionally take the weakest points from the Statement and takes them even further, while almost expressing hostility toward the most useful point.  I plan to avoid it entirely unless there is interest in dissecting it.)

The Statement of Conscience includes the following passages (indented material) which seem like a good way to organize the initial discussion.  Discussion points follow each quotation.
We acknowledge that aggressive action needs to be taken that will ensure an adequate food supply for the world population; reduce the use of energy, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and hormones in food production; mitigate climate change; and end the inhumane treatment of animals. These steps call for an evolution of our eating habits to include more locally grown, minimally processed whole foods.
For most of us, our food uses more energy and water (and land), and impacts climate greenhouse gas emission than any other consumption.
It is not clear that the proposed “evolution” actually would improve the stated problems rather than making them worse.  Eating locally offers the valuable benefit of minimizing transport costs.  However, most processing also reduces transport and other input costs (fresh food uses a lot more energy than frozen, canned, and concentrated).  The treatment of animals is better some places than others, but proximity promises nothing; a slab of meat wrapped in plastic is “minimally processed”, but likely involves the inhumane treatment of animals and workers and much greater environmental impact than a Clif Bar.
However, proper use of pesticides, and even hormones and antibiotics whatever other impacts they might have, decreases how much of the macro inputs are needed.  Fertilizer use is also critical for productivity, though it is on both sides of the equation (it largely derives from petrochemicals).  Eating “organic” matters little; it reduces some environmental impacts, but it increases others and is not “sustainable” in the sense of being able to feed everyone.
And so long as we employ modern methods, there is no conceivable risk of us not being able to produce an adequate food supply for everyone.  Hunger is not caused by global shortages of food, but by local shortages of wealth (and modern famine is always caused by a complete failure of government).  The Study Guide devotes almost half its content to issues of hunger without any apparent realization that it is not caused by supply shortages.
Food production involving growing, processing, packaging, transporting, and distributing food has become a vast worldwide industry. The mass production of food often maximizes production while minimizing price. This mass production has greatly increased food supply, but has resulted in the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides with crops and the mistreatment of animals and workers in food production. Both this overuse and the large waste streams from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) result in pollution of water, land, and air.
Environmental concerns include the use of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and hormones and high volumes of animal wastes produced by CAFOs, all of which can contaminate soil, air, and water. Contributors to global warming include the overreliance on fossil fuels for food production; the methane produced by animals, including but not limited to cattle, sheep, and pigs; and the long-distance transport of food. Expanding agriculture and animal farming often removes natural habitats and reduces natural biodiversity. An additional environmental concern is the deterioration of the oceans and their life forms due to overfishing and pollution.
Human Health concerns include producers’ use of growth promoters, pesticides, and antibiotics that can affect child development, antibiotic resistance, and other health conditions.
Which concerns are photogenic and chemophobic, or just an anti-industry bias, and which are real ethical (or health) concerns?  packaging hardly matters, but transporting is expensive; “overuse” of pesticides has little impact; lakes of manure are impressive, but an even greater environmental impact of intensive animal agriculture is growing feedcrops; use of hormones can hurt animals but has no measurable evidence of effects on those who eat them; antibiotic use, on the other hand, can help the animals but is bad for human health
What is the relationship between minimizing price (not always a good thing) and maximizing productivity (hard to complain about)?
There is a remarkable amount of confusion about what characteristics of your food really matter in terms of your health, to say nothing of whether these represent ethical issues in the first place.  However, it is interesting that there is no mention at all in the documents of food allergens, which do have effects on others (think: letting your kid go out with a peanut butter sandwich).
We…recognize that many food decisions will require us to make trade-offs between competing priorities. These priorities include: taste, selection, price, human health, environmental protection, sustainability, adequate food supply, humane treatment of animals used for food, and fair treatment of farm and food workers.
We acknowledge that this evolution must respect diversity in cultures, nutritional requirements, and religious practices. 
Funny how the choices we make that have the biggest ethical implications tend to be the ones with the biggest other implications too.  (actually, it is not at all surprising)
The document’s list of complications about food choice still manages to overlook some of the most important points, particularly ease of functioning in society, self identity, and group identity (particularly family).
Policy concerns include agricultural subsidies that reward the production of certain crops and animal products that are less healthful and environmentally friendly than unsubsidized ones and that penalize small to moderate-sized farming operations. Agricultural subsidies of exported crops have driven small farmers in developing countries off their land.
This is only tangentially related to ethical eating, since our dietary choice has no impact on these policies.  The points are valid, however.
Some of us will not be able to pay more for ethical food. Others of us will.
There is little chance that anyone who reads or is directly influenced by that document (or the present one) cannot afford more ethical food.  Some of us can definitely afford nicer food than others can.  But except in cases where poverty limits access to markets, it is not difficult to consume cheap ethical food.
Lack of funding is similarly not the reason that school lunches (mentioned elsewhere) are so awful.
The “Call to Action” at the end of the document, which follows, would make an excellent exam on the topic:  Which of these could have a major positive impact, which are positive but of minimal impact, which actually would cause more harm than good, and which seem to have little to do with ethical eating?
Recognizing that individual circumstances vary, we aspire to buy, raise, and consume food for ourselves and our families that:
increases our proportionate consumption of plant-based foods, which increases the global access to calories, provides health benefits, and prevents injuring animals;
minimizes the pain and suffering of animals by purchasing meat or seafood produced under humane conditions, for those who choose to eat meat or seafood;
minimizes the negative environmental effects of raising animals or plants by purchasing organically produced food, and seafood certified as responsibly farmed or harvested;
minimizes transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions by obtaining foods locally produced through home or community gardens, farmers markets, or community supported agriculture (CSA);
provides farm workers with living wages and safe working environments;
contributes to social harmony by encouraging communal eating;
promotes health, consuming food in quantities that do not lead to obesity;
We advocate for the benefit of animals, plants, food workers, the environment and humanity by:
purchasing fair trade–certified products as available.
asking food sellers and producers to label where their products come from to determine distance of transport and whether the products were irradiated or contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs);
pressing food sellers to require that their suppliers certify the humane treatment of animals;
supporting legislation that requires the labeling of products that are irradiated or contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), distribution of adequate ethical food supplies, effective safety inspection of food production, and realignment of agricultural subsidies to support growing more produce and the viability of small farmers; and
protecting and encouraging organic food production and its producers.

Session 2 – The ethics of eating animals; Issues or how far to go (and follow up on topics from previous session)
The basic facts about the treatment of animals in agriculture
For those who might not be familiar with how almost all agriculture animals are treated (or who have learned but followed the natural tendency to put it out of their heads), some background:

From HSUS (which tend to include calls for political action, just so you know):
Links to information about specific species
Confinement of animals

the HSUS brokered plan to reduce the cruel treatment of laying hens (short video)
links to science and research on various farm animal welfare topics

From other organizations that exhibit what we might call mainstream values, and that provide honest and generally accurate information (links to info about various species)
Farm Sanctuary
Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Organizing principles for ethical decisions
There are countless secular tracts on why we should care about the well-being of animals.  Unfortunately, the short tracts tend to mostly just state things that you already agree with or not.  Many longer pieces are definitely more persuasive; I always liked the works by Mason, Singer, and Regan in addition to those mentioned in the next link below.

Here are some short pieces that focus on somewhat religious arguments (though the departure from basic American secular ethics is not substantial):

-UU Animal Ministry Reverence for life manual (follow link; it is a real shame that those who wrote the Ethical Eating material did not defer to the content and authors of this publication)

HSUS Animal protection ministries: A guide for churches (mostly not about food, but the last few pages are about eating and have some good points; the perspective is Christian, but not so much so that it is foreign territory to UUism)

-M Scully, A religious case for compassion for animals (read “religious” as “Biblical”; this is adapted from his excellent book on the topic; what is interesting about this is that it makes the case that conservative-minded Christians should support humane treatment in agriculture)

When pursuing an ethical choice, how far is rational / sensible / ethical to go?

Follow-up on last week’s topics
nice analysis of some of the reality of organic farming – not a definitive work, but a minimally rhetorical informative easy read that happened to appear this week

Session 3 –  Environmental impacts (and follow up)