I am deliberately slow to react to the disastrous Supreme Court decision because, I am afraid I may be missing something important. I don’t call it “disastrous” so much because of the substance of the Pelosi/Obama program of health coverage reform: I am one of those conservatives who don’t lose track of the fact that Americans pay twice more for health care than Western Europeans and live shorter lives. My concerns are bout the rule of law.
Two broad questions: Have any liberal groups or liberal individuals said anything about the precedent of the Supreme Court showing the lawmakers out to make the unconstitutional constitutional by re-naming it? (A fine is not a tax but it can be called a tax to make it legal.) Second question: Have you heard or read any liberal comments about the inadvisability of having any law about anything that runs to more then 2,500 pages?
I ask because I want to make sure I am not forming a caricatural picture of that which separates me from the liberals around me. Right now, I have formed the impression that liberal political culture is formed mostly by late night shows. It’s a culture of the cheap sarcasm that avoids the risk of rational contradiction because it is only delivered to a crowd of true believers. (In partial support: It’s amazing how few New York Times you see in super-liberal Santa Cruz. I hardly ever find one to steal!)
It seems to me that conservatives do not run an equal risk of smugness through the avoidance of contradiction because it’s extremely difficult to avoid the straight liberal dope the media delivers. I, for example, listen to NPR almost every afternoon. I do this, in part out of a sense of intellectual obligation, partly because there is not much of an intelligent alternative (again, in the afternoon). Similarly, I watch a 30min+ of MSNBC or of CNN nearly every weekday morning at the gym because others control the TV set. I make no effort to escape, by the way.
Monthly Archives: June 2012
Une version precedente comportait quelques erreurs et des lacunes dont je m’excuse.
Je regarde un documentaire français sur TV 5, la chaine francophone internationale, “Gharjuwa, épouse de la vallée.” C’est sur une ethnie népalaise qui pratique la polyandrie: une femme, plusieurs maris. Le sujet est intrinsèquement intéressant, Et puis, le fait que la femme polygame ait le gros sourire aux lèvres tout le long de l’interview confirme pas mal de mes à-priori sur ce qui rend les femmes heureuses, en fin de compte! (Ce n’est pas sorcier.) Et puis, le tout se passe dans un environnement montagneux magnifique. Comme c’est le cas pour la plupart des documentaires français que je connais, la photo est excellente.
L’une des tâches de la femme polygame est de preparer la bière. Une voix masculine dit le commentaire en Français. Soyons francs: je ne sais pas si c’est le commentateur qui a rédigé les texte. En tous cas, il nous avise de ce qu’ au Népal, la bière ménagère se prépare en faisant “cuire ensemble” une céréale (ou plusieurs; maïs ou blé noir, ou les deux, je ne suis pas sûr) et de la levure. Je fais un retour en arrière mental. C’est bien ce qu’il a dit. La levure, c’est ce qui transforme les sucres des céréales en alcool et en CO2. Mais la levure se compose d’organisme vivants qui meurent vite à la chaleur. Pas question de la faire cuire avant qu’elle ait fait son travail. La description qu’on nous donne est soit absurde soit fausse
A priori, selon son accent et sa diction, le commentateur est français ou belge. Il vient donc d’un pays célébré dans le monde entier pour ses vins et aussi pour ses bières, ou alors, massivement, seulement pour ses bières. Des pays aussi respectés pour leur pain et pour leurs pâtisseries levées. Vins, bières, pains, pâtisserie levéees exigent la maîtrise de l’emploi des levures. Comment peut-on être aussi ignorant d’une partie aussi importante de sa culture séculaire? Et puis, je sais bien qu’en principe, l’ignorance et la connerie sont des choses différentes. Pourtant, il y a des cas ou il est difficile de distinguer l’une de l’autre. Comment peut-on avoir été élevé dans la culture française ou belge et être aussi profondément mal informé, à moins d’être également bête?
Mais, j’éprouve aussi de l’indignation au second degré: Comment les public francais et autres francophones peuvent-ils laisser passer de telles grossières conneries sans se plaindre, sans réagir? Le fait est courant, répandu. J’ai d’ailleurs inventé la formule suivante, (en Anglai) : “Si vous voulez apprendre rapidement quelquechose de faux, suivez donc les cinq premières minutes d’un documentaire français!
Je m’interroge sur les causes sociologique de ce qui est plus qu’un accident. Je veux parler de l’apparente indifférence aux faits associée à l’usage de la langue française contemporaine. Je ne sais pas s’il s’agit vraiment d’ un phénomène culturel en profondeur: Les faussetés ne dérangent simplement pas beaucoup les Francais. Je me demande, dans l’alternative, si les cause sont plus tortueuses et donc, moins directement culturelles: “France 2 fait un documentaires sur les Népalaise à plusieurs maris. C’est chouette. Je vais téléphoner à Robert pour lui demander s’il peut prendre mon neveu Charlot. Justement, en ce moment, il ne fait pas grandchose.”
De vraies questions. Toutes les réponse m’intéressent, surtout celles provenant de pays francophones.
Le beau et ignare documentaire en question sort de chez Atmosphère Production avec le concours du Centre national du cinéma.
If you know this blog at all, you will not be surprised to learn that I am an expert in French culture, a merciless one. As luck would have it, I am also an expert in Europe in general and in Germany in particular. That’s because the media one uses to follow French affairs unfailingly tell you about European affairs.
Here is an example of my pan-European expertise: Do You know what German Chancellor Angela Merkel does with her old pant-suits?
She wears them!
The problem with stereotypes is not that they always carry falsehoods but that some are true but it’s hard to distinguish the correct ones from the urban legends and historical fables.
Here is a tenacious historical fable held even by lawyers: Under French law, the accused has to prove that he is not guilty.
It’s just not true, not even a little.
I read the French daily Le Figaro on-line almost daily. I see it as centrist as you can get. It’s well written (not a given with contemporary French press and the silly desire to appear with it*). It ranges far and wide.
There is an piece in it today that shows once more that the French are serious about their vacations. The title asks: “Is it possible to make love in the ocean?” It’ s clear right after the third paragraph the question does not refer to fish or whales which do it all the time in the ocean, as most of us realize. The author implies the question for humans. Nevertheless, there is an allusion to dolphins who purportedly do it often and really, really enjoy it. (Damn, damn! Not only are they smarter than I am, they have a better sex life.)
Anyway, after supposedly consulting “sexologists,” author supplies a liberating positive answer to the question. Yes, she says, you can do it; it’s fun but if you do it where the water is over your head, make sure you don’t drown.
On the one hand, I exclaim: “N.S.!” On the other hand, I think: “What a way to go!”
French culture is interesting but not for the reasons you probably think. It’s a good counterpoint the better to understand American culture. Some wise man (or maybe a “wise old Latina” as a current Supreme Court Justice once said) declared: “One who knows only one country knows no country.” You got to compare to understand.
French culture, like other contemporary European cultures, is strangely deficient in some area, in many areas, actually. Here is a link to an introduction to the topic, right on this blog
I don’t imply that you shouldn’t go to Europe this summer. It’s a quality museum. The food is quite good in some countries, in France, of course, and in Italy but also often, in Spain.
Of course, if you are under thirty and have no children and you vacation in Europe you are probably a wimp. When are you going to go to Burma, to Paraguay? When you are sixty-five?
* For the record: “au courant” does not mean “with it” or “edgy” as semi-lingual journalists seem to think. Those two words just mean “well informed,” and “up to date.” I don’t want to catch any of you making this mistake again.
I am surprised by the lack of responses to the discussion of organic food on this blog.
I am further surprised by the weakness for the few comments collected. I suspected the case for organicity was weak, I didn’t know it was so weak that practitioners would be afraid to take up the case at all. I began this discussion of organic foods with normal skepticism rather than opposition. I now smell a rat.
In the middle of May, a month of fairly warm temperatures in central California where I live, I went to the farmers’ market for a little while. There are four reasons why I ever frequent the place. The first is that my French side sometimes finds there the rare herbs, such as sorrel, it still misses.
My second reason to go to the farmers’ market is that there is often there a guy on a truck who offers live oysters. At $1.50 a shot these days, they are a luxury but a small luxury. I think they should be $1,50 for a half-dozen, the minimum acceptable. I treat myself once in a while.
The third reason is El Salsichero, a local young guy who is re-inventing the old French art of charcuterie – pork preparations – with a twist of Santa Cruz zaniness. He is my hero: an entrepreneur, starting a new business and a new kind of business out of nowhere in a town where the university is the only remaining industry. (And please, don’t get me started. The left-wing municipality of Santa Cruz is doing its best to mistreat that remaining enterprise into leaving.)
My third reason for spending any time at all at the farmers’ market is hard to explain. It’s a cheap and comfortable way to experience the same kind of frisson that expensive and uncomfortable foreign travel sometimes gives me. There are many foreigners like me among the customers . Yet the most alien part of the crowd is native-born. Its members look quaint. They use English words but I am never sure I understand what they are saying when they talk to each other (same as when I am in London).
It’s comprised of tribal fragments of groups that have espoused strange and distorted beliefs. Many dress correspondingly exotic. The most pleasant are the turbaned white Sikhs, with no real connection to India, I think. Another group includes the children and the grandchildren of my hippie friends from the seventies. It appears they are the only ones in American whose children did not rebel into doing the opposite of what they were taught. Rearing kids on cannabis cookies may have virtues middle-class types like me never even suspected! Anyway, the farmers’ market is a show and, for the price, a good show. My grand-daughter also likes it. She is three.
The last reason is also the least practical. It’s part of my on-going endeavors in pop-sociology. I study the folly of seemingly rational people in its collective manifestations. People who are all-around crazy are not that interesting. Mad individuals are too difficult for me to understand. I don’t have the patience, for one thing. Unreasonableness among the reasonable is my cup of fair trade tea.
At the farmers’ market, I find two partially overlapping groups practicing what I think is folly although members of both are rational in most phases of their lives. The first group is the vegans, the second are the devotees of organic food, the organicists. I don’t spend much time on the vegans because they do have understandable, rational ethical concerns. (I don’t buy veal myself for ethical reasons although I really like that meat.) The organicists interest me a great deal because many go to great length to offer scientific-sounding justifications for their costly vice.
All this to tell you that at the farmers’ market in May I saw organic lettuce, romaine lettuce, for five dollars a pound ($5/lb). I saw that with my own eyes, around two pm when I was wide awake and under the influence of no substance, legal or illegal.
The next day, my wife bought attractive romaine lettuce at Costco for 79 cents a pound. It’s true that you had to buy three at a time. It’s true that such a quantity would be inconvenient for a 90-pound woman living alone. Of course, she could always buy the three, give two to her neighbors and still come out ahead.
Now, on to the defense of their expensive habit organicists always offer. If I had been invited to a comparative tasting of the two kinds of romaine lettuce, it’s possible that I would have found the organic tastier. I don’t know but I have no argument with this. The statement hides a logical confusion that would not be acceptable in any alert child over twelve. The produce in farmers’ markets in general, in the Santa Cruz farmers’ market, in particular tend to be fresher than those at big retailers such as Costco. Often, it’s much fresher. There are small organic growers less than two miles from the local farmers’ market.And here is an absolute rule: With vegetables ( and also mushrooms) fresher is always better. So, organicity is irrelevant.
If you think its’ relevant, you have to show it, controlling for freshness. You would have to set up a blind taste testing of equally fresh organic and non–organic veggies of the same variety. The fact that no organicists seems interested in organizing such a simple test makes me suspicious, of course. It suggests religious belief.
I remain puzzled by the widespread vogue of organic anything. As my story suggests, this is not about paying a small premium to feel good. A large, and it seems, a growing fraction of my contemporaries, many with a fair level of education, spend five times more on basic food than they have to. This, for no intelligible reason,
The organic food cult has managed to reverse a trend of at least two centuries. The trend is that food becomes a little cheaper in real terms every passing year. It’s becoming difficult to locate the non-organic version of fruits and vegetables. As a result, we are all increasingly forced to pay the very huge premium attached to organicity. I see it entirely as a religious tax imposed on me completely against my will by members of a cult I don’t wish to join any more than I want to join any other irrational group.
A couple of weeks ago, a young man I usually respect for his intelligence and for his intellectual honesty set me straight about my cherry trees. Those are trees I planted myself in place of a large semi-tropical tree to which the neighbor objected. There was no lawn there for at least twenty years. I never treated the trees or anything near them with anything except for spraying for aphids with diluted dish soap. One of my two trees gives cherries. My friend advised me with a straight face that the cherries from my tree don’t qualify as organic!
Update 8/30/12 : There are several interesting follow-up to this essay. Look for the word “organic” in titles.
This was first published January 12th 2012, twelve months ago, and again in June 2012, five months ago. Below a January 2013 update
Brave Syrians continue to die day- by-day trying to get what we take for granted: The right to be governed by those they chose. And yes, that may include Islamists. What do you think? That bloody fascist tyranny is better (for us) ? Syrians also die because of the Obama policy of “engaging” the likes of Assad. He, Assad, is using tanks on the soft bodies of unarmed civilians to make sure he does not miss. Ron Paul followers assure me that the slaughter of Syrians is none of our business. Apparently they think it’s OK for someone else to conduct mass slaughter as long as it’s done neatly within the boundaries of a nation-state. That’s the same nation-state libertarians say they want to abolish.
Update January 2th 2013
In a civil war, it’s always difficult to know how many civilian victims there are. Even the good guys exaggerate routinely. However, today, the UN said 65,000 Syrian have died since the beginning of the current crisis. (Reminder: The beginning was peaceful protests against the fascist regime.) In the absence of a Human Rights Watch estimate, that UN number will do, more or less for me. To get an idea of the scale of the killing by comparing the estimate with total population numbers, you have to multiply it by thirty. That would be about two million Americans killed.
The usual chorus of left-iberal tender-hearts is silent. As I have said before, it’s only when Jews kill Arabs that it matters. Since I first aired the piece above, Israelis did kill about 150 Gazans in war . Many of the Gazan victims had asked for it; many not, were just in the way; other Gazans asked for it implicitly only by voting for a party that has the elimination of Israel in its charter. (Link to the charter in English on this blog.)
As as always been the case, as has been the case from the beginning, Israelis are rank amateurs at killing Arabs. Arabs are enormously better at it. Look here:
The inaction of western public opinion, the immobility of our political class is not just prudence. If it were, there would be inaction accompanied by loud vocalizations:. “We don’t want to get involved but we think Assad is a butcher; We hope he ends up hanging from a lamp-post downtown Damas.” (I hope so; personally, I think he will.)
Am I the only one who suspects that a form of racism underlies our collective silence?
Well, an Arab hoodlum is using warplanes against apartment houses that are sure to shelter women and small children . No big deal. That’s what Arabs do!
A last comment in the form of a question: I don’t understand why the powerful and skillful Israeli Air Force is not parachuting masses of humanitarian aid well marked with the Star of David over areas of Syria were refugees are concentrated. I am thinking powdered milk and clean water, for example.
I leave my newspaper on the table outside as I dart inside the coffee shop to get more sugar. When I return, three seconds later, a middle-aged woman is walking briskly across the street, holding my newspaper in her hand.
Hey, I shout fairly amicably, I was not finished with my paper.
She turns around and throws the paper on the table near me.
I don’t want your stupid paper, she says. What would I do with it? I am legally blind.
Fact is that she is wearing unusually thick glasses. Point well taken. What do I know?
I drive into an unevenly paved parking lot behind a woman in a big van. When she makes a right-hand turn, I spot a blue handicapped sticker on her windshield. Just as she is about to place her van in the reserved handicapped space, her engine stops. After several useless attempts to re-start it, she steps out of the vehicle and starts pushing.
I am a real sweetheart and also an old-fashioned nice manly man so, my first reflex is to get out and to give her a hand. I abstain because I soon judge her efforts to be fruitless. She is pushing that heavy van up a significant bump. I think there is no way the two of us can vanquish gravity and place the van in its spot.
Then, the woman braces herself; the back of her dress rises and her big calves become like hard river stones; she harrumphs once and the van ends up perfectly parked in the handicapped spot. I learned another lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover, or even by its title.
Speaking of parking makes me think of the last time I went to the DMV. I only wanted a copy of a trailer permit for which I had duly paid. As is normal, I am in a bad mood much before I reach there. Less logically, my irritation grows as I advance up the line. The employee to whose window I am directed is a plump young Latina with a fairly pleasant face
I explain my request. She goes tick, tick, tick on her computer and, quickly enough, she hands me the copy I want.
It’s $16.75, she says.
I explode. That’s ridiculous, I say. That fee for a simple copy is an abuse of power. I changed my mind; I don’t want it anymore. Keep it.
Well, I will just have to give it to you, says the DMV employee with a big sweet smile.
I practically fall on my butt in the midst of dozens of pissed-off customers.
I guess I don’t know everything about women, as I often think I do, just most things.
This is a nice politically incorrect list of comments and questions to my essay entitled: “Organic Food and Red Herrings.” It was sent by a reader named “Bruce.” I think it’s a nice summary that deserves its own page. I will give equal time to the other side if it manifests itself.
1 Are organic foods more nutritious? Not yet clear if they are.
2. Are organic foods safer? Organic and non organic foods do not exceed government safety thresholds.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Now for pure opinion:
1. The hormones fed to animals seem to have increased the size of women’s breasts over the years which is not a bad thing. Personal unscientifically tested observation here.
2. I have been tricked into buying organic milk at The Fresh Market since it looks just like the regular stuff unless you notice the price. Wow, $5 for a gallon of 2%?
3. Using “natural” fertilizer (manure) can expose us to e coli bacteria.
4. Without chemicals and genetically enhanced foods, there would be a major loss of production. This would lead to starvation, especially where people are currently struggling to survive. Guess it’s better people starve than evil capitalist pig 1%er fertilizer companies like Monsanto make obscene profits.
5. The people selling “organics” look scraggly and under-nourished to me. Maybe it’s the German leather dye in the Birkenstocks. Some of the women might look fine if you just got a couple of burgers in them.for a while.
6. If not for genetic engineering, chemical fertilizers and hybridization, marijuana would not be nearly as potent as it is today. I don’t use due to my job, but have it on good authority that you don’t have to work nearly as hard as before.
7. I’ve heard that if you cut a tomato in half and tell a person one was grown organically and one was not, they will rate the half organically grown to be better tasting. Might all just be psychological.
8. If all food is not organic, then what is inorganic food? What does it look like?
9. There are so many other things that people can do to promote good health and most people choose not to do them. This provides First Lady Michele Obama an opportunity to exercise her do as I say, not as I do hypocrisy when it comes to those White House French fries.
10. The government encourages this debate since it justifies expanding bureaucracy to study, evaluate and regulate which is what they do best.
11. Organic food feeds the need a certain element in our population has to feel superior. It’s the same thing as driving a Prius hybrid, expensive but perfectly in concert with the smug “why does it seem I’m the only one who cares” look.
12. I do grow a lot of my own produce and always have. It’s one of the things I enjoyed doing with my dad and I just carried on the tradition. I use Miracle Grow fertilizer and Seven Dust and they taste great. Vine ripened Beefsteak tomatoes always do. I wash them off in the sink before eating them. It’s not because I want to save the earth, it’s because it’s fun to watch things grow.
I use my editor’s privilege to respond here to Ryan MH’s argument in the piece entitled: “The Cost of Organic Food: An Exchange.” I do this for the sake of clarity alone. Ryan has unfettered access to this blog.
Let me begin by stating that I congratulate myself for having elicited a serviceable and seemingly complete definition of “organic” from Ryan. This is the first time someone give me a definition, in my whole life!
Ryan MH is all over the place to such an extent that I felt like crying in my turn as I read. So, let me specify what I am interested in.
The issue of the high cost of organic food only matters to me because I believe that it is not different from a health standpoint from non-organic food grown in this country. I think it has no merits for the consumer except in his head.
I am focusing on the portion of the organic definition that had to do with the genetic modification of organisms by methods others than the traditional methods of artificial, guided, purposeful selection and hybridization by sex methods and such. This means pretty much methods that existed before World War Two.
Ryan said in my presence that foods modified by new methods (“genetically modified” except that these terms have no meaning.), that such food have adverse effects on human health.
If Ryan MH did not say this or something identical, for practical purposes, I have no discussion with him. I must have misunderstood him and I apologize for wasting his time and yours.
Everything else is a red herring, something that distracts to no useful purpose.
If he did say this, I would like to see scientific evidence. I take this to mean a report published in an independent scholarly journal that practices double-blind peer reviewing. “Independent” means that a Jain vegetarian institute journal does not count, for example. This is not a demanding standard but a minimum standard. If I see one such study, I will think there is a debate as Ryan affirms. If there is no (zero) such study, all we have is rumors and ignorant religious passions. (And everyone is entitled to his religious beliefs, however patently absurd, and I have no quarrel.)
If Ryan, or anyone, will show me one such study, I think it’s a good reason to continue but only this. An unreplicated study carries little weight unless it’s extraordinarily well done in every respect.
Ryan claims that he gave me a link to such a study and that I did not read it. I think he did not. His declarations in the essay of reference on this blog suggests that he did not. In his own words (or so) people who eat one kind of foods show different physiological something or other than people who eat the other kind of food. If I were a researcher who was also a true believer (a most unfortunate situation) I would find this encouraging.
But I am not; I am a skeptic with no dog in that fight. Differences in no way imply noxiousness (“bad for your health”). If they did, coffee, maybe the most studied food in the history of the world, would be bad for me. Every time I drink a cup, I am certain you can measure shortly several physiological changes in me. That’s why I drink the stuff, after all. But coffee has no adverse effects on the health of ordinary people. Why do I believe this? Because brothers-in -calamity- of Ryan have been trying for a century, with good scientific methods, to show that coffee is the Devil’s brew, that it induces several kinds of cancer, heart attack, and possibly acne. It doesn’t. It just makes you pee. Same for cannabis, smoked, or eaten ,or inhaled, or licked. (I don’t mean to say that cannabis makes you pee. It makes you fat, indirectly. You know what I mean.)
There is worse! If physiological changes were automatically equivalent to ill health effects, reducing your intake of animal fat would be bad for you because, in many people, such a diet modification is followed by measurable changes on important physical variables. This is not what I think is correct. I don’t think that Ryan means this:
“The more you trim your short-ribs, the worse your health will be overall, on the average.”
Ryan MH was -in all innocence, I am sure – trying to waste my time by inducing me to read something irrelevant to our discussion.
Let me repeat: I would like some evidence that there exists a relationship that might , at least,” might’” be causal between the ingestion of genetically modified foods (see above) and any measure of ill- health.
I don’t think that’s very demanding. I am setting the bar deliberately low.
Ryan’s assertion regarding such illnesses as diabetes, cancer and heart disease does not deserve much of a response a this point. Just briefly, just to hold you:
There are good reasons to believe that diabetes type two is statistically much more likely among overweight people than among skinny people. Human beings have not been fat in large numbers until recently. We have not been aware of the possibility of such a relationship for long. The recourse to any explanation based on genetically modified foods is thus superfluous at best. (Don’t be offended by my use of words. I have diabetes type two and I am overweight.)
At this point, I believe that there is zero evidence in support of any increase in the incidence of either cancers in general or heart disease, controlling for age, or, in other words the rising longevity of populations. (There might be increases in some narrow sorts of cancer.) My beliefs in these respects are at such great variance with Ryan’s statement and with common belief that it would only be charitable to correct me if I am wrong.
The key to the distorted or fallacious perception of a rise in cancers and in heart disease lies in a failure to understand simple probabilities (much simpler than you need to bet on the outcome of a football game. Here is an illustration :
I am a man past my prime( I guess). If something else does not get me first, the probability that breast cancer will kill me is 100%. I am 100% sure of this
Here, you got it.
I am only interested in two questions.:
1 Genetically modified foods are bad for health.
2 There is a general rise in cancers (plural) and/or heart disease even if you control for rising longevity.
That’s all I want to read about and only if it’s a report on a scientific study. Be prepared to affirm forcefully that what you propose for my reading fulfills these conditions. If you do so, I will read and report. If you don’t I will not read. You got to be ready to make such a statement before you make any claim on another person’s time and attention. The Jehova’s Witnesses at least promise me eternal life when they come to my door. Please, don’t try to deceive me (anyone). I have to have time to go fishing. That is undoubtedly good for my health, especially if I catch fish and eat it!
PS Unrelated topic: If you send me scientific evidence that pesticides on food specifically have hurt anyone in the past thirty years in the US, I probably won’t be able to resist reading it.
2PS I classify this essay under “cultural studies” rather than under anything having to do with a hard science such as biology because, at this point, I believe that the preference for organic foods in general has no scientific basis at all. It’s purely a cultural phenomenon, like a vogue of sports cars or bicycling.
Updated 6/12/12 This series of two might be coming to and end. It feels like a war where you routed the other guy more than you wished to do.
Ryan MH told me orally that there does not seem to be any scientific evidence to the effect that genetically modified foods (“Frankenfoods”) have any adverse effects om human health. (Contrary to his declaration of a few days ago.)
No one else who saw the two relevant essays has tried to pick up the challenge in his stead. Perhaps, it’s because I don’t attract the right kind of readers although I am surrounded by them where I live.At any rate, I hope Ryan comes back on this blog to reflect on his experienced. Since he is a young man and well educated, there is a fair chance that he will do so.
My wife is a woman who come from vegetarian stock of long standing (in India). She is also a woman who does not care to hide her opinions. She says point-blank that people who believe the whole “organic” tale, however defined, are just “village idiots.”
I don’t think so because there are too many people like Ryan who is definitely not a village idiot and who shows genuine surprise when he finds out that his beliefs are unsubstantiated. I think rather that we are dealing with a religious phenomenon. After all, there are thousands, possibly millions of people who are smarter than I and who believe Lazarus was really, really dead when Jesus rose him.
Prelim note: What follows is a part of an ongoing discussion with Ryan MH bout the desirability of various extraordinarily high food expenditures. Ryan is your typical Santa Cruz Neo-New Ager believer in health fairy tales. Unlike most of his tribe however, he has some understanding of the scientific method and he is eager to perceive his beliefs as compatible with it. The second reason I take the time to argue with Ryan MH is that last year, he ran across this country from West to East. (No, not “walk” but ran.) That gives him a lot of credibility in my eyes. Would I make this up?
The present discussion between Ryan MH and me began when I tasted some bread he had made in his bread machine. I told him I thought it was very good. Ryan then announced that each loaf cost 4 dollars ! He seemed to mean raw materials alone. Now, I had a glancing familiarity with bakery costs a long time ago from which I got the idea that forty cents would have been too high, much too high, in fact. I think four cents would be the right order of magnitude.
So, I expressed wonder. Ryan MH then announced that he was using only organic stuff. Now, that’s X 100 a reasonable cost, more or less, for “organicness.” We are far, we are way out of the area of the pleasant 10% surcharge for the psychic satisfaction of knowing that you are saving Mother Nature (that mean old bitch!) Two weeks before, in the spring, when food prices go down, I had spotted the $5 a pound organic lettuce at the farmers’ market. So, I was primed.
I seized the opportunity, I am surrounded by people who pay high to huge premiums for “organic” food but who can’t say why or even what it is, or who make completely fanciful ungrounded assumptions about the practice. I have known Ryan MH for a long time so I knew that he was rational and intellectually honest. Accordingly, I asked him why one would bother. What’s below is his second attempt to answer. The first attempt was all over the place as happens, for example, when you allow J’s Witnesses to talk to you on the porch and you challenge them.
So, Dr. J and myself have a discussion going about organic foods and conventional foods, so far based only on an email correspondence that I refer to throughout this piece. He accused me of doing more than my fair share of crying, and hence, dirtying my shirt past the threshhold where it requires a changing…This time I am prepared, sitting here before my laptop with a new (brand new!) box of tissues and microfiber, moisture wicking tee.
Is there any evidence to suggest organic is worth the cost and GMO’s are harmful? Not as much as I had hoped, but still there is evidence. at least for organic foods being worth it. Dr. J pointed out in my email to him that I did not include a definition of organic, so here it is: “Foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.” I’d like to invite anyone out there to join in the discussion, as this is a great way (as Dr. J knows) to do less of the reading myself!
I began my email to Dr. J by saying the scientific debate on whether or not conventional foods (GMO) pose risks to our health seems to still be, well, a debate. Dr. J did not think this situation to be open or debatable, and brought up the point that “there is no debate if there is no evidence on one side.” However, in this case, there IS evidence for BOTH sides. There are studies showing physiological differences in organic foods and animals fed them versus conventional foods and studies showing that this is not the case. Both sides have reproduced these results in multiple studies. So, I stand by my original statement to Dr. J, that the debate is open, but I would be curious to hear what he proposes is correct in cases such as this, when research supports both sides.
On a similar note, Dr. J had this to say “There is no debate between flat-earthers and sphere-earthers because no ship ever fell off the edge of the world.” I agree here, but while ships sail confidently round the world, for us not composed of cellulose we see that diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are all on the rise in recent history, the same recent history that includes tinkering with our food sources in a lab based way….lets say 1880 onward. So it seems to me that altered foods (as in GMO’s and pesticides) and their effects on health deserve careful study.
In support of this, I offered to Dr. J the example of our vast knowledge of a common fruit, the banana. We as a species are yet to fully comprehend the chemical nature of the fruit. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22650010) This is a food that in my life has been in just about every home I have ever entered. It is common. And yet, we cannot fully describe what is in it chemically, or how it interacts with our bodies. But, we alter its genes anyway. I’m not saying this is bad, but it is certainly not fully understood, and for that, I am cautious to trust. Especially given our track record with food science: botched baby formulas, the trans fat, and the USDA food guide pyramid.
Dr. J also makes a point to address the issue of taste of organics vs conventional plants. He feels that fresh foods, organic or not, will always taste better, so this point is moot. Well, I am sorry Dr. J, but at no point in our discussion did I mention taste as a reason for my preferences. What I did highlight was a study done on strawberries in which organic strawberries were found to have a statistically significant higher percentage of phytochemicals and antioxidants than their conventional form. The organic form also had a lower water/weight ratio (perhaps this is why some people make the very subjective observation that they taste better), a LONGER shelf life (due to less water in the fruit to lose), and left behind soil on the farms in better shape than the conventional methods. I got the keyboard all wet with my tears when we last talked, so I know Dr. J never opened the link, so here it is again, for anyone interested: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012346 (to be fair, Dr. J did not open the link because he is busy and I did not do a good enough job of having him read what I actually wrote instead of what he assumed I was writing.)
I also want to address the content of my first correspondence with Dr. J on this issue as I saw it versus how he saw it, as this difference is something routine in our discussions, and I would bet, on this blog as well. Dr. J says “your email is redolent of religiousness(“I still think that….”.) and I suspect (suspect) that your logic isn’t one, that it’s also a typical assertion of religious belief.” Yes, we talked about this being a religious type of issue probably 1.5 hours before I sent over my email. I agreed! It was not an “an invitation to invite [you] to join [my]church”! I presented 4 studies and summarized them, then gave my personal thoughts about them in relation to the topic. You wouldn’t like my church anyway, we put honey in our wheat bread.
From what I have been able to turn up in published studies: 1.) No evidence that GMO foods are harmful, however, there is evidence that they cause organisms to develop differently. This may or may not be good, if anything at all. 2.) Organic foods contain higher nutrient levels. 3.) Organic foods have few if any pesticide residues.
I’m going to end it there, in the hopes that someone else will feel inclined to join in. Also, my vision is beginning to blur from wetness.
France Does not Export Wines, nor Mexico Guacamole, nor Does the US Import Cars, etc. “National Competitiveness” for the Intelligent Ignorant
It’s national election season again. As always happens in this season, in every developed country, the old battle horse of national competitiveness gets a news coat of shiny paint and is led out by its sparkle- strewn tether to support politicians misconceptions and mis-talks. There is a very widespread misconception that nourishes unreasonable thoughts and false notions on the economy.
Sorry but at this time,in this season, I feel a compulsion to resort to teaching, so, pay attention. There might be a quiz.
The misconception: Countries, (or “nation-states”) such as the US, Canada, Mexico, Belgium, or France don’t compete with each other like soccer teams, for example, compete against each other. In soccer, when one team wins a point, the other team loses a point. When the economy of one country picks up speed however, it is not (NOT) the case that the economy of another country (or of several countries) must slow down. The reverse is true. When the Mexican economy grows, some Mexicans are better able to buy American corn, or American video games, making some Americans richer than would be the case if the Mexican economy stagnated.
The confusion has three sources. The first source is simply ignoring that the producers of one country are also potential customers for the producers of all other countries. Those who compete with American workers, are often also buyers of American-made products. If they are not at the moment, the richer they become, the more likely they are to become buyers. One of the international functions of those who compete with American producers is thus to enrich American producers, perhaps different ones. The relationship may be more indirect. Foreign worker A competes with American worker B and he uses the money he gets from beating B to buy from American worker C. If I am C, my interests are not well lined up with those of my fellow American B. That’s a fact, no matter what politicians say in the language of football. However, if I am American worker C, in the long run, I am better off if fellow American worker B becomes richer than if he does not. For one thing, he will be able to support better equipments, such as schools, from which I will profit.
This is counterintuitive, difficult for people to understand because there is even more international indirectness to the process. It goes like this: When Mexicans earn more money, they buy more Korean products; Koreans use the additional income they receive from Mexicans to buy more American products. The principle is the same: the richer my neighbors, and my neighbors’ neighbors, the more they are able to become my customers. If you want to find out about the intricacies of this matter written for non-specialists, you might want to look at my series of essay on this blog with the word “protectionism” in the title.
The second source of confusion is the idea, widespread among Americans, that the US does not export anything anymore.It stands to reason that you shouldn’t play exchange games if you don’t produce anything that others want to buy. The idea is simply false. Depending on the ever-changing price of crude oil, the US is one of the countries that exports the most in most years. It ranks usually number one, two, three or four.
In 2010 or in 2011, I am too lazy to check, exports from the US amounted to $7,000 for each woman, child and man, not peanuts, for sure. I also asserted that the US is usually number one worldwide in exports of manufactures, specifically.
The third source of confusion is the verbal short-cut that many or most commentators take to talk about exports and imports. That one is a source of persistent and highly significant fallacies from a practical standpoint. By way of introduction, below are five statements about international trade. Three are false, one might or might not be true. One is true.
a) France exports wines;
b) the US imports cars from Japan;
c) Mexico exports guacamole;
d) China produces and exports steel;
e) Kuwait exports petroleum.
The problem is one of identifying the relevant actors. It’s an important problem because it has big implications for action, for political action in particular. When you name a country, a nation-state, there is a strong tendency to think in terms of that country as a polity, as a political system. This is usually further reduced in turn to its government. Thus: “In 1939, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany.” Or: “The US does not allow most Mexicans to stay ion its territory indefinitely.”
The answers to the quiz:
France does not export wines. French economic actors that are not creatures of the French nation-state in any way, shape or form, produce and export wine.
The US, a country, a nation-state, does not import any cars. American individual and corporate car buyers import cars through companies that are non-governmental in every sense of the word.
Mexico does note export guacamole. Just to say that aloud tells you how ridiculous it is. Dozens of private Mexican companies, maybe hundreds, export guacamole to the US. None of these is in any way connected to the Mexican government except in the trivial ways that they may be regulated and that they pay taxes. (Or probably not either.)
Steel is produced in China by companies that approximate the legal and regulatory status of private companies found in the West. Steel is also produced in China by companies owned, lock-stock and barrel by the Chinese government or by one of its branches, such as the Red Army, in particular. Thus, when an American company, or a Mexican company, receives a shipment of steel from China, the steel my have been made in privately-owned plants or in government-owned plans or the shipment may contain steel of both origins
All the petroleum produced in Kuwait belongs to the Kuwaiti government. Exports of such oil are therefore Kuwaiti government exports. It is true that Kuwait exports petroleum products in the quiz above. It’s the only true statement in the quiz.
Why do we care about these unusual distinctions? The short answer is that it’s important to know against whom or what you compete. It’s important also to know against whom or what you don’t compete. And, strategically, you don’t want to play in a three actor-game as if there were only two players instead. You don’t want to oversimplify. Here is an example of why:
Year ago, leaders in the California wine industry approached the federal government to ask for redress in the following situation: American wines (80% from California) were hit with a one dollar a bottle duty when they entered the European Union while EU wines met with no such obstacle in the US. (Tech note: an import duty is a tax raised on foreign products only. It gives domestic products an advantage of cost in the domestic market.)
California wine producers were in effect telling the federal government:
“You represent us. Get the EU to cancel the duty or raise an equivalent duty on EU wine entering the US.” Sounds reasonable, right?
The federal government’s response was a curt “No.”
Can you figure why?
If it were really countries that competed, there could not have been this kind of disjunct between the wishes of California wine producers and the actions of the US government. They, the California wine producers, compete hard with French and Italian and Spanish wine producers (all in the EU). It does not mean that the US and several EU countries compete. If I am a steel worker who drinks wine, for example, I want the best man to win in the competition between EU and American wine producers. Or, I may prefer American producers to know that I am absolutely paying a premium for this preference. This is a respectable choice but you have to know, it’s undeniable that it costs you.
Briefly: There are a couple of important exceptions to these related stories: When Boeing and Airbus go head-to-head to sell planes to a South African airline, it’s pretty true that the United States, the country, is one of the competitors. Do you see why?
In general, don’t just assume that countries compete economically. Instead, ask yourself what or who in which country competes with what or whom in which country. In most cases, you will find that the answers have no implications for what the government should do, with one exception: More education and better education are always fine bets. In fact, they are fine bets even if they contribute nothing to anyone’s competitiveness against anyone.