The New Yorker wants to give up on food politics

The New Yorker has a decent article on the organic food industry, reviewing a couple new books (including Michael Pollan's, the guy who wrote that New York Times Magazine feature I criticized for a remarkably weak argument against vegetarianism. As we discussed in the comments, even tho Pollan is a human supremacist he's also an environmentalist and pro-organic). These books look closely at the organic industry and call into question how promising it is as a force for change when it has openly embraced market logic, pursues an agriculture model of monoculture and long-distance, energy-intensive transport to market, and features a questionable commitment to the principles it loudly proclaims in its marketing. I especially liked this:
[Pollan bought] an "organic" chicken whose "free-range" label was authorized by U.S.D.A. statutes, but which actually shared a shed with twenty thousand other genetically identical birds. Two small doors in the shed opened onto a patch of grass, but they remained shut until the birds were five or six weeks old, and two weeks later Pollan’s "free range" chicken was a $2.99-a-pound package in his local Whole Foods.
Yet after examining all the problems with the organic industry in a spirit sympathetic to sustainable environmentalism, the writer unexpectedly turns on us. He writes:
Pollan seems aware of the contradictions entailed in trying to eat in this rigorously ethical spirit, but he doesn’t give much space to the most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: how to feed the world’s population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a serious scare about an imminent Malthusian crisis: the world’s rapidly expanding population was coming up against the limits of agricultural productivity. The Haber-Bosch process [manufacturing synthetic fertilizers] averted disaster, and was largely responsible for a fourfold increase in the world’s food supply during the twentieth century. Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, was despised by organic farmers, but he might not have been wrong when he said, in 1971, that if America returned to organic methods "someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve!" According to a more recent estimate, if synthetic fertilizers suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, about two billion people would perish.
As usual, this argument is made without considering the incredibly inefficient uses of grain caused by meat eating. Depending on the animal and the livestock farming methods, eating animals uses 7-10 times more grain than feeding people directly. 70-80 percent of corn, the biggest grain crop in the USA, is used to feed animals. So ending meat consumption, or even significantly reducing it, would free up a huge amount of cropland that could be used for organic farming, which is less efficient in the short term but far more sustainable in the long term.

Of course in many ways the American agriculture system is unique in the world (tho, disastrously, market penetration and increased meat eating are leading many countries to adopt it). So the contradiction between feeding everyone and the urgent need for sustainable agriculture isn't quite as easily solved globally as it could be in the American case. The author of this article seems to think that we should simply give up, especially in light of the fact that "[t]o insist that we are consuming not just salad but a vision of society isn’t wrong, but it’s biting off more than most people are able and willing to chew."

Yet simply because markets and dysfunctional politics insulate people from the destructive consequences of their eating doesn't mean we should quit trying to change things. Two key reforms in addition to reducing meat consumption are needed. First, prices need to reflect the ecological damage caused by different kinds of consumption so that people can start making choices that are socially and environmentally rational. This would handily fix the problem of people not caring about the consequences of their eating. Of course markets are incapable of delivering such prices, so a new system of taxes and regulations on energy, petrochemicals, monoculture cropping, and meat production is needed as we move towards an economy like parecon that is friendly to this kind of cost accounting.

Second, I think the left needs to start thinking seriously about population control. I have a lot of bad associations with population control, like the coercive policies of China and many other countries or the tendency of advocates from the rich countries to blame the world's problems on population increase in poor countries when high levels of consumption in the rich countries are actually more destructive. Yet I think there's potential in a progressive approach to population control, as shown in the Indian province of Kerala, by emphasizing women's empowerment and economic equality. This is something we need to think about if we want to achieve global equality by increasing the material standard of living of poor people rather than dramatically lowering it for rich people.


Nationalism and competitiveness

To: Brent Staples
Re: "Why American College Students Hate Science"

You write:
"[If we don't prioritize the training of scientists], America is unlikely to preserve its privileged position in an increasingly competitive and science-based global economy."

Since you frequently and insightfully write about race in America, I was surprised and disappointed by this line of argument. Would you accept a white person who called on other whites to train white students in order to outcompete other races? I doubt it - I assume you'd argue that racial competition is harmful and leads to racial supremacy, that the answer is not intensified competition but an end to racism and the establishment of real equality.

Is there a difference between this kind of competitive racial thinking and the nationalism you draw on to make your argument? Is fighting to keep your nation on top really any different from fighting to keep your race on top? Is American supremacy any less objectionable than white supremacy?


Why the US alliance with Israel?

A long-running debate on the left has been revived by the controversial report "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Why is the US alliance with Israel so strong?

It's a puzzling question because the level of commitment the USA has given Israel is without comparison. The USA devotes about one-fifth of its total foreign aid budget to Israel and Israel has been the leading recipient of foreign aid every year since 1976, for a total of $140 million since World War II (cited in Mearsheimer and Walt). Mearsheimer and Walt succinctly demolish the idea that the reason for these incredible levels of support has anything to do with the moral superiority of Israel, and they throw into question strategic rationales for the alliance. Their answer is that the incredible influence of the Israel lobby over foreign policy is responsible for the alliance.

Mearsheimer and Walt, two leading academic proponents of foreign policy "realism", argue that American interests are not served by the alliance with Israel, and that the Israel lobby distorts America's rational self-interest. Many people on the left basically agree, and in addition to the moral imperative of ending support for the human rights violations of Israel, argue against the alliance.

But other leftists have a different explanation for the USA-Israel alliance. They argue that it's not the Israel lobby that explains the alliance, but the strategic necessities of American imperialism. Israel is a proxy for the United States in a region that the USA insists on dominating because of its unmatched energy resources. Norman Finkelstein makes this argument on ZNet. Michael Neumann responds to Finkelstein, arguing strongly against the idea of strategic interests driving American Israel policy, on Counterpunch.

The analytical disagreement on the left often falls along radical/liberal lines. Radicals tend to argue that deep structures (capitalism or the state) are driving foreign policy, whereas liberals tend to argue it's more individuals and ideology. The radical demand for revolutionary change follows from their argument, while the liberal prescription of convincing our leaders of their follies follows from theirs.

On Israel, the arguments break down similarly: liberals like Neumann say the alliance is just a result of the Israel lobby and that our leaders should recognize that the alliance is actually detrimental to national interests. Radicals like Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky say the alliance is actually a structural imperative, and if we want to help the Palestinians we have to fundamentally attack American imperialism and the very concept of national interests.

As to the merits of their arguments, Neumann overstates a number of his arguments to the point of disingenuousness. He tries to play down the strength of Israel, the unreliability of other regional American allies, and the precariousness of Gulf state elites. But Israel really is many times militarily stronger than any other state in the region. Popular feeling in Israel really does make it a far more dependable ally than any Arab state will ever be. And the grip on power of Gulf state elites is far more tenuous than Neumann acknowledges. This has been a constant concern of US planners for 60 years. Furthermore, statements like "The US relies on its fleet and can easily launch devastating attacks without any land bases at all" and "Egypt's instability would quickly vanish were it so lucky as Israel with American largesse, and were America to wean itself of its attachment to Israel" - are simply completely wrong.

On the other hand, he makes a good point: the USA really doesn't seem to be getting much out of Israel strategically. So why the alliance?

I don't think it's simply because of the Israel lobby. The China lobby, which supported the Guomindang against the Communists in the Chinese civil war, makes an instructive comparison. It was extremely powerful in Congress and counted many influential and wealthy people in its ranks, yet the USA dropped the Guomindang in an instant as soon as the strategic realities called for it.

Another interesting point is something Finkelstein mentions: before the 1967 war, the USA was pretty much indifferent to Israel, afterward it became one of America's most important allies almost immediately. This points strongly to something other than the Israel lobby at work. Chomsky argues the 1967 war showed Israel to be the preeminent military power in the region, and that's what made it newly attractive as an ally.

I do think the alliance is primarily strategic. Yet I'm not convinced that it's because Israel is useful for projecting American power. Israel probably is seen as a trump card in case anything really catastrophic for American domination of the region happens, but I’m not sure this is adequate to explain the extraordinary levels of support it receives. Despite the destabilizing effects of the alliance on the USA’s other regional client states that Neumann points out, planners may also be acting to actually stabilize the Middle East. By making Israel far stronger than any of its opponents, the Arab countries have been forced to give up the idea of starting another war. Israel has also long provided secret aid to American projects around the world, from training counterinsurgency forces in Central America to aiding covert American operations in the Middle East.

I’m not really satisfied with these answers either, and must admit that I can’t fully explain the alliance with Israel. But I will come down on the side of the radicals in that I don’t think American support for Israel can be separated from the larger question of American domination of the Middle East, and that we should oppose not only the Israel lobby but the idea of national interests itself, which animates the Mearsheimer and Walt critique and is at least exploited by otherwise humanitarian-minded liberals.


Those who criticize American human rights violations are "unpredictable and potentially dangerous"

Irani President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a long, polemical letter to George Bush two days ago, the first direct communication between the two governments’ leaders since 1979. Predictably, the Bush administration dismissed the letter because "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way" (Rice) and "it did not answer the main question that the world is asking, and that is, 'When will you get rid of your nuclear program?'" (Bush). The USA isn’t interested in dealing with any communication except one that announces capitulation to American demands.

The media have learned nothing from the Iraq debacle. Reporters immediately adopted the viewpoint of the US government, using polemical language to describe the letter ("screed" was popular, also "rambling", "diatribe"); highlighting those parts of it - condemnations of liberal democracy and Israel - least likely to get a receptive audience in the States; and devoting more space in their articles to American officials dismissing it than to what it had to say. (See The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today).

In typical condescension, to the extent the media took the letter seriously it was to gain insight into "their mentality" (The New York Times quoting a high official). ABC News said the letter "provides a fascinating and disturbing look into the mind of one of the world's most unpredictable and potentially dangerous leaders." USA Today took a look into that mind and found "a naive leader whose beliefs stem from resentment and ignorance of the Western world". Sally Buzbee, the AP's Chief of Middle East News concluded that "the Muslim world" remains fixated on "a long list of grievances" from as long as 50 years ago but that if Ahmadinejad "won't budge on the nuclear issue[,] it's going to be nearly impossible for anybody in the West ever really to talk with [him]."

It's interesting to see how the media impose this feeling of otherness on the US government's enemies. If you actually read the letter, you find some hypocrisy, a lot of problematic political philosophy - and a lot of very progressive stands on key issues that the media ignores because the US government doesn't talk about them.

Using the rhetorically powerful device of asking Bush whether Jesus would agree with the policies that Bush has pursued, Ahmadinejad raises the key issues he sees dividing the US and Iran. They include the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the torture of prisoners, Israel's human rights violations and American support for them, American opposition to the Irani nuclear program (which he casts as pursuit of technology rather than pursuit of nuclear weapons), American opposition to democratically elected governments in Palestine and Latin America, the coverup (he claims) of US government involvement in orchestrating 9/11, and the USA spending money on the military when it could be spent to address poverty. He writes:
If billions of dollars spent on security, military campaigns and troop movement were instead spent on investment and assistance for poor countries, promotion of health, combating different diseases, education and improvement of mental and physical fitness, assistance to the victims of natural disasters, creation of employment opportunities and production, development projects and poverty alleviation, establishment of peace, mediation between disputing states, and extinguishing the flames of racial, ethnic and other conflicts, were would the world be today?
He also lists a number of specific abuses committed by the USA against Iran:
the coup d'etat of 1953 and the subsequent toppling of the legal government of the day, opposition to the Islamic revolution, transformation of an Embassy into a headquarters supporting the activities of those opposing the Islamic Republic (many thousands of pages of documents corroborate this claim), support for Saddam in the war waged against Iran, the shooting down of the Iranian passenger plane, freezing the assets of the Iranian nation, increasing threats, anger and displeasure vis-a-vis the scientific and nuclear progress of the Iranian nation...
In every point here, with the sole exception of his implication that the US government was involved in the 9/11 attacks, Ahmadinejad is raising urgent and justified criticisms of the US government. More than a few Americans might agree with these criticisms, if they were ever made aware that Iran was making them. Instead the media and government write off what Iranis actually say as some sort of psychological problem and return to the matter at hand: preserving the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East for the USA and Israel.

Of course we shouldn't romanticize Ahmadinejad or the Irani government's resistance against American power - as the rest of the letter makes clear, Ahmadinejad is not approaching these issues from anything close to a progressive standpoint. Yet we should also be clear: it is the right of all states to acquire nuclear weapons if an aggressive, nuclear-armed imperialist power is threatening them. The United States, which is itself responsible for much of what's wrong in the Middle East, has no right to make demands on anyone in the region. Problems in the Middle East will persist as long as the many legitimate demands raised by Ahmadinejad continue to be ignored by the US government, media, and public.

Here's a shock

From The Washington Post, Projected Iraq War Costs Soar:
Even if a gradual troop withdrawal begins this year, war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to rise by an additional $371 billion during the phaseout, the report said, citing a Congressional Budget Office study. When factoring in costs of the war in Afghanistan, the $811 billion total for both wars would have far exceeded the inflation-adjusted $549 billion cost of the Vietnam War.


The environment under parecon

I've been reading Robin Hahnel's book Economic Justice and Democracy, which came out last year. The book has some interesting things to say about why libertarian socialists have failed in the past, a strong but not very detailed argument against markets, and one of the more complete responses to critics of participatory economics. But what I want to bring up here is his proposal for how parecon would institutionally deal with the environment.

For those unfamiliar with parecon, it's a proposal for a nonmarket, democratically-planned economy with nonhierarchical workplaces and an egalitarian distribution of incomes. Parecon proponents argue that it's also far more environmentally friendly than capitalism.

The reason markets are fundamentally incompatible with environmental sustainability is that prices are determined exclusively by agreement between the buyer and seller. That means that the ways production and consumption affect other people and the environment is structurally ignored. Thus the price of gasoline only takes into account oil companies' costs to extract, refine, and distribute gas - not the costs incurred by the people who breathe the fumes or the damage to poor Bangladeshis when global warming increases flooding.

A secondary problem with markets is that they're biased towards individual consumption and against collective consumption, which makes collective environmental solutions like public transit much harder to implement.

To the extent that the environmental movement has mobilized effectively, or that elites have begun to fear that wholesale environmental damage will endanger their lives or power, governments intervene in markets thru taxes and regulations to undo some of the environmental damage. But another feature of markets - their tendency to concentrate wealth - allows corporations to manipulate governments and inevitably environmental policies fall short.

Parecon structurally removes the power of corporations by decentralizing wealth and balancing the power of enterprises with that of consumers. It removes the obstacles to collective investment in environmental solutions thru democratic planning. But the key innovation Hahnel proposes is in how prices are determined for environmental damage. (Some knowledge of the participatory planning mechanism is needed to understand the following. A short overview is available here.)
In each iteration in the annual planning procedure there is an indicative price for every pollutant in every relevant region representing the current estimate of the damage, or social cost of releasing a unit of that pollutant into the region. What is a pollutant and what is not are decided by federations representing those who live in a region, who are advised by scientists employed in research and development operations run by the resident federation.... If a worker council located in an affected region proposes to emit x units of a particular polluntant they are "charged" the indicative price for that pollutant in that region times x, just like they are charged y times the indicative price of a ton of steel if they propose to use y tons of steel as inputs in their production process... The consumer federation for the relevant region looks at the indicative price for a unit of every pollutant that impacts the region and decides how many units it wishes to allow to be emitted. The federation can decide they do not wish to permit any units of a pollutant to be emitted: in which case no worker council operating in the region will be allowed to emit any units of that pollutant. But, if the federation decides to allow x units of a pollutant to be emitted in the region, then the regional federation is "credited" with x times the indicative price for that pollutant. (p. 198-199, italics in original)
So the process goes like this:
  1. In the first round of planning, a regional federation names what it considers pollutants and the upper limit of what it will tolerate in its region.
  2. Enterprises make requests for the kinds of pollution they plan on producing and are charged the first-round iterative price on those polluntants, just as they are for other inputs.
  3. If the total request on the amount of some pollutant in that region runs against the limit set by the regional federation, the Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) adjusts the iterative price upward for the next round to reflect a surplus of demand; if the total is lower than the federation limit, the price is adjusted downward. Regions receive consumption credits according to how much pollution they allow.
  4. Plans are adjusted in light of the new prices and the process continues thru subsequent rounds of planning.

To make it concrete, let's take some pollutant X as an example. The Kansas consumer federation determines that X's effects are most relevant at that level, and decrees that y tons of X are acceptable for the coming year. All enterprises calculate how much X they can afford to produce in light of the iterative prices supplied by the IFB, which took last year's price and adjusted it in light of projected trends. In the first round of planning we find that Kansas enterprises have proposed to produce twice as much X as what Kansas is willing to allow. Given the excess demand for X, the IFB now revises its price much higher, so that enterprises will look for other production techniques that produce less X and so that consumers will switch to products whose manufacture produces less X. (Consumer adjustments will actually take place in the round after producer adjustments since only in the round after reduced production proposals are submitted will the prices of those products go up to reflect lower supply for steady demand.)

In some ways this is a brilliant fix. It not only forces enterprises to take into account their environmental impact at the point of production and normalizes this as part of the production process rather than an as a form of external government interference. It also produces socially-determined prices for the pollution itself, balancing the benefits of pollution with its damage to people and - if there's an active environmental movement - other life. And it has the additional benefit of compensating those who tolerate greater pollution for their sacrifice.

Some questions I have:
  • Could the process be manipulated by federations? E.g., couldn't some federation name an innocuous industrial byproduct to be a pollutant and thereby reap consumption credits for that byproduct's release in its region?
  • Do higher-level regional federations pre'empt lower ones? If the Sichuan provincial federation says that X is not a pollutant but the Chengdu city federation disagrees, what happens?
  • Hahnel doesn't specify at what level the pollutant price is adjusted - is it adjusted for the whole economy, or for each different federation, yielding many different prices thruout the economy? Is either one of these problematic?
  • How does the "polluter pays" principle figure into the pollution caused not by producers but by consumers thru their use of products? The obvious example here is cars - how is car pollution accounted for? Would some surcharge imposed on gasoline be an adequate fix? How does the damage caused by second-hand smoke get factored into prices?
What do yous think about this proposal? Any answers to these questions? Any questions of your own?


Good thing I'm not running for office, because high gas prices make me happy

I'm a bit conflicted about gas prices. Whenever prices go up all the stories on how expensive gas is hurting average people starting showing up - like here and here, or this one on taxi drivers in Beijing.

Yet I also feel a certain sense of satisfaction when I read about how prices are finally forcing people to stop wasting gas and start considering different ways of moving around, or cutting down on frivolous car trips. It's important to see energy consumption in context. The process that makes car use possible - car manufacture and oil extraction, refining, and transportation - as well as the kind of (sprawling) cities that follow widespread car use exact a terrible toll on the environment. That is, the convenience of cars is bought at the price of the destroyed lives of huge numbers of animals and plants.

Car culture also exacts a severe toll on future generations, which will have to adapt to the possibly catastrophic effects of global warming and will have to deal with all the toxins associated with producing and using cars. Finally, keeping gas cheap also involves a long and bloody American foreign policy of propping up reactionary, authoritarian elites willing to sell their oil at US-determined "reasonable" prices and fighting wars to preserve American domination of the global oil industry.

Add to this the fact that many countries impose taxes on gas that raise prices to more than 2 times current American prices and the howls of pain we hear from Americans start to seem a little petty. Only massive sacrifices of the environment, foreign lives, and future generations have allowed Americans to enjoy low gas prices for so long. The sooner these terrible subsidies come to an end, the better.

The embarassing spectacle of Republicans' flailing attempts to buy off angry gas buyers - quickly withdrawn after business tugged on the reigns - has been matched by the Democrats' embarassing demagoguery on the gas price issue. Certainly the best way to deal with this would be for a powerful, radical environmental movement to lead a less painful transition to sustainable public transit as part of a larger shift to a more egalitarian economy and a progressive foreign policy. But since no such movement currently exists, high gas prices are probably the only thing that can force Americans out of their complacency. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed for $4/gallon - and higher - as soon as possible.


China's at it again, messing up all the human rights progress the USA is always making

From China's Leader Signs Oil Deals With Africans:
Unlike the United States, which often demands human rights improvements in exchange for trade deals, China takes the opposite approach.
I don't think I'm just being polemical when I say this - what the hell is he talking about? When has the USA demanded human rights improvements before signing trade deals? That's not just a rhetorical question - if someone can set me straight on this, please do. But I'm pretty sure that America has trade agreements with a good number of countries that boast atrocious human rights records.

It's a bad sign when reporters at the most liberal newspaper have already fallen into line behind the US propaganda line in the approaching cold war with China.

Btw, China's "opposite approach" turns out to be "the principle of noninterference in others' internal affairs", rather than what the phrasing would lead you to expect, that China demands increased human rights abuses before it signs trade deals.


May Day in China

Yesterday was International Workers Day, a public holiday in China. More than that, it's the beginning of one of China's three annual 金黄周/"golden weeks", official public holidays lasting 7 days. The others are 国庆节/National Day (starting October 1), celebrating the founding of 中华人民共和国/the People's Republic, and 春节/Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year, usually sometime in February), China's most important holiday. The fact that May Day merits inclusion in that illustrious company is a jarring reminder that the country is still nominally Communist.

Tho not much more than that. Even more than the USA's thoroughly domesticated Labor Day, May Day in China represents all those forces exploiting, disempowering, and marginalizing workers. Most of China's new middle classes get a week off work, using the time to pursue the consumerist dreams inculcated in them by the commercial forces that have overwhelmed China. Tourism is the most visible pursuit, as millions upon millions make for the beaches of 大连/Dalian and 青岛/Qingdao, the national monuments and famous parks of 北京/Beijing, the bright lights of 上海/Shanghai, or the natural wonders of Southwest China. Shopping is the next biggest priority, and shopping meccas like 香港/Hongkong or local centers like Beijing's 西单/Xidan and 王府井/Wangfujing are inundated with the winners from 改革开放/reform and opening.

The consumerist excesses of the holiday could hardly be possible without all those workers who serve the needs of the nouveaux riches. In a poignant reversal of May Day's original meaning, the most exploited workers are made to stay on the job in order to answer to the beck and call of moneyed few.

Meanwhile, as May Day becomes a ritual performance of China's class domination in the cities, the majority of the population looks on from the sidelines of the countryside, having gained too little from reform and opening to do anything but yearn for the consumerist visions that have established hegemony in China.