Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dead pests, dead weeds, altered ecosystems

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: It is no exaggeration to say that genetically altered seeds have changed the ecosystems where they are used. Here in mid-Missouri, the genetically altered soybeans and corn planted in every field have created an ecosystem so accustomed to being sprayed with Roundup that the weeds are immune to it. One of the weeds, ragweed, is most immune and with the biggest impact on humans. Of all allergens, ragweed makes the most people suffer. And now it can’t be killed with a spray that’s relatively easy to use. Now people, town and country people, will have to use a more dangerous spray. 2,4D, the herbicide that Dow and Monsanto want to use now, has already proven itself deadly to humans. It is connected with cancers and Parkinson’s disease. Both of these, rare 50 years ago, are rampant in society now. The V.A. sees patients every day with Parkinson’s, victims of the U.S. use of 2,4 D during the Vietnam War. The genetically altered seeds (also called genetically engineered (GE), genetically modified organisms (GMO), or transgenic) are sometimes modified to put a pesticide in every cell. That way, bugs that attack the plant will be killed. For corn, rootworm is a problem, so the corporations have put pesticide in the cells from root to tassel. Including, as you might guess, the kernels that are harvested to be fed to cattle, ethanol plants, and us. So when we eat that corn, we’re eating a poison that kills other creatures. What does that do to us? No clue, because it hasn’t been tested. When California activists started working to pass a law to require labeling of GMO foods, they uncovered some tests that had been run in other countries, and that showed liver problems and blood problems in rats. But the U.S. doesn’t respect those tests and there’s no money for labs to run tests here. We need to talk more about this. Tomorrow . . .

Friday, February 1, 2013

Editorial: Gun-Shy Democrats

Some Democratic members of Congress aren’t ready to sign off just yet on the gun control package supported by President Obama and Democratic leaders. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has drafted an ambitious bill that would re-enact much of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, outlawing more than 150 types of semi-automatic weapons with military-style features, as well as high-capacity magazines capable of carrying more than 10 rounds.

As sensible as Feinstein’s bill may appear to many of us, it has no Republican co-sponsors and it is highly unlikely to get the 60 votes it will need to clear the Senate, much less get a favorable hearing in the Republican-controlled House.

So the only reason for Democrats to bring up such a bill this year is to get members of Congress on the record on gun control so they can use that stance in the next election. The last time that happened, in 1994, President Bill Clinton convinced Democratic leaders in Congress to push through a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity magazines holding more than 10 bullets. House Speaker Tom Foley, Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas) warned Clinton that the assault weapons ban would cost many Democrats their seats. “Jack [Brooks] was convinced that if we didn’t drop the ban, the NRA would beat a lot of Democrats by terrifying gun owners,” Clinton remembered in his memoir, My Life.

Clinton noted, “Foley, Gephardt, and Brooks were right and I was wrong.” In that year’s election, Democrats lost eight Senate seats and 54 House seats, including Foley’s and Brooks’s, as Republicans took control in both chambers.

That was the same election in which George W. Bush defeated Gov. Ann Richards, who had angered gun enthusiasts with her veto of a bill to let private individuals carry concealed weapons. The Democratic penchant for gun control has proven a potent wedge to drive the formerly Democratic rural vote into the Republican column ever since.

Democrats already have lost many of those marginal rural districts, in Texas and elsewhere, but the survivors shouldn’t be expected to embrace a bill that is anathema to their constituents, particularly when it has no chance of passing.

Democrats might be able to pass a bill requiring universal background checks for gun buyers, but probably not much else. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who sports an “A” rating from the NRA, surprised some gun control advocates when he came out in favor of universal background checks for gun buyers, including those at gun shows. That’s not so much of a stretch, as a nationwide poll by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research showed 89% of respondents (and 74% of NRA members) support universal background checks. The survey also showed 70% of respondents supported bans on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

But neither that poll, nor other recent polls showing wide margins in favor of assault weapons bans, break down respondents into urban, suburban and rural areas. The National Gun Policy Survey in 2001 found that 65.2% of rural residents had a gun in the household, compared with 35.3% in towns, 29.5% in suburbs and 21.7% in cities, and that same survey found that 57% of urban residents supported gun controls over the right to own guns while 63% of rural residents supported gun rights over controls. Our own anecdotal data suggests that residents of rural areas and small towns are still more protective of those gun rights than their urban cousins.

[Editor's Note: After this was written, we discovered a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. Poll conducted Dec. 17-18, 2012, that sampled 620 people nationwide and found the same level of 13% support for "no restrictions on guns" among urban, surburban and rural respondents, and 66% support for some restrictions in cities, 71% in suburbs and 79% in rural areas, but the sample was so small, the margin of error (from +/- 5% in the suburbs to +/- 8.5% among rural respondents) and the results at such a wide variance from past polls that we discount it.]

If you want to pass more restrictive gun controls, start working on Republicans in suburban districts, which appear to be the prime targets for disaffected youths who turn up in public places with semiautomatic weapons. And work for common sense in state laws.

Supreme Court decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010) that affirmed the individual right to a gun for home defense sent mixed signals on whether the state may restrict the carrying of arms outside the homes. The wording of the Second Amendment may be ambiguous, but the phrase “well-regulated militia” has long been recognized to give the states and federal government authority to regulate the public use of firearms and the ownership of high-powered weapons.

We think the states have become too lax in the issuance of licenses to allow concealed handguns. Most states require little or no training to carry a concealed weapon. For example, Texas requires applicants to take a 10-hour class and pass a written exam as well as a shooting exam to show basic proficiency, and clear a background check. And the shooting exam only requires the applicant to hit the fixed target on 70% of shots, which hardly qualifies the licensee for a shootout with an armed “bad guy.” And gun rights activists are pushing hard for a federal reciprocity law, which passed the House in 2011, which would require states to recognize each others’ concealed handgun licenses.

The rise in concealed weapons licenses as well as “Stand Your Ground” laws, which provide tacit encouragement for gun carriers to brandish their weapon rather than retreat and call the police, have led to tragic results, most prominently in the case of Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was shot to death Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Fla., by a vigilante who assumed Martin was a potential prowler and confronted him about it.

States should require gun owners seeking a concealed-weapon permit not only to get more weapons training, but they also should be required to show proof of liability insurance in case their stray shots hit innocent bystanders. Car owners are required to show proof of insurance to get their car registered and we should expect no less from people who insist on their right to carry guns. After all, good intentions won’t make up for poor marksmanship or reckless reaction when it comes to paying hospital bills of the wounded.

Missed Opportunity for Reform

President Obama gave a great second inaugural address, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s filibuster reform package fell far short of expectations. The new rule makes it marginally easier to get a bill to the Senate floor or a vote on presidential nominees. But it still allows the Republicans to stop all legislation and nominations that don’t have 60 supporters and it still doesn’t require opponents to explain their opposition, much less require them to keep on their feet talking about it.

Much of the blame is getting dumped on Reid, but we think he found himself working a Democratic caucus with many senators who liked the old system or opposed the stronger “talking filibuster” proposal that also would require filibuster supporters to keep 41 supporters on the Senate floor, rather than the current rule that requires filibuster opponents to keep 60 votes on the floor. In this case, he was more of a Majority Vote Counter than Majority Leader, but that is the nature of the beast that is the Democratic caucus.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) put up a good fight for reform, but several Democratic senators were concerned that reforming the filibuster could backfire on them next time Republicans take over Congress. However, we believe that recent power grabs by Republicans at the state level show they are entirely willing to push aside all precedents and appeals to fairness and ride roughshod over the minority when it helps them enact their agenda. They’ll do away with the filibuster in a New York minute if they find an advantage in its demise.

With the House in Republican hands, Democrats cannot expect to pass any really progressive bills anyway, but the filibuster could become critical when it comes to filling judicial and bureaucratic positions that require Senate approval. If Republicans continue to obstruct Obama’s appointments, and a recent decision by the US Court of Appeals in D.C. stands that invalidates recess appointments by the president, the Democratic majority may be forced to revisit the rules in mid-session. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2013
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Selections from the February 15, 2013 issue

Illustration by Kevin Kreneck / Click to enlarge

Thursday, January 31, 2013

What farmers were thinking

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes:

        Back in 1996, when genetically altered soybeans were introduced to farmers, they found buyers immediately. In my county, the introduction came at the annual "Crop and Soils Conference" where we were used to hearing how much soil was being lost through erosion due to plowing every year to plant corn, wheat, milo, soybeans--Missouri's big four.
        The presentation, by a woman that sold Pioneer seeds, was sponsored by the University Extension, and farmers learned that through genetic engineering they could kill all the weeds in the field with herbicide, and plant seeds that resisted the herbicide. The seeds would put up plants that were vigorous and made a lot of beans. Since the weeds were killed by herbicide, plowing would be minimized and erosion would disappear.
        I was at the first meeting and I remember farmers asking, "What about weeds becoming resistant to the herbicide (which was Roundup)" and the extension agents sitting mutely when the Pioneer seed lady answered, "We're working on that."
        The seeds that first year were cheap and the only guy that really lost out was the guy that owned the big seed-cleaning business in the county. He told me, "Margot. That first year, my seed-cleaning business went to zero."
        So, in one year, farmers stopped saving seeds and began buying patented genetically altered seeds from industry. They expected to get dead weeds, less erosion, less work and better yields.
        Today, they've got weeds that resist Roundup and the potential of seeds engineered to resist more potent herbicides. The herbicides being touted today--2,4-D and dicamba--create cancer and Parkinson's in humans.
        What a bad trade.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Biotech and D.C. Lobbyists

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: After reading about the Biotech Riders proposed for the new farm bill, you might wonder why any of our public servants—namely the House and Senate Ag Committees—would vote to send it on to the full body for a vote. Especially with such horrible health implications, suggested at such a high public cost. If 2,4D corn and soybeans are approved, for example, we’ll have an epidemic of Parkinson’s Disease similar to the epidemic among soldiers that came home from Vietnam after handling the stuff. In that case, it was part of the war effort, sprayed to defoliate the jungles so Americans could see where the VietCong were hiding. But if farmers start using it on fields, it will be used to kill American weeds, get into American water, sicken American farmers. But I digress. The answer to the question, “why would anyone vote for the Biotech Riders?” is “Lobbying.” According to Sourcewatch, the biotech companies have paid big bundles to get these riders into the farm bill. And that lobbying started back in 2009, just after the last farm bill was passed. The lobbyist, says Sourcewatch, was Stanley H. Abramson. Monsanto then started its own lobbyist firm and ramped up efforts in 2011. Sourcewatch says, “On its in house lobbying reports for the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2011, Monsanto reports lobbying on "Biotech Regulations, Roundup Ready Alfalfa, Roundup Ready Sugarbeets, Plant Protection Act" to the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Trade Representative. The amounts spent on lobbying by Monsanto for those quarters were $1,710,000, $2,010,000, and $1,210,000, respectively. Monsanto also paid Russell and Baron, Inc./The Russell Group, Inc. $60,000 during each of the three quarters for lobbying on "Biotech Acceptance; Agriculture, Competition, and Related Issues; Advocacy for Plant Protection Act concerns" to the House, Senate, and USDA.” So, see, if you can spend that kind of dough, you can get most anything done. But, as 2011 waned, Monsanto got new help. Dow Chemical started to kick in, and there might have been a few bucks spent by the Farm Bureau, that urban insurance company, just trying to wave the flag. And, says Sourcewatch, the benign-sounding American Nursery and Landscape Association paid lobbyists “for lobbying on plant protection issues in the farm bill.” In 2012, the spending got more intense, of course, as public servants started to actually work on the bill, with millions going into somebody’s pockets. You might wonder why they ramped up the fight. Time’s Winged Chariot drawing near, as the poet says, and Farmers in Tractors catching on. Farmers are trying to get away from the corporate seed loop, see, and turning to other ways to farm. Some farmers are even trying to figure out how to win in court over corporate breach of promise. What was the promise? We’ll look at that tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Biotech replacing nature

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Part of the “Biotech Rider” in the new farm bill would prevent environmental analysis on the new genetically altered crops being planned by corporations, except the environmental analysis laid out in the Plant Protection Act. That act was written by corporations for USDA to follow. If the Rider is approved, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be unable to comment on the introduction of genetically altered salmon to fish farms, even though EPA knows that it’s just a matter of time before GMO salmon escape into the wild and out-compete the normal salmon. To make it even more difficult for mother nature, the money spent by USDA for analysis of the new crop can only be used for analysis required by the Plant Protection Act. This section is only useful if there’s someone that wants to do further analysis, of course. Someone in the academic community, say. But, really, here’s what they’d have to go through, besides getting money from someplace to do analysis. They’d have to get ahold of the seeds, chemicals and land for the experiment, then plant the seeds, apply the chemicals, harvest and analyze the damage to the environment. Really, who could do this? Why bother to put this paragraph in at all? Then, to make it even faster to approve new biotech crops, the writers have penned Section 10014 in which Congress demands a report from USDA to demonstrate that they have reduced “regulatory burdens on research” to get new seeds in the pipeline, “with special emphasis on minor use crops, orphan crops, and sources of protein.” And, if a “category of product…” has already been approved, they should be able to fast track according to this section. Further, the USDA is responsible for “developing and implementing a cohesive national policy for the low-level presence of agronomic biotechnology material in crops, including grain and other commodity crops, for food, feed, and processing." Meaning, ya know, there won’t be any non-GMO crops left on the planet.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A constant thread of anti-intellectualism runs through the mass media.  Mass media writers seem to embrace anti-intellectual assumptions: They pretend that simple math is hard.
They call good students “over-achievers” and “nerds” (a derogatory term now embraced by many who are academically inclined, just as many GLBT has embraced“queer”).  “Smart” characters such as the four fictional “Big Bang” scientists are depicted as inept with women, uncool and uncoordinated.  Sciencewriters demean their own profession. 
Today’s New York Times Book Review provides a stunning example of anti-intellectualism embedded into the premise of an article. It’s in a book review of a biography of the 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge.  Muybridge, whose eccentricities bordered on madness, is known for setting up a row of cameras to take a series of photographs that showed how a horse runs. His work helped to develop the conceptual framework for motion pictures, which are created by taking photographs so fast that when played back one after another at the speed they were taken will produce the illusion of movement.

Here is how the book reviewer, Candace Millard, opens her piece: 
Genius, it seems, is almost always accompanied by eccentricity, if not madness. Those rare instances of genuine brilliance that we find scattered throughout history — in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, the mathematical equations of John Nash — often appear to have come at great cost to the minds that produced them. The work of Eadweard Muybridge is no exception.

Setting aside the question of whether Muybridge is a case of genuine brilliance or just a good and innovative photographer, let’s examine this paragraph: Millard uses the common propaganda trick of selecting only the details that help her case. She lists a composer, painter and mathematician. But what about Bach, Picasso and Isaac Newton? These men were all quite happy and completely normal. Or Mozart, Titian and Bertrand Russell (who, BTW, was quite the ladies’ man)? Or Charles Ives, Turner and Gauss?  Interestingly enough, in the case of the painters and mathematicians, the names I have thrown out are usually considered to be much more important---greater geniuses—than the ones who Millard uses to try to make her case.

Yes some geniuses have lived unhappy lives or suffered from mental illness. Others like Albert Einstein have had their small eccentricities, but so do we all.

It is just not true, however, that “genius is almost always accompanied by eccentricity, if not madness,” as Millard states. In insisting on this point and then graduating Muybridge to the top rank of intellects to provide additional proof of it, Millard continues the long-time American myth of the mad or cursed genius.

As a piece of fiction, the mad genius works well in a classic Aristotelian way, because like the fictional Nash in the 2001 movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” the genius is undone by himself, a case of twisted hubris.  But it’s no more than a myth, as false and odious as the myth that Jews or Chinese are smart or that African-Americans are not.

The myth of the mad genius is part of the ideology of anti-intellectualism that the mass media, owned by the wealthy and corporations controlled by the wealthy, promulgate on an almost daily basis.  I’m going to speculate that the mass media keep the myth of the mad genius and other manifestations of anti-intellectualism alive  because denigration of intellectual activity is a form of social control. The media and its owners want people to focus on buying stuff. They want people’s minds to remain undeveloped, so that they become good little sheep-like consumers. They want the intellectual to be an outsider, someone off in his own little world that has nothing to do with the bigger more important world of mindless consumerism.

The media owners may also want to reserve the top jobs for their own kind, which is hard to do in a meritocracy unless you can discourage poor kids from seeking true knowledge in school (as opposed to credentials). They want a world in which money and not knowledge rules.

Strange apples

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: As we’ve seen, the modern corporation doesn’t raise money and power from investors. Instead, the modern corporation has a staff dedicated to moving money and power from the government to themselves. That means moving money and power from we the people, dear citizen. As you remember, the 2012 Farm Bill was not passed in 2012. Instead, the 2008 Farm Bill was extended. It will cover agriculture and food until September, by which time a new farm bill must be passed. You’re probably seeing Op-Eds in the press saying “remove food from the farm bill,” by which they mean they want taxpayers to stop paying for food stamps and school lunches. Farming, to these corporate writers, is about ethanol and exports. One of the things they do want in the Farm Bill is a set of “Biotech Riders” in sections 10011, 10013, and 10014 in the House version. This so-called Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012 contains a bunch of provisions. In Section 10011, for example, the act puts pressure on U.S.D.A. to approve genetically engineered crops within a year of seeing them. If they need more time, they can ask for 180 more days. This evaluation includes such things as environmental impact of the new crop, pest risk assessment, effect of its self-contained pesticide and anything else that would make it dangerous to nature. Of course, those of us that live surrounded by these crops and their altered set of weeds know that it takes more than a year for a GMO crop to change the entire ecosystem. GMO soybeans engineered to resist Roundup, an herbicide, have now created 25 species of weeds that can’t be killed by Roundup. But it took a few years for farmers to see the result. By the way, if U.S.D.A. doesn’t meet the one-year rule, the crop is automatically ruled as “not a plant pest.” And, if this part of the bill passes, USDA has only 90 days “to complete its review of any biotech crop that has already applied for deregulation under the Plant Protection Act . . .” That means that a slew of new crops, including human food crops with new genes in them, will be approved despite consumer uproar. There’s a list of these strange new crops on the web at The list includes new kinds of potatoes, soybeans, cotton, canola, corn and an apple with flesh that doesn’t turn brown with damage or age. And we’ll be looking at more of these “Biotech Riders” and their impact on us as eaters and farmers all week.

Those opposed to greater gun control don’t realize giving up rights is what civilization is all about.

By Marc Jampole
“We give up our rights one piece at a time,” a West Virginia banker named Charlie Houck stated to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin recently during a meeting the Senator was holding in Beckley, WV on gun control.
Yes, we do, Mr. Houck.
Let’s go over some of the many rights we have already given up, one piece at a time:
We’ve given up the right to force ourselves sexually on other people.
We’ve given up the right to murder someone else.
We’ve given up the right to abuse children.
We’ve given up the right to take anything we want from anyone too weak to defend her or himself.
We’ve given up the right to drive an automobile without insurance or a license. We’ve given up the right to just keep driving—speed limits, red lights and stop signs deter us.
We’ve given up the right not to hire someone just because she or he is a racial or ethnic minority, a woman, disabled or gay.
We’ve given up the right to sell food that’s spoiled or adulterated or to sell products that don’t meet safety standards. Or to sell products that don’t do what the sellers say they will do.
We’ve given up the right to burn down our neighbor’s home.
We’ve given up the right to steal words and images that other people created and say that we did it.
I could go on and on for pages about the rights we no longer have, some of which we gave up millennia ago, some of which we gave up before recorded history.
And I for one am delighted that all these rights have gone, because without these restrictions on rights and hundreds of others, we—the people—could not have a civil society. Civilization is all about restricting rights.  When we are part of society, we agree to restrict our rights for the greater good and to protect ourselves from the harm that others would inflict on us if they exercised those “rights.” It’s called the social compact.
Rights change over time. In the past, many societies, including much of the United States, had the right to own slaves.  No more, thank goodness.   Through most of the history of the United States, employers had the right to hire children, work them long hours and pay them pennies.  No more, thank goodness.
Many of these restrictions evolved as society changed. For example, when automobiles first came out, there were no rules of the road, no stop signs, no red or yellow lights, no speed limits. But soon there were so many cars around, we had to develop rules and we had to require that those operated cars have insurance.
Often we give up one set of rights to gain another one, or some people gain rights at the expense of others. For example, when minorities and women gradually gained workplace rights, racist and misogynist employers lost the right to discriminate. And it’s a damn good thing they did!
At this point in time, only extremists (like me) want to outlaw private ownership of guns. What mainstream organizations and elected officials are asking for is to restrict the absolute right to own and carry a gun—for the safety of society. What’s so problematic about requiring that there is a background check before all gun sales? Why should anyone have a problem with restricting the right to carry a loaded weapon in public places such as college campuses, hospitals and schools? Why should gun owners object to paying insurance to cover the damage done to people in gun violence?  
And why can’t pro-gun extremists see the necessity of outlawing a type of weapon responsible for most of the mass murders in the United States, a weapon that, as Senator Manchin has noted in the past, is not used by hunters or target shooters?
As society evolves, we—the people—uncover more rights we have to give up and more rights to give to ourselves. That’s called progress. We already have given up the 18th century views of women’s rights, slavery and intellectual property. It’s about time that we progressed from our 18th century mindset when it comes to guns.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

God and nuclear power

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Missouri’s largest utility, Ameren UE, was counting on a federal grant to work with Westinghouse to create little reactors to provide electricity for smaller markets. So, say, a town could buy one instead of having to rely on a huge nuke plant. The end result would be lots of little nuke plants—infrastructure contaminated with nuclear waste—something we have no idea how to get rid of. So, we should be glad that they didn’t get the grant. If these little plants are such a great idea, Ameren UE should get investors to back them. But, no, says my state senator, God wants him to change the law so that regular customers can pay for Westinghouse’s invention. My state senator, Mike Kehoe, a former car salesman, e-mails letters to us during the session. This week, it began with a paragraph regarding Roe V. Wade (he’s against it) and the following: “As I listened to last Sunday’s sermon on Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana, I was struck by the deacon’s insights on how relevant Mary’s words remain today. In John 2:5 she simply and briefly articulated to the servants a profound truth: ‘Do whatever He tells you’. . . we first have to do what He tells us to do. “ One of the things God told Mike to do this week was to file SB 207 to change a law that requires Ameren UE to pay for development with money they raise from investors or the government. God would then raise rates on customers that might not even see the benefit.