Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Collapse of a Colossus

It is tempting to view Detroit's downfall through the lens of Atlas Shrugged. Consider that: 1) Detroit's public sector grew not only big, but monstrous; 2) people who worked in that public sector became not just greedy, but avaricious; 3) most of them failed to understand why it was that the private sector goose was able to produce the golden eggs on which they feasted; and 4) of those who did understand, and therefore knew their sector's ways could kill the goose, many chose to shut their eyes and hope that reality could be postponed until they were no longer alive; but 5) reality eventually came down fast and harsh like the blade of a guillotine -- because as the great economist Herb Stein once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

In those ways, Detroit's actual world is strikingly similar to the fictional one depicted in Ayn Rand's libertarian fantasy -- and the similarities don't end there.

Just like the "producers" in Atlas Shrugged fled their home towns to establish a less restrictive community in the mountains, the job creators of Detroit have long since fled and relocated to places that are more friendly to business and less likely to punish success.

Just like the "looters" and "moochers" in Atlas Shrugged reacted by bitching about the producers rather than vowing to change their own ways and reverse the course of their lives, many of the people left in Detroit blame the exodus of jobs from their city on things like racism and a lack of concern from Washington's mother teat.

Some practitioners of conventional wisdom like to blame the city's descent on a downturn in the auto industry, and while that was certainly a factor at one point, today it is nothing more than a red herring. The 1980's decline of America's auto industry was reversed in the 1990's, yet the largest share of Detroit's population decline has taken place since 2000.

Ford and GM currently employee more people than the entire combined populations of Detroit and the nearby cities of Flint and Pontiac. It's just that they now do a lot of their business elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, a slew of foreign car companies are manufacturing their vehicles and parts in locations throughout America, but they too have chosen to do their hiring in places other than what was once known as The Motor City.

Those who blame racism for the city's shrinking tax base and atrocious job market often do so by using the softer term "white flight," and it's not as if they don't have a point, for there is no doubt that a significant number of white people left town (if only for the suburbs) following the race riots of 1967. But it is worth noting that no such flight took place after the 1943 race riots, and also worth noting that the post-1967 flight was undertaken by blacks as well as whites. By 1972, Motown Records -- born in Detroit, named after Detroit, and long known as America's largest black-owned business -- had pulled up stakes and moved to California.

Even so, Detroit muddled along and its economic engine continued to run, even if it was doing so with fewer cylinders than it had known in its heyday. Its crime rate climbed in the 1970's and 1980's, but that was the norm for big American cities at that point in history. People continued to move from the city proper, but that too was the American norm at the time.

Our nation saw a blossoming of urban renewal in the 1990's and 2000's, and it was then than Detroit found itself being left in the dust. The idea of professionals moving into trendy lofts in Manhattan and Chicago caught on, but the idea of doing the same in Detroit seems never to have been considered. The most likely reason is not that it had "become" a "black city," but that it lacked any palpable feeling of opportunity. (As a point of contrast, Atlanta is about as "black" as a city can get, and unless something has changed since the last time I checked, it is a world-class economic juggernaut.)

We can return to the Atlas Shrugged analogy to find some of the reasons there was a dearth of opportunity in Detroit when the urban renewal trend began -- and why that dearth has only worsened over the last two decades. Yes, Detroit's bureaucracy had become a rampant parasite, which goes a long way toward explaining things, but it was not the only city with a parasitic bureaucracy.

A big part of the problem is that parasitism and graft had also infiltrated its private sector, to such an extent that it would not have made sense for a business to set up shop there even if taxes, regulations, etc. were not so onerous. This infiltration was triggered by unions, which quickly outgrew their noble beginnings and morphed into corrupt cuttlefish throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Shortly after World War II, unions forced Packard out of business and actually considered that something to be proud of, even though it resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. Then their power continued to grow, and when they eventually started representing the city's public employees in addition to its private ones, it was all she wrote. With both sectors given over to a culture of sloth and a mentality of entitlement, who could have expected anything other than implosion?

Alarming figures about Detroit have become much trumpeted in recent weeks. Two out of every three ambulances are not fit to drive. It takes police an hour to respond to an emergency call, compared to an average of eleven minutes in the rest of the country. Two out of every five street lights do not work. 47% of adults are functionally illiterate. As Mark Steyn put it: "Why would any genuine innovator open a business in a Detroit 'innovation hub'? Whom would you employ?"

Most on my side of the aisle -- which is to say, most conservatives -- confidently chalk up Detroit's dire straits to the inevitable result of liberalism reaching its logical conclusion. A small minority scoff at them, accuse them of being squeamish, point to the racial implications (Detroit is 82% black), and flat-out say it is black culture, not liberal culture, that brought a once-great metropolis to its knees.

I refuse to agree with the latter. I said earlier that most of Detroit's population decline has occurred since the year 2000. What I did not say is that the vast majority of that decline came not from whites leaving the city, but from blacks leaving it. It feels awkward for a white person to opine about "black issues," but it seems to me that what ails Detroit is not a black/white division but rather a black family/black ghetto division. While the black middle class in our country has grown extraordinarily over the last two generations, the underclass has spiraled downward into an abyss of nihilism and unfathered children. It is the latter's mentality that has prevailed in Detroit, and until that changes, Detroit will continue to be far, far behind the proverbial eight ball.

My July 27th post said that the citizens of San Bernardino and Stockton, California (cities that filed for bankruptcy protection prior to Detroit) "in the aggregate exhibit better character than those of Detroit." That is not a racial thing so much as it is a class thing, and it is not to say that the citizens of San Bernardino and Stockton are blameless, since they have chosen to elect bizarrely liberal municipal governments and must reap what they have sown. Still, it seems that they live normally in their private lives, which means they are more likely than Detroiters to accept what has to be done to save their cities from the ash heap.

Here's hoping all three municipalities pull through and find a path to resurrection. For America as a whole, it would not be good to see any of them vanish into the wasteland of once-fine places that allow themselves to be frittered away.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

et ceteras

The Scandalabra
Several days ago I heard someone quip that George Zimmerman changed his name to Ben Ghazi so that the media would never talk about him again. While driving home that evening, I saw a work van from a small landscape company whose name I failed to commit to memory. On its back was a bumper sticker for the Tampa 912 Project -- and a dry-erase-board scrolled with the words: "We Were Targeted by the IRS."

That got me thinking about how quickly people tend to forget about important events. In May, pundits couldn't stop talking about a trio of scandals (Benghazi, the IRS, and spying on journalists) that were hanging around Barack Obama's neck and constricting like a python. Fast forward to today, merely nine weeks hence, and those stories seem older that the ones about four lads from Liverpool coming to America to bewitch teenage girls with songs about loving them do and wanting to hold hands.

Of course, the scandals shouldn't seem old at all. They are so current that they are still unfolding, and yet the MSM is less inclined to discuss them than they are to chirp about the 41-year-old (and comparatively minor) transgressions of Watergate. Fortunately, there are some people in the media who stand out as exceptions, and Peggy Noonan is one of them. Her recent Wall Street Journal piece about the IRS investigations was especially enlightening. Rather than replicate her work, I am providing the link here so you can read it for yourself.

Speaking of...
...Obama and his media protectors, have you heard of the repulsive things he said this week about Ho Chi Minh? Of course you haven't, because as I just observed, the media protects him. Here is the gist: While wooing the current dictator of Vietnam, Obama waxed poetic by claiming that Minh was "inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson."

Is he completely ignorant of history, completely devoid of reason, or does he simply have no decency? Minh was a murderous dictator with no regard for human life, human dignity, or that thing called freedom that we once held dear. Minh enslaved much of the Indochina peninsula and is estimated to have been complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. 58,209 American soldiers perished in a noble effort to save the innocent people of South Vietnam from his torture squads, and as of today, an additional 2,489 American soldiers who went missing during that effort remain unaccounted for.

Yet our president has the audacity to liken Ho Chi Minh to our Founding Fathers, who stood against everything Minh represented. Who the hell does he think he is? His comments pissed on the graves and loved ones of the 60,000+ Americans mentioned above, each of whom was a better man in his brief life than Obama will ever be in his. His comments also pissed on the graves of countless Vietnamese peasants who were better and braver than our president could ever hope to be. Yes, I am writing with emotion, which is something I usually advise against -- but this emotion is informed by reason and truth, and I do not regret it one bit.

And, Detroit
Detroit is not the first significant American city to file bankruptcy. Out in California, San Bernardino and Stockton beat it to the punch by more than a year. All three cities share a common denominator that is largely, and perhaps primarily, responsible for their predicament. But another denominator is present only in Detroit, and it is one that makes its chances for recovery far less likely there San Bernardino's and Stockton's.

All three have fallen victim to a rapacious public sector that sucks the private sector dry, refuses to adapt to reality, and thereby leaves devastation in its wake. In the words of National Review columnist Kevin Williamson, these public sectors are parasites that have outgrown their hosts. What makes the California cities more likely to bounce back is very simple: Their citizens, in the aggregate, exhibit better character than those of Detroit.

I know that sounds harsh, but it is true. I clearly need to elaborate, and intend to do so in my next post.

However... track record is, shall we say, less than stellar when it comes to following through on statements that "my next post will ___." Sometimes I have followed through but there have been times I didn't. For example, I still need to get around to completing parts two and three of the "three-part series on gay marriage" I started in April. All I can say is that after publishing part one, other topics percolated up that struck me as more important, and as I wrote about them, gay marriage got moved to the back burner. I don't expect that to happen with Detroit, but since I am aware of my history, I ain't making any promises either!

And with that, I will sign off for now. Au revoir and enjoy this last weekend of July!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Defending Rolling Stone

Unlike the Seventies band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will soon "know the thrill that'll getcha/when you get your picture/on the cover of the Rolling Stone." Already, Jann Wenner has no idea what hit him -- and frankly, neither do I.

It was recently announced that the August 1st issue of Wenner's iconic magazine will include an article examining how Tsarnaev "was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster." That description is from the article's own subtitle and is not eyebrow-raising at all. Nothing to see here, folks.

It was also announced that a photograph of Tsarnaev will appear on the cover of that issue. Which is, well, one hundred percent normal. Since when does a magazine cover not feature a picture that promotes its main article? But in a Bizarro World kind of way, people of every political stripe under the sun have become unglued over the mere fact that the photo will be there. They accuse Rolling Stone of glorifying Tsarnaev, even though they have never read the article and even though the subtitle suggests the opposite of glorification by referring to him as "a monster."

Is it now bad form for a magazine to put a photo of Castro on its cover when the feature article is about tyranny in the Americas? Is it insensitive to put a photo of Ted Bundy on the cover when the article is about serial killers who target women? Is it horrible to put Hitler on the cover when the article is about anti-Semitism?

If the answer to any of those questions is "yes," then the world has gone insane. If the answer is "no" (which it is, for all of them) then nobody should get their knickers in a twist over the upcoming Rolling Stone. Yet some major merchants, including Walgreens and CVS, have declared that they will not carry it in their stores when it is released.

While this is obviously not the same as a government ordering businesses not to sell a product, it still strikes me as being very un-American. This is not the way things are meant to be done in a free society, for freedom can not be maintained very long by a society that is intolerant and uninformed.

Jann Wenner's political views run to the left of most Americans' and well to the left of my own; and therefore, the views espoused in the publication he founded in 1967 are often ones that I don't agree with. But unlike many publications that have a particular political bent, Rolling Stone rarely stoops to the point of vilifying those on the other side. In fact, the most prominent author ever to be employed by the magazine is a conservative: P.J. O'Rourke. I find it pathetic that people are making Rolling Stone the focus of scorn over a particular article before it even comes out.

When the August 1st issue hits store shelves, I will find a merchant that has not joined the knee-jerk boycott. I will plunk down my five or six bucks, bring the magazine home, and read the article in question. Then, if I find that I object to its general thrust, or that I disagree with any of the things it says, I will write something on this blog to explain why I think the article is in error. Commentators in national publications with big circulations and large online readerships may do the same. And anyone who has read both sides can then make up his or her own mind. That is the way things are supposed to happen in a free republic that is healthy and functioning.

Here's hoping that our republic gets back to being healthy and functioning as soon as possible. If it does not, I worry that its own inertia will cause it to stop being free.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Zimmerman Verdict

Late last night, when I first learned that the jury in The State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman had handed down a "not guilty" verdict, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not because Zimmerman is a saint (he's not) but because the verdict showed that sober evidence had prevailed over raw emotion. And also, because it showed that the jury was serious about the core principle of American justice -- namely, the principle that a person must not be convicted unless the state has proven him guilty.

Some of us believe the evidence against Zimmerman was so lacking that he should have never even been made to stand trial. But that does not mean we should think of him as a positive symbol, for reasons touched on in the next three paragraphs.

Prior to the tragic night that ended with Trayvon Martin's death, Zimmerman had made many calls to 911 (I think the total number was 17) and none of the people he called about turned out to be up to anything bad. This tells me that he was hasty in his assumptions and overeager to play the role of cop. His critics can not be blamed for believing he would be too quick to pull a trigger.

I recall Zimmerman once claiming that, on the night in question, he forgot he was carrying a gun until Martin reached for it while beating him up. To which I say: Bullshit. As a gun owner myself, I can not conceive of any situation in which I would be carrying a weapon and not be acutely aware of that fact at every single second. Do I really need to explain why it makes no sense to think that a neighborhood watchman (especially one so quick to call the cops) would forget he had his gun on him when he left his home to follow someone he thought was up to no good? A far more likely explanation is that he felt comfortable leaving his home precisely because of the gun.

Zimmerman's own attorneys once dropped him for going on the lam, and you may recall that he was less than forthcoming about funds he was raising that were presumably to pay for his legal fees. I can completely understand the latter, given that the U.S. government has a penchant for freezing a person's assets right when they need to use them to mount a legal defense, but let's just say that neither of these instances said much for Zimmerman's veracity.

But as I said before, the core principle of American justice is that the government can not convict you of a crime without proving that you did in fact commit it. And for the crimes with which Zimmerman was charged, the standard of proof is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt," which means that the accused must be acquitted if there is any reason to doubt whether he committed them. Some people might not want to acknowledge it, but when it comes to George Zimmerman, there are a multitude of reasons to doubt whether he is guilty.

It all begins with the simple fact that, under Florida law, you have a right to use deadly force to defend yourself if you believe your life is in danger. Zimmerman claimed that this is exactly what he believed when he pulled the trigger, and there is simply no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Zimmerman told police that Martin was punching him and smashing his head into the concrete, and the evidence supports his account. On the night of the incident, the back of his head was lacerated and had bumps and bruises, while Martin's only blemishes (besides the gunshots) were bruises on his knuckles. If my eight-year-old daughter heard that, she would instantly surmise that Zimmerman's head wounds indicated he was telling the truth and Martin's knuckle wounds resulted from him using his fists to punch Zimmerman -- and she would make far more sense supporting that surmise than the smartest Harvard Ph.D. would make trying to contradict it. This is the very definition of reasonable doubt, and under the law it makes acquittal not only appropriate, but mandatory. None of us, black or white, Hispanic or Asian, Democrat or Republican, would want to live in a country where that was not the case.

To convict Zimmerman would render the law meaningless. It would establish a precedent by which our lives are subjugated to the emotions of the mob rather than the logic of the facts. It would be the polar opposite of what MLK termed "creat(ing) a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal."

However, the biggest lesson to be drawn from last night's verdict has nothing to do with the nature of evidence or the philosophy of being a nation of laws rather than of men. It has to do with our commonality as Americans, our goodness as people, and our willingness to evaluate each situation on its own merits.

In the days leading up to the verdict, many in the media were quick to raise the specter of racial strife, to sound the alarm that if Zimmerman was not found guilty, then the nation would erupt with violence akin to the Watts riots of 1965 and Rodney King riots of 1992. They were wrong.

In my opinion, the Watts and Rodney King riots were disgraceful affairs with few, if any, redeeming qualities. But they were local responses to local issues -- issues of which I, as a white man in Florida who was not born until 1971, can not claim to have any familiarity. The worry that race riots might erupt over last night's verdict strikes me as one of the most racist contrivances in my lifetime. It assumed that Americans from Los Angeles to Miami to Philadelphia to Detroit, who happened to be black, would start stoning people and burning buildings because of a single court case in a small town outside of Orlando. Where did this idea come from?

Not once in American history have black citizens erupted in a nationwide fit of violence because they didn't like the outcome of a trial -- yet no one seemed to find it unusual or offensive that our major news outlets were prepping us for that to occur in 2013. And when barbarism did not occur, our news outlets were curiously unrepentant about the fact they had expected it in the first place.

I went to middle school with a girl (who I guess I should refer to as a lady, since we are now in our forties) who now lives in Sanford, the same town where Trayvon Martin was killed and where Zimmerman's trial took place. Saturday, hours before the verdict was announced, this is what her husband wrote on Facebook:

Observations from my trip to the local Winn-Dixie in the heart of Sanford this morning:
-two black women donating money to the white soldier in front of the store
-a very bubbly and friendly white baker in the bakery department
-a very bubbly and friendly black cashier at the checkout
-no frowns or worry anywhere I could see, to say nothing of the complete lack of New Black Panthers and/or Neo-Nazis
Oh, and I gave directions to the flea market to an elderly Cuban man by telling him to drive south past the courthouse with all the camera crews and Flea World would be his next left.
This is my Sanford.

And that is my America. We squabble over politics and yell about sports, but more often than not, we are One. Like my grandfather always said, this is the United States of America; and though I often fret that the "united" part is becoming frayed, the Zimmerman verdict reaffirms that my fretting is based on how the media portrays us, not on what I see in my own interactions with my own fellow citizens.

Yes, I think the MSM needs to look in the mirror and stop accusing the rest of us of being elemental bigots and thugs. And I am grateful that last night's verdict proved we are a nation of people who act in good faith with respect for justice -- that we are a people who once again proved our doubters wrong.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Monsanto follow-up

My June 4th post offered my opinion that the so-called Monsanto Protection Act should be struck down because of the undemocratic and dishonest way it became law. But I offered little about the act's subject matter, which leaves me feeling like I should come back and fill in the blank. So to begin, here are the two paragraphs of my earlier post that did touch on the subject matter, however lightly:

Generally, what the MPA deals with are genetically modified foods, a.k.a. genetically modified organisms. These are fruits and vegetables that are cultivated by injecting them with specific genes from other species in order to produce certain traits. Those who agree with this approach to agriculture refer to it as innovation that benefits mankind by increasing the size and durability of harvests. Those who disagree refer to it as toying with nature and thereby exposing  people and the environment to risks we can't yet know.

Specifically, what the MPA deals with is the power the federal government has in determining which genetically modified foods go to market and how they are labeled. Supporters claim that the MPA prevents special interests from using shoddy science to deny consumers access to food that is safe, nutritious, and uniquely affordable. Its critics claim that it allows large agricultural firms to avoid adequate legal scrutiny concerning the safety of the food they produce.

Most Americans do not have an opinion about the Monsanto Protection Act simply because they are not aware of it. When it comes to those who do have an opinion, I think it is obvious that their views are based not on what they specifically know about the act's language but on what they generally think about GMO's (as genetically modified foods/organisms are often called). I will not use this blog to pretend that I know all the answers about whether GMO's are healthy or ecologically safe, since the scientific community is divided and I suspect that the jury will remain out for decades. My aim is simply to provide a balanced look at both sides of the story.

First, it is important to acknowledge that the practice of genetically modifying fruits, vegetables, and livestock has been going on ever since humans started farming. Grapefruit, for example, is not natural. It was brought into existence when eighteenth century colonists crossbred oranges with pomelos, and did not become widely popular until an additional century-plus of crossbreeding led to the appearance of the Ruby Red variety in 1929.

The Gala Apple is another example of a very healthy and popular fruit that was created by man, not God. It was developed in New Zealand by crossing the Golden Delicious with the Kidd's Orange Red, which was itself a cross between the Red Delicious and Orange Pippin. The Gala was brought to our shores in 1974 and became our second most popular variety in 2006. Across the Atlantic, it has been in the U.K. less than 30 years and already accounts for 20 percent of that nation's commercial apple crop.

There is no doubt that those species were genetically modified by human beings, but when people talk about genetic modification in 2013, they are talking about procedures that go way beyond old school hybridization. Instead they are talking about procedures that take specific genes from one species, and then, using artificial means that could never be duplicated in nature, force them into the cellular structure of entirely unrelated species. And by entirely unrelated, I am talking about going so far as to insert animal genes into plants.

One real-world example is the insertion of genes from Arctic fish into tomatoes and strawberries, which succeeded in making the plants more tolerant of frost. Another real-world example is the injection of spider genes into goat DNA, in an unsuccessful effort to have goats produce milk containing spider protein -- an effort that, had it succeeded, would have resulted in the milk being used in the manufacture of bulletproof vests.

If you think there is a creep factor to those examples, what would you think about injecting human genes into plants and animals? Well, Chinese scientists have already introduced human genes into at least 300 dairy cows with the goal of having them produce milk that is essentially the same as human breast milk. And right here in the U.S.A., a company called Ventria Bioscience is growing rice infused with genes from human livers. Although that rice is supposed to be used only in the development of pharmaceuticals -- i.e., not for introduction to the food chain -- it is nonetheless being grown on an outdoor farm and there is concern that it could spread beyond the farm's borders and reproduce naturally with rice on other farms, thus ending up in the food chain without anybody being aware of it.

The benefits of GMO's are not imaginary. In the already given example of making crops frost-tolerant, the result is a larger and more dependable food supply. Genetic modification is also used to create plants that are resistant to pests so farmers don't need to use as much pesticide (or in some cases, any pesticide) to bring them to your grocery store. It is also used to boost the amount of vitamins in certain vegetables, which is good for human health, especially in the Third World where vitamin deficiency is epidemic.

Of all the traits brought into existence by genetic modification, the most common is herbicide resistance. It allows farmers to successfully kill the damaging weeds in their fields without sacrificing some of their crop in the process, and it enables the kinds of low- and no-tillage farming that have long been praised by environmentalists. Much like frost tolerance, herbicide resistance also contributes to a larger and more dependable food supply.

For the most part, the downsides of GMO's consist of worries about what will happen in the future as a result of today's tampering with genetic structure -- and because these are forward-looking concerns, the vast majority of them have not been fleshed out by objective science. However, the fact that science has not verified them does not mean they are irrational, nor does it mean that none of them will come to pass. It has been only 19 years since America's first GMO went to market (the Flavr Savr tomato, in 1994) and thus it is fair to say that we have only an embryonic understanding of these crops' long-term effects.

Thierry Vrain is a Canadian scientist who once advocated for GMO's but now questions the entire foundation on which belief in their safety is built. He does so by simply stating this: "Genetic engineering is 40 years old. It is based on the naive understanding of the genome based on the one-gene-one-protein hypothesis of 70 years ago, that each gene codes for a single protein. The Human Genome project completed in 2002 showed that this hypothesis is wrong. The whole paradigm of the genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding. Every scientist now learns that any gene can give more than one protein and that inserting a gene anywhere in a plant eventually creates rogue proteins. Some of these proteins are obviously allergenic or toxic."

Bt corn is one of the world's most ubiquitous GMO's and has long been cited to warn about what could be wrought by the law of unintended consequences. It was developed to be resistant to pests, by having its pollen engineered to contain concentrations of proteins that are toxic to corn-killing insects like the European corn borer. That intended consequence did occur, but so did the unintended consequence of the pollen proving toxic to Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Bt corn was fingered as a suspect in regional declines of Monarch populations as far back as the late 1990's, on the grounds that its wind-borne pollen wound up on the leaves of nearby milkweed plants that are one of the caterpillar's preferred habitats. While it turned out that the accusations of Bt pollen placing the Monarch species in danger were overblown (for reasons that are clear if you read this report all the way through), there is no denying that Bt pollen did turn out to be harmful to some Monarch caterpillars in ways that were not anticipated before it was released into the field. And since the law of unintended consequences has proven its existence throughout the entire history of human endeavor, it is logical to believe that it's only a matter of time until a doozy of an unintended consequence emerges from the fermenting mast of GMO agriculture.

Could that doozy turn out to be increased human mortality? Because certain GMO vegetables are resistant to antibiotics, some people have wondered whether antibody resistance could be passed on to humans, in which case the affected humans would become more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Although the notion of transmitting antibody resistance from veggiekind to humankind sounds far-fetched to my ears, I am still given pause by the fact that, as far as I can tell, the chances of that transmission occurring have barely been investigated. In a world where super bugs like MRSA are already proving fatal, any specter of antibody resistance should not be dismissed unless thorough scientific vetting has unambiguously disproved it.

It is hard to be fully objective when considering this topic, because we all have gut reactions that immediately tell us to be either pro or con -- and usually lead us to think that any concerns raised by "the other side" are suspect.

So where do I stand? Strangely, I am somewhat in the middle, which is a place I rarely find myself.

On one hand, I believe some of the fears concerning genetic modification are overstated and based too much on emotion. Yet on the other hand, I believe that some of the confidence in genetic modification being low-risk is built on a foundation that is flimsier than its proponents realize.

I instinctively want to defend many of the people working on the pro-GMO side, because I know many of their critics are driven by an anti-progress mindset that makes them damn near reactionary. Yet at the same time, when I set aside what I think about the instinctive mindset of those critics, and consider their objections strictly on their merits, I find myself agreeing with many of those objections.

I believe that much good can, and will, be done by the practice of genetic modification. I also believe that much bad can, and will, be done if the practitioners of genetic modification brush aside the concerns of their critics instead of addressing them directly and respectfully.

I think the practitioners will be tempted to brush aside the critics' concerns because so many of the critics engage in fear-mongering -- and I think that temptation will greatly increase the chances of legitimate concerns being ignored, simply because people have a natural tendency to consider an entire body of concerns to be tainted when they see that any parts of it are being hyped by hyperbole.

I believe good old-fashioned ethics must rule the day, by which I mean it is good to go ahead and boost the vitamin A in corn that is to be eaten by the malnourished of sub-Saharan Africa -- but only after it has been confirmed, through an open and sober application of the scientific method, that doing so will not do things like decimate the predators of tse-tse flies while simultaneously weakening people's resistance to the sleeping sickness that tse-tses transmit.

But I believe that good old-fashioned ethics will rule the day only if we all remove our ideological blinders and hold both our political and business leaders' feet to the fire.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mankind's Greatest Hour

Tomorrow, as we fire up our grills and crack open our beers, let us remember why we even have a July 4th holiday: to commemorate the greatest act of shared, selfless courage the world has ever seen.

Everybody should know that Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence. Most people know the names of a handful of the 56 men who signed it, such as John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and of course Jefferson himself. But few people seem to realize that when those men signed their names, they were committing what was considered an act of treason against the British crown, punishable by death. Those men were property owners who were successful in their lives and businesses. Their lives were comfortable and they stood to lose everything by signing the Declaration -- yet they chose to sign it anyway, because they knew that casting off the crown and forming a new government based on individual liberty was the right thing to do, not only for their own descendants but for all of humanity. And here is what happened to some of those men after they signed the Declaration:

Five of them became prisoners of war.

Nearly one-sixth of them died before the war ended.

British forces burned, and/or looted, the homes and properties of nearly one-third of them.

When the British did that to the property of William Floyd, he and his family fled and spent the next seven years living as refugees without income. His wife died two years before the war ended.

After being forced into the wilderness by British forces, John Hart struggled to make his way home. When he finally got there, he found that his wife was dead and his 13 children were missing. He died without ever seeing them again.

Richard Stockton was dragged from his bed and sent to prison while his property was ravaged. From the day of his release from prison until the day he died, he had to rely on charity from others to feed his family.

Francis Lewis’s wife was imprisoned and beaten. Meanwhile, his wealth was plundered. His last years were spent as a widower living in poverty.

Thomas Nelson Jr.’s home was captured and occupied by British General Cornwallis, who used it as what we would now call an operations center. Therefore, Nelson ordered his troops to destroy his own home with cannon fire during the Battle of Yorktown. To assist in funding the war, he used his own credit to borrow 2 million dollars, which today would equal more than 25 billion dollars. Repaying that debt bankrupted him, and when he died he was buried in an unmarked grave.

It is a safe bet that fewer than one percent of our citizens have ever heard of these people, much less know anything about the devastating sacrifices they made so that future generations could have the freedom necessary to build the kind of upwardly-mobile, always-progressing society we would come to take for granted.

The Founding Fathers bequeathed us a wonderful gift called America, and we owe it to our children to make sure we don’t allow that gift to be destroyed. We should never hear the words “Fourth of July” without feeling a skip in our heart and a tear in our eye.

Much thanks to Jeff Jacoby, Paul Harvey, and all the others who have written and spoken about the fates of the signers, to keep their story alive.