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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Red Herring in the GMO Controversy


Yesterday I saw a documentary called: The Story of Seeds. I was reminded that everything we eat depends on seeds. All of our wheat and corn and fruits and veggies grow from seeds. And the animals we eat, they eat stuff that grows from seeds. In the past, there was no problem with that. But in recent years corporations have been allowed to own the right to use many of our seeds, and they have been able to greatly reduce the usage of those seeds that they don't own. This is growing into a serious problem for us ordinary folk, who are not big stockholders in Monsanto.

Have you heard of Seminis? Probably not; I had not heard of it before seeing this movie. This is from Wikipedia: "Seminis is the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world. Seminis' hybrids claim to improve nutrition, boost crop yields, limit spoilage and reduce the need for chemicals. Their retail line includes over 3,500 seed varieties. ..... On March 23, 2005, Monsanto Company announced that it had completed its acquisition of Seminis."

Those are hybrid seeds, which means that the growers must buy them from Seminis/Monsanto every year. Hybrids don't produce seed that reproduces the parent plant. Hybrids have some advantages, which is why growers are willing to pay for them each year, as long as the cost is not high. As long as there is competition, the cost will not be high. The competition comes from other hybrid seed companies, and from non-hybrid seeds that are in general circulation. Unfortunately, the current trend is for both of those sources of competition to decline, year after year.

Then there is GMO seed, which has been genetically engineered, and patented. The use of such seed is growing rapidly in the U.S.  Corn and soybeans are the leading crops using GMO seeds, but they are rapidly growing in use for many other crops. The "Red Herring" that I refer to in the title of this article is the idea that these GMO crops may be unhealthful in some way. I call this a red herring because I'm convinced that none of the current GMO crops are directly harmful to anyone's health. The danger that I see is to the diversity of our food supply. If we were to have only one variety of wheat, one variety of corn, one variety of potatoes, etc., there is a real danger that a fungal or viral disease could wipe out the entire crop. This has happened many times in the past. The Irish potato famine is the most famous example. (Google it!)

The courts have allowed GMO seed to be patented, in spite of the fact that pollen from GMO crops can be transferred by wind or insects to the fields of farmers that are not growing GMO crops. These crops are then contaminated by genetic material that is patented, usually by Monsanto. This is harmless to the consumer's health, but it allows Monsanto to threaten to sue farmers, and thereby coerce them into contracting with Monsanto to use Monsanto's seed. This is a complicated issue, and it is an active one in the courts of America, and foreign nations.

But perhaps there is nothing wrong with a few giant corporations controlling the world's food supply?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Job Guarantee: A Government Plan for Full Employment

I did not write the following article. It's from "The Nation", and the author is L. Randall Wray. I'm reprinting it here, with permission, because I think it's an important article and I heartily support the idea:
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There is no economic demand more urgent than putting Americans back to work. The government can do this by creating an “employer of last resort” program.
L. Randall Wray

June 8, 2011 | This article appeared in the June 27, 2011 edition of The Nation.

There is no economic policy more important than job creation. The private sector plays an invaluable and dynamic role in providing employment, but it cannot ensure enough jobs to keep up with population growth or speed economic recovery—much less achieve the social goal of full employment for all Americans. Thankfully, there is an alternative: a job guarantee through a government-provided “employer of last resort” program offering a job to anyone who is ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage plus legislated benefits.

In recent decades full employment has been wrongly dismissed as not only impossible but economically counterproductive. Though the Employment Act of 1946 committed the government to the goal of high employment (it was amended by the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which targeted a measured unemployment rate of 3 percent), we act as if full employment would ruin us, destroying the value of our currency through inflation and depreciation, and weakening the labor discipline that high unemployment maintains through enforced destitution. Through the thick and thin of the business cycle, we leave tens of millions of Americans idle in the belief that this makes political, economic and social sense.

It doesn’t. The benefits of full employment include production of goods, services and income; on-the-job training and skill development; poverty alleviation; community building and social networking; social, political and economic stability; and social multipliers (positive feedbacks and reinforcing dynamics that create a virtuous cycle of socioeconomic benefits). An “employer of last resort” program would restore the government’s lost commitment to full employment in recognition of the fact that the total impact would exceed the sum of the benefits.

The program has no time limits or restrictions based on income, gender, education or experience. It operates like a buffer stock: in a boom, employers will recruit workers out of the program; in a slump the safety net will allow those who lost their jobs to preserve good habits, keeping them work-ready. It will also help those unable to obtain work outside the program enhance their employability through training. Work records will be kept for all participants and made available to potential employers. Unemployment offices will be converted to employment offices, to match workers with jobs that suit them and to help employers recruit staff.

All state and local governments and registered nonprofit organizations can propose projects; proposals will be submitted to a newly created office within the Labor Department for final approval and funding. The office will maintain a website providing details on all pending, approved and ongoing projects, and final reports will be published after projects are complete.

Participants will be subject to all federal work rules, and violations will lead to dismissal. Anyone who is dismissed three times in a twelve-month period will be ineligible to participate in the program for a year. Workers will be allowed to organize through labor unions.

The program will meet workers where they are and take them as they are: jobs will be available in local communities and will be tailored to suit employees’ level of education and experience (though with the goal of improving skills). Proposals should include provisions for part-time work and other flexible arrangements for workers who need them, including but not restricted to flexible arrangements for parents of young children.

All participants will obtain a Social Security number and maintain a bank account in an FDIC-insured bank. Weekly wages will be paid by the federal government directly to participants’ accounts. The government will also provide funding for benefits as well as approved expenses up to a maximum of 
10 percent of wages paid for a project (to cover the cost of administrative materials and equipment).

Estimated spending will be 1–2 percent of GDP, with economic, social and political benefits several times larger. Net program costs will be much lower, since spending on unemployment compensation and other relief will be reduced—this program will pay people for working, rather than paying them not to work. The promise of increased national productivity and shared prosperity should far outweigh any fears about rising deficits. To fulfill this promise, we need to put Americans back to work.

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Here's a link to the original article:

http://www.thenation.com/article/161249/job-guarantee-government-plan-full-employment

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Affirmative Action

There is a better way to do affirmative action, one that sidesteps the controversy about race.  It should be based on need, not race.  A person should get help if they come from an underprivileged background, with no consideration of race or ethnicity.  Since some minority groups have a high percentage of underprivileged families, there would be a high percentage of those families that benefit from affirmative action.  People of European descent would benefit at a much lower percentage, although the total number may still be high.  There are plenty of poor white people.  A poor white person needs help more than a middle-class black person.  Poor blacks and poor whites would both get help, if this policy were adopted.  Basic justice tells us that people who need help should be the ones to get it, regardless of skin color or other ethnic characteristics.

The main drawback of this policy is the effort that it takes to evaluate the merits of each applicant.  It is relatively easy to determine if someone is black or white, at least in most cases.  In order to have a totally need-based policy it would be necessary to employ many case workers to determine the eligibility of the applicants.  Of course, in my opinion, this is a good thing, since we need government policies that increase total employment.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Getting There - How to have Full Employment with Good Wages

In my previous article I talked about the need to reduce the length of the work week.  But this cannot be done in isolation; if we simply all began to work less, then we would produce less, and we all would be poorer.  No, it must be done in synchrony with other measures.  This is the plan that I present below.

First, let me list some facts:

1. A large fraction of the U.S. population are either unemployed or under-employed. Also, many are earning poverty wages even when working full time or more than full time.

2. The gap between the incomes of ordinary people and the incomes of the wealthy is very large.  The last time it was this large was about 1928. Since then it has mostly been much lower, until recently. You can see a nice graph of this here: http://wallstreetonparade.com/2013/10/the-great-regression-robert-reichs-new-film-mainstreams-the-dangers-of-income-inequality/

3. America's large corporations are doing very well. Their profits declined briefly during the recent recession, but quickly recovered to reach record levels. Wealthy individuals are also doing very well. (The rich have gotten richer.)

4.There is no shortage of investment capital to invest in plants and equipment, or to hire new employees, should corporations decide to do so. They are currently able to supply the demand for their goods and services with what they already have, so they are investing very little.  (The so-called "job creators" are not doing it.)

5. About 70% of the goods and services produced by American businesses are consumed by Americans.

6. Wealthy people spend a fraction of their income on goods and services; the rest they invest. The size of the fraction depends on the income. (of course there is individual variation) The very wealthy invest most of their income.

7. Poor people save nothing, they spend all of their income quickly. Middle class people save a little; they spend most of their income fairly quickly.

8. Due to pervasive and continually increasing automation, the number of workers needed, is less than the population of working age adults.  This unbalance will grow, probably for decades to come.

Now let's address how to improve our situation:

If the populace were to smarten up just a little, and elect representatives that understood these issues, and had the courage to do what's best for the whole country, then they would begin to fix the roads, bridges and railroads, and invest in alternative energy, and raise subsidies for the installation of solar systems on homes and small businesses, and a host of other things.  Not just any other things; they must be projects that result in significant employment gains, and with little delay.  This would employ many people directly, and many more people through the increased spending by those who are directly employed. (the well-known multiplier effect)  Projects that mostly transfer tax dollars to wealthy people and corporations should be avoided.

There are 3 ways to pay for this: Money can be borrowed, revenue can be increased, or the government can "print" the money. (as you know, this last means that they simply create money by accounting entries in computers.)

Although there can be a mix, IMO it's best to pay for most of it by increasing revenue. There will be substantial revenue increase just due to the increased employment and increased profits of businesses, but some tax increases, or loophole plugging, are desirable.  Taxes should be progressive, because if the goal is to boost the economy, then it's important for the average person to have money to spend.  (This follows from items 5, 6, and 7 above.)  This is not a new idea: http://earthchurch.blogspot.com/2012/06/what-do-henry-ford-joseph-stiglitz-have.html

For those who think that increasing revenue will prevent the economic gains, I refer you again to items 5, 6, and 7 above.

The main and important goal, as I see it, should be to maintain, over the long term, a balance between a labor shortage and a labor surplus. Currently we have a labor surplus. That leads to low wages, and to oppressive working conditions. A labor shortage would also not be a good thing; it would lead to inflation and high labor turnover. Too much government spending on job-creating projects will create a labor shortage. Hence government spending needs to be adjustable. It needs to be part of a feedback control system. It should reflect the unemployment rate.

When the unemployment rate is high, government spending should be increased. When it is low, spending should be decreased. I suggest a "dead band" of 3% to 5%. When the unemployment rate is below 3%, then spending should be decreased. When it is above 5%, then spending should be increased. As a side issue, it would be very desirable if the labor department would calculate and publish a true unemployment rate, It is this rate that should be input into this proposed feedback control system.

Legislation can be enacted which describes the broad outlines of such a scheme, but it is impossible to get everything right in advance. Congress will have to revisit this topic annually, or better yet, semi-annually, and make necessary adjustments, with the goal of maintaining unemployment within the desired range. And of course that range may also need to be changed.

Now to the question of the length of the work week: As a consequence of the great strides that have been made in automation, it is no longer necessary for people to work a 40-hour week. In fact, that custom makes it more difficult to keep everyone employed. The only way that we could maintain full employment and the 40-hour week is to undertake major projects, something like building the pyramids. An expanded space program is one example, but it would probably not be sufficient. We could also build lots of hospitals, clinics and schools of all kinds. Or we could expand the defense establishment even beyond it's present bloated condition.

It is difficult to regulate the work week. There are many categories of people who want to work long hours, and should be allowed to do so. Into this category fall artists and other creative workers, as well as the self-employed. However, it is only necessary for work-week regulation to apply to a majority of the population, in order to have the intended effect of enabling full employment. It should apply to all of the most common occupations, blue and white collar. It does not need to apply to any category that includes relatively few people.

Current labor law (Fair Labor Standards Act) makes a 40-hour week standard, and requires the payment of time-and-a-half for overtime. This law applies to the employees of most large organizations, public and private, and hence covers a large fraction of the workforce. What I propose is that the FLSA be modified to reduce the 40 hour figure according to a flexible schedule. The initial schedule would be simply one hour less for every year that passes. However, whenever the unemployment rate is low, say below 5% for example, the work week would not be changed.  Whenever the unemployment rate climbs above 5%, then the once-a-year lowering of the work week would resume.  The work week would never be lowered by more than one hour per year.

I'm sure it is obvious that the present congress is neither willing nor capable of implementing my proposal. It cannot happen until we have a congress that is dominated by people who are both intelligent and open-minded, and furthermore are not beholden to conservative political donors.

Why do I want the government monkeying with the economy to such a degree, some will ask? My answer is that I am convinced that without such "monkeying" we will continue to regress toward a very hierarchical society, with the vast majority of the populace in poverty. This has been the normal state of human civilization ever since the rise of large cities several thousand years ago. It is still the norm in most of the world.  I prefer a society where there is a well paid job for everyone who wants one.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Should people work hard?

I'm talking about the U.S.A., in the 21st century. What do you think, should people work hard? Our ancestors certainly did; shouldn't we keep doing the same?

Funny thing, though - part of the work that our ancestors did was to invent labor-saving methods and devices.  This is still going on, so that less and less labor is required as time marches on. One of the consequences is that we typically work about half as many hours per week as our great-great-grandfathers did. Nevertheless, at the present time we are able to produce all that we need without using the entire labor force. A large fraction of today's adult population is either unemployed or under-employed. And this is with millions of people in the military or in the some aspect of the defense industry. What if peace were to break out?  (actually, it already has. The U.S. is not currently at war, nor is it currently threatened by any major military power.)

Maybe it's time to reconsider the "protestant ethic"? After centuries of development of labor saving technology, perhaps it's time to start working less.  Otherwise, what was the point of all of that clever inventing?  Should we keep everyone working full time and simply produce a huge amount of stuff that is not really needed?  Or would it make more sense for most people to just work less, and have more free time?

Today in America, many people are struggling to get by.  How can this be, when there is so much technology, which accomplishes so much with minimal human input? The answer to that question is that most of that technology is benefiting the business owners and not their employees. The latter are mostly receiving rather low wages, because there is a labor surplus in America.  The market for labor currently favors the employers, in most cases.

If the nation were somehow able to get people to work substantially fewer hours, then many new jobs would open up, as people were hired to fill in the missing hours. This could lead to full employment, and a happier American workforce, with time for relaxation, sports, and hobbies.

In a future article I will describe how that might be accomplished.  Some thoughts in that direction can be found in these older articles:
http://earthchurch.blogspot.com/2011/12/full-employment-let-me-count-ways.html
and http://earthchurch.blogspot.com/2012/09/full-employment-revisited.html

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Petition on the White House Website

The White House has a website where anyone can post a petition, and then signatures are collected in support of that petition. (it's at petitions.whitehouse.gov)

There are many videos on youtube.com showing policemen in action.  Many of them show policemen doing bad things.  Not surprisingly, there are many instances of police punishing people for making videos, even though courts have held that people have the right to make them.  The particular video that inspired me to create this petition is here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDBZr4ie2AE
This ends badly, but what the cops did wrong was to handcuff a person who did nothing to warrant it.

I want to let you know about this petition, and ask for your support. Will you add your name to mine?  If this petition gets 100,000 signatures by July 31, 2013, the White House will review it and respond.

You can view and sign the petition here: http://wh.gov/lcE6q

We ask the U.S. government to:
Ensure that the people have the right to create videos of police in action, and not be punished for doing that.

In recent years there have been numerous instances of police mistreating people because they were making video records of police in action.  These videos need to be made, to expose police who behave in a non-professional manner.  It's important to protect the people who make videos of police behavior.   If you are unsure about this issue, search for "videos of police brutality" on youtube.com.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guns and Cars - Treat 'em the Same!

This essay is liable to annoy both gun enthusiasts and gun control advocates; the former because I'm advocating a lot of regulations, and the latter because I'm allowing every competent person to own guns.


I think guns and automobiles should be treated the same. Both are potentially dangerous machines which are very useful and also loved by many. You should need to be tested to get a license for either, and both should be registered.

There are some differences of course.  Cars are used every day by most Americans, whereas guns are used much less.  Of course many gun owners keep theirs in the home for possible defense, so you could say that it's being used every day.  Although the number of gun owners is much less than car owners, still there are roughly a third of the population that does own a gun.  It's estimated that there are about 300 million guns in the U.S., but many gun owners have several guns, which explains how there can be so many guns and also so many people who don't own a gun.  A big difference between cars and guns is that almost all deaths due to cars are accidental, whereas most gun deaths are either deliberate, or the result of a gun being used in a crime.

If guns are to be treated like cars, that implies training, testing, licensing, registration and taxation.  In order to drive a car safely, everyone gets some training, either in high school, or by a driving school, or by a family member or close friend.  Then everyone gets tested to see that they do know how to handle the vehicle, and that they know the traffic laws.  Finally, they are issued a license, without which it is illegal to drive.   

All of that is apart from vehicle registration.  All vehicles that use the public roads are required to be registered, meaning that a state motor vehicles department knows their serial number, and who owns them.  When ownership is transferred the state must be notified.  If the car is stolen the state must be notified.  Every car has a unique serial number (VIN) which it is illegal to remove.  Cars must be tested for minimum safety requirements, such as functioning brakes and lights.   Finally, there is a registration fee, which is necessary in order to pay for all of the above.  (That's what I meant by taxation.)


The primary purpose of all of the above is to reduce accidents on the nation's streets and highways.   It has worked fairly well, since tens of thousands of miles are driven for every accident, and the accident rate per mile traveled has been steadily declining for decades.   Most of that decline has probably been due to improvements in roads and vehicles, but the system of training, testing, licensing and registration deserves some of the credit.  There are secondary purposes as well, such as recovering stolen cars, identifying owners of abandoned cars, and identifying cars involved in crimes


If we were to begin treating guns the same as cars, it would require the various states to create Departments of Firearms, just as they now have Departments of Motor Vehicles.  Then a system of training, testing, licensing and registration would have to be devised, along with a fee structure to pay for it all.   Serial numbers on guns would continue to be required; they might be called FINs.   So, under this proposed system, a young would-be gun owner would have to get some training in the proper use of firearms, and the laws governing them.  Then he would have to pass a test to demonstrate his knowledge.  Ideally, that would have a written part, and a "live" part, where he would shoot a few bullets at a firing range, and demonstrate his knowledge of proper gun handling.  Probably there would be a minimum age for a license, and there might be a one or two year provisional licence when the user would be required to have a fully licensed person present when using the gun.  There might also be advanced types of licenses required for more dangerous weapons.


The weapon itself would have to be registered with the state Department of Firearms.  The owner would have to be responsible for seeing that the registration is updated when the ownership changes.  Stolen guns must be reported to the police and the DF.  (Department of Firearms)