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January 21, 2015

Political Definitions: "Narrow-minded" and "Bipartisan"

Narrow-minded (adj) - a term used to describe somebody who refuses to adopt the left's point of view on a contentious issue.

Bipartisan (adj) - description of the process in which Democrats and Republicans work together to advance the Democrats' agenda.

January 19, 2015

DNA, GMOs, and the Left's dilemma

io9 reports January 18 on a fascinating study by Oklahoma State University:
A recent survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of respondents supported a government policy mandating labels on foods containing DNA. Not GMOs. DNA, the genetic material contained in every living thing known to science and practically every food, GMO or otherwise.
The results smack of satire, but they're real. The Food Demand Survey (FooDs) is an online poll of a representative sample of the U.S. population, conducted every month by Oklahoma State agricultural economist Jayson Lusk and research specialist Susan Murray. The most recent month's survey included a question regarding the institution of government policies concerning food. The results, which you can read in full here, indicate that "a large majority (82%) support mandatory labels on GMOs." What's curious, note Lusk and Murray, is that roughly "the same amount (80%) also support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA."
Even though the survey's sampling method does not appear to be ideal, the result does seem to reflect the human social tendency to jump onto issue bandwagons with little or no factual knowledge of the issues.  If someone we know and admire (be it a friend or some celebrity) is passionately for or against something, it's easy and natural to tag along.

There is a common superstition that all "chemicals" in food are bad.  "DNA" sounds like a chemical (which, of course, it is), so you bet I want to be informed when chemicals with ominous-sounding three-letter acronyms are present in my food!  Indeed, many who embrace the concept of "organic" foods seem to think that it is too much work to ponder the scientific pros and cons of various additives that have been part of our food supply for generations.

The GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) controversy is another good example of hysteria driven by scientific illiteracy.  Foods with one or more GMO ingredients have been dubbed "Frankenfoods" -- a reference to Frankenstein's monster -- by many activists.  I doubt they wish us to carry the analogy too far, given that the townspeople's reaction to the creature was irrational and emotion-driven.  The analogy the activists WANT us to take from the story is the notion that we must never tamper with nature, ever, for any reason.  A large majority of Americans are emotionally drawn to this argument, which almost certainly accounts for the fact that 82% support the proposed GMO labeling requirement, despite the fact that there is little or no scientific evidence that any of the GMOs approved for consumption are harmful to humans in any way.

To me, the curious twist to the anti-GMO crusade is that its activist core appears to reside in to the part of the political left boasting an average education level higher than that of the general population.  They have every reason to be familiar with the scientific truth behind GMOs, but they're the ones that appear to be driving the emotional opposition.

How can this be?  Some on the right are fond of observing that when Soviet communism collapsed, unreconstructed Marxists in the west appear to have adopted the environmental movement as the platform for continuing the advancement of their socioeconomic agenda.  There is strong circumstantial evidence to support this notion.  First, the environmental movement started to blossom dramatically even as the dust was still settling from the collapse of the communist bloc. Second -- and this is more significant to me -- virtually every policy prescription advanced to solve the environmental crisis du jour happens to align perfectly with the socioeconomic goals of the Marxist left: crippling regulation, punishing taxation, global wealth redistribution, etc.

This also appears to be the underbelly of the activist left's opposition to GMOs: it's driven by ideology, not by science illiteracy.  You see, GMOs can be patented...by corporations!  If we allow GMOs into our food supply, that benefits greedy capitalists.  So, even if someone comes up with something like "golden rice", which has a scientifically demonstrable benefit to human health, it must be opposed at all costs

The dilemma for the educated activists on the left is that their numbers aren't anywhere near what is needed to successfully advance their anticapitalist agenda, so they have no choice but to harness the ignorance of those whose convictions about food are driven more by superstition than by facts.  Thus, even though these activists often scorn the scientific illiteracy of average Americans, expediency keeps their mouths shut as GMO myths continue to run rampant in the mass media, in blogs, and on Facebook.

January 17, 2015

Did a crack just form in the Civil Asset Forfeiture wall? (In which I interrupt my hiatus to bestow cautious praise upon the Obama administration) [UPDATED]

Most long-time C-Pol readers (and you'd have to be long-time readers, given my recent posting frequency) know I'm no fan of the Obama administration, but if this story is true in its details*, I'll give credit where credit is due.  From the WaPo, January 16:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.

Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. It allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
"Civil Asset Forfeiture" (police seizing alleged drug money or assets purchased with alleged drug money) has been the most-abused weapon in the "War on Drugs" arsenal in the past three decades. The problem is that the assets are far too often seized WITHOUT DUE PROCESS, and often WITHOUT PROBABLE CAUSE that a crime has been committed. It's hard to imagine a more egregious violation of 4th Amendment protections.

Over the years, this has led to countless cases where people traveling with significant amounts of cash -- with no criminal taint whatsoever -- have had that cash confiscated by the authorities under the official presumption that it's drug cash. Often, the police will simply seize the cash and send the people on their way without filing any charges (remember, filing charges means proving probable cause and following due process, which will almost certainly fail). Victims who have the means to file a legal challenge to get their money back are often faced with the unconstitutional burden of proving their cash was NOT related to drug activities.

This is evil, and I'm at a loss to understand how this practice has endured for three decades, except to observe that this has been a tremendous cash cow for every level of government -- the authorities seizing the goods share the proceeds with other authorities, essentially buying their silence, so the folks who COULD stop the practice have no incentive to do so. This action by AG Holder has already provoked complaints that this would harm the budgets of police departments. Sorry, but this money is as much illegally obtained (by the police) as drug money is (by the pushers). If the assets were forfeited through proper due process, I might have some sympathy for this complaint.

So, props to AG Holder if he is truly ending federal participation in the splitting of the spoils (if I'm misinterpreting the effect of his action, please let me know in the comments). The problem won't end at the state and local levels until voters get angry enough to hold their elected officials accountable. Alas, there are so many issues out there that motivate people's votes, and this one, as terrible as it is, is likely to get lost in the noise.  Sigh.


* January 21 UPDATE: I'm glad I used the disclaimer "if this story is true in its details" because, as Reason's Jacob Sullum notes January 19, Holder's action is much less significant than press reports made it out to be:
Holder's order applies only to "adoption," which happens when a state or local agency seizes property on its own and then asks the Justice Department to pursue forfeiture under federal law. "Over the last six years," the DOJ says in the press release announcing Holder's new policy, "adoptions accounted for roughly three percent of the value of forfeitures in the Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program." By comparison, the program's reports to Congress indicate that "equitable sharing" payments to state and local agencies accounted for about 22 percent of total deposits during those six years. That means adoptions, which the DOJ says represented about 3 percent of deposits, accounted for less than 14 percent of equitable sharing. In other words, something like 86 percent of the loot that state and local law enforcement agencies receive through federal forfeitures will be unaffected by Holder's new policy.
Phooey. It's better than nothing, I guess, but it's hardly worth one cheer, much less three.