Thursday, March 7, 2013

Individual Choice vs. Centralization

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative]

I had an interesting discussion with a friend over dinner recently where we talked about individual choice and the freedom to choose how we lead our life. Both of us agreed such a choice is important. I would assume most of us agree individuals should have the right to choose how they live their life. What's more, the government and corporations would very much want us to feel the same way too. But why do I feel we don't have much of that essential freedom anymore? I gave it some thought over the past few days and connected the dots and I'm sorry to say that things aren't looking very good for those of us who are proponents of individual choice. And it's getting worse!

For individual choice to exist, the household that the individual is a part of must first have certain freedoms. One such right could be parents' right to decide how their children are to be schooled, for instance, whether in a public school system or home-schooled. For households to have these freedoms, the local community that they are a part of must enjoy the right to certain freedoms as well. For example, to be able to create laws that guarantee certain freedoms to the households. Households within a community should be able to get together and decide what's best for them and their families. We can continue this line of reasoning up the hierarchy through towns and cities to counties and states and finally to nations. At each level, the participants should have the power to change and even override the laws made at a higher level. But the trends we see point in the opposite direction. There is increasing centralization in many aspects of life. More often than not, laws created at a higher level override local laws.

The laws made in Washington can and do override the laws passed in state legislatures. If Californians come together and agree that they want to allow certain patients the right to use medical cannabis, what right does the federal government have to say otherwise? And yet, the Feds recently successfully shut down businesses and educational institutions related to medical cannabis in Oakland, California with such impunity that state officials could only stand and watch. In fact, this trend is playing out at the highest level. Sovereign countries are increasingly unable to stand their ground in front of organizations such as the WTO and agreements such as GATT as "international courts" pressure central governments in matters of trade and domestic economics. How then, can one expect to have individual choice in an era of massive centralization? We see the effects everywhere in the US today. While Washington is awash in cash and while fine wine is poured liberally in upscale restaurants in America's political stronghold, state, county, city and local governments are suffering the worst budget cuts in decades. The lower the level, the worse the depredations that are visited upon them. There's a method to this madness though. If I were running a large business with operations in a dozen states, I would prefer to deal with the Feds once instead of a dozen scattered state legislatures one by one. It's easier to lobby a few congressmen and congresswomen in Washington than to figure out the politics in each individual state. And similarly, I would prefer to deal with the state legislature over convincing a dozen city councils to vote my way. As they say in the business world, business leaders would much prefer a "single throat to choke"!

Let's take a concrete example of something one would put squarely in the realm of individual choice - diet and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Is there something I can do if I don't want GMOs in my food? Say, I'm convinced that GMOs are bad for my health in the long term and I want to avoid them as much as possible and preferably eliminate them from my diet altogether. If I want a GMO-free diet my local community and my city must first have laws and policies that support my choice. They should have the power to draft, vote on and implement any laws that preserve and guarantee my right to choose what I eat. Such initiatives as labeling foods that contain GMOs are crucial for me to exercise my choice. But what did we see recently in the November 2012 elections in California? Millions of dollars of out-of-state money pouring into California elections and scuttling prop 37 which would have required mandatory labeling of GMO foods sold in California. Centralized forces, in this case, major food corporations, diverted a small percentage of their profits to defeat prop 37. It makes business sense for them to do this.

Another example is education. We're seeing wealthy and influential "donors" pouring money (they call it philanthropy sometimes) into what should essentially be a state and local issue. It should be up to each one of us to decide how we want our kids to be educated, what the curriculum should be, when a child ought to start formal education, etc. Why does the Billionaire mayor of New York City spend millions of dollars to change the educational system in Los Angeles, California? How can individual choice take precedence in the face of such massive centralized interventions?

Let's take another example... hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). It's been around for a few decades but recently, advanced technology and economics have resulted in a boom in energy extraction achieved using horizontal drilling techniques. The documentary "Gasland" is a good piece of investigative journalism that explores the fracking boom in the US and shows its negative impacts on the people who happen to be on the path of the many energy companies that have fracking operations across the country but primarily in a few states like Pennsylvania and North Dakota. I'm convinced fracking is harmful to the environment and the life forms that inhabit the areas where wells are drilled and injected with fracking fluids. Fracking poses enormous risks to fresh water aquifers as fracking fluid laden with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals sometimes leaks into drinking water supplies of rural residents.

I just read an article on fracking in Colorado and as I read this rather long article, I couldn't help but see the same patterns mentioned above pop up again and again. Here are some excerpts -

"Air and water quality issues are so ubiquitous in areas invaded by the industry that summarizing is difficult. Most astonishing, however, is that neither Colorado nor the U.S. has undertaken a systematic examination of the thousands of citizen complaints. With regards to air quality, these complaints run from skin rashes, to open sores, to nose bleeds, to stomach cramps, to loss of smell, to swollen and itching eyes, to despondency and depression, even death."

Describing a meeting called by the Governor of Colorado, the author says, "To an outsider this meeting might sound like a tempest in a teapot, but as in most states with oil and gas reservoirs made recoverable through fracking, the state government of Colorado has said that it, and it alone, has the authority to regulate the oil and gas industry. The counties and cities may write their own regulations, but they must be in “harmony” with the state’s, and can not add conditions or requirements that would harm the industry’s bottom line. They are “preempted” from doing so."

"... he [Governor of Colorado] said nothing about the fact that he had already sued the city of Longmont, a city of 86,000 within Boulder County, over its regulations. Longmont’s regulations, labored over by a cautious oil lawyer, but eminently decent man, did not ban fracking within the city, as many wanted, but did make residential neighborhoods, schoolyards and the city’s open spaces off-limits to drilling by the industry."

The Governor had sued over these city regulations for not being in harmony with the state’s! The power that should reside within the city of Longmont got unceremoniously usurped by the state. Do you think the oil companies and their well-funded lobbies had anything to do with this power grab?

What does it do to my individual choice to have a safe environment where I live if I were living in Longmont, Colorado? Look closer to home and you will notice the rights that we think we enjoy are increasingly coming under the jurisdiction of higher and higher levels of centralized institutions. Individual choice is under attack and falling by the wayside. Try growing a vegetable garden in your frontyard.

Grafting vs. Genetic Engineering

[Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes]
[Mood: Questioning]

Grafting is working with nature and Genetic Engineering (GE) is messing with nature.

Grafting is asking nature to do something for us and letting it decide what it will do or how much it will do and when it will do it. We're working with it. We're patient. It takes years, sometimes dozens of years or even hundreds of years to get what we want. And nature obliges. It wants us to have what we want but not before other living organisms and bio systems realize that changes are coming and have time to adapt to such changes themselves.

GE is forcing nature to do something for us, when WE want (usually now) and how much WE want. We want it to do something it would otherwise never do. Nature would never cross a fish with a strawberry. But we try to get it to do that unnatural act anyway. And nature responds with major negative side effects. Not only is that organism at risk (the entire species) but every species that consumes that genetically engineered species is.

Technically, grafting doesn't need much technology. It's been done for thousands of years. GE needs a lot of modern technology. They take a gene gun which is not that different from a regular gun but takes genes in place of bullets. They then shoot the gene into another plant or animal and expect the gene transfer to happen. We have no idea how it exactly works but seems to work a bit anyway. But a lot of things also go wrong when you shoot a foreign gene into another organism. The negative effects are not immediate so we move on merrily congratulating ourselves on our cleverness and ingenuity. A strawberry with a cold water fish gene blasted into it survives frost better and leads to higher yields initially. The fruits that are genetically engineered to have a longer shelf life stay fresher while being transported across the country but people who eat such fruits are taking a big hit to their long term health. The industry covers up these facts and we go on with our lives as we always have. Is tomorrow going to be any different than today?

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dissecting "News" - Hugo Chavez

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Angry]

I read two very interesting articles on Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela today, a day after his death.

The first was a news report by Reuters, a very mainstream news source - http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/05/us-venezuela-chavez-idUSBRE92405420130305

And the second, which I came upon a few hours after reading Reuters, is by a well respected investigative journalist who is very much anti-establishment - http://www.gregpalast.com/vaya-con-dios-hugo-chavez-mi-amigo/

Before reading on, I recommend reading these two articles as carefully as you can, pausing after each paragraph to think about what you learned or noticed. I do this sort of an exercise almost all the time these days. It takes me a certain amount of extra mental effort to read this way but it has become easier with time.

Reuters starts off by saying "Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer, ending 14 years of tumultuous rule that made the socialist leader a hero for the poor but a hate figure to his opponents." Now, "A hero for the poor" sounds good but a "hate figure to his opponents" puts me on guard as to what's coming next. We aren't told who these opponents are.

Then, Reuters continues, "Chavez easily won a new six-year term at an election in October and his death will devastate millions of supporters who adored his charismatic style, anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidized food and free health clinics to long-neglected slums. 

Detractors, however, saw his one-man style, gleeful nationalizations and often harsh treatment of opponents as traits of an egotistical dictator whose misplaced statist economics wasted a historic bonanza of oil revenues."

There's something positive said about him in the first paragraph above (actually a lot of nice things) but they're followed by a slew of charges against him, both personal and political. Again, we don't know who these detractors are. By this point, it should cast a certain doubt in the mind of the uninformed reader as to what kind of a man Chavez might really be.

Another attack follows "His health weakened severely just after his re-election on October 7, possibly due to his decision to campaign for a third term instead of stepping aside to focus on his recovery." At about this point, I'm thinking..."looks like he was too power-thirsty for his own good and he ignored his own health, the egotist that he was"

Next, the section "Humble Roots" gives us a brief glimpse into his early life and we begin to have a certain admiration for this man. But we're quickly cautioned with "But Chavez alienated investors with waves of takeovers and strict currency controls, often bullied his rivals, and disappointed some followers who say he focused too much on ideological issues at the expense of day-to-day problems such power cuts, high inflation and crime."

We expect news to be fair and balanced and sure enough, we get plenty of good and plenty of bad on Chavez. By the time we're done reading the Reuters article, we have painted a certain picture of Chavez in our minds. But he's hardly worth talking about. He didn't leave a mark. He sounds like just another run-of-the-mill politician who came from humble beginnings, learned to navigate the politics of this Latin American country and got way too power-hungry and finally succumbed to cancer.

Now, let's look at Greg Palast's article. Palast had met with Chavez and Maduro many times and paints a very different picture of them. He goes into the gory details. He drops plenty of names and places. He quotes people in positions of power and his emotions come across. His blow-by-blow account of how things happened is a far cry from what Reuters gave me. Palast is not afraid of talking about big money, big oil and how they influence world events.

Reuters gave me a rather bland write-up on Hugo Chavez that passes for "news" while Palast gave me more of the real deal. He doesn't hesitate to point his finger at those US powers he thinks or knows to be involved in Venezuelan politics and Chavez's life. Unlike Reuters which is part of a vast media-industrial complex, Palast is a fearless truth-seeker who's trying to get the word out on what's really happening behind the scenes. Reuters dare not go there for fear of upsetting the powers that be. Palast isn't afraid of those powers. Reuters worries about losing revenues. Palast takes donations from you and me

As we digest the news of Chavez's death and hear the pundits talk about him and his legacy in a variety of ways, the future of Venezuela looks uncertain. Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, named by Chavez as his successor is expected to run for office soon. Palast has this to say of Maduro... "as good and decent a man as they come, as heir to the fight for those in the "ranchos." The One Percent of Venezuela, planning on Chavez's death to return them the power and riches they couldn't win in an election, are livid with the choice of Maduro." And what does Reuters have to say about Maduro? "Maduro is a former bus driver who rose from union activist to foreign minister and then to president-in-waiting. He won Chavez's confidence by meticulously echoing his vitriolic rhetoric and never airing a dissenting opinion. Maduro has mimicked Chavez's rabble-rousing style in appearances in recent weeks, peppering speeches with insults aimed at adversaries." What an ass-kisser, this Maduro guy? But, oh wait, that was Reuters! Never mind!

Thank you, Greg, for telling me who Chavez's "opponents" and "detractors" were. Keep up the good work.

None of the above is to say Chavez was a role model for a head of a state. My goal is to point out the stark contrast for what passes for news and opinion in mainstream corporate-controlled media and a more realistic account of what's actually happening based on field research and a good ounce of investigative journalism.

If you have time, I recommend going back to the Reuters article and reading it again. Doesn't it look rather artificial? More bland? Even suspicious as to its agenda? That's mainstream news these days.

I first heard of Hugo Chavez in 2007 when I watched a documentary made by investigative journalist, John Pilger, at the Tiburon International Film Festival in Tiburon, CA. I highly recommend it - http://johnpilger.com/videos/the-war-on-democracy

[Update: March 11, 2013]

Excellent coverage of participatory democracy in Venezuela - http://dissidentvoice.org/2013/03/the-revolution-within-the-revolution-will-continue/