Caucusing

I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.

 

January Reprise

How did it get to be February already? January sped by, possibly because I spent much of it with my nose in a book. The January reading theme was day/month/year (any book with one of those words in the title, or if you want to get a little stretchy, akin to one of the words; I read a couple of morning books, for example, and almost read a book with September in the title, but ran out of time). I finished 16 books in January, almost equally divided between fiction (5), poetry (5), and nonfiction (6).

In a rare occurrence, I had three 2-star books in January. (My rating system: Most books don’t get anything; if I like a book a lot it gets 1 star; if I love it, it gets 2 stars; and if I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, it gets 3 stars.) A Sense of the Morning, by David Brendan Hopes was a wonderful book about the natural world, and more specifically, Hopes’s observations of and interactions within the natural world. Beautiful writing, and a good reminder that if we don’t look, we won’t see anything.

Another nature-related book that got two stars was The Years of the Forest, by Helen Hoover. For many years Hoover and her spouse lived year round in a cabin in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. No electricity, no running water, and for a good part of the book, no car or telephone. They, too, were finely attuned to nature, most especially the animals (deer, birds, groundhogs, mice, spiders, pretty much the entire animal kingdom as they encountered it).

The third 2-star book was A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr. A short novel, the story of a man recently back from serving in World War 1 and his time in a small village restoring a mural in a church. I know, it really doesn’t sound that interesting, but it took me quite by surprise. It is very quietly powerful, and I appreciated it even more after discussing it with a friend.

January also brought some mighty cold weather (a few days where the temp didn’t go above zero) but a lot more mild days and very little snow. So far, for a winter, I am finding it a bit disappointing (I do like a good snowstorm) but there’s still plenty of time for snow.

In the cooking world, I braised a pork shoulder in apple cider and fresh-squeezed orange juice (also with celery, onion, garlic, and orange slices) and it was wonderful—my best success with braising yet. I also made a kind of cheesy wild rice casserole which turned out pretty good, and was even better reheated and topped with beans (a type I had never heard of before, called Jacob’s Cattle; who could resist getting a bean called Jacob’s Cattle? Not me!) and more cheese.

Also some typical winter fodder: chili, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, vegetable soup with lentils, spaghetti, etc.

I also started my new annual bird list, and so far I’ve seen 22 different kinds of birds (12 in my backyard) including one lifebird—the ivory gull up in the Duluth harbor.

I have continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, which gets mailed on a postcard to a friend in Montana)—it’s been more than two years now! I think I’ve only missed a day or two, and those at the beginning. It’s a very good way of staying grounded and it also makes me aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Here are a couple from January:

afternoon bookclub
Bully Pulpit and a beer
the magic of Skype

my car didn’t start
but four cardinals visited
balancing the scales

And I’ve started a new postcard project: I am sending both of my U.S. senators (Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar) daily postcards, urging them to vote against the Dark Act (which would make it illegal for states to require labeling of GMO foods). I am hugely against this dark act. Poll after poll has found that upwards of 90 percent of the population supports the labeling of GMO foods. To pass an act that would deny people the right to know what’s in their food, when there is such overwhelming support for labeling, is a stupifying example of the power corporations have in our government. On this both Republicans and Democrats agree—that GMOs should be labeled and that corporations have far too much power in Washington.

So, a postcard a day—each with a new fact that my good senators might not be aware of; on an entertaining postcard (I have quite a large variety now) that postal workers and clerks can read as well. I hope they vote on the Dark Act before I run out of facts (but not before I convince them to question it!). It’s an uphill fight in this neck of the woods because we have both Cargill and General Mills (not to mention Land O’Lakes and Hormel).

This may not be your issue, but whatever your issue is, let your representatives know! Corporations are very vocal about what they want, and have millions of dollars to spend getting it. Most of us don’t have millions of dollars, but we do have phones and pens. Pick one issue. Just one.

Okay, off my soapbox. Time to sign off and go read a book.

The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

GMOs: Things I didn’t know

Upwards of 90% of people think GMOs (genetically modified foods) should be labeled. Big Ag (including our own Cargill and General Mills) is strongly pushing back, insisting GMOs are safe, and have been found to be safe by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and pretty much everyone who counts.

FC9780802123466Now I have been skeptical of GMOs all along, but I did believe that the government had probably tested and approved them. But I found out while reading World Hunger: 10 Myths by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, that that may not be true.

According to Lappé and Collins (in discussing Myth 3—“Only industrial agriculture and GMOs can feed a hungry world”), the FDA has not formally approved a single genetically modified crop as safe for human consumption. The review process for new GMO plants in voluntary. The FDA relies on the producers to do their own safety and nutritional assessments. In addition, no long-term studies are required for approval. Hmm.

Two decades ago, “the FDA acceded to the industry’s requests and declared GMOs ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-GM-bred crops. . . ignoring the strong doubts of some of its own scientists.” Wow. I had no idea.

Nor is there a scientific consensus that GMOs are safe (note lack of long-term studies, above). Lappé and Collins report on numerous studies (with detailed endnotes and references) and statements that are cause for caution if not concern.

  • One study found pigs on a GMO diet were 2.6 times more likely to get severe stomach inflammation than control pigs.
  • Another found evidence of kidney and liver damage, hormone disruption, and more and earlier tumors on rats fed a GMO diet.
  • Nearly 300 scientists and academics signed a statement emphasizing the lack of scientific consensus on GMOs and called for long-term independent research.

And let’s face it. Big Ag is a powerful industry. Consider this:

A review of ninety-four published studies on the effects of GM food or feed products found that of the studies in which an author is affiliated with the biotech industry, none revealed either health-related risks or lower nutrient values associated with consuming GM food or feed. By contrast, almost a quarter of the studies with no author affiliation with the biotech industry did find problems associated with consumption of GMO products.”

Another supposed advantage of GMOs is that they produce higher crop yields and with fewer pesticides. But in 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that after 15 years, GMO seeds have NOT been shown to increase yield potentials and pesticide use has remained steady (one study) or increased slightly (a different study). Huh.

I have also heard on occasion that farmers are choosing GM seeds over non-GM, suggesting they prefer them. Maybe, maybe not. I have also read stories of farmers looking for non-GM seeds but unable to find them. Some farmers have faced a problem with exports as many countries ban certain GMO foods/commodities, and 64 countries require GMO labeling.

You don’t have to think they’re bad to support GMO labeling. A lot of people aren’t sure. (Of course, a lot of scientists aren’t sure either.) I like to know the ingredients in my food. I like to know how many calories, how much vitamin C, and if there are trans fats. I’d also like to know if it’s genetically modified.

Father Knows Best, Coda

One thing I wish I had thought to include in the original Father Knows Best post is that my dad was a conservative Republican and I was a liberal Democrat for pretty much all of our adult lives (he died in 2008). This wonderful conservative man taught me to buy local and to value community. We did not agree on our political parties, but we found common ground. Sometimes we foundered, but we always gave each other leeway, and we often agreed on issues of finance.

I would often start out with a “What do you think of ______” kind of question. You can almost always find common ground if you ask a few open-ended questions. Dad and I did.

Oh my, I do miss my father. I think we would have a bit more in common politically (and economically) today, and I would certainly welcome his take on the Great Recession from a conservative perspective. One thing my father and I agreed on is that you have to work together if you want to get things done. Compromise. Respect. Honesty.

These are Republican values. These are Democratic values.

One of Paul Roberts’s talking points in The Impulse Society is that our political parties have become branded, and as a result, both have pulled away from center (I would also blame gerrymandering and our political processes in general—most especially the caucusing process). While the two parties become increasingly opposed to agreeing on anything, on principle, the country shuts down.

It’s not just politicians. Several of my friends make blanket comments about Republicans. About how they’re ruining this and that. They hark back to Reagonomics and the war in Iraq.

But Clinton was responsible for overturning Glass-Steagall—the regulatory bill put in place after the Great Depression, to prevent another Great Depression. So instead we had the Great Recession, with the government bailing out banks because they’re too big to fail (TBTF), because if they did, they would take down the entire national—or global—economy.

I was super pissed about the government bailing out the banks. It seemed so unethical. I had surprise company in my anger. A lot of Republicans were pissed about government interfering in the free market and using tax dollars to do it. We’ve become so polarized, we can’t even find common ground when we have common ground!

Since the Great Recession, the TBTFs have become even bigger. They are engaging in similar schemes to increase profits and shareholder value. The crucial thing to note here is that they have not changed their behavior except perhaps to increase the risk factor. It does not take a rocket scientist, or even an economist, to conclude that this is not a good thing for the economy.

Here’s some potential common ground for moving beyond our current political polarization:

MoneyFinancial reform: According to Roberts, “It’s worth noting that some of the loudest voices calling for financial reform are conservative. Likewise, when the Obama administration failed to break up the TBTF banks or to restrict their capacity to make high-risk gambles, the failure outraged not only liberals but many on the right as well.” The implicit promise of another bailout is, to many Republicans, a market-distorting government subsidy that allows big banks to take government-guaranteed risks that smaller banks have to avoid. There’s even been some bipartisan movement here: In 2013, Republican David Vitter (staunch Louisiana conservative) joined the very liberal Sherrod Brown of Ohio on a bill to force the big banks to dramatically cut the amount of debt they take on. The bill was stalled by the banking lobby. (Why is that even legal?)

spending_banCampaign finance reform: Between 2000 and 2012, spending on presidential campaigns more than quadrupled—to more than $2 billion. Two billion dollars! Since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into politics. A lot of rich people love it, but the average person—even the average Republican—is not in favor. Roberts reports that 7 of 10 Republicans favor an amendment that would exclude corporations, unions, and other organizations from free speech protections for large campaign donations.

It makes me feel hopeful that there’s such strong common ground. I agree that these are good—and important—starting places. And I’m pretty sure my dad would as well.

Reading Theme: Foreign Country; Conclusion: Yikes!

Klein bookAfter I finished No Ordinary Time, the 700+ page tome by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for some crazy reason I picked up another large tome (500+ pages) the next day. Oh, truth be told, I picked it up because I couldn’t wait to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It has made for an extremely interesting read alongside some of the books for October’s reading theme: foreign country.

The first book it paired with in a creepy futuristic way was The Windup Girl,Windup by Paulo Bacigalupi. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, in a post-petroleum world, the U.S. is holding much of the world hostage through developing and dispersing plagues (affecting primarily crops, but animals are often fallout), and then offering genetically engineered foods and seeds which resist the plague. Does this sound scarily like Monsanto to you? Not to worry, the company is Agri-Gen (with Pur-Cal as a strong competitor). Shades of General Mills, Cargill, and ADM. NOT a future very difficult to imagine. In fact, we are already halfway there, with our round-up pesticides and our round-up-pesticide-resistant seeds. Oh, and of course the seeds are sterile. The greatest abomination against nature I can think of—to deny seeds reproduction. It is the very essence of seeds to grow and provide more seeds.

Next, capitalism. I’ve only just started Lost and Found in Russia, but as Russia moved away from Communism they applied “Shock Therapy”—the approach favored by the World Bank and grounded in Western economic theory (think Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics). As a result of this recommended approach, prices shot up, with inflation reaching 2000%. Within a year, over 40% of Russians were living in poverty (compared to 1.5% before the “economic revolution”). The seriously dark side of capitalism.

L PerdidaEven the graphic novel I’m reading, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, brings up issues of capitalistic dominance. A Mexican says to a visitor from the States, “You grow up with the dollar who rides on the backs of the poor people of the world, and guns in every closet, and Hollywood that tell you you are right! . . . I am also upset at the government of the United States and el NAFTA! They do not leave me alone! . . . [Y]ou represent the invasion of American Hollywood and imperialism of cultural and economics.”

Eula Biss, in Notes from No Man’s Land, also mentions NAFTA. (I meant to read this for theBiss award-winning books theme for last month—it won the National Book Critics Circle Award—but I didn’t finish it until early October. An excellent book focusing on racial issues, and the best book on race by a white person that I’ve read yet.) After a trip to Mexico, Biss reflects on the American-owned power plants and maquiladoras on the U.S-Mexican border, and the opposition of the Zapatistas and the Indian peasants in Chiapas to NAFTA.

While Clinton was promising that NAFTA would “lift all boats,” the Zapatistas warned that NAFTA would bring falling prices for corn, falling wages for workers, and the loss of land to foreign investors. That is exactly what happened. Because Iowa corn imported into Mexico is heavily subsidized by the United States government, the price of corn in Mexico fell by half during the first ten years of NAFTA. More than a million farmers were displaced from their land and forced to migrate to the cities or the United States, where they became day laborers, picking U.S. crops.

So wouldn’t you think that Mexico would just give preference to local corn? Well it turns out that they can’t. It’s illegal. I have learned from Klein’s book that under the rules of the World Trade Organization, supports for local industry are considered protectionist. In fact, favoring local industry constitutes illegal discrimination. Whoa. Yes! “[T]he most basic rule of trade law is that you can’t privilege domestic over foreign.” Have you ever heard such a cockamamie law? Not to mention destructive—to our local workers, our local economies, our environment, and the world.

We always (at least I always) want to blame the Republicans for these huge agreements thatclinton 2
benefit the rich at the expense of pretty much everyone else but most especially the poor and even more especially, poor farmers. But no, this time it was the Democrats—Bill Clinton, specifically, with the support of the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, National Audubon Society (that just breaks my heart), Natural Resources Defense Council (they used to be my #1 national charity), and the World Wildlife Fund. (In case you want to know who didn’t cave to Al Gore and big business, that would include Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and a lot of small organizations.)

We have a very serious uphill climb ahead of us. It’s not all doom and gloom. Naomi Klein is even cautiously optimistic. If we act now, in a very serious, concerted way, actually privileging the planet over the economy, we could avoid the tipping point. We don’t have to return to the neanderthal stage. Though if we don’t do anything, we probably will. I haven’t gotten to the optimistic part of the book yet. I’ll get back to you.

Cargill’s Paltry Poultry Ploy

Hometown multinational Cargill has announced that it is cutting back on its use of turkeysgrowth-promoting antibiotics, and phasing it out for turkeys completely by 2015. That’s really good news because Cargill is one of the nation’s largest turkey producers. (I didn’t know that until I read it in the Strib article.)

And it matters because most of our food animals are given antibiotics, and it is starting to make antibiotics less effective for humans.

In the human world, antibiotics are wonder drugs, administered when we have a serious infection (strep throat comes to mind), take them all until the pills are gone (even if you feel fine!) and voilà you are cured.

cowIn the animal world, on the other hand, antibiotics are everyday things. Like us, our food animals receive antibiotics when they are sick. But they also get antibiotics in their feed every day, for disease prevention. (That’s kind of like us taking antibiotics every day so we don’t get a cold. Or strep throat.)

And they also give animals antibiotics to boost growth. I was until now unaware of this particular use of antibiotics.

It’s this latter type of antibiotic use that Cargill is phasing out—the growth-enhancing antibiotic. They will continue everyday use of antibiotics for disease prevention purposes.

I have absolutely no issue with using antibiotics to treat illness—in people or animals. They are very effective for this purpose. This is why we love them.

But I do take issue with using antibiotics for prevention, and this is exactly what Cargill is going to continue to do.

Antibiotics are becoming less and less effective in treating human illnesses, due in large part to the indiscriminate and pervasive use of antibiotics in livestock production. This is particularly acute in factory farming.

I remember years and years ago, medical doctors were concerned with the overprescription of antibiotics (to people) because it might reduce their effectiveness. And now they’re everywhere. They’re in the food we eat. If you think about it, it’s really quite insane.

So. Deep breath. Good tiny step for Cargill. Hoping they keep moving down this track to the ones that really matter: Stopping routine use of antibiotics in total.

Antibiotics should always be an exception. Never a rule. (I really don’t think that’s very radical.)

I would say that Cargill has made a paltry little first step. I think it’s more the disease-prevention component of the antibiotics we need to be concerned about.

But a first step is a first step. We’ll see.