Monday, September 30, 2013
Just as murder, rape, and other forms of violent assault against humans continue to occur even though virtually all of us consider such things to be morally wrong, in a vegan world there would still exist instances of animal exploitation. However, the vast majority of people would consider speciesism—much like racism is today—a scourge, and veganism would be a social norm. The legal system would no longer recognize the property status of animals, and harm to any sentient being would be treated similarly regardless of the victim’s species.
Animals would no longer be recognized as resources for our benefit, but rather as persons with self-interests, inherent value, and basic rights. Animal sanctuaries where nonhuman refugees displaced from their natural habitats could live out their lives with minimal interference would exist for as long as they were needed, but institutions that exploit animals for their entertainment value such as pets, animal actors, zoos, marine parks, and aquariums, would not. Animal domestication, similar to how human domestication is regarded today, would no longer be acceptable, and we would no longer be perpetuating it by breeding animals for any purpose.
A vegan world will require a major paradigm shift, with societal attitudes changing first, followed by changes in the legal systems once there exists a sufficient political base to support that. Given that most people already accept the premise that it’s wrong to impose unnecessary pain, suffering, and death on an animal, we are closer to a vegan world than many may think. Increasing awareness of animal agriculture’s damaging effects on human and environmental health will force many changes. However, the more important challenges are to acknowledge that animal exploitation, in all of its many manifestations, is a form of violence, and to then bring our behavior in line with our core beliefs. But we won’t get there without a collective sense of self-efficacy—a durable belief on the part of enough of us that a vegan world can be achieved. We also won’t get there if we don’t change our focus to challenging animal use and killing, rather than continuing to spin our wheels by talking about “humane” treatment of animals that we shouldn’t be bringing into our world and exploiting in the first place.
The world is vegan! If you want it.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
First, animal exploitation and the speciesism that forms its foundation are social justice issues that can only be fixed through an approach that seeks their eradication. For instance, had movements seeking to improve the lives of females taken the position that most people would never accept the concept of equal rights for women, and instead focused on making existing discriminatory practices less objectionable, it is unlikely today that females would have as many opportunities to participate in high school and colligate sports, or to enter traditionally male dominated professions. If movements seeking to improve the lives of members of the LGBT community had taken the position that marriage equality was an unrealistic goal and instead settled for civil unions that provide far fewer benefits, we would not today be looking at a growing number of states where marriage equality is legal. Nor would we be seeing rapidly evolving social attitudes in which even many of the critics of nationwide marriage equality are acknowledging its inevitability. History shows us that major changes in attitudes do occur, and that while the process can be frustratingly slow with pauses and setbacks, progressive social change is all but certain. However, it is always dependent on optimistic individuals with a vision, working towards goals that are radical for their time, who fervently believe that they can be achieved.
Second, the welfarist starting-point position that most people will never go vegan, leads to other positions and campaigns that indeed make it more likely that will be the case. While there are many problems with the welfarist model, which I discussed in detail in this previous post, it is the “happy” animal products phenomenon that best illustrates this point. Animal products marketed as being better for animals, in fact have the opposite effect by encouraging continued consumption. The interests of the animals whose body parts or secretions end up in the grocery store with labeling proclaiming “cage free,” “certified humane raised,” or something similar, are never more than minimally recognized or addressed, and that will continue to be the case as long as animals are considered property. As mere property or commodities, animals always lose out to the economic interests of producers. The “happy” animal product marketing schemes are designed to perpetuate animal consumption by making consumers feel more comfortable about continuing to do that. And they achieve this by effectively keeping the focus on treatment and away from discussions about the more fundamental issue, which is given what we know today about animal sentience, human nutrition, and the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture, why so many of us are still exploiting animals to begin with.
This leads to my third point, which is that whatever the misleading “happy” animal product marketing campaigns may claim, there is no such thing as “humane” or “compassionate” exploitation. If a serial killer took measures to reduce the suffering of his victims before he killed them, no rational person would describe him as “humane” or “compassionate.” Nor would we settle for programs designed to make serial killing “nicer” or “kinder.” Yet we are blinded by convenience and tradition to the very same kind of injustice in instances where the victims are nonhumans.
In summary, we have historical evidence that major social change can and does occur, the pessimistic welfarist approach that focuses on our treatment of animals rather than challenging our use of them and promoting veganism, gets us nowhere, and however cleverly it’s marketed, there is no way that animal exploitation can be made “humane.”
Abolitionism takes a direct path toward a vegan world by focusing on convincing more people to become vegans. Polling done by Harris Interactive for the Vegetarian Resource Group shows that the number of self-identified vegans in the United States rose from 1% of the population in 2009 to 2.5% in 2012—a 150% increase in just three years. Even considering sampling errors (not all self-identified vegans are true vegans), and the fact that three years is not a sufficient period of time to predict a long-term trend, the figure is very encouraging. As each new vegan convinces others to go vegan, and as those they have convinced in turn convince others, and as environmental and global food supply pressures intensify, it is likely that the rate of increase will rise over time.
Probably much sooner than even most abolitionists can imagine, we will have a vegan world. I’m optimistic.
Saturday, June 29, 2013
Many of the posts and tweets have implied either subtly or not that horse slaughter is especially horrible. I could not agree more that horse slaughter is horrible, but equally horrible is the slaughter of billions of cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and other animals that occurs at our hands every year for trivial reasons.
We are conditioned to insert animals into a moral hierarchy, with horses, dogs, and cats closer to the top, rodents and fish near the bottom, and other land animals somewhere in between. But moral hierarchy is wrong precisely because it is a moral hierarchy—a mechanism that arbitrarily assigns higher value to the interests of some over those of others. It is a cultural construct in which animals move up or down the hierarchal ladder based on the cultural norms of a given society at a given moment in its history. Just as ranking the importance of humans by using race or gender is understood by most of us to be wrong, it is similarly wrong to do so using species.
Our world largely runs on supply and demand and we wouldn’t be discussing domestic horse slaughter if not for our continued demand for horses. Minus that demand, we would not be breeding more of them in the first place.
We look harshly upon foreigners who enjoy horsemeat, furthering our underlying xenophobia and false feelings of moral superiority, while failing to recognize the harm we are doing here at home when we patronize horse-drawn carriages, equestrian shows, or horse races. These are all forms of exploitation that treat horses as just another one of our resources. None of them are benign. All of them are abhorrent and contribute to the overall demand.
All animals have self-interests. They all value their lives just like we do and have value that is independent of how we may think about them individually or as members of a particular species. Abolitionist veganism rejects moral hierarchy and species favoritism, and treats similar situations in similar ways.
Please go vegan. It is the moral and political commitment to nonviolence that protects the environment, promotes human health, respects the interests of other sentient species, and as I truly believe will someday be evident, puts us on the right side of history.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Later this morning while stretching at the gym, I overheard a man on the mat next to me saying into his cell phone: "She wants to go to SeaWorld. I think we can find a coupon." We detain animals in zoos, aquatic parks, and aquariums where we strip them of their personhood, manage their lives in unnatural settings, put them on display, and profit off them, merely because we find them entertaining.
A coffee shop was my next stop. While paying for my coffee and bagel, I couldn't help notice the tubs of cream cheese neatly stacked in the refrigerated display case next to me. The dairy industry involves such terrible violence that those containers might as well have been smeared with blood.
I see animal exploitation everywhere I turn, and honestly, it sickens me. But I always remind myself that the discomfort I feel is trivial compared to what the nonhuman animals we exploit have to go through.
If you haven’t already done so, please recognize that animals have an interest in their lives just as humans do. Please reject violence and go vegan.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Most people agree that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain, suffering, or death on animals; and many people say that they love animals. In spite of this, we routinely cause harm to animals in ways that would objectively be described as abuse, for reasons that in almost all cases qualify as frivolous. We often fail to recognize the self-interests and intrinsic worth of animals as thinking, feeling, sentient beings, as we focus instead on how they can be most useful to us.
We may not always agree on exactly what constitutes the necessary use of animals, but surely in today’s society, it is not necessary to use animals for food, clothing, or the majority of the other things we utilize them for. In fact, regarding food, the American Dietetic Association clearly states in a position paper that: “Appropriately planned vegan, lacto-vegetarian, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets satisfy nutrient needs of infants, children, and adolescents and promote normal growth” (Craig, Mangels). Furthermore, our consumption of animal products has been linked to increasingly serious E. coli outbreaks and elevated rates of various degenerative diseases, and is devastating to the environment.
Clearly our behavior is often inconsistent with our professed beliefs. Depending on the particular species of animal, our actions may reflect anything from resolute consistency to absolute contradiction. The basis for our belief that it is wrong to cause the unnecessary death of a human or other animal is the universally understood idea that death represents severe, and perhaps ultimate harm, to any perpetually aware or sentient individual. Yet while we regard some kinds of animals, such as the dogs and cats that many of us live with, as nonhuman persons whose lives and interests we value deeply and whose deaths we mourn, we accept with little or no thought the routine, and often large-scale killing of other kinds of animals—who exhibit no meaningful cognitive differences—for food, clothing, biomedical research, and other uses. While most of us do not regard animals as mere “things,” they are nevertheless considered property under the law and are frequently treated as resources or commodities with considerable latitude granted to their respective owners.
Animal rights theorist and Rutgers University law professor Gary L. Francione, calls this inconsistent situation “moral schizophrenia” (Francione, Introduction). His theory, which is based solely on animal sentience, calls for the abolition of animal exploitation, the promotion of veganism as the moral baseline of the animal rights movement, the rejection of measures that seek to regulate exploitation, and the clear rejection of violence, both generally and as a tactic to further social change (Francione, “Mission”).
In 2009, the estimated 59 billion land and sea animals killed in the United States for food represented the vast majority of our animal use (Mohr). It should be noted that this figure includes animals used for dairy and eggs, as they too are sent to the slaughterhouse, once they are no longer economically productive. This cannot by any reasonable definition be considered necessary. Rather, the pain, suffering, and death we impose on nonhumans is a combined result of cultural tradition, habit, convenience, and the pleasure and enjoyment we derive from eating animals, wearing them, and being entertained by them.
Our conflicted attitudes toward animal death and killing represent speciesism, which is a form of discrimination based on species membership. We tend to take more seriously the protection of species we consider companion animals, those animals that are more closely related to us such as nonhuman primates, and animals that we perceive as cute, such as dolphins, seals, and pandas. Often, intellectual capacity is also a factor that we apply when we insert animals into a moral hierarchy. However, none of these factors are relevant to one’s ability to experience pain, suffering, or the fear of death. The majority of us understand that when it comes to humans it is fundamentally wrong to deny basic rights to those who we deem less intelligent, less attractive, or more “different.” If we can acknowledge that the species of a sentient being is no more morally relevant than a person’s intelligence, skin color, age, or gender, than we must dismantle the moral hierarchy we have created for animals, and give their interests equal consideration. In other words, we must treat similar situations in similar ways.
The value assigned to the lives of animals of a given species can be very different depending on the cultural context. In a 2008 essay, sociologist Roger Yates compared how the killing of dolphins is viewed in Japan and many Western countries. In the West, a number of animal advocacy groups, reflecting—and perhaps to some extent influencing—public attitudes, fund campaigns against dolphin slaughter by the Japanese fishing industry. Western culture values dolphins, while many Japanese consider the animals to be pests, similar to how cattle farmers in the West see foxes. Referring to a conversation about this with a Japanese friend, Yates wrote: “However, one thing tends to unite the Japanese ... and that is a generalized resentment to being told what to do by countries whose peoples are quite happy to chomp away on pigs, chickens and cows. To the Japanese, this is gross hypocrisy to be dismissed as such” (Yates).
Cultural differences regarding animals surfaced during the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, China, when officially designated Olympic restaurants were ordered not to serve dog flesh during the month of August, as a public relations measure directed at foreign visitors. Again, we had a hypocritical situation. In this case, visitors from other countries and cultures may have frowned upon eating dogs, while not thinking twice about eating other sentient species, and the similar pain, suffering and death that resulted. There was no evidence to suggest that the ban would have done anything to reduce overall animal suffering and death, as diners who could not order dog flesh were free to substitute another species of animal on the menu.
“From a moral standpoint, eating dogs is no better or worse than eating cows, chickens, pigs, or fish. That seeing dogs listed on restaurant menus in Beijing may offend or upset foreign visitors, says more about Western speciesism than China’s comparative level of civilization and modernity,” wrote this author in a 2008 blog essay (Hopes).
The case of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is strikingly illustrative of our conflicted attitudes about animals. Vick was convicted in 2007 in federal court for running an interstate dog fighting operation in which dogs suffered terribly and often died as a consequence. Both the case itself and its heavy media coverage were steeped in hypocrisy and speciesism from the beginning.
The NFL player grew up in a subculture where dog fighting was accepted. What Vick did was clearly wrong, and this was by no means a justification for his actions. But it represented an explanation that was most often overlooked by the media, various animal advocacy groups that weighed in on the issue, and the general public. Of course in our larger culture, it is considered acceptable to eat animal products from animals that also suffer terribly and are killed. Morally, what Vick did was no different from what most of us do every day—exploiting animals for the trivial reasons of pleasure and entertainment. The only difference was that Vick used dogs.
Vick, who served 19 months in prison, was unfairly singled out by the NFL, which suspended him, his sponsors who abandoned him, animal groups who called for his punishment, and a legal system that does not imprison animal exploiters in general. But the NFL presides over an inherently violent sport, and accepts advertising from corporations whose operations revolve around the exploitation of animals. Hamburgers, ice cream, and other animal products are sold in the stadiums during the football games. One of Vick’s sponsors, Kraft Foods, is a leading marketer of animal-based foods. His deal with Nike was suspended. Nike is on record for egregious worker exploitation, and sells leather shoes. Finally, none of the big animal advocacy organizations used the case as an opportunity to educate the public about non-violence and veganism, by pointing out that all use of animals, not just dog fighting, represents animal abuse and violence.
Gary L. Francione wrote about this in a 2009 op-ed titled We’re All Michael Vick that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “There is something bizarre about condemning Michael Vick for using dogs in a hideous form of entertainment when 99 percent of us also use animals that are every bit as sentient as dogs in another hideous form of entertainment that is no more justifiable than fighting dogs: eating animals and animal products,” he said. Concluding the piece, Francione asked: “How removed from the screaming crowd around the dog pit is the laughing group around the summer steak barbecue” (Francione)?
Focusing so narrowly on Vick and the comparatively rare practice of dog fighting, served to reinforce the idea of dogs as special and Vick as a monster, while doing nothing to bring attention to the comparatively much larger problem of the billions of animals tortured and killed for food. Some people claim that dogs are indeed special, but unlike a peer-reviewed finding based on empirical evidence, this represents an opinion analogous to someone who believes that membership in a particular racial group elevates a human being to a special status. It was admirable that Michael Vick went on to denounce dog fighting, but by not denouncing all animal exploitation and embracing veganism, existing speciesist thinking was fortified, and lessons were not learned.
It can be said that language shapes the channels within which our thinking flows. How we as individuals, and collectively as a culture, use language—more specifically the words that we choose—has a way of both influencing and reflecting how we think about animals. For example, it is exceedingly rare that we use the pronoun “it” when referring to a human, though we occasionally use the word when referring to a companion animal, and very frequently when referring to other nonhuman animals. “It” implies a thing, an object, commodity, resource, or property, while “he” or “she” suggests sentience, personhood, or an individual. We find it easier to enslave, impose pain or suffering upon, or terminate the life of an “it” as opposed to a “he” or “she.” Likewise, we find it more difficult to recognize the inherent moral value and self-interests of an “it.”
Producers, often in partnership with animal advocacy or environmental groups, have created various marketing terms and consumer labeling programs that attempt to steer our thinking or play on our existing biases. For example, “certified humane” animal products imply better and kinder conditions for animals raised for food, yet those animals are still subjected to intense confinement, painful procedures, and deliberately imposed death. “Dolphin-safe tuna” strengthens the speciesist idea that we should take seriously the protection of dolphins, but not tuna. The intended and actual effect of these measures is to make consumers feel less guilty about continuing to eat animal products.
“We only grow one crop of fish at a time on a farm, and we have crop rotation,” Nell Hales of Cooke Aquaculture proudly told the reporter in a 2009 “Green Week” piece on NBC Nightly News (Thompson). In the story, fish are commodities or “crops” like stalks of corn, not individuals; we are told that the dramatic plunge in the ocean’s fish population is a problem only because there are fewer fish for humans to kill and eat, and that aquaculture, rather than not eating fish, is the solution. Even though fish are more evolutionarily distant from us and may not be as easy to relate to as mammals, scientists have nevertheless concluded that they are sentient with the capacity to feel pain (Sneddon).
In conclusion, one could say that our conflicted attitudes about the death of animals, along with our exploitation of them, largely results from what we have believed and have done in the past for quite some time. We are born into and raised in a culture where nonhuman animals are property, where animal exploitation is the everyday norm, and is convenient and traditional. We are conditioned to not seeing the situation objectively, to not acknowledging that when we kill an animal we are committing an act of violence that destroys a personality. Until we reject our current paradigm, nonhumans will always be valued more for how useful they are to us as things, than for their intrinsic worth as sentient individuals.
Given proper attention by growing numbers of individuals to the core of the problem, which is speciesism and violence, and to the solution to the problem, which is veganism, there is every reason to believe that attitudes will change. Francione, who considers veganism to be a moral and political commitment to the abolition of animal exploitation, sees creative non-violent vegan education as the cure for our moral schizophrenia. “The animal rights position is the ultimate rejection of violence. It is the ultimate affirmation of peace” (Francione, “Mission”).
Craig, Winston J., and Mangels, Ann Reed. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109:7 (2009): 1266-82.
Francione, Gary L. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University P, 2000. 1-30. Print.
---. “Mission Statement” Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach n.d. n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.
---. “We’re all Michael Vick.” The Philadelphia Inquirer
14 Aug. 2009. n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.
Hopes, Kenneth. “Beijing Restaurants Take Dogs off the Menu During the Olympic Games” Brockway Hall 5 Aug. 2008 n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.
Mohr, Noam. “59 Billion Land and Sea Animals Killed for Food in the U.S. in 2009.” Free From Harm 15 Jan. 2011. n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.
Sneddon, Lynne U. “The Evidence for Pain in Fish: the Use of Morphine as an Analgesic.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 83.2 (2003) 153-62. ScienceDirect. Web 12 June 2011.
Thompson, Anne. “Teach a Man to Farm Fish.” NBC Nightly News KPNX, Phoenix. 20 April 2009. Television.
Yates, Roger. “Something Fishy About Campaigns about Dolphins and Whales?” On Human-Nonhuman Relations 31 Aug. 2008 n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Heath education is so much more than providing data and teaching people a set of rules. I believe that attaining and maintaining optimal health and wellness requires a lifetime of work, learning, and discovery. It is a state that arises not from what we may pursue on a particular day, not from a particular product, a particular program, or a specific focus; but from the cumulative effect of how we go about our lives over many months, years, and decades. I firmly believe that people need to be shown a way to fully integrate healthy behavior patterns into their lives, so that they become habitual and indistinguishable from their normal ways of being. I feel that the best way to do this is to pursue creative ways of showing people how to appreciate the daily experience of physical activity in the form of play, to recognize as cardiologist and distance runner Dr. George Sheehan once said, “we are all athletes; the difference is that some of us are in training and some of us are not,” and to understand the essential roles of good nutrition and other healthy lifestyle practices in supporting that activity in both the near-term, and as one progresses through consecutive stages of life. Health then becomes a positive symptom of what one is pursuing, rather than a goal itself. These changes in mindset, if they are to be successfully attained and sustained, require gradual adjustment and will not happen overnight. I believe that patience and understanding are crucial qualities of the health educator. While I clearly understand the importance of individual responsibility, I also recognize that individuals are influenced, shaped, and constrained by the society around them. Therefore as a society we have a responsibility to do collectively what individuals themselves cannot do—regulate our food suppliers, design our communities, protect public health, educate, and deliver health care, in ways that make healthy behaviors viable, practical, and attractive for individuals and families regardless of income or where they live.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Roasted Vegetables: beets, yams, purple potatoes, parsnips, carrots, yellow onion, garlic, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, olive oil, black pepper, and salt.
Macaroni and “Cheese”: whole-wheat macaroni, Daiya vegan cheddar style cheese alternative, soymilk, and salt.
Vegan Wine: Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon
Fruit Smoothie: orange juice, soymilk, banana, frozen mango chunks, frozen blueberries, cranberry relish (cranberries cooked with water and unbleached sugar), and unsweetened cocoa powder.
This was my 33rd turkey-free Thanksgiving, but far more significantly, my seventh Thanksgiving as a vegan. My delicious Thanksgiving meal, like all my meals, was low in saturated fat; contained no lactose, casein, or cholesterol; and had plenty of fiber, antioxidants and other phytochemicals.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
One thing most Americans will agree on is the need for an effective government that is accountable to its citizens. Before that can happen in our democracy, the citizenry must be informed. Increasingly we are seeing corporate interests influencing our elected politicians, both directly through intense lobbying and campaign contributions, and indirectly through the control of the media sources that Americans rely on for news and informed debate. When voters make decisions based on misinformation from major media outlets, when politicians capitalize on that misinformation rather than challenge it, and when those politicians spend considerable time with corporate lobbyists and accept their money, the system fails us. Even though some free market proponents may disagree, for our government to work properly, we must ensure that there exists adequate and sensible regulation, enforcement of antitrust laws, equitably applied taxes, and a robust firewall that prevents corporations from unduly influencing our news media and our politicians.
On corporate power, political activist Ralph Nader once wrote: “Competition, free enterprise, and an open market were never meant to be symbolic fig leaves for corporate socialism and monopolistic capitalism” (Green). However, simply admonishing the corporations will not change anything. Since corporations exist to make profits for their shareholders, it should be no surprise that they will do whatever they can get away with to achieve those ends. It is our government framework within which corporations exist as legal entities, that is flawed and must be changed.
We have seen the repercussions of this to varying degrees in such recent programs as the stimulus bill, “cash for clunkers,” and the health care bill. But first, let’s look briefly at a federal program that preceded those, and was in some respects foundational. As our government’s first major response to the economic downturn, the nature of its failures and successes would set a pattern.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, commonly known as TARP, is a federal government program intended to assist financial institutions and stabilize the ailing financial sector in the wake of the dramatic drop in the stock market. It was quickly established by the previous administration, and continued under the current administration. Controversial from the start, and sold to the nation as an emergency measure with little time for thoughtful debate, TARP granted unprecedented authority to the Treasury Secretary. While the bulk of the program consisted of buying assets and equity from financial institutions, later uses of remaining funds included home foreclosure mitigation.
It turns out that our government will end up profiting from the program. A January, 2010 projection from the Congressional Budget Office projects a total net profit of $14 billion (Yang). That’s good news considering our current deficit, but the much touted purpose of the bailout—getting banks to resume lending money following the credit freeze—has not happened in any satisfactory way. Critics assert that many of the largest banks used the money for mergers and acquisitions, rather than to make loans (Patalon). Quite ironically, some of the largest institutions that were rescued because they were supposedly “too big to fail,” are now bigger than before. And while many of these big banks have paid back the money and returned to business as usual, and the stock market continues to recover; numerous small banks have gone under, communities across America remain depressed, wage growth stagnates, and high unemployment persists.
Two years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, lax regulatory oversight of the financial industry continues (Siskey). Congress and the administration have yet to institute substantive banking reform, reinstate the Glass-Steagal Act which for decades prevented banks from getting involved in risky investments and speculation, or to push enforcement of anti-trust laws; all crucial in preventing a repeat of the financial crisis.
Had our government officials, when formulating the program, taken more time to consider the larger picture, and less time accommodating the financial industry, perhaps more benefits would have flowed down to the overall economy instead of accumulating at the top.
Let us now examine in a more detailed way, some subsequent government programs, and how corporate interests influenced their design.
While the basic idea of the stimulus program was sound, it is evident more than one year later that the bill attempted to accomplish too much with too little money; suffering from too much compromise, too much corporate influence, too much reliance on popular political positions over thoughtfully applied empirical data, and an overall lack of bold and cohesive vision.
Known officially as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the bill was quickly signed into law in February, 2009 by the new President as a means to strengthen the economy and reduce unemployment during the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression.
At a time when consumers, businesses, and state and local governments were cutting back severely on their spending, the federal government urgently needed to step in and fill the vacuum. Supporters argued that by providing a source of funding for various “shovel-ready” public works projects that could be quickly initiated, significant numbers of unemployed workers would be put back to work. Those workers could then pay their bills and spend money in their communities (Reich).
However, what ultimately coalesced as the final bill was a wide ranging mix that included tax cuts, unemployment benefit extensions, increases to Pell grants, and numerous other measures (Lieber). While some of those things were clearly needed, as an unfortunate consequence, spending on infrastructure ended up being less than ten percent of the bill, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (Goldman). This was not nearly enough to bolster the construction sector that had been severely affected by the recession. Nor was it enough to make substantive progress improving our aging, unsafe, and increasingly obsolete infrastructure at a time when prices for concrete and steel were depressed and the number of idled construction workers was exceedingly high. Further reducing its impact is the slow pace at which the funds continue to be spent, as program administrators are cautious about maintaining accountability. One year into the program, less than one-third of the allocated funds had been released (Farley).
For the most part, economists agree that without the stimulus bill, the unemployment rate would be even higher than it stands today (Stolberg). But some—most ardently economist Paul Krugman and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich—argue that with unemployment currently hovering around ten percent, additional stimulus is needed (Reich, Krugman).
“When one out of six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, this is no time to worry about the debt,” Reich wrote last fall in his blog (Reich). Comparing federal government deficit spending with household debt, is a false analogy, he contends. Reich calls the federal government “the spender of last resort,” and with no near-term prospect for increased demand from other sectors, sees more federal investments as critical to economic recovery (Reich).
Even before the stimulus bill was signed, Krugman was criticizing it for being far short of what was needed. He thinks the fact that unemployment is higher now than when the bill was signed, shows that the economy was weaker than had been thought. “The source of the recovery is hard to see,” he said early last year. He does not envision a significant upturn in business investing unless some breakthrough technology emerges; nor does he see U.S. manufacturing coming back in a big way. Spending more on public infrastructure, he believes, is a major way of reducing unemployment while preparing ourselves for the future (Earnshaw).
When asked about the consequences of increasing the national debt, Krugman explained: “Belgium has debt equal to 87 percent of its gross domestic product. That's 40 percent higher than ours, with no financial crisis. So we can probably run up another $6 trillion in debt” (Earnshaw).
The infrastructure investment that was the element of the program most heavily promoted by its supporters has come up short. More than a year later, in the face of a stubbornly persistent jobless “recovery,” a second, larger stimulus bill focused on both education spending and large transformative infrastructure projects, is vitally needed. The federal government should also seriously consider implementing a modern-day version of the depression-era Works Progress Administration. Directly hiring unemployed people to perform a variety of socially beneficial activities in their communities, from teaching to constructing basic infrastructure improvements, makes more sense than merely paying them extended unemployment benefits to look for nonexistent jobs. While these measures will no doubt increase the national debt in the short term, with a comprehensive approach that seeks to better prepare us for future economic performance, we’ll have a greater chance of returning people to working, spending, and paying taxes. Once the economy is strong, revenues will rise and the debt can be reduced.
The government’s “Cash for Clunkers” program was another well meaning measure aimed at stimulating the economy that could have been better designed, to focus more on domestic job creation by disallowing cars not made in America, to provide stronger environmental benefits, and to anticipate and plan for its popularity in order to avoid the resulting logistical problems for manufacturers and dealers, and the inconvenience and uncertainty experienced by consumers.
“Cash for Clunkers,” which began last summer, is known formally as the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save (CARS) program. It offered vouchers worth up to $4,500 to consumers trading in older model cars and trucks for new, more efficient models. After very quickly running out of cash, it was extended by Congress for an additional few weeks (Leonard).
Though he voted for the bill, Representative Dennis Kucinich had reservations, and said about the program last June, “It is good that we try to create an incentive for people to buy fuel efficient cars. It is bad that the car vouchers will not be expressly for the purchase of cars made in America” (Kucinich). While some car and truck models made by American manufacturers are produced outside the U.S., and while some models made by foreign-based manufacturers are produced in U.S. plants, allowing eligibility only for American-made models would have better benefited American workers in the near term by providing more hours of employment, and in the long term by strengthening a major sector of our shrinking industrial-manufacturing base.
Environmentalists have criticized the measure for both its failure to include the dirtiest cars on the road, and its lax fuel efficiency requirements for new vehicles. Congress yielded to lobbyists for antique auto parts suppliers and classic car collectors, by excluding from trade-in eligibility millions of pre-1984 models that are disproportionately responsible for vehicle-source air pollution. Car collectors defended the age limits by claiming that the old cars are rarely driven, but experts at the California Air Resources Board pointed out that “an old 1965 model Chevrolet Malibu driven only 1,000 miles per year produces as much pollution as a new Malibu would in 400,000 miles” (Vartabedian).
At the conclusion of the program, it was clear that consumers had traded up to more fuel efficient vehicles. “One thing that was very encouraging,” said Sierra Club analyst Jesse Prentice-Dunn, “was that more than 84 percent traded in trucks and other gas guzzlers, and 59 percent purchased cars.” The organization was initially concerned that the fuel efficiency standards were weak and that the program encouraged a “throw-away” mentality (Blake).
Other environmental groups offered more strenuous criticism, though nobody was claiming that the program, considering its limited duration, could ever result in major improvements in our nation’s oil consumption or carbon emissions. In fact, one estimate concluded that the resulting cut in overall gasoline consumption was only 0.04% per year (Carey). Nevertheless, while the principle purpose of the program was to quickly stimulate the economy, there was no reason, given the opportunity, to not also focus on reducing reliance on foreign oil and cutting vehicle pollution, by using stronger mileage requirements to encourage more demand for the models that best met those goals.
The program was almost a victim of its own success, with very strong consumer demand from the start. The government had difficulty processing the reimbursements in a timely manner, dealerships and manufacturers were swamped, and the original funding ran out in just one week. Congress quickly appropriated more money to extend the program, and auto sales for July, 2009 spiked considerably (Leonard).
Such high demand for the program supports the idea that the available funds would have still been spent had stricter standards (American-made vehicles, higher fuel efficiency requirements) been included, though likely at a slower rate that would have avoided some of the chaos experienced by dealers, producers, and consumers.
Some of the program’s critics have characterized it as a complete failure, generally a waste of money, or as a costly way to achieve relatively miniscule environmental benefits (Anwyl). Granted, it may never be known if the program actually resulted in a net increase in auto sales, or merely shifted forward sales that would have occurred anyway a few months later. But at the very least, money was injected into the economy. In states like Michigan where unemployment was 15.2 percent last summer, auto plants were reopened and assembly workers were rehired to meet demand. After investing billions in Chrysler and General Motors, it made sense for the federal government to further their chances of recovery by encouraging consumers to purchase their products.
Much like the stimulus bill, “Cash for Clunkers” was a good idea that could have been better in its design and execution. The end result can be attributed to a combination of competing political interests, the ever-present influence of corporate lobbyists, and a sense of urgency amidst persistent high unemployment.
The health care bill recently signed into law is in many ways an unfortunate piece of legislation resulting from weak leadership from the White House, and members of Congress unwilling to challenge the corporate interests who help fund their election campaigns. Far from the fundamental reform that was promised by our President during his election campaign, its timid language serves to advance the existing private insurance model. With no public option, no allowance for importation of cheaper prescription drugs, no ability for Medicare to negotiate volume discounts on drugs, and a guarantee of 32 million new customers, passage of this bill is a clear victory for the for-profit health insurance firms, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies, whose stock prices not coincidentally rose decisively on the Monday following the Sunday vote in the House of Representatives (Brickates-Kennedy).
Yet, in spite of its many shortcomings—including the fact that this was not the kind of bill the nation truly needed to finally create a modern and efficient universal health care system—there were enough good elements contained therein, that when considered in the overall context of a contentious, yearlong legislative process, its passage was nevertheless worthwhile.
There are a number beneficial changes that will go into effect later this year, and others that will take up to several years to unfold. There are cost savings that will help our economy, numerous pilot programs to examine better and creative ways of keeping people healthy and delivering care, and new regulations on insurance companies to protect patients. On balance, these changes are modest at best; certainly not transformational. However, it’s a start upon which we can begin the process of building what should eventually be not just one of the world’s better comprehensive health care systems, but the best system, that every other nation can look to as the global standard.
Let us now briefly examine why those in Congress who voted for the health care bill did the right thing, what the law will do in the near and long term, and what improvements and further measures should be pursued in the future.
Had this bill been defeated, with nothing of substance on deck to take its place, there is no reason to think that our dysfunctional system would not have continued to impose rapidly rising costs on businesses, governments, and individuals until the system literally collapsed. Such continued cost increases would mean more Americans would find themselves uninsured or underinsured. The consequences of individuals not having access to quality primary care and preventive services, negatively impacts the overall society when patients seek costly treatment in emergency rooms, or burden the economy because chronic illness or disability reduces their ability to work.
“People think if we do nothing, we will have what we have now. In fact, what we will have is a substantial deterioration in what we have,” explained Karen Davis of the nonprofit health care research group, the Commonwealth Fund (Abelson).
Paul B. Ginsburg, the president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonprofit Washington research group, said of our unsustainable situation: “We have an affordability problem that is moving up through the middle class now” (Abelson).
According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the health care bill will cut the deficit by $138 billion in its first decade, and by $1.2 trillion over the second decade, while broadening coverage to 95 percent of Americans. While these savings are estimates, they’re the least politicized source of figures available; and while not as significant as what could be achieved with a public option or a single-payer model, they are still substantial (O’Connor).
Among the many provisions beginning this year, young people up to age 26 can be covered by their parent’s policies. Insurers will no longer be allowed to impose lifetime coverage limits, exclude people because of preexisting conditions, or drop people because they get sick. In later years, a slight Medicare tax increase on individuals earning more than $200,000 annually will be imposed to help pay for the program. Most people will be required to obtain health insurance, while those who cannot afford it will receive subsidies. Preventive services will be covered at minimal or no cost to patients. Medicare will begin basing payments to doctors on the quality of care rather than the number of procedures performed (Smith).
Possibly the most promising part of the health care law are the many little-mentioned pilot programs. In his 2009 piece in The New Yorker magazine, Testing, Testing, reporter Atule Gawande describes a federal program begun in 1903 consisting of hundreds-of-thousands of small experimental farms where comparative-effectiveness research was conducted, and a vast nationwide network of Cooperative Extension Service offices staffed by “extension agents” who worked closely with farmers to help them increase the quality and volume of their crops. At the beginning, there was considerable resistance and cynicism on the part of farmers and the general public. The gains in efficiency came slowly, but were nevertheless dramatic. Decades later, a transformation had taken place. Today Americans devote a much smaller percentage of their incomes to putting food on the table, and the size of the agricultural sector is a mere fraction of what it once was. Gawande presents many parallels between agriculture and health care, then asks the logical question: “Could something like this happen with health care?” (Gawande).
Our current dysfunctional system is problematic not only for the millions of Americans that lack access to health care, but also for its effect on the overall economy. It would have been better if the new health care law removed the private insurance industry from the picture and replaced it with a single-payer system. Private for-profit insurers pursue profits by cutting people’s access to needed care. It is morally troubling to have a for-profit entity between patients and their doctors. No other nation permits such a situation (Manchester). Furthermore, from an economic standpoint, a single-payer system based on the current Medicare program expanded to Americans of all ages, would be cheaper than our existing system due to substantially lower overhead (Fiore).
Some critics claim that the health care law represents a government takeover, or socialized medicine. The facts do not support these assertions. On the contrary, the law simply puts in place needed, reasonable regulation to an existing fully privatized health care system, while beginning to address the problem of the corporate stranglehold over medicine. A government takeover would instead be a single-payer Medicare-for-all model similar to what exists in Canada and several other nations where both costs and outcomes are significantly better than in the United States. Socialized medicine would instead resemble the Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System, which has been a leader in the development of electronic medical records and evidence-based medicine and patient practices, and outperforms the private sector in quality according to a RAND Corporation study (Mechanic, RAND).
We need to build upon the health care law by continuing to look receptively at what other countries are doing, accelerating the start of the pilot programs, placing more emphasis on prevention, and realigning our farm subsidies so that they no longer serve to make unhealthy food less expensive.
We see in these programs, a pattern that includes a lack of focus and leadership, and timid and confusing goals. Misinformation and distortions abound as corporate interests and politicians frame these and other programs in ways that best serve them.
Increasingly, Americans have a negative view of the political process, and feel disconnected from their own government. This is not an inevitable situation. This is not a reason to be cynical about government. On the contrary, we can have better government on all levels, if we want it. It sounds simplistic, but ultimately change must start with each of us. In our system, the government is us. If Americans want their government to serve them well, we and those who we elect to public office must have high expectations of government. Conversely, if too many of us have low expectations of government, we'll get exactly what we expect.
In a nation that now consists of more than 300 million citizens, the large size of our government is a problem only to the extent that it’s answering to anything other than its people.
Historian and political activist Howard Zinn once said: “. . . ‘big government’ in itself is hardly the issue. That is here to stay. The only question is: Whom will it serve?” (Zinn).
Ableson, Reed. “The Cost of Doing Nothing on Health Care.” New York Times 26 Feb. 2010. n. pag. Web. 18 March 2010.
Anwyl, Jeremy. “More Cash for Clunkers?” Wall Street Journal 3 Aug. 2009: 9. ProQuest. Web. 9 March 2010.
Blake, Harriet. “Cash for Clunkers edges Americans onto Greener Roads.” greenrightnow.com/wtvd. WTVD 27 Aug. 2009. n. pag. Web. 9 March 2010.
Brickates-Kennedy, Val. “Drug Stocks Rise as Healthcare Bill Passes.” MarketWatch.com 22 March 2010. n. pag. Web. 15 March 2010.
Carey, John. “Cash for Clunkers: How Green Is It?” BusinessWeek 5 Aug. 2009. n. pag. Web. 10 March 2010.
Earnshaw, Aliza. “Krugman: Stimulus Needs to be Twice as Big.” Portland Business Journal 30 Jan. 2009. n. pag. Web. 7 March 2010.
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Gawande, Atul. “Testing, Testing,” The New Yorker 14 Dec. 2009. EBSCOhost. n. pag. Web. 15 March 2010.
Goldman, David. “Engineers: U.S. Infrastructure a ‘D’.” CNNMoney.com. Cable News Network. 28 Jan. 2009. n. pag. Web. 7 March 2010.
Green, Mark. The Closed Enterprise System. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1972. ix. Print.
Krugman, Paul. “Too Little of a Good Thing.” New York Times 1 Nov. 2009. n. pag. Web. 9 March 2010.
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Mechanic, David. The Truth about Health Care: Why Reform Is Not Working in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University P, 2006. 118. Print.
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009
In 1969 John Lennon and Yoko Ono leased billboards in eleven major cities around the world. One of those billboards wrapped around a building in New York’s Times Square. All of them read:
That message deployed forty years ago this month was part of a larger campaign that included posters, leaflets, newspaper advertisements, and radio spots; all intended to bring awareness to the fact that the Vietnam War could be ended and peace could prevail, if only individuals stopped waiting complacently for large corporate and government institutions or other forces to act, and simply decided that they wanted it.
Professor Gary Francione has proposed that we use this same message of self empowerment and individual responsibility to promote veganism. His idea centers on a virtual billboard, disseminated across the worldwide web, to all populated corners of our planet, in every written language, with the simple message:
THE WORLD IS VEGAN!
If you want it.
Such a campaign, in our modern interconnected global village, has the potential to reach far more people, in far more places, and far more quickly than John and Yoko’s antiwar campaign did.
Francione intends to use this virtual billboard to educate people about nonviolence, speciesism, animal exploitation, the personhood of animals, and very importantly, our ability as individuals to make the choices that will reduce demand for animal use and ultimately bring about a peaceful vegan world.
Francione’s website page for this campaign—complete with links to various HTML-based banners in multiple languages—is available here.