Black Lives Matter

Racism is alive and well in our country. It’s changed. It’s less overt. But it’s still here. We have solid evidence of institutional racism, especially within police departments, the criminal justice system, and the media that portrays many racial minorities as criminals and parasites—Blacks and Hispanics most of all.

Yes, one third of black men will spend time in prison. Yes, blacks are six times more likely to live below the poverty line than whites. Why? Are they inherently disposed to poverty and crime? Of course not. That would be racist.

Or are their circumstances nearly insurmountable as they’re trapped in a cycle of poverty and a social environment hostile to the color of their skin? They’re calling out to us: “Black lives matter.” And we’re responding: “All lives matter”, “Blue lives matter”, “Take responsibility”, “Stop being criminals”, “Stop being poor”.

Shame on us. We’re ignoring the point: Our society is racist. And not only are most of us doing little or nothing to change that, many of us are blaming the victim. That’s not just low, that’s the very nature of racism in today’s culture.

The Luxuries of Government Assistance (Rant)

Disabled? Can’t work? No problem! We here at the government can assist you! You just need to do a shitload of the most complicated and frustrating work ever to prove you can’t work! Endless paperwork! Long waiting times! And any mistake we can make, we will. Because we care!

Are you permanently disabled? You need to prove it on a regular basis because we don’t believe your doctors!

Made $15 more this month than last? You lose $55 in food stamps! Why? Because our mathematical algorithms are specifically designed to maximize fucking you.

Already sent in all the paperwork we need? We lost it like we did the last three times. Send it again. And again. And again…

Homeless? No paperwork? Fuck you! Go to a soup kitchen. No transportation? Middle of winter? Fuck you!

We here at the government will do everything in our power to make it impossible for you to get assistance. And when you do get it, we’ll fuck up everything and make you spend hours, days, weeks, even months fixing our errors after we try our damnedest to blame them on you. We’re not happy until you’re lying on the ground in a fetal position crying.

Because we care!

A Skeptical Look at GMO Safety

Golden rice. Image via WikiMedia. (Golden rice. Photo via WikiMedia.)

Golden rice is touted as one of the highest achievements of agricultural GMOs. Enriched with a vitamin A precursor and designed for high yields, it has the potential to help millions of malnourished people all over the world, especially in Africa and South Asia. But how safe is it? Finding out may be difficult despite a mountain of research. Patents stand in the way.

All GMO studies are conducted or constrained by the agricultural biotech industry. Because of patents, seed companies control their products’ research. That opens a path to publication bias, as we saw in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies omitted unfavorable studies of antidepressants. Independent research isn’t enough. We need unrestricted research that isn’t subject to omission by corporations.

Some agbiotech companies, such as Monsanto, have blanket agreements with universities (as opposed to companies that pick and choose which universities they permit to publish findings, which does little to rule out bias). Such research is least affected by industry control. What’s needed is a meta-analysis of unrestricted independent studies asserting that GMOs are safe for the environment and for consumption.

The burden of proof for GMO safety is on this unrestricted research, since their position is most likely to be neutral. What is their consensus? Furthermore, university scientists can’t gain access to seeds until they’re on the market. That means GMOs are being deemed safe before any independent research is even permitted. Surely we deserve higher public health standards.

And what’s in these agreements between the seed companies and the universities? There could be a clause that still allows the companies to suspend or withdraw studies. Without transparency, we have no way of knowing. That’s one of the problems with intellectual property law, especially where there are health and environmental concerns.

Biological patents—and the mess of red tape that comes with them—make research conditions opaque to the public and difficult for the scientists. The legalese involved in biotech research is complex, confusing, and intimidating. It’s already hard for researchers to find funding. Seed companies have shut down university studies while they were in progress. That’s not just an ethical concern, it’s a waste of money.

Please note that I’m not saying GMOs are unsafe. The GMO conversation tends to be highly polarized, and my position is often misinterpreted. My primary criticism is the ways in which patent law hinders science, particularly risk assessment. GMO research serves as a example.


Child Labor, as Justified by Capitalists

(Photo via the International Labour Organization)

I first learned of the capitalist rationale for child labor from an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! While I respect him as a skeptic, Penn Jillette’s libertarian economic views are short sighted—a trend among supporters of the so-called free market. In the episode, economist Benjamin Powell (director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute libertarian think tank) not only defends but promotes sweatshops and child labor by claiming that children are more likely to turn to prostitution if better jobs aren’t available to them.

It almost sounds noble when framed as a lesser-than-two-evils scenario. Powell neglected to mention that before sweatshops came to undeveloped countries, most families lived off of subsistence farming, not child prostitution. Third world urbanization is largely influenced by multinational corporate interests, pushing agricultural economies toward manufacturing. So in many cases, Powell’s claim is simply not true. And in the cases where it is true, it’s a false dilemma.

There’s a third option: Higher wages. If companies paid adults enough to provide for themselves and their children, then there would be no need for anyone to turn to desperate means of income. The only downside to this option—the one so many capitalists carefully ignore when making a “moral” argument for child labor—is that companies won’t make quite as much money. Their prices would increase marginally. And that’s it. That’s the cost of minimizing child labor. Less profit.

A suggestion: Ask the children what they want. Ask their parents. Ask their community. Don’t ask a lone economist who’s only analyzed data from afar.

Another argument making the rounds is that countries need to go through a child labor phase because that was the history of modern industrialized nations. False equivalence. That was before a globalized economy. That was before multinationals searched the world over for the cheapest labor. At no point did massive foreign corporations build, own, operate, or import almost exclusively from sweatshops in the United States to sell petty goods like athlete-endorsed sneakers and pop star t-shirts.

Of course, none of this applies to the anti-globalization capitalists. But mom and pop stores have been in steady decline. If the “Made in America” brand of capitalists were supporting small local businesses, there can’t be very many of them. Unless, that is, they don’t practice what they preach.

Right Wing News’ White Supremacy Propaganda

The following image was shared from Right Wing News on my Facebook timeline by a friend wanting me to debunk it. So I did.


1. “Ask the average school student about slavery and they think that only white people had slaves”

What’s the difference between a school student and a student? Did they mean high school student? Without a source, this claim can be dismissed. I’m not about to conduct a poll to prove it wrong.

2. “In the 16th – 18th century, Africans enslaved 1.5 million white Europeans in the Barbary slave trade.”

Rewritten to be factual and grammatically correct: “Between the 16th and 19th centuries, pirates from coastal cities in North Africa enslaved as many as 1.25 million Europeans during the Barbary slave trade.”

The region of North Africa that we’re referring to, the Barbary Coast, is populated almost entirely by Arab-Berbers (97–99%). Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa west of the Nile. They are caucasian, not black. Furthermore, not all Europeans are white. The image is promoting a racist agenda by making it sound as if blacks were enslaving whites.

3. “Whites were the first to stop slavery in modern times…”

This is true. It’s also convenient that the time period is restricted to the beginning of the modern era. Even more convenient, of course white-dominated modern societies would be more likely to end slavery. That’s where most of the slaves were! You can’t end slavery in a place that doesn’t have slaves to begin with.

4. “…whereas slavery still continues in Africa to this day.”

The word “whereas” denotes a contradiction or comparison, but there is none. Yes, there is slavery in Africa. There’s slavery on every continent except Antarctica.

If you don’t believe in human rights for criminals, you don’t believe in human rights.

A moral measure of society is how it treats those of the lowest status. In the US, that’s criminals. As much as we might want to see them as monsters or demons or evil incarnate, they’re human.

Compassion should be unconditional. Crimes against incarcerated criminals are still crimes. Yet they’re largely omitted from the news, public discourse, and most importantly the justice system. Rapists are sent to prison only to continue to rape inmates with largely no consequences. That’s backwards.

Human rights is essential to ethics. It’s abhorrent that people condone suffering, whatever the crime. That’s vengeance, glorified in movies, but ultimately petty. That’s a “two wrongs make a right” mentality. Taking satisfaction in another’s misery is the definition of sadism.

Ignoring basic human rights is shameful and ignorant because it’s nothing more than a hateful and contemptuous emotional reaction. There’s no logic or reason to it. It serves no higher purpose. Nothing of practical or moral value is accomplished by violating human rights.

Prisons are supposed to be correctional. A punitive system doesn’t work. Capital punishment doesn’t deter murder. Longer sentences actually increase recidivism. Of course, for the safety of the public, lock criminals up. But treat them like the human beings they are.

Further reading:

Credit to Noam Chomsky for formulating a similar idea about free speech: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Update: A friend alerted me to this Dostoyevsky quote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”