Wednesday, December 30, 2009

vegan children, a recipe

I've been coming to fisticuffs lately with a vegan friend over whether or not it's appropriate ('ethical' seems overly strong) for vegan parents to raise their children vegan. This came up because as part of a book exchange with her I read The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. In the book, the reader is introduced to a nice little vegan family with two kids, ages six and ten. The youngsters are eager to talk about all the reasons why they're vegan, including animal welfare and land and resource use.

Compared to most non-vegans, I'm sympathetic to veganism. A well balanced vegan diet is perfectly healthy. And if you can live well without using animals, it seems reasonable to do so if you choose. Because a child of a vegan parent lives in a home with vegan pantries and refrigerators, he'll have to be almost entirely vegan by default, and that's fine. But I think things get a little more complicated when the child leaves the home. Should the child be burdened with upholding vegan standards amongst the non-vegans? Must he inquire of the ingredients of birthday cake and refuse it. Cupcake or pizza parties in the classroom? Meals at the homes of friends? Must the child refuse a gift of a leather jacket or belt or boots, say, when an aunt or friend of the family forgets about the family's unusual practices? Should they feel guilty when they accidentally imbibe something with milk in it? These hefty standards are too much.

The kids in the book are conveniently home-schooled. But if that weren't the case, my friend claims parents can send vegan snacks with the children to whatever events they attend, and supply teachers with vegan alternatives for snack occasions in the classroom. Kids should learn that it's okay to be different, of course, but I don't like the idea of saddling a kid with something that unnecessarily sets him apart from his peers.

More importantly, I suspect a raising a child as a strict vegan requires a certain amount of brainwashing. This was the case in the book. The ten-year-old from the book made this creepy adorable statement: "Mom, I love gymnastics, but it's not my real life. My real life is activism." The mother is an activist, so of course the daughter wants to be one as well. As a libertarian and frequent critic of public schools, I tend to cut homeschooling a lot of slack, but there's a reason so many homeschooling parents are evangelical, young-earth creationist Christians: it's easier to make your kids believe weird things if they aren't exposed to differing views.

Veganism (much more than vegetarianism) is indeed similar to young-earth creationism, extra-Utahan Mormonism, atheism, libertarianism, and eco-communism in this way. Richard Dawkins loves to point out that there are no Christian children or Muslim children, nor Republican or Democratic children, because these ideologies do not follow one out of the womb; they are learned. And the ideas underpinning the ideologies are far too complicated for a child to truly understand until they're much much older. Brainwashing them with belief systems before they have learned to think critically handicaps them. I think this is correct, and I think the case is stronger for the really bizarre sets of beliefs at the top of this paragraph. Democrats and Republicans are, for better or worse, part of mainstream American culture. A child will have to understand these aspects of society one way or another to fully function as a member of the society. A relatively un-dogmatic upbringing as a Democrat or Republican could be seen as little more than an introduction to American civics. I hesitate to say something similarly charitable for moderate, mainstream religious traditions (differing from Dawkins), but the case could be made.

It's tempting to think "My [quirky] philosophy is so obviously true and good, of course I should raise my children in this manner." I feel the same way about, say, atheism. But preserving a child's ability to form her own ideas, at least partially, inevitably porously shielded from the overwhelming influence of her parents is a worthier goal. I could raise my children explicitly as atheists, inculcating in them the fallacies of theism and images of all the horrible things people have done in the name of religion throughout history at such an early age that they would likely be forever immune to Christian proselytizing (unless that's their chosen form of rebellion). But I'd rather try to keep my biases and ideologies to myself as much as possible, teach them to ask questions, answer those questions honestly as they arise, and then hope that with curiosity and critical thinking, they will come round to my way of thinking anyway. A vegan parent should do the same. And a Marxist parent, and a kosher Jewish parent, etc.

Monday, December 21, 2009

climate change and tribalism

I've blogged about what I call flat-earth libertarianism before: the tendency for libertarians and conservatives, upon discovering some--what to call it--inconvenient truth that might imply some sort of government action. Jim Manzi, in a bloggingheads video with Grist's David Roberts, addresses the same tendency:
It's been a real not just kind of political error, which I think it has been, but an error in the attempt to find what is true ... There will be an argument made in the public sphere that scientific finding X implies political action or moral or ethical conclusion Y. The fact that by putting more carbon dioxide molecules into the atmosphere we drive temperature up implies we need a global regime of a carbon tax. Accepting the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology implies being an atheist. And people on the right routinely have gotten into the habit of saying I don't like conclusion Y, so I will attack the underlying scientific finding X, instead of the much more logical and sensible line of attack which is challenging whether X really implies Y.
Manzi goes on to suggest that part of this may be a reaction to a tendency for the other side of the debate to drape the full prestige of the physical sciences over areas of science that are quite a bit more cloudy. Measuring the mass of an electron is a different beast from teasing out the health effects of third-hand smoke. Climate science is incredibly difficult and has large uncertainties.

Another interesting discussion topic in that video was on the notion that the West owes the Global South something because rich western countries have been emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for longer than developing countries.
It is correct to say that the product of the sudden change in economic circumstances that happened first in northwestern Europe, then its offshoots, and is now spreading to the rest of the world, created many global effects. One of them was it pumped a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. Another was figuring out how power turbines work, and that you can use penicillin to cure diseases, and how democracy can work at scale and so on. And along with all the CO2 we put in the atmosphere, inevitably knowledge of that kind, as examples, leaked. And so to choose one of those external effects, called CO2, and say we're going to attempt to track this across borders over the last 200 years and add up in an accounting sense a debt owed by the people who emitted the CO2 to the people feeling its effects I think is entirely artificial and arbitrary.
I'd never actually thought of it this way before, but I think this is correct. But I still think it's reasonable to suggest that rich countries should help developing countries decarbonize their economies if only because helping developing countries build fresh, green infrastructure is about the only way the problem will get solved. On the other hand I think it's a relevant point out that, coincidentally or not, it is the poor, developing nations that will feel the worst brunt of climate change.

Another bloggingheads video just a week later featured David Roberts (again) with Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey, reporting from Copenhagen. They found energy utility regulations as an area where they could agree, giving the example of how cogeneration (selling the excess heat generated in coke plants, for example) is prohibited in most states.
Roberts: These monopolies have been regulated and their profits have been protected and they've been protected from competition for decades and as a result there has been no innovation.
Bailey: Electricity utilities are regulated monopolies, form the least innovative sector of the economy, period.
Roberts: I'll tell you where they innovate is in new ways of manipulating public utilities commissioners to give them their money. So right there you have, at dead center of the American energy economy, something that would give Adam Smith the heebie-jeebies.
Here we have dogs and cats, living together; environmentalists and libertarians, speaking constructively, in both bloggingheads videos. Bailey even offered to buy Roberts a beer next time he's in DC. Something that bothers me personally about discussions between, very roughly, liberals/environmentalists and conservatives/libertarians on climate matters is the extreme bad faith. The powers that be at Bloggingheads could much more easily have found a libertarian who thought that Climategate was the final nail in the coffin for the idea of anthropogenic global warming and that the whole thing is a conspiracy of liberals and the UN to return us to the Stone Age. And they could have found an environmentalist who thinks vocal dissenters should be put on trial for crimes against humanity and nature and there is no possibility for constructive dialogue.

There are mercenaries on all sides and they should be denounced by all sides, but a lot of the acrimony I see comes from otherwise reasonable, honest people. I think political tribalism is the big villain here. There is a gut level distrust between the environmental-minded and the economic liberty-minded, for whatever reasons. This gets smart people to say dumb things. Here is, for instance, my favorite blogger Will Wilkinson being schooled on the basic logic behind cap and trade by my favorite bugbear, Matt Yglesias. Putting aside momentarily public choice/sausage factory critiques, cap and trade is at its core a very libertarian policy (it's creating a market to solve a problem instead of imposing onerous regulations), and I suspect Wilkinson is at least partly so skeptical because all his Cato buddies are rigidly opposed. Likewise, I suspect most environmentalists would oppose efforts to deregulate electricity utilities simply because they deeply distrust free markets and their advocates.

This tribalism is unfortunate because, at least I opine, libertarians have really smart things to say
about potential climate policies. I'm sure it's because of my own tribal affiliation with libertarians and economistic pro-growth types that I chose to read Manzi's and Lomborg's arguments in the first place (I imagine rank-and-file environmentalists feel safe concluding Lomborg is a hack and Cool It is not worth their time). But the basic argument that expanding wealth (by economic liberalization of course) in poor countries will expand their ability to adapt to climate change is a powerful one. Libertarians also have an intuitive feeling that, whatever the damages of climate change, it is possible that there exists some political deal and suite of regulations so onerous and inflexible that it is worse than climate change itself. I myself doubt that any cap and trade scheme will be that bad, but I think it's a reasonable concern. I certainly think it's worrisome that green industrial champions will be effectively chosen by pet senators and barriers will be erected around them, bringing innovation (and our best hope for decarbonization) to slow creep. The bias from the other camp seems to me to be that we are at a global minimum of effective climate management and any imaginable climate legislation must represent an improvement. Stated in those terms, obviously no one would agree, but that's the impression I have.

There are valid criticisms for these libertarian arguments (I would call them insights). I just wish more of the debate would be about these concerns and less about accusing opponents of mass murder.

Monday, December 14, 2009

US military spending

My favorite non-libertarian political blog (I've been thinking of it as mostly a liberal source lately, though it waxes libertarian from time to time, depending on the current mix of contributors) interviewed paleoconservative thinker Daniel Larison this week. The whole thing is worth reading, but I especially liked this bit:
What I would like to see is a scaling back of the size and scope of our military presence around the globe. This could be done gradually as our present allies in Europe, Asia and the Gulf could begin to provide for their own security and reduce their dependence on American power. After 1945, it may have been inevitable that the United States had to fill the power vacuum that the political upheaval and devastation of the war caused, but when the USSR dissolved we had the opportunity to begin to unwind our abnormal and originally temporary role as a superpower. Over the last 20 years, we have simply refused to do this, but the peaceful rise of emerging powers in Latin America and Asia and the consolidation of the EU gives us another opportunity to relinquish our outsized security role while continuing commercial and diplomatic engagement with the world.
Indeed. I really like his framing of a military scale-down as an opportunity. Whether we ever needed to inflate our military to the extent we did during the Cold War or not, the vast resources ( over $600B, ~20% of federal spending, over 40% of total military spending in the world) tied up in this sector are surely unnecessary now. Will Wilkinson has ably argued that this enormous spending on defense effectively subsidizes the defense of those countries allied with and friendly toward America.

A more equitable distribution of military spending amongst friendly nations might even encourage more multilateral decision making and discourage rash invasions (as would the decrease in funds). A reduction to 50% of current defense spending would put the US at a comparable amount per head as France and the UK, which is still far more than Russia and China. Such a reduction might even serve as a friendly signal to the 'peacefully emerging powers', heading off wasteful arms races.

Back of the envelope numbers from Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Whole Foods field trip

I'd been wanting to shop at a Whole Foods Market ever since all the hubbub and protesting over CEO John Mackey's libertarian Wall Street Journal oped on health care happened. I wanted to at least walk around in the store as a matter of principle, even though I'm generally annoyed by the over-priced organic, locavore mumbo jumbo mentality.

I have to say I was disappointed. I expected my jaw to drop at $10 boxes of raw, organic cereal and $15 local, seasonal, biodynamic fruit juices. The prices I saw seemed even a bit more affordable than Astronomico's Andronico's, and there were sale items and free samples. Of course, comparing something to Andronico's isn't saying much.

Maybe I've been in the Bay Area too long, but the only thing that really offended me about the place was the little homeopathic remedies section. I might even shop there occasionally if there were one nearby. I bought a really delicious box of cereal (I know it's delicious because of the free samples).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

bipartisan commissions

In the current issue of the Economist, Wisconsin Representative lauds the paper's analysis of America's long term deficit problem. But he bristled at their suggestion for a bipartisan commission to reform taxes and entitlements. From that analysis:
One way to finesse these toxic politics would be to establish a bipartisan commission to fix entitlements and taxes, as proposed by Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg, respectively the most senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. Its membership would be drawn from both parties, both chambers of Congress and the White House. Democrats and Republicans alike would have to make sacrifices. To preserve this grand bargain, Congress would be allowed only to approve or reject the commission’s proposal, not amend it.
And Ryan's complaint:
Yet your reluctant conclusion to outsource the tough decisions to a commission fell short. Contrary to popular belief, politicians are elected to solve problems, not punt on them. Americans should be treated like adults and offered bold solutions, as I’ve done with my comprehensive entitlement-reform proposal, “A Roadmap for America’s Future”, which tackles overdue reforms to Social Security, health care, the tax code and our broken budget process. Pessimism with our political process is understandable, but the United States has faced more difficult challenges in the past.
I don't understand how this would be 'punting' any problems. The entire Congress would have to vote on the thing. This no amendment, up/down vote commission tactic has been used successfully before (Social Security crisis in the early eighties). Matt Yglesias thinks it's a dumb idea, but I'm not sure why this sort of thing isn't used more often. It seems to be proposed for crises, where congress folk all want to pass something important and prevent the usual gaming among their peers. A smaller number of more focused (and perhaps more specialized) brains hash out their differences and then the whole Congress votes on the resulting bill. Why not, for instance, set up a bipartisan commission on effective greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies. Even if you still didn't get a carbon tax out of that (because the whole Congress might not want to vote for a big tax increase), a cap'n'trade scheme resulting from such a commission might actually be efficient, and less riddled with industry favors.

I'm probably naive, but I like mechanisms for removing trash from legislation. I was always fond of the idea of a presidential line-item veto too.