The value judgements of government

I listened to a radio program yesterday where callers were discussing their feelings about hate crimes, and whether it makes sense for offenders to get double or triple the punishment when an act is said to be rooted in discrimination against a protected group.

I didn’t agree wholeheartedly with what the callers or the panel was saying. And as the conversation evolved, I realized what was bothering me about the idea – that the legislation allows the government to make a value judgement on our behalf. While typically the justice system punishes actions, with hate crimes they are attempting to determine whether a crime was bias motivated and mete out extra punishment based on that determination. And it’s the government that gets to determine which groups deserve this protection, potentially to the detriment of other groups.

I understand the reasoning for such laws to be that by punishing more severely for bigotry, the government is saying that the action is not OK in our society. There is some perceived greater societal harm that comes from such acts that makes it worth taking extra steps to deter and punish. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that.

A lot of the callers were making the First Amendment/slippery slope argument, saying that if we allow regulation based on thought where does that end? But the path my thoughts took extended to something bigger, to the role that the government plays in our lives and society at large.

In our representative form of government, we basically authorize others to make decisions on our behalf. Letting the government decide what’s important to us gives them a lot of power, and it makes the justice system vulnerable to political influence, with laws alterable by the whims of the current office holders.

Is this the way the system was designed to work? What if we don’t agree with the value judgement they have made? How do we come to a consensus on areas where society does not agree? What do we do as the values of a society change?

As with many other things, I take issue with giving this power to the government. I’d prefer they treat people equally, including criminals, just as I’d prefer they didn’t determine that particular people or relationships have more value than others. That owning a home or having a child is worth incenting. That certain substances are OK to use and some are not. That it’s OK to redistribute income between groups. That some subjects are important for kids to learn and not others. I guess it’s just the libertarian in me questioning (as always) how we got to this point of authorizing that power.

While thinking about this over my lunch break I came across an interesting piece called Social Welfare, State Intervention, and Value Judgments. It argues that the state cannot govern without making arbitrary value judgements, and thus discriminating against some for the benefit of others. It also purports that this becomes more acceptable when the state is attempting to economize on the value judgement. “Any activity, process, or institution will create gainers and losers and ultimately requires extra-economic criteria for its evaluation.”

With that in mind, some governmental decisions make much more sense than if economics were not considered. But is this really how legislators govern? If so, then what of the hate crime legislation? Is there an economic motivation for dis-incentiveizing bigotry?

I also ran across a book called, Government: servant or master? that attempts to answer some of the questions I’ve got swirling around in my head. From the back cover, “The authors do not shrink from debunking the exaggerated prestige of democratic government which instead of being a guarantor of private rights regularly violates them on the debased pleas of “public interest”.”

Too much to deal with in one blog posts, but definitely a topic I intend to explore further.

The corporate vegan

Being a vegan in the corporate world can be difficult, especially if you live in an area where plant-based diets and respect for animals are not the norm.

Where I work, company lunches, potlucks and other opportunities to eat together, are not only common but are often used as motivation or given as a reward for a job well done. Yet for me, they are little other than a point of stress and I sometimes find myself looking for an excuse to avoid the event all together!

Since I’ve been with the same company for years now, my coworkers all know that I don’t eat meat, and some even know that I’m a vegan. Most are quite courteous in trying to choose restaurants with food they think I can order and they often try to make menu suggestions. But quite often the places chosen have nothing suitable to eat, which just makes for an uncomfortable situation.

If you are a vegan, it’s likely that you too will at some be put into a position where it’s necessary to eat with your workmates. If you find yourself facing an upcoming lunch or event, perhaps you can deploy some of these tactics that have worked well for me in past:

  • Check with the meeting organizer in advance to get the scoop on the meal situation. Will it be catered in? Box lunches? Dining out?
  • If you know you’ll be eating at a restaurant, ask for the menu is advance or find it online. That way you can take as much time as necessary to figure out what to order without holding up the order for the rest of the group and will know in advance if there’s not a good option.
  • If the meal will be brought in, bring your own food to eat at the same time.
  • Consider if there are likely to be snacks served (candy, cookies, etc. are common for all-day meetings) and bring something yummy for yourself plus enough to share with others.
  • If the event starts with lunch and the program or activity will follow, ask if you can join the group after the meal has already been served.
  • Use techniques one would normally employ at inhospitable restaurants such as ordering just a drink, appetizer, or other sides off the menu in place of an entree.
  • Consider asking if you can place a special order, especially good to do if they have something explicit on the menu saying they welcome alternate requests. Note that this may not be a good idea if everyone is in a rush, since special orders often take more time.
  • Make sure to have some non-perishable food with you, such as a piece of fruit or a packaged bar, in case things don’t go as expected. Sometimes even the best laid plans fall short.

While it would often be easier just to skip out all together, it is good to make an effort to participate in some fashion. Otherwise you may be branded as “not a team player” or miss out on some crucial bit of information. A lot gets discussed over lunch!

I am lucky to have had supportive and considerate supervisors during my time as a corporate vegan. If you are the manager of a vegetarian or vegan employee I’d extend the following tips to you:

  • Don’t make a big deal out of the issue, broadcast an announcement or bring it up as a major discussion topic for the team.
  • Understand your employee’s dietary preferences so you can make informed choices when choosing a location, restaurant or caterer for team meetings. Consider asking your employee for their input.
  • If you are not making the choice, coordinate with the meeting organizer to determine the meal plan and give input if possible. This will save your employee some work and stop them from always having to feel like they are always the only ones asking questions or demanding special favors.
  • When you are the one bringing the snacks, make sure to offer something that all your employees can eat. (It’s not as hard as you might think! Lots of junk food such as Oreos and Twizzlers are accidentally vegan, and you can always bring obviously vegan things like plain fruit or nuts.)
  • Be conscious of the fact that people may adopt the veg lifestyle for wildly different reasons. Don’t presume you know your employee’s reason.
  • Note that ethical vegans often hold deep-seated beliefs that extend to areas of animal welfare other than just food. You might consider this belief similar to that of a religious position in that it is a choice, but not one made lightly or to be discarded. In this vein, be aware of peripheral issues and things that may offend such as giving leather as gifts or wishing them a Happy Turkey Day.
  • Appreciate the diversity their veganism brings to your team! Variety of thought is always a good thing.

And to add in a lofty and random request here for facilities managers too, please try to make sure there’s at least one vegan thing in the vending machine!! Since packages  can’t show both front and back at the same time, Im thinking a vegan sticker or printed slide-in icon to go next to the price would be a great addition. :-)

For any readers that might be out there, what’s your experience been like? Any additional tips to share?

Unsheeply’s Law?

I’ve observed a phenomena that I think deserves a new adage, similar to Godwin’s Law. If you’re not familiar, that’s the idea that given enough time any online discussion – regardless of topic or scope – will eventually involve comparison of a poster’s point to the beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.

Similarly, it seems that that any online discussion that involves animal rights, vegan or vegetarian diets will eventually include comments by someone asserting that they are going to go eat a steak or hamburger right now, usually in someone’s honor.

To those posters I say, I get it. You eat meat and you like it. There’s no need to claim you’re going to rush out right now to stuff your face, or pretend that the discussion has provoked you into doing it. And there’s really no need to graphically describe the animal parts you intend to consume. Just not necessary and does not add to the discussion.

But it is inflammatory, and that’s probably the point. It might serve as a diversion from any other more logical arguments in progress, drawing people away from the truth. And for whatever reason, trolling veg forums seems to be a popular topic among a small portion of the meat eating public.

In the same way that Godwin’s law can be cited to reduce the incidence of inappropriate hyperbolic comparisons, my attempt at pointing this out is in the hope that it will reduce the incidence of such nonconstructive comments. Additionally, this law could be used to serve an automatic FAIL to win the argument on the person making the claim.

I’d love to see this on this list of adages named after people or things. So what do you say? Unsheeply’s Law? ;-)

High fructose corn syrup rebranding as corn sugar

According to a story by the Associated Press, “The Corn Refiners Association wants to use “corn sugar” as an alternative name for the widely used liquid sweetener currently labeled as high fructose corn syrup” and have petitioned for a name change. In the meantime, the FDA has cautioned them to stop using the term prematurely, as they haven’t yet received approval and are already including it on promotional materials such as their web sites.

This reminds me of Aspartame’s re-brand as AminoSweet that I discussed awhile back. It’s not difficult to see why they’d want to change away from the term high fructose corn syrup (HCFS) as more and more people are turning against their product.

A representative for the group says they don’t believe consumers will be misled by the new terminology though, saying, “We do not believe that anyone could be confused or believe that the statements regarding ‘corn sugar’ on the websites refer to anything other than high fructose corn syrup.”

So what exactly would be the purpose for making the change, if not to lose the negative association? If it’s not to re-brand your product as something more appealing to consumers, then why bother?

According to this New York Times piece, it’s because they believe corn syrup is a confusing term and that corn sugar better communicates about the calories and sweetness of the ingredient. They say consumers wrongly believe it has more sugar than what we’d traditionally consider table sugar (the granular white stuff) and are avoiding it for that reason.

It seems they haven’t quite agreed on consistent messaging internally. Corn sugar is either a term that will be seen as equivalent to HCFS in the minds of consumers (doubtful, IMO) or else a term than more accurately describes a form of liquid sugar that is nutritionally similar to table sugar (presumes consumers care about and are making nutritional decisions based sugar type comparison, also doubtful). If they’re going to choose a new label because it brings clarity to consumers, they’re not going to choose one that is seen as equivalent to their current term.

In my head, it’s nothing more than an attempt to re-brand in attempt to slow or stop the declining use of their product as manufacturers switch to more “natural” forms of sugar in response to consumer demand — as seen with the introduction of products like Pepsi Natural and Mountain Dew Throwback. And consumers are likely demanding this not due to research into the nutritional profiles of varying types of sugar, but because the media and others have painted HCFS as a bad guy, accurate or not. Also, because the pursuit towards more natural products is a popular trend.

In fact, scientists are somewhat split over whether HFCS is any more damaging to consumers than other sugars. According to the Mayo Clinic, research studies have yielded mixed results. HFCS is chemically similar to table sugar, but the thought is that your body may react differently since it’s processed. There’s insufficient evidence at this point to say that this is true, but studies continue to look a the potential effects, including potential links to cancer. Where there is no argument is that we should all be consuming less sweetener, no matter what the source.

So what do you think? Does a switch to the name corn sugar provide any nutritional clarity to you as a consumer? Do you shy away from HFCS in particular or is sugar of any kind treated the same?

Animal transport, extreme weather

Whenever animal welfare is discussed, animal transport is often left off the agenda. Yet the transport process can be a brutal experience and is largely unregulated.

Every day on my commute to work (20 miles interstate each way), without fail I see at least one livestock transport truck. Some days I’ll see a dozen. It’s usually large pigs heading south, baby pigs going north, and trucks crammed full of birds (or empty bird cages) in convoys of 4 or 5. Occasionally I’ll see trailers of cows, but they’re often hard to spot as their black hides appear near invisible inside the dark recesses of the trucks. What a constant, dismal reminder of why I am a vegan.

This always upsets me, but lately my thoughts have turned from the ultimate fate of the animals towards the animal transport process. A change in focus, but one that ultimately should be considered.

From the research I conducted, it seems there are very few actual requirements for animals transported by truck. The industry standard on treatment seems to be the guidelines put together by Temple Grandin in her Livestock Trucking Guide. They advocate for basic comfort measures, not necessarily for the sake of the animals, but in order to avoid investment loss. There are tips for reducing shrink (weight loss), bruising, and other things that can affect “meat quality”, all based on solid science, but focused solely on what’s best for business.

Lately we’ve been experiencing a heat wave that has daytime temps soaring into the 100s with “feels like” temperatures even higher. We’re getting constant warnings about what to do to protect ourselves and our companion animals, and the government has even started opening up heat relief centers and busing people to places with air conditioning, like malls and libraries.

And yet, I see livestock trucks transporting pigs as normal!! They cram up to 400 “hogs” into a truck and they’re not required to stop to give water or food. Grandin’s guide says that humid Midwestern conditions can be lethal and death losses double on hot, humid days. I wonder how many animals they’re losing to heat?

The same thing happens in winter, as many are transported in sub-zero temps. While some trucks will cover the holes to protect the animals in transit, not all of them bother and they’re not required to do it. I’ve also seen animals driven into heavy storms and high winds. They seem to carry on despite the weather conditions, no matter how unsuitable, and nobody bats an eye.

A chart called the Livestock Weather Safety Index was created to make it easier for shippers to know when their cargo might be in danger. However, I know for a fact that many aren’t following the advice of Grandin or looking to this index based on what I’m seeing on the road every day. If they were, they’d be on the road at night instead and I wouldn’t see them at all.

Obviously, the perspective of the industry is that they consider animals live stock, and in a way similar to transporting something like fruit. They aim to deliver their cargo in a condition suitable for their intended purpose and aren’t bothered by some bruising or a few losses along the way as long as they can maintain their ROI.

Imagine if those were puppies crammed hundreds in a truck in the ridiculous weather and under deplorable conditions. Do you think the average person would be outraged then? How can this be perceived so differently?

McD’s and the mom bloggers

I have to admit, this NPR story made me bristle when I heard it. And not because McDonald’s is using social media to it’s advantage (because any smart company is these days), or even because their so-called healthy improvements are not really that grand (a few less french fries, peeled apple slices and cow’s milk). It’s that they’re courting bloggers with high readership and specifically that those bloggers are responding positively.

Many good bloggers cultivate an intimate relationship with their followers. They share their lives in great detail so the reader really gets to know, like and trust them. Of course this is exactly what makes them useful to McDonald’s. They know that their followers will likely place great stock in what the bloggers say about their company. As the McD’s spokesperson says in the piece, “Moms listen to other moms more than they listen to other folks”.

It made me wonder, are followers of mom blogs, or blog readers in general, really that gullible? Do readers not notice, or not care that this is basically a paid endorsement? After all, bloggers are obligated to say when they’re being compensated.

I know that on at least one blog I frequent (not a mom blog), many participants eagerly emulate the site owners, clamor for their advice, and buy things they recommend. So it’s not a stretch for me to see that all those things could be true for mom bloggers too, but why? Why are people so willing to trust the advice of strangers, just because they’re similar to them in some way? Is it because they feel like they know them?

At a gut level, I think what bothers me is that it seems the bloggers are selling out. I wonder what motivates them to participate. Are the perks and/or pay really that good? Are they just curious? Do some think they can maintain their objectivity and perhaps even stick it to McDs? It seems like it could destroy their credibility, that they’d have more to lose than to gain. But maybe it depends on why they’re blogging in the first place.

Also wondering, does this really work out that well for McDonald’s? I’m thinking it must do if they’re picking up steam on the program and are event touting their efforts to a nationwide radio audience. I know pay per post/review is a growing industry, with lots of businesses (large and small) hopping on board and reporting good results, so the ROI must be there.

That mom

I ran across a spontaneous blog carnival from last year and have been so inspired by the posts that I just had to write about it, because I want to be That Mom, too.

I want to spend my every waking moment with our kid, living life. I want to experience all the crazy things he did today, not just on the weekends. I want to spend my time supporting his interests and catering to his whims, whether that’s making chocolate chip muffins, creating mud puddles in the yard or looking up slime eels on the Internet.

I’m doing as much I can right now within the confines of my current work arrangement, and generally everything is going quite well. We’ve managed to keep him at home and pretty happy. But our limited time together is just not enough- for him, for me, or even for my husband. I want that life so bad I can taste it. And I’m going to make it happen!

And in the meantime, I’m That Mom on the weekends and after work. The mom that takes her kid out for Indian food wearing Thomas PJs and carrying his large Lego Robot Krabs creation. That mom that knows all his favorite shows as well as he does in order to act out the scenes together, sing any theme tune or understand a random reference. The one still breastfeeding well past the socially acceptable norm because it’s what he wants and I trust he means it when he says he needs it. The kind that stays up until 11:00 PM on a work night playing whether it’s because he’s eager to spend more time with me, or just not ready to sleep yet.

I’m that mom that strives to trust and partner with her son as he steps his way through to adulthood and beyond.

Kids are people too (crazy, eh?)

Lately I’ve been noticing something more and more and it’s really starting to bother me. Many people don’t seen to think of young children, even their own kids, as people! You know, human beings with their own feelings, views and desires?

I think this awareness has grown out of my participation in the online unschooling community and has been emphasized by recent interactions I’ve had with other parents on Facebook. Now I’m seeing it everywhere I look!

Children are often treated like some lesser, second class. Their opinions and desires are ignored. Their behavior is seen as unacceptable even when the same thing done by an adult is OK. They’re criticized for things beyond their control. Things they say are dismissed out of hand as childish or silly. Their motivations for acting as they are aren’t even contemplated, let alone seriously considered. Sincere attempts are laughed at and mocked as cute.

I see it in the those who trivialize and/or dismiss a kid’s feelings. The ones that use their size advantage to physically control or intimidate a child into doing what they want or to punish them for doing what they don’t. Those that pull rank and demand they be respected as authority solely due to their age.  It’s pervasive in our culture and many people do these things all the time, and without question.

As mentioned in past posts, children reflect the behavior they receive. So what does it tell our kids when we treat others this way, especially those closest to us? That it’s OK ignore, dismiss or bully others when we feel superior?

Where’s the understanding?  Is it really that much of a stretch to put yourself in a kid’s shoes, think about whether they might be having a bad day, wonder if there’s a reason why they’re crying, consider that they could be in pain or that their motivation is not malicious?  Where’s the tolerance for those who are just starting to experiment and learn about the world? Largely non-existent.

In my head this extends beyond paternalism or a general intolerance of children. In part, it’s due to a lack of empathy, something that seems to be deficient in our society as a whole. For some it’s just habit, do what you know. But there’s also a cultural aspect at play that I can’t really explain.

I am certainly not claiming to be a perfect parent, nor am I saying kids should be treated as if they were exactly like adults. I don’t always treat my son as a partner. I sometimes put my needs before his, or insist that we do things my way despite his protests or try to convince him of my point of view. But it’s really no different than how I’d interact with my husband or sister. Sometimes experience wins out.

Fundamentally though, I respect that our kid is a person with his own interests, thoughts and motivations, and accept that they may not always match my own. From what I’ve observed in others lately, this perspective does not seem to be the norm. I feel lucky I was afforded this respect  growing up and  can see it extended to my son.

Free preschool

Turnover in the last state election, combined with the recession, means our legislature is struggling with some tough financing decisions lately. One big item on the chopping block is free preschool for 4-year-olds.

I can see why people think that is a good thing, and some of my Facebook friends have posted about how they find it so incredibly important that they can send their kids to these programs.

No matter what you think about the value of early childhood education though, what had me immediately scratching my head was the perceived list of benefits gained from the program to date.

The spokesperson for the faction fighting to save free preschool lauded the program for making marked improvement in kids’ readiness for Kindergarten. In her speech, examples given included that the children showed measurable improvement in the areas of listening to authority, lining up and doing what they were told.

Thing is, I don’t see how these are truly related to than the actual academic progress of a student!  Do these skills really give them a leg up when they learn to read or add numbers? Doubtful. Does it speak to classroom control and make things easier for the Kindergarten teacher and get students ready to spend their whole days doing something other than playing? Yes, absolutely.

And while I’m sure those things play a roll in how effective the learning environment is, and how likely a student is to succeed in that environment, it also speaks to a much deeper issue with our education system. The purpose of school these days seems not really to be for kids to learn, as much as it is to train them to function in our bureaucratic system!  It’s more important for them to fall into line than it is to think critically or acquire knowledge.

We tried our lad in preschool last year, and it didn’t work out well. We pulled him out with few regrets. And now I’m actually glad things turned out this way. Due to some of our other life plans, we’re most likely going to be homeschooling. Not sure how this will play out yet, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading and have some ideas. What exactly will his education look like? Not sure, but I know some things that it will not encompass.

Are we worried he won’t learn the aforementioned critical life skills? Well, he can learn to stand in a queue at the grocery store; to listen to non-parental authority at his swimming class; to socialize with others (of a much more diverse age group!) at the library.  Nope. not worried.

Non-violent protest is not terrorism; CMUs are political prisons

Free speech is proclaimed as a protected right in this country. However, given recent events I’m beginning to think that it’s actually conditional, more of a privilege than anything.

Last week, the Supreme Court protected the ability of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest military funerals. As much as I dislike what the church members have to say, I can understand why the court ruled in their favor. However, I’m disappointed by an action the court took today – refusing to hear the case of SHAC 7, a group of seven people convicted of terrorism for running an animal rights related web site.

The members of the SHAC 7 group took no illegal action themselves, but hosted content on a web site that talked about illegal activities others had taken (like releasing animals from labs). The Third Circuit Court had ruled that while they were not a threat and had not done anything illegal, they could be convicted because they supported illegal actions and by doing so might have incited people to participate. By associating with people who had taken part in illegal activities, the rights of the group were no longer protected.

As Will Potter from Green is the New Red said at the time-

“To put it more plainly: Vocally supporting civil disobedience, explaining what it involves, and encouraging/facilitating people to take part is not protected speech.

This is so important let me say it again, another way: People who write about civil disobedience and encourage people to take part can be found convicted of a crime even if they do not take part in the civil disobedience.

So the fact that the Supreme Court choose to let this ruling stand means that the Third Circuit’s decision is allowed to serve as precedent. Even if you don’t support causes like the ones the SHAC 7 were promoting, consider the danger that this presents to free speech. This has major implications for activists of all stripes.

Some might consider this proof that if your cause is unpopular enough, you will be silenced. And some are silenced in the most absolute sense of the word you can imagine. Domestic terrorists, including those convicted of “eco-terrorism”, are often held in something called Communications Management Units (CMUs), instead of traditional prisons. CMUs radically restrict prisoner access and communication to the outside world. They’re said to “rival, or exceed, the most restrictive facilities in the country, including the “Supermax,” ADX-Florence” where the Unabomber is held.

Prisoners in CMUs are virtually cut off from the outside world, kept in isolation. All prisoner communications and interactions are live-monitored and subject to recording. Letters are photocopied and the delivery is delayed. They’re only allowed two phone calls a week (recently increased from one) scheduled well in advance and up to 15 minutes long. That can be reduced to three minutes at the warden’s discretion. If their family members make the trek to see them in person (there are two CMUs in in the US), they can visit a maximum of two hours (where most inmates are allowed all-day visits), twice a month. They are not allowed physical contact. This is worse than even the most stringent rules for high-risk offenders– something many of these prisoners are not.

Last year the government acknowledged these secret prisons and proposed making them permanent. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU both filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the facilities, their policies on prisoner treatment, and violation of due process rights. This is in part based on the practice of transferring a prisoner into a CMU, or from one to the other, without prior notification and without a chance to appeal.

It’s a commonly held belief the reason the CMUs hold these types of prisoners are to shut them up. Removing their access to their family members, the media, and pretty much everyone means that their messages cannot get out. However, the isolation also has the capacity to destroy the prisoners psychologically and serve as a reminder to other activists of what could happen.

The fact that these political prisons even exist should serve as reminder that free speech rights don’t make a difference if you’re not otherwise free.