Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Degeneration of debate on the HHS contraceptive mandate

Okay, so I never thought there was much principled debate going on, at least in the public sphere, but at some point I did reach the conclusion that the religious institutions had one meaningful objection--that self-insured Catholic institutions would be directly purchasing contraceptives contrary to conscience.  However, the Obama administration recently announced that self-insured employers wouldn't have to pay for contraceptives.  Instead, the managers of those plans, or separate insurers, would provide contraceptive access at no cost.  This clearly addresses the last viable concern.  In a reasoning world, objections would now cease, but of course they haven't.  I'm lucky enough to be at Notre Dame, which has a good law school and is hugely Catholic, so I get exposed to what one would imagine is the pinnacle of public debate on the issue.  And it is just SO unimpressive right now.  Look at some choice quotes from a recent forum (poached from an Observer article):

“The religious freedom of … communities like Notre Dame is not just the freedom to avoid being coerced into doing evil … [but] to bear witness of the truth of the faith and to act with integrity and to act coherently in accord with their Catholic character as they understand it,”

This is pretty clearly an admission that Catholic institutions don't have a leg to stand on anymore.  If you're not being coerced to do bad things the religious objection is done and over.

“Sometimes a democracy like ours, with ideals like ours, accommodates religious freedom even when it doesn’t have to,” Garnett said. “In this case, it seems to me, the better policy … would be to provide a broader religious freedom exemption to the preventative services mandate.”

And, indeed, there is a direct concession here that the Government has done all it has to do, but they want mega-special-extra-above-and-beyond-treatment because it's really important to allow religious institutions to impose their beliefs on their non-religious employees.  That's how America should work! Ridiculous.

“The conviction of those currently in power that contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs constitute essential preventive services that enhance the health of women … in the administration’s mind … trumps any right that religious employers might have to refuse to pay for such essential services,” she said.

So, as a matter of law, it's probably true that the rights of women to reproductive freedom are greater than the rights of religious institutions to not buy contraceptives, but the administration has decided not to test that boundary.  Instead, they set up a system where religious employers don't have to pay for contraceptives AND women still get free access to them.  This is a delightfully misleading statement.

“To have that narrow exemption codified in our regulatory apparatus, it’s like leaving a loaded gun around for a kid to pick up,

I just think this is an adorable metaphor.  In what conceivable way are those scenarios equivalent?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not sold on the Local Food movement: take two

My college roommate--an ecologist--just took a swing at my local food skepticism post.  I think he missed in all the same ways that my other ecophile buddies do, but his comment gave me a great sampling of the typical arguments I hear.  I'm going to address each of them in the hopes that future ecophiles might be able to help me understand their position better, or come to the realization that their position is untenable and surrender to my superior arguments.  You can read his original comments here; I'm just going to summarize what I see as the key claims and arguments and then address them systematically.

My ClaimsCommon Ecophile claims
Sustainability should be about efficiencySustainability isn't just about efficiency
Even if externalities were priced in and subsidies were eliminated, industrial agriculture would benefit from economies of scale and be cheaper than "local" food.Industrial agriculture is cheaper because its real costs are hidden (subsides and externalities)
Sustainability is only a real concern for resources that we must use continuously, but that we use faster than we make.  Creating a viable alternative, finding a way to slow consumption, and/or finding a way to speed production are the only ways to address real sustainability problems.We should stop using X now so we don't catastrophically run out of X later.
Organic food has not been shown to be any healthier or more nutritious than regular food.Organic is healthier and more nutritious
I see no reason to believe that waste per unit product is higher for industrial agriculture, nor have I seen any numbers to show it.  Please educate me if such arguments/numbers exist.Industrial agriculture produces more waste than local agriculture.

My Conclusions:
Sustainability efforts should be focused on pricing in externalities and improving resource usage efficiency.  The health/nutrition stuff doesn't really have science on its side.  I also think that we benefit enormously from global food markets, since regional disease and bad weather events would be catastrophic if there weren't willing food exporters distributed around the world.  It's one of the best tools we have for avoiding global food shortages.  Increased diversity would be another good defense from this, but we don't need to go local to do it, and I'm not sure going local would help.

My Arguments:
Piles of arguments below the fold.  Before you read them you should know that I approach ecological issues in an entirely human-centric manner.  I don't think we should destroy pretty places or be mean to animals just because we can.  But, I don't care about pretty places or rare animal species or being nice to caged chickens or anything like that except in so far as it benefits human beings to do so.  I think saving the algae is way more important than saving the whales and I'd flatten every mountain in Africa if it meant we could feed all the Africans.  I am glad we forced smallpox into extinction and would happily support mass extinctions of many other organisms that are inconvenient to human beings (eg. malaria, HIV).

Monday, March 19, 2012

In which I bullshit about some things I'm skeptical about in the local food movement

I'm not nearly as well informed on environmental and sustainability issues as I am, for instance, on macroeconomic ones, largely because I know a lot of people who are very well informed on those issues and I can just ask them questions when I'm curious.  Recently, though, I've been finding myself in disagreement with my favorite ecophiles (yes, I did just make that up) on the local food movement.

Basically, I think that local food advocates--especially the organic local small farm variety--are ignoring economies of scale.  The reason organic local food is expensive is that it's made inefficiently.  Some of the stuff that makes local organic farming inefficient also makes its products healthier and more delicious, like eschewing piles'o'antibiotics and using real soil and actual animal food for your plants and animals.  But, there are real economies of scale, both in terms of price negotiations for production inputs like seed and equipment, and also in leveraging advantages from high capital cost - high efficiency machine like automatic milkers, irrigation systems, &c.  The higher-prices-due-to-negotiating-position thing might not make much difference in terms of impact, but any yield increasing efficiency basically means that it takes fewer inputs to make the same amount of output.  Since a big part of sustainability is not using too much stuff to make things, it seems like inefficiency is anathema, or at least at cross purposes, to sustainability.  So why do we sustainability freaks want to do things inefficiently?