Monday, July 18, 2016

Two or More Parties

In the wake of Bernie Sanders losing the nomination for President for the Democratic Party, I've noted a lot of people complaining that we don't have enough political parties in America. The thing is that despite the fact that we essentially only have two parties, we still do have many ideologies vying for the influence to set government policy. We just use party primaries and conventions to form alliances among political ideologies before the general election, instead of afterwards. Let me try to explain what I mean.

In many other Western democracies, there are several important political parties. An election works out the strength of these parties relative to one another in the government. One party will end up having the most elected officials, but it won't have enough to run the government on its own, so coalitions are formed after the elections with at least one other party so that there are enough votes in the legislature to pass laws. But forming these coalitions means compromising on policy positions so that those two or more parties are in agreement on enough to ally themselves effectively, but this also means that none of them will get to set policy totally on their own terms. The end result is a ruling alliance of a few parties and an opposition alliance of some or all of the rest.

In America, we work out those alliances before the general election, in the primary process. In either of our two major parties there are various groups who have different ideas about what the party should consider most important. These various sets of opinions compete for influence within the party during the primary process based on which kinds of candidates do well in their primaries. Then the official policy positions are decided at the party convention. Often this means that opinions that were important four years ago get muted or that other opinions on what the party should push for rise in importance. The end result is that a coalition of groups within the party sets the ideological goals and tone for the party for the general election in November.

Almost always, when I hear Americans complain that neither of the two parties really speaks for them, what they mean is that the party that actually does care about their pet issues, doesn't care enough. Well, that is worked out in the primary elections and the party conventions. It is easier to get one of the parties to shift its emphasis than it is to get large numbers of voters to embrace a new party. And make no mistake, getting actual policies enacted into law is not as simple as getting any single candidate elected into office. It requires alliances of elected officials who will compromise with one another on similar ideological goals to get laws passed. And those broad alliances are what our current political parties actually are.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Shifting the line

Since this latest mass shooting, I’ve seen an uptick in an argument against gun control that it is unfair to punish law abiding gun owners by enacting gun control measures. I don’t find that argument compelling. It isn’t a punishment for certain things, in the interests of public safety, to be illegal to own or use. We don’t allow people to stockpile mustard gas, even if they have no history of using it to kill and maim. We don’t allow people to buy and commute to work in fully armed battle tanks, even if they promise they’d never fire its cannon except in self defense. Exactly where the line between permissible and restricted is can be a little fuzzy, but the concept that some things are simply too dangerous for us to have unrestricted access to is not a controversial point.

So called assault rifles ought to be on the restricted side of that line. Those high capacity, high rate of fire rifles aren’t derived from hunting or sporting guns; they are designed and refined to be modern weapons of war, specialized to take multiple human lives quickly. Sadly, we have repeatedly seen how even the civilian versions, lacking fully automatic fire, are still deadly efficient at their intended purpose. Like battle tanks and countless other examples, assault rifles should be restricted to the military.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Even if

It seems unlikely to me that the framers of our Constitution intended citizens to own and use the types of weaponry that can now allow one man to wreak the kind of havoc that it would have taken dozens of soldiers to do in the late 1700s. But even if they did intend for citizens (even highly unstable, hate-filled, murderously bigoted citizens) to be able to purchase and carry weaponry that can enable one man to kill many innocent people in just a few minutes — they were wrong.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Rethinking My Views On Gun Control

I am a gun owner. I have at times thought of myself as a gun enthusiast. I own quite a few firearms, not an arsenal by any stretch of the imagination, but more than enough of them. I've hunted with some of them. I've used all of them for target shooting. I've fired many thousands of rounds through them in the thirty plus years since my father first taught me how. I've put serious effort into learning to shoot proficiently and safely -- to teach others to do the same. I've long considered firearm ownership to be a generally good thing, but I'm finding myself becoming less convinced of that and more concerned with the laxity of gun control measures in my country.

When the Second Amendment to the Constitution was written and ratified the United States of America was a very different country than the one in which I now live. There was, with good reason, a genuine fear that America would be invaded by foreign powers or even reconquered by the British Empire. None of the original thirteen states nor the federal government had standing, professional armies that could hope to completely defend our young country. But in time of need, citizens could become a defensive fighting force. The muskets that citizens owned for hunting or protection were remarkably similar to those wielded by professional armies and that made every armed citizen a potential soldier to fight off an invasion or to at least make it costly for an invading force.

Now here we are in the 21st Century and much has changed. Our states have not been in any real danger of invasion for a long, long time. We do have a standing army now, the most well-funded and capable army in the world. A great gulf has grown between the destructive capability of civilian and state of the art military weaponry. The age of muskets is long over and so too is the idea that we civilians can be called up with our hunting rifles into a militia that can be effective against modern tanks, fighter-bombers, or infantry battalions.

Yet we are clinging to an artifact from the past, the idea that our nation is better off if civilian gun ownership is commonplace. Well that doesn't seem true to me. We have an extremely high murder rate when compared to other Western nations. We have an extremely high rate of gun violence when compared to other Western nations. We have an extremely high rate of mass shootings when compared to other Western nations.

It isn't as though Americans are somehow more murderous in our hearts than anyone else. Murder and attempted murder happen in Europe too, but Americans have a much easier time obtaining firearms and that seems to make our murderers more effective and capable of achieving higher body counts. Because compared to knives or tire irons, guns are very effective labor saving devices for killing people.

I don't think it is realistic to end civilian firearm ownership in America. But I do think that we can and should have policies that reduce the numbers of guns in circulation, restrict who can buy and sell them, and ban certain types of guns based on their firepower.

In most of America, a private citizen can sell another a gun without restriction or regulation. No one involved in such a sale is required to do background checks to see if the buyer is legally prevented from possessing firearms. No one is required to report the sale. No one is required to demonstrate proficiency or any understanding of proper gun handling or storage. Where we do place some restrictions on these sorts of sales, it is a piecemeal mess of largely unenforceable, loophole ridden, and incompatible municipal and state ordinances.

I think there should be a national firearms owners license and that such a license is necessary to purchase firearms or ammunition. I think that only people who have shown they understand firearms and have passed basic background checks should be able to obtain such a license. I think that there should be a national record of every firearm purchase and that individual firearms should be traceable to individual licenses. To that end I think that all sales should be required to involve a licensed and regulated gun broker of some kind.

I think that open carry laws, the concept that it is legally permissible to carry around a loaded unconcealed gun, is absurd. If someone is out in the country, actively engaged in hunting, sure, but walking around a crowded city street with a loaded rifle is utterly ridiculous and shouldn't be legal. I think that it has become far too easy to obtain a concealed carry permit, a license that allows someone to carry a hidden pistol on their person. I'm not completely opposed to such permits for those who have an occupational need, like bodyguards, but in my opinion far too many insensible, hair triggered, paranoids are carrying handguns these days.

I think that some kinds of firearms have no business being in the hands of civilians. As a concept, that isn't new or controversial. We already don't allow civilian ownership of fully armed main battle tanks, machine guns, or artillery howitzers. This is seen as sensible because those sorts of weapons are very destructive and best restricted to the military. But I am increasingly of the mind that we ought to move that line further.

Outside of law enforcement or some very tightly regulated classes of licenses, I no longer think that civilians should be able to own semi automatic firearms. I think that such weapons allow for too high a rate of fire, vastly increasing the destructive potential and capability of taking multiple human lives. I think that civilians should be restricted to firearms that require the user to cycle the action in some way, separate from just pulling the trigger, in order to fire the gun repeatedly. Pump action shotguns, lever action carbines, bolt action rifles, and single action revolvers are all examples of guns that cannot be fired as fast as the trigger can be pulled. All of them can still be effective hunting, self defense, and target shooting firearms in the hands of a proficient user, but none would allow a single shooter to lay down the volume of fire that recent mass murderers have achieved with their high capacity, semi-automatics.

I don't want civilian gun ownership outlawed. But gun policies in this country ought to be rethought with an eye towards deescalating gun violence and developing policies that are based upon modern realities not bygone eras.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Thank You to Kevin Folta

This is a copy of a letter I recently sent to Dr. Kevin Folta of the University of Florida

Dr. Folta

I wanted to take a few minutes of your time to thank you for your advocacy of GMO agriculture. I am a midwestern grain farmer and I have been growing GMO field corn and soybeans for many years. I am disheartened to see a loud and largely ignorant opposition to my practices. I do what I can to explain myself and clear up misconceptions as I encounter them, but my voice is small, even if my personal stake in this matter is significant to me. But your voice has been clear and broad reaching and frankly very well communicated.

From someone who is on the ground in this public debate and can be hurt by misguided policy informed by the bad science of anti-GMO ideology, I want to tell you how very much I appreciate your efforts to oppose the message of those who would misinform the public and work to make my career riskier and more burdensome.

[I'm pleasantly stunned to add that Dr. Folta replied to my letter and did so just a few hours after I sent it. He is a great guy.]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Monsanto and Monoculture

I'd like to address a couple of themes I've seen in discussions among non-farmers about agriculture. I am an Midwestern American corn and soybean farmer. Although I was not an early adopter, all of the seed I have been purchasing and planting in the last 10 years contains engineered traits. Most of the seed I buy comes from Monsanto subsidiaries like Dekalb or Asgrow, although some comes from Pioneer which is owned by DuPont, a very large company.

The company Monsanto as it is today might be better named Dekalb, since the company has been overwhelmingly a seed company since its aquisition of Dekalb and sale of its non-ag divisions in the late 90s. I do remember Monsanto making a very big deal out of its full specialization as an ag technology and research company in its farmer focused literature in that past 15 years or so.

As a company focused on agriculture seed, technology, and research -- Monsanto is big. By which I mean that compared to the divisions of other companies that do such things, Monsanto is bigger, even if Monsanto is smaller than the parent companies of their competitors. This is one of the reasons that Monsanto is ahead and stays ahead of their competitors in terms of traits in their seed.

As to monoculture, that is a concern and has been for close to 100 years. Contrary to what intuition might tell us, there isn't less genetic diversity in modern corn or soybeans that there was 100 or 50 or 30 years ago. Monsanto and other ag seed companies have huge libraries of genetic lineages that are constantly getting larger as more and more lineages are bred. Most don't make it to market or have been surpassed by more recent developments, but they do exist and can be further expanded via genetic engineering or combined with newer lineages in breeding programs.

I don't have my Dekalb seed catalogue in front of me, but I can assure you that it contains many hybrids of corn seed and varieties of soybean seed for me to buy. Far more than I have any use for, with a dizzying array of maturity dates and trait combinations. New hybrids and varieties are added every year, poor performers are abandoned, and staying on top of my options and making good seed purchases for my particular fields and agronomic practices is a major part of my job. In this, Monsanto isn't forcing reduced options on me -- quite the opposite.

Sometimes I think when people refer to genetic diversity and monoculture what they are objecting to isn't the lack of genetic diversity of within corn or soybeans, but rather the dominance of corn as a crop. So, I'd like to address that a bit.

Corn has been the dominant crop in America for a long time -- long before genetic engineering, RoundUp, Bt corn, or the rise of Monsanto's perception as an evil ag company. The reasons for that are complex and have played out in American agriculture for most of the last century. But at the risk of oversimplifying I'm going to concentrate on just a few.

Corn grows exceptionally well in the American Midwest -- partly climate and partly seed development. Once hybridized seed became available to farmers nearly 100 years ago, corn rapidly began to overtake other grains in planted acres. Corn was then and remains easier to grow, hardier, more reliable, and more profitable than its competitor crops in much of the region of America known as the corn belt.

Most crops require specialized equipment and practices. Throughout the middle part of the last century, American farms began to specialize into various production practices. The age of all individual American farms growing 5 or more crops per year and raising 3 or more livestock species per farm ended a long time ago, before I was born. Instead farms and the farmers running them became expert specialists and agricultural productivity has marched upwards.

Farmers don't farm in a proverbial vacuum though. There is a lot of regional momentum at play. Different crops require different equipment, yes, but they also require markets where farmers can deliver and sell their harvests. There is a vast and tremendously expensive agricultural infrastructure in the American Midwest that is set up to handle corn and to a lesser extent soybeans and wheat. Growing something else, even another grain, is not really feasible to many farmers since where are they going to find a buyer for their 20,000 or 100,000 bushels of specialty grain? How far is that grain going to have to be hauled from the farm, a simple 20 miles, a burdensome 200 miles or more? When can it be delivered, anytime in the year or only on a certain day at a certain far off facility? Is there any market at all for large quantities of that not-corn-grain?

That isn't to say a specialty crops aren't grown, they are. Sunflowers, pumpkins, barley, sweet corn, alfalfa, green beans -- are all examples of crops grown in small (insignificant) quantities compared to corn or soybeans in the region where I farm. But there simply isn't a sizeable enough market for any but a tiny fraction of farmers to jump into those crops, nor is the infrastructure in place to deal with more than it already does.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

4th of July Patriotism

My birthday is the 2nd of July, so the 4th celebrations have always been wrapped up in complex but generally happy memories. I love, love, love fireworks, birthday parties, cookouts, and Midwestern pork chop sandwiches which are to me a seasonal tradition. All of that said, as the years have gone by I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the jingoistic rhetoric and glorification of militarism that plays such a huge role in most 4th celebrations.

Sure, I like my country. I certainly care an awful lot about it and its future. But I don't know if emphasizing that people died for it, for me, in war is a great way to celebrate. I don't think it is accurate or right to insist that every American military death in every conflict has been in the service of my freedom. I don't like the implication that those who kill for our country love it more than those who feed it, or educate it, or foster its enlightenment. It's as though we've reduced patriotism to chest thumping with a side of guilt. I don't care for any of that, but I still love the fireworks.