Sunday, April 24, 2016

Zika, Human Population Growth, and Epidemics

Humans emerged from a soup of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.  These entities have been, and always will be, accompanying us as evolution continues to mold us.  Since we have coevolved, these other creatures generally coexist with us, sometimes providing benefits, often neutral in effect, but occasionally harmful. 

It is important to realize that evolution is a continuous process—for all the participants.  While human evolution seems to operate on a time schedule where change is difficult to notice, other creatures can change much more rapidly.  Within our lifetime, bacteria have encountered our antibiotics and developed defenses against them.  Plants have encountered our herbicides and tamed them.  Some forms of virus are relatively stable and have been countered with vaccines.  Others are fundamentally unstable and are continuously mutating into different forms.  Included among these are the familiar influenza viruses and those responsible for the common cold.

Every few years, it seems, a new and dangerous form of virus makes the headlines.  The latest to arise is the Zika virus.  This is not really a new species, but it seems to have developed the frightening capability to cause birth defects in the infants of women who are infected while pregnant.  The probability of such an occurrence and the possible damage done are still being assessed.  Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease specialist, provided an interesting perspective on the virus in the New York Times article How Scared Should You Be About Zika?

“….the mosquito that transmits this disease, the species Aedes aegypti, has never been more numerous or lived in more locations. Think of Aedes aegypti as the Norway rat of mosquitoes; it has evolved to live in close quarters with humans, and the trash that humans create. This is quite different from most other species of mosquitoes, like the ones that transmit West Nile virus, which tend to lay their eggs in marshes, rice fields, ditches, the edges of streams and small, temporary rain pools.”

“The world has changed dramatically in the past 40 years with regard to increasing the habitat for Aedes aegypti breeding. An explosion of plastic and rubber solid waste now litters virtually all parts of the globe, particularly in the developing world. Non-biodegradable containers, used tires and discarded plastic bags and wrappers — whether in the backyard, a roadside ditch or an abandoned lot — make ideal habitats for these mosquitoes to lay their eggs. All they need is a little rainfall.”

“Now we’ve got an outbreak on our hands, and although the symptoms of Zika itself are absent to mild for most, for some there can be devastating consequences to infection. An increasing number of infected women have given birth to babies with microcephaly, which causes small heads and brain damage. We’re learning that Zika can lead to Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome, a dangerous autoimmune disorder that can cause paralysis. Some believe we need more scientific data to confirm these more severe manifestations. I don’t agree; I believe the evidence is already compelling.”

Osterholm tells us that this mosquito is already found in twelve US states, mostly in the southeast, and that it is also capable of transmitting other nasty diseases such as Dengue fever.  It is disconcerting to learn that the common name for Aedes aegypti is the “yellow fever mosquito.”

Note the suggestion that we have invited this plague upon ourselves by changing our environment in a way that generated an increased mosquito population.  In other words, our own actions are increasing the dangers we face from infectious threats.  Is this an exceptional situation, or is it inevitable as we continue to impose change upon the planet we live on?

While humans will require multiple generations to evolve different characteristics in response to a changing environment, they are currently changing the environment in which they exist on a very rapid time scale.  In addition, the human population has grown dramatically in just a few generations.  Increasing population density increases the probability of infectious epidemics.  We are also expanding into all areas of the globe, including places with microbial life we have yet to encounter.  As we eliminate animal species, we force bacteria and viruses to seek new hosts in order to survive—and we are often the most abundant option.

David Quammen addressed the issue of human activity as a path to more frequent and more dangerous infections in his book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.  The term spillover refers to the transfers of viruses from their normal animal hosts to humans.  The correct technical term for this transfer is zoonosis.  Both AIDS and Ebola came to humans from animal infections and were restricted to minor outbreaks in limited regions until the pressures of population growth and increased mobility led to major epidemics.  One can add Machupo (1959), Marburg (1967), Lassa (1969), Sin Nombre (1993), Hendra (1994), avian flu (1997), Nipah (1998), West Nile (1999), SARS (2003) and MERS (2012) to the list.  Quammen believes that human activity is the reason for the increased frequency.

“We have increased our population to the level of 7 billion and beyond....We live at high densities in many cities.  We have penetrated, and we continue to penetrate, the last great forests and other wild ecosystems of the planet, disrupting the physical structures and ecological communities of such places.  We cut our way through the Congo.  We cut our way through the Amazon.  We cut our way through Borneo.  We cut our way through Madagascar.  We cut our way through New Guinea and northeastern Australia.  We shake the trees, figuratively and literally, and things fall out.  We kill and butcher and eat many of the wild animals found there.”

“Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another.  And they are not simply happening to us; they represent the unintended results of things we are doing.  They reflect the convergence of two forms of crisis on our planet.  The first is ecological, the second is medical.  As the two intersect, their joint consequences appear as a pattern of weird and terrible new diseases, emerging from unexpected sources and raising deep concern, deep foreboding, among the scientists who study them.”

Quammen uses the term outbreak both as a flare up of an infectious disease, and as an exceptionally large increase in the population of any species.  This latter use of the term is often associated with the populations of certain types of insects.  Quammen refers to the cycles of population growth and collapse endured by the gypsy moth.  Its population density will start low for an extended period until some environmental change occurs that favors increased rates of reproduction and leads to rapid growth in the population density.  This growth was always observed to be followed by a dramatic collapse in the population.  It was only recently that the cause of this behavior was learned.  There is a virus classification called nucleopolyhedroviruses (NPV).  These viruses lie in wait for the gypsy moths, but it requires a population level large enough for an epidemic to occur.  At lower levels individual moths will be infected but will not spread the disease sufficiently for it to propagate throughout the entire population.  Once that species density is attained the virus takes over and decimates the population.

Quammen suggests that we, with our rapid population growth and our ham-handed treatment of the environment, are a species undergoing outbreak.

“....we are hungry.  We are prodigious, we are unprecedented.  We are phenomenal.  No other primate has ever weighed upon the planet to anything like this degree.  In ecological terms, we are almost paradoxical: large-bodied and long-lived but grotesquely abundant.  We are an outbreak.”
 “And here’s the thing about outbreaks: they end.  In some cases they end after many years, in other cases they end rather soon.  In some cases they end gradually, in other cases they end with a crash.”

Could there come a virus that was so deadly and so easily transmitted that a collapse of the human population could occur?  The SARS virus had that potential.  It had a high degree of lethality and it was easily spread from human to human.  What limited its effect was the fact that it showed signs of illness before it became highly contagious.  This drove most sick people off the streets and often into controlled medical settings before they could spread the virus.  It also helped that the virus was spread by air travel to locations that possessed modern medical facilities.  If the virus had emerged in different locations, or, if it became contagious before severe symptoms were exhibited, the result could have been disastrous. 

Quammen and other experts point to influenza as a possible source for such a virus.  Influenza is a zoonosis.  This class of virus is ultimately transferred from wild aquatic birds although it often reaches humans after being passed through an intermediary host such as a pig.  Influenza viruses know how to infect humans, they mutate continuously, and can vary from mild to deadly in effect. 

The flu pandemic of 1918 provides an example of the potential for harm.  According to Wikipedia 50 to 100 million people died (3-5% of the world’s population at the time) and 500 million were infected (about 30% of the world’s population).  The 10% fatality rate is not unusual (Ebola kills about 70% of those it infects), but the transmissibility is what made this pandemic so deadly. 

What seems to be worrying scientists now is the existence of bird flu.  This flu emerged in Hong Kong in 1997.  It was the first occasion where a virus with the H5 designation was observed to infect a human.  The virus resides in duck species.  Some die from it, others don’t, like the mallard and pintail, and they have spread it across the world.  It is particularly prevalent in Egypt where duck and poultry populations are infected, and about a quarter of all known human infections have occurred.  Most human infections come from transmission from an infected bird rather than via human-to-human transmission. 

The virus is not going away and it continues to create new versions of itself.  It is widespread and it has a high fatality rate of about 33%.  If, or when, it emerges in a form that allows humans to infect one another, it could be catastrophic. 

Let us return to Osterholm and his article.  He is irate at the lack of preparation for the next virus.  We know that one will come, and we knew that Aedes aegypti resided in the US and was capable of spreading the dangerous Dengue viruses.  That should have alerted us to the need to take measures to control the mosquito population before the Zika crisis arose.

“The point is, we should have anticipated that the large increase in mosquitoes would create a major health crisis. Just as we should have anticipated that a deadly hemorrhagic disease caused by the Ebola virus would emerge one day from the remote forests and threaten the vast slums of the rapidly growing megacities of Africa. We should now anticipate that the MERS virus will result in more deadly outbreaks outside of the Arabian Peninsula, as it did in Seoul, South Korea. We should anticipate that viruses such as Venezuelan equine encephalitis may spread from their jungle homes and be even more deadly than Zika.”

Osterholm is also concerned that “the big one” will emerge as a form of influenza.

“Even more than these viruses, we should be afraid of a planet-wide catastrophe caused by influenza. The best way to avert a pandemic is to develop a game-changing universal influenza vaccine. All these crises are largely predictable and we can do much in advance to lessen the effects and diminish the spread. And believe me, the cost of acting now will be infinitely less than the cost of not acting in the long run.”

It might be a good idea to make the effort to get a flu shot each year.

The interested reader might find these articles informative:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Outrageous Wealth: Carried Interest, Philanthropy, and Political Consequences

We have allowed wealth to grow to dangerous levels that pose a threat to the workings of a democratic nation.  Here we will discuss some of the ways we have allowed wealth and its associated power to accumulate without bound, and some of the consequences of that accumulation.

The term “carried interest” is usually thought of as a tax loophole that allows those running hedge funds to earn ordinary income and pay taxes at the much lower capital gains rate.  The situation with respect to carried interest is actually quite a bit more complicated.  Alec MacGillis who covers politics for ProPublica provided background on this little understood topic in The Billionaires’ Loophole, an article that appeared in The New Yorker.

MacGillis tells us that the concept of carried interest originated in the twelfth century when ship captains bargained with the owners of products to deliver their wares.  Think of each voyage as a shared investment in a business venture.  The owner of the product contributed the freight to be delivered while the ship’s captain contributed the transportation.  In principle, the captain was merely providing a service and might have been compensated with a set fee, but the riskiness of sailing in those days made the venture more of a partnership.  Captains received a 20% share of the profits as might be expected from a partnership.

Macgillis says the modern version of this sort of arrangement arose in the oil industry in the 1920s.

“When a group of partners drilled for oil, a few would put up the money and others would invest only their labor, or ‘sweat equity’—finding land and investors, buying equipment, and so on. If the partners sold out, the I.R.S. would tax the profits of all the partners at the lower rate for capital gains rather than as ordinary income.”

This taxing of partnerships was firmly established in the tax code in 1954.  Eventually, it was recognized that other industries, such as real estate and venture capitalization encountered similar types of partnerships and could take advantage of the same tax break.

The tax break didn’t become a tax loophole until the emergence of huge hedge funds and private-equity funds.  In those cases the individuals running the funds were mostly dealing with other peoples’ money and were of a mind to claim a “partnership” without having much of an investment of their own involved. 

Interestingly, the 20 % profit level has endured since the twelfth century.  Both hedge and private-equity funds tend to adhere to a “2 and 20” policy.  Investors in the funds pay an annual fee of 2% of the value of their investment to cover management expenses.  They also agree to pay up to 20% of any profits to the fund managers, who wish to continue to claim these profits as capital gains rather than earned income.  In the private-equity case, a threshold rate of profitability is defined, and the fund will get 20% of the profits in excess of that threshold profit.

The major beneficiaries of this loophole are the private-equity funds.  Their investments are generally greater than a year in duration and investors’ profits meet the long-term requirement for capital gains.  Hedge funds transactions often happen at a higher rate and are less able, in general, to take advantage of the loophole.

Private equity is where fund managers earn the most profit and have the least justification for claiming capital gains on those earnings.

“Private-equity firms stretched the model to its breaking point. Their work is essentially a combination of investment banking and management consulting: they are compensated not for building new ventures from scratch, with the risk that entails, but for managing the investments of wealthy individuals and pension funds and other institutional clients. These funds are pooled, along with borrowed money, to acquire private companies or to take public companies private—before making improvements or cutting costs and selling at a big profit.”

If the fund performs well, the managers can become fabulously wealthy.  If the fund performs poorly, the managers have still been paid a princely sum.  Apparently, some even claim the 2% fee as carried interest and take the lower tax rate.

“Even if no profits are realized, private-equity firms get paid: under the “2 and 20” compensation structure, they receive a two-per-cent fee annually on assets under management, in addition to a twenty-per-cent cut of profits beyond a given benchmark. The I.R.S. characterizes the managers’ cut of the profits as carried interest, taxing it as though it were capital gains made through the sale of a person’s own investment.”

The amount of money lost to the treasury is in the billions of dollars per year, with estimates varying from a few billion to many.  There is an argument to be made about the fundamental fairness of taxation policy that the credibility of the tax system is at risk if such loopholes are not closed.

The more critical issue is that hedge funds and private-equity funds with their fee schedules and their tax breaks are vehicles for producing a few outrageously wealthy individuals—and with wealth comes power.

“Since the end of the recession, private equity has reported record profits, and at least eighteen private-equity executives are estimated to be worth two billion dollars or more each.”

Some of the outrageously wealthy use their power to accomplish noteworthy things.  Others use their power to further personal agendas, both economic and political.

Jane Mayer examines the dark side of outrageous wealth in frightening detail in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.  She reports this bit of analysis:

“The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, estimated that the hedge fund loophole cost the government over $6 billion a year….Of that total, it said, almost $2 billion a year from the tax break went to just twenty-five individuals.”

The carried-interest loophole was little noted until a few years into the current century.  Mayer suggests that what raised consciousness to a high level was reporting of the earnings of Stephen Schwartzman the chairman and CEO of the private-equity firm the Blackstone Group.  Schwartzman had to make public his earnings as part of taking his group public.

“In 2006, when he decided to transform Blackstone from a private partnership into a public company, he had been required to disclose his earnings for the first time.  The numbers stunned both Wall Street and Washington.  He made $398.3 million in 2006, which was nine times more than the CEO of Goldman Sachs.  On top of this, his shares in Blackstone were valued at more than $7 billion.”

Mayer provides this quote from a friend of Schwartzman.

“You have no idea what impression this made on Wall Street.  You have all these guys who have spent their entire lives working just as hard to make twenty million.  Sure that’s a lot of money, but then Schwartzman turns around and, seemingly overnight, has eight billion.”

The House in Congress had been trying to pass bills that would address this loophole since 2007, but the motions always died in the Senate.  Few Republicans would support such legislation, but it was really a few Democrats particularly beholden to financial interests who blocked passage (MacGillis calls out Schumer, Bayh, Warner, and Hagan explicitly on the early attempts).

Under Obama, another bill addressing the loophole passed the House but would again die in the Senate.  The fact that Obama would dare such a brazen assault on the wealth and privilege of hedge fund and private-equity managers outraged them.

“Stephen Schwartzman….would call the administration’s efforts to close the loophole ‘a war,’ claiming it was ‘like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939’.”

“….Schwartzman and a number of other financiers regarded this as a new level of affront and flocked to the June Koch summit with their check books in hand, determined to prevent his reelection.”

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, have for many years been holding what Mayer refers to as “summits” where wealthy individuals with similar political beliefs would gather and discuss ways in which to replace our current form of government with one more to their liking.  They seem to believe that the only necessary function of government is the protection of private property, theirs in particular.  All other actions of government are to be eliminated, and all rules and regulations terminated.  When David Koch ran for vice-president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, William F. Buckley Jr. derided their views as “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.”  In 1978, Charles Koch wrote:

“Our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.”

The Koch’s methods have evolved over the years, but there is no evidence that their ultimate objectives have changed.

“Organizers were waiting for Schwartzman and others at the June Koch summit, the theme of which was ‘Understanding and Addressing Threats to American Free Enterprise and Prosperity.’  The financiers represented a different strain of the Republican Party from the Kochs.  Few were fanatically ideological.  Most were simply concerned with protecting their continued accumulation of wealth.  But when their resources were combined with the idea machinery built by the conservative movement’s early funders, along with the ideological zealotry of the Kochs and other antigovernment radicals, the result was a raging river of cash capable of carrying the whole Republican Party to the right.”

“The concentration of wealth at the Koch summit by this point was extraordinary.  Of the two hundred or so participants meeting secretly with the Kochs in Aspen that June, at least eleven were on Forbes’s list of the four hundred wealthiest Americans.  The combined assets of this group alone, assessed in accordance with the magazine’s estimates of their wealth at the time, amounted to $129.1 billion”

Mayer details how that cash was used to create a new Republican Party.  That will have to be a tale for another day.  Better yet, read her book!

There are two messages to take away from this slightly rambling tale.  The first is that our tax code is a mess.  The carried interest loophole is only one issue.  Consider the fact that the Kochs and their allies can finance all their dirty tricks and attack adds with charitable contributions subsidized by the rest of us taxpayers.  One can organize an entity supposedly dedicated to the public good—which is considered a charitable activity for tax purposes—and spend up to 49% of its funds on a strictly political agenda.  One can then transfer the remainder of the funds to organizations that are also dedicated to political activities and it is all legal.  Anyone with a little money and some smarts can take advantage of this scam and create such an entity.  A billionaire can create hundreds of them and coordinate their activities to make it appear that some vast popular movement has arisen.

The second message is that outrageously wealthy people can be dangerous people.  Philanthropy has a dark side.  What the Kochs are up to is using the mechanism of philanthropy to wage war on our society’s values.  Even when the wealthy use their assets in beneficial ways, we are giving up our own prerogatives, to be reached via elections and decisions by office holders beholden to voters, to be replaced by those of wealthy individuals.  Why?  Depending on philanthropy for public decision making is madness.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Power of Group Bonding: The Willingness to Sacrifice Your Life

It is popular—and easy—to formulate a view of humanity that says we have evolved by surviving conflicts with other humans.  Therefore, we possess an innate tendency towards violence that is barely contained by the constraints placed upon us by our need to live within social groups.  There are certainly enough conflicts recorded in history to support that hypothesis. 

But what if that picture has it backwards, and the dominant tendency derived from evolution is not conflict, but rather the need to live within social groups, and violence is merely a response necessary to protect the group from harm?  Such a nuance would not be easily detected since most conflicts are at least claimed by the participants to arise as a counter to a threat.  However, the significance is critical to understanding the sources of violence and learning how to deal with them.

In a recent post, Humanity and Violence, we discussed these issues within the context of soldiers and their ability to perform violently during warfare.  Using World War II and the barbarity experienced on the Eastern Front in Europe, it was possible to postulate that it was the dynamics of existing in threatened battlefield groups that allowed individuals to behave violently in ways they never would have as isolated individuals.  Groups provide both peer pressure and authority figures to which humans have developed a tendency to acquiesce.  The critical dynamic is not violence being constrained by social interaction, but violence being approved and encouraged via social interaction.

Recent references have been encountered that support the notion that group interactions are important in understanding why people might choose to commit violent and even suicidal acts.  The main topic now is not battlefields and organized warfare, but the reasons why people—particularly young people—will associate with terrorist organizations and put their lives at risk, even agreeing to participate in suicide bombings.  Are they driven by adherence to radical religious ideologies—or is there something more subtle involved?

An article in the New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla, France:Is There a Way Out, discussed an array of problems France was facing including the constant threat from home-grown terrorism.  Included was this comment questioning radical religious beliefs as the main motivator for the terrorists who have done so much damage in France.

“Olivier Roy, a somewhat idiosyncratic French specialist on Islam, published a much-discussed article shortly after the Bataclan massacres arguing that jihadism has nothing to do with Muslim institutions and little to do with Muslim life. He noted that the large majority of French jihadists are second-generation Muslims who, unlike their parents, speak French, grew up with little to no contact with mosques or Muslim organizations, and before their conversions drank, took drugs, and had girlfriends. They are estranged from their parents and don’t know where to fit in. Or they are recent converts, largely from rural areas and many from divorced families. Why is that, Roy asks? If Islam or social conditions are essentially to blame for breeding terrorism, why do such structural problems affect only this very narrowly defined group? Why does it not attract first- or third-generation French Muslims, or those whose Islamic culture is the deepest? And why does its appeal extend to children of the successful middle class? His answer: jihadism is a nihilistic generational revolt, not a religiously inspired utopianism.”

Roy’s “nihilistic generational revolt” may perhaps be an overly slick simplification of a complex phenomenon.  However, the notion that young people turn to jihad for reasons that have little to do with religious extremism rang a bell.

Scott Atran produced a book in 2010 titled Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.  Atran seems to agree with Olivier Roy on the social situations from which these conversions to terrorism emerge.

“….the data show that most young people who join the jihad had a moderate and mostly secular education to begin with, rather than a radical religious one.  And where in modern society do you find young people who hang on the words of older educators and ‘moderates’?”

Atran spent considerable time learning what had motivated those who had joined terrorist groups.

“Youth generally favors actions, not words, and challenge, not calm.  That’s a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends.  Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer….fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool.”

Atran emphasizes the importance of being a member—a respected member— of a group to young jihadist converts.

“When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London Underground in 2005, and hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them, then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or the teachings of religion as it is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.”

When asked to summarize his thoughts on what motivates terrorists, Atran came up with this simple reply.

“People, including terrorists, don’t simply die for a cause; they die for each other, especially their friends.”

In other words, membership in a group, and the dynamics of that group, are critical in providing motivation for violent and suicidal actions.

George Packer provided a detailed look at Tunisia, the country that seems to be exporting the most fighters to ISIS, in an article in The New Yorker: Exporting Jihad.  He reaches conclusions similar to those of Atran.

“Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive….Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad. ‘You have a lot of people who have aspirations and can’t meet them,’ Monica Marks, an American doctoral candidate who studies Islamist movements in the Middle East, said.”

And again, group interactions are important in generating movement toward action.

“In Tunisia, leaving to wage jihad has become a social phenomenon. Recruitment spreads like a contagion through informal networks of friends and family members, and the country is small enough so that everyone knows of someone who has disappeared.”

Harvey Whitehouse, an Oxford professor, produced the article What Motivates Extreme Self-Sacrifice? for Pacific-Southern magazine.  He begins with this claim:

“New work in the field of anthropology says violent extremism isn’t really motivated by religion—but by fusion within the group.”

Whitehouse has long investigated the factors that enable soldiers and others who find themselves in threatening situations to risk their lives.  The evidence he has acquired points to this conclusion:

“….fighters don’t put their lives on the line for abstract values like ‘king and country’ or ‘God, freedom, and democracy.’  They do it for each other.”

Psychologists have discovered that there are extreme forms of group bonding referred to as “identity fusion.”

Modern military leaders may or may not be conscious of this concept, but it is the basis of military training.  Recruits are passed through a period of basic training that is extremely difficult, and is a shared experience.  The recruits are also indoctrinated to think of themselves as part of a fighting group, not as individuals.  The goal is to act instinctively in a way that protects the group.

“Our research suggests that, when you believe others have gone through the same self-defining experiences, it makes the boundary between you and others more porous.  This is the essence of fusion with a group.  Once fused, people start to treat the group as part of themselves—and to feel empowered by that sensation.  When you attack the group, it feels, to the fused person, like a personal attack.  The urge to defend the group becomes as primal as the urge to defend the self.”

Whitehouse was moved to formulate this hypothesis:

“….the reason people willingly walk into the jaws of death (e.g. by carrying out suicide attacks) is because they think that in doing so they are defending themselves and their group—which are really the same thing—against an outgroup threat.”

If that position seems extreme or unlikely, Whitehouse suggests considering the most common example of identity fusion: the family.

“How many of us would lay down our lives for our closest family members if there were no other way to save them? I suspect rather a lot of us would….almost as a natural, inescapable expression of the bonds of kinship.”

The various claims reported here are highly suggestive—but not conclusive.  However, what is suggested is much more positive and encouraging than the usual assumption that Islam is a radicalizing religion that will generate unending conflict with nonbelievers.  While there may always be psychotic religious fanatics among us, there may be practical steps that can be taken to reduce recruitment of young people to their causes.

What has been reported here also supports the contentions made at the beginning of this article:

“But what if….the dominant tendency derived from evolution is not conflict, but rather the need to live within social groups, and violence is merely a response necessary to protect the group from harm?”

“The critical dynamic is not violence being constrained by social interaction, but violence being approved and encouraged via social interaction.”

That casts humanity in a better light—and provides hope for a stable, nonviolent future.

The interested reader might find these articles of value:

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Monsanto Monopoly: Weeds, Seeds, GMOs, and Carcinogens

Allowing a single corporation to dominate a critical sector of our economy is risky.  As an example, we will consider the corporation Monsanto and how its activities affect us.  We will begin with economic issues before discussing broader social concerns.

An absolutely free market where competition reigns and all companies are continually at risk from competitors may be efficient at keeping prices of goods low, but it is also very efficient at keeping wages and company earnings low.  Such situations have traditionally led to chaotic conditions characterized by severe swings in economic output.  To protect themselves from such volatility, companies began to collude with others to form “trusts” or monopolistic constructs that would provide some degree of control over the market and keep prices at a level where a profit could be guaranteed.

There were good and bad aspects to this monopolistic trend.  A healthy company with long-term prospects for profitability is a stable company that can think in terms of investing for the future and providing better products.  On the other hand, a company that is too secure in its market niche has little motivation to keep prices for its products low. 

There clearly needs to be a balance between market control and market chaos.  It has become the function of government legislators and regulators to provide the appropriate balance between market dominance and market competition, with government prosecutors and judges acting as referees.

The central argument put forth by Robert B. Reich in his book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few is that the balance has shifted too far towards market dominance as we face a situation where wealthy corporations have the economic and political power to create rules and regulations that work in their favor.

“All this has hobbled smaller businesses.  Contrary to the conventional view of an American economy bubbling with innovative small companies, the reality is quite different.  Intellectual property, network effects, natural monopolies, expensive R&D, fleets of lawyers to litigate against potential rivals, and armies of lobbyists have created formidable barriers to new entrants.  This is one major reason the rate at which new businesses have formed in the United States has slowed markedly in recent years.  Between 1978 and 2011, as the new giants gained control, that rate has halved, according to a Brookings Institution study released in May 2014.”

“They herald the ‘free market’ as they busily shape it to their advantage.  They are the kingpins of the new economy, and average Americans are paying the price.”

What Reich refers to as “the new monopolists” are those who have gained a degree of dominance in a market area by clever practices or development of new technologies and methods, and used the profits from that dominance to cement their market control, keep out competitors, and control prices.  This is best done by integrating economic and political initiatives.

Reich uses Monsanto as a company that has exhibited all the behaviors of the new monopolies.  Monsanto developed a very effective general herbicide based on the chemical glyphosate.  It is the product familiar to homeowners as Roundup.  They discovered that some plants had developed a resistance to Roundup.  They figured out how this resistance was generated and used this knowledge to engineer that tolerance into the genetic makeup of corn and soy seeds.  What they could offer farmers then was a herbicide that could be widely sprayed, including directly on the corn and soybean plants, without harming them.

“The herbicide and herbicide-resistant seeds initially saved farmers time and money.  But the purchase came with a catch that would haunt them in the future: The soy and corn that grow from these seeds don’t produce seeds of their own.  So every planting season, farmers have to buy new seeds.  In addition, if the farmers have any seeds left over, they must agree not to save and replant them in the future.  In other words, once hooked, farmers have little choice but to become permanent purchasers of Monsanto seed.  To insure its dominance, Monsanto has prohibited seed dealers from stocking its competitors’ seeds and has bought up most of the small remaining seed companies.”

“Monsanto….owns the key genetic traits in more than 90 percent of the soybeans planted by farmers in the United States and 80 percent of the corn.”

This clever strategy has paid off for Monsanto as the dependence on Monsanto has continued, but farmers and consumers have been forced to contribute excessive amounts of cash to the company’s coffers.

“The result has been higher prices far beyond the cost-of-living rise.  Since 2001, Monsanto has more than doubled the price of corn and soybean seeds.  The average cost of planting one acre of soybeans increased 325 percent between 1994 and 2011, and the price of corn seed rose 259 percent.”

Monsanto has made good use of its teams of lawyers who have been successful at protecting its advantage and imposing its license agreements on farmers.  However, what is most insidious is the degree to which political control can be obtained.

“Monsanto has the distinction of spending more on lobbying—nearly $7 million in 2013 alone—than any other big agribusiness.  And Monsanto’s former (and future) employees frequently inhabit top posts at the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, they staff congressional committees that deal with agricultural policy, and they become advisors to congressional leaders and at the White House.  Two Monsanto lobbyists are former congressman Vic Fazio and former senator Blanche Lincoln.  Even supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was at one time as attorney for Monsanto.  Monsanto, like any new monopoly, has strategically used its economic power to gain political power and used its political power to entrench its market power.”

Reich presents two other issues that emerge from a single company and its products becoming so dominant in agriculture.

“Another result has been a radical decline in the genetic diversity of the seeds we depend on.  This increases the risk that disease or climate change might wipe out entire crops for years, if not forever.  A third consequence has been the ubiquity of genetically modified traits in our food chain.”

The latter issue of genetically modified food (GMOs) is currently a hot-button issue.  This concern has taken the form of demands that producers be required to label products containing GMOs.  At present, there seems to be no clear evidence that genetic modification has produced potentially harmful products.  Since most of the corn and soybeans produced in this country have been genetically modified, any item containing corn or soybean products would have to be labeled as containing GMOs.  So many things would fall in this category that it is not clear what labeling would accomplish.

A more serious concern is related to the way in which genetically-modified corn and soybeans are produced.  The purpose of the genetic modifications is to allow the food-producing crops to be doused in dangerous chemicals without being killed.  Who among us would go out to their garden and spray Roundup on plants producing food we plan on eating?  It sounds a bit absurd—yet our agricultural industry depends on doing just that.

When Monsanto provided its seed/herbicide duo it claimed that it was providing a path to higher crop yields and the environmental benefit of lower herbicide use.  The data indicates that higher crop yields have not been obtained.  What the data does indicate is that the use of herbicide—and Roundup in particular—has exploded.  From this source:

“American growers sprayed 280 million pounds of glyphosate on their crops in 2012, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. That amounts to nearly a pound of glyphosate for every person in the country.”
“The use of glyphosate on farmland has skyrocketed since the mid-1990s, when biotech companies introduced genetically engineered crop varieties (often called GMOs) that can withstand being blasted with glyphosate. Since then, agricultural use of the herbicide has increased 16-fold.”

Monsanto was well-aware that plants could and would develop a resistance to Roundup.  These “superweeds” have required that farmers use ever larger quantities of herbicides to try to contain them.  Monsanto’s business plan seems to be to continue to develop new seeds and ever more powerful herbicides as a combo.  From this source:

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week (March 23 [2016]) it will allow farmers to plant a new strain of genetically modified (GMO) corn created by Monsanto to be tolerant of the weed killers dicamba and glufosinate without government oversight, a step likely to expand the use of these chemical herbicides.”

Monsanto is not the only participant in this escalating chemical warfare. Dow is trying to get approved a seed/herbicide combo called Enlist Duo, utilizing a mixture of glyphosate and another herbicide, 2,4-D.  This aroused concern and public uproar because 2,4-D was a component of the notorious Agent Orange.  From this source:

“In a stunning reversal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has retreated from its earlier decision to let Dow AgroSciences market a new weed killer, branded Enlist Duo, which the company designed to kill hardy weeds on fields of genetically engineered corn and soybeans.”

Apparently Dow was not sharing everything it knew about its herbicide.

“The Justice Department brief filed yesterday advised the court that ‘EPA has learned that it did not have all relevant information at the time it made its registration decision. Specifically, Dow did not submit to EPA during the registration process the extensive information relating to potential synergism….’”  

Concern about this usage of herbicides was elevated a year ago when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup was probably carcinogenic.  Andrew Martin and Lydia Mulvany produced an article for Bloomberg Businessweek that addressed the issue.

“It’s been a tough year for glyphosate, the world’s most popular weedkiller. A year ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, declared that glyphosate—the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup products—was probably carcinogenic to humans. In the months since, multiple lawsuits have been filed blaming the chemical for causing cancer and birth defects. In February, testing found traces of glyphosate in German beer and organic panty liners sold in France. Other tests have found chemical residue in British bread, as well as in the urine of people across Europe. In early March, the European Union put off a vote to renew a 15-year license for glyphosate after several member states balked.”

“The FDA said in February that it would begin testing for glyphosate residue in food in the U.S. The results aren’t yet available.”

Monsanto is, of course, fighting back.  They are making the argument that glyphosate might be carcinogenic, but only doses so large that no one will ever encounter them, therefore it should not be labeled a carcinogen.

That is a valid point to make, but it may be irrelevant. Toxicity as a single event is different than toxicity from a lifetime of exposure to low levels of a carcinogen.  Consider this comment on toxicity from Wikipedia

“Assessing all aspects of the toxicity of cancer-causing agents involves additional issues, since it is not certain if there is a minimal effective dose for carcinogens, or whether the risk is just too small to see. In addition, it is possible that a single cell transformed into a cancer cell is all it takes to develop the full effect (the "one hit" theory).”

“It is more difficult to determine the toxicity of chemical mixtures than a pure chemical, because each component displays its own toxicity, and components may interact to produce enhanced or diminished effects.”

We end up carrying around in our bodies hundreds of industrial chemicals that we encounter as we go about our business.  Most have never been assessed for toxicity in humans.  Essentially, we do not have a clue what we are doing to ourselves.

The never-ending escalation of the conflict between plants and herbicides that Monsanto has foisted upon us is madness.  It has not increased productivity and it may be putting the world in danger.  It is time to revert to better agricultural practices.

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