Here’s a deft bit of hypocrisy. I’ll let you decide who is the hypocrite. The Huffington Post today has a story about Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who opposes using fetal tissue in medical research. HuffPost informs us that Carson himself once did medical research using fetal tissue.
[T]he Republican presidential candidate published a study with three other colleagues in 1992 that described using “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa from two fetuses aborted in the ninth and 17th week of gestation.”
And now Carson says research using fetal tissue isn’t necessary and isn’t needed. HuffPost, being gung-ho for abortion, finds Carson’s duplicity troubling. But it seems to me that there is another possibility. I think it likely that fetal tissue research about “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa” turns out to be not worth it. Back in 1992, Carson did the research because he was a famous doctor being paid to do brainy stuff. But this is 2015 and, last time I checked, babies still have runny noses.
There is a common conviction that what can be done must be done. We have to explore space. We have to invade Iraq. We have to use social media. We have to build money-pit sports venues for millionaires to play games in. We have to conduct medical research on the tissue of aborted babies. But there has always been another way of thinking, that says progress sometimes isn’t progress at all. Henry David Thoreau in 1854:
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.
Our daily lives are a mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along a series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply.
We should abandon the idea that this world and our human life in it can be brought by science to some sort of mechanical perfection or predictability. The radii of knowledge have only pushed back – and enlarged – the circumference of mystery. We live in a world famous for its ability both to surprise and to deceive us.
What we need is 100% enthusiastic support for scientific progress, combined with a clear understanding of what progress would be and a firm grip on what is done. Do we want to lose our jobs, and to have a large part of our population unable to earn a living? If not, then robotics might not be progress. Do we want to increase the rate of cancer and obesity? If not, then a diet based overwhelmingly on processed food might not be progress.
There is no possibility of making good ethical choices today, because there is no shared ethic. Communitarianism presupposes such an ethic, and we are far from having one.
Meanwhile, a co-worker today handed me a small tract called, “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Stay tuned!
Two articles this week in news magazines explain problems in our American, global-market economy and society. Neither suggests a solution to those problems. So I’ll do that here.
The first article was in Slate and was titled, This is the Perfect Tomato. It describes the efforts of researchers to develop a variety of tomato that is both shelf-stable and tasty. In general, tomatoes that taste good are too soft to be handled from the grower to the grocery, while tomatoes firm enough for shipping are tasteless. But a scientist named Harry Klee managed to develop a tomato with all the desirable qualities.
He was aiming for a compromise—a tomato that grew well and tasted good. What he got shocked him. Like its commercial parent, Klee’s new tomato boasted excellent shelf life, disease resistance, and productivity. But by some miracle, it tasted so good that its flavor scores were statistically identical to its heirloom parent. Klee dubbed his miracle fruit the Garden Gem.
But the next chapter of the story is that no major grocery chain will buy the delicious Garden Gem tomato because it is smaller than other varieties. Here’s a second write-up about the Garden Gem, from Genetic Literacy Project. It says, “Big Tomato doesn’t care about flavor. Tomato farmers don’t care. Tomato packers don’t care. And supermarkets don’t care. When it comes to flavor, the tomato industry is broken.”
Smaller means having to handle more fruits to make a given quantity, and that adds to cost. And the grocery chains are not willing to bear more costs. They know Americans who get their food from grocery stores will eat what they are given. So they simply insist on providing only those varieties that ensure their profit. There is no real market where supply meets demand. People willing to pay extra for better quality can not do so. There is only profit maximization by the company. It is very much the same situation as was described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle in 1906.
What they wanted from a hog was all the profit that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working man, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of meat.
The second issue comes from Huffington Post, which usually just clips reports from other publications but occasionally does its own reporting. The article is titled, The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. And it argues that the global garment industry is so utterly dominated by unregulated sweatshop labor than no amount of conscientious comparison shopping can make a difference for the workers. It doesn’t matter which company is rated as a fair trade source or what the CEO says. The industry is segmented and too flexible to be regulated. Target can have as benevolent a policy as you’d wish, and Target can ask the clothing labels is sells to abide by those policies. But the clothing will still be made by contractors in distant places where the rules don’t apply:
In Delhi’s garment cluster, “children start learning the job at the age of 8,” writes the University of London’s Alessandra Mezzadri. “They master it by the age of 12.” She calls the area a “composite sweatshop”: For every tailor working in a factory, there are several employed in homes, workshops or backyards. Around 80 percent of the workers are informal — mostly migrants, some of them trafficked, hired and fired as orders are commissioned and completed, divvied out by brokers, paid a few cents for each piece of clothing they deliver. The children get paid half as much as the adults. During her fieldwork, she found kids sitting on apartment floors, sewing and cutting, often under the supervision of their parents.
At this point I hear people say that most people just want cheap goods and don’t really care who suffered to make it. But that may not be true: at least not for younger adults shown in this recent social experiment filmed in Germany:
Just as the Slate article suggest there’s no hope for a tasty tomato, the HuffPost article says consumers have no power to prefer ethically made clothing.
I promised a solution at the top of this article, and that solution is a shift to products made by local guilds. Guilds dominated manufacturing during the Middle Ages, and were replaced by industrialized mass manufacturing. Big industry was a step forward in the 18th century. It ended the problem of the scarcity. But today in the US few are troubled by not enough clothing to wear or not enough food to eat. Our problems are too few well-paying jobs, inferioir quality products and the depletion of fossil fuels.
The overall result of monopolistic capitalism has been less competition, less variety, lower quality, the loss of local jobs and less power for the people to do anything about it. When big business leaders lead an economy to the brink of economic disaster, the government deems them “too big to fail” and bails them out at the expense of the general public. Monopolistic capitalism has resulted in the shift of economic power and influence away from the average citizen and big businesses use that power to gain advantages not available to citizens or smaller businesses. How exactly has this protected the consumer? . . . The guilds envisioned by distributists consist of small local businesses. Distributist guilds would provide more competition, more variety, better quality, and more true economic power for the people.
I asked my family how many merchants and vendors we have a real human relationship with. And we came up with a handful. We buy eggs from a neighbor. We get hardware from Charlie Riggle at Roachdale Hardware. We buy an occasional cup of coffee from Jack at the Parthenon in Crawfordsville. Moody Meats in Ladoga. My wife listed several other regular contacts she has for soap, yarn, honey – people she sees once or twice a year at festivals. All of these people know what we like, and see us as return customers. And, we see them as people who need to make a buck doing what they do. Do they charge more that the chain stores? The egg neighbor doesn’t, but most of the others do. But we don’t mind because we are close enough to these merchants that we see how they work. We’ve had conversations about ingredients and processes – we know what we are buying.
You might be saying, “But none of those small local sellers are guilds!” And that’s right. They have some of the characteristics of a guild — probably the most important ones. Forming real guilds would retain those advantages and add more.
Now you are saying, “Sure, I’ll just trot down down to my local smithy and have him hammer me out a new car on his anvil.” And it is true that machinery would have to stay capital intensive. Perishable goods (food, clothing, and furniture) would be better candidates for local guilds.
Guilds need not be Luddite. A local tailor would use the best available sewing machines. A local community-supported vegetable producer would plan the best cultivars. They just wouldn’t be motivated by greed.
What lies ahead? Is it perdition or promised land?