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Many people, at least in the US, do not distinguish between their personal sense of right and wrong and their beliefs about what is and is not legally permissible. Many people understand the distinction in principle but are lax when choosing their words in a conversation. However, other people seem to believe there is no distinction between their personal principles and what should be made law. I think this lack of distinction underlies much of what makes political disagreement in the US so passionately unreasonable.
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Finished The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's Founders edited by Forrest Church. This short book contains extracts of revolutionary era writings about the separation of church and and state. Favorites such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington make an appearance as do less well known writers such as Isaac Backus and Oliver Ellsworth.

"Separation of church and state" is a phrase that is bandied around without knowledge of its historical origins. First, as I hope we all know, the phrase itself does not appear in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Instead, it first appeared in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson (Ch. 14 in the book):
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
One common disagreement in modern discussion is whether we should aim for freedom from religion or freedom for religion. Both threads find expression in the writings in the book. As the author says in the introduction:
As was true of the broader American struggle for freedom, the revolution that led to religious liberty was powered by two very different engines: one driven by eighteenth-century Enlightenment values, the other guided by Christian imperatives that grew out of the Great Awakening, a spiritual movement that spread like wildfire across the American colonies throughout the middle decades of that same century. The former movement, emphasizing freedom of conscience as both a political and a philosophical virtue, stressed freedom from the dictates of organized religion. The later, stemming from a devout reading of the gospels (especially their proclamation of spiritual liberty from bondage to the world's principalities and powers), demanded freedom for religion.
I feel that freedom of conscience suffers from poor health in modern America. Not just with respect to religion but, in general, Americans are quick to judge someone based only on what they believe, not on their actions. I see this, of course, in debates about religion and its proper role in a secular society. But I also see it more widely. I see it in the fact that some said Larry Summers should not be an economic advisor to the President because of what he had said about gender at Harvard (how is that relevant to being an economic advisor?). I see this in the very current debates about race in this country where we are obsessed with whether or not people think racist thoughts, not whether or not they act on them.

I do not want to imply that people's opinions are irrelevant, but we have come to a place in American society where beliefs are often considered more important than actions. That is sad and destructive. Reading books like this remind us about the fundamental debates that define our country have, at their core, something much deeper than superficial displays of religiousity.
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There are conveniences to having political parties. They act as a base class for communicating beliefs, allowing politicians to just specify where they differ from the standard party line.

However, articles like this one re-enforce my belief that modern American political parties have too much power over the members of their party.

Political maneuvering will always be a part of our legislative process, but when people are outraged when anyone goes against the party line, then the party is being valued over the individuals in it, and that is not a healthy trend.

On the upside, in this case it mostly seems to be pundits and other rabblerousers who are causing a ruckus and not the peers of the dissenting politicians.
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According to the Spring 2009 Thrivant Financial magazine,
According to the Child Welfare League of America, 234,348 children were adopted in the U.S. between 1989 and 2005. Of that number, 22,710 were international placements
I was somewhat surprised by this fact, although I should not have been.

My surprise was due to the responses I usually see in online discussions of international adoptions. In these discussions, one side will be critical of people trying to adopt internationally because there are children in the U.S. who need a good home and there is no one to adopt them. The other side defends those who adopt internationally by saying that the bureaucratic overhead is less. Both sides seem to accept as fact that international adoptions are a large part of adoptions by U.S. citizens.

For me, the adoption statistics put this discussion in a different light. If 90% of adoptions by U.S. citizens were international, I would worry that the adoption process in our country was deeply and severely broken. Instead, 10% of adoptions by U.S. citizens are international. While some of this may be due to problems in our adoption system, international adoptions are a small enough percentage of the whole that I can accept that international adoption is just the choice some people make.

ETA: Apparently the article I was referencing is online.
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In general, I don't like genetically modified foods, and I will try to avoid them. But I will freely admit that my fear is intuitive not scientific. Thus, I do not support decisions, like the ones in this article which try to ban GM corn when there is no scientific evidence that it is unsafe. I would say this is true especially in cases like this where there is such strong consumer demand to not have GM produce. (Note that I am assuming that the studies themselves are considered unbiased, which I did not research at all. Note also that I fully approve of funding further research.)

I think that the evolution of the response to BPA in plastics in the US provide a better model. BPA starts becoming a big deal so some people start avoiding it. Studies find some effect on rats so more people start to avoid it and companies start to provide more alternatives. Studies find evidence that high BPA levels may be linked to problems in people so companies start abandoning BPA and it starts to be banned.

I strongly encourage people who dislike GM foods to stop consuming them and to make a fuss with their food providers. Such an approach may not be effective in the US where GM crops are more effective (although that is changing). But in a company like Germany where, according to the article I linked, over 70% of consumers do not want GM food, consumers could make a difference if they acted on their principles. (This assumes that non-GM foods can label themselves as such and that such labeling is properly regulated. I think this is happening in Germany, and I strongly support such labels. I strongly disapprove of moves like those some companies are making in some US states that try to disallow "rBST free" labeling.)
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The AIG fiasco makes it clear how most people don't grok the difference between millions and billions and trillions. Yes, it is annoying, terribly annoying, that AIG is giving out bonuses with bailout money. Even more annoying that they are giving the money to people who helped caused the company's problems.

But let's get a little perspective here. I keep reading news articles saying that the company is giving out millions in bonuses out of the billions they received as if this were the primary use of the bailout money. $165 million on $30 billion is like $5.50 on $1000. This is like buying a latte and a lotto ticket when you have to borrow to pay the rent. This behavior is symptomatic of larger problems, but it is certainly not what we should waste our time focusing on.

ETA: Just to make sure it is absolutely clear. I do not think that AIG should be excused for these actions. However, I do think that the media is treating this irresponsibly by making it front page, top headline news instead of page A3 news. There are more important things to report on. Think about it this way, "AIG uses 0.55% of its bailout money for bonuses" would not be a front page headline; still worth investigating, but not front page.


Mar. 15th, 2009 03:18 pm
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I was buying some yarn at the fabric store today, and I heard something terrible. The woman at the register was telling the woman in front of me about how they are not allowed to sell the old patterns they have in stock. They have to wait to throw them away. They need to be thrown away when they have other garbage to throw on top of them or else people will dig through the garbage to get the patterns. The response of the woman purchasing some patterns was, "How desperate will people get?"

My internal response was, "How wasteful are we?" Because Simplicity has decided that some patterns are no longer current, the stores are forced to throw them away? They cannot even be sold or given away? That this is even seen as acceptable makes it all the less surprising that we have an unsustainable economic systems and are destroying the environment. We ignore value for the sake of profit.

I only overheard half a conversation, so it could be that this is a one time thing for this one store. If anyone has more information on fabric stores throwing away old patterns, I would appreciate it.
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This is true for so much more than food:
The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides prices to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as number, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than "value." And as soon as that happens people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than prices. - The Omnivore's Dilemma
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I am starting to think that I do not have any faith in our economic system. Not capitalism, but capitalism coupled tightly with growth at all costs. Our industrial system of production is so efficient that products can saturate the market quickly. But growth is the only measure of success, so companies must convince people they need more (2 cars! 3 cars! a TV in every room!) or they must obsolete the original product through low quality manufacturing or coming out with new versions that show no innovation (but come in this year's hot color!).

Companies try to maximize revenue, but they also try to minimize costs. Make the process more efficient. Keep wage growth as small as possible. Use lower cost (and often lower quality) materials and processes. What this leads to is an economy which demands that people making less money buy more stuff, and that leads to the culture of debt that helped get us into our current economic debt.

At some level, this is the same dilemma Americans face with respect to food consumption. We have evolved in an environment of scarcity, where it made sense to take advantage of plenty. Consume as many calories as are available. Make as much money as possible. Acquire as many status raising goods as you can (or cannot) afford. Fundamentally, humans are not creatures who are good at imposing voluntary limits on themselves, whether by limiting the size of cities to make them sustainable or not taking that extra serving of french fries.

I don't know how to solve these problems. I am neither a psychologist nor an economist. However, I can think of a starter list of issues that should be addressed.

Our first problem is thinking that ever increasing debt is a way to achieve sustainable growth. Debt used wisely allows people to start businesses, buy homes, and attend college. It can give opportunities to those who would not otherwise have those opportunities. However, we have become a people dependent on debt to get by from month to month. This means that our level of spending, the level of spending businesses depend upon to grow, is unsustainable. Eventually debt must be paid off, and that brings this house of cards down.

Second, businesses feel they must grow because of investor pressure. Wall Street's ideal is that that owning stock in a company is a way to make money, not a way to own part of that company. The distinction here is one of attitude rather than mechanism (although the mechanism encourages certain values). Wall Street's attitude is that all stock holders want is to maximize profit (our regulation system reflects this). An ownership attitude would balance the desire to maximize profit with the desire to own a company run consistently with other non-monetary values. This is theoretically possible now, but it is difficult with stock publicly traded in a system wants to maximize profit and growth.

Finally, our economic system lacks flexibility. Our current economic system is set up to make it difficult to deviate from the normal full time job (or multiple jobs) with little vacation and pay varying from unfair to generous some of which you must spend on a car and are expected to eventually spend on a badly designed, overpriced home. For some people, this is a good choice, and that is great.

To opt out of all or part of this system takes dedication and effort and is really only a choice available to the reasonably affluent. Many companies do not allow employees to take additional unpaid vacation. Living outside the heart of the city without a car is nearly impossible. Working part time often requires a career change (and often giving up the idea of having a "career" at all). Iowa farmers who want to grow anything other than corn and soybeans have no where to sell their goods. If is inefficient to allow every choice to everyone, but it is also inefficient to make everyone fit into such a limited number of life roles. Society is a monoculture, and monocultures are rarely healthy.

We need a paradigm shift. Government policies and individual choices act as a catalyst to this process, but ultimately it is the change in attitude, not any particular action, that will cause the large scale changes that are necessary to get ourselves out of this mess.
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Last month, the anime night crowd was discussing overreactions to peanut allergies. So I clicked when I saw a link to a recent Salon article which suggests that the overreaction may be even worse than we think. It looks at how the commonly reported frequency of food allergy related deaths and hospital visits may have a shaky factual basis.

Accurate and complete food labeling is vital (and sadly lacking for rarer allergies). Asking others to take special precautions if there is a person around known to have violent allergic reactions is reasonable. Acting as if pulling a PB&J sandwich is equivalent to pulling a gun is ridiculous.
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A video on food security in Japan. I find it noteworthy because it reminds me of Katamari visually. =)

Via WorldChanging.
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Inspired by Nudge (my summary) I started to consider whether the techniques they discuss for increasing organ donation after death had an analogy with respect to other medical donations such as bone marrow or blood.

Here is the space of policies towards organ donation: disallow it, default opt out (ease of use can vary), default opt in (ease of use can vary), no default (force a choice), forced opt in.

Disallowing organ donation is completely silly and at odds with the goal of saving lives. All of the other options have the potential to save lives and are worth considering briefly. Having a fairly easy access opt in system is the current state in the US (in most, if not all, states you can choose to become an organ donor when getting your license). This will save some lives. Default opt in rules and no default would likely save more lives given that surveys show that people are willing to become organ donors. Forced organ donations would save the most lives. Sunstein and Thaler (and I) would argue that the last option is unacceptable. I would argue that between default opt in and no default, no default is better since in this form there is a system to verify that some decision was made (your friendly local DMV representative); I do not remember if Sunstein and Thaler come to the same conclusion.

That is the background information. Now is the work in progress. What I wonder is if there are reasonable analogies for blood and bone marrow donations.
Obviously, there are differences between organs after death and blood and marrow during life. One is a donation of a renewable resource during life and the other is a donation of a non-renewable resource after death.

Can we somehow structure the system to increase them? We have the same choices: default opt in, default opt out, no default, and forced opt in. Currently we have a default opt out system that has a lower ease of use than for organ donation. How could we change to a different mode? Do we even need to? Would it require hooking into the government (e.g., the driver's license application process)?

Any thoughts on this? Or any thoughts on different ways of dealing with organ donations? For either, should we stick with the current system? Switch to default opt in? Switch to no default? Switch to forced? Should we most definitely not switch to some of those options? Why or why not?
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Mind Hacks has an article about stereotype formation that will not be at all surprising to anyone saw this comic and though "yup, that's how it is":
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Apparently, those who are growingly dissatisfied with the way food is handled in this country are starting to come together with a coherent message.
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Apparently, Rick Warren would never vote for an atheist. That's fine; I would never vote for him either. However, I do take issue with the reason why he would never vote for an atheist.

Warren subscribes to the commonly held myth that because atheists do not believe in God, we believe that we, as individuals, are completely self-sufficient. He believes, or at least implies, that because atheists do not believe in God, they are not participants in the web of community and dependence that links all human beings.

The error here is a common one. In so far as I can tell, people like Warren think, "Because I believe in God, I know I cannot make it all by myself. Atheists do not believe in God, so they must believe that they can make it on their own." The mistake here is obvious. From "A implies B" and "not A" you cannot conclude "not B".

Many, I will even say most, atheists do not believe people are fully self-sufficient. We acknowledge that we depend socially, emotionally, and physically on other people. What those who believe this stereotype of atheists do not understand is that atheists, like Christians, believe we are not fully self-sufficient, but we believe this for a different reason..

What many religious people fail to recognize, refuse to recognize, are perhaps afraid to recognize, is that atheists generally have the same moral values as religious people (and have opinions that are just as diverse). Atheists are not some evil, amoral other. We are people who look at the world and see problems and suffering and want them to stop just as much as anyone else does.

To make any progress in understanding each other, we must all remember that different people can hold the same belief for different reasons, and having a different reason for holding a belief does not invalidate the sincerity of that belief.
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Finished Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon. One year, a couple was inspired to try to eat locally for a year. They defined locally based on their geographic surroundings and ended up drawing a boundary that allowed them to eat food withing 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, BC.

This book is the story of the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned. A year of trying to eat only locally grown and produced foods was difficult. Some of these difficulties were due to their geographic location; the area around Vancouver is just not fit for producing sugar or citrus. Other difficulties were more humorous; their 100 mile area included parts of northern Washington. They visited and found that the area produced a variety of wonderful foods, but then realized that they would be hampered by restrictions on taking food over the border (they just had to smuggle in a year of cheese).

One of the most important lessons that the authors learned about food is that you can grow a lot more than you think in the climate of the Pacific Northwest. Our stereotypes about what can grow well are extremely warped by where things can be grown with the absolute highest yield. However, in reality most climates can support a much larger variety of food than they are known for, albeit at a smaller scale. Thus, even eating locally in Vancouver, BC, the authors were able to have a varied and interesting diet all year round (although it did take some preserving and finding wheat was a pain).

The other lesson the authors learned was to appreciate their food more. Spending a year eating locally caused Smith and Mackinnon to really think about the food they ate and helped them to appreciate the simple joys of fresh fruit or the first greens of the season. They learned, emotionally not just intellectually, that our food connects us to the earth and that holds true whether the food comes from your windowsill, a small farmer, or a giant farm.

The main thing I have taken from the book is to just think about my food, where it comes from, and what its production method may be denying me. I am not going to start only eating food that comes from within 100 miles, but I am going to take distance into account when given the choice. I am not going to stop buying lemons, but I am going to acknowledge that a strawberry shipped from California is less tasty than one picked fresh and ripe in Marysville. Mainly, I am going to acknowledge that our food production system is not without real social and environmental cost and try to take that cost into account when I am looking at price differences.


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Erika RS

May 2012

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