Posts from February 2013

Bureaucratic Rationality #7: the Louisiana State Health Department vs. Health and Adequate Nutrition in Louisiana

From occupied Louisiana, here’s how a state Health Department is forcing homeless shelters to destroy demonstrably safe and healthy meat because even though they accept the safety record of the slaughterhouse that processed it, they don’t recognize the organization that donated it, and, even though venison is something that humans have subsisted on since before recorded history, it’s not an approved meat source to be distributed commercially.

SHREVEPORT, La. (CBS Houston) — Louisiana’s State Health Department forced a homeless shelter to destroy $8,000 worth of deer meat because it was donated from a hunter organization.

KTBS-TV reports that the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission lost 1,600 pounds of venison because the state’s Health Department doesn’t recognize Hunters for the Hungry, an organization that allows hunters to donate any extra game to charity.

We didn’t find anything wrong with it, Rev. Henry Martin told KTBS. It was processed correctly, it was packaged correctly.

The trouble began last month after the Department of Health and Hospitals received a complaint that deer meat was being served at the homeless shelter. A health inspector went out and told the homeless shelter that deer meat was not allowed to be served and that is had to be destroyed.

Although the meat was processed at a slaughterhouse (Bellevue) that is permitted by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture to prepare and commercially distribute meat obtained from approved farms, deer are not an approved meat source to be distributed commercially, the department said on its Facebook page. And because hunters brought the deer to the slaughterhouse, there is no way to verify how the deer were killed, prepared or stored.

So, therefore:

Martin says that bleach had to be poured onto the meat in order to destroy it.

They threw it in the dumpster and poured Clorox on it, Martin told KTBS. Not only are we losing out and it’s costing us money, the people that are hungry aren’t going to get as quality of food, the hunter that’s given his meat in good faith is losing out.

While we applaud the good intentions of the hunters who donated this meat, we must protect the people who eat at Rescue Mission, and we cannot allow a potentially serious health threat to endanger the public, the Health Department stated.

— CBS Houston (25 February 2013), Louisiana Forces Homeless Shelter to Destroy $8,000 Worth of Deer Meat

Here, as everywhere, the Licensing State operates on the fundamental assumption that anything it doesn’t know about, must be a potentially serious health threat, and the only way that it can know about anything is by checking whether or not the source has the right paper license, issued according to the state’s unilaterally dictated procedures. It doesn’t matter that literally nobody has been hurt and many people in desperate circumstances have been helped; it doesn’t matter you can show them there isn’t anything wrong with the meat; all that matters is that you can’t show them your papers. And so, rather than asking to just test some of the meat, or accepting the results of the health and safety tests that were already performed at the slaughterhouse, they sadistically insist that the food must be thrown away and rendered inedible with bleach, at tremendous expense and to the known detriment of the shelter and the health and nutrition of the homeless people who depend on it, so that they can ensure that the right forms are filled out and only officially licensed meat is served in the state of Louisiana. This sado-statist compliance hold on desperately-needed food, which insists on bureaucratic procedure and approving legal recognition at the expense of demonstrable safety, is dignified as protecting the people who eat at Rescue Mission from the food that they need to get by.

Bureaucratic rationality, n. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may have something good in their life without your authorization.

See also.

Pipelines and Privileged Profits vs. Private Property Rights

Here’s a great op-ed from Jason Lee Byas at C4SS, in which he takes sometime libertarian Nick Gillespie to task for a recent pro-business op-ed in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline: One Reason Not to Build the Keystone XL Pipeline: Justice. From the column:

The Keystone XL pipeline has inspired a lot of controversy. For defenders of freed markets, however, it shouldn’t. Libertarians should emphatically and unequivocally oppose the pipeline. . . . Since beginning to plan Keystone XL, TransCanada Corporation has used eminent domain to steal more than a hundred tracts of land in Texas alone. If it gets the green light, the pipeline will run up through the plains like a burglar on a spree. Of course, the company does initially offer those who have what they want a chance to make the transaction voluntarily. When that doesn’t work, though, unsuspecting landowners receive letters like the one Julia Trigg Crawford got, saying If Keystone is unable to successfully negotiate the voluntary acquisition of the necessary easements, it will have to resort to the exercise of its statutory right of eminent domain.

As Lysander Spooner once remarked, at least a highwayman does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your property.

If you’re like the Crawfords, any deviation from that final offer and you’ll hear nothing from TransCanada until your land’s condemned. As word spreads, landowners feel threatened. They scramble to agree with whatever crumbs they’re offered, before their land just gets taken instead.

. . . Whatever justifications are offered for a hypothetical, peacefully acquired pipeline do not justify the real world pipeline. At least no more than justifications for a hypothetical parking lot would justify one built by taking a wrecking ball to Nick Gillespie’s home. If the title libertarian is to mean anything, it must mean a defense of justice. It cannot, and must not, mean endorsing feudalism whenever it’s good for the economy.

— Jason Lee Byas, One Reason Not to Build the Keystone XL Pipeline: Justice, at the Center for a Stateless Society (23 February 2013)

Read the whole thing. It’s great.

A couple of quick additional comments from me that I originally posted on the Facebook thread from my sharing the story. As a sidebar to a comment I made about Gillespie’s rhetorical approach, and Jason’s response to it, I mentioned:

. . . My own view is that it is probably pretty near impossible to build a pipeline like Keystone XL without exercising some aggressive government powers; for similar reasons to my reasons for thinking that in a free market probably nobody would have built the Hoover Dam. Not because there’s any reason to think it would be prohibited de jure but because there are reasons to think that, de facto, substitute goods would more or less always be preferable without significant political externalization of the costs of the projects. So justice is a reason to oppose the project as it is actually being conducted, and practicality is a reason to oppose an imaginary free-market version of the same project.

— Charles Johnson, 24 February 2013 11am

Stephan Kinsella and Nathan Scott both asked me what I thought about the use of market means (such as options payments) to assemble rights of way for a long pipeline non-coercively, without resorting to eminent domain in order to coerce holdouts. Now I actually don’t think that high-priced holdouts are the only problem here, but even if they were, I think it would still pose a pretty serious problem for this sort of continental-scale, massively capitalized extractive-industry projects no matter how much fancy contracting you try to do to route around the problem. Emphasis and paragraph breaks added:

Sure, but purchasing options carries a cost. It’s possible for the cost to be outweighed by the benefit of avoiding problems with holdouts. But if the cost of purchasing the options in the first place outweighs the potential benefits of the project as a whole, it won’t matter. So what we have to look at is, either the path of options purchases will be relatively narrow and tied to the concrete details of the project (in which case you replicate the risk of holdouts — the point of failure becomes someone who sees that you need an option from them, and holds out for a higher price on the option) or else will be relatively broad and include multiple possible paths (in which case you allow for routing around the holdouts, but you have to sink more money into paying for options from people whose property you don’t actually end up using).

Now, there may be some discount rate on the options at which the costs of paying for the unused options come out to be less than the costs of of paying for a single-point-of-failure holdout, and also come out to be less than the profits from running the pipeline. But the longer you make the pipeline, the more you multiply those transaction costs, and they don’t necessarily scale linearly with the length of the pipeline either (the longer the path, the wider the possible divergence you have to account for). I think this is a general problem for heavy infrastructure under free market conditions — you’d tend to see a lot more mesh networks and a lot fewer hub-and-spoke networks.

But setting that aside I also have independent reasons for thinking that demand schedules for petroleum would shift significantly leftward, while the costs of extracting and refining petroleum would be significantly higher, with the removal of various state subsidies to oil TNCs. If so there’d be considerably less profit in putting together an oil pipeline and relatively greater investment in producing energy by other means.

— Charles Johnson, 24 February 2013, 11am

I will just add here that mega-industrial projects like Keystone XL, the Hoover Dam and all the rest of them are in many ways deeply undesirable, ecological catastrophes and massively centralizing economic power (either in the hands of the corporate owners or in the hands of the political monopolists who control them, as the case may be). So even if there were some feasible way to build such projects without massive state subsidies in seizing the land and eating the costs — I don’t think there is, but even if there is — they would still, nevertheless, be worth calling out, organizing against, and using freed-market social activism against. But as things stand, as Jason rightly points out, these kinds of massive-scale projects are entirely dependent on the political means of state capitalist confiscation and monopoly.

Another commenter, rather less pleasant, told me that my priorities were obviously insane because, eminent domain or not, The US system is totally dependent on pipelines. . . . I replied:

That sounds like a problem with the US system, not a problem with property rights. If the former come into conflict with the latter, the latter is always more important. Of course, it is ludicrous to claim that in any given case on the margin it is somehow utopian to just suggest that somebody’s house ought not to be condemned by the state in order to force a sale. It’s easy not to do that: you just stop doing it. Nobody’s going to die and no “system” is going to suffocate or instantly evaporate as a result of respecting a homeowner’s rights on the margin. Now it is true that consistently doing this on the whole would eventually produce some radical transformations to business as usual and the infrastructure of everyday life, as people are forced to develop alternatives. But I see that as a benefit of the proposal, not as a drawback. If the US system survives only at war with the human-scale property rights of homeowners, then people need to work out a new system, because the US system sucks, and the sooner they find they have to get on that, the better.

— Charles Johnson, 24 February 2013, 12pm

Also.

Your General Assembly will always be Incomplete.

Last month there was a research report from Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis on the economic background of people who participated in some #OWS events in New York City. The New York Times and other press outlets picked up on one of the report’s findings — that More than a third of the people who participated in Occupy Wall Street protests in New York lived in households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more … and more than two-thirds had professional jobs. Over on Facebook, Thaddeus Russell’s quick commentary on the story was:

New York Times: In Occupy, Well-Educated Professionals Far Outnumbered Jobless, Study Finds

Thaddeus Russell: There has never been a political movement in the United States in which this wasn’t the case.

— Thaddeus Russell, near Los Angeles, CA., on Facebook (January 28, 2013)

Now as it happens, the authors of the study have complained about how corporate news media have reported on their findings.[1] So I don’t want to lay much stress on what the study showed or did not show about participation in Occupy Wall Street in New York — let alone make any very definite claim about #Occupy in general or what it may illustrate about the whole history of political movements in the United States. Thaddeus has made some interesting points on this, but I think there are also important counter-points to be made (not least what terms like professionals, political, movement, etc. are even supposed to mean in context). But whether Thad is right or wrong on this particular point — or on the more general point he is trying to drive home — I think the reactions to him making this kind of claim have invariably been illustrations of something that it is really important to keep an eye out for. From the Facebook thread:

Joe Lowndes (28 Jan 13, 10pm): So?

Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 6pm): Joe, the tendency of political activists (and academics) to speak on behalf of others isn’t important?

. . . Joe Lowndes (29 Jan 13, 6pm): All political claims inherently involve speaking on behalf of others, unless you believe in some Rousseauian fantasy of authenticity through general will. Why does it bother you? In any case Occupy was many things in many places. In Eugene it directly involved hundreds of homeless people speaking and voting in GAs. But even if that weren’t the case, there is no reason why middle class folks should not engage in politics or make demands for fear of not representing everyone.

. . . Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 9pm): Paul, I am not talking about all political activism. I am talking about the common practice of making claims about the needs, desires, and ideas of people whose thoughts are not recorded — like the great majority of the poor, the working class, etc.

Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 9pm): Joe, what I am describing is often called cultural imperialism. Do you reject that concept or do you think I am misapplying it?

. . . Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 11pm): When Americans say the people of the world “need” or “want” capitalism it is cultural imperialism, right? But when Occupiers say Americans “need” or “want” New Deal liberalism or socialism it’s not?

Joe Lowndes (29 Jan 13, 11pm): By this overwrought logic, no one can assert or fight for any vision of collective life without it being imperialist.

You can read the whole thing to get a flavor of the whole discussion; there are some perfectly fair points (and also some cheap talking points both ways) about Occupy, the relationship between politics and shifts of identity or affiliation, representation, Gayatri Spivak, etc. But without wading too much into that (or the details, my own experience with several #Occupy projects, which I’m happy both to defend and also to criticize) the overwrought logic is what I wanted to take a look at. Because this is in many ways a digression from the specific argument about Occupy, but a digression that I think has something important to teach — and especially ought to have something to teach for those of us who want to find something of value in #Occupy and the process that emerged out of it. If the practice of occupying public space, open-air General Assemblies, consensus decision-making, spokescouncil models and all the rest was really supposed to mean something, to illustrate and to build an alternative to the political status quo, then we have to remember that the very things that attract us to the GA also have to remind us not only of the value of what we’re doing but also its limitations.[2] So as I wrote in the Facebook thread:

* * *

. . . no one can assert or fight for any vision of collective life without it being imperialist. . . .

Then maybe no one will assert or fight for any vision of collective life. Or, more accurately, shaping collective life will depend on actual explicit agreements among the people collected, rather than on one class of people’s vision being taken as representative of everyone else’s needs and desires. I don’t see this as a problem with the view that Thad is gesturing towards; I see it as one of its most desirable features.

One of the things that has actually been most valuable about Occupy was the extent to which the process explicitly confronted and tried to develop alternatives to political representation, in favor of an ideal of direct participation and negotiated consensus. And if that’s going to be the lesson learned then you also have to be willing and able to take the critical distance to apply the lesson to your own self and to your own projects as a whole: that however open and freewheeling it may be, there are always going to be people who aren’t participating, aren’t necessarily interested at all, and that you as a social actor have a responsibility to acknowledge that and try to question and actively limit your attempts to represent, speak on behalf of, claim expertise about, or impose a vision-of-collective-life upon, those others who were not part of the process or the milieu.

(Charles Johnson on Facebook, 30 January 13, 3pm)

  1. [1]And justly so — the sample they had available to study was from a single protest event, not widely representative of #OWS, and as a general thing virtually all newsmedia reports on any kind of statistical research are more or less always terrible, and much in need of clarification about basic points of definition and statistical reasoning.
  2. [2]It’s great to have open-process G.A.s, and it’s great to create spaces where you try, as much as possible, to invite everyone to take the chance to speak, and to take a hand in the decision-making process. But the G in G.A. can cause problems if you forget (or willfully ignore) the fact that your General Assembly will always be incomplete. There will always be people who aren’t there, aren’t available, or just aren’t interested. Every General Assembly is really a Particular and Peculiar Assembly. But if I point this out then that’s not because I want to give you a reason not to have incomplete General Assemblies. It’s a reason for you to get as familiar and as comfortable as you can with the spaces that the I.G.A. always leaves open — to try to adopt a kind of process, and a kind of social action, that not only aims at being inviting and open to everyone affected, but also holds itself back in claiming to speak for those who didn’t accept the invitation, and leaves space open for consensed-upon ideas or projects to be questioned, challenged, revised, ignored, competed with or routed around by the inevitable others who were not interested in or available for the process, and did not become part of forming the consensus.

Mental hygiene warrants

Here is the creepiest bit of dystopian legal language that I have heard in the past month or so:

mental hygiene warrants

and

Real Time Crime Center

Keep in mind that one of the main activities of the Real Time Crime Center right now is to watch, chase down, arrest, imprison and force unwanted psychiatric treatment on people who specifically have not been accused of committing any crimes (The city [sic] is making a major push to sweep the streets of dangerous, mentally ill New Yorkers–and has even compiled a most-wanted list. … Those [mental hygiene] warrants mean that the patients are not wanted for a crime but instead are being sought because they are not getting their court-ordered treatment.)

This bit of overtly totalitarian mental health fascism has been brought to you by the New York Police Department..[1]

Also.

  1. [1]Content warning, for slurs from the headline on down, fear-mongering, ignorant scapegoating, and general police-state fascism. I apologize for the really very offensive and generally awful source article; I hate the New York Post in basically every possible way.

Patents kill, part IV

Here’s some passages from a great letter to the editor of the Daily Herarld (Sint Maarten, Dutch Caribbean), by my friend and fellow C4SSer Nathan Goodman.

Deadly Contradictions: Patent Privilege vs. Saving Lives

In his 2013 State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama claims that the U.S. will help end extreme poverty by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths, and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the president directly contradicted these goals earlier in his speech by pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP is typically presented as a free trade agreement, but there’s one type of trade barrier it proposes to strengthen: Intellectual property. Patents and other forms of intellectual property restrict trade by granting monopolies on the sharing of an idea or the manufacture of a product. Intellectual property makes it illegal to use your own personal property to manufacture a product and sell it on the market once the state has defined the very idea of that product as someone else’s property.

Intellectual property harms consumers by raising prices. For some goods this is just an economic cost. But when it comes to medicine, the price increases associated with pharmaceutical patents cost lives.

As Judit Rius Sanjuan of Doctors Without Borders says, Policies that restrict competition thwart our ability to improve the lives of millions with affordable, lifesaving treatments. . . . The Trans-Pacific Partnership would expand these already deadly patent monopolies, further restricting access to lifesaving medicines. Tido von Schoen-Angerer of Doctors Without Borders wrote in 2011 that leaked papers reveal a number of U.S. objectives: to make it impossible to challenge a patent before it is granted; to lower the bar required to get a patent (so that even drugs that are merely new forms of existing medicines, and don’t show a therapeutic improvement, can be protected by monopolies); and to push for new forms of intellectual property enforcement that give customs officials excessive powers to impound generic medicines suspected of breaching IP. Each of these provisions would use government force to prevent poor people from accessing medicine.

It’s clear that entrenching patent monopolies contradicts Obama’s stated goals of saving the world’s children from preventable deaths and realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation. . . . Contradictions like this are nothing new for the state. While politicians repeatedly promise to protect public health, they have long used coercive power to raise medical costs, sacrificing public health for private profits. The state has long justified its power with the language of the public good, all while wielding that power to protect privilege.

If we really care about “saving the world’s children from preventable deaths” and “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation,” we must end this murderous collusion between state and corporate power.

We must smash the state and its deadly contradictions.

— Nathan Goodman, Deadly Contradictions: Patent Privilege vs. Saving Lives, in The Daily Herald (February 18, 2013)

Read the whole thing. Many thanks to Nathan for a great letter on an important point.

Patents kill people. They mean that the pharmaceutical cartel can call up the armed bully-boys of almost every government in the world in order to enforce artificially high prices for their top money-makers; and that means that State violence is being used to prevent affordable, life-saving drugs from reaching the desparate and the poor. The multilateral so-called free trade agreements of the past couple decades — NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO, and now the TPP — selectively cut back on traditional industrial protectionism, but they simultaneously dramatically expand the scale, scope, and deadly reach of intellectual protectionism.

To hell with that. Intellectual property and patent privileges are not about incentivizing or encouraging or opportunities. Patents about pure, invasive force: invading other people’s property to force them to render long-term rents to corporate monopolists, long after the inventors have brought their ideas to market and long after they’ve stopped putting any particular work into what they are claiming to be theirs. A necessary corollary is that it also means invading those who offer incremental innovations based on the work that the patent holders control, unless those innovations comply with a very narrow set of guidelines for authorized use. They are tyrannical embargoes on creative intelligence, and prohibitions on the natural capacity to peacefully imitate, emulate and bring competing goods to market. Patnet holders have no right to do that, and they sure don’t have the right to do it at the expense of innocent people’s lives. A free society needs a free culture, free knowledge and free technology. Patents kill and freedom saves people’s lives. This is as dead simple as it gets. To hell with state monopolies; to hell with state capitalism.

Also.