PETA Is Boring

This is almost two weeks old, but I can’t let Ingrid Newkirk’s preposterous publicity stunt will go without some comment. I know I’m supposed to agree because I’m a vegan, but PETA is generally a pointless diversion from whatever a vegan may seek. Not always, of course. Still, PETA’s better actions seem to be more broken clock theory than intent by the organization.

Anyway, as a vegan hearing of Newkirk’s will, I suppose should say something. I’ll outsource the effort to Ken at Poephat, who nails it.

PETA’s public relations strategy depends upon the premise that if people knew how badly animals are treated behind closed doors so that we might eat well and wear leather and go to the circus and so on, we would rise up and become Cirque-du-Soleil-appreciating vegans in shitty plastic shoes. But PETA lacks a sense of proportion — it seems willfully indifferent to the fact that humanity already routinely shrugs off far worse suffering inflicted upon people.

I think the post veers just a bit when it gets to a woman wrapped in human-sized meat packaging because PETA uses men in this way, too. I don’t see any sexism in this or PETA’s naked campaigns because the models, male and female, volunteer. But as Ken highlights, I agree that it’s stupid marketing. It misses the larger point to make the cheap, easily-refuted point. Ken does just that, and offers a much better approach that PETA could take. It won’t.

If you care, I hate Cirque-du-Soleil, but I love my shitty plastic shoes.

Capitalism versus Corporatism, or “People Don’t Invalidate Systems”

By now everyone is aware of the recent salmonella outbreak tied to peanut butter. The origin of the contaminated peanut butter is now known, and it allegedly includes some sketchy corporate behavior, as outlined in the first, non-snark-filled half of this FARK headline:

Contaminated peanut butter factory found salmonella 12 times in two years of internal tests… and still kept shipping. But don’t worry, industry will police itself

The second half takes an ideological swipe without bothering with logic used by advocates of free markets. The comments at FARK swing to both sides of the pendulum, as one expects in a fight on the Internets. But the volley conveys a critical flaw in how those who desire strong regulation (often to the point of central planning) and a marketing failure among free market advocates. The basic, paraphrased gist of the debate:

  1. FDA?
  2. People died! “Free markets” mean killing is okay!
  3. “Free market” means the company – Peanut Corporation of America – will go bankrupt.
  4. No.
  5. Yes.
  6. No!
  7. Yes!
  8. NO!
  9. YES!

Multiple arguments are in play here. The idea that free market advocates support negligent or intentional behavior that harms is uninformed silliness. The free market is about consequences. Build a good product that meets a need and customers will buy. Build a bad product that fails to meet a need or that harms and customers will refuse to buy. The idea is that incentives matter.

The ideological “free markets kill” approach ignores the spectrum of incentives, either out of disinterest or dishonesty. Selling a product that kills (in a non-predictable manner) has consequences1. This scandal will most likely bankrupt the Peanut Corporation of America through lost business and civil lawsuits, as it probably should. Executives will most likely face criminal prosecution. I can’t think of a single free market advocate who would argue that such an outcome would be unjust, if the facts are as they seem.

The essential fact is that a belief in free markets and capitalism is not a belief in corporatism. Free market advocates argue against government interference because government unfairly picks winners and losers. Regulations are often bad because they skew incentives. Want to bet Peanut Corporation of America will claim as a defense that the FDA, via authority it delegated to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, reviewed its plants and found no violations sufficient to deem this anything other than an unfortunate accident? Here, regulation builds a defense that “the government said it’s okay”. The facts appear unlikely to support that, but the excuse is viable in many cases (i.e. pharmaceutical regulation).

But subsidies skew incentives, as well. Look at ethanol subsidies and the subsequent, predictable increase in the price of corn. Subsidize behavior and you get more of it.

In the current salmonella outbreak, the FDA is incapable of policing every product produced in every factory. I do not seek to minimize any deaths, but how many deadly outbreaks2 actually occur? The costs of full regulation3, both in taxes and higher food prices, would overwhelm any marginal increase in safety. Some problems will slip through the regulatory framework. The question is ultimately why they happen, to which I think the reasonable answer is a basic justification for crime: Those involved thought they could get away with it.

This belief, a willingness to gamble that horrible outcomes will not result, is not surprising, but it arises from human psychology, not free market ideas. Again, no free market advocate is going to dismiss these deaths. There should be consequences. However, while further regulation probably could have prevented these deaths, the idea that more regulation will avoid such outcomes completely rests upon the mistaken assumption that we’ll always have the right regulations and the right regulators to implement them. We never will because humans are fallible in how we write laws, choose regulators, and enforce code.

Free market advocacy is about freeing individuals to pursue businesses and products they value, whether as seller or buyer. That also means freeing individuals from the influence of government picking A over B as the winner through regulation for reasons other than merit, as politicians and bureaucrats always will. Liberty is about freedom from harm, not freedom to harm. You don’t have to buy my product, and you’ll have recourse against me that I do not desire should I harm you. It takes a cynical outlook on individuals and liberty to miss that, I fear, but free market advocates also need to do a better job of pointing out the difference in capitalism and corporatism. We favor the former exclusively.

Update (2/13/09): Peanut Corporation of America to Liquidate.

1 Selling cigarettes may have fit this mold years ago. Today, cigarettes fail this test since we know the harms. Selling cigarettes is not the free market killing consumers.

2 Obligatory vegan statement: The majority of food-borne illness outbreaks result directly from meat, dairy, and egg production.

3 From the Washington Post article:

But Jean Halloran, director of food safety for Consumers Union, said if the government was adequately protecting the food supply, the outbreak could have been minimized or even prevented, and lives could have been saved. Major reforms in inspections and regulations are past due, she said.

“The average plant is inspected once every 10 years,” Halloran said. “This one was getting inspected a couple of times a year by Georgia, but neither they nor the FDA were taking enough enforcement action.”

Halloran’s statement exists in a vacuum of preferred outcomes, with no consideration for real costs. More Consumers Union nonsense here.

Journalism is hard.

The CDC conducted a study and found that 0.5% of U.S. kids are vegetarian. The article continues for an eternity while trying to build on that topic. The first half accomplishes it presentation of introductory information. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, although some self-described vegetarians eat fish and poultry. It’s the usual stuff. Then, this:

Eating vegetarian can be very healthy — nutritionists often push kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, of course. For growing children, however, it’s important to get sufficient amounts of protein, vitamins B12 and D, iron, calcium and other important nutrients that most people get from meat, eggs and dairy.

You think that’s going to be a way to introduce vegan nutrition with facts. Beans and nuts contain protein. Many vegan foods, such as soymilk, are fortified with B12. Broccoli contains calcium. Those are all factual statements that support vegan nutrition.

Instead, the AP writer follows with this:

Also, vegetarian diets are not necessarily slimming. Some vegetarian kids cut out meat but fill up on doughnuts, french fries, soda or potato chips, experts said.

It’s a good thing omnivore kids don’t fill up on doughnuts, french fries, soda or potato chips. That alternative universe might require the writer to research alternate, plant-based sources for protein, vitamins B12 and D, iron, calcium and other important nutrients that people can get from healthy food that 99.5% of kids eat. You know, foods like bologna, fried eggs, and ice cream. That’s where protein, vitamins B12 and D, iron, calcium and other important nutrients come from, right? As long as they’re eating meat, eggs and dairy, they’re healthy?

The leftists can defend themselves.

Via a friend’s tip, a few anti-gay bigots are protesting McDonald’s for some reason or other. Sometimes the idiocy – something about exposing McDonald’s sinful bowing before the Homosexual Agenda&#153, I think – is so ridiculous that it just isn’t worth my time to investigate closely. As evidence, consider the statement by the protest’s organizer, Peter LaBarbera, as reported by Good As You:

“The people involved in this boycott of McDonald’s are good family people — not vegans, America-hating leftists, or some other fringe group.”

Wow. I see that LaBarbera has been so busy investigating the Homosexual Agenda&#153 that he doesn’t understand a few things about vegans. One, I have a family, although I’m about as indifferent as I can be to any concern over whether Peter LaBarbera thinks I’m a good family person. Especially if being good means hating people for who they are, as opposed to liking a person who chooses to be an ass.

Two, some vegans might hate America, but those vegans do not hate America because of veganism. But if LaBarbera took a quick (non-gay) stroll around Rolling Doughnut, he’d figure out have all the information necessary to know that I love America and its ideals. Not enough to endorse everything America does, which naturally makes me a pinko, I know. Still, I love it enough that it’s hardly plausible to lump me in with people who hate America. If I want to be embarrassingly stupid, I might suggest that LaBarbera is an America-hating terrorist because his dietary choices match those of Osama bin Laden. But I won’t because I’m not a complete moron.

Three, “fringe” is a very subjective term. I would think that, of course, since if I thought veganism was wrong, I’d change. I don’t because I think I’m right. Many fringe opinions in American history have become the norm. So, fringe doesn’t mean bad. Also, forgive me if I don’t take my ideas from the popularity contest view of what is acceptable rather than a reasoned consideration of principles.

Four, McDonald’s is not exactly vegan-friendly. The french fries aren’t even vegetarian. The key difference, though, is that McDonald’s ignores me because I am not in it’s large, core market. I am on its fringe, but it doesn’t feel compelled to express complete contempt for me. I didn’t think that was noble, but LaBarbera makes me wonder if I set the bar too high.

Post Script: I suspect I belong to at least one other group LaBarbera despises as part of the “anti-American fringe”.

Does that come with a side of epinephrine?

I overheard a conversation yesterday in which this was offered:

  1. Humans need protein.
  2. Meat has protein.
  3. Humans need meat.

Who am I to argue with that irrefutable logic? Still, I’ll offer my own example:

  1. Humans need protein.
  2. Peanuts have protein.
  3. Humans need peanuts.

Even those individuals who are allergic to peanuts, they’re humans. They’d better start eating peanuts or they’re going to die!

If you like meat, defend it (or don’t) with facts. But be honest about it. If you like the taste and think that is more important than the negatives (death of the animal, adverse health effects), say so. I can respectfully disagree. With logic like the above, I just disagree.

Will I have to praise Anthony Bourdain, too?

Via Veg Blog, I like this clip from Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay. Like Ryan I was not much on Ramsay because of stories I’d encountered. But he gets it correct in this video.

You don’t have to be vegetarian or vegan; most of us would like you to adopt our choices but we realize that a mass conversion isn’t coming any time soon. Still, it’s not too much to expect a basic level of respect. Personally, it doesn’t bother me when people eat meat in front of me. But it’s not funny when people wave meat in front of me while asking if I want some. Nor is it funny when people joke that they’ll slip meat in to my food to help me out.

I would be merely annoyed in this situation since it appears accidental, whether through incompetence or indifference. (The latter would probably make me angry.) Kudos to Gordon Ramsay for understanding that and demanding that these chefs respect their customers.

I like tofu, I swear.

The linked article is amusing enough, although I have disagreements. But this FARK headline sent me into a minor fit of giggles, a not-fun predicament as I go through the coughing phase of a brief cold. It was worth it.

The US has 10 million vegetarians and 290 million normal people

In a bitter mood, I’d probably file this under Ranting and discuss the definition of “normal”. I’m not in a bitter mood. You’re welcome.

Let’s organize a One Million Cow March on the Capitol.

The New York Times editorial board has an interesting reaction to PETA’s announcement of a $1 million prize to anyone who can produce commercially-viable in vitro chicken-meat by June 30, 2012. (The requirements are strict; it’s unlikely anyone could possibly meet this deadline.) Consider:

We are disgusted by the conventional meat industry in this country, which raises animals — especially chicken and pigs — in inhumane confinement systems that cause significant environmental damage. There is every reason to change the way meat is produced, to make it more ethical, more humane. …

So far, so good. But there has to be a “but”.

… But the result of the technology that PETA hopes to reward could be the end of domesticated farm animals. This has often seemed as if it were the logical conclusion of some radical animal-rights activists: better for animals not to exist at all if there is a chance that they would suffer.

I doubt seriously we’d see the end of domesticated farm animals, even in a world where everyone went vegan. Existing endangered-species legislation suggests we’d take an unkind view to complete extinction. And given that such a world will never exist, this fear is particularly worthless.

Nor is it particularly radical to suggest that it’s better for an animal not to exist than for it to suffer. I’ll temporarily pretend that the inevitable slaughter of the animal does not qualify as suffering. The “happy meat” argument in favor of Humane-Certified is different from the majority of animal agriculture in the United States today. Assuming “happy meat” animals will suffer only at their end, most animals raised for food will suffer throughout their lives. That warrants a discussion, even if the eventual answer is to default to the status quo.

This is not an adequate defense:

We prefer a more measured approach. Ensure the least possible cruelty to animals, by all means, and raise them in ways that are both ethical and environmentally sound. …

Again, so far, so good. Even for those who disagree because they prefer an abolitionist approach, this is better than nothing. But there has to be a “but”.

… But also treasure the cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals. Historically speaking, they exist only because of the uses we have found for them, and preserving their existence means, in most cases, preserving the uses we have made for them. …

This is a ridiculous defense, but I’ll defer to Erik Marcus, where I found the link:

You know: the cultural and historical bond that involves one party cutting the other party’s throat. Yeah, let’s treasure that. …

As I implied earlier, treasuring the bond does not require death. For other species, we requires letting the species live, to the detriment of nearly every other consideration. That may be right, or it may be wrong. In the debate the costs of protection must be considered. But existing evidence undermines the “slaughter or extinction” nonsense.

At least they didn’t say that animals want us to eat them.

Indifference does not prevent difficulty.

From the New York Times Magazine:

I wondered how [26-year-old Capt. Dan] Kearney was going to win back his own guys, let alone win over the Korengalis. Just before I left, Kearney told me his biggest struggle would be holding his guys in check. “I’ve got too many geeking out, wanting to go off the deep end and kill people,” he said. One of his lieutenants wanted to shoot every Afghan in the face. Kearney shook his head. He wished he could buy 20 goats and let the boys beat and burn them and let loose their rage. He tried to tell them the restraints were a product of their success — that there was an Afghan government with its own rules. “I’m balancing plates on my goddamn nose is what I’m doing,” he said. “All it’s gonna take is for one of these guys to snap.”

My initial reaction to this is disgust, given the indifference to the idea of inflicting suffering and death on goats. I understand (and agree with) the desire to save people before animals, but that’s not the call here. The either/or scenario here is self-imposed. Yes, the soldiers are a victim of circumstance. No, that doesn’t matter. They’re professional soldiers.

After that thought passed, this quote indicates the problem with our military strategy. Take an invading force and turn it into an peace-keeping force and this sort of challenge seems inevitable. Afghanistan was a legitimate war. From the moment the Taliban’s involvement in permitting attacks on the United States was clear, it was always reasonable to plan to oust it from Afghanistan. But we also needed to prepare for the rebuilding aftermath of invasion, both in infrastructure and government. Capt. Kearney’s concern reveals a flaw somewhere in the chain of command if a problem can fester long enough to create this type of rage. How badly has the transition been managed? How prevalent is this in Iraq? How significant will this be when these soldiers return to civilian life in the U.S.?

War is chaotic. Outcomes are unpredictable. I accept that, and some uncomfortable level of challenge in multiple areas is not a sign of extraordinary behavior. But this is ridiculous. The manner in which the Bush administration drove us into two simultaneous wars with seemingly little concern for these long-term outcomes and consequences displays a mind-boggling level of incompetence.

Link via Slate, via Ben Casnocha.

She doesn’t know the difference between carnivore and omnivore.

From various sources, I’d seen this article on Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, titled “The 247 lb. Vegan”. Now that I’ve read it, one fact is clear: Tony Gonzalez is not a vegan. I’m not sure that he specifically calls himself a vegan now, although the article makes clear that he has in the past. But the presence of meat in his diet demonstrates that he is an omnivore, however limited his consumption of animal products may be.

Contrary to what some want to believe, I don’t care. So we “lost” one. I don’t judge the worth of my veganism on its popular acceptance. Having celebrities among our numbers is momentarily fascinating but ultimately irrelevant. Save the glee over Tony Gonzalez.

And the excuses for meat. From Debbie Schlussel:

Lots of vegan, vegetarian, and animal rights sites around the Net are buzzing about today’s Wall Street Journal feature, “The 247 Lb. Vegan*”. They’re claiming that this article, about the diet of 247 lb. Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Tony Gonzalez, proves that an animal products-free diet is sustainable for anyone regardless of the lifestyle, physique, or profession.

But it’s a lie. There’s a reason there is an asterisk in the title of the article. Gonzalez’s diet includes 1,120 calories of broiled salmon for dinner. …

Ooooooh, we are so busted. Or as Schlussel points out with the title of her entry:

Weekend Read: Can a 247 lb. NFL Lineman Be a Vegan?
(Subtitle: Vegans Are Lying)

Presumably she’s referring to the “lots of vegan, vegetarian, and animal rights sites around the Net” that are “buzzing” about the article’s claim. Strangely, she doesn’t link to a single site – vegan, vegetarian, animal rights, or otherwise – that discusses this article. She merely makes her unsupported statement, excerpts a bit from the article from one expert about the non-viability of a vegan diet for an elite athlete, and offers a “suck it” to vegans because we’re allegedly too stupid to realize that chicken is meat and fish oil is an animal-based product. They are? For real? Wow, I learn something new every day.

Allow me to demonstrate a little logic and honesty by going one step further. In the video associated with the article, Mr. Gonzalez makes a smoothie. He states (at 3:08):

You put, uh, your rice milk on there. Or almond milk or, or regular milk.

I think he means cow’s milk, which is not vegan. There is your definitive proof that I lie about my diet. Tony Gonzalez calls himself a vegan, but he eats meat and maybe milk. I call myself a vegan because I don’t eat meat or milk. The label matters; the action does not. We are both lying.

I’m not surprised by her thinking, having read Schlussel’s entry. She offers this in response to her question in her title:

So, the answer is no. One cannot be an NFL lineman and be a vegan. You need animal protein to maintain the weight. And looking at the photo of Gonzalez, he looks on the small and thin side for an NFL lineman. He’d probably be much bigger and stronge [sic]–a prized advantage in an NFL line–if he ate meat and protein and drank cow’s or goat’s milk. …

Before ridiculing her scientific method, it should be noted that 247 pounds is not an atypical size for an NFL tight end. A tight end is not a lineman in the traditional sense, so he is not as big as the guards, tackles, and center. For example, Redskins Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley is 6′ 3″ and 249 pounds. This year’s Pro Bowl starters at tight end are Jason Witten (6′ 5″, 266) and Antonio Gates (6′ 4″, 260). Schlussel’s reasoning, if it can be called that, is empty of any knowledge of her subject matter. But there’s no need to let that be an impediment, I suppose.

But to the proof of her thesis statement, the first reported attempt by an NFL player to be a vegan “failed”. There’s no question of whether he received incorrect advice from his nutritionists. There’s no examination of how an actual vegan might approach a dietary need for more than 3,000 calories per day. This one example of a player who may not actually self-identify (I think he does) as vegan is enough. This is definitive; it’s impossible to be a vegan lineman in the NFL. Next up, her proof that God exists.

If Mr. Gonzalez calls himself a vegan, he is mistaken. If Mr. Gonzalez does not call himself a vegan, the article is mistaken. One of those two statement is fact. The answer is not clear, so The Wall Street Journal reporter (and/or editor) botched the article by not clarifying this point. That, and maybe Debbie Schlussel’s disregard for facts, is the only takeaway from the article.

Hat tip to Elaine Vigneault for the heads up on Schlussel’s nonsense.