Genetic Modification: Good or Bad?

Genetic modification is a broad area, and can have very beneficial applications. For instance, milk from goats that were genetically modified to produce higher levels of a human antimicrobial protein has proved effective in treating diarrhea in young pigs, demonstrating the potential for food products from transgenic animals to one day also benefit human health, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis.

Important Questions That Need Answering

On the other hand, some important questions are also being raised.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a heated ideological debate on a subject is usually unlikely to produce as much light as heat. Anything worth doing is worth doing with both eyes open.

This article raises some of the more urgent concerns that we need science needs to address thoroughly and transparently. The expectation of science should be that it should not rely entirely on studies commissioned and funded by those who have an economic stake in the issue and a chequered history, ie. industries that produce the products themselves.

Crops Engineered to Produce Pesticides

Background: GM corn and cotton are engineered to produce a built-in pesticide in every cell. Biotech companies claim that the pesticide produced from soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis—has a history of safe use, as organic farmers and others use Bt bacteria spray for natural insect control.

However, the Bt-toxin produced in GM plants is thousands of times more concentrated than natural Bt spray, has properties of an allergen, and unlike the spray, cannot be washed off the plant. Even the less toxic natural bacterial spray, when dispersed by plane to kill gypsy moths in the Pacific Northwest, about 500 people reported allergy or flu-like symptoms. 

Anecdotal Observations: Such symptoms are now being reported by farm workers throughout India where Bt cotton has been handled. In 2008, based on medical records, Sunday India reported victims of itching related to cotton farming increased massively that year.

Additionally, in India, where animals graze on cotton plants after harvest, thousands of sheep died after grazing on Bt cotton plants. Post mortems showed severe irritation and black patches in both intestines and liver as well as enlarged bile ducts. Investigators concluded that preliminary evidence strongly suggests that the sheep mortality was due to a toxin that was most probably Bt-toxin. In a small follow-up feeding study by the Deccan Development Society, all sheep fed Bt cotton plants died within 30 days while those that grazed on natural cotton plants remained healthy. Likewise, buffalo that had grazed on cotton plants for eight years without incident in Andhra Pradesh grazed on Bt cotton plants for the first time on January 3rd, 2008, and all were sick the next day and died within 3 days.

Bt corn has also been implicated as well in deaths of cows in Germany, and horses, water buffaloes, and chickens in The Philippines.

Lab Studies: In lab studies, twice the number of chickens fed Liberty Link corn died; 7 of 20 rats fed a GM tomato developed bleeding stomachs; another 7 of 40 died within two weeks. Monsanto’s own study showed evidence of poisoning in major organs of rats fed Bt corn, according to top French toxicologist G. E. Seralini. Unfortunately, such studies are few and further, their findings have been questioned. But more conclusive research is needed rather than less.

Political Resistance to Rigorous Long Term Testing

According to documents released from a lawsuit, the scientific consensus of scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even in the early 1990s was that GM foods might create hard-to-detect allergies, poisons, gene transfer to gut bacteria, new diseases, and nutritional problems, and they urged their superiors to require rigorous long-term tests.

As the White House had ordered the FDA to promote biotechnology, the FDA recruited Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney, to head the formation of GMO policy, still in effect today. 

The FDA denies knowledge of scientists’ concerns and declares that no safety studies on GMOs are required. It holds that it is up to biotech companies to determine if their foods are safe. Coincidentally, Mr. Taylor later became Monsanto’s vice president.

The fact is that there are dangerously few studies. Not a single human clinical trial on GMOs has been published. A 2007 review of published scientific literature on the “potential toxic effects/health risks of GM plants” revealed “that experimental data are very scarce.” The author asks, “Where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe, as assumed by the biotechnology companies?”

Canadian geneticist David Suzuki agrees that: “The experiments simply haven’t been done and we now have become the guinea pigs.” He adds, “Anyone that says, ‘Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,’ I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying.”

Dr. David Schubert points out, “If there are problems, we will probably never know because the cause will not be traceable and many diseases take a very long time to develop.” If GMOs happen to cause immediate and acute symptoms with a unique signature, perhaps then we might have a chance to trace the cause.

We may never know whether other GM foods are contributing to the rising incidences of autism, obesity, diabetes, asthma, cancer, heart disease, allergies, reproductive problems, and other common health problem now on the increase. 

However, we do observe that animals fed GMOs have had such a wide variety of problems, so it is only reasonable to test whether susceptible people may react to GM food with multiple symptoms as well.   Anecdotally, in the first nine years after the large scale introduction of GM crops in 1996, the incidence of people having three or more chronic diseases nearly doubled, from 7% to 13%.

Working Toward A More Productive Discussion

What reasonable people are asking is for the medical community, and independent scientific community to gather case studies potentially related to GM food consumption and health effects, to begin epidemiological research to investigate the role of GM foods on human health, and to conduct safe methods of determining the effect of GM foods on human health.”


Why Raising The Minimum Wage Is Smart Economics

“U.S. internet connectivity is so slow and so expensive that coming here from abroad feels like visiting a third world country.”

Part 1

Part 2

Economic Inequality Contributes to Gap in Life Expectancy

Economic inequality contributing to gap in life expectancy

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Overall life expectancy has improved substantially since the first Social Security payments were made in 1940.

  • In 1940, a 65 year old man could expect to live 12.7 years, and a woman,  14.7 years.
  • In 2010, this expanded to 18.6 years for men, and 20.7 years for women.

Improving life expectancies led lawmakers in 1983 to slowly move the age people could receive full Social Security benefits from 65 to 67.  Today, as the cost of benefits has increased, there is talk of now raising the retirement age for both Medicare and Social Security. Is this a good idea? Research suggests not.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article in the Washington Post highlights research showing that the gains in life expectancy in the U.S. are going mostly to upper income households.

According to research at theUniversity of Washington, people living in the prosperous community of St. John’s are living well and long:

  • St. John’s women live to nearly 83, four years longer than they did just two decades earlier.
  • St. John’s men live to over 78 years, six years longer than two decades ago.

Compare this to neighboring Putnam County, where incomes and housing values are about half what they are in St. Johns. There life expectancy hasn’t significantly improved since 1989.

  • Putnam women’s life expectancy has risen less than a year to just over 78.
  • Putnam men’s life expectancy has risen by a year and a half to about 71.

Putnam women live 5 years less, and men, 7 years less. And a growing body of research supports these findings around the country.

For instance, a Social Security Administration study done several years ago found that the life expectancy of male workers retiring at 65 had risen six years in the top half of the income distribution, but only 1.3 years in the bottom half over the previous three decades.

And the gap is growing. According to a research study report by the Congressional Budget Office:

  • In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years longer for the highest socioeconomic group.
  • By 2000, the gap had grown to 4.5 years.

Where You Live Makes a Difference

How long will youlive — and how well?

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County health rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation show that there is one primary care physician for every 2,623 residents in Putnam county, whereas in St. Johns, there are more than double the ratio of family doctors, one for every 1,067. Additionally, in St. Johns, residents are more likely to seek out information to bolster their health, and are more likely to follow doctors’ orders. Joe Gordy, chief executive of Flagler Hospital, which is in St. Johns County says:

Being more affluent and educated, you are likely to have better access to information and you are also more likely to want it.

In fact, a recent study published in the journal Health Affairs finds that in almost half of the nation’s counties, women younger than 75 are dying at rates higher than before – typically in the rural South and West, where there are few good jobs and little access to medical care. Jeff Feller, chief executive officer of WellFlorida Council describes this as “the Southern disease belt.” He states:

You just have to look at the socioeconomic and demographic differences–unemployment, education levels, income…to understand what is going on. This is fueled by poor economics and a lack of access to health insurance and health coverage.”

Implications for Economic Policy

As politicians debate raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare due to longer life expectancies (currently 65 for Medicare and moving toward 67 for full Social Security benefits) that policy decision would result in fewer benefits for lower-income workers, who tend to die younger. Maya Rockeymoore, president and chief executive of public policy consultancy Global Policy Solutions, says:

If you raise the retirement age, low-income populations would be subsidizing the lives of higher-income people. Whenever I hear a policymaker say people are living longer as a justification for raising the retirement age, I immediately think they don’t understand the research or, worse, they are willfully ignoring what the data say.

In short, raising the retirement age would amount to a significant benefit cut for all but those in the most privileged class, a form of class discrimination.

Furthermore, as healthcare is the biggest driver of American budget deficits, and the U.S. healthcare system has surprisingly low outcomes compared to healthcare expenditures, it makes little economic sense to raise the qualification age for Medicare, as this would only contribute to worsening outcomes and further fuel escalating healthcare costs for all.

Thomas Friedman

I hope the President turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north?) But I don’t think he will.

So…I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change. We don’t get such an opportunity often — namely, a second-term Democratic president who is under heavy pressure to approve a pipeline to create some jobs but who also has a green base that he can’t ignore.

…We need the president to be able to say to the G.O.P. oil lobby, “I’m going to approve this, but it will kill me with my I’ve got to get something really big in return.”


Business Moves In For The Kill

‘s article in the Washington Post paints a colorful picture of the economics of politics. The bottom line is that historic tax reform is on the horizon:

An army of lobbyists has been mobilizing in the halls of Congress over recent months in anticipation of what could be a monumental struggle later this year over reforming the tax code…

The prospect of a tax overhaul has already kicked the capital’s influence industry into high gear. From corporate chiefs and hedge fund lobbyists to Montana ranchers and Broadway producers, the players have already begun their campaigns, pressing for everything from lowering the corporate tax rate to preserving cherished deductions and, in some instances, inserting new tax loopholes into law. 

Here are some interesting facts that Markon brings out:

  • Lobbying over the tax code has more than tripled since President Obama took office, with the pace accelerating during the “fiscal cliff” debate. 
  • About 440 corporations and business groups spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and executive branch agencies on tax reform in the third quarter of last year.
  • That number continued to rise in the final three months of the year, up nearly 10 percent.
  • Corporations and business associations predominate, while other smaller groups like unions, educational institutions and Indian tribes are also involved.  More than 125 Washington lobbying and law firms are engaged, employing power lobbyists and high-profile former politicians.

Tax Code Overhaul: the Most Likely Middle Ground

Both the President and the Congress have called for tax reform – the president suppoting “bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform” in his State of the Union speech, and House Speaker John Boehner recently saying that overhauling the tax code is one of the highest priorities.Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee,  and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee have both vowed to push to rewrite the tax code rewrite this year. Ways and Means has already set up 11 bipartisan working groups to pursue the issue further.
 The two parties differ on what tax reform should accomplish. While both parties emphasize  streamlining the code to help businesses compete, many Democrats also want to raise more tax revenue, partly from the wealthy. 
Both parties agree that deductions and credits should be simplified and scaled back, which puts into play some popular but expensive benefits like mortgage interest and charitable donations for individuals and credits for research costs and provisions that allow firms to defer U.S. taxes on profits earned by foreign subsidiaries.

How Much Pressure? An Historical Perspective

Even the most honest in Washington will find it impossible to ignore the pressure. An indication of just what may be coming is illustrated by what happened the last time Congress sought to overhaul the tax code in 1986.  As Congress tried to lower rates and close billions of dollars in loopholes, corporate America put up a powerful struggle. The final bill (TRA 86) was nicknamed the Lobbying Relief Act of 1986. Here’s how bad it got:

Rep. Bill Frenzel, then a junior Republican member of the Ways and Means Committee, was flooded with 300 requests for appointments every day, compared with half a dozen a week during normal times. “It was a mess,” recalled Frenzel, now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. When Congress considered limiting popular deductions for mortgage interest and real estate taxes, he recounted, industry lobbyists “beat us to a pulp.”

This time around, with heightened partisanship and the growth in Washington’s influence industry, many observers expect advocacy on an even greater scale. “It will be immense,’’ Frenzel predicted.

Since TRA86, Congress has added new tax breaks to the code. Washington refers to these as tax “expenditures.” These provisions, which include everything from popular benefits for taxpayers with children, college expenses and retirement savings to corporate welfare cost the government more than $1 trillion a year in revenue, according to congressional hearings.

However, tax reform could end up costing even more. In his proposal, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Camp has called for lowering the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% and moving to a “territorial” tax system, which would eliminate taxes U.S. companies pay on profits earned overseas and then brought back to the United States. Naturally, many large corporations strongly favor this, stating that it would help businesses compete in the global economy, while many Democrats argue that it would encourage U.S. firms to move their operations, and  jobs, overseas.

Ratcheting Up Campaign Contributions

lobbying stats

As the prospect of tax reform has grown closer, corporate PACs have been contributing more to key figures on the tax-writing committees. For instance,  according to an analysis of 2012 election cycle data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics:

Baucus and Camp and the ranking members of their committees — Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) — accepted a combined $5.6 million in campaign contributions from corporate interests that lobbied on tax reform…The four lawmakers also accepted $1 million in contributions directly from lobbyists representing corporate interests that lobbied on tax reform.

The Usual Suspects

The oil and gas industry are among the heaviest lobbyists, since Democrats have targeted them for  preferential tax breaks which include deductions that lower taxes on refiners and decrease the cost of oil and gas exploration:

Stephen Comstock, director of tax and accounting policy at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, said some energy executives are worried that tax reform could end up being “political.” He said industry representatives are urging that tax measures be based on good policy.

Translation: the industry has been heavily dependent on government handouts.Hedge funds and private-equity companies are fighting a new tax provision on “enterprise value,” which would require fund managers who sell a business to pay taxes according to their personal tax rate, often the top-end rate of 39.6% rather than at the capital gains tax rate of 20% or less.

Licking Their Chops

In general, a scramble for favor is likely seen as a net positive by influential large corporations. As Jess Peterson, vice president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, put it:

Tax reform is coming up, so now is the time. What an opportunity!

Another response:

Now is the time to do this because everything is potentially on the table with tax reform,” he said. “We’re going to keep pushing, so if an opportunity arises we’re right there to take advantage of it.

What To Expect?

Obviously, given the depth of influence of the largest corporations, the balance of the benefits can be expected to go to corporations rather than the average citizen.

The Hopeful Side: Economists say that what’s needed to effect a strong recovery are major government spending, including investment in infrastructure, and the development of an energy policy that favors the technologies of the future over rapidly depleting fossil fuels.  On the hopeful side, to the extent that this can be encouraged through tax reform, the groundwork for strong future economic performance will be laid down. If a meaningful compromise is reached, additional revenues that can stimulate the economy can be gained from scaling back expensive and needless tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy investor class.

The Pessimistic Side:  However, so far, the President has been rather unsuccessful in getting sufficient revenues and investment in stimulus to get a consumer-driven economy solidly back on it’s feet. The recently passed “fiscal cliff” deal,  according to the Congressional Budget Office’s figures, resulted in a meager 3-to-2 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes over 10 years, consisting of tax increases of about $600 billion, versus spending cuts of about $900 billion. Moreover, the Administration’s proposed budget calls for an additional $2.50 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases – prior to compromise.

These headwinds are already strong, with the past 40 years favoring the scaling back of the kind of investment that nurtures a consumerist economy led by a strong middle class. But now that the largest corporations have grown more influential than ever, and have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase their share of the pie at the expense of the average American worker, expect the pressure on Washington to be more intense than we might reasonably imagine. 


Actor, writer, lawyer, and commentator on political and economic issues, and son of economist and writer Herbert Stein, who worked at the White House under President Nixon, Ben Stein attained early success as a speechwriter for American presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He is a public speaker on a wide range of economic and social issues.


March 1, 2013. A date which will live in infamy.

The people and nation of the United States were slowly and deliberately attacked by the partisanship, ideological rigidity and lack of courage of the top levels of the government of this nation.

Government run for the people with care, devotion and love of country went off the rails.

Over the question of how much to cut spending and how much to raise taxes, both totally legitimate subjects for debate, we are going off the map of the known world and into a “Twilight Zone” of sequester never-never land.

We are playing hazardous games with defense, with the economic recovery, with the guiding of airplanes into airports, with the education of our children.

In the midst of a highly tentative and slow recovery from a terrible recession, we are threatening to throw tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands into the unemployment lines.

 I get the points on both sides: The Democrats want the rich to pay more tax, and I completely agree. The rich should pay more and the middle class should have some skin in the game, too.

The Republicans say we are drowning in debt and have to cut spending on entitlements somewhere. And both points of view are ideologically pure, but totally unrealistic approaches to the real world.

The real world is not about absolutes. This is America, not the Third Reich. We govern by compromise.

The goal here is not perfect ideological nirvana. It is the dirty, gritty business of compromise. Anything less at this point is a betrayal of those who have given their all for this country.

This nonsense about the budget has gone on way too long. It is exhausting and maddening. We have a government acting like rival grade school gangs on a playground.

As the great Mick Jagger so aptly said, “The game to play is compromise solution.”

Or take someone much greater. Abraham Lincoln said long ago that America was “the last best hope of Earth.” Let’s get way, way back from the brink and show that Lincoln was right again. Mick, too.

Senators, Congressmen and women, Mister President, get back to Washington D.C., and get to work. Compromise. Work like you love America.

And get it done.

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