Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

I’ll have a glass of wine and the genetically modified salmon, please

Zachary Karabell
Mar 22, 2013 12:46 UTC

While tiny Cyprus teeters on the brink, dominating much of the news, and elusive peace in the Middle East remains in the headlines, there is another battle going on — the latest in a long war that is shaping our planet far more than the events in Nicosia or the West Bank. Food and water are essential to human existence, yet in the last few decades the ability to increase food supply by technological means has stirred fear and passion. Cyprus’ woes may come and go; the food wars are going nowhere.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s just announced they would not sell a soon-to-be-approved genetically modified salmon called AquAdvantage. That follows Whole Foods’ recent announcement that it would require all items sold in its stores to include information on “genetically modified organisms” by 2018. Popularly known as GMOs, these are foods whose genetic code has been scientifically altered. The recent steps are just the latest salvo, and follow a failed ballot initiative in California last fall that would have mandated all GMO foods to be clearly labeled.

These measures were presented as part of ongoing efforts to allow consumers to make more informed choices about their foods, but they also take a clear moral stance against GMOs. In announcing the salmon ban, a Whole Foods spokesperson stated: “We believe all farmed animals — whether raised on land or in water, should be from breeding programs designed to promote their welfare rather than developed solely on production or economic outcomes.” A number of Whole Foods shoppers were already outraged that the chain has been selling products containing GMOs, particularly corn produced from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds. One advocate labeled Whole Foods “Wholesanto,” claiming that it only agreed to labeling after too many customers threatened to boycott the store. There was also reference to the policies in the United Kingdom and much of the European Union, where public attitudes towards GMOs are overwhelmingly negative.

Why be so concerned? On the plus side, GMOs may solve a key problem and enable global growth. They may solve the Malthusian conundrum, and prevent what people have been fearing for centuries — namely that the earth cannot support more than a certain number of humans consuming what they consume. Still, GMOs are widely distrusted, even hated.

The animus toward GMOs is widely shared, and yet, the prevalence of GMOs has been part of the massive increase in agricultural production over the last few decades. Yes, that point in not without controversy. Critics of the biotechnological advancements in agriculture claim that decades of use have not increased yields and instead have weakened the organic food chain, eliminated crop varieties and actually decreased the resilience of the food chain worldwide by reducing natural diversity.

Budgeting for mistrust

Zachary Karabell
Mar 13, 2013 15:01 UTC

Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republican budget this week with an ominous yet familiar warning: “America’s national debt is over $16 trillion.” Having stated the problem, he then offered a solution, one which differed only marginally from what he’s offered the past two years. Namely: restrain government healthcare spending on Medicare and Medicaid, reform the individual tax code, close loopholes, lower corporate taxes, and promote natural gas and energy independence. The goal? A balanced budget by 2023 that will ensure “the well-being of all Americans…and reignite the American dream.”

The strongest part of Ryan’s unveiling is not the specifics, which may not be very strong at all, but the unimpeachable critique of the White House and congressional Democrats for not offering their own blueprint and budget for the future. Some of that is semantics; both the president and congressional Democrats have offered various rough outlines of their long-term budget, and now Senate Democrats offered their counterproposal. But until late they had operated more in the rough-and-tumble of dysfunctional Washington negotiations rather than with explicit, official and formal (and long) outlines of exactly what will be spent and how. Yes, each year the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, does assess and express views about present spending. That is not the same as an explicit pathway for the future, which Ryan has indeed offered.

Such offerings are vital. You may, as I do, disagree with key elements of what Ryan and the Republicans are proposing. You may, as I do, object to the fixation on the size of the current debt without any consideration of why that debt was incurred and how much it currently costs to service it, given historically low interest rates. But Republicans are offering a set of answers, and Ryan for one is asking for those to be addressed so the process of debating and, yes, compromising can begin. No, the president is not required to offer a detailed budget; the power of the purse lies with Congress, not the White House. But a detailed vision, especially one that contrasts with the Republican one, would be welcome and productive.

The U.S. can’t afford a Chinese economic collapse

Zachary Karabell
Mar 7, 2013 13:29 UTC

Is China about to collapse? That question has been front and center in the past weeks as the country completes its leadership transition and after the exposure of its various real estate bubbles during a widely watched 60 Minutes exposé this past weekend.

Concerns about soaring property prices throughout China are hardly new, but they have been given added weight by the government itself. Recognizing that a rapid implosion of the property market would disrupt economic growth, the central government recently announced far-reaching measures designed to dent the rampant speculation. Higher down payments, limiting the purchases of investment properties, and a capital gains tax on real estate transactions designed to make flipping properties less lucrative were included.

These measures, in conjunction with the new government’s announcing more modest growth targets of 7.5 percent a year, sent Chinese equities plunging and led to a slew of commentary in the United States saying China would be the next shoe to drop in the global system.

The black swan sequester

Zachary Karabell
Mar 1, 2013 21:36 UTC

Everyday, we are treated to a new peril: Today we have sequestration, a word not much in anyone’s lexicon until recently. The mandated cuts to the federal budget, $85 billion by last count, will further stunt anemic economic growth, or so economists and the Congressional Budget Office guesstimate. The prognostications surrounding the sequester have been grim, with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough warning of a “devastating list of horribles,” ranging from severe travel snafus to the end of vital education programs.

In the political media, in Washington, and in the defense industry (which will see especially draconian cuts), all of this is Big News. But after months of buildup, the end-of-days drama is ending with a resounding thud. The meh reaction of financial markets of late is particularly telling (the Dow flirted with its all-time high this week). Markets are mood rings, and the mood now is one of boredom and fatigue. Even the New York Times led page 1 not with the sequester but with a studied picture of a nun saying goodbye to the retiring pope.

This is a good thing. Since the housing market imploded six years ago, we’ve been suffering from black swan fever. When Nicholas Taleb penned his passionate polemic about the inability of financial markets to allow for unanticipated and rare events (“black swans”), he did us all a great service in highlighting the narrow-mindedness that can have dire consequences.

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