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Flavorless Farming

Corporations have (sometimes rightly) been accused of all sorts of things. Among the charges include the (over)use of advertising not merely to make us aware of their products but to make us want products we didn’t ever imagine ourselves wanting. Among the most hated corporations these days would be those involved in monocropping, pesticide, fungicide, herbicide, GMO-using megafarming across the US. No need to defend them now, though I believe they are worth defending. What I’d like to know is this: if corporations produce all kinds of tantalizingly tasty things for us like Big Macs and Hershey bars all the way to the more refined versions of each, how come a charge levied against huge corporate farms is that their food is bland, flat and far inferior in taste to non-GMO crops and to other more “sustainable” crop methods? This makes absolutely no sense to me, none at all. Corporations are supposed to be luring us with all kinds of things these days – so how come the corporations and corporate scientists and academic researchers in the pay of Big Farms are not developing very tasty versions of all of their crops? It seems that with all of the chemical and genetic enhancements we could be getting a Saturnalia of flavor from our mega-farms.

So how come they are not doing it?

Is every corporation ever, everywhere, guilty of alluring us with unhealthy but SUPER tasty stuff except the corporations that provide much of our meat, grains, fruits and vegetables?

Since all of you at least had parents, and many of you may be parents yourselves, or plan to be them, please indulge me the following bit of advice that I am sure you’ve heard a million times:

Just because “everyone else” (or ANYONE else for that matter) is doing something says NOTHING about whether YOU should be doing it.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. In case you are wondering why the advice is forthcoming, this piece from Vox, like many others, claims we should make contraceptives over the counter because everyone else does. Now, I agree with the conclusion but not the reason. That is one of the better written Vox pieces I’ve come across this week. Here, for example, is an incredibly infantile and unsophisticated piece. I know it attracts who they want it to attract, but that’s not exactly what I had expected from “very serious policy wonks.” When we are playing fun reindeer games, I suppose it is too much to ask the fine folks at Vox if they believe, that once they and their colleagues freely associate, that they should lose any and all individual rights they have? Does Vox have no employees? Or is it asking too much for brilliant policy wonks to at least include a citation to an article, even theirs, on things like the causes of the gender pay gap.

Except when “we” preach it:

 It’s better for the economy. When you buy local, a large percentage of the money stays in your community. The farmer can  afford to have the local mechanic fix his truck, the mechanic can afford to hire a local accountant to do his taxes, and the accountant can afford dinner out at a local restaurant. The wait staff makes decent tips, and the restaurant can afford to buy more fresh, local food to serve. Money also trickles into the local infrastructure - improvements to the public park, funding for academic enrichment, and so on. Everyone wins.

By the way, I would really appreciate it if you could find me a good economics textbook or popular treatment (such as this or this) that actually uses the term “trickle down economics” in any way other than describing the term as it is used popularly. In other words, I attended 9 years of college and graduate school, and have taught for nearly a decade, and in all of that time I have never once encountered the term “trickle down economics” in any reading or at any seminar I have attended.

UPDATE: this just hit my inbox

OK, back to more important things…


Marcy from Skylight

Nuclear Navel Gazing

I very much enjoyed this article on the possibility of molten-salt nuclear reactors becoming operational in the near future. They are safe, and they can use spent uranium to fuel. For those who know me, I was a physics major back in the day, and badly wanted to go into the field of nuclear power research. I had plans of developing home-based or small community-based portable nuclear reactors that would be cheap and clean. But oil prices hit about $10 per barrel, and I was actually not smart enough to remain in physics, so here I am.

One quick observation about nuclear, particularly given the last post here at TUW – “we” all should be embracing it. Yes, be cognizant of risks and costs, but it is comparatively clean and safe, has very little collateral impact on land use and animal-life, and has better prospects, in my view, for being long-term cost-effective than many other technologies. It is almost startling to see how fast nuclear is dismissed and ignored in climate or just plain ol’ energy conversations. I say almost, until one remembers that very little of the conversation about climate and energy is actually about climate and energy – hence my general malaise. It took me almost six full years to own up to this reality.

Maybe we will take such a principle seriously when it is consistently applied – such as to when the government regulates market activity, or in how much power to entrust to the politicos in the first place. But of course as Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein smartly recognizes:

The precautionary principle has been highly influential in legal systems all over the world. In its strongest and most distinctive forms, the principle imposes a burden of proof on those who create potential risks, and it requires regulation of activities even if it cannot be shown that those activities are likely to produce significant harms. Taken in this strong form, the precautionary principle should be rejected, not because it leads in bad directions, but because it leads in no directions at all. The principle is literally paralyzing – forbidding inaction, stringent regulation, and everything in between. The reason is that in the relevant cases, every step, including inaction, creates a risk to health, the environment, or both. This point raises a further puzzle. Why is the precautionary principle widely seen to offer real guidance? The answer lies in identifiable cognitive mechanisms emphasized by behavioral economists.

And speaking of the topic: here’s our government throwing (pre)caution into the wind.

US Congress prevents Norwegian Airline from flying in America. My favorite part:

 because of concerns the low-cost carrier will dodge international labor rules.

That’s pretty darn laughable seeing as the Scandinavians are held out as the most socially just and fair countries on Earth. If not them, whom?

Somehow …

After reading yet another indictment about the glorious behavior of our “do-gooders” in DC, I just do not believe for one second that the Lois Lerner e-mails went missing. Call me crazy, but for an organization that hunts folks down because their TurboTax forgets to claim 8 cents of income, and for one that surely has backups of their servers, I find it breathlessly unbelievable to hear any excuse for piles of missing emails from anyone, much less someone at the level of Ms. Lerner.

Maybe once we kick George Bush out of the White House the whole government will start working better for the people.

I hate to jump on these sorts of bandwagons because they are prone to being echo-chambery, but in this case it is appropriate. And sadly, as you are aware, neither the VA debacle, the IRS debacle or any of the other debacles are going to have many folks rethinking the proper scope, role and incentives within government. Hence the piling on now.

Elsewhere in la-la land: No soup for you!

Elsewhere in la-la land: the ACA and insurance premiums

Not yet, or it depends – if you are keeping score at home.

If just one percent of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone is H2O, that would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, the researchers said.

Read more here.

My grandparents and their parents clawed their way to New York approximately 100 years ago. The girls, too, worked. The men were stone cutters and worked in the garment district. We came from the bottom of the boot, literally and figuratively, in Italy – from Bari, Calabria, Naples and Sicily.


The Boot

I’ve studied the history of the Italian migration to America quite a bit, at least when I was younger and had more time to walk the stacks of old libraries. To be honest, it never moved me, even as a young kid living with 8 people in a 2 bedroom second-floor apartment in Queens. As I age, I am a bit more intrigued. Here are some passages I stumbled upon while reading a book about … forest fires … in the western U.S.


Domenico Bruno left his home, like many in the village, with the intention of making just enough money to help his family and build his own nest egg. After that, he would return to Rivara, if not a rich man, then at least with enough of a stake to buy a farm in the Canavese valley, with its good grass and alluvial soil, replenished by snowmelt from the mountains. His father was a farm laborer, an aging peasant no longer able to work, who lived off his small garden and help from friends. The family’s other son, Pietro, had been drafted by the military and sent to Tripoli. It was up to Domenico to save the family. He said goodbye in 1907, a year when 285,000 Italians went to America.


Never before had so many people fled Italy for the United States. In that year, one in four immigrants came from Italy, a country that could barely feed its citizens as it tried to move, a latecomer, into the Industrial Age. By 1910, the high-water mark of emigration, Italy had given up more than 2 million of its people in less than a decade. Most of them were from the south, from Naples, with its corruption and crowded tenements, from Sicily and Apulia and other parts of the heel of Italy’s boot – places where the soil was as tired and broken as the people, hopeless lands with dark suspicions. The north was considered more European, more prosperous, closer in identity and outlook to France, Germany, or Switzerland. One of the exceptions was the mountain valley northwest of Torino, the home of Domenico and Giaccomo.


Most immigrants landed in Boston, New York or Philadelphia, the docks thick with Sicilian dialect, which Domenico and his friends could barely understand. The cities were filthy and dangerous, and “many Italians were dazed by the complexity of existence” in these urban centers, the immigration commission reported. Everyone heard the story of a twelve-year old Italian girl, Camela Teoli, who was working in a factory where cotton was twisted into thread when the machine tore off a big part of her scalp.



The Rivara immigrants heard about a place in Arizona Territory with better pay … The company favored Mexican and Italian laborers, who were cheaper and though to be more docile than the Irish. … They maintained a three-tiered wage system: one for trouble-free whites, one for Mexicans and one for Italians. Such attitudes were typical in a decade when nine-million immigrants came to the United States, and one-third of the population was either foreign-born or a child of someone born from abroad. The Italian surge in particular angered those who felt the nation was no longer recognizable, had lost its sense of identity. And they hated all these strange languages spoken in shops, schools or churches. The Immigration Restriction League, founded by Boston Blue Bloods with family ties to the old Tories of England, campaigned to keep undesirable classes from entering the country. They meant Italians, Greeks, Jews and people from Eastern Europe.


“The scum of creation has been dumped on us,” said the nativist politician Thomas Watson. “The most dangerous and corrupting hordes of the Old World have invaded us.” It was not just politicians who attached Mediterranean immigrants as a threat to the American way of life. Francis Walker, president of MIT, called Italian and Greek immigrants, “beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggles for existence.” Another educated expert cautioned Americans against, “absorbing the excitable blood from Southern Europe.”


In 1880, the United States had barely 40,000 Americans of Italian descent. In little more than a generation’s time, there were more than three million, a wave that prompted calls to close the doors of passage to Italy. Aside from the Chinese, who had been rousted out of many western mining towns at the end of a gun or pitchfork, the Italians received, “the roughest treatment of all ethnic groups,” as one study found. During a congressional hearing on immigrant restrictions, a building contractor told the lawmakers he never referred to his Italian workers as white men. “No, sir, an Italian is a dago.”



Domenico Bruno and Giacomo Viettone were part of the crew sent to the St. Joe side of the ridge … By August 20, the boys from Rivara Canavese had worked 16 days in a row, in a location within five miles of what is known as Dago Creek. … “The Italians, the Hebrew and the Slav, according to popular belief, are poisoning the pure air of our otherwise well-regulated cities, the immigration commissioner, E.A. Goldenweiser, wrote of a prevailing view, based on a survey of 10,000 American households.



The Italians had a saying: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren’t paved with gold. Second, they weren’t paved at all. And third, I was expected to pave them.”



  • Today the country is not overrun with Italians, and Italy seems to have plenty of Italians left in it (though if they continue their trend toward lower fertility …)
  • Today the country is not overwhelmed with Italian culture
  • Today, I suspect if you did not have the luxury of examining last names, you might even have a hard time identifying who is of Italian descent.
  • Today, Italian-Americans, while I suspect have somewhat lower economic outcomes than the overall population, are not noticeably poorer, more disruptive, etc. than the general population.
  • None of the Italian immigrants to America owned slaves or benefited from slavery or even the Jim Crow laws of the South – particularly since the discrimination in post-bellum American not only was severely targeted at them (as the above passage gives you a glimpse of), but prevented them from freely transacting with others, namely African Americans, who had been heartily discriminated against. In other words, Italian Americans are poorer both because of the discrimination they faced and that faced by African Americans. Indeed, man of us who hail from Southern Italy are likely to have had ancestors who themselves were slaves, or something very close to it, and in the not too distant past either.
  • Given the past injustices that my family and descendants have provably suffered, I very much look forward to receiving reparations not just from one country but two!

Bovinity in the Blue Ridge. This one from Mt. Mitchell, NC. Posting will continue to be very sparse. For those of you looking for a couple of good reads, I recommend Tim Egan;s Big Burn and Greg Zuckerman’s The Frackers.

Mount Mitchell, NC

The “problem” with very tall mountains is that when you are on them, you can’t see them … the hike was superb. If you’ve ever hiked the ADK’s or parts of the Whites or Maine … hiking in the Black Mountains is nothing at all like it. Dare I say it, but hiking a 3,000 footer in the ADKs is far more grueling than a 6,600 footer in the Blacks. Both beautiful of course.


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