Protecting us from ourselves

14 December, 2006

A friend of mine who has recently become an expectant father, found out that he needed to find out his blood type. For those not aware there can be complications if the mother has an RH negative blood type and the baby has RH positive. The complications can be avoided by some injections, but are also unnecessary if the father is also RH negative as the baby will then always be RH negative as well and there is no risk of reaction. This is the case with my wife and I who are both RH negative.

So anyhow, to avoid unnecessary treatment my friend decided to get his blood type determined only to turn up and discover that they were unable to obtain this simple test without a referral from a doctor, which would of course require an appointment and cash.

Annoyed at this waste of resources he sent off an email to a number of friends, several of whom are medical doctors, complaining bitterly at the waste of his time, his money and the government’s money that was involved in this process.

My immediate (and deliberately provocative) response was that it was due to the closed shop that doctors were running where everything has to be processed by one of the union and I think there is certainly something in that. However I want to explore the response from the doctors.
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Food politics

8 December, 2006

An interesting piece in The Economist discussing issues around, organic food, fair trade and ideas about embedded energy, or food miles. Some of these topics I’ve mentioned in earlier posts.

On the claim organic food is better for the environment:

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food… The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

On fair trade coffee:

The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium—in effect, a subsidy—both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist” (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place…

But perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers. Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.

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Hypocrisy, relativism and the Diamond Age

8 November, 2006

Hypocrisy is a poorly regarded activity as Ted Haggard, a US pastor who has admitted to having gay sex could tell you. Criticism and focus of most stories about this case has concentrated mostly on his anti-gay views and the inherent hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is defined as “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion”. While it’s clear that Haggard hasn’t met the virtuous standards he has espoused it’s also not clear that he is feigning his belief in those standards. People following their instincts rather than doing what they believe is right is not uncommon.

A passage in Neal Stephenson’s SF book The Diamond Age, has an interesting take on hypocrisy espoused by one of characters, one of the leaders of a group known as “Neo-Victorians”.

You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? … Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy. Read the rest of this entry »


Is big more ethical than small?

12 October, 2006

Its common to portray large multinational corporations as selfishly concerned with the bottom line and willing to trample over environmental and ethical concerns in the quest for the dollar. So I’ve been interested to read some people solidly on the left/environmental side make the point that this ignores the fact that they are also often exposed to disproportionately large risks to their reputation, which may make them behave more ethically than their smaller regional counterparts who don’t face the same scrutiny.

Peter Singer in his book The Ethics Of What We Eat, gives qualified support for McDonalds over most small take away food companies on the basis of their higher ethical standards. This article in The Guardian sums up the essence of his message:

Singer’s arguments are a challenge to knee-jerk antiglobalisation campaigners for whom McDonald’s is an unmitigated evil. Trapped in a small town and forced to choose an independent takeaway or the golden arches, Singer would plump for the latter (as his book points out, in the US, McDonald’s has insisted its eggs come from hens given more space than the legal minimum, among other “ethical” innovations). “The fact that a big chain has a national and international reputation to protect means they need to be a bit more cautious about what they are doing than someone who has no brand and is not going to suffer from any kind of disclosure,” he says.

Similarly Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse that some large mining companies were much more ethical in their behaviour than smaller companies were. Small mining companies may not outlast their mine and go broke leaving a large mess for the public to clean up. Larger companies with reputation and on going business to protect may perform better on ethical and environmental grounds, cleaning up messes and generally putting considerable effort into minimizing environmental impact.
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The ethics of what we eat – Part III

2 September, 2006

In the earlier parts of this I discussed what I see as the problems with the book from an Australian perspective and my discussion of the issues they have with factory farming.

The later sections of the book concentrate on “conscientious omnivores”, essentially people who still eat meat but make a conscious effort to buy such things as “free range”, “organic” and “locally grown” produce. Then finally, veganism.

Firstly they discuss the fact that many of the labels that indicate humanely grown or similar produce are not probably what they expect. In some cases only very token efforts have been made to gain these labels. I didn’t find this unexpected. Whatever the system is people will be trying to game it for their own advantage.

On the other hand they visit a number of farms that do practice legitimate free range production, and as expected, the animals have happier lives. We’ll never really know how much happier but pretty clearly happier. In the low density flocks many of the practices that are routine for factory farms such as debeaking chickens and tail docking pigs are not necessary.
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The Ethics of What We Eat – part II

20 August, 2006

In the first part of this I dicussed what I saw as shortcomings from an Australian perspective, here I’ll actually discuss the book.

The book itself it is divided into roughly three sections, the first being a typical American family, who on analysis eat food that mostly comes from “factory farms”. The second family are “conscientious omnivores”, they are more discriminating the father is vegetarian and the meat that is bought is mostly free range. They also purchase on the basis on such concepts as buying locally, fair trade and organic food. The third family are vegan family, their main ethical concerns are about avoiding GM eating organic food and the question of whether it is ethical to raise children as vegans.

The attempt is made to trace where the food they purchase in each situation comes from, how that food is produced and what are the effects of producing it.
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The Ethics of What We Eat – Part I

15 August, 2006

I’ve just finished reading “The Ethics of What We Eat” by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (apparently called “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” in the US). Not the sort of thing I usually read, but I was offered it by a vegetarian friend of mine who thought it would turn you off eating meat. I thought I might as well read it and, if the arguments really were that persuasive, well so be it (not likely but I would give it a go). Anyway what I have to say about it was getting long so I am cutting it into a few pieces so I actually get it out.

My wife commented that if someone sees you reading this book they’ll think you are a vegan (and possibly smelly), and I think she’s right. It’s a bit sad that people will assume that you read to confirm your beliefs rather than challenge them, but its probably what people mostly do. Certainly when I searched for reviews it seems that they are mostly done by people sympathetic to the general thrust of the arguments.

Over all I enjoyed the book, although I have numerous objections. In general I think the ethical logic is pretty well argued, its just I’m starting from some different precepts. I’ll come right out now and say it hasn’t convinced me to stop eating meat, but perhaps in one or two issues has swayed me a little into thinking about what food I should buy. In the end though I just plain disagree with the authors on the degree we should care about animal’s welfare. I value the suffering of the cow I eat my way through every 5-6 years less than my enjoyment of eating meat. Sounds a little heartless but I’ll elaborate later on.
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