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Wednesday, October 3,2012

Hide and seek

by Terry Link
Even the most market crazy economist believes that for markets to work their magic there needs to be accurate information available for consumers. Joseph Stiglitz got his Nobel recognition precisely for his work affirming this bedrock principle of neo-liberal economics. I find it ironic, then, how much resistance there is from those who tell us that government is the problem when they are asked to provide information to the consuming public.

Item #1:  California voters have asked for the right to vote on a ballot proposal to simply require that food sold in their state that is from genetically modified plants or animals be so labeled. A no-brainer, you might think. Given that we really haven’t had time to understand how playing with the genetic make-up might affect our health, our ecology or, goodness, our economic inequality, it might be prudent to require those who believe in GMO’s to at least tell us that’s what they are selling us. But Monsanto, arguably the biggest winner in a GMO world, is fighting this tooth and nail. They have reportedly already spent $4.2 million to defeat this proposal. That amount does not include the almost $3 million they have spent already this year lobbying the U.S. government on this and other issues. Monsanto is joined by other behemoths, including Pepsi, Dupont, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, General Mills, ConAgra and Dow Agrosciences, in funding opposition to this proposal. Surprisingly to some, these firms own brands like Cascadian Farms, Kashi, Odwalla and other once progressive small food firms. Collectively these opponents of transparency and fair markets have expended $25 million so far this year to defeat this proposal.

Item #2: The Citizens United ruling, as predicted, has unleashed unheard of anonymous contributions to supposedly nonprofit social welfare organizations to foster political advertisements, mostly aimed at discouraging voters from voting for a particular candidate. These new organizations had spent $71 million as of Aug. 8, $15 million more than the almost-as-secretive super PACs. These slick ads that are already bombarding us are hiding the donors from the public. A special investigation conducted by Pro Publica and released on Aug. 18 highlights the shenanigans behind this movement. We have no idea who is funding these attack ads, and while spending does not always guarantee victory, it can make a huge difference.

Item #3: A report from the London-based Tax Justice Network last month noted that a minimum of $21 trillion in financial wealth (not yachts, real estate, etc.) is hidden in secret tax havens by the world’s wealthiest, of whom US citizens represent about one-third. (Mitt Romney is apparently one of them: The New York Times reports that he uses offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes.)  It is just another example of how the wealthy and powerful want to hide information from us and the taxing authorities where they live and operate.

Item #4: A newly published, detailed study by highly esteemed political scientists has clearly demonstrated that money buys influence and that the growing economic inequality we have seen has parallels in political inequality. In “The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy,” Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry E. Brady go into often excruciating detail of data to show that by almost every measure, political inequality in the U.S. is significantly higher than in other developed democracies and even in some less developed ones. As inequality grows more power is concentrated in fewer hands, and the likelihood of diminishing both economic and political inequality so that markets might work as economists hope are slim.

I just finished reading a few other books that suggest possible directions for recalibrating our communities. “Feeding People is Easy,” by British science writer Colin Tudge, is a delightful read with a poignant message — what he calls ”enlightened agriculture.” It’s the antithesis of the Monsanto/ Coca-Cola/ Nestle/ Pepsi/ Dupont/ Dow approach. You can see it in practice here when you shop at East Lansing Food Co-op, visit the Allen Street Market or other local farmers markets, or dine at restaurants like Fork in the Road that are pleased to tell you where your food comes from. They have nothing to hide. We should do our best to seek them out and support them.

(Consultant Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. He can be reached at link@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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