Sunday, June 01, 2014

With great power comes great responsibility

I'm a Spiderman fan. I used to actually buy and read the comics in my 20s. I enjoyed the sardonic and witty conversation that Spiderman made with his adversaries - Peter Parker has a very different attitude behind a mask. But there is a great principle that I learned from the origins of Spiderman, something that has been shown in the original television series with Ralph Bakshi as director.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the origins of Spiderman, the first episode is instructive of how we came to know Spiderman. I don't want to spoil that for people new to Spiderman or unfamiliar with the origins of the character. But I feel it safe to share one of the lessons that Peter Parker learned early on with his new spider-like powers: with great power comes great responsibility.

Every politician acknowledges this principle in public discourse. Unfortunately, they are not always so quick to practice this principle in political action. It is sad to see my country being run by men and women who are willfully ignorant of the connection between the power of their benefactors, contributors to their next election campaign, and the responsibilities those same benefactors refuse to bear.

The examples range far and wide, from the economic collapse of 2008 to illegal coal ash dumping, unless called upon their transgressions, American businesses are more concerned about their power than their responsibilities.

Probably the most interesting case in point is Monsanto. Here is a massive corporation, just dripping with economic and political power, unwilling to acknowledge the connection between their power and their responsibilities.

Monsanto is the maker of the Round-Up herbicide and their genetically modified crops that are "Round-Up-Ready", the most famous of which (if you're a farmer), is their soybeans. It is estimated that 90% of the soy on the market today is "Round-Up-Ready". But you won't see any labeling on food that uses "Round-Up-Ready" soybeans. Monsanto fears that if there is a label, you won't buy the food made from their soybeans.

Round-Up, as you may already be aware, is a very potent and effective weed killer. If you watch sports on the weekend during the summer months, you are bound to see advertising for it. Many a man has faced a battle with the weeds in the garden, flowerbed or lawn. Round-Up is the preferred product to use in those battles. But it is also used by the farmers in America. The problem is how to to kill the weeds without killing the crops. Genetically modified organisms are the answer. We call them GMOs for short.

Monsanto has patents on the gene sequence that makes their GMO crops resistant to Round-Up. This has been popular with farmers because they can now use more weed killer on their crops and that increases their profits. This is a great business model for Monsanto, but just terrible for the consumer.

First off, no one really knows for sure how safe these crops are, at least, not if you work for the Food and Drug Administration. You might actually know, but you're not supposed to say anything in public without prior authorization. When pressed on the safety of the resulting crops, Monsanto will direct us to the FDA. The FDA will direct us to Monsanto. Lucky for Monsanto, they have allies working for them in the FDA, some appointed by Obama himself.

Monsanto has been fighting every effort to require labeling of their crops because they know for sure that people won't buy them. Monsanto needs ignorant consumers to support their market power. Is that the free market in action? I don't think so. Several states have passed laws requiring their products to be labeled at the consumer level so that consumers know what they're buying. Consumers from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support labeling of genetically modified organisms in food. Yet Congress has refused to act as advocate for the consumer on this issue. That's because Monsanto is handing money to both political parties for protection.

You know, like the Monsanto Protection Act. The very act that Obama signed last week. Despite all of his campaign promises. I wonder how his wife, Michelle, feels about that.

Second, crops resistant to Round-Up encourage farmers to use more Round-Up rather than less. This is happening in soybeans and corn, and the weed killer is showing up in our blood and in breast milk. Our babies are ingesting weed killer thanks to Monsanto.

Lastly, the environmental effects of Round-Up-Ready crops are hard to calculate. We don't know or understand the network effects on the environment. We do know that Monsanto has been filing lawsuits left and right to protect their precious patents. First, they sued farmers who saved their seeds after the harvest, a practice that goes back to the beginning of agriculture. Second, they sued farmers with crops contaminated with pollen from GMO crops. This is adding insult to injury.

In the end, the courts, and the Congress are protecting an entity that refuses to label their products, will not take responsibility for injuries to people who eat their products and will not acknowledge environmental damage resulting from their products. Monsanto has great power, but refuses to take responsibility for that power, aided and abetted by a political system that encourages this sort of behavior.

We live in a country ruled by men and women who think that health care is not a right, that tax breaks to corporations are more important than extending unemployment benefits, that increasing funding for prisons is more important than education, and that winning the next election is more important than doing what is right. Not only are our priorities backward, we are rewarding corporations for irresponsible behavior and protecting them from the consequences of their mistakes at the expense of everyone else. All of this is because the wealthiest people in the country believe that money is speech.

Fortunately, there is hope. To prove the point that money is not speech, noted copyright lawyer, Larry Lessig has created a superPAC for the people. If money is speech, then we're going to have to pay the ransom to get our country back. This superPAC can help a few politicians out of office when they refuse to acknowledge that money is not speech. Let's see if we can use this fund to remind politicians that with great power comes great responsibility.

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