Ride That Pony Fast

February 27, 2011

As threatened last week, I’ve been out there riding airplanes again. It’s a little after 6:00 AM in Europe and I’m sitting in the KLM Crown Lounge in Amsterdam where I was presenting a paper called “The Fundamental Problem in Food Ethics.”

Simply put, when food prices go up—and right now they are up, up, up—it’s a good thing for farmers, but it’s a bad thing for people who have to buy food. Here in the Netherlands, (or for that matter back home in the U.S.A.) our ethical impulses are that this is, on balance, a bad thing because we assume that higher food prices hurt the poor disproportionately. And in the developed world, they do.

But globally, about half the world’s poor live in rural areas, and their quality of life is pretty closely tied to whether things are good for the farmer, even if they don’t farm themselves. And most of the farmers in the developing world are women, who have extra sources of vulnerability. So as I see it, this is actually a very hard problem. And it’s not one I have an answer for. See my blog on Norman Borlaug for someone who thought he did have an answer.

But this morning I’m asking myself, is it really worthwhile to burn all those greenhouse gases gallivanting off to Europe when I don’t have any answers? And I don’t have a good answer for that question, either. I do tend to be willing to be moving. In part I see it as my job. I was deeply honored when John McDermott, one of my heroes and mentors, recently told me “You are the face of the university, and you should be proud of what you are doing for it.”

I also learn a lot at these events, but there’s also just this idea that it is thrilling and challenging to get out there in front of people, working without a net. As Radney Foster says in his song “Texas in 1880”:

I can hear the wind whisper my name
Tellin’ me it’s time to head out again
My horses are trailered and the lights are shutdown
I’m long overdue for headin’ outta town
Gotta fever that they call the rodeo
Just enough winners and make the next show
Sometimes you make eight sometimes you hit dirt
Go on pin another number to the back of my shirt
And I’ll ride that pony fast
Like a cowboy from the past
Be young and wild and free
Like Texas in 1880

On “Song Facts” Foster says that he doesn’t actually think of this as a rodeo song: “…it’s just about people who are willing to sacrifice everything for a dream. And I think dreams are worth sacrificing heart and soul, and poverty and all kinds of other things that we put up with or sacrifice in order to obtain them.” Well, I still don’t know about sacrificing everything here. I’m not sure this rationalizes my getting on an Airbus overnight to Amsterdam to talk about food ethics, and I’m also afraid that this makes today’s blog another one of those with flat out wacky juxtapositions. But enjoy your sandwich, anyway. Pin another number on the back of your shirt and don’t let the bastards get you down.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Enjoy Every Sandwich

February 20, 2011

I just spent about forty-five minutes trying to figure out how to open the package for my new Sony digital noise-canceling headphones, and before that I broke a pair of scissors trying to get my new ratcheting screwdriver out of its plastic encasement. The headphones were a Christmas present (kind of a Christmas present to myself, if I were to be totally candid, but why would I be?). I’m just now getting into them because I don’t actually have a big call for headphones in my life. Oh, sure. I put on some ear buds when I go over to the gym to walk on the treadmill, but if you’ve ever seen these Sony bad boys you would know why you wouldn’t be using something as gargantuan and slick on the treadmill. I mean they are some honkin’ headphones. That’s probably how they should market them: Sony Honkin’ Headphones. (I wonder if I can copyright that?)

Well, more to the point, I haven’t gotten into these honkin’ headphones since Christmas because I really only need noise-canceling headphones if I’m going to be on an airplane for more than two hours straight. Not that I’m going anywhere immediately, but I’m starting to think about it. I know lots of people that will spend days or even weeks packing for a trip. I’m actually pretty good about doing it in twenty minutes, but I’d actually rather allow at least a couple of hours. But with new honkin’ headphones, who knows how long it make take to get these titans of the road ready for battle. Like, I take them out of the box and it turns out that it will take three hours to charge them. Who knew? And while you’re at it, bub, charge that i-pod, too.

Now in the spirit of my last two blogs, readers may be putting on their symbologist hats, trying to decode the food connection so far. “Let’s see, is it the gym/treadmill thing? Maybe this one’s about food and obesity?”  Actually that’s a good guess. I should do a blog about food and obesity. Wait a minute! I think i did do a blog on diet and obesity… But no, the main thing here was actually not the gym or the fact that it takes three hours to charge a new pair of Sony honkin’ headphones (the same amount of time it takes to roast a small turkey, for those who are not avid Dan Brown readers and are not hip to the symbology jive).  And no, there’s no real deeply embedded poultry riff going on here, either. The main thing that set me off was packaging. Just like you never know how long it’s going to take to get your new high tech gear ready for deployment at 10,000 feet, you never know how many hours, what devious symboligical puzzles you must decode, or what power tools you will have to jump into the car and head down to Home Depot and buy simply to get it out of the box.

And when it comes to headphones, I am definitely an out of the box type of guy. Sure those headphones have been fine sitting there in the box since December, but now their time has come. I’ve noticed the same thing about food. It’s fine for it to stay in the package until I’m ready to eat it, but it is much more enjoyable, and probably more nutritious if it is removed from the layers of Styrofoam, Plasticine, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, Celluloid, polytetrafluoroethylene, phthalates, aluminum, polyethylene terephthalate and cardboard that surround it when it comes from the grocery store. (Actually, some of these are out of date for food packaging and there’s never been any Plasticine used in food packages that I know of, but it’s so much fun to say!) One of the great things about the Thornapple CSA is that the wonderful veggies we will be getting again before you know it have never been packaged at all! I think this is great, and that it’s good for the environment, too. But I halfway expect that somebody somewhere in a college of agriculture has written an academic paper showing that these industrial packages actually lower global emissions of greenhouse gasses, especially when you include the emissions from Diane driving her Vibe out to Appleschram farm every other day.

Which just goes to show that whatever we do, we’re probably doing ourselves in somehow. And that takes me back to the title of this week’s blog, which is a quote from the late Warren Zevon. Zevon gave foodies these immortal lines:

I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
walkin through the streets of Soho in the rain.
He was lookin for the place called Lee Ho Fooks, gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein.

Zevon died in 2003. He uttered the immortal admonition to “Enjoy every sandwich,” in response to a question from David Letterman as to what lessons he had taken from his diagnosis of mesothelioma. And I would add that to do this, you should also be sure to take it out of the bag.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Walk Like an Egyptian

February 13, 2011

So in honor of last week’s events, I’m devoting a few minutes to salute the forces of freedom and democracy, and I’m starting out with The Bangles. Here would be their thoughts on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s sudden about face early Friday after stalling for weeks, while growing throngs demonstrated in Tahrir Square (and elsewhere):

Foreign types with the hookah pipes say
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian

Blonde waitresses take their trays
They spin around and they cross the floor
They’ve got the moves (oh whey oh)
You drop your drink then they bring you more

Mubarak (محمد حسني سيد مبارك) came into power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Prior to that he had been a pilot in the Egyptian Air Force. I heard another figure from the distant past, Zbigniew Brzezinski, speculating that because of this history, Mubarak would be the last person to give up power without a fight.  Today, pundits are speculating as to whether a) the rise of democracy in Egypt will tend toward a breakdown in relations with the U.S. and an end to the peace that Brzezinski helped broker in his capacity as Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor back in 1977, and b) whether other Arab states (e.g. Saudi Arabia) will interpret President Obama’s support of the revolutionaries as a cowardly failure to support America’s oldest and most faithful ally among Arab leaders.

In answer to the second question, I think the Bangles may have had it right:

All the school kids so sick of books
They like the punk and the metal band
When the buzzer rings (oh whey oh)
They’re walking like an Egyptian

All the kids in the marketplace say
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian

By which I mean that it’s hard to fault the advice of Mudhead from The Firesign Theater. In the absence of any better plan, “Find a bunch of guys that dress alike and follow them around.” Democracy is supposed to be what we’re about, after all, and here was a case where the Wikileaks cables from the U.S. Embassy showed that we have been bugging the Egyptian government about these reforms for a long, long time.

As for the food connection that makes all the above relevant, I can, again, return to the Bangles:

Slide your feet up the street bend your back
Shift your arm then you pull it back
Life is hard you know (oh whey oh)
So strike a pose on a Cadillac

If you want to find all the cops
They’re hanging out in the donut shop
They sing and dance (oh whey oh)
Spin the clubs cruise down the block

Actually this is Liam Sternberg, who wrote “Walk Like an Egyptian.” As usual, there is an incredibly informative article about the song on Wikipedia. It’s kind of amazing what we human beings spend our time on. I’d like to thank John Zilmer for rationalizing the food connection in last week’s blog. Let’s see what he can do with this one. Waitresses dropping drinks? Cops eating donuts? It just goes to show that it all comes down to what we eat.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Tax the Poor

February 6, 2011

I was sitting on the patio at Ninfa’s on Navigation last week enjoying a margarita and stuffing my face with the fabulous chips and salsa when it occurred to me how unrelentingly serious this blog has become in 2011. It was about 72° on the patio but those feisty Texans had the space heaters lit. Hey, it was dark at 8:30 in the evening, and you don’t sit around in the dark during the middle of the winter without some heat on. So I ordered some fajitas and a Shiner bock and paid for it with my credit card. I said to myself, “Self, you are Taxed Enough Already. How are you going to be able to fly down to Texas for fajitas and Shiner bock alfresco after the big budget crunch busts the Michigan budget?”

This was actually a rhetorical question because I was able to fly down to Texas this year because Texas A&M University wanted to tease out my thoughts on their shiny new genomics and society initiative. I had been Director of the Center for Biotechnology Policy and Ethics when I was on the faculty at Texas A&M in the 1990s, but the Aggies in their infinite wisdom and had decided to close the joint when I pulled up stakes for Purdue in 1997. So the invitation to go down and share my thoughts on their genomics and society initiative was not only a way to get some tasty fajitas and a cold Shiner bock in the dead of winter (not to mention seeing my daughter and her husband) but it was a fantastic chance to gloat as well. Being the gloating fool that I am, this was a chance I simply could not pass up, so I was right on that plane, carbon credits be damned.

But this really has very little do to the Michigan state budget, which will quite certainly affect all of us at Michigan State University for the worse over the coming year. Fortunately, I have come up with a plan that will get us out of this fix. And not just Michigan State University, but all of those Taxed Enough Already Michiganders who ride airplanes and pay for beer with their credit cards. I got the inspiration for this plan from the Democrat Party back in December. Remember back when they were so wrought up about “rescinding the Bush tax cuts”? The idea was that they would put taxes back up to the level they had been before a tax cut the Republicans had put in way back in 2001 and 2003. The GOP was not letting them get away with this for a second, insisting LOUDLY that this Democrat plan was a tax increase. Of course nobody in the U.S. Congress had the gall to pass a tax increase at Christmas, so rich folks needn’t worry ‘bout their taxes going up any time soon. And hey, I’m just as Taxed Enough Already as the next fellow.

But now it’s occurred to me that maybe the Democrat Party was on to something. If it’s NOT a tax increase when we simply put tax rates back where they were sometime in the distant past, us folks here in Michigan have a golden opportunity. We can raise a whole boatload of state revenue by “rescinding” that Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that Jennifer Granholm and a surprisingly bipartisan state legislature extended to people on the low end of the personal income ladder. What a break for those of us who are Taxed Enough Already! Apparently these slackers at the low end ARE NOT TAXED ENOUGH. And hey, just because these people are going to pay on average an extra $400 in taxes next year, this isn’t a tax increase ! We know that for a fact because the Republicans say that it isn’t a tax increase, and we can trust the Republicans to know a tax increase when they see one.

What a brilliant plan! We close the budget gap on the backs of some of our poorest working families, people who apparently don’t want or need to ride airplanes or pay for beer and fajitas on their credit card, AND we are able to keep the pledge to do so without raising taxes ! And although these people are not contributing to the Michigan economy like I do by ordering beer and fajitas down in Texas, let’s not have any of that standard party line jive about class warfare. We’re not trying to SCREW THE POOR. The people we are trying screw have jobs. The EITC is an earned income credit, after all.

So I know, I know, the food connection in this blog is pretty weak, but I think I did manage to mention beer and fajitas a number of times. And for those of you readers who are not locals, I must tell you that my brilliant idea is actually not original. There are people in Michigan state government who are considering this seriously.

So much for my feeble attempts at humor.

Paul B. Thompson does not qualify for the Michigan EITC