Mark Lynas repudiates the anti-genetically modified crops movement

This is a blockbuster speech – in the link, there is a video of Mark Lynas making a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference confessing that he’s been quite wrong on opposing genetically modified crops for reasons of not much more than being obstinately anti-science/progress.

It’s an incredible eye opener, and peaks the hopes that environmentalists who deride others for being anti-science when it comes to climate change indulge in some humility and take a good look at if they themselves are being anti-science in another sphere (anti-GMO).

Mark Lynas – Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.

When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.

These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.

This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.

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Why the Apple iPhone isn’t manufactured in the United States of America

Today the New York Times has a long article that essentially investigates why Apple and other hardware companies manufacture their wares abroad. The pat answer of “because it’s cheaper” is certainly accurate, but the piece also touches upon the reasons of a lack of worker flexibility, a lack of an appropriately skilled population, uneven support via subsidies from government, and a supply chain that just isn’t available in North America anymore.

New York Times – Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class

Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas, a small fraction of the over 400,000 American workers at General Motors in the 1950s, or the hundreds of thousands at General Electric in the 1980s. Many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products.

But almost none of them work in the United States. Instead, they work for foreign companies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, at factories that almost all electronics designers rely upon to build their wares.

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

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What if middle-class jobs disappear?

I don’t believe this piece offers us new insight on the turmoil in labour markets today, but I think it does a good job of summarizing the why’s and touching on possible outcomes. One interesting note I’ve read before and again here: Holders of undergraduate degrees had their wages fall more (by percentage) than even those with only a high school diploma. That says something about the type of job displacement occurring.

The American – What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?

There are two widely circulated narratives to explain what is going on. The Keynesian narrative is that there has been a major drop in aggregate demand. According to this narrative, the slump can be largely cured by using monetary and fiscal stimulus.

The main anti-Keynesian narrative is that businesses are suffering from uncertainty and over-regulation. According to this narrative, the slump can be cured by having the government commit to and follow a more hands-off approach.

I want to suggest a third interpretation. Without ruling out a role for aggregate demand or for the regulatory environment, I wish to suggest that structural change is an important factor in the current rate of high unemployment. The economy is in a state of transition, in which the middle-class jobs that emerged after World War II have begun to decline.

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Leadership secrets of Kim Jong Il: The infantilization of North Korea

One of the questions I’ve seen being asked today as a result of Kim Jong Il’s death this Saturday was, “Why would you only show footage of a bunch of crying people. Sure, crying is fine, but aren’t you going to have some people talking the leaders up and saying some words of praise? How does showing endless tears make you remember your leader more?”

My answer to this is that showing footage of North Koreans in severe emotional distress is specifically done in order to reinforce the infantilization of the North Korean populace. A key tenet of the North Korean propaganda machine is to portray the now deceased Dear Leader, and the State, as the ultimate father figure. This isn’t my own analysis but the work of a number of others:

The Atlantic – Mother of All Mothers

Kim Il Sung’s title Eobeoi Suryeong means not “Fatherly Leader”—a common rendering that encourages Martin to exaggerate the influence of Confucianism on the personality cult—but “Parent Leader,” the most feminine title the regime could get away with. As the country’s visual arts make clear, Kim was more a mother to his people than a stern Confucian patriarch: he is still shown as soft-cheeked and solicitous, holding weeping adults to his expansive bosom, bending down to tie a young soldier’s bootlaces, or letting giddy children clamber over him.

The tradition continues under Kim Jong Il, who has been called “more of a mother than all the mothers in the world.” His military-first policy may come with the title of general, but reports of his endless tour of army bases focus squarely on his fussy concern for the troops’ health and comfort. The international ridicule of his appearance is thus as unfair as it is tedious. Anyone who has seen a crowd of Korean mothers waiting outside an examination hall will have no difficulty recognizing Kim’s drab parka and drooping shoulders, or the long-suffering face under the pillow-swept perm: this is a mother with no time to think of herself.

When it comes to the Workers’ Party, the symbolism is even more explicit, as in this recent propaganda poem:

Ah, Korean Workers’ Party, at whose
breast only
My life begins and ends
Be I buried in the ground or strewn
to the wind
I remain your son, and again return to
your breast!
Entrusting my body to your
affectionate gaze,
Your loving outstretched hand,
I cry out forever in the voice of a child,
Mother! I can’t live without Mother!

It’s easy to imagine what Carl Jung would have made of all this, and he would have been right. Whereas Father Stalin set out to instill revolutionary consciousness into the masses (to make them grow up, in other words), North Korea’s Mother Regime appeals to the emotions of a systematically infantilized people. Although the propaganda may seem absurd at a remove, it speaks more forcefully to the psyche than anything European communism could come up with. As a result, North Korea’s political culture has weathered the economic collapse so well that even refugees remain loyal to the memory of Kim Il Sung.

It would appear that Kim knows just enough. The border with China remains so porous that even children often sneak back and forth, and yet no more than three or four percent of the population has chosen to flee for good. The regime obviously did the smart thing by publicly acknowledging the food shortage and then blaming it on American sanctions, instead of pretending there was no food shortage at all, as Stalin used to do.

The Dear Leader has also deftly exploited the tradition according to which Koreans care for their parents in old age: the masses are told that it is their job to feed him, not the other way around, and his famed diet of “whatever the troops are eating” is routinely invoked to shame everyone into working harder. Never has a dictator been such an object of pity to his people, or such a powerful source of guilt. In 2003 North Korean cheerleaders, living it up on a rare visit to a sports event in the South, responded to a rain-soaked picture of Kim by bursting into a hysterical lament that baffled their hosts.

Kim must also be aware that the infantilization of the people has come at a price. Away from Pyongyang’s carefully monitored tourist sites, North Korea is a much more raucous place than any dictator could be comfortable with. “One surprising thing,” Michael Breen writes in Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader (2004), “surprising because you expect robots, is … how frequently fights break out.” According to refugees, even women fight out their differences, and young female teachers are said to hit children the hardest.

This lack of restraint is a problem for many North Koreans trying to adjust to life in the South. Social workers complain that the refugees pick fights with strangers, and storm off jobs on the first day. “I’d have thought they’d be better at controlling themselves, coming from a socialist system,” is a common lament.

The Jane Jacobs theory of “import replacement”

In previous days I’ve argued that having a strong industrial/manufacturing base isn’t as important to a nation as it once was. But lately I’ve wondered if a loss of that base has greater implications than we think. I’m not a Jacobs devotee like many urban-minded Torontonians are, but I did think that this summation of her theory of “import replacement” is a very good explanation for why we may want manufacturing to stick around.

The Millions – Fifty Years On: Jane Jacobs and the Rebirth of New York

Why did a city like New York recover when a city like Detroit, which had a more durable industrial base, fell into blight and decay? The answer, Jacobs argues in The Economy of Cities, turns on the ability of a city’s inhabitants to innovate. Cities grow, she says, through a process she calls “import replacement.” This occurs when local tradesmen produce for themselves the goods and services they had previously been importing and then use the skills learned from this local production to create new products, which they can then export in great bulk.

Detroit, she notes, began as a port for shipping flour across the Great Lakes. Soon, local manufacturers were building their own steamships to make the lake crossings and got so good at it they began making ocean-going ships for use in other cities. This not only put money into local coffers, but supported the dozens of local engine-parts makers Henry Ford drew upon when he founded the Ford Motor Company.

But here’s the rub: the auto industry was so successful that once Ford arrived at his greatest innovation, the assembly line, the industry so dominated Detroit’s economy that there was no local market for further innovation, and, as Jacobs points out, it was only a matter of time before another city – in this case, cities in Japan – improved upon Ford’s ideas and made better, cheaper cars.

The Economy of Cities came out four years before the gas crisis that set Detroit’s long tailspin in motion, but it eerily predicts the dilemma the city faces today, in which a moribund auto industry, out-innovated by foreign competitors, had to be bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer to avoid collapse.

Like Detroit, New York began as a port city, but in New York’s case a principal byproduct of its shipping trade was a robust banking industry, which survived the city’s manufacturing collapse. Even as New York was begging for a bailout from the federal government in the mid-1970s, young hotshots like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, many of them children and grandchildren of immigrants who had filled the ghettos earlier in the century, were inventing new ways to own and finance large companies. Think of all the financial innovations of the last thirty years: junk bonds, hedge funds, leveraged buyouts, asset-backed securities, credit derivatives, subprime mortgage markets, and on and on.

Yes, bankers are evil, and, yes, the banking industry required a federal bailout even larger than that of the auto industry’s, but like it or not, New York is the safest large city in America, with a vital private sector and a buoyant real estate market, largely because the living, breathing organism we call Wall Street has spent the last thirty years innovating its way out of obsolescence.

Ideas for how to put the unemployed back to work

On my commute to the office yesterday I saw a link to a feature being run by The Atlantic called The Great Jobs Debate: Ideas for how to put the unemployed back to work. In their words, they’ve “brought together some of the top minds in business, government, and the world of ideas, each to answer the same question: What is the single best thing Washington can do to jumpstart job creation?”

There are some good ideas and some bad ideas, mostly depending on what your personal ideology is. Personally, I thought these two were great:

Megan McArdle: Create a Special Job Credit for the Long-Term Unemployed

How to get employers to hire people who have already been out of work for too long? Traditional government solutions like job training have an absolutely dismal record. The only government solution to long-term unemployment we’ve ever found was to have World War II, and for various reasons, we’re probably not going to reauthorize that particular program.

One suggestion is to give them direct incentives to choose the long-term unemployed over those who are already in work, or out of work for only a short time. How? We could exempt new hires from both the employee and the employer sides of the payroll tax, one month for every month that they were unemployed.

The result is a direct wage subsidy of more than 10%. But it is a time-limited subsidy, and one carefully targeted to those who need it the most. By the time the tax relief expires, these workers will have been reintegrated into the labor force. This will cost the government something of course–but not nearly as much as supporting them on welfare, disability, or early retirement–or the prison system.

Mike Haynie: Unlock Capital for Small Business

The United States should create a national microlending program positioned to provide ready access to capital to small business. It is widely acknowledged that small business represents the engine of job creation in this country. Small business accounts for approximately 50 percent of all private-sector jobs, and roughly 70 percent of all new jobs created in the past decade.

In today’s environment, banks have much less incentive to extend a traditional small-business loan ($5,000 to $25,000), because the relationship between the transaction costs associated with processing that loan and the return on that investment to the bank often doesn’t make economic sense. It’s all about opportunity cost.

For example, consider that the transaction costs associated with processing a $10,000 loan to a small business and a $5 million loan to a large business are roughly the same. Also recognize that the return on investment to the bank (that is, the interest paid on the loan) increases proportionally with the size of the loan–the larger the loan, the more interest income generated relative to the “cost” of issuing and servicing the loan. Therefore, whether you are a large public bank with a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders or a small credit union responsible to its membership, there is an incentive to focus on larger and thus more profitable loans. Banks are in business to make a profit.

Research highlights that most small businesses, especially over the first five years of operation, require only small and incremental infusions of capital to sustain positive growth. A national microlending program positioned to provide capital infusions of $1,000-$20,000 to small business–created as a partnership between government and community-based lenders–would represent an compelling channel for small businesses to access start-up and growth capital.

Diversity makes us uncomfortable

I’ve heard people reference this study a number of times recently and finally decided to track it down. For an expanded explanation of Mr. Putnam’s findings, see his article E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century. – The downside of diversity

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

“The extent of the effect is shocking,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation’s social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam’s research predicts.

“We can’t ignore the findings,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The big question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we do about it; what are the next steps?”

The study is part of a fascinating new portrait of diversity emerging from recent scholarship. Diversity, it shows, makes us uncomfortable — but discomfort, it turns out, isn’t always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem. Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches. At the same time, though, Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.

What industries contribute to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions?

Came across this World Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 2005 infographic by the World Resources Institute.

Court: Employees have a right to privacy, even on their employer-provided BlackBerry/laptop

Didn’t seem this coming, but it appears to be an entirely sensible decision. Personal use of workplace-provided devices is bound to creep in, and privacy laws should take that into consideration.

The Globe And Mail – Computer ruling seen as landmark workplace decision

In what is being called a landmark decision, a Ontario court this week ruled that employees have a right to privacy for material contained on a work computer.

The judgment from the Ontario Court of Appeal … agreed with a trial judge that by giving tech devices to employees, along with permission to take them home on evenings and vacations, the employer gave “explicit permission to use the laptops for personal use.”

The ruling has significant implications for workers who use electronic devices including cell phones for personal purposes – “which is pretty well everyone” – as well as employers who might like to keep tabs on employee use of tech devices, said Frank Addario, of Sack, Goldblatt, Mitchell LLP, who argued the appeal for defendant Richard Cole.

“A big issue here is the tradeoff that employers expect employees to make,” Mr. Addario said. “If they want their employees to be available 24/7 and are giving them BlackBerrys and PCs to contact them outside of business hours, it is inevitable that people are going to use those devices on their personal time as well as business time. That’s an inevitable consequence of asking people to be on call beyond eight hours a day,” he said.

“That means artifacts of personal, private life are going to get left on the electronic devices, regardless of who paid for them,” Mr. Addario said. And the court is saying that employers are going to have to respect that these are the employee’s private property, he said.

“I would call the court of appeal finding a seismic shift in the way privacy rights are dealt with in the workplace,” said Daniel Lublin, a lawyer with Whitten & Lublin LLP in Toronto.

“Until now most people generally assumed there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in work computers, and that would extend to work e-mail and Internet use,” he noted. “The court has now resoundingly said that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in work technology that leaves the office.”

Study: All net job growth in the U.S. since 1977 has come from startups

There was an interesting piece in the HBR blogs a few days ago that was written in response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech – specifically, the part about job creation. The author takes note of how job creation in since 1977 has been entirely due to startups, but that the President’s go-to crew for ideas on how to foster growth consist of all the wrong people for the job.

Harvard Business Review: Looking for Jobs in All the Wrong Places: Memo to the President

According to a recent study by the Kauffman Foundation, for example, all net job growth in the U.S. since 1977 has been due to start-ups. The data show that if you took start-ups out of the picture and looked only at large established firms, job growth in the U.S. over the last 34 years would actually be negative.

“When it comes to U.S. job growth,” said Kauffman Foundation economist Tim Kane in his report, “start-up companies aren’t everything. They’re the only thing.”

In your address last night, Mr. President, you correctly noted that, “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.” Here, too, start-ups are the driving engine of our nation’s global innovation leadership.

It is startups who have generated virtually all of our nation’s major technological breakthroughs in the last hundred years — from cars and planes to semiconductors, PCs, software, and the Internet — and in the process sparked the creation of whole new industries and millions of new jobs. And as economists have demonstrated, this kind of start-up-led innovation is the source of virtually all economic growth and increases in living standards in the U.S.

In other words, Mr. President, everything depends upon start-ups: Job creation. Our standard of living. Our prosperity as a nation. The American Dream itself.

So if the target of national policy is job creation, then the bullseye of that policy must be centered on startups. Yet policy makers in both parties continue to aim at the wrong target.

Last month, Mr. President, you held a summit meeting with 20 of the nation’s top CEOs to look for ways to spur job creation. But Fortune 100 CEOs are exactly the wrong people to talk to about jobs. Big Business is not a major job creator. Indeed, as one commentator put it, the guest list at this summit meeting represented “a who’s who of outsourcing American jobs.”