Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sunday roundup and branding -- the Gazette, and beyond...

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A COOL idea: Would country of origin labelling (COOL) prevent the kinds of tainted food issues that America has recently experienced? Strictly speaking, no, since any producer can process food poorly or use unsafe additives. The difference is that when one consumes locally produced food, there are recourses -- the more local the source, the more personal and effective the sanctions that can be applied by consumers to food producers and processors.

There are those who blame the tainted food supply from China on an insufficiently gargantuan U.S. army of food inspectors. A much simpler solution is to consume goods produced as locally as possible -- there is no law preventing that, and there is no law preventing local producers from proudly labeling their goods accordingly. If consumers vote with their dollars and preferentially use foods from local sources, a healthier food supply and a healthier local economy results.

There are problems with a top-down COOL program, including cost and hassle factors, so such issues need to be taken into account, but the ups outweigh the downs for everyone -- eventually even the grocers and food processors who are now opposing COOL, since there will be more satisfied consumers.

The death penalty reduces murders: In one of the more interesting developments in the death penalty argument, recent academic research has apparently shown that the death penalty does reduce murders (18 fewer murders as a result of each execution, according to one Emory University study, fewer according to other studies -- but fewer in every study.)

A disturbing outbreak of intellectual honesty has taken place in some corners of the academic world:

"Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it," said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. "The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect."

A 2003 study he co-authored, and a 2006 study that re-examined the data, found that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. "The results are robust, they don't really go away," he said. "I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) - what am I going to do, hide them?"

Predictable reactions of outrage at this particular inconvenient truth have ensued, some of it personally directed at the academics doing the research. Unlike scientists who proclaim another supposedly inconvenient truth (global warming,) the researchers involved welcome academic debate on the data and its interpretation:

Several authors of the pro-deterrent reports said they welcome criticism in the interests of science, but said their work is being attacked by opponents of capital punishment for their findings, not their flaws.

"Instead of people sitting down and saying 'let's see what the data shows,' it's people sitting down and saying 'let's show this is wrong,'" said Paul Rubin, an economist and co-author of an Emory University study. "Some scientists are out seeking the truth, and some of them have a position they would like to defend."

Montana Headlines has written on a number of occasions that we believe the death penalty is a legitimate and Constitutional means of criminal punishment and deterrent. We also have written regarding our support for legislation doing away with the death penalty in Montana, where it does not seem to be necessary at this time.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed state by state, precisely because crime patterns and local circumstances differ.

One thing is certain, an executed murderer is not going to escape to kill again (as so often happens) -- in that regard, it only makes sense that the death penalty would reduce murder rates, at least to some degree.

Taking the initiative: The process of public initiatives and referendums is an important one that allows citizens of Montana to address issues that our legislature is too timid or ineffective to address. Sec. State Brad Johnson's piece in the Missoulian outlines the changes made this past legislative session, most of which make the process one that will tend to work just fine for issues where there is a true uprising of Montana's citizens -- and make it harder for a single individual with a lot of money to abuse the process.

A referendum should be a rare last-ditch effort that reflects a failure on the part of Montana's legislature to get a job done. And yes, that does happen. Legislatures should, on the other hand, not be afraid to overturn or amend the results of such voter initiatives it the laws are poorly written. Is it politically risky? Yes, but it's also their job.

Legislators study and discuss bills at length, they hear hours of testimony and receive many letters from affected individuals, they make amendments when mistakes and problems are found with a bill, fine-tuning it. There is no such opportunity with initiatives, making them sources of what can be crudely-written laws with unpleasant unintended consequences. Measures get on the ballot as a result of signatures that are gathered with literally a few seconds of personal contact with voters, and most voters can't be fully informed about all of the implications of all of the measures on a ballot.

All in all, Sec. State Johnson, AG McGrath and the legislature are to be commended for the changes they have made -- and they shouldn't be afraid to tighten procedures even more. Those who are worried that these changes interfere with the democratic process or with free speech shouldn't be -- if a given measure doesn't make it on the ballot but is a good idea -- well, that's what we elect legislators for. If an overwhelming majority of Montanans want a change in the law, it is going to happen, one way or another -- sometimes through a ballot initiative.

Predatory ways: A lengthy article in the Missoula Independent talks about the work of a valuable agency, Wildlife Services. The main job of this agency is to eliminate predators that adversely affect domestic livestock production. The article isn't a positive one overall, but it does give a good picture of why the agency is an important one:

In 2006, according to statewide statistics, the sheep industry suffered a $1 million loss due to predators; the cattle industry lost an estimated $1.6 million to predators in 2005, the latest statistics available. While livestock producers typically employ a variety of nonlethal predator deterrents like guard dogs, fencing and hired herders, Wildlife Services specializes in lethality.

And while advances are being made continually in non-lethal means of protecting livestock, there is no substitution for eliminating problem animals and reducing the population of problem species like coyotes. All of this is part and parcel of finding a healthy balance between allowing ranchers to do what it takes to protect their livestock and allowing these predators to continue to exist in areas with active livestock production:

"With most farming or cropping operations, if they’ve got a pest in their field like an aphid or a weevil, they just go and spray the whole field. We don’t have that option…that’s why we use the government trapper as opposed to handling it on our own,” (a rancher) says. “We’d love to handle it on our own—give us 1080 [a heavily restricted poison] back and the authorization to use some chemicals and some toxins and we’ll just poison the whole damn ranch and we won’t have these problems, but that’s not acceptable in the eyes of the public. That’s why Wildlife Services is there to help us."

Costs are shared, with about half of the budget coming directly from livestock producers on a per-head basis. This is appropriate, since producers benefit and the public benefits -- both through a healthy livestock economy and through allowing healthy numbers of predators to exist, as opposed to the old-fashioned approach of just eliminating or nearly eliminating a given species.

Montana may be changing, but the importance of the livestock industry -- economically and culturally -- to the state isn't. Those who object to the methods used by Wildlife Services need to educate themselves on the importance of this program to ranchers. They are also welcome to come up with non-lethal alternatives that are just as effective in protecting ranchers. There are probably those who simply want ranchers to become an endangered species -- those who feel that way should state both their preferences and their political affiliations plainly.

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