Monthly Archives: August, 2012

Richmond, We Have a Problem

On Thursday August 9th, the Virginia Board of Elections announced that it had purged the State’s voter rolls of thousands of names. After a comparison with data from the Social Security Administration, the Board removed some 10,000 names of deceased individuals remaining on the registered voter list.

Clearing the voter rolls of inaccurate information is certainly a laudable and appropriate action for the Board to take, but in light of so many voting related maneuvers by the General Assembly and the McDonnell administration over the last year, and bearing in mind the nationwide voter suppression movement that threatens to disenfranchise thousands, possibly millions of Americans, this purge, so close to the election raises inevitable questions.

Along with many other states around the nation where Republicans control the government, the demonstratively fictitious voter fraud “crisis” has been used as a wedge to insert new, often misguided and sometimes clearly partisan election laws and rules that together have come to be viewed under the umbrella of “voter suppression” due to their clear tendency towards disenfranchising specific classes of voters like the poor, the elderly, college students and minorities with a track record of voting primarily for the other party.

While any single piece of legislation or administrative action may seem innocuous on its face, and even be justified by a professed concern for accuracy, taken as a whole these initiatives appear to constitute a direct attempt to alter the voting landscape in order to affect the upcoming election and elections in the future in a way favorable to the incumbent party.

With this in mind we’d like to raise the following points about what has been going on in Virginia this election cycle:

  • There simply is NO evidence of voter fraud in the Commonwealth. NONE.
  • In particular, there is NO evidence of widespread or even small scale impersonation (which is what the I.D. laws are supposedly intended to stop), as a means of voter fraud. NONE.
  • There is NO evidence that ANY of the 10,000 names removed from the rolls were used to cast an illegal vote in Virginia. NOT ONE.
  • There is NO evidence that anyone has voted under the name of a cartoon character or as their pet, an example often held up as a justification for such laws. Just because someone fills out a registration form with a joke name doesn’t mean that name passes muster with registrars. Removing those bogus names is the job of our registrars, and they appear to be doing it well.
  • While the voter I.D. law that passed this year expanded the forms of identification allowable at the polls, it also imposes a provisional ballot on anyone without I.D. This ballot will not be counted on election day unless the voter returns and provides one of the forms of identification specified under the new law. In such a case the voter must then go the extra step of later submitting it to their local registrar by 12 noon Friday after the election. Since these new provisional ballots are not the same as real ballots, and will not be tallied without the voter’s further effort to prove their identity, there is strong evidence that many people who cast such ballots cannot or will not go through the expense, time and trouble to complete the procedure, thus resulting in otherwise legal votes never being recorded.
  • We have concerns about the process of issuing new voter cards to every citizen in the Commonwealth so close to the election. There is bound to be confusion and mistakes will be made associated with this roll out, and there is little doubt that the most vulnerable members of the community will be the most affected by errors or delays.
  • The state has yet to do any voter education regarding the new voter registration cards and the new I.D. law. This may prove particularly problematic for the poor, the elderly and voters for whom English is not a first language.
  • We have history to draw from, and there is new evidence that some conservative groups plan to profile and target likely opposition voters with challenges at the polls, both as an attempt to frighten certain groups and to generally muddy and slow the voting process.
  • Voting machines in Virginia are NOT required to keep a paper trail of votes cast. There is ample evidence that voting machines are vulnerable to tampering and hacking, and while we do not question the integrity of individual registrars, we are concerned about a process that relies on an unverifiable technology with proven problems.

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Last year at the General Assembly we saw a raft of bills designed to limit access to the polls. We managed to defeat many of the most severe, but the effort to make it harder for certain Virginians to vote did not end there. Across the country the effort to disenfranchise voters continues on many fronts and in many insidious ways, for instance, the tendency of having fewer voting machines at polling stations in working class and minority neighborhoods – which results in longer lines and a curtailed opportunity for people in these communities to vote.

At a time when we should be encouraging participation by underrepresented Virginians, we could be creating a generally more hostile environment where certain voters are made to feel more like suspects than citizens.

We are worried that all these factors will add up to fewer people exercising their right to vote at a time when participation is already historically low. That is why we will continue to closely monitor this process and speak out when we have concerns.

The right to vote is at the heart of our democracy, and partisan attempts to make it harder for some to exercise that right damage our communities, our Commonwealth and our country.

APV Public Policy Team.

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The History Buffs.

As a trained historian, I am often asked by friends to comment on the most recent “Popular” history they’ve heard about, usually a bio of someone in an era I didn’t work in. That the work will be sloppy, contain errors and be agglomerative is usually a given. That the work will contain out and out plagiarism of real historians is often a distinct possibility.

Look, popularizers and interpreters are necessary and when they do their jobs well, they provide a great service to the public. Academic history can often be very dense and require a priori knowledge that laymen just don’t have. More to the point academic historians often can’t write their ways out of a collective paper bag. Modern authors often are engaged in nonlinear or methodologically filtered work, heavy on jargon and theory and light on narrative and they’re often writing solely for other historians and not the general public. Often I think these works are intentionally difficult and pedantic as a means of hiding a lack of actual ideas, but that doesn’t grant a dispensation to the herd of journalists and the TV talking heads that pass off light history glosses that mine the work of serious scholars in order to line their own pockets.

If I could offer some advice to those who want to read in history but aren’t experts in it, it might start with this. Shy away from biographies; they’re not really history. They, by their nature, tell the story of famous people who aren’t necessarily indicative of their time or place. In following the flow of a single life they often impose a feeling of cause and effect, and encourage a concentration on the significance of the actions of one individual that isn’t as easily indicated by the broader facts as it may appear. Biographies can be very good and very informative, but they are also the lazy man’s window into the past.

Stay away from people you see on TV a lot and people who publish a book every year or two. Famous history writers like the late Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough are using other, less famous people to write these books and they are often sloppy about making the facts fit the story they want to tell.

If you want to read popular history, that’s great but consider starting with works from the golden age of narrative history, the 1950s and early 60s. The work won’t be up to date scholarship, but it will usually be well written and it will make a great basis on which to build.

Check out the author first, even if it is just reading the back of the dust jacket. A PhD in history is not a sign of quality, but it does show a level of intellectual rigor achieved. It also helps if the historian is actually working in their field. I’ve seen books by modern historians on some element of the ancient world and vice versa. They might be bracing excursions into new territory for the author, but it isn’t the same thing as reading the work of someone who has focused on a specific time or place or technique as the center of their study.

Don’t trust folks with axes to grind. Bill O’Reilly is not a scholar (duh). He lacks any intellectual training and he is a weasel to boot. But the fact is that the venerable Howard Zinn, whose big histories often get passed around by folks on the left, may be a great communicator and his work can be a wonderful corrective to the “American exceptionalist” tradition, but his work is shot through with ideology and often willfully biased in its conclusions.

All this said, read, read, read! If you want to know more about the Civil War, read! If you want to understand the world of the Tudors or feudal Japan, read! It’s out there if you look. Oh and ask your local librarian or book seller, they almost always can steer you right.

Scott Price

Here are a couple of grumpy historians writing about the most recent highly paid amateur to screw up.

http://www.salon.com/2012/08/19/americas_worst_historians/

CAN PLASTIC BAGS BRING US TOGETHER? ~by Rhonda Hening

“That’s so ugly, isn’t it? That plastic bag stuck in the tree?”
“Yes, it really is a shame. Those bags get stuck in the trees in our park all the time.”
“Did you know that plastic bags are made with petroleum products?”
“No, I never thought about it before.”

… and there’s my opening. The conversation begins. 😉

No one likes to see plastic bags stuck in the trees of our parks, washing down our storm sewers, stuck to the exhaust pipes of our cars, or stinking until they shred, sloshing in the tides, visible and unsightly during our visits to the beach. When I have exhausted every other way to hold a conversation with someone who opposes my politics, we can always agree that those ‘tree bags’ are an eyesore. It’s a fail-safe opportunity for me to introduce a conversation about how plastics have really invaded our culture, and how plastic contributes, not only to the depletion of fossil fuels, but to the demise of our marine life as well.

Next, I ask them if they have ever heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s a concentration of plastic and other man-made sludge, estimated to be about twice the size of Texas (so far) and located north of the North Pacific Gyre. It’s driven and held in place by oceanic and wind currents. There are several garbage patches in our oceans, the Pacific being the largest of them.

The plastic and trash enter our waterways by storm sewer outlets, ocean vessel dumping, and various other methods. As it begins to photo-degrade, the plastics are reduced to smaller pieces (some microscopic), and the reduction becomes a toxic soup. The chemicals are consumed by fish, whales and dolphins, among other ocean life, and eventually it kills them. Birds that feed in ocean waters are also victims of the plastic garbage piles. We see their decomposed bodies on the shoreline. All that’s left is some feathers, a pile of bones, and … plastic.

(Here’s a great ABC News Video about it – Disposable Island)

This conversation evokes sympathy from just about everyone. Once I have touched on the dead marine and bird life, I throw in a fact that brings them back home. I ask if they’ve ever heard of method products inc., an eco-friendly company whose products are sold in many high-traffic variety stores. Though it doesn’t claim to be a “green” company, their brand is easily recognized by average shoppers. The method company collects plastic trash from the beaches of Hawaii and elsewhere, and recycles it to create the packaging for their cleaning products. Hopefully, I’ve given my conversation partner a thought or two about using more eco-friendly products.

Then, back to the bigger picture.

“You know, it’s really a shame that we produce so many plastics anyway. They use up much of the oil that we seem to find so precious these days.” That’s when I drop the F-bomb on them – FRACKING.

“Have you ever heard of fracking?” I find many people who are unaware of it, or at least the devastating environmental and health effects that result from it. I tell them about the studies and consequences of the hydraulic fracturing process – everything from man-made earthquakes to flammable “drinking” water from a kitchen faucet. We discuss the impact of Fracking on the people who live in surrounding communities, like cancer and brain lesions!  These studies indicate a need for strict regulation: “There have been over 1000 reports of contaminated groundwater since fracking began, and studies also link the extraction process to polluted air, disease and death in farm animals and wildlife in addition to humans. It is also connected to the increase in earthquake activity. Doctors have come out against fracking; it’s been banned in New Jersey, and other states are considering banning it.”

At this point, I am usually met with an incredulous, “Well, that doesn’t seem right!”

“I know!” I agree with them, and then I move to the most important part of the conversation. We need safety regulations, but lobbyists from oil companies, chemical companies and others, such as Halliburton, have swayed legislators who have exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing from some of our key federal environmental laws. “That’s why we have to keep corporations from having undue influence over our government and legislators. We need to reverse the Citizens United decision – you know?”

I have found some people who don’t know about the Citizens United decision or how it’s affecting our nation. I explain the Supreme Court’s ruling and that as a result, corporations now contribute to political interests without identifying themselves or disclosing their donations to the public. These massive donations, PACs and corporate lobbying groups have strong influence over our politicians, and ultimately our laws. They also pour money into media outlets and run dubious ads that influence voter’s choices. Because of the Citizens United decision, the voice of the American people has been pushed nearly out of the democratic process.

I invite them to write to their legislators about fracking and about overturning the Citizens United ruling, and mention that they can go to APV’s website, and use our link to identify their legislators. At that point, I can end the conversation without ever having spoken the words Republican or Democrat, and, yet, we are united in thought!

“Hey, can you give me a hand to get this plastic bag out of the tree? Thanks!”

~~~~~

Bravo! and thanks to APV board member, Rhonda Hening, for contributing this thoughtful post, and for her continuous devotion and active support for so many of the progressive issues confronting us today.

The Small Farm Question

The Small Farm Question

Chris Saladino, APV Agriculture and Food Safety Policy

I am up to my ears in all sorts of research. I do research for a living, I do research for my own interest, and I now do research for APV. Personally, I find research very satisfying because the search for actual facts in this world has been generally abandoned in favor of the process of stitching random bits of information into fully opinionated arguments and calling it the truth. I usually agree with some of these arguments in principle and often despise many of these arguments for the same reason. In short, I have opinions and I like to see when my opinions match others while at the same time I like to get after those who might completely disagree with my opinions. However, I try very hard to avoid saying things like, “the fact that,” “It’s a known fact,” “the real truth is…,” and “it has been proven…,” without showing clear and convincing evidence.

I used to love the X-Files: The Truth is Out There! (Thank you for letting me steal that, Paul Freedman)

However, there is one truth that is a tough nut to crack: it is VERY hard to prove anything in politics. But sometimes that is not as important as we might want to make it.

Some of the more interesting information that I have been gathering has come from farmers. My goal was to talk to actual farmers, and I wanted to specifically target “small farmers.” I wanted to get a broad sense of what small farmers of all types thought about certain ideas, policies, trends, and the future of American farming. I thought I would have some reasonably clear and straightforward definitions and answers, but this was not the case. I was stuck with some problems with operationalizing my terms, right from the start!

Right away I ran into a “fact barrier” as it turns out that there are several definitions of “small farms” floating through the relevant agricultural, academic, and policy literature. After reading the changing definitions and features of small farms in the various federal farms bills, academic articles usually produced from Ag School faculty at large land-grant universities (like Virginia Tech) and other interested parties and institutions, I decided to craft my own consistent operational definition of an American small farm. This is not an idea type but a working definition that I believe reflects the literature effectively enough to work as a variable.

So, generally small farms are defined by size of production (not land) and participation by the land-owners in the actual production. These two components collectively distinguish the difference between small farms and those farm producers who are part of larger agri-business concerns. A small farm typically produces their goods for smaller and local markets; often they are involved in every facet of the market process up to delivery. Many have their own retail outlets via the mechanisms of farm stands, farmer’s markets, co-operatives, local back door commercial delivery, and the rise of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Regardless of the size of their actual facilities, small farms are seen as typically producing economic output not greater than the costs of land, taxes, inputs, maintenance, labor, and salaries for the owners, with little surplus remaining. Consistently the US government, state farm bureaus, and advocates for small farmers have agreed that small farms are not capital investments. They produce their goods, pay their bills, pay their workers and the remaining profits keep the farmers and their families effectively employed. In the modern small farm model, farmers are the landowners, although in some cases small farms are leased. But they are not part of larger concerns.

So, while I could go on forever on these distinguishing characteristics, it’s not really all that interesting and to use this loose definition allows us to look at a lot small farms that meet those criteria, but are not necessarily similar in other ways.

Something very important to focus on here—small farms STILL constitute about 88% of all the entities that are “farms” in the United States…down from 90% in 2000. MOST FARMS IN AMERICA are SMALL FARMS.

This is hard for some people to believe. In my minimal research, many with a strong interest in this area strongly doubted that even most farms were small farms. Quite a few people interested in working on this research indicated that they strongly believed that small farms had all but disappeared; mostly assuming they have been gobbled up by large agri-business firms. It’s understandable, particularly given that of that nearly 90% of all farms in America, they only contribute about 38% of the agricultural output that is reported. So, the 10% of the farms in America produce 60% of all agricultural goods.

Okay, these are all quasi-interesting pieces of information (dare I say facts) but what’s the point of stating the obvious? Well, two points are driving this post. The first is that it takes a LOT OF TIME to talk to “small farmers” when that is the singular or at least primary criteria for being included in the research. This is me whining: I have to talk to tons of farmers, even though only in the general local area and in the Pungo area of Virginia Beach—the two areas where I limited my focus.

The second point is where I try to make some sense…or not. Farmers are very similar to each other in that they all farm…they work land to raise food, crops, livestock, dairy, eggs, etc. Their daily actions are pretty close…and VERY labor intensive. Farmers all farm. And that is where the similarity ENDS and in some cases, ends hard.

I found an interesting assumption among the Farmer’s Market and Farm Stand crowds I spoke with recently, both here and in Pungo. Many of the people I casually asked (NO IRB!!) believed that most small farms were actively interested in being green, organic, artisanal, even part of the perma-culture movement. I found this interesting because this is a far cry from the traditional view of the American farmer. I remember during the 90’s when President Clinton was trying to pass his Farm Bill (maybe, 1997?) and he introduced a farmer and his family in the gallery during the State of The Union address. Perhaps time has jaded my memory even more unrealistically stereotypical than was the actual case, but the “farmer” was wearing Wrangler jeans, a flannel shirt (it is cold in DC in January!) and a John Deere hat in his pocket. His wife was wearing what I SWEAR was a gingham dress and I think she may have been holding a pie. The son was wearing a baseball hat AND glove and the daughter had a Raggedy Ann doll. Okay, I may have added some of the remembrance (mis-remembering before it was cool!!) but it wasn’t that far off. This traditional idea or vision of the American farmer transcends time…and it exists today, most absolutely. I met several farmers who could have easily been that family.

But they aren’t what many people think.

First of all, many of them are conservative. AAAAUUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!! Three farmers I spoke to in Hanover County, Caroline County, and Virginia Beach, all had McCain-Palin bumper stickers on their trucks… (2 Chevy’s and 1 Ford, NO DODGES, sorry) One had a great interest in talking politics to the extent that I had to leave the conversation by saying that I taught about the United Nations…this is like a loud fart in church, be careful. I was not interested in their ideological cores, but I wanted to know about their commitment to their way of life as a part of the broader economy, of things like the healthcare act, tax policy, and the extent that the state and federal government do or do not care about small farms. I also wanted to know about their commitment to moving to more sustainable methods, organics, etc. I got lots of opinions, and they leaned hard in some directions. Every farmer I spoke with was not a conservative, but more than half leaned that way. I didn’t hear a lot of praise for President Obama.

Not only are small farmers not all earthy progressives, quite a few of them were not entirely committed to being totally organic. Pardon my double negativity, but isn’t this STRIKE TWO? Ultimately, I will contend that this is really not a problem at all, but let’s get to the reasons. The good news is that every one of the farmers I spoke to (so far I have talked to about 24 farms) had no real faults or issues with what I called “sustainable agriculture,” and most embraced the general ideas behind the term (another blog) and even noted that it was in their interest to be “sustainable.” However, there was a clear division between those farmers who fully set out to be organic farms (and therefore, certified organic as determined by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) and/or valued this as a priority and those farmers who essentially argued that they would do “whatever was best for the crop, the land, the customers, my workers, and my bottom line.” I appreciated that last statement so much I wrote it down.

The best explanation sort of incorporated the following ideas:

·Organic is great, but we are not quite ready to lose or abandon certain crops in that pursuit

·We’ll do whatever we can to meet certain standards, but not at the cost of the quality of the product (this was LOUD in the berry farmers)

·Being organic is not easy in terms of making the switch

·We are noticing a demand for organic goods and the market will turn us in that direction more than “doing the right thing”

·Most have crops that are fully organic but others that still require them to use more traditional methods

·ALMOST ALL (save one) said that their current use of pesticides, fertilizers, and life-extenders were decidedly “greener” and more sustainable than they had been in the past.

·Most of the farmers were willing to try anything to improve productivity, combat the effects of drought, and increase their markets.

Strike Three: ALL FARMERS were motivated by profit. AAAUUUGGGHHH. They don’t just do it to be on the land. PLEASE don’t get me wrong, many of the people I talked to were amazingly committed to best practices, organic and sustainable farming and ranching, and to cooperative measures to help out with community needs, charitable contributions, and to educating the public on everything from composting to vegetarianism. But even these farmers had land notes and equipment to pay for, workers to compensate, and mouths to feed and send to college. In short, from right to left, these farmers are working for a living. They need to make a reasonable profit or they will lose their land or do something else.

So…the diversity among the farmer’s political views was vast, but their practices and their goals were similar. They embraced different methodologies but did not reject similar paths towards their ultimate ends.

And we MUST support ALL OF THEM. We must support small farms. Even ones that buy their corn seed from Cargill or Monsanto, even ones that have yet to fully embrace organic methods, and even ones that have McCain bumper stickers on their trucks.

Many of you think we should reward those small farmers who think and believe explicitly in our “progressive” vision of the world and avoid those that disagree. I disagree with that approach because they are not wrong. We are not right. I want to think we are, but I want to support “small farms.” Supporting “SMALL FARMS” is progressive…most of you have told me this. We need to support small farms. But we don’t need to have a litmus test or ideological pledge when buying summer squash and sugar baby watermelons; at least we should limit our selection based on the actual goods they sell, more than their politics. And NO, I am not saying we should start sucking down excessive amounts of chemicals and GMO’s, because these are NOT the great abusers of those inputs.

Honestly, I am no more willing to boycott a vegetable stand with amazing Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes grown 6 miles away than I am to boycott the best surgeon in the area when my child needs an operation, just because of who those people voted for. When it comes to small farms, unless we know that we are dealing with terrible people, they are part of our concern for our local agricultural economy. And all small farmers are part of the local economy. They (all of them) need more protection by the federal government than do the huge conglomerates, the ADMs, Monsanto’s, Dow’s, and Cargills. They need a farm bill that promotes grants and aid for moving to organics, for green energy technology, and for tax breaks for working with local schools and food distribution charities. We need to support them so they will continue to provide an effective alternative to mass produced, low quality, highly preserved foods. How they do this will vary, but we can also help to move them all in a better and more sustainable direction. Distinguishing which small farms are worthy is a personal market choice, but as a policy perspective, we need to support the existing “small farms,” all of them, so they don’t disappear.