Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., live in St. Louis

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. spoke here today on a variety of topics, including his work to protect and preserve our environment, but surprisingly, much of his speech had political overtones. At one point, he commented that of course we can all go out and buy hybrid cars, but the problem is really one that begins with the subversion of our democratic system by large corporations. I wanted to share some of the highlights of his speech, including his comments on factory hog farming, Ralph Nader, and an eloquent argument about the benefit of higher federal CAFE standards for automobile fuel efficiency.

Kennedy began by describing his work to fight corporate hog farming with an introduction to his work on behalf of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocate for the health of the Hudson River in New York. He introduced us to folks working in North Carolina, but in fact, there are 110 Waterkeeper organizations throughout the world working to help keep our waterways healthy and safe.

Hog farmers are only one example of how corporate capitalism has perverted the free market economy. Kennedy asserts, as he did in his December Rolling Stone article that corporate hog farmers cannot make a profit without breaking the law, and without government subsidies. He describes the manner in which they have depressed the markets for hogs, put all competitive slaughterhouses out of business, and then run family farms out of business as well. While the ideal most efficient hog farm in a true free market would contain less than 300 hogs, these corporate slaughterhouses regularly slaughter upwards of 30,000 hogs a day, with disastrous environment effects. In addition to the pollution of our land, water, and air; these giant farms are emptying rural America all over this country, as no one can live safely near them, and the entire community economy that used to support small family farms is no longer necessary as resources for the huge farms is sent in from out-of-state; so banks, feed stores, even schools and churches are boarded up.

10 years ago, Kennedy says, there were 60,000 family hog farms in America. Today there are 10,000; and half of these are already in the process of being put of business by being forced to sell their hogs directly to the corporate hog barons for a fraction of their true worth because there is no longer a market for them to be sold to. And the communities aren't the only victims. The workers who work at the slaughterhouses only stay an average of 4 months for a variety of reasons, including low wages, no benefits, and dangerous work; additionally, many of them are not Americans, trucked in en masse from poor Mexican villages in violation of immigration laws. And once again, as corporate America claims they are bringing jobs to our communities (see, e.g. Wal-Mart), the jobs they are bringing are ones that no one wants to do, ones that are patently unsafe, and ones that do not pay anything approaching a living wage. And these jobs are replacing the old jobs which were safe, paid decent wages and provided benefits on the family farms.

Returning to his theme of corporate corruption in the political process, Kennedy described the difficulty of fighting the hog barons. He told us an anecdote of his recent trips to Poland in support of the local farmers there who are beginning to have to compete with the presence of these corporate giants. Apparently, Poland has a vibrant agricultural tradition which is thriving, in part because during the communist era, they could not afford pesticides, and so now Poland has thousands of organic diversified family farms whose products are much in demand throughout Europe. At any rate, Kennedy visited Poland to raise awareness about the practices of companies like Smithfield who were looking to enter the Polish market, and the Polish farmers protested, blocked roads, etc. Kennedy debated hog barons in the Poland Senate, and is now being threatened with a libel lawsuit in Poland to keep him out of the country, because in Poland, truth is not a defense to libel, and basically insults are criminalized, or so it would seem.

The main theme of Kennedy's talk is the increased power that corporations have over government, which is no surprise to anyone with their eyes open looking in the right places. The bottom line is that, at least with respect to the hog farmers, they could not turn a profit without the subsidies that allow them to purchase cheap grain, and without their obvious flaunting of environment laws concerning pollution.

When Kennedy opens up the floor to questions, someone asks about Ralph Nader's recent announcement that he's running for president; Kennedy responds with sadness that although Nader is someone who has been a tireless advocate for the right things, and they have been friends for many years, the only explanation for his campaign this year is "psychotic egomania" which, in truth, is sad.

Someone asks why the democratic candidates don't use the environment as a speaking point more often, and Kennedy replies that it isn't the candidates (or elected officials) fault - instead, he blames the media. The media doesn't want to talk about it because it impugns their interests. General Electric is the nation's #1 polluter, he says, and of course, they control NBC, etc; Westinghouse is #2, and they control CBS. The interests of the corporate polluters too often line up with the interests of the corporate media, and it just isn't news. Of course, what the media is interested in is profits. He gets the biggest laugh of the day when he reminds us of CBS's decision to not release the Reagan docudrama at a time when FCC regulations were before Congress, but wonders why "they didn't seem to have any problems with any of the stuff they published about my family over the last forty years."

Kennedy's most powerful argument, concerns CAFE standards, which federally regulate the average miles per gallon efficiency rate that the automobile industry must meet. He reminds us that this rate was around 18 mpg in 1979, and scheduled to rise to 26 mpg in 1986, and as high as 40 mpg in 2000. Of course, this progress was all undone by Reagan's administration, but the real point isn't one of negativity against Reagan, it's a subtle reminder of what would've happened had these standards not been rolled back. And of course, under Bush, we've had tax breaks FOR Hummers instituted, while tax breaks for buying hybrid cars have been repealed.

There are two interconnected arguments here which together have a great deal of force. The first is that because our government subsidizes the oil industry to such a large extent, Americans do not pay the "real" price of gas. We pay, currently, around $1.70 a gallon, and that's high by historic measurements, but not high enough to be a behavior changer. In Europe, they pay $5.00 a gallon, which may include a higher level of tax, but this is much closer to the true price of gasoline. Imagine an America where gas cost $5.00 a gallon. Do you think anyone would buy a car that didn't get at least 30 miles a gallon?

The other point is that we have a hundred million people driving around in SUVs and similarly fuel inefficient cars. If the CAFE standards had been held to, and these people all drove cars that made 40 miles per gallon, the savings in real dollars over a year would be enormous. Compared to the Bush tax "refund" checks of 2001 of $300 - American families would have $1000 or $2000 extra dollars in their pockets because of lower gas bills. Now, that's economic stimulus.

Kennedy finishes by tossing out some humorous phrases in connection with global warming. Leaving no doubt that global warming is a problem, and citing the Pentagon study which calls global warming our most serious national security issue today, he talks about how there just isn't any scientific opposition to global warming anymore, but that most Americans think the debate is still open. This is because, he explains, the corporate powers hire what he calls "biostitutes" to publish misleading reports that don't actually involve science that raise some doubt in the minds of the media. While these reports are scientifically worthless, and the media knows this, they'd rather not take the time to debunk them, instead just publishing that "there's still some debate on the issue." And these reports, published by places like the Heritage Foundation and other so-called "think" tanks, are in reality professional confusionists. These right-wing think tanks aren't actually interested in producing facts or using the scientific method to turn public opinion to their side, they're just interested in keeping the debate open. Confusion is their goal, and so far, they've had remarkable success.

Overall, Kennedy gave an excellent call to action, and I'll definitely be watching his work more closely in the future, and participating where I can.

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