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November 21, 2005

The war on what?

Commenting on "the generally unhinged condition of political discourse in America", Brian Leiter nails the bullseye:

One really can't repeat this often enough: there is no "war on terror," not only because you can't wage war on a technique, but because there is no single agent of terrorism motivated by a unitary set of concerns. The whole "war on terror" is a fraud, and anyone who speaks of such a fake war should be laughed out of serious society. [Emphasis in original.]

This is about as non-partisan a bit of common sense as you'll find. That so few people on both the left and right acknowledge it is scary. What happens to a democracy when "we the People" are all out to lunch? We're finding out day by day.

(I don't think Leiter's quite as effective when he describes Bush's characterization of the "enemy" as "a construct worthy of Tolkien." Tolkien's fiction was magisterial, at once awesomely imaginative and profoundly relevant. Bush's fantasy stories, in contrast, are much more pedestrian -- on the level of, say, Sara Douglass' weaker novels. . . .)

Immigration and the farm economy in Fresno

Many of the problems with poverty and immigration I brought up in my last post are exemplified by Fresno, California.

This article in the Washington Post describes the poverty in a city which just happens to be surrounded by "the richest farmland in the world."

. . . Fresno is still, in many ways, a farm town. The city's dominant industry, agriculture, depends on a cheap, seasonal work force that keeps renewing itself as successive new waves of immigrants arrive.
. . . .

But, [the mayor] said, illegal immigration is perhaps the greatest challenge to Fresno. "We're going to have to secure the border, he said, "reform the illegal immigration system and create a plan that addresses the 4.5 million immigrants in California that doesn't involve amnesty or sending them back."

I'm curious about a few things. First, why does the agricultural sector "depend" on low-wage labor in the middle of the richest farmland in america? Is it because food prices are so low that even the best farmland in the world won't produce enough money to pay farm laborers a decent wage and still generate a profit? Is there no attempt to enforce a decent minimum wage in the agricultural sector? If not, why not?

Who owns this "richest farmland in the world"? Are these owners local residents who depend on Fresno for their shopping and entertainment, and who would suffer along with the rest of the city if the economy there deteriorates? Do the owners of this farmland spend their profits locally?

Who buys the crops that the land around Fresno produces? Is there a vigorous market for these crops, or are there only one or two big corporate purchasers (think ADM or Cargill) that can use their market power to depress prices?

Who eventually consumes these crops? Local residents? People in Brazil? Cows? Is the government paying any subsidies to the growers in order to keep prices low?

The effects on poverty of keeping illegal immigrants out of Fresno would seem to depend on the answers to some of these questions. If the entire agricultural economy of the Central Valley is set up to keep agricultural prices as low as possible, and if the distribution of farm income is tilted too steeply towards non-local corporate landowners and purchasers, then the city of Fresno is going to be poor regardless of whether we seal our borders or not.

But no one's talking about these issues. Instead, the only suggestions for reform are coming from politicians like Tom Tancredo, whose solution is simply to get rid of immigrants by whatever means necessary. In the absence of any alternatives, it's easy to understand why the people of Fresno would sign on to that agenda.

(Update: The LA Times has this article on Fresno's "brain drain.")

November 20, 2005

Tom Tancredo's latest crusade

Especially now that Bill Owens has redeemed himself, Colorado's most embarrassing politician is unquestionably Tom Tancredo. Tancredo's schtick is stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, and he's been doing it long enough now that he can plausibly claim to be the leader of the anti-immigrant loony fringe in Washington. His latest project? End birthright citizenship in the United States.

Prof. Bainbridge, as usual, has some worthwhile links.

Tancredo may be a demogogue, but his schtick works because he's one of the only politicians (now that Pat Buchanan has receded from the limelight) that speak to the economic worries of the working class. Unfortunately, the silence of the Democratic party on these issues leaves the field wide open for Tancredo and his ilk: right-wing xenophobes.

I'm reminded of a passage from Richard Rorty's book Achieving Our Country:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and uonroganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers -- themselves desperately afraid of being downsized -- are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that something has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for -- someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

[Here follows a reference to Hitler, racism, and wars of adventure.]

People will wonder whey there was so little resistance to [the strongman's] evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization?


Although this reflexive fear of fascism may mark Rorty as among the loony left fringe, his (and Luttwak's) point is still a good one. People like Tancredo's anti-immigrant message because they're afraid of the bottom falling out. Their fears are rational. The Democrats, infatuated with the pro-free-trade policies of the Clinton administration, will do only marginally better than the pro-corporate right to blunt the impact of globalization on the working class.

Tancredo may be embarrassing, but he's riding a powerful political wave. It's too bad the Democrats don't seem very worried.

Entitlement mentality

Good manners are rare these days, says George Will, and I agree.

Maybe it's just easier to notice bad manners than good manners, but when Will talks about people with cell phones and iPods who act as if they're completely unaware of other people around them, it sounds familiar to me. Even more annoying than the iPod solipsists Will mentions are the folks who gather in groups of two or three or more for a leisurely conversation -- right in the middle of a narrow sidewalk, or in a crowded doorway. I used to commute to my job at a bookstore in Denver along a bike path downtown, and during the lunch hour there'd always be clusters of middle-aged office workers chatting it up as they sprawled out across the middle of the bike path. "Excuse me! Coming through!" Fucknuts.

So I agree that much with George Will, but no further. When Will gets around to the reasons for today's bad manners, I wonder if he's put his brain on autopilot: "But today's entitlement mentality, which is both a cause and a consequence of the welfare state, manifests itself in the attitude that it is all right to do whatever one has a right to do."

Hmm. The welfare state?

In Colorado Springs where I grew up, I met a lot of people who suffered from an "entitlement mentality." But they weren't all recipients of welfare state largesse like food stamps and Section 8 housing assistance. Most of the "entitled" people I met were the folks who complained the loudest about the "welfare state." The retired Air Force colonels with RVs in the driveway who felt entitled to be insulated from all the noises of rambunctious neighborhood kids, but who seemed to have forgotten that they'd chosen to live in a kid-friendly subdivision rather than on 50 acres of farmland. Or the local entrepreneur who owned an office-supply store and felt entitled to pay no taxes whatsoever because he'd earned that money "himself." Never mind that the stable and peaceful community that was a prerequisite for his store's flourishing depended upon social programs that went beyond just fire trucks and armed police officers to arrest shoplifters.

I don't think that people who talk too loud in restaurants or who congregate in doorways always do so because they feel entitled. But Will may be right that an "entitlement mentality" is to blame for people's unwillingness to take account of the people around them. What Will can't seem to recognize is that rabid conservatism can leave one feeling obnoxiously entitled, too.

November 17, 2005

A long-delayed debate about Iraq

Rep. Murtha's news conference today advocating an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and the response by several republican members of the House, is exactly the kind of argument that should have happened a long time ago.

Here's some of what the two sides disagree about:

1. The effect of our occupation of Iraq on the risk of terrorism:

Murtha thinks the occupation of iraq is increasing the risk of terrorism; republicans think it's "keep[ing] the insurgents in the war against terror off balance." Murtha thinks the risk of terrorism has increased; republicans think the four years since 9-11 without terrorism has been because of military actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. The nature of a "free" Iraq:

Murtha thinks Iraq will be free only when the American occupation ends; republicans think our military is currently "delivering" freedom to Iraq and (coincidentally?) "delivering a nation that will be, instead of an enemy of the United States, a friend of the United States."

3. The nature of the mission:

Murtha thinks we've done our job by getting rid of Saddam. Republicans think the job isn't done yet.

Some republicans think the mission is to set up a government in Iraq that won't abuse its people. Bob Beauprez and Dan Lungren think that leaving now would be to abandon the Iraqis to a tyrannical government, just like we abandoned the Hmong and the Vietnamese.

Other republicans seem to think the mission goes way beyond that. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen thinks our military should provide "democracy, freedom, hope, the rule of law and true governance to [Iraq]." Duncan Hunter believes that "if we don't change the world, the world is going to change us." Tom Tancredo seems to think that the mission is the "spread of a wonderful idea throughout the world, and that is freedom. It's just possible that we can do this. And I am willing to take the risk. . . ."

4. The nature of dissent:

Geoff Davis from Kentucky says "the liberal leadership have . . . cooperated with our enemies and are emboldening our enemies." Murtha and most other critics of the war disagree.

5. How to characterize an immediate withdrawal from Iraq:

Murtha thinks a withdrawal is a wise tactical decision that strengthens America. Republicans think pulling out of Iraq now is surrender, which of course it is if you agree with their characterization of the mission.

Murtha sees withdrawal as a way to avoid more useless casualties. Some republicans think a withdrawal would mean that our troops that have already died will have died in vain.

6. The nature of our enemies in Iraq:

Murtha thinks most of our enemies in Iraq are simply Iraqis who want to end the occupation of their country. Many republicans think that our enemies in Iraq have much larger goals. Louie Gohmert says: "our enemies over there, those who would destroy freedom and our way of life. . . ." Jean Schmidt says: "The big picture is that these Islamic insurgents want to destroy us. They don't like us. They don't like us because we're black, we're white, we're Christian, we're Jew, we're educated, we're free, we're not Islamic. We can never be Islamic because we were not born Islamic. Now, this isn't the Islamic citizens. These are the insurgents. And it is their desire for us to leave so they can take over the whole Middle East and then take over the world."

7. Our success so far:

Both agree that getting rid of Saddam was a success. David Drier thinks that the multi-party elections in Egypt are a "ripple effect" of our war in Iraq, although it's not clear whether he thinks this is because we toppled Saddam, because we've continued to occupy Iraq, or both.

Murtha thinks that our reconstructive efforts have failed, and that the only way to achieve that goal is to pull out our troops. John Carter thinks we're "on the verge of success."

I agree with Murtha on almost every point. I don't need to say much about the irresponsible accusation that the liberal leaders who advocate a pullout are "cooperating" with our enemies. Emboldening them, maybe, but even then the issue is what's in America's best interest, and emboldening a few enemies may or may not be in our best interest depending on which enemies we're talking about and how exactly we're emboldening them. As usual, the republicans aren't making these distinctions because they don't recognize them.

Overall, their arguments are very sloppy. They too easily confuse the Iraqi insurgents with the al Qaeda terrorists. Even in the case of al Qaeda, but especially in the case of the insurgents, the Republican description of our foes' goals seems wildly exaggerated.

I also disagree with the republicans about the kinds of changes that military force is capable of making. They seem to think that the military can establish freedom and democracy everywhere. Even if the United States were capable of this, which I doubt that it is, I don't believe we can do it by invading and continuing to occupy countries like Iraq. Like Murtha, I think sometimes we can only effect positive change by withdrawing our troops and relying on diplomacy. In Iraq, now is one of those times.

One issue where I agree with the republicans is our obligation not to abandon the Iraqi people to a tyrannical government. Regardless of whether we should have invaded in the first place, we're there in Iraq now, and it's our responsibility to see that we leave the country's people better off than when we invaded. But I'm not at all certain that Murtha isn't right that pulling our troops out might reduce the violence suffered by the Iraqis. It's a close call, but there's a limit to how long we should be prepared to wait for continued military occupation to work. I'm not sure that we've waited long enough, but I'm not as sanguine as the republicans seem to be that all we need is a little more time.

November 15, 2005

Quiet

That is the autumn sound of yellowed maple leaves falling from the tree and settling on the forest floor 50 feet away. It is a sound you've never consciously heard. More to the point, it is a sound you didn't know you could hear.

It sounds faintly like nature giving itself a gentle round of applause.


Read this LA Times essay.

November 10, 2005

Creed or Culture?

Via Political Theory Daily Review, this fascinating essay asks: what's really at the root of our national identity?

Yet the patriotism of indignation and fear can only go so far. When the threat recedes, when the malefactor has been punished, the sentiment cools. Unless we know what about our national identity ought to command admiration and love, we are left at our enemies' mercy. We pay them the supreme and undeserved compliment of letting them define us, even if indirectly. Unsure of our national identity, we are left uncertain of our national interests too; now even the war brought on by 9/11 seems strangely indefinite.
The author attacks the idea (which he attributes to Samuel Huntington) that the culture of Anglo-Protestantism is the "dominant strain of [our] national identity." He argues instead that our "ideology" or "creed" (universal principles such as those of the Declaration of Independence) is much more fundamental.

I think the essay's criticism of culture-centrics like Huntington is right. (Nick R., is this where we disagree?)

I do quibble with the author about what, exactly, the American creed consists of, but I'm much more comfortable with these disagreements about creed than I am with Huntington's elevation of culture as the most important element of our national identity. That road, I think, inevitably leads to the doorstep of racism, xenophobia, fascism, and all the other evils I've ever accused Pat Buchanan of flirting with.

Honoring Ted Stevens

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen has a good idea:

Stevens may be the first senator to equate pork with honor. A statue should be raised to him. . . .

A man feeding pigs is what I have in mind.

November 08, 2005

It's November 8 -- guess what that means...




If you said "George R.R. Martin's A Feast For Crows is released today", you're right!

I bought my copy from Powells, and I can't wait to read it.

November 06, 2005

The Next Generation

Michelle rounds up the great characters that made "Star Trek: The Next Generation" so memorable. Also the not-so-great characters. You know who I'm talking about. Counselor Deanna Troi.

So so far as I could tell, her sole job on the ship was just to look generally fleshy and available in a variety of low cut (and often unfortunate) spandex outfits, and to be imperiled when outside influences take over her mind and cause her to lapse into a coma, which Dr. Crusher would invariably diagnose with her beep-beep-beep cell phone-looking thing and treat with some variant of the neck spray.
Troi should never have been allowed on the bridge.

Mandatory attendance

Via Armen, here's a rant from Mike at Barely Legal against mandatory attendance in law school:

Maybe the school thinks it reflects poorly on them if I can do well without being an active participant in class. It doesn't. If they are going to continue to base your grade off of one exam at the end of the semester, they have to realize that everyone learns differently, and they cannot expect everyone to conform to the same standards. If I want to take the scenic route to exams instead of the busy interstate, isn't that my prerogative?
I agree with Mike. Required attendance in law school is hard to defend on grounds of educational benefit.

Mike points out, rightly, that many students learn best by methods other than attending class. For these students, regular attendance isn't worth much. To the extent that it limits the time they can spend doing things that really help them learn, class attendance is harmful.

The strongest educational argument in favor of full attendance may be that it enhances the Socratic back-and-forth between the professor and the students, and that some students find this activity tremendously educational. Even if this is true, mandatory attendance rules do nothing to ensure that a decent socratic back-and-forth will happen.

With the prominent exception of small seminars, I've been impressed throughout law school by how many students don't pay attention in class. In my experience, these students do nothing to contribute when they're called on. I don't see how their presence in class benefits me, and if it's not benefitting them either, why require them to attend? Far better to let them skip class so they can use their time more effectively. The students who remain will be the ones who actually contribute to a decent socratic dialogue. Allowing students to skip class might turn large classes into small classes, and small classes into seminars. The quality of class participation would go up.

What we really value about class attendance is not something we can compel by mandatory attendance policies.

The fate of Bill Owens

For the Republican party, the fate of Colorado governor Bill Owens comes as the footsteps of doom.

Many of us, regardless of whether we tend to lean left or right, are becoming convinced that the biggest problem with George W. Bush is that he's simply incompetent. But what if Bush isn't an anomaly? Colorado governor Bill Owens' recent fall from grace suggests that the GOP might actually be selecting for incompetence in the name of ideological purity.

As Mark Schmitt writes, Owens' decision to buck the party's kingmakers for the sake of responsible government has sunk his presidential chances. Those kingmakers, such as Grover Norquist, were touting Owens as one of the best governors in America just a few years ago. But when Owens' was compelled by a combination of factors to campaign for a pragmatic revision of Colorado's TABOR amendment (the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights), the big players in Washington interpreted it as a betrayal. By supporting Referendum C, which allowed the state to keep tax revenues that TABOR would otherwise have required it to refund to taxpayers, Owens violated the ideological mantra of the GOP's national leaders: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.

That the GOP leadership would write Owens off for this "betrayal" demonstrates how ideologically extreme they've become. Referendum C was passed, 52 to 48 percent, by voters that favored Bob Dole in 1996 and went for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Colorado isn't Utah, but it isn't Massachusetts either. Owens' popularity in Colorado -- he was re-elected in 2004 by the greatest margin in Colorado history after the National Review dubbed him the "best Governor in America" -- is itself a demonstration of Coloradans' desire for small government and fiscal responsibility.

This concern for fiscal responsibility was what put Referendum C over the top. Most people who looked at the details knew that this wasn't a license for big-government spending. It was a reasonable way to ensure that state government would continue to be lean and effective, instead of just starved and impotent.

Bill Owens supported Referendum C for good reasons. Unfortunately for Owens, though, that support revealed him to be a competent governor, not an ideological zealot. It bodes ill for the national GOP that Owens' prospects for the Presidential nomination lasted only as long as the party leadership believed he was a wingnut.

November 04, 2005

6000 pounds of speeding death on wheels

Twice this week I've almost been run over by careless drivers.

Two or three days ago I was crossing an intersection with the light and someone turned right across my path at about 30 mph without slowing -- a near miss. Today, I had just gotten the signal to cross the street when a big silver Cadillac with an elderly driver behind the wheel blew through the red light as if he hadn't even noticed it (which I'm sure he hadn't). Fortunately, I noticed him, or else I wouldn't be here posting on this blog.

The point of the story? For pedestrians, the cars always have the right of way.

November 02, 2005

Colorado voters reject extremism

Lessons from yesterday's elections in Colorado:


  • Colorado's citizens prefer pragmatism over zealotry, as they demonstrated by embracing the pragmatic Referendum C and rejecting the ideological extremism of C's opponents.
  • By defeating Referendum D, these pragmatic voters demonstrated that they can reject Doug Bruce-style wingnuttery and still support a lean, fiscally responsible government.
  • Governor Bill Owens has redeemed himself. Supporting C for the good of his own state cost him the support of influential right-wing ideologues in Washington, many of whom are capable of vetoing a Republican presidential aspirant. Owens deserves respect for his courage.
  • John Caldara may be right that his Independence Institute was not required by law to reveal the names of its big out-of-state donors. But his screeching about the importance of preserving their anonymity might have hurt his political cause. At least we can hope so.

UPDATE: Prof. Bainbridge isn't willing to cut Gov. Owens any slack. His post exemplifies the ideological thoughtlessness of people like Grover Norquist who have never had to shoulder the responsibilities of governing.

Bainbridge is one of my favorite conservative bloggers because he's ordinarily willing to look behind simple-minded slogans. This time around he's parroting the slogans himself (as most of his commenters have noted).

November 01, 2005

Rule 21: The Senate showing some signs of life

Kudos to Harry Reid and Dick Durbin for invoking the rarely-used Rule 21 to take the Senate into closed session today. It's been so long since the Democrats showed any backbone that we've all forgotten what it's like:

The Senate's Democratic leader, Harry M. Reid of Nevada, initiated the closed session by invoking Rule 21, which was seconded by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip. In a floor speech, Reid declared that "a cloud hangs over this Republican-controlled Congress for its unwillingness to hold the administration accountable" on a variety of issues.

He was particularly incensed about what he said was the refusal of the Senate Intelligence Committee under Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to follow up on an investigation of the intelligence that led to the war in Iraq. A report was issued in July last year, but a "phase two" inquiry into how the Bush administration used that intelligence has not been held. Reid accused Roberts of breaking a promise to conduct that investigation in an effort to "provide political cover for this administration," which he said had "consistently and repeatedly manipulated the facts" in making its case to invade Iraq in 2003.

"I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations are not being conducted," Reid said. He then demanded the closed session.

The reaction from Senator Frist was Ted Stevensesque:
Never before, said Mr. Frist, "have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution."
At least Frist wasn't foolish enough to threaten to resign if the Democrats used Rule 21 again -- Durbin said that the Democrats would invoke the rule daily until the Republicans follow through on their oversight responsibilities.

The threat might not be an idle one, because it's so easy to carry it out. Rule 21 requires one senator to move for a closed session, and one senator to second the motion. Moving the senate back into open session requires a majority vote according to Rule 31. This means that if Rule 21 motions become a daily thing, the closed sessions probably won't last for over two hours like they did today, but they'll still be a big pain in the ass.

And well worth it. Of the many problems with the Iraq war, perhaps the most damaging for our own democracy was that it was actively sold to us with misinformation and lies. The President could have chosen instead to tell us plainly that as the commander-in-chief, he judged it in our nation's interest to invade Iraq, despite the low probability that Iraq had WMDs and despite the tenuous connections between Iraq and al Qaeda. Of course, that would have required political courage, because it's likely most people would have disagreed with him about the intelligence and the case for war would have been nothing more than "trust me." But rather than take the political risks of such a bold move, the administration (and particularly Dick Cheney) actively peddled two stories that they had to have known were spurious: the WMD threat and the connections between Iraq and al Qaeda.

The Republicans insisted not too long ago that lying about a blue dress and a blow job was a high crime worthy of impeachment. Now, they're soft-peddling the investigation into this administration's lies about national security threats for the purpose of whipping up a frenzy in support of a war of choice. All this is old, tired news by now. The democrats' unwillingness to put up with it any longer most definitely isn't.

*******

Standing Rules of The Senate

RULE XXI

SESSION WITH CLOSED DOORS

1. On a motion made and seconded to close the doors of the Senate, on the discussion of any business which may, in the opinion of a Senator, require secrecy, the Presiding Officer shall direct the galleries to be cleared; and during the discussion of such motion the doors shall remain closed.

2. When the Senate meets in closed session, any applicable provisions of rules XXIX and XXXI, including the confidentiality of information shall apply to any information and to the conduct of any debate transacted.

********

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds seems to have forgotten that the intelligence committee report was bifurcated so that the report on the Bush administration's behavior would be released after the election.

What "pro-business" means

Officials at the Labor Department are defending their kowtowing to Wal-Mart on the grounds that the agreement violated no federal laws.

It's true that executive branch agencies often have a lot of discretion. This case is just exemplary of the way federal agencies under George W. Bush have chosen to exercise it. The most galling thing for me about the deal is this:

The department denied the inspector general's suggestion that it had consulted with Wal-Mart before issuing a news release on the settlement. The department took the unusual action of announcing the agreement a month after it was signed, doing so only after some details were leaked to a newspaper.
This administration isn't just pro-business, it's sneaky too.

Plant patents: what am I missing?

It's not surprising that the American provisional authority in Iraq under Paul Bremer would rewrite Iraq's patent laws to allow for patents on plants. (See this and this.) But it raises the issue once more about whether plant patents are a good thing or not.

I understand why patents are useful. In cases where innovation costs a lot of money and/or where it's easy for an inventor to exploit his invention while keeping it secret, patents help inventors to recoup their development costs while ensuring that the public gains access to new information.

But I never understood why patents should be issued for plants, especially crop varieties like wheat and corn. Patents for plants seem less like a means of spurring innovation and more like a tool for redistributing political and economic power from one group of people to another, specifically, from farmers to corporate plant breeders. I don't see how doing this makes anyone other than the corporations better off.

First of all, I don't understand why developing innovative new seeds should cost a lot of money. When it comes to plants, nature takes care of innovation largely by itself. Farmers simply pay close attention to what kinds of plants grow best on their farms, and they save the seeds from those plants to cultivate again later. That kind of innovation is cheap.

Genetic engineering of crops, on the other hand, is expensive. But it's not obvious that this kind of innovation produces superior products. Genetic engineering produces many "new" kinds of tomatoes very quickly, but many of these are inferior plants. They aren't adapted well to the places where they're grown, and so they need lots of pesticides and fertilizers to keep them alive. Very often these varieties are engineered with specific features that are actively detrimental, such as an inability to reproduce, or a dependence upon pesticides and fertilizers. It's no coincidence that these innovations benefit the corporations that "invented" them; it's harder to see how these innovations benefit the society as a whole.

The argument for patents has never been simply that they promote innovation per se; it's always been that they promote socially useful innovation. It's hard to see how patents on plants do this.

Second, I don't understand why agricultural knowledge would suffer from excessive secrecy if patents on plants weren't available. Farmers have always benefitted by sharing their seeds with other farmers -- they've always had the incentive to exchange seeds in the hope of developing better varieties for their own farms.

Plant patents seem less about promoting innovation and knowledge than about shifting power from farmers to agribusiness. If farmers have to purchase seeds from biotech labs that they are forbidden to save or to trade, then the farmers have been deprived of a function which they have performed ably for centuries, namely, adapting their crops to the place where they farm. That function has been transferred to agribusiness, which performs it through biotech rather than by natural selection. I don't understand why this redistribution of power should be good for any society, including Iraq.

Am I just missing something?