So you start reading this past Sunday Times Magazine cover story on animal rights – chickens, pigs, chimps – and you are so pleased, if you enjoy a really crispy, crispy piece of bacon as much as I do, that the author, Michael Pollan, is not falling for any of the typical animal rights hogwash (pardon the pun, but if we’re washing the towels, we should surely wash the hogs). Which is I guess why the cover line for his piece is, ‘The Unnatural Idea of Animal Rights.’

(Eating dogs, which Lewis and Clark did with some relish, is, of course, beyond the pale, as would be eating cats – oh, the beating I took from some of you a year or so ago when I made a tasteless cat joke! Likewise, horses, which Lewis and Clark also ate, and which the Harvard Club of New York (or was it Boston?) used to serve but long ago discontinued. But those three – dogs, cats and horses – are about the only sacred cows, as it were, that spring to mind. Well, giraffe, and so on, but I’m talking populous animals. Cows themselves, outside the subcontinent – well, the thing about cows, and billions of chickens and pigs, for that matter, is that they wouldn’t even be alive, most of them, if we didn’t eat them, because if we didn’t eat them – or at least milk them and grab their eggs, both of which are hard to do with a pig – there’d be no reason to raise them in the first place. So most of them owe their lives to us.)

OK, ‘pass on the sea bass,’ but not out of some goopy sympathy for the bass – they’re fish – but only because at the rate we’re devouring eating them, we’ll soon be one menu item poorer.

Pollan’s is a long piece (though it does not extend to sea bass), as he takes us through all manner of moral distinctions between man and beast (beasts eat beasts, why shouldn’t we?), and then takes us on a tour of chicken factories and pig factories and shows us what the ‘lives’ of these creatures are like.

I put ‘lives’ in quotes because unfortunately he goes into some factual descriptive detail and, well, yes, it does appear we are torturing these animals in the most horrific way, but he recommends that we ‘look away’ – because otherwise we will find ourselves searching out vegetarian cookbooks or, at the least, those more expensive ‘free range’ chickens.

And this leads to a whole bunch of corollary thoughts.

The first is that no way are we going to swear off barbecued chicken or pork . . . the world has much bigger problems than the treatment of chickens and pigs and, well, this is just silly. What’s next – vegetable rights? Have you seen the way those little baby carrots are skinned and suffocated in those plastic bags at the supermarket? Are we going to start picketing with ‘Liberate the Carrots!’ signs?

The second is that, well, obviously carrots don’t feel pain – or at least don’t express it very well – and, even if they do, they don’t suffer all their lives until they’re harvested, the way factory chickens and pigs do; they only suffer (bending over backwards to give carrots the benefit of the doubt) when they are chopped up.

So the third thought is that, well, actually, if you read the facts – let alone actually visit the factories (not me!) – you come away thinking that, hmmm, maybe it wouldn’t kill me to pay a little more for my chicken and bacon and burgers if that meant they could be raised more humanely. (Slaughtering them more humanely might be good, too, although that’s just a few seconds of their lives.) Maybe those folks in Florida weren’t so dumb to pass ‘Question 10,’ the Pregnant Pig referendum, a couple of weeks ago, after all.

But the fourth thought is: Fine for us, who can afford it, to say – but what about the low-income folks for whom an extra $1 here and there means literally less or no chicken or ribs. Are you going to side with chickens over humans? Are we going to start passing ‘cruelty to animals’ laws now? First they make it illegal to smoke on airplanes, now they want something to protect dogs and cats and pigs and chickens? (You will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we actually do have a body of such laws. They just don’t seem to cover the food factories.)

The fifth thought is that, with proper labeling, we could make these choices voluntary. You could choose to pay somewhat more to do what you consider to be the moral thing – buying only humanely treated and slaughtered animals – just don’t you dare to try to force me to pay more for your idiotic bleeding heart liberalism.

The sixth thought is that we could have used the approach with dogs and cats and horses. Treating them inhumanely could be legal . . . just something some would choose not to do . . . while others, either through lack of feeling or lack of funds, would let their animals suffer.

The seventh thought is that, given price competition, and absent regulation, there is a race to the bottom. If one supermarket chain has its meat products consistently $1 a pound higher than another, guess who’s going to lose market share? Or if the chains can buy their meat a little cheaper from one supplier than another, guess which supplier is going to get the business.

Which is why – eight – Peter Amstein’s pal Congressman Baird’s comment from yesterday comes to mind: ‘The Republicans think football would be a better game without referees. I’ve seen it played that way and I disagree.’

Forget the partisan part of that (although I’m guessing you’d find more Democrats than Republicans worrying about how chickens suffer) . . . the overarching point is this: without regulation, competition can take us places we don’t want to go. Because in many instances, one competitor can’t afford to do some socially desirable thing (pollute less, inflict less suffering on animals, pay its lowliest workers a living wage, provide clear product disclosure) unless all are required to do so. The irony of it – the game theory aspect of it – is that, individually, a majority of the competitors might actually want to do these socially desirable things. They’re nice people just like you and me. But until they can be sure their competitors all will, too, and that there will be some enforcement mechanism to discourage cheating, they can’t afford to.

This is also the dynamic of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ explained so importantly decades ago in the Garrett Hardin essay of that name that every high school senior should be assigned.

And it’s why it’s dismaying that the administration would be cutting the proposed budget for the Securities & Exchange Commission. And be so adamant in opposing higher fuel efficiency standards, which are easily and economically attainable without loss of safety or comfort, in our vast fleet of vehicles.

Yes, regulation run amok is always a danger. But so is insufficient regulation.

The ninth thought (and I must report for jury duty in five hours, so if you’re lucky, this will be the final thought) is that it’s not just the suffering of animals we choose not to see.

(Let’s be frank. Most of you will not find the time to click the link to read Michael Pollan’s long piece, because you’re not keen on knowing much about what sort of life your chicken led before being chopped into McNuggets. Most of you will not want to know that pigs are pretty intelligent, relatively speaking – they are not carrots – or hear what we put them through before slaughtering them.)

The truth is, I am only moderately concerned about the animals. I’m more concerned than I used to be, the more so after reading Michael Pollan. But in a world of very limited resources, I do believe we should focus most of our attention on human suffering. I’d just ask you not to laugh too hard at the animal rights people – they are not suggesting animals be given the vote, only that they not be tortured.

But – still on this ninth thought – it’s not just the suffering in chicken factories we choose not to see. It’s human suffering. I believe that Republicans and libertarians looking into the eyes of a human in difficulty are every bit as compassionate as Democrats or anyone else. But in the abstract, I think they are less willing to make the connections, or go out of their way to look.

Take the minimum wage. Republicans generally resist raising it; Democrats generally favor raising it (within reason). Republicans don’t say they’re against raising it because they’re too selfish to pay a dime more for their fast food – and I don’t believe many actually feel that way. They say they don’t believe the government should interfere and regulate and that if we did raise the minimum wage – say, from $4.25 to $5.15, as was done early on in the Clinton administration – or if we passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, we’d wind up hurting the very people we want to help. Unemployment and inflation would rise as low-wage folks were tossed off the payroll and prices had to be hiked to pay the extra costs. Instead, of course, despite that long overdue hike in the minimum wage, we managed to enjoy the lowest unemployment and inflation in generations.

I readily admit that there are limits to what can sensibly be done with the minimum wage – or with the earned income tax credit or with a Marshall plan for the Third World or with prescription drug benefits for the elderly or with a whole lot of other worthy things. But I believe that if our Republican and libertarian friends looked at the problems closer, they’d be less quick to fight these things. Instead of gargantuan tax cuts for the rich and powerful – which cut deeply into the revenue available to make a better world – they might decide that the plight of the rich should not be our top priority, after all, and that we shouldn’t shift what looks to be about $2.5 trillion over the next 15 years back into the pockets of those at the very top of the pyramid at the expense of other priorities.

(Yes, I know: it’s their money! No one should have to pay high taxes! But I still feel this way.)

Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, who is now being talked about as a Presidential candidate for 2008, cut in half the one Florida tax that applies only to the well off. And then, because of budget constraints, he eliminated 51 out of 55 prison drug treatment programs and cut the budget for programs outside prison by 34%. Sure, he’d like to see every kid have a happy life and grow up to be a productive citizen – who wouldn’t? But he campaigned against the Florida initiative that would put a cap on classroom sizes. (And he told one group of insiders, not realizing a reporter was present, that if the initiative passed – it did – he would find some ‘devious’ ways to keep from having to implement it.) These are choices. There is no right answer. I just believe that if we would force ourselves to look at the chickens in the factory, or at the human suffering around the world, we might make them a little differently.

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