Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trump's Supreme Court Nominee May Be the Most Important Thing Trump Does to Animals

Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on a fishing expedition with Antonin Scalia
As much as Trump promises to empower the most extreme voices on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration, animal advocates have long had good reason to fear the Trump administration. Trump's ties to notorious ag empresarios and persecutors of activists from Forrest Lucas of Protect the Harvest to Bruce Rastetter of "ag gag" fame give cause for worry. Despite this all, potentially the most important - that is, damaging - nomination for animals is Trump's Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.

Why the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court touches on all sorts of issues - LGBTQ+ and women's rights, voting rights, civil liberties, federalism, etc. - but when has it ever played a major role in animal rights? How could we even predict how a Supreme Court nominee would rule?

Trump with nominee Neil Gorsuch
The thing to note is that while nominations, personal ties, regulations, and even laws come and go, it takes a much longer time for a Supreme Court nominee to come and go. At 49, Gorsuch is the youngest nominee to the court in 25 years. He will likely be on the court for 30 years at least - and possibly up to 40 given his health and excellent healthcare. The question is not what cases are before the court today, but what cases will be before the court in the next 30 - or 40 years.

Based on the answers I've heard from leaders of our own movement, most of us think we will achieve something close to animal liberation, or at least the end of factory farming, in that timeframe. This is not just DxE; at a panel at last year's Effective Altruism Global x in Boston, Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, Jon Camp of The Humane League, and Sharon Nunez Gough of Animal Equality all offered a similar timeline. Add to this that there has not been a major movement for the rights of an oppressed class - not civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, disability rights, or LGBTQ+ rights - that avoided the court, and it becomes exceedingly likely that our movement will have a vital, life-and-death (or rather life-and-mass murder) case under Justice Gorsuch and anyone else nominated any time soon.

What sorts of cases might come before the court? There are an array of possibilities, and there likely will be an array of cases, but here are two:

A screenshot from "Unlocking the Cage"
-Cases regarding the legal standing of animals and rights owed to animals under pre-existing laws. The Nonhuman Rights Project, should it succeed in getting lower state courts to grant nonhuman animals limited rights and legal personhood, will likely see repeated appeals and could very well make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, that seems like a necessary step to get the sort of sweeping precedent NhRP would like. Down the road, one could imagine ideas previously seen as ridiculous - like PETA's case against orca slavery under the 13th amendment or a case for equal protection under the 14th amendment - come before the court. Courts are often critical to the protection of groups with less political power from a tyrannical majority. Who has less political power than nonhuman animals?

-Cases regarding the degree to which regulations at both the federal and state level can stand. The Supreme Court has a lousy track record here, having struck down a California animal welfare law, saying that it was pre-empted by a weak federal law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act. In a unanimous ruling, conservatives achieved their anti-regulatory goals and liberals achieved their goal of strengthening the federal government all at the expense of animals, which neither side currently cares about. Hopefully the court's liberals will start to care about animals more as time goes on, but the more conservative the court is to start, the more difficult the climb will be.

There are other types of cases we likely can't imagine that may surprise us, and the best way to prepare for unforeseen cases is to have the best people on the court possible.

Given that we know next to nothing about Gorsuch's views specific to animals and basically never know anything about a nominee's specific views on the matter before they are confirmed, how are we to judge?

Well, despite all the talk in the animal rights movement about how animal rights and other progressive views do not imply each other and vice versa, it's generally true that the more progressive someone is, the more supportive they'll be of animal rights. Groups like HSUS argue that animal rights is a nonpartisan issue while others point out that many animal rights activists are xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, or sexist.

The truth is that while these both may be true, progressives and people who identify as Democrats tend to be more supportive of animal rights. Animal rights shares an intellectual kinship with progressive values, particularly the sorts of progressive values held most deeply by those trained in reason and logic, i.e. lawyers and judges. So while liberals on the court are failing animals, there's a lot more hope that they'll come around. Another conservative on the court, on the other hand, is a very bad thing for animals - for decades and decades.

Update: Another point worth noting is that Gorsuch has critiqued Peter Singer's utilitarian philosophy at length on the topic of euthanasia. This is yet more reason to think that Gorsuch will be unsympathetic to animal advocates. Thanks to Harrison Nathan for pointing this out.
Want to take action? Call 202-224-3121 and ask to be put through to the Senator for your state. Tell them to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Vox's Piece Against Bill Gates's Chicken Donation Misses A Major Externality

Economist Chris Blattman (a Principal Investigator where I work, Innovations for Poverty Action) writes an on-point criticism of Bill Gates's push for donating chickens at Vox, but he misses a major cost. It's a cost that many of the forefathers of modern welfare economics, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill noted well ahead of their time. The cost is the lifelong suffering and complete obliteration of individuals - chickens - who possess all the morally relevant characteristics of economic agents for welfare economists to consider them.

There are many reasons why economists ignore animal suffering when analyzing agriculture. One is likely simple speciesism. There's a deeper set of reasons that I think make economists ignore animal suffering, though, and they show how far modern economics has strayed from its roots in many ways. The reasons start with this: a refusal to make a "moral" judgment.

The basic premise of modern welfare economics is that there is no way to compare how well-off two people are (what's called an interpersonal comparison of utility). This belief stems from mid-20th century economist Lionel Robbins. Of course, the belief is absurd on its face: the idea that there is no way to compare the happiness of a poor Nigerian family with an American billionaire is ridiculous. Economists have leaped from the idea that there is no way to prove or know that the billionaire is better off to the idea that there is no way to have high confidence.

In practice, few economists believe what is taught as a premise in Econ 101. Professor Blattman and just about every economist I've worked with at IPA is in that field precisely because of a belief that people in poor countries are worse off than most people in wealthy countries. Just about every measure of overall economic well-being, like GDP or the poverty rate, lumps an imperfect measure of people's well-being together and assumes that well-being is in fact comparable.

The residue of the idea that you can't compare well-being, though, sticks around, and the complete exclusion of animals from economic calculations is its most radical implication. From the perspective of an economist, a dog or a chimpanzee is no different from a chair. This flies in the face of scientific consensus. The scientific consensus is hardly revolutionary: from Greco-Roman to Judeo-Christian to Buddhist to Hindu thought, the view that animals deserve moral consideration is ancient. The scientists merely confirmed what we all could have presumed.

Interestingly, the reasons to care about animals in economics extend even further: many animals have the characteristics of an economic agent. There's an entire field of animal welfare science that, while it is still rife with bias and support for hurting animals, takes as its basic assumption that animals express preferences, an assumption that economists know as the weak axiom of revealed preference in the human case. Neurological studies of what goes on in animals' brains when they make these choices suggest that this is accurate: where we have measured it, animals' reward and decision-making systems parallel humans' brains when making decisions.

In light of these findings, it is indefensible to classify animals in the same category as furniture in economic analysis. If we do that, then the costs of a program like Bill Gates' stack up immediately. Chickens are generally killed as babies at a fraction of their age. In poor countries like those where he will give these chickens, animals are often slowly hacked to pieces when it comes time for slaughter. Before their death, as anyone who's walked the streets in a developing country will know, birds are confined in wire cages little better than American battery cages (something Bill Gates himself is working to combat).

If that's not enough, though, think about this: at a time when industrialized countries are realizing the toll of factory farming, the giant animal suffering factories of America and Europe are desperately seeking to expand in developing countries. What better way to spread the idea of mass animal product consumption than teaching people to raise chickens? Gates is condemning not just the chickens he distributes but generations of chickens beyond them to lives of misery.

All this suffering is not worth $5 per bird, and that's the optimistic estimate of a chicken "donation" program's effectiveness.
We can quibble about the human costs and benefits of a program like Gates', but the animal cost is glaring.

Professor Blattman writes of some imaginary Gates advisor, "They sold you on the benefits, and didn't tell you how much it all costs." When it comes to animals, the same could be true for anyone who's studied economics and agriculture. When it comes to animal agriculture, economists have been sold on the human benefits but neglect the animal costs.