Monday, May 21, 2012

Lean, Finely Textured Bull

Congressman Adrian Smith (R-NE)
Late last week, Nebraska Third District Congressman Adrian Smith sent an e-mail to constituents under the headline “Setting the Record Straight on Lean, Finely Textured Beef.” Sent from his e-mail account, presumably at taxpayer expense, Smith’s message sets a new low for cash-and-carry politics. And despite Smith’s limited representation and low profile outside his district, this message reflects what’s wrong with part of today’s mismanaged politics.

Start with the title. Throughout the message, Smith repeats the mantra “lean, finely textured beef.” If this awkward phrase doesn’t ring any bells, think back two months to when ABC News more memorably called it Pink Slime. But Smith never mentions this name, or any details of the controversy. He simply refers to “the recent, baseless media scare,” as if national news sources conjure bugbears to torpedo businesses in his district.

Then he confuses the issue further by calling Pink Slime “a perfect example of the disastrous, real-life consequences of straying from sound-science to determine product safety”. I don’t know enough to say whether any claims or counterclaims about Pink Slime hold water, scientifically. I do know, however, that, as Rampton and Stauber demonstrate, “sound science” is a buzzword that often speaks less to scientific rigor and more to whose money greases the wheels.

Smith cannot bother to provide any countervailing science, cite sources, or define what he calls “science-based standards.” Perhaps because science, as understood by heroes like Newton and Einstein, doesn’t enter into his reasoning. Much more of Smith’s space goes into the jobs lost when the chief producer of Pink Slime had to shutter three plants, idling 650 workers—few of whom, notably, live in Smith’s district.

Job losses have become the latest political catchall whenever moral outrage threatens a given industry. Offshore oil drilling, clear-cut logging, and strip mining have all rallied defenders around the people who would lose their jobs if environmental advocates have their way. And in fairness, these industries employ a lot of workers in rural areas that have little other economy to absorb large numbers of newly unemployed people lacking portable skills.

Pink Slime arguably lost market share because it is extruded
from a tube, not carved from a side of beef, and looks gross
But extend that logic for a moment. Many other workers lost jobs when outrage led America to stop producing whale oil, napalm, and DDT. Can you imagine if stonewallers had kept these industries open based on jobless workers? The American economy proved elastic enough to absorb the temporary dislocations created when particular industries did more harm than good. Even the workers must surely admit their products didn’t advance human well-being.

By contrast, Smith has proven a mighty foe to efforts to create jobs through, for instance, repairing America’s road network, subsidizing green energy, or stimulating entrepreneurship. Government involvement in these areas, to Smith, smacks of creeping Soviet-style collectivism. But propping up factories that feed kids chemically treated scrap meat rendered from tendons and glandular tissue—that’s right up Smith’s alley.

Smith’s strange lament reaches its peak when he finishes with a survey. The two-question questionnaire would be merely patronizing if he stopped with his first question: “Do you believe controversy over lean, finely textured beef was justified?” Politicians ask this kind of ho-hum stemwinder just to let constituents feel involved. The second question is much worse: “Do you believe the USDA should work to correct the public record about lean, finely textured beef?”

We in the logic-chopping business call this a “loaded question,” because it involves stacked assumptions. Though structured as a yes-or-no question, nobody can answer without conceding the asker’s premise. Serious debaters consider loaded questions a dirty trick, because they force speakers to give credence to assumptions they would ordinarily deny. The classic example of a loaded question is: “Do you still beat your wife?”
Attempts to rebrand "lean, finely textured
beef" included this patronizing slogan

Smith assumes, for instance, that the public record should be corrected. That premise is still debatable. Scientists remain conflicted, even if we exclude media scaremongers and corporate shills. He also assumes that the USDA has not worked to “correct the public record,” although it has aggressively defended the status quo. But this doesn’t accord with Smith’s narrative of a beleaguered local employer, a fake media scare, and an absentee government.

Though I lack resources to check, Smith’s message could have been written by Pink Slime’s press secretary. Back in the Gilded Age, crooked politicians concealed that monied interests were slipping money in their pockets. Smith and his ilk don’t even try. This lowball message just looks oily, and even if Pink Slime ultimately proves safe, Smith should feel ashamed for his blatant lack of discretion.

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