Bio Invaders

In "Bio Invaders" (August/September), Ronald Bailey writes that 99 percent of crop plants in the United States are non-native. I understand that the following plants were found in North America when Europeans arrived: corn, tobacco, cranberries, chestnuts, tomatoes, sweet pepper, and some yams. (Some of these are from "tropical" and Central America.) These are pretty important crops!

Bailey adds that all of our livestock, except for the turkey, are nonnative. Since the turkey is a bird, albeit generally flightless, one would normally include other birds, such as ducks and geese, which could be found in most habitable places in the 15th century. Additionally, buffalo are once again considered livestock.

Isaiah W. Cox
London, England

Ronald Bailey's open borders for "bio invaders" reads like science fiction. In keeping with the tenor of oversimplification, even if we accept the inaccurate statement that 99 percent of crop plants are nonnative, the same can be said of measles, cholera, tuberculosis, and HIV.

According to the academics Bailey quoted, the latter qualify as species "enrichment," while rejection of them is mere "religious" preference. Put another way, the benefits of cattle do not lessen the damage wrought by leafy spurge and cheatgrass. Furthermore, to compare the introduction of nonnatives via a random piece of driftwood and via a cargo boat, tens of thousands of which ply the oceans daily, asks us to believe that the quantity of insults is insignificant. That's a bit like saying that having multiple sexual partners does not alter the probability of contracting sexually transmitted disease.

Sure, case-by-case analysis would be ideal. But this assumes we can reverse unsuccessful experiments. Sadly, our few and costly successes are thus far limited to human, rather than ecological, health.

John Walker
Coaldale, CO

Ronald Bailey replies: When I said 99 percent of crop plants were nonnative, I was thinking of the bulk of food production rather than toting up individual species. The ambiguity is certainly my fault. But even looking at individual crop species, 99 percent is not far off.

First, let's agree that crops and livestock are cultivated species, not wild ones, and that the relevant region is the continental United States. Within those parameters, native crops include sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and arguably cranberries, though whether they were cultivated by Native Americans is an open question. Wild chestnuts were ubiquitous in the Appalachians, but the chestnuts eaten by Americans today are generally European or Chinese. As Mr. Cox correctly notes, many of the species cultivated by Native Americans were brought from Mexico, Central America, and South America, including tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, squash, and even some varieties of tobacco. And North America had plenty of ducks and geese, but again the domestic varieties raised today come from the Old World. Interestingly, the domestic turkey and the tomato both were brought from Mexico to Europe where they were cultivated first before being introduced to North America.

The May 2000 UNESCO Courier lists 120 crops and livestock species and their regions of origin. Only four are native to North America. Not all 120 are raised in the United States, but the fact that 96.7 percent of them come from other regions gives a rough approximation of how dependent our agriculture is on nonnative species.

Like Mr. Walker, I do not like measles, cholera, tuberculosis, and HIV. I reject them not for "religious" reasons, but because they threaten human health. In strictly biological terms, however, they do indeed count as "enriching" the biodiversity of North America. By one estimate, 50,000 or so nonnative species now dwell in the United States, including honeybees, honeysuckle, apples, pears, peaches, nightcrawlers, bluegrass, alfalfa, and red clover. Most people are little bothered by their presence, and they have commingled with native species without much mischief. (Should modern American schoolchildren be taught to condemn Johnny Appleseed for heedlessly spreading invasive species?)

The point of my article is that the problem is not nonnative species per se but bad-acting nonnative species—ones that harm us economically or harm landscapes that we value for aesthetic reasons. Mr. Walker is right that increased trade among humans raises the likelihood of any given species making it to a new environment, but he misses my point that how a species arrives is immaterial—what it does in a new environment is what concerns us. I assume that Mr. Walker would favor controlling an economically damaging nonnative species even if it arrived "naturally" on a piece of driftwood.

"Ecological health" is a notoriously slippery concept. How does one measure it? Maximum productivity? Maximum number of species? Greatest stability over time? Is a tropical forest healthier than a desert, a deciduous forest more robust than a pine barrens, a virgin prairie more vigorous than a wheat farm? My point remains that a preference for native species is not a scientific issue but an aesthetic one.

Free Money

James V. DeLong's fine review of campaign finance issues ("Free Money," August/September) is marred by including a page from the Republican Party playbook: that we mollify advocates of contribution limits by conceding a new requirement for "full and immediate disclosure over the Internet."

DeLong notes constitutional objections "since anonymity is sometimes important." (There are objections even when anonymity is not important; you have rights even when you don't "need" them.) He addresses them by saying, first, that disclosure is useful to voters. Yes, and to commercial and partisan pitchmen, to politicians assembling dossiers on citizens, and to future adversaries seeking to play guilt by association. If free speech is a right, it cannot depend on a duty of disclosure.

DeLong's other two responses are essentially that this new duty is the price we have to pay to regain part of our liberty. If the GOP cannot advocate one liberty without abandoning another, it is not clear that REASON has to help out.

Moreover, if we are discussing political strategy, we ought to consider whether, after we substitute a mild restriction for a harsh one, the harsh restriction will return, for the same reason it was originally enacted, and we will ultimately be stuck with both. Namely, campaign finance limits will be proposed again following any repeal and will again have irresistible class warfare appeal, whereas it will be impossible to eliminate the Internet disclosure requirement.

DeLong made a great and principled case for absolute liberty; he should have left Faustian bargains to the bumblers in Congress.

Brentwood, NH

James DeLong replies: I confess to considerable dithering over the disclosure problem, largely for the reasons that Spike states so cogently. Also for a reason he does not mention: There is a real risk of retaliation by incumbents against those who donate to opponents. The "aren't they cute" gloss the press often puts on the maneuverings of politicians obscures the true ruthlessness with which the game is played.

But I still come down on the side of disclosure, as applied to contributions to the candidates. To some extent this is indeed a Faustian bargain—the atmosphere has been so poisoned by demagoguery and nonsense that a price in purity must be paid if the present system is to be destroyed. I'm desperate enough to destroy it that I think the price worth paying.

Also, there is a safety valve for anonymity. Disclosure should apply only to contributions to the candidates and political parties. If attaining reform required that they be extended to direct advocacy I would even agree to that, as long as the term is defined narrowly. Disclosure requirements should not and could not realistically be applied to issue ads.

At a panel discussion of these issues, Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, argued that disclosure should be governed by the people. If they regard the source of a candidate's funds as important, they will demand to know and will penalize those who refuse to answer. If voters do not regard this as important information, then so be it.

I take it Spike would agree with this position, and, really, I would agree that it represents the promised land. But as Virginia Postrel pointed out in these pages a few months ago ("Impure Thoughts," August/September), insisting on the best can kill efforts to obtain the better. On the campaign finance issue, for now I would settle for the better, or at least for forestalling the destructive forces that would make things still worse.

Utopian Crackpots

I can appreciate Tom Peyser's debunking of most utopian planners, Edward Bellamy in particular ("Looking Back at Looking Backward," August/September). However, I take issue with his aside that implied Henry George was a crackpot.

George was nothing of the sort. He was well versed in the writings of the major classical economists and accepted the principle of a free market economy. His proposal to tax land rent was a means—the only means—to finance government and secure a more equal division of the economic benefits resulting from gifts of nature or the growth of the community. Libertarians may differ with his philosophy, but that does not make him a certifiable nut.

I was quite surprised by Peyser's omission of a Bellamy legacy that is arguably even more pervasive than that of the cult of planning. Bellamy was the major proponent of the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. This remains a compulsory ritual in most public schools.

Wayne Luney
Sacramento, CA

Questioning Consumerism

While I appreciate our current bounty, I'm not sure I want to live in James Twitchell's America ("In Praise of Consumerism," August/September), a place he would have consumed by consumption. As our choices in cereal and cell phones have increased, our interest in anything of lasting value has decreased.

Many Americans may agree that "getting and spending have been the most passionate…endeavors of modern life." That's just the problem. What happened to personal achievement and growth through learning, leading, or building in business, the arts, education, or one's own family?

Americans have confused broad choices in consumer goods with virtue and personal liberty. Our kids believe having a cell phone and a car confers adulthood and freedom. Political campaigns are packaged marketing messages that feed on our shallow desires for a knight on a white horse, cleansing our public spaces of any real social or political problem while leaving a springtime-fresh scent to cover their lies and personal follies.

Americans should be more reflective about how we spend our wealth, rather than just contemplating whether to add leather seats to the new SUV. What does all this consumerism for the middle and upper classes gain our country when 50 percent of the kids in metropolitan school districts cannot read or write?

America's commerce should be exported but not its consumerism. Maybe other countries are resisting our consumerism because they want a culture based on something more.

Dale Stange
Folsom, CA

Workshop Nightmares

Jerry Jesness' adventures in "Workshop Wonderland" (August/September) replay a nightmare for intelligent teachers who have had to undergo the obligatory re- indoctrination known as "professional development."

One of the unsavory features of monopoly education is that the same set of teacher trainers makes the workshop circuit, scarfing up taxpayer dollars and dispensing nostrums as though they were tested ideas for immediate classroom application.

Workshops tend to the cutesy. Everything from "authentic assessment" to "multiple intelligences" is fodder for captive teachers, while rarely are there workshops on how to teach the fine points of grammar or U.S. history.

Were education a competitive industry, the workshop circuit would offer more substantive fare because consumers—and teachers—would be in a position to demand it.

Robert Holland
Lexington Institute
Arlington, VA