Monday, December 11, 2017

Confessions of an Anti-Marxist on Misclassified Workers

Sharing a short academic piece concerning genetically modified foods.  MLA style not consistently followed for blog.

     Job insecurity particularly sparks my interest because of my work for the Oregon State Employment Department (20-years working for the state between two agencies). What many people don’t understand is the sheer number of ways that many employers are able to creatively exploit the worker in today’s workplace. We are all familiar with refusing to pay the employee, but that’s arguably less common an issue today than what are called misclassified workers. These are members of the “Gig Economy,” and they are endeavoring to simply survive as independent contractors. Here is how J.B. Wogan introduces the reader to the topic within a recent article from Governing Magazine.

Every year, millions of American workers enter a gray zone between unemployment and a traditional, stable 9-to-5 job. Wingham Rowan calls them “irregular workers.” In a recent report for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Rowan defined irregulars as those who work outside the home with no contractual expectation of regular hours or income. “This is still an under-the-radar issue,” he says. “It’s not reflected in the official data, but indicator after indicator says [more] people are beginning to work irregularly.” (Wogan) 

     A correctly identified independent contractor is someone who owns an independent and established business. That should restrict independent contractors to a fairly small number, but unfortunately many opportunities for a paycheck hinge on workers “declaring” themselves independent contractors. Besides losing out on wage and hour as well as health and safety protections, these misclassified workers are in for an unpleasant surprise when they file their Personal Income Tax Return. Many fail to understand the hefty tax implications of working incorrectly as an independent contractor. (While the legal burden rests on the employer to correctly identify and report his payroll, the misclassified worker is typically left holding the bag with regards to taxes.) In applying the unique perspective of Marxist thinking upon the topic at hand, it is my aim to broaden and deepen the readers’ understanding of the misclassified worker issue.

     While I am about as far from being a Marxist as one could possibly be, I acknowledge that the issue of the misclassified worker within the Gig Economy is critically important to understand clearly. I would suggest that this has much to do with the fact that our rapid technological advancements have exceeded the speed of regulative safeguards as well as education regarding questions like the central differences between an employee and an independent contractor. When people fail to understand the subtleties, they are more easily tricked and misled into surrendering their rights. In one related sense, I would argue that our economic system at times makes it very expensive to remain poor. Without making too great a digression, I would point out the critical importance of a substantive education, balanced diet, health insurance and medical access including preventative care, etc. If most of these categories are not met in some basic way, then the person may be at greater risk of exploitation within today’s job market. In a similar vein, Karl Marx offers the following.

But does wage labor create any property for the laborer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labor. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism. (Marx, 14)

The class dimension of this examination is important, because frequently once one becomes a misclassified worker, it seems to become more difficult than one might expect to re-enter the regular workforce.  

     There is a sense in which the suffering of the poor is so great, and their sophistication with regards to issues of employment perhaps less developed due to a lack of education, that they are more easily exploited and misled. (In a few cases of my own state investigations, the misclassified worker appears to have a cognitive disability and doesn’t even seem to understand what it means to be in business for one’s self.) People like this are working in a form of servitude, yet they don’t necessarily understand what they are doing wrong. An interesting, yet I would argue misleading, quote from Acts of Resistance: against the Tyranny of the Market follows. “So, it seems to me that what is presented as an economic system governed by the iron laws of a kind of social nature is in reality a political system which can only be set up with the active or passive complicity of the officially political powers.” (Bourdieu, 86) The preceding quote seems to miss the complexities of the current situation, however. Arguably, this really could only refer to employer/employee relationships within our capitalist economy. Yet, according to a 2016 article headline from US News and World Report “1 in 3 Workers Employed in Gig Economy, But Not All by Choice.” (Soergel) I argue, then, that the real and present danger is more likely the rampant misclassification of workers across a broad spectrum of industries.

Where Bourdieu seems to strike at something closer to the truth is within his earlier discussion of worker exploitation.

One thus begins to suspect that insecurity is the product not of an economic inevitability, identified with the much-heralded ‘globalization’, but of a political will. A ‘flexible’ company in a sense deliberately exploits a situation of insecurity which it helps reinforce: it seeks to reduce its costs, but also to make this lowering possible by putting the workers in permanent danger of losing their jobs. (Bourdieu, 84)

This preceding passage highlights the similarities between the Marxist thinking concerning the employee within the economic system of capitalism and the new dilemma of misclassified workers faced today within the Gig Economy. The use of the term “flexible” is particularly well-suited, as this is a term one will frequently find being used in advertisements for this category of work. It seems that many of the Marxist accusations actually ring somewhat true with regards to this new section of our economy.

     In one sense, it is all about exercising power over one’s destiny. In liberation theology, for example, we see an intertwining of religious elements—or supposed religious elements—within an activist-centered framework for social justice. The Marxist approach to freeing the individual from the alleged exploitive nature of a capitalistic system is similar, except that it replaces the religious dimension with something akin to the “brotherhood of man,” as Marx calls it in his “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” (Marx) At the heart of both approaches, however, is an attempt by the worker or citizen to take direct action to bring about a system somehow better suited to the realities of the worker’s life. Of course, in the case of Marxism, the mantle of power and exploitation is simply transferred from the capitalist to the state.

     The inherent danger of the job insecurity situation is likely going to get much worse before regulation and enforcement can catch-up to ensure a more level playing field with regards to the job market. Where I differ with regards to the analysis offered by Bourdieu and Marx, however, is that I don’t see the problem with a capitalist system or a Gig Economy, as long as the state and federal authorities are thoroughly empowered to do their jobs with regards to the problem of misclassified workers and employee exploitation. I believe we will reach the goal of worker classification compliance, but that is a goal that will take some time to attain. At its core, the problem of misclassified workers is a spiritual deficit in the hearts of men and women. It is a problem of power and exploitation. While Marxist thinking may make more sense when applied to incorrectly classified workers, its ultimate legacy is perhaps best reflected within this passage from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The prisoners were at their coldest and hungriest when they checked in through these gates in the evening, and their bowl of hot and watery soup without any fat was like rain in a drought. They gulped it down. They cared more for their bowlful than freedom, or for their life in years gone by and years to come. They came back through the gates like soldiers from the wars with a lot of noise and cocky as hell. It was best to keep out of their way. (Solzhenitsyn, 131)

We can all begin to combat the problem of an improperly classified workers by understanding the issues better as consumers and ensuring that we vote sensibly with our dollars—doing business with ethical companies. The Gig Economy has great potential for freeing up our lives and increasing flexible options with regards to employment, but at the current moment its risks seem to outweigh its benefits.

Cited and Consulted Sources

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Richard Nice. Acts of Resistance: against the Tyranny of the Market. The
     New Press, 2006.

Burgmann, Verity, et al. "Doing without the boss: workers' control experiments in
     Australia in the 1970s." Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social
     History, no. 103, 2012, p. 103+.  Academic OneFile.

McGann, Michael. "Recognition and work in the flexible economy." Journal of
     Australian Political Economy, no. 69, 2012, p. 59+. Academic OneFile.

"Independent contractors not so independent." Long Island Business News, 16
     Sept.  2015. General OneFile.

Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party (p. 14). Public Domain Books.
     Kindle Edition.

Marx, Karl. “Third Manuscript.” The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: 3rd Manuscript,

Soergel, Andrew. “1 In 3 Workers Employed in Gig Economy but Not All by Choice.” US News  and World Report, 11 Oct. 2016,

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated by Ronald
     Hingley and Max Hayward, Bantam Book, 1963.

Wogan, J B. “At Work, the 'Irregulars' Are Starting to Get Protection.” Governing Magazine:
     State and Local Government News for America's Leaders, Oct. 2017,

Genetically Modified Foods: The New Meat Without Feet

Sharing a short academic piece concerning genetically modified foods.  MLA style not consistently followed for blog.

     One of the more interesting and educational aspects of running for the Oregon House of Representatives in 2014 included the many requests for me to speak before numerous groups and organizations.  On April 24, 2014, for example, I was asked to come for an interview before members of the AG-PAC Political Action Committee.  One of the main issues of concern to the board that day concerned something I had only heard and read bits and pieces about: genetically modified organisms (GMO).  The board questioned me about my beliefs and opinions concerning the safety of genetically modified foods.  At the time, all I really knew was that the protests of those opposing genetic modification of food seemed to be expressing a kind of hysteria of which I was deeply skeptical.  After all, isn’t the history of agriculture filled with examples of successful hybridizations of crops?  I expressed my view at the time that the hype and hysteria concerning genetically modified foods seemed largely more an emotional than rational response, and my views seemed appreciated by the board members present.  Since 2014, I have had the opportunity to learn much more about the science—and controversy—surrounding genetically modified foods.  The fact of the matter is that we are already eating these foods most likely on a daily basis.  No new illnesses appear to have been created in the process, and our ability to feed the world is challenged now more by antiquated distributions systems and public opinion rather than potential crop production.  The evidence will demonstrate that genetically modified foods are not only safe, but they offer a new way of feeding many more people than before—as well as providing insecure populations with increased access to critical vitamins.  It is also important, however, to understand why so many fear the technology associated with these food advancements.  What is it about genetically modified food that makes people fear the worst?

     A good place to begin in this exploration of the root of fear with regards to genetically modified foods might be pinpointing the distinction between hybrid plants and GMOs.  Monsanto’s website provides the following helpful clarification.

Hybrid seeds are created using traditional breeding methods where two different but compatible plants are crossbred to create a new plant—also known as a hybrid. An example of this is the Honeycrisp apple. Developed through the University of Minnesota's apple breeding program, the Honeycrisp is a hybrid produced by breeding two different apples to create a new, crisper and juicier type of apple.

A GMO seed is made when scientists take a beneficial trait from one living thing and adapt that trait to a plant. For example, by adding two genes to a rice plant, rice is able to accumulate beta-carotene in its grains. Scientists and humanitarians believe this new type of rice, called Golden Rice, can increase Vitamin A in people's diets and help prevent childhood blindness.  (Monsanto)

Plant hybridization is not a particularly new process.  George Washington Carver, for example, made exciting breakthroughs in creating a hybrid cotton plant that better resisted the onslaught of the boll weevil pest.  Carver’s early scientific work, which was often conducted under remarkably primitive conditions and with little in the way of equipment, served as a sort of prelude to the genetic modification seen today.   (Clark, 54) It seems one way to consider the distinction between hybridization and genetic modification could rest upon the level of interference with nature.  Where hybridization is a gentle push, genetic manipulation is seen by much of the public as a more dramatic or aggressive interference with the natural order.  This uneasiness, particularly on display in the political discussions referenced at the opening of this essay, are human nature’s expression of fear of the unknown, but is this a valid fear?

     An illustration of the fear is found in the following excerpt from Seeds of Deception, Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating by Jeffrey Smith. 

It wasn’t until the massive food recall prompted by StarLink®* corn that Americans were even alerted to the fact that they were eating GM foods everyday. Moreover, the American press was forced to question whether GM foods were safe. Up until then, the media had portrayed European resistance to America’s GM crops as unscientific anti-Americanism. But as the story of Arpad Pusztai reveals, the European anti-GMO sentiment had been fueled, in part, by far greater health risks than the scattered allergic reactions attributed to StarLink.  (Smith)

 There is a sense of conspiracy or exaggeration conveyed within the cited text, which immediately casts doubt upon the passage’s objectivity.  If we play devil’s advocate for a moment, though, perhaps the reader can begin to sympathize with the expression of fear.  In a century, our technology has advanced to the point that the daily news reports seen today would be taken as science fiction if read a generation or two ago.  Speaking from the perspective of popular culture, then, is it small wonder that there exists both suspicion and fear concerning GMO products?  The public questions, for example, what might happen if an oak or poplar tree were genetically modified with the DNA from a venus fly trap or pitcher plant?  Another scenario that seems to spark fear in people is found referenced in “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler” from the New York Times:  “Longer term, it no longer seems lunacy to believe in the possibility of “meat without feet”—meat produced in vitro, by growing animal cells in a super-rich nutrient environment before being further manipulated into burgers and steaks.”  (Bittman) The academic audience may derisively dismiss some, or all, of these sort of creative examples as products of a fanciful imagination alone, but is the common denominator of the passions surrounding this controversial topic simply an expression of uncertainty regarding the ethical character of those working within the sciences?  Are the genetic scientists and technicians trustworthy, or are they “playing god?”  If this is an accurate distillation, then there is likely no fast road to adaption of these products; it is more a matter of the scientific community earning the trust of the public.

     Whether the element of fear exists, or not, the subject matter can still be examined as objectively as possible to discern whether this technology truly offers a ray of hope for the hungry and starving of the world—not to mention avoided environmental harms of factory farming.  In “Still Feeding the World,” Paul Driessen frames the argument this way.

He {Dr. Borlaug} has little patience for "well-fed utopians who live on Cloud Nine but come into the Third World to cause all kinds of negative impacts," by scaring people and blocking the use of biotechnology. These callous activists even persuaded Zambia to let people starve, rather than let them eat biotech corn donated by the USA. They also oppose insecticides to combat malaria – and fossil fuels, hydroelectric dams and nuclear power to generate abundant, reliable, affordable electricity for poor nations.

"Our planet has 6.5 billion people, says Borlaug. "By all means, use manure. You can’t let it sit around. But if we use only organic fertilizers and methods on existing farmland, we can only feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2.5 billion people volunteering to disappear." To feed everyone with organic and traditional farming, we would have to plow millions of acres of forests and other wildlife habitat, he calculates. If, instead, we continue to use commercial fertilizer and hybrids, and have strong public support for both biotech and traditional research, "the Earth can provide sufficient food for 10 billion people."

Understood this way, there is a sense that the resistance to biotechnology and genetically modified foods has its roots in a kind of colonial paternalism: the First World knows what is best for you in the developing world.  If we in the West combine suspicion and fear with arrogance, are we really serving the desperate needs of the starving and hungry in the Third World, or are we permitting something akin to pride to stand between those who have and those who have not?

     Another positive perspective on biotechnology and the GMO question is offered within an OPB article featuring a short piece by Charles Arntzen, Ph.D.  Dr. Arntzen notes that “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg of an enormous number of things that will be technically possible to do with plants.  Some folks are talking about how they are going to change the qualities of plants so that they’ll be able to do bio-remediation and clean up toxic sites…”  (OPB) Repeatedly, the environmental benefits potentially available through a new reliance upon genetically modified foods is encountered within the writings of the proponents of this new scientific frontier.  When one examines the environmental—not to mention animal treatment issues--impact of factory farming, the promise of GMOs seems even more persuasive. 

     From air to water pollution, it is common knowledge that factory farms pose an environmental threat.  It is also worth remembering the ethical treatment issues that are also raised within the harsh and cramped conditions of this kind of factory farming.  If alternative methods of meat production could be sustainably and ethically practiced along the lines of “meat without feet,” a potentially significant environmental restoration might well be within our reach.  This, combined with a possible increase in production of meat and other food products, might truly place a world without hunger within our grasp.  Genetically Modified Foods should be considered as a new tool or means of production, as opposed to the creation of dangerous new organisms.  It will likely take years for the public’s distrust of these advancements to fade away, but they almost certainly will with time.  When that time arrives, perhaps we will see an end to the scourge of world hunger once and for all.  If hunger is indeed conquered, we should also bear in mind it is because of Christians like George Washington Carver and Dr. Borlaug who worked tirelessly to feed the hungry and help alleviate the suffering of the poor. 

Cited and Consulted Sources

Barbara Beyer, Personal Communication (AG-PAC)

Bittman, Mark. “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26
     Jan. 2008,

Carpenter, Janet. “GM Crops Can Benefit Farmers | Janet Carpenter.” The
     Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Apr. 2010,

Clark, Glenn. The Man Who Talks with the Flowers: the Intimate Life Story of Dr. George
     Washington Carver: a Recollection of a Close Relationship with the Black Leonardo Da  
     Vinci. Wilder Publications, 2014.

Driessen, Paul. “Still Feeding the World.” Institut Économique Molinari, 30 Apr. 2008,,178.html.

Ian Godwin Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics, The University of Queensland. “GM Crops Can Benefit Organic Farmers Too.” The Conversation, 27 Nov. 2017, 

PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,
     Bittman, Mark. “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.” The New York Times, The New York Times,  

Smith, Jeffrey M. Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety
     of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating. Scribe Publications, 2004.  Kindle.

Thurow, Roger, and Scott Kilman. Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.
     PublicAffairs, 2010.

Wahlquist , Asa. “GM Crops 'the Only Way to Feed the World' Says Agri Expert.” The Weekend

“What Is the Difference between a Hybrid Seed and a GMO Seed?” Monsanto,