Employers, Free Choice, and Humane Eating

[Note to readers: My new Verdict column is now available, in which I discuss the Trump Administration's trial balloon regarding an executive order to reduce capital gains taxes.  Among other things, I argue there that such an order would clearly exceed the president's authority.  Some readers might wonder, however, whether anyone would have standing to challenge such an order.

[I did not discuss standing in the column, largely because the column was already too long.  I can say, however, that the academic paper from which I drew some key points for that section of the column, by Daniel Hemel and David Kamin, did address the standing issue.  They concluded that "states, charitable organizations, and brokers subject to statutory basis reporting requirements," among others, would likely have standing.  I realize that there are no definitive analyses, especially when it comes to standing, but this one seems pretty clear-cut to me.

[Even if I am wrong, however, lack of standing would not change the analysis in my column, the bottom line of which is that the Trump proposal is politically great for Democrats.  Indeed, it might actually be even better for Democrats if Trump did this and it was unchallengeable in court, because it would look even more like executive overreach and thus be a more potent campaign talking point.

[In any event, the column below is not about taxes or standing at all.]

by Neil H. Buchanan

Anyone who wants to understand the ethical case for veganism should read the engaging book by my co-bloggers Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights (Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law).  Because I share this platform with Professors Colb and Dorf, I typically show my respect for the concept of comparative advantage by letting them cover the animal rights beat, while I limit myself to an annual "veganniversary" column.  There are occasional exceptions, however, and this year is one of them.

Last week, I commemorated my ten-year veganniversary by noting (among other things) the positive trends in vegan-friendly eating in the U.S. and around the world.  Because there was so much to say in that column, I decided to write this follow-up column discussing a recent article in The New York Times that represents the continuing negative representation of vegans in the media.

Sadly, it remains true that even purportedly neutral reporting in a major newspaper is still infused with sneeringly negative comments about vegetarians and vegans, as well as unchallenged misinformation.  The world of restaurants and grocery stores is (as I reported last week) moving in the right direction at an accelerating pace, but even people who view themselves as informed modernists continue to say outright ridiculous things about vegans and animal rights.

Several of my veganniversary columns have focused on various (mostly negative) depictions of vegans in TV shows and movies.  Although I will focus below on a news article, I first want to discuss one recent example of such anti-vegan snark in pop culture.

Last week on "The Daily Show," Roy Wood Jr. had a funny bit about people who share names with famous/infamous people and who receive abuse on Twitter because of the mistaken identity.  It was an update on the memorable "Seinfeld" episode in which Elaine dates a guy, Joel Rifkin, who has the bad luck of carrying the same name as a serial killer.  And that was in the pre-Twitter age.

Wood Jr.'s segment involves a group therapy session for people named Michael Cohen, Mike Pence, Sara Sanders, Emma Gonzalez, Eric Snowden (not even the same first name, as Wood points out), and Gerry Sandusky.  Wood begins: "OK, everyone, you're here because you share a name with someone that people hate."

For those people (like me) who do not recognize the name Emma Gonzalez, she is the student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida who has been among the most prominent gun-control advocates in the country after the attack that killed many of her classmates and teachers earlier this year.  It is sad that she is the subject of right-wing abuse, but I suppose it is not surprising.

In any case, the Emma Gonzalez who appears on Wood's segment introduced herself by saying: "I'm Emma Gonzalez.  I'm a vegan chef in Brooklyn."  Wood responded: "Which do you get more hate for, being confused with Emma or being a vegan chef?"  Although the online video at the link above does not capture the audience reaction in the studio, the regular broadcast of the show included not just laughs but derisive cheers at the joke.

Every example like this is a small one, and it is easy to say that we should not read too much into one anecdote or another.  The point, however, is that comedians are closely attuned to what will make people laugh and what will turn them off.  Indeed, "edgy" comedians are the most careful to notice these things because they care about which social norms they are working with and against.  And as I wrote in my veganniversary post last year, hipsters (a core audience of "The Daily Show") love to mock vegans.

To be clear, Wood's segment was (as always) otherwise hilarious.  My point is that he knew that it was cool to make hatred of vegans an unquestioned premise of one of his jokes.  And my larger point is that this social expectation that it is OK to mock vegans shows up even in supposedly serious journalism.

WeWork is a "co-working juggernaut" (whatever that means) that was profiled in a recent New York Times article under the click-bait headline: "Memo from the Boss: You're a Vegetarian Now."  It begins with the self-consciously oh-so-clever one-sentence paragraph: "WeWork is no longer a safe space for carnivores."  (Get it?  Safe spaces are funny!)  And it goes downhill from there.

What exactly is newsworthy?  WeWork's founders announced that it "was essentially going vegetarian."  Essentially?  "The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting."  I realize that the tech industry makes a big deal about its in-house meals, but it is also a place with a lot of vegetarians, vegans, and people still struggling with their ethical choices.  Apparently, however, plenty of people there are still scared and ignorant, and this NYT article is not interested in enlightening anyone.

We do quickly learn that the company's decision was based mostly on environmental concerns (which should also resonate with Silicon Valley sensibilities), although the company's announcement did bother to mention that the company could save "over 15 million animals by 2023 by eliminating meat at our events."  Sounds good.  What is the problem?

Apparently, a bunch of people did not like the new plan.  The article continues in its dismissive tone: "WeWork’s enforced vegetarianism could easily be dismissed as just another whimsical human resources directive from a high-flying technology start-up with an inflated sense of self-importance."  What is "enforced vegetarianism"?  According to the author, this is just another way that "companies are imposing corporate values on the personal lives of their employees."

The piece also quotes a professor of nutrition at NYU: "Animals have a place in the human diet.  There’s plenty of evidence that eating less meat is good for one’s health and the planet. But to abolish it completely sounds ideological."  But what is shocking is the idea that a person can hold a scientific position at a major research university and say that "animals have a place in the human diet."  The Times does not provide even a counterpoint, leaving readers with the words of exactly one supposed expert who quickly veers from bad science to even worse politics, with the claim that to "abolish" meat is merely a political whim.  Ideological, indeed.

What is especially galling here is that nothing is actually being enforced or imposed on the employees' personal lives.  The company is saying that it will provide non-meat food at its events and will not reimburse employees for meals with certain kinds of meat.  That still gives people the choice to eat whatever they want, on their own dime.  Unless every financial incentive is a matter of imposing values, then the article's characterization of WeWork's policy is nonsense.

As a vegan, I have been told many times that I have the choice to eat as I please, but my employer is free to serve nothing but non-vegan food (or only the most minimal vegan choices).  In my case, my ethics prevent me from eating the free stuff that my employer (or a conference dinner, or whatever) provides.  In the case of WeWork, it is not as if the employees are complaining that eating non-meat foods is immoral.  They are simply whining.

And given that WeWork is not adopting a vegan-food-only policy regarding what it will pay for, the company will apparently still buy all of the pizzas that the employees desire.  Actually, it is worse than that, because the company's policy only applies to "red meat, pork or poultry," leaving even more categories of non-vegan foods (not just fish but apparently also lamb and others) as company-provided options.

After a nonsensical analogy to Hobby Lobby and companies that tell their employees how to vote, the article intones: "In some of these cases, the values of a few executives are imposed on workers who must adhere to their employers’ worldview, often relating to issues with scant connection to the business. But WeWork appears to be the first big company to tell its employees what they can and can’t eat."

Again, WeWork is not telling its employees what they can and cannot eat.  It is telling them what it will and will not pay for.  The article even reports that WeWork's top executive explicitly is not a vegetarian.  But he supposedly is "imposing" vegetarianism on people.

And the article helpfully quotes a former Google executive who says: "Human beings really don’t like when you take choice away from them.  What people are much more amenable to is nudges."  (Amazingly, Google employees apparently once rebelled against a "meatless Mondays" policy by "staging a protest barbecue."  That is both disgusting and juvenile.) 

It may or may not be true that people respond to nudges better than edicts, but the fact is that this policy is a nudge.  It does not prevent anyone from doing anything, and it gives them an incentive (a nudge) to change their behavior.  If employees do not want to respond to the nudge, the company is not firing them or monitoring what they eat.

What is wrong with that?  The reporter quotes another supposed expert: "Companies are free to make rules about the things they reimburse or don’t reimburse for.  But usually they have to do with adult movies at hotels and alcohol, rather than what you’re ordering at dinner."  Of course, alcohol is one of the things that people order at dinner; but more to the point, this argument essentially boils down to, "What WeWork is doing is weird."

And how do we know that it is weird?  Because people laugh at anti-vegan jokes.  All of which is the backdrop for this most ridiculous attempt at false equivalence outside of partisan politics that I have yet come across.  Apparently, "I don't wanna follow the new rules" is now its own form of righteous entitlement.