Archive for the 'not a wall of text' Category

What Passes for Food

September 22, 2009

I have no real content to post, so here’s a link to an interesting blog, Food In Real Life, billing itself as:

Preaching truth to packaging. Pictures of packaged food, cooked to specifications, compared to the photo on the box.

Two things to think about:

1. How few of the packaged foods depicted look like what’s on the package (or, in the case of fast food, on the menu board). We travel through a world of delectable images but disappointing products, speaking of which…

2. How few of the package pictures – to say nothing of the actual foods – actually look like real food that might be put together using familiar ingredients. Some entries are less offensive in this regard (the rice, for example), but others are grade-A frankenfoods (Jeno’s pizza, Pop-Tarts).

One take on these images states the obvious: that we are trained and acclimated to eating the foods that we do, for better or for worse. No one is born with a genetic craving for Pop-Tarts, or, for that matter, a Pringles addiction. (Cos even they admit – once you pop, you can’t stop.)

The equally obvious corollary to this point, however, is anathema in certain circles. For all the fanfare around “intuitive eating,” (aka “eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full”) the approach makes no sense in a world where eating for one’s health has been entirely cleaved from eating by one’s instincts. Anyone who has ever craved soda, or chips, or instant noodles, or, hell, any of the foods featured on FoodIRL, understands this on some level: in the present food environment, our eating instincts often lead us away from food and towards “food-product.”

And so, many people live their lives oscillating in an unhealthy Catch-22: when they eat intuitively, their eating is as disordered as the food culture at large; but when they try to “order” their eating, they end up with overly-restrictive, insufficiently-nutritious diets. If there is a way out from this, it will necessarily include curtailing to some extent our eating instincts, bent as they are towards unhealthy (and at times even unsatisfying) choices – but it cannot be so severe as to rob us of the pleasure and utility of food.

That’s what I get for cheerleading

August 13, 2009

In this post, I argued that Cash for Clunkers would stimulate overall consumer spending, not just spending on cars. Well, the first month of data is in, and two findings stick out:

  • Automotive sales went up.
  • However, retail sales as a whole declined unexpectedly.

    In light of this, I freely admit that I had been too optimistic about Cash for Clunkers. However, I would caution against writing off the program altogether – its effect may have been too small to counteract some other factor(s) which depressed retail sales; and some of its effects, particularly in buoying auto manufacturing, may not have come into play yet.

    The Times reports on the rest of July’s retail sales data:

    The Labor Department reported that retail sales fell by a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent from June, and were 8.3 percent lower than a year ago. Economists, who had been expecting an increase of 0.7 percent, called the numbers a sobering reminder of the persistent weakness in consumer spending, which makes up 70 percent of the United States economy. …

    Consumers spent 2.4 percent more on motor vehicles and automotive parts last month compared with June as the government’s popular “cash for clunkers” car-purchase program got under way, but any money that flowed into the pockets of car dealers seemed to come at the expense of other businesses.

    Retail spending excluding sales of cars and car parts fell 0.6 percent. People spent less on furniture, electronics, appliances, books and music, implying that American consumers are still wary of the weak job market and an uncertain economic recovery.

  • Let Them Eat Cabbage

    August 11, 2009

    For an atheist, Christopher Hitchens sure does put a lot of faith in predestination. It’s not the kind about going to heaven, though; Hitchens believes that Bill Clinton need not have visited North Korea to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee because – get this – the North Koreans were going to release them anyway. In the man’s own words:

    The two young women were picked up in March and released in August. That means they spent almost half a year in the North Korean prison system. Yet to judge by the photographs of them arriving back on U.S. soil, they were in approximately the same physical condition as they had been when they were first unlawfully apprehended. … Ling and Lee had obviously not been maltreated or emaciated in the usual way that even a North Korean civilian, let alone a North Korean prisoner, could expect to be. The logical corollary of this is obvious. The Kim Jong-il gang was always planning to release them. They were arrested in order to be let go and were maintained in releasable shape until the deal could be done. …

    As of last week, and as the result of a huge investment of time and energy and prestige and forced politeness, we can now claim to have reduced the North Korean prison population by exactly two, and they were going to be released anyway. In return, we have immensely gratified and flattered the man who kidnapped them and who makes a daily mockery of international law. There was even “remorse” expressed. But guess by whom? Not by the slave master who makes his territory impossible to enter and impossible to leave. A lousy day’s work.

    I don’t write much about foreign policy in this space, mostly because of my ignorance in these matters. However, even I can tell that Hitchens’ reasoning is patently stupid. First, Hitchens forgets that the role of government is to serve and protect its citizens – not least when those citizens are held captive in a hostile foreign country. By his own admission, Hitchens had been to North Korea. I doubt that if he had been detained, we would have gotten from him a heroic statement directing his government to forfeit rescue efforts. Pending any evidence to the contrary, I conclude that Hitchens views imprisonment by a brutal dictatorship as bad for Christopher Hitchens, but okay for his compatriots.

    This brings me to the second point: Hitchens’ baseless conclusion from Ling and Lee’s appearance that they were going to be released anyway. No one knows what the North Koreans would have eventually done with Ling and Lee. It is plausible that they have not been as mistreated as they might have been so far precisely for the reasons Hitchens identified. However, it is naive – especially of a curmudgeon like Hitchens – to assume that this treatment would have continued indefinitely. If and when the North Koreans ceased to see the journalists as an excellent bargaining chip, nothing would have prevented or even dissuaded them from shipping the two to a labor camp.

    Finally, Hitchens’ tone suggests that he favors either ignoring or bullying the North Korean government. Neither of these measures have succeeded in the past: when bullied, North Korea only grew more antagonistic; and when ignored, it staged dangerous, belligerent stunts to regain the world’s attention. I may not know anything about foreign policy, but I think there is a better way to deal with North Korea: reciprocity from the moral high ground, as famously articulated by Ho Chi Minh* at the start of the Vietnam War:

    Everything depends on the Americans. If they want to make war for 20 years then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards.

    * I am not arguing that Ho held the moral high ground, only that he had claimed it.

    Can’t Get No Satisfaction

    August 1, 2009

    Mary Katharine Ham, writing for the Weekly Standard, compares the Obama administration’s Cash for Clunkers program to “the KFC grilled-chicken giveaway.” And that’s by far not the most troubling thing about her post. Rather, the low point – indeed, the wide canyon – comes when Ham criticizes Cash for Clunkers for its success. The government actually got people to buy new cars? that are more fuel efficient? The horror!

    Many Obama-supporters on Twitter* today have argued that the program is only a failure insomuch as it is a great success. You see, the Obama administration simply revealed the tremendous demand for $4,500 hand-outs fuel-efficient cars, and should be congratulated for that. The utter lack of competence, planning, or understanding of incentives is not an indication of the federal government’s unsuitability to mucking around in the private sector, but a reason to invite more mucking.

    Here’s the deal. Conservatives have long argued that in this recession, no amount of government spending will have a lasting effect until consumer spending and production rebound. This critique has all but ruled out any government program as successfully stimulating consumer spending and the private production of goods and services. For example, take this Forbes piece from last February:

    If the Bush spending plan can’t productively stimulate the economy, what government economic plan can? None. Production does not need stimulation from the government; it needs liberation from the government . What a productive, dynamic economy requires of a government is that it restrict itself to protecting property rights from force and fraud, and refrain from interfering in free production and trade.

    In a time when consumer spending is beginning to seem more like playing financial Russian Roulette than fulfilling a civic duty, this critique is implausible. If consumers are holding off on consuming, no sane producer would fail to roll back production. You can’t force demand for something by merely making it – witness the unsold inventories of retail goods that have piled up as this recession dragged on.

    But you can force consumer demand by subsidizing it. And that’s what we’re seeing with the Cash for Clunkers program. When people are paid to buy new cars, they will buy new cars. There is no way to get around this – unlike the Arizona incentive for alternative-fuel vehicles Ham mentions, which did not stipulate that owners actually use alternative fuels. Every check cut under the Cash for Clunkers program stands for a new car purchased: no exceptions. And as demand for new cars increases, the production of cars – particularly their production in the U.S. by American workers – will be bolstered by this government action. Under the paradigm of conservative economics, we are witnessing nothing short of the impossible.

    * Ham cites Twitter as a source not once, twice, or even thrice, but four times in a short post. In Twitter veritas.

    The bonuses next time

    March 19, 2009

    Sir Charles at Cogitamus wins Best Extension of the “Invisible Hand” Metaphor. He also has a good post on the implications of public anger at the AIG bonuses and their recipients:

    For years we have been fed the bullshit notion that our economic system provided “pay for performance.” rewarding greatly those who most deserved it. When one was so gauche as to engage in “class warfare” and criticize the compensation of CEOs and Wall Street titans, and the growing gap between them and the average worker, we were lectured to by the Randroids and libertarians, the business press, and most of all, by Republicans, that this was simply the invisible hand briskly stroking the deserving organ of commerce.

    The AIG situation stands as a wonderfully emblematic moment, a veritable tsunami washing away this illusion. It is but one of many instances in recent years where business elites have chosen to enrich themselves despite their all too verifiable failure. But it is one so stark, so brazen, so jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly outrageous that it has created a public furor that could be transformative if used correctly. Coming as it does on the heels of Madoff and Stanford, Lehman and Bear Stearns, the stock market meltdown, the real estate bubble, the grotesque manipulation of exotic financial instruments by our financier-illusionist class, the public has simply had enough. They are afraid and angry, bitter and put-upon.

    It would be nice if the bonuses were the thing that finally broke public support for the vast injustices and inequalities of the American economy, but I am not as optimistic as Sir Charles on this point. It is true that Americans are outraged about the bonuses, and that their outrage has even prompted the government to action. Nevertheless, as more huge bonuses to managers of failing organizations loom on the horizon, there seems to be little popular resentment of the idea of million-dollar corporate bonuses as such.

    It is important to distinguish between anger at bonuses given out “undeservedly,” and anger at inflated corporate pay in general. The outrage over the AIG bonuses is likely a mixture of these two different sentiments. Some people are outraged because “the notion that the ‘masters of the universe’ class is in any way worth what they are paid or otherwise worthy of our esteeem and admiriation” has not yet been destroyed by economic realities. Others, I believe, are only upset at the bonuses because their recipients didn’t earn them this time. This latter contingent would not have cared one bit what executive pay was like if the economy were in (seemingly) good shape.

    Sir Charles “want[s] Obama to take advantage of this moment and use it as a cudgel with which to achieve progressive economic ends.” Inasmuch as curbing inflated executive pay is central to American progressive hopes, it is essential that these “winter progressives” (those favoring redistribution only when times are bad) do not turn on the policies they support today because AIG, Fannie, or any other business is making good profits tomorrow.

    The bailouts next time

    March 15, 2009

    Matt Zeitlin proposes a tiered system of regulation for financial institutions, on the premise that the biggest banks should not be taking huge risks just to make the wealthy wealthier.

    So, looking forward to how we want to regulate the financial sector, a few things seem obvious.

    One, impose a simple rule on financial institutions. Either, you can be big — so big that your insolvency would threaten the collapse of the world economy — and not do anything risky or you can be small and do whatever the hell you want. Another way to thread the needle here would be to require banks like Citigroup, or anything that’s “too big too fail,” to pay into a super-FDIC, essentially to buy bailout insurance, so that if and when they need to be bailed out, it’s not a huge, sudden expense on the taxpayer. Or you simply let hedge funds do all the exotic stuff and tell banks to, well, be banks. Or, hell, you could just not let financial institutions get too big. For example, you could say that investment banks have to be partnerships and not let them become publicly traded companies (and thus get so big) or, on a smaller scale, just limit how much leverage can be used.

    The merit of this proposal (or similar proposals) lies in how well it matches what the general public expects of banks. Many bank customers are just looking for a place to park their checking account, and may not necessarily care if their savings account earns .05% instead of .06% interest. What people do care about is 1. not losing their money, as in the Great Depression, and 2. not seeing billions of tax dollars go to prop up tottering banks, as in the present crisis. On a macroeconomic scale, however, bans on risky investments for large banks might depress economic activity, since less money will be moving around in high-risk transactions. High economic growth is, unfortunately, correlated with high risk, and the challenge of regulating financial institutions lies in striking a good balance between fostering growth while inhibiting risk.

    I think the best part of Zeitlin’s suggestion is the “super-FDIC” for the biggest banks – the ones most likely to serve the general public rather than niches of well-educated, risk-loving investors. A super-FDIC (an FDIC on steroids?) would offer a bank and its customers increased financial security, in exchange for prohibiting the bank from using deposits in unacceptably risky ways. Mandating membership in such an institution for banks above a certain size would be a nightmare: legislating the cutoff line and policing banks who might cross it from year to year would be just two likely difficulties in that scenario. However, a better approach might consist of letting banks above a certain size voluntarily join this ULTRA FDIC, and encouraging that member banks advertise their membership to their customers. This tweak to Zeitlin’s proposal does not eliminate entirely the plan’s dampening of economic activity, but it seems to achieve the goal of risk reduction in a way that might be more agreeable to legislators, and less constraining of capital.