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.


Why Food Snobbery Is a Tough Sell

August 1, 2009

Writing for the Times,* Michael Pollan laments the (de-)evolution of televised cooking, and ends, as always, on a prescriptive note:

The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.

According to Pollan, there once was a beastie that roamed this great land freely, showing up at American homes every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Its name was “Real Scratch Cooking,” and it brought joy to the heart of every man, woman, and child. Then, some evil corporations came along, and with a few engineering tricks and a little TV showmanship, convinced Americans to banish Real Scratch Cooking from their lives. And that, in a nutshell, is why Americans are so fat and unhappy nowadays.

Now, why would Pollan spin such a fanciful tale? First, I will delight you with an obscure and irrelevant literary reference:

It could be said that there was no one like Michael Pollan in the whole Republic. The Republic valued his services. He was of great use to it. But, for all that, he remained unknown, though he was just as skilled in his art as Chaliapin was in singing, Gorky in writing, Capablanca in chess, Melnikov in ice-skating, and that very large-nosed and brown Assyrian occupying the best place on the corner of Tverskaya and Kamerger streets was in cleaning black boots with brown polish.

Chaliapin sang. Gorky wrote great novels. Capablanca prepared for his match against Alekhine. Melnikov broke records. The Assyrian made citizens’ shoes shine like mirrors. Michael Pollan was a food snob.

See, Pollan has a vested interest getting us (back) into Real Scratch Cooking, because, as an inveterate food snob, he would love nothing more than to have his particular brand of snobbery validated by others. Oh, he may be a well-meaning snob, earnestly convinced that doing things his way (or, really, his and our ancestors’ way) is good and right for everyone. But the only thing that would explain his “my way or the highway” approach to Americans’ cooking eating habits is regular snobbery, not overwhelming concern for the public good.

An analogy to Pollan’s writing comes immediately to mind: he is to food as a less profane Mark Rippetoe would be to fitness**. Oh, the two might motivate beginners in their respective fields to dig deeper, and even rope in some gen-u-ine newbies (fresh meat?), but their simple, authoritarian pronouncements – “cook food from scratch” and “squats and milk,” respectively – adapt terribly to the education of the masses.

We can see proof of this in the comments section on the Pollan piece. There, some Times readers offer legitimate pushback:

Cooking, like everything else, requires practice and repetition. If you cook fairly elaborate meals regularly and don’t exercise like an Olympian there’s a good chance you’re going to get unhealthily fat. Some people also may not be as thrilled by the effort of cooking and clean up as seems to be assumed. There’s a world of difference between the lovely fantasy of the beautiful, trim, industrious woman removing the baking bread from the oven and serving it to her gorgeous, always-appreciative family and the reality.


I believe this article overlooks one factor that heavily affects the time people spend cooking, especially single young people: It’s often not economical to cook certain types of food if you work irregular hours and/or don’t have a family. Besides the time factor (which is significant), it’s sometimes hard to justify spending $50-100 on the ingredients for a meal that will only feed one person, when I can go to a restaurant and get the same meal for a fraction of the cost.

Or even,

I think the whole “foodie”/locavore/annoying Alice Waters” culture which shows disdain for the Food Network types contributes to the lack of cooking in this country. It’s great to know how to cook a “from scratch” meal and I enjoy doing it because I love cooking. However, some others who can cook well often seem to look down on those who assemble meals or buy takeout for whatever reason.

I’ve seen them in action. I’ve seen them get invited over to people’s houses and then sneer to me (because they know I can cook) about the green-bean casserole and the parmesan from the green can on the pasta and how the host served Trader Joe’s wine instead of the good wine they, the great cooks, brought as a gift.

I quote these comments at length not only because I agree with their arguments, but also because they come from (presumably) a variety of people, and not just one crotchety blogger. To intellectuals and foodies and intellectual foodies Pollan’s snobbery may hold truth and comfort, but below this rarefied realm, the fetishism of Real Scratch Cooking has only a shaky appeal.

Lest this post be elongated even further, here is a list of just a few reasons why exhorting the American people to return to Real Scratch Cooking may be a bad idea:

  • Cooking takes time. This is the stupidest possible objection to cooking from scratch, but it holds immense purchase on our habits. It is stupid because it is so obvious – of course doing something well takes time – but it is still a legitimate objection: many Americans are not willing or not able to sacrifice hours out of their day to cook from scratch what they could cook or obtain otherwise.
  • Cooking takes money. In theory, cooking can be cheaper than eating out or relying on prepackaged or “nearly-ready-to-eat” foods. In reality, cooking entails many hidden and not-so-hidden costs that can quickly outweigh the nominal savings. For example, a half-pound of roast beef from the deli might cost $5; an equivalent quantity of steak might cost only $3. But to realize this savings one must avoid the following expenditures: the cost of other ingredients (oils, marinades), the cost of tools (grills, skillets, roasting pans), and the cost of excess raw ingredients, should the steak not come in a handy .500 lb package.
  • Cooking takes skill. Sure, practice makes perfect, but going from zero to kitchen hero is a process that would entail a good deal of unsavory errors and frustrating pitfalls. Asking people who don’t know how to cook to learn Real Scratch Cooking is much like asking people who have never learned to walk to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
  • Cooking takes motivation. Let’s face it – not everyone fantasizes about spending precious leisure time in front of the stove, or, as the first comment above notes, picking and cleaning up after dinner. Some people just aren’t going to be interested in labor-intensive forms of cooking no matter how much Pollan and his disciples might browbeat them. There are compelling reasons why cooking from scratch might be enjoyable, but there are many equally compelling reasons why people might just not want to do it.

    These are but a few of the possible objections to Pollan’s adoration of Real Scratch Cooking. Others include, but are not limited to: the false equation of home cooking with healthy eating; the elitism of asking people to turn cooking and eating into a hobby; and the lack of any suggested alternatives for people who may not want or be able to pursue the foodie lifestyle as prescribed.

    If we shouldn’t lecture people to drop everything they’re doing and get started on their “Real Scratch Cooking” re-education, then what message should we be disseminating about cooking, food, and their intersection? I believe the answer lies somewhere short of all-out Pollan-esque snobbery, but far beyond the laissez-faire approach of, say, the Intuitive Eating folks. Particularly, to have mass appeal and mass applicability, food manifestos should strive to offer a good-better-best continuum of food practices. For example, starting the day off with cereal and milk instead of a box of donuts is good; frying a couple eggs to serve with toast is better; and cooking a delectable omelet is best – or some such progression. This principle can be applied to all aspects of eating and (maybe even) cooking: an easy option just about anyone can try; a superior option requiring just a bit more time, money, skill, and motivation; and a very good option that would also be most difficult to execute. The downfall of advice that has its roots in snobbery – as does Pollan’s advice to return to Real Scratch Cooking – is that is addresses only the last category, giving the majority of people, who are unwilling to go to those lengths, neither aid nor comfort.

    * Link via the U.S. of Jamerica.
    ** I owe the comparison to the Brass Tack.

  • Beaten to the (HFCS-sweetened) punch

    July 15, 2009

    The Brass Tack just went right ahead and blogged New Yorker’s review of recent fat-themed books before I could get to it. I even had the article bookmarked and everything! Anyway, I guess that releases me from having to summarize the review myself:

    People have gotten fatter in the past few decades not because the nation’s willpower has suddenly been sapped by pod people, but because calorie-dense food has become much more abundant, and because humans are always easily manipulated psychologically by supersizing and the like.

    As Elizabeth Kolbert, the review’s author writes, this is a wee bit problematic:

    Type 2 diabetes, coronary disease, hypertension, various kinds of cancers—including colorectal and endometrial—gallstones, and osteoarthritis are just some of the conditions that have been linked to excess weight. (Last month, the Times reported that gout, once considered a disease of royalty, is, as the population gets fatter, making a comeback among the middle class.) It has been estimated that the extra pounds carried by Americans add ninety billion dollars a year to the country’s medical spending. No credible estimates exist for global costs, but, Delpeuch and his co-authors write, “Obesity is inescapably confirming itself as one of the biggest drains” on national health-care budgets.

    So far, we’ve heard about a variety of ways in which the obesity epidemic might be mitigated: through the tax code, through education, and even through better urban planning, to name a few. (e.g. discussions here and here.) As Brass Tack points out, these well-known initiatives may or may not be enough for the U.S., but to reduce and prevent obesity worldwide something else is needed. Here is where our takes on the situation diverge.

    As the Brass Tack writes, technology is the missing ingredient:

    The only real solution would be to make protein and vegetables competitive with grains in terms of price. If we could make in vitro meat cost-effective, one day a skinless chicken breast might be as cheap as an order of fries. (And factory-grown meat doesn’t torture animals.) We’d also need to really et aquaculture off the ground. And we’d need a new green revolution for non-starchy vegetables so they could be harvested more cheaply and watered with less. It’s going to take a whole lot more than a rooftop garden to do this.

    Now, her piece is titled “Obesity and economics,” and so my dissent may as well be titled “Obesity and sociology.” Because, for all the economic and technological factors that have gone into fueling the obesity epidemic, these factors have only been the “how.” The “why” of obesity stems from culture, and specifically the culture of food: what is food, when and how and with whom it should be eaten, and so forth. Basically, if people didn’t recognize fast-food french fries as food, it wouldn’t matter how cheap McDonald’s could sell french fries for, because the demand would just not be there. On a broader scale, people eat as they do because of a mix of old customs, new marketing, and timeless peer pressure – and, yes, because technological and economic developments have enabled them to eat so.

    So what’s the point of this – if you will – sociological take on obesity? Even if we remove the enabling factors – cheap corn, “supersize” portions, urban “food deserts”, total ignorance of nutrition – we will still be left with the root cause of obesity: the desire for a certain (and incidentally unhealthy) diet. And that means, so long as a caloric surplus is available, people will continue to get fat(ter). And that’s the good news; the bad news is that “food culture” is much more difficult to manipulate on a national scale than tax rates or commodity costs.

    Absorb what is useful

    June 4, 2009

    I don’t know if President Obama is big on kung fu movies, but he certainly seems to live by Bruce Lee’s dictum. In a departure from his campaign literature, Obama now says he is “receptive to Congressional proposals that would require Americans to have health insurance and oblige employers to share in the cost.” The Times has more:

    The president said he was open to proposals for “shared responsibility — making every American responsible for having health insurance coverage, and asking that employers share in the cost.” … “If we are going to make people responsible for owning health insurance, we must make health care affordable,” Mr. Obama wrote. “If we do end up with a system where people are responsible for their own insurance, we need to provide a hardship waiver to exempt Americans who cannot afford it.” …

    Mr. Obama’s letter affirmed his support for creation of a new government-sponsored health plan. “I strongly believe that Americans should have the choice of a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans,” he wrote. “This will give them a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive and keep insurance companies honest.”

    Now, the three remaining supporters of Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign might be excused for foaming at the mouth a little. Then, Hillary Clinton promised an individual mandate to have health insurance, Massachusetts-style. Meanwhile, Obama’s plan called for a weak employer mandate, in which some but not all employers would be required to provide or help pay for health insurance. As of this writing, Obama seems to be moving away from this (most likely) less-effective policy and toward the individual mandate.

    There’s just one nagging little thing. Extending health insurance to more people costs money, and the prospective individual mandate lite, in which people are required to get insurance through the myriad private companies or a government plan does little to cut down these costs, either for consumers or for providers. It is trivial to show that unless insurance companies can effectively discriminate against high-risk consumers, the best insurance plan is one in which everybody is enrolled. Short of this drastic ideal, the more people are enrolled in a given plan, the cheaper that plan is per person on both the supply and demand sides, assuming enrollment is uncorrelated with risk. So a good way to equitably lower the cost of health insurance would be to enroll as many people as possible – regardless of risk – in a single plan. This would also have the benefit of cutting down on per capita administrative costs and duplicated overhead costs.

    How does Obama’s plan (or intentions) measure up to this ideal? By letting – nearly encouraging – consumers who are already insured to keep their current health insurance, it does nothing to lower costs for the policies of the insured (which greatly outnumber the uninsured). By allowing the uninsured to sign up for a government plan, it creates just another small insurer saddled with all the problems of the rest of the market. Finally, by encouraging some of the uninsured to seek health insurance on their own, it leaves them vulnerable to the steep premiums that rationally must be charged of individuals purchasing insurance solo.

    A real solution to the problems of American health insurance – bloated administrative costs, underinsurance, high prices – could lie just one radical policy away. If we take as constraints the ideas that 1. Americans will not accept the complete bulldozing of the private insurance market, and 2. there is no guarantee that a government-run program will be more efficient than a private one, there still remains a reasonable policy option that combines wider coverage with lower costs and room for market-driven innovation.

    Consider this: a basic government insurance plan, with mandatory participation, and a deductible-copay system similar to but more benign than existing private policies. This plan would extend basic coverage to everyone, including perhaps most preventative procedures, some ER visits, and limited consultation with specialists, among other things. It would not aspire to provide full health coverage to its enrollees – only coverage for procedures with positive externalities or those which most often bring needless financial strain upon low-income families – and would be priced accordingly. Everything else – prolonged hospital stays, expensive treatments, frequent trips to the doctor – could then be covered by supplemental insurance, which consumers could obtain from anyone. Such a dual-layer system would provide universal, low-cost (but limited) health insurance, without completely turning the health insurance sector into an arm of the government.

    Owners, not patrons

    May 27, 2009

    The government is poised to acquire ownership of 70% of General Motors, ostensibly in a move that will smooth out GM’s restructuring. As the Times reports:

    The latest plan for the troubled automaker, which is expected to file for bankruptcy by Monday, calls for the Treasury Department to receive about 70 percent of a restructured G.M. Including the more than $20 billion that has already been spent to prop up G.M., the government will provide G.M. at least $50 billion to get the company through Chapter 11, people with direct knowledge of the situation said Tuesday. By some estimates in Detroit, tens of billions beyond that amount may be required. …

    The prospect of a G.M. effectively owned by the government raises a number of thorny questions. Countless policy decisions — on matters such as fuel economy standards, tax incentives to replace aging cars and green technology initiatives — will present conflicting interests. …

    Aides to President Obama have consistently said they would be reluctant shareholders, and they plan no operating role in the company.

    “No one is going to put U.S. government employees on the G.M. board,” one person close to the ongoing discussions said on Tuesday.

    The day-to-day running of the firm, this person said, would be left to professional managers, and the government would not be involved in decisions about closing factories, renegotiating contracts or selecting product lines.

    There is a strong cultural obligation for the Obama administration to keep their hands off of business, even businesses in which the government would own a controlling stake. Not surprisingly, even with these reassurances there have followed the inevitable wisecracks about socialism and government-run enterprise. While American tolerance for most state-run businesses may be low, it is simply bad policy to rely on “professional managers” to bring GM back from capitalist Limbo. After all, GM has been in some form of restructuring for decades under the steering of “professional managers,” and has neither fully recovered from its market losses in the 20th century, nor successfully avoided collapse in this recession. How badly have “professional managers” mishandled GM? Consider this:

    The automaking losses have put GM in the kind of financial position lately associated with dying airlines and retail chains. The company has been frantically seeking cash to meet its financial obligations. GM has sold stock and tapped credit markets to raise $5 billion in the past year alone, mostly to pay operating expenses. If the financial squeeze grows too tight, GM might even file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 to force concessions in its wage, pension and benefit packages.

    Thus wrote Time in 1992. Professional managers have not saved GM in the past, and it is odd to think they will do so in the future. Rather than the government merely becoming patrons of the same managerial cadre, it should carefully consider taking that dreaded active role, and finally changing the (faulty) way GM does business.

    Say Maybe. (Call before midnight tonight)

    April 27, 2009

    Jamelle links to a Washington Post article by Mark Regnerus, in which the latter warns today’s young men and women (but mostly women) to rethink delaying marriage:

    Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life. … I realize that marrying early means that you engage in a shorter search. In the age of online dating personality algorithms and matches, Americans have become well acquainted with the cultural (and commercial) notion that melding marriage with science will somehow assure a good fit. But what really matters for making marriage happen and then making it good are not matches, but mentalities: such things as persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage, and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing.

    I am not blessed with Regnerus’ eloquence, and if I had to summarize his argument, I would write – Some of you young people out there are going to be sorry you hadn’t married earlier. This I agree with wholeheartedly. But I would also add a caveat: Remember, before you drop the job applications and the grad school brochures and run off to the altar, that no one has any idea what your marriages will turn out like. Sorry. Good luck with that.

    See, Mark Regnerus pins the blame for today’s marriage-phobia on the older generation, who are passing on defective life-lessons to their offspring:

    If you’re seeking a mate in college, you’re considered a pariah, someone after her “MRS degree.” Actively considering marriage when you’re 20 or 21 seems so sappy, so unsexy, so anachronistic. … How did we get here? The fault lies less with indecisive young people than it does with us, their parents. Our own ideas about marriage changed as we climbed toward career success. Many of us got our MBAs, JDs, MDs and PhDs. Now we advise our children to complete their education before even contemplating marriage, to launch their careers and become financially independent. We caution that depending on another person is weak and fragile. We don’t want them to rush into a relationship. We won’t help you with college tuition anymore, we threaten. Don’t repeat our mistakes, we warn.

    Maybe today’s youth are operating on a bad set of assumptions about marriage, but they’re still the ones who decide who, when, and how to marry. Maybe they’re making that decision inefficiently – delaying marriage at an age when they ready and willing to take it on. But maybe they’re making that decision because (or at least at the same time as) they remain immature, fearful of commitment, or distrusting of matrimony. If the culture of tomorrow’s couples has changed in a way that precludes lasting marriage, then no one can predict if their marriages will be successful or satisfying.

    Regnerus believes that “today, as ever, marriage wisely entered into remains good for the economy and the community, good for one’s personal well-being, good for wealth creation and, yes, good for the environment, too.” The “today, as ever” clause is dangerous. The institution of marriage changes over time – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes dramatically. In the past we had the idealized Victorian household, with a Man of the House and a Lady of the House secure in their eternal, sacred roles. But looking at the recent history of marriage, a cynical demographer might conclude that the main function of marriage in postwar America has been to produce divorces. Consider this graph:

    Between 1960 and 1980, something changed in the wide world of marriage – something which made marriages implode at a much faster pace. After divorce rates peaked, there seemed to be another change, which sent them on a slow decline. Who could have predicted in 1955 that so many marriages would end in divorce 20 years later? On the other hand, who could have seen at the end of the 70s that the divorce rate was about to peak?

    The success of a marriage, of course, is not binary – “married” vs. “divorced.” It is far more complicated. All we know is that for past cohorts, marrying earlier might have been a good idea. But people change, cultures change, and even the institution of marriage changes. No one really knows if young people today are better or worse suited for marriage than young people before them; nor how their marriages will work compared to the marriages of their parents and grandparents. If I had to write up a pithy op-ed on contemporary marriage, I would stand by the main point Regnerus makes – don’t let a regression coefficient discourage you from marrying young. But, as above, I would chase this point with a disclaimer: since the institution of marriage is in constant flux, no one knows how marrying early (or late) will work for you or your peers. We’ll get back to you on that one.

    “They can stuff their [food] credentials, ’cause it’s them that take the cash”

    March 22, 2009

    You know virtuous food (i.e., local/organic/sustainable or some other euphemism of the day) is doing well when Times articles about it move from the Fashion & Style section to Business. Saturday’s article chronicles the new momentum virtuous food – particularly organic food – has acquired thanks to a bit of White House boosterism. Andrew Martin writes:

    Mr. Hirshberg and other sustainable-food activists are hoping that such actions are precursors to major changes in the way the federal government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms, changes that could significantly bolster demand for fresh, local and organic products. Already, they have offered plenty of ambitious ideas.

    For instance, the celebrity chef Alice Waters recommends that the federal government triple its budget for school lunches to provide youngsters with healthier food. And the author Michael Pollan has called on President Obama to pursue a “reform of the entire food system” by focusing on a Pollan priority: diversified, regional food networks.

    Still, some activists worry that their dreams of a less-processed American diet may soon collide with the realities of Washington and the financial gloom over much of the country. Even the Bush administration, reviled by many food activists, came to Washington intent on reforming farm subsidies, only to be slapped down by Congress.

    The plot is familiar: intelligent foodies and farmers are trying to improve America’s diet with the help of a few Washington mavericks, only to be stymied by Congress and the evil agribusiness/food industry lobbyists which control it. Even the cast is familiar, at least on the pro-virtue side: Alice Waters. Michael Pollan. Mr. Hirshberg.

    Wait–Mr. Hirshberg? That’s Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm. Mr. Hirshberg, according to Martin’s report, is fired up about changing the system:

    Back in Anaheim, Mr. Hirshberg, the head of Stonyfield Farm, said he, too, is optimistic that change is at hand. But he reminded the small crowd that the organic industry remains a “rounding error,” roughly 3 percent, of the overall food and beverage business.

    “We’re at the starting line,” he says. “This is our job, our government. We’ve got to take it back.”

    Do it, Mr. Hirshberg! Take back the government in the name of … multinational corporations. As Andrea Whitfill wrote last week in AlterNet, Stonyfield Farm is mostly owned by the Danone conglomerate, and Hirshberg happens to sit on the board of Dannon U.S.A. So is that talk about “taking back” the government in the name of virtuous food change from within, or clever marketing to sell Danone’s higher-priced yogurt?

    In fact, Mr. Hirshberg’s Stonyfield Farm is not alone in pushing virtuous product while being owned by a distinctly non-virtuous company. It seems that just about every organic or virtuous brand consumers are familiar with has been snapped up by large corporations. Take virtuous cereal brands, for example.

    “Cereals, like milk, are one of the primary entrance points for use of organics,” said Lara Christenson of Spins, a market research group for the natural products industry, “which is pretty closely tied to children — health concerns, keeping pesticides, especially antibiotics, out of the diets of children. These large firms wanted to get a foothold in the natural and organic marketplace. Because of the mind-set of consumers, branding of these products has to be very different than traditional cereals.”

    These corporate connections are often kept quiet. “There is frequently a backlash when a big cereal package-goods company buys a natural or organic company,” Christenson said. “I don’t want to say it’s manipulative, but consumers are led to believe these brands are pure, natural or organic brands. It’s very purposely done.”

    A little more digging shows that General Mills owns Cascadian Farm; Barbara’s Bakery is owned by Weetabix, the leading British cereal company, which is owned by a private investment firm in England; Mother’s makes it clear that it is owned by Quaker Oats (which is owned by PepsiCo); Health Valley and Arrowhead Mills are owned by Hain Celestial Group, a natural food company traded on the NASDAQ, with H.J. Heinz owning 16 percent of that company.

    Whitfill has more examples, and Allison Kilkenny has pictures. Virtuous cereal, virtuous drinks, virtuous snacks, virtuous dairy products – much of what’s on the shelf at your grocery store is made by Big Food (-owned) companies far, far removed from what most of us envision when we think about how virtuous food is (should be) produced.

    So what’s the big deal? Food activists have been telling us that the best way to get the food market to change is to vote with our money, spending more of it on smaller quantities of “good” food. Now we find out that the main channel through which we consume virtuous food – brand-name packaged foods – diverts our monetary votes to the coffers of the same companies we are trying to “punish.” That is not, in itself, the end of the world – or even of food activism. It may still be the case that virtuous food, in its most common forms, is better for us than other offerings from the parent Big Food firms. It may still be the case that corporate warriors such as Mr. Hirshberg will effect real “change from within” in the conglomerates they serve. It may still be the case that we can support virtuous causes by giving our money to one division of Unilever over another. Yet whatever may happen, it is definitely time for food activists to drop the “holy crusade” rhetoric in which organic/local/sustainable is the banner of the good, and “corporate” is the mark of the evil, and never the twain shall meet.

    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.

    Sometimes a risk factor is just a risk factor

    March 18, 2009

    Possibly the least controversial statement to have come out of the Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size movements is the idea that obesity is not a death sentence – in other words, that not every fat person is one calorie away from heart failure, diabetes, and the many other diseases linked (often tenuously) to obesity. Now, mainstream medicine is starting to accept this. As reports,

    One of Canada’s top obesity doctors says it’s time to stop recommending weight loss for everyone who meets official criteria for obesity. Dr. Arya Sharma says being obese doesn’t necessarily doom people to poor health and that weight loss recommendations should be targeted at those most at risk because of medical problems.

    Many people who meet the body mass index criteria for obesity “are really not that sick at all,” says Sharma, chairman for cardiovascular obesity research and management at the University of Alberta and scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network. “It’s not unusual to find someone come into your practice whose BMI is 30 or 32 (technically obese). This might be someone who is physically active, who is eating a good healthy diet. If you followed the guidelines to the letter you would be prescribing obesity treatment when there’s really no reason to do that, because they’re not medically obese.” …

    His appeal comes as evidence begins to mount that a significant proportion of fat people are metabolically healthy. One in every three people who are obese — and half of those who are overweight — may be resistant to fat-related abnormalities that increase their risk of cardiovascular disease, according to new research from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. … In [that] study, nearly 17 per cent of obese men and women possessed not one of the heart or metabolic abnormalities the researchers considered.

    On the one hand, this is fairly obvious stuff. Many fat people remain fat despite leading a healthy lifestyle; and many thin people remain thin despite doing everything “wrong” with their diet and/or exercise. There has never been a perfect correspondence between (over)weight and health, and it’s about time the public discourse on obesity acknowledged that basic fact.

    On the other hand, it may be premature to dismiss the effects of obesity on populations’ health. In the Albert Einstein College study mentioned by the article, 83% of obese participants had at least one heart or metabolic “abnormality” that may have been linked to obesity. Now, this absolutely does not imply that these 83% were sick because they were fat, or that the sample is representative of any larger population. However, it does raise the question of whether fat people (not all of whom are in poor health) are disproportionately sicker than thin people.

    Instead of a conclusive answer, I have some tangentially-related old data to share. In 1993, the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey asked a large, nationally-representative sample of American adults to report their general health, height, and weight, among many other things. This crosstabulation shows the relationship between respondents’ classification as obese (by their BMI) and respondents’ self-reported general health status.

    Health Crosstab

    A vast majority of obese (and non-obese) respondents reported their health as “good” or better. However, comparing the two BMI categories suggests a strong correlation between obesity and worse self-reported health. For instance, obese respondents were twice as likely as non-obese ones to report their health as “poor,” and half as likely to report their health as “excellent.” This relationship persisted in three-way crosstabs controlling for sex, race, education, and income.* While this analysis was carried out on unweighted cases, weighting the data set by a product of poststratification and design weights did not alter or weaken this relationship.**

    The table raises as many questions as it answers. It appears true that in 1993, obese people were more likely to report being in poor health than non-obese people. However, one must ask:

  • Has this relationship persisted over time?
  • Does this relationship persist under different statistical methods?
  • To what extent does this relationship exist because obese respondents perceive their obesity as a health problem, independent of any diseases it may cause?
  • By extension, does this relationship persist when controlling for body image?
  • If the relationship is robust in various years, under various methods of analysis, and while controlling for body image, then what causes obese respondents to be more likely to self-report poor health?

    As this (overly) simple analysis suggests, the effect of obesity on the public health is not a closed case. While many people classified as obese lead healthy lives and suffer from no diseases, it remains to be seen whether the obese are still more disposed to be in poor health than the non-obese, and what (if any) maladies of the former are actually caused by their obesity.
    Read the rest of this entry »

  • First, they came for the economists…

    March 16, 2009

    Jim Manzi is one among many commentators on the economic crisis who is using it as an opportunity to question the discipline of economics:

    If Mankiw’s list is the best economics can do, it sure seems like a naked emperor moment to me. Where’s the beef?

    My challenge would be simple: please list 14 useful, non-obvious predictive rules that economics provides that have survived rigorous, replicated falsification trials.

    If you were to provide this challenge to physics or biology, it would be easy to come up with 1,400. Hence, human invention of aircraft, space travel, mobile phones, antibiotics, vaccines, MRI scans, the internal combustion engine and so forth. This – not the attempt to create pressure on public officials to support the policy preferences of most economics professors – is why actual science education is so important.

    Manzi is not alone. While public sentiment and political action are pulling in the direction of Keynesian interventionism, the discipline of economics is still rolling on the track laid down by the neoclassical gang. The Times’ Patricia Cohen writes:

    Prominent economics professors say their academic discipline isn’t shifting nearly as much as some people might think. Free market theory, mathematical models and hostility to government regulation still reign in most economics departments at colleges and universities around the country. True, some new approaches have been explored in recent years, particularly by behavioral economists who argue that human psychology is a crucial element in economic decision making. But the belief that people make rational economic decisions and the market automatically adjusts to respond to them still prevails.

    The failure of economics to respond credibly and quickly to the unfolding crisis has led some, Manzi among them, to criticize the field as a whole. In comment threads such as these, Joes of all trades have emerged to put in their two utils about how economics is wrong, useless, or “not real.” Some choice quotes:

    The sole determinant of everything in economics is human behavior, meaning that economics is a farce.

    Economists serve a useful role in society. They help fill an oversupply of endowed chairs at prestigious universities, they give “street cred” to the usury of bankers, and they are able alchemists for the aristocracy.

    Economics is not a science. It’s not even even a pseudo-science. It’s like trying to quantify lust or rage in the form of equations. Your rants about your fellow economists are of that of a shaman accusing animists of being ignorant.

    Most economists are in the propaganda business. That includes evidoers Greenspan and Bernanke. Economists must bear blame for this crisis.

    In the words of a Chick tract, when it came to economists foreseeing or averting the economic crisis, somebody goofed. But this should not condemn the entire enterprise of economics to the scrap heap. Whatever its faults have been in recent years, economics can still claim at least these few defenses against swarming critics of the discipline as such.

    1. Social science is complex. Recall Manzi’s “challenge” to economics: Manzi congratulates “real” science – that is, the physical sciences – on producing “useful, non-obvious predictive rules.” Why, Manzi asks, can’t economics produce such rules, too? Distilling reality into predictive rules is hard, and it likely gets harder as academics lop off greater and greater slices of reality to explain. By virtue of being “purer” than the social sciences, the hard sciences have limited themselves to explaining increasingly limited portions of reality, and even here their job isn’t done yet. So the least “pure” social science has before it the grandest task: to model systems which have been studied by layer upon layer of “purer” hard sciences. Thus, if economics hasn’t come up with infallible laws yet, perhaps it is because of the inherent complexity of markets and market behavior.

    2. Social science is probabilistic. The above suggests that given enough time and effort, economics will produce infallible laws. This is not entirely reasonable. Any useful (i.e., sufficiently simple) social scientific theory will have to be probabilistic, even given perfect information about how its subject works. Thus, economic theories cannot say that A will lead to B, but only that all else being equal, A will lead to an increased likelihood of B. Contrary to Manzi’s standard for theories, any social scientific theory can therefore be falsified (in the strict sense), given enough trials – but this fails to describe either its accuracy or usefulness.

    3. Social science dramatically alters that which it studies. Social science is complex and probabilistic in large part because its effects on its subjects are so profound. People are not bacteria in a petri dish – they are consumers of social science as much as they are its subjects. Manzi asks economics to produce rules that are non-obvious and predictive. Well, obviousness is a matter of perception – what is obvious to one is questionable to another, and impossible to a third. In economics, mercantilism was an innovative theory that became obvious and was later discarded. How many of the “obvious” things Manzi knows about the market had to be codified and disseminated by economists? And as for the predictive quality of economic theories, such theories exists in a complicated feedback loop with the phenomena they study, with successful or famous theories introducing great distortions in the social reality. To wit, just because a certain economic theory has predictive power today, it may not necessarily have such power in the future, once word of the theory gets around to workers, consumers, investors, or the government.

    The badge of a Ph.D. in economics should not shield its wearers from well-deserved criticism. However, disagreement with a particular thinker or theory should not be cultivated into a rejection of economics as a discipline.

    (h/t to beeveedee)