Friday, September 27, 2013

Matt Yglesias goes 2 for 3

If I were picking Wonkblog’s “best sentences we  read today,” I’d give serious consideration to these two offerings by Matt Yglesias:

● “This business of letting a hard-core of GOP rejectionists determine the terms of the debate is a choice, and it’s a choice he [Boehner] ought to reject.”

● “The actual forecast is that the political system will be under the control of a relatively narrow elite who will stomp on the interests of the median household.”

The former sentence comes from a post on the debt ceiling fight, the latter from his take on Tyler Cowen’s book, Average Is Over. Both posts are short, well worth the couple of minutes it takes to read them.

But then there’s his piece on why the Republicans should act for the greater good by abolishing the debt ceiling, which concludes with this:

● “If they all got together and made a pact to do the right thing, it’s not like they’d all face simultaneous primary challenges.”

Um, I bet they would. Yes, Matt, the Tea Party really is that radical. 

Friday grab-bag

● It seems pretty clear to me that Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control is the most important non-fiction book of the year – certainly the most chilling. Louis Menand’s New Yorker review does the honors. One excerpt:

Because a nineteen-year-old airman performing regular maintenance accidentally let a socket slip out of his wrench, a Titan II missile became a time bomb, and there was no way to turn off the timer. … If it had detonated, most of the state of Arkansas would have been wiped out.

● I would advise against clicking through to this Belle Waring screed on why male authors suck. I do not understand why this piece has gotten so much love on the Internet – I find it self-indulgent, smug, and ultimately far more mean-spirited, boring and closed-minded than the authors she criticizes.

● Matt Taibbi brings the outrage in his story on Wall Street looting America’s pension funds. One of his leading villains is Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo: I remember when this gushing Time Magazine profile lauded her as the walk-on-water savior of all that was good and true. Here's Taibbi: 

Nor did anyone know that part of Raimondo's strategy for saving money involved handing more than $1 billion – 14 percent of the state fund – to hedge funds, including a trio of well-known New York-based funds: Dan Loeb's Third Point Capital was given $66 million, Ken Garschina's Mason Capital got $64 million and $70 million went to Paul Singer's Elliott Management. The funds now stood collectively to be paid tens of millions in fees every single year by the already overburdened taxpayers of her ostensibly flat-broke state. ...
In Rhode Island, over the course of 20 years, [former SEC lawyer Eric] Siedle projects that the state will pay $2.1 billion in fees to hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture-capital funds. Why is that number interesting? Because it very nearly matches the savings the state will be taking from workers by freezing their Cost of Living Adjustments – $2.3 billion over 20 years.
Video of the week: “Dig Budgie!” exclaimed WXPN DJ Dan Reed midway through Tuesday’s “Highs in the Seventies” segment, thus adverting to the hitherto unknown existence (to me, anyway) of Wales’ premier hard rock power trio. Wikipedia assures me they are big news in Poland and Texas, evidently places where a look and sound midway between Rush and Spinal Tap can woo the cognoscenti:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Libertarians and food politics

Marion Nestle
I heard food activist Marion Nestle at Franklin & Marshall College’s Common Hour today. It was a good talk; Nestle is a lively, engaging speaker with a compelling message.

In her view, it’s no wonder U.S. obesity rates doubled between 1980 and 2008. Profit-hungry corporations are spending billions of dollars on marketing junk food to every man, woman and child in the country, portion sizes have expanded like crazy, and government policies have mostly made matters worse, not better.  We need to eat real food, in smaller portions, and we need to curb the power of the food-industrial complex (my term, not hers).

Afterward, there was a Q&A. The first questioner said he was a libertarian, and asked why any government involvement was needed on food issues at all. Nestle had spoken approvingly of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to limit the size of soft drinks; shouldn’t people be allowed to make their own choices, free of state paternalism?* Nestle responded that government is always involved in food policy, and it’s unrealistic to expect it not to be; the important thing is to align it with public health goals. 

That’s true as far as it goes, but I think a better response would have been to remind the questioner of a story she told midway through her speech.

It seems a group of students in an introductory nutrition class at New York University were shown two soft drink cups, an 8 oz. one and a 64 oz. one, and asked to estimate the number of calories each would contain. The correct answers are about 100 calories and 800 calories, respectively. The thing was, the students’ guesses for the large cup were only about three times bigger than the estimates for the smaller one, even though they were given the ounce numbers. According to Nestle, the students simply refused to believe that any serving of a soft drink, no matter how large, could contain 800 calories.

Isn’t that interesting? Here you have affluent, educated young adults in a nutrition class at a prestigious university, not being exposed to any advertising, facing at least some incentive to get the right answer – yet they still can’t bring themselves to believe that a 64 oz. drink will have eight times the calories of an 8 oz. one. 

What does that say about the judgments people are likely to make in everyday life? We're swamped by time pressure, watching our budgets, tempted at every turn by foods scientifically designed to be as addictive as possible. Even when relevant information is right in front of our noses, we miss it. Those NYU whiffed on a softball question; are we likely to do better? 

The libertarian conceit is that people are smart enough to know their own best interests, should be free to pursue them without government interference and should be left to bear the consequences, good or bad, on their own. When taken to extremes (and it often is), I think libertarianism turns a blind eye to the emotional, habit-laden ways real human beings make most decisions. A successful libertarian regime would require a level of widespread decision-making competence that's hard to square with an NYU class letting naive incredulity trump simple multiplication. 

If Peter Thiel ever gets his island, keep an eye on the diabetes rates. 
 *Bloomberg’s much-mocked soda ban was based on solid behavioral science, according to Nestle. When you ban 32 oz. soda, it’s true that consumers can just buy two 16 oz. ones, but doing so requires just enough extra effort that most people don’t bother. The 16 oz. drink satisfies, them, they stop drinking when it’s done – and the 32 oz. drink’s extra 31 grams of sugar never enters their bloodstream.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Buggy crashes

Source: Wikimedia
In a freak accident last month, a woman was critically injured in Lancaster County when a minivan struck a horse that had broken away from a group of Amish trying to hitch it to a buggy.

Her brother is now calling for new traffic safety regulations for Amish buggies and is reaching out to local lawmakers. His crusade is the subject of a front-page story in the Lancaster Sunday News. People love to have opinions about the Amish; the article has drawn 57 comments as of this morning.

A table accompanying the article breaks down Lancaster County buggy crash data year-by-year from 2008 to 2012. In total, as the article notes, there were 136 such crashes in that period.

Well, how do buggy crashes compare to the overall accident rate? I didn’t feel like compiling five years of accident statistics, so I just did two. According to PennDOT, Lancaster County had a total of 10,666 vehicle crashes in 2011 and 2012, resulting in 90 fatalities. The corresponding numbers for buggy crashes, according to the Sunday News piece, were 51 and 1.

In other words, buggies accounted for less than one half of one percent of county vehicle crashes and just over 1 percent of the fatal ones.

Every crash is a trauma for the people who experience it, and a tragedy when someone is injured or killed. It’s natural, even laudable, to think, “No one else should have to go through this pain!” But in terms of public safety, buggy crashes aren’t something to focus on. Even reducing them to zero wouldn’t amount to a blip in the big picture.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Demographics by Seurat

A couple months ago, I came across a short writeup of the Racial Dot Map – a digital map on which researchers plotted the geographic location of every single person counted in the 2010 census. At the time, I hadn’t bothered to click through to the map itself. But for some reason I was in a demographic mood today.

Below is a section of the map centered on Lancaster city, where I live; click to enlarge. You can see the legend at the lower right: blue for white, green for black and so on. (Note that “Hispanic” is an origin, not a race: I believe anyone who self-identified as Hispanic, regardless of race, is flagged as orange.) Since we’re still zoomed out to some extent, we’re seeing smudges rather than individual dots. In case you’re curious about scale, by the way, it’s about 11.5 miles by car from Lancaster to Columbia.

Is this map surprising? That depends on how familiar you are with the region. Most people associate Lancaster County with the Amish, so I suspect the city’s large Hispanic population may occasion a few double-takes.  I certainly didn’t know about it before I moved here in 2007; I remember being floored when I first heard that the school district’s students are about 60 percent Latino. Countywide, the Hispanic population exceeds the Amish by 50 percent, according to recent estimates.

What you also see here is Lancaster County’s white suburban sprawl. Along the major arteries, housing developments have been replacing cornfields over the past few decades – putting considerable strain on those arteries, one might add. In this respect, Lancaster is not unlike many other parts of the country. 

If you go to the original map and zoom in all the way, you can see even more detail. It appears Lancaster has a couple of proto-Asian neighborhoods in the northeast. There's another smattering in the west suburbs, close to Lancaster General Health’s satellite campus, which makes me think they're likely medical professionals and their families. To the extent there’s a black neighborhood, it’s the north part of the city, but there are lots of other speckles mixed in; it's not homogenous. Harrisburg, by contrast, has a number of predominantly green – that is, black – neighborhoods, whereas the Hispanic population appears much smaller and less concentrated.

Check out your own town, and see how the demographics match up with your preconceptions and your understanding of local politics. It’s an interesting exercise. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday grab-bag

Lots and lots and lots of opinions out there on the efforts by the Republican House caucus to defund Obamacare and the chances of a government shutdown. Everyone seems to think the Republicans' effort will blow up in their faces – which to my mind is an omen that it won’t. In particular, I see no reason to suppose Americans are tuned in enough to assign blame where it's deserved should the s*** hit the fan. Nor would I underestimate Democrats’ ability to turn any situation into a disaster for themselves.

This interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett (which dates from back in January) reminded me of why I enjoy the guy's work so much:

The question is, what happens to your ideas about computational architecture when you think of individual neurons not as dutiful slaves or as simple machines but as agents that have to be kept in line and that have to be properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals and organizations and alliances?  … We're beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it's much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy. Sometimes you can achieve stability and mutual aid and a sort of calm united front, and then everything is hunky-dory, but then it's always possible for things to get out of whack and for one alliance or another to gain control, and then you get obsessions and delusions and so forth.

Video of the week: Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash did a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session today; in honor of that, here’s “London Calling”: 

On guns

Back in 2009, when I worked for the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, I researched and wrote a series on gun law and illegal guns that, unfortunately, never made it into the paper. (Couldn’t free up the space for it, and then we merged with the New Era.) One of my sources was a guy named Kim Stolfer, an ardent gun-rights activist and chairman of the group Firearm Owners Against Crime. Here's part of what I wrote:

Stolfer lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, the city where three police officers were shot and killed in April by a heavily armed man in a bulletproof vest when they responded to a domestic call. 
In the wake of the incident, [Lancaster] Mayor [Rick] Gray and police Chief Keith Sadler joined Gov. Ed Rendell to call for reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. 
Gunman Richard Poplawski owned a shotgun, an AK-47 and several handguns. Stolfer, who knew one of the slain officers, said the shootings showed the failure of the court system, not a need for better gun control.  Under existing laws, Poplawski should have had his firearms confiscated — he had protection-from-abuse orders served against him and had been discharged from the Marine Corps for striking an officer. 
Stolfer, a Marine Corps veteran and firarms trainer, also said the Pittsburgh police were sent to the house with insufficient equipment and training.

And right there, I’m sorry to say, my sympathy for the gun-rights folks largely evaporated.

The thing is, Stolfer made some good points during our chat. A lot of gun-control advocates don’t understand guns, he said — I'll second that, for sure. He also said that lot of gun-control laws that get passed are just stupid: They’re cumbersome nuisances to legitimate gun owners, and don’t deter criminals. I think that’s true, too.

But look at the big picture. Yes, Poplawski should never have had those guns. But he did, in part because gun-rights advocates make it so hard to keep guns away from people like him. And when your backup argument is that well-trained, well-armed members of a big-city police department should have been even better trained and armed, you lose me. Who was Pittsburgh supposed to send to the scene, ninjas? James Bond?

Similarly, when your definition of freedom implies that elementary schools should have metal detectors and armed guards and should train kids to fight armed intruders by throwing staplers at them, you’ve lost me.

When selling guns to blind people is a thing, you’ve lost me.

Read Charles Pierce’s cri-de-coeur from Ireland. I’m sorry, but he’s right. On the topic of guns, Americans are nuts. In the supermarket by my house, the magazine rack boasts a full shelf of gun magazines. The cover of “Personal & Home Defense” features a triple-barreled shotgun and promises an article on “panic room essentials.” Pure gun porn. This is about pushing product, not safety. Yes, there are bad guys out there, and guns can aid in self-defense. But the bad guys wouldn't be so dangerous if guns weren't so easy to get. And widespread gun possession makes it more likely that people will blow each other away over dumb arguments, or accidentally kill their girlfriends’ 3-year-old playing "bang bang you're dead." 

The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” It doesn’t say, “Every man for himself.” The Heller decision, in which John Roberts’ Supreme Court majority affirmed an individual right to bear arms, expressly states that the right is far from unlimited. The opinion endorses bans on ownership by felons and the mentally ill and explicitly permits banning “dangerous and unusual weapons,” including military-style weapons:

It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service — M-16 rifles and the like — may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. … But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right [i.e., as being limited].

Well, try telling that to Kim Stolfer. After Sandy Hook, any country with a functioning polity would have said "enough."  But we keep on going. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Today in Kant studies

A police spokeswoman in Rostov-on Don, Viktoria Safarova, said two men in their 20s were discussing [the philosopher Immanuel] Kant as they stood in line to buy beer at a small store on Sunday. The discussion deteriorated into a fistfight, and one participant pulled out the small, nonlethal pistol and fired repeatedly.
The victim was hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. … It was not clear which of Kant's ideas may have triggered the violence.

Kant (1724-1804) is widely considered the most important philosopher of the European Enlightenment. The best-known element of his ethical theory is the categorical imperative: Act only according to principles that you can will to be universal laws. “Shoot people who disagree with you about Kant” pretty clearly fails that test.

People attack each other over Kant so rarely that it’s considered “weird news.” Imagine people coming to blows over a philosopher, we chuckle -- as if the decades of bloodshed over Marxism amounted to anything else. Not to mention the endless violence associated with religious disputes. It's strange that something so risible in one context seems so normal if you scale it up a bit. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The world may be enough

I was over at Crooked Timber the other day, and a couple of clicks took me to CT contributor John Quiggin’s article in Aeon, “The World Is Enough.” Published back in January, it makes a remarkably optimistic assertion:

[C]an we share the advantages of the developed world with the entire population of the planet without running into limits on mineral and renewable resources? Not according to many environmentalists. They say we can’t even maintain them for the few people who presently enjoy them; that it’s technologically impossible to sustain current consumption levels on a global scale, let alone to spread prosperity more broadly.
 Having spent much of my professional life as an economist studying problems of this kind, I’m convinced that this is not true. The question is not: ‘Can we let everyone live like prosperous residents of the First World without destroying our natural environment?’ It is: ‘Will we?’ A balance is achievable, if we want it.

Yes, Quiggin argues, we can have it all. Half a century from now, we could produce enough energy and enough food to allow the world’s projected population of 10 billion people (up from 7 billion today) to enjoy something approaching a middle-class lifestyle, and do so sustainably. There won’t be much NASCAR, to be sure, but there will be enough food and resources to make true privation largely a thing of the past.

Is this remotely plausible? Quiggin bases his argument on twin conjectures about energy and food production; here, in a nutshell, are his assertions:

Energy: By increasing vehicle efficiency and reconfiguring settlement patterns, we can cut car fuel use by 90 percent. Meanwhile, we can convert the power grid to run largely on solar, relegating fossil fuels to a marginal role at most. It would be a huge endeavor, yes, but in the greater scheme of things, not as huge as you might think:

At current prices, energy use in developed countries accounts for around five per cent of national income (commonly, though misleadingly, measured by GDP). Even on conservative estimates, the cost of zero-carbon alternatives is no more than double that of carbon-based energy — that is, around 10 per cent of our current income. So, a complete switch might reduce income, net of energy costs, by around five per cent. Again, that’s roughly what we spend each year on cafés and restaurants. [my emphasis – ts]

Food: Agricultural productivity is staying ahead of population growth, and though productivity gains are slowing, they should continue to some extent. Quiggin argues that much of the global hunger problem can be solved via better distribution rather than additional production. He also notes that food production will have to reduce its environmental footprint; meat production, he suggests, will have to shift away from beef and pork and toward poultry.  

Quiggin concedes that implementing the kinds of changes he advocates would require a massive political and cultural overhaul, but he maintains that such an overhaul is not impossible:

The ultimate barriers to achieving a good life for all, free of the lash of financial necessity, are neither technological nor environmental. They are in our beliefs, values and social institutions. If we collectively prefer to stay on the treadmill, chasing bigger and better consumption goods, we can do that, at least until we hit the limits of sustainability. But if we choose to use the opportunities given to us by technology to eliminate poverty and drudgery, and to protect and restore the environment, that choice is equally open to us.

I can state with 100 percent certainty that the world will not steer a straight path to Quiggin’s sustainable Utopia. Nothing is ever that tidy, and there are powerful psychological and institutional forces militating against the outcome he envisions. Millions of people find it really satisfying to have a big house and lots of stuff; powerful industries don't meekly step aside to make way for their successors. Moreover, I think the technological barriers are significantly higher than Quiggin makes them out to be.

Yet his article makes me think that our way forward may not be quite the threading-the-needle near-impossibility I often envision it to be. Might we actually have a nontrivial opportunity to avoid ecological catastrophe? It’s encouraging to think so, to say the least.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday grab-bag

● I really like this interview in which atheist Roy Speckhardt says nice things about Pope Francis. It's encouraging to see the Catholic church's leader moving in directions a humanist can approve of. It’s also nice to see said humanist giving credit where credit is due, yet not turning all wishy-washy about the ultimate compatibility of religion and science or suggesting “all ways of seeking the truth are equally valid” or what-have-you. Could there be a middle path between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould after all?

● What the heck is Izabella Kaminska on about, and is there any chance it is true? As far as I can tell the gist of her (jargon-filled and neologism-heavy) argument is that we have solved scarcity, our financial system is still organized as if we hadn’t, yet rather than rethink the financial system, we are instead desperately creating artificial scarcity by fiat. That seems crazy – the sort of thing only someone living in the recursive hall-of-mirrors world of high finance could believe – but modern economies are highly counterintuitive, and I’m a layman, so to me, at least, if she’s wrong, she’s not obviously wrong.

Video of the week: Via Slate, here's Tim Minchin’s “Storm,” a meditation on science denialism. He focuses on the hippy-dippy and po-mo varieties, but the fundamentalist version is equally maddening and, in U.S. politics, far more of a concern.

Cattle, chickens and Marcellus Shale jobs

Fracking – the process of drilling new deep shale gas wells – is on the wane in Pennsylvania, at least for the time being, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The number of drilling rigs in the state has dropped by half, the piece says. Companies are capping wells and even taking writedowns on the value of their leaseholdings. Far fewer water trucks are rumbling along the Northern Tier’s rural byways.

That’s all true, I have no doubt, but here’s the thing to keep in mind: New drilling may be down, but natural gas output in Pennsylvania is still rising very rapidly. According to the Pennsylvania DEP, drillers extracted 1.4 trillion cubic feet of gas from January to June 2013. That’s up more than 22 percent from the previous six months and up 57.2 percent year-on-year.

For that reason, this assertion in the article strikes me as bizarre, to say the least:

It's been a little more than two years since a then-new Gov. Corbett famously pledged to make Pennsylvania "the Texas of the natural-gas boom" - but already it's beginning to look as if the governor was all hat and no cattle, at least on this issue.

Say what?! Pennsylvania has gone from being a net natural gas importer as late as 2010 to producing 10 percent of the nation’s supply – during a period when many other states are equally hell-bent on increasing their production. We’re winning a race in which everyone has started running eight, ten, a hundred times faster than they used to. We’re caught up in one of the most rapid expansions of an industry in the history of the world, and we’re up in front.

And while much of this could have happened with someone else in the governor’s mansion, does anyone seriously deny that Corbett has been among the gas companies’ biggest friends, or that his efforts have helped them along? During the Rendell administration, industry spokespeople I dealt with seemed resigned to a severance tax. Under Corbett, they got an impact fee that touches them far more lightly, not to mention local zoning pre-emption (still under state Supreme Court review) and other goodies.

So where the heck does that “all hat and no cattle” notion come from? The answer I think, is that it’s an understandable misperception, given the pervasive overhyping of shale gas’s economic potential, particularly regarding jobs.

Reasonable analysts have consistently said Pennsylvania's jobs boost from natgas development would be modest – not negligible, particularly in rural areas, but not gargantuan either. They also noted that most of the work in gas extraction occurs early on - once you've leased and drilled the well and hooked up the pipeline, there's not a whole lot to do but let the stuff flow (or not flow, if the prices are too low). 

The data so far shows shale gas operations have created in the neighborhood of 30,000 jobs statewide, a number that is now plateauing. (See Page 14 of this report.) Not bad, but for comparison, the state’s workforce exceeds 6 million. You can parlay that 30,000 into hundreds of thousands of indirect and induced jobs, but only if you use implausibly large multipliers, or economic models that assume all royalties are immediately spent.

Shale gas boosters, however, have tirelessly promoted their industry as a solid, stable and ever-expanding jobs bonanza – jobs now, jobs in future, jobs everywhere, jobs forevermore. And no organization has touted that vision more than the Corbett administration. Shale, the governor has said, will be the engine of a Pennsylvanian industrial renaissance.

Well, if you're banking on generating economic utopia from an industry that, despite remarkable growth, still amounts to less than 0.5 percent of Pennsylvania’s economy, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And if that’s what you convince everyone else to expect, you're setting them up for disappointment, too.

This isn’t a case of “all hat and no cattle” – the expansion of natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania is real and significant. But the failure of the industry to live up to a level of hype that never made sense  – well, that may be a case of chickens coming home to roost.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Social media, dunderhead edition

Update No. 2: Be sure to check out Ken Mueller's knowledgeable comment at the end of this post. Bottom line: "This is more about Facebook than it is about Sundance."

Update: Well, Sundance's Facebook marketing may be a little hit-or-miss (see the body of this post), but on the stuff that really matters, it seems the company is on the ball. There was a snafu with Debbie's dress delivery - it was not Sundance's fault, yet Debbie tells me the company's customer service people went above and beyond to resolve it. They got a new dress expedited to her, and were, in her enthusiastic words, "absolutely fantastic." I'll repeat that: "absolutely fantastic." So, if only they had that dress in my size ...

* * * * *

So, Debbie’s daughter is getting married, and Debbie wanted a new dress for the occasion. After a fair bit of online searching (all conducted on her computer, btw), she selected this “Universal Cool Dress” from the Sundance website, and it is now on its way to her.

Imagine my surprise when a link to the dress appeared this morning on my Facebook feed, with the caption, “We thought you might like …”

To spell out the obvious, this is both creepy and stupid.

Creepy, because neither I nor anyone else has ever visited the Sundance website on my computer. So the only way they’re getting to me is via Debbie’s friend list. That's pretty intrusive. 

Stupid, because how the heck could I possibly be in the market for this dress? Debbie already bought it. And it’s not as though I’m going to wear a drape-front dress, no matter how lovely it is. (“We thought you might like …”?! *Shakes head*) Did Sundance just spam Debbie’s Facebook friends without first bothering to check which ones were male?

Come to think of it, even just spamming Debbie’s female friends would be stupid. Suppose Sundance shows Woman B the dress that her good friend, Woman A, just bought. Woman B likes it, buys it … and they end up wearing it to the same important social event. Think the twosome will coo, “Thank you, Sundance!” over the canapés?

So, as I said, creepy and stupid. Two adjectives that warm the cockles of every advertiser's heart.

I really hope the NSA’s algorithms are better than Sundance’s, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Friday grab-bag

By far the best things I read on the Internet this week were Brad DeLong’s “deleted scenes” from his Slouching Toward Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, which apparently will be published next September.  "Stagnation and Poverty Outside the North Atlantic, 10,000 BC-1870," "Where Was China? Why the TwentiethCentury was Not a Chinese Century" and "Lighting the Rocket of Growth andLightening the Toil of Work" – I linked to the first of the three in Thursday's post, all three are well worth reading.

Bonus video of the week: Not a cheesy 1970s music video this time, but the “Sir Archibald Mapsalot” sketch from this week’s The Daily Show. The bit at the end is the nicest jab of the (metaphorical) stiletto I’ve seen in ages: 

Contra Matt Yglesias

I generally find Matt Yglesias’ take on things pretty perspicacious. Still, I think he went off the rails this week when he asserted “no one likes to brag about shortchanging their kids’ education”:

Imagine a scenario where you travel out of town on work and end up meeting up with an old friend you haven't seen in a while. He's a prosperous professional — a lawyer at a local firm, say — but not a top 1 percent master of the universe type. Basically, a guy with some discretionary income to blow but not someone who can just be indifferent to what everything costs. You're surprised to see him roll up in a surprisingly fancy car and remark "wow, nice car!"
Imagine the following replies:

  1. Yeah, I got an amazing deal on it. Apparently this color was wildly unpopular for some reason but I didn't mind and got it at a great price.
  2. Yeah, we had a blockbuster year at the firm so I decided to splurge with the bonus.
  3. Yeah, after Hannah finished college Marie and I decided to downsize to a smaller house and buy ourselves fancy cars with the extra money.
  4. Yeah, we found out about a discount college that provides 95% of the educational value of traditional college at half the price so we sent Hannah there and bought fancy cars instead.
  5. Yeah, I probably shouldn't have done it and I definitely shouldn't be telling you about it but I got a bit of a hot stock tip from a client and bought this with the proceeds.
 I feel like you can easily imagine someone saying four of these things to an old an friend, and the one I can't imagine isn't the one where you confess to a crime.

Matt makes at least three sneaky rhetorical moves here. The first is using the loaded word “shortchanging,” as opposed to, say, “getting a good value,” the second is setting an especially ostentatious luxury item (the car) against education, and the third is making his interlocutor a member of the upper middle class, a guy within shouting distance of the famous “1 percent.”

Yes, among folks with six-figure incomes a lot of conspicuous consumption and social positioning figures into their education spending, along with whatever learning presumably comes along for the ride. What’s the point of making partner if you can’t send your daughter to the Drakensberg to hone her rappelling skills and take a class in intermediate Xhosa?

But Matt’s assertion that “‘The Kids’ is everyone’s favorite thing to spend money on” holds true only in certain zip codes. The attitude is a class marker, not a universal. Down here in the lower middle class, I find people worry all the time about school’s cost-benefit tradeoffs – and I’m sorry, but I hear a lot about bargain-hunting. When parents secure a good deal, they tell their friends proudly, and it sure sounds like bragging to my ears.

The following would be an unremarkable sentence, perhaps even a status-enhancing one, for a typical central Pennsylvania couple: “We’re sending Kenneth (or Jennifer) to community college for two years, then he/she will finish up at Penn State. After all, he/she will end up with the same degree, for two-thirds the cost.”

I can even imagine such parents buying a new car with the savings, and admitting it. Maybe it wouldn’t be a Lexus, but they might well conclude the family needed a new Corolla more than Kenneth needed to spend all four years in State College.

The problem for average parents is that the peculiarities of the education market, plus the decline of public funding, have priced all the bargains out of existence. Millions of people would love to give their kids a chance at a decent white-collar job without incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt. But after three decades of above-inflation tuition increases, those opportunities simply aren’t there. We have gaudy campuses, state-of-the-art laboratories, dorms that look like Club Med – but virtually no place where an unremarkable young person can get a respected credential without going into indentured servitude. (See this extraordinary piece by Felix Salmon on Cooper Union for a particularly awful illustration of the devolution of social mission in higher education.)

I believe, contra Matt, that there plenty of parents in America who are quite clear-eyed about the one-upmanship that plagues education today, who don’t want to play and would love to opt out. But to opt out, you need options.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ramen, my cholesterol levels, and the history of the world

So, I was trolling through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog this morning, and I came across this link to an NPR article on instant ramen. It’s “interesting throughout,” as Tyler Cowen would say.

The food that conquered the world.
Invented in Japan in the late 1950s, packaged dry ramen is “the most successful industrial food ever produced,” NPR tells me. Manufacturers sold 100 billion servings of the stuff in 2012, which works out, the article notes, to 14 servings for every person on the planet. If the Lord’s Prayer were being written today, it would probably say, “Give us this day our daily ramen.”  

I don’t rely on ramen the way some people do, but I go through phases when I eat it multiple times a week. In summer, I use it as a base for “hiyashi chu-ka,” a Japanese cold-noodle dish, and I make spicy garlic ramen with vegetables in the winter. 

I pride myself on tossing the seasoning packet and making my own soup instead – there’s roughly 1,800 milligrams of sodium in that sticky yellowish powder, 76 percent of your RDA!* I just use the block of noodles itself, because that’s the healthy part. Or so I thought.

While not exactly nutritious, instant noodles are a "proletariat hunger killer," as the anthropologist Sidney Mintz would say. They're made with wheat flour, which has a high glycemic index (a metric for how soon a food is likely to make you hungry again). But they're also fried in palm oil, which is 49 percent saturated fat [my italics - ts] — higher than pork lard (40 percent) and soybean oil (14 percent).
All that fat keeps you feeling full longer and helps bring the noodles' overall glycemic index down. ... Palm is the industry's oil of choice because it's cheap, it can withstand high heat, and it has a longer shelf life than other oils. But in the U.S., we're told to eat palm oil sparingly because it raises LDL cholesterol levels. 

The smoking gun - hidden
in plain sight
Holy crap! I immediately went and checked the nutrition information on the noodle packets I have. Sure enough: one block (i.e., two servings) has 7 grams of saturated fat, or 36 percent of your RDA.

Now, I started keeping a keen eye on my saturated fat intake last spring, when my doctor ordered some routine blood work. The tests indicated I had borderline high cholesterol levels, which surprised and alarmed me. I’ve striven for many years to eat healthy (healthily?) – limited red meat, limited processed foods, ix-nay on the pretzels, the donuts and the Hostess Ding Dongs. I stay slim, I exercise, I’ve never had a Big Gulp in my life. How could my LDL and triglycerides be so out of whack?

Go Steelers!
On reflection, it turned out that I was letting more saturated fat and sugar get through than I realized. There was a local brand of full-fat flavored yogurt I liked and consumed in quantity, I ate a lot of cheese, and I could go through a half-gallon of Blitzburgh Crunch ice cream in a week, thank you very much. I cut out those elements cold-turkey, my cholesterol levels dropped like a rock, and I figured I had the problem licked.

I never thought about the ramen.

And why should I? Ramen is a noodle, for heaven’s sake. Spaghetti doesn’t have saturated fat in it. (It really doesn’t; I just checked.) Neither do soba or udon noodles. Neither, for that matter, do fresh ramen noodles. It’s just the instant ramen bricks that do.

I consider myself a fairly committed label-reader. Yet I managed to consume hundreds of instant-ramen packets over the past several years without ever noticing the saturated fat content listed on every single one. I noticed the sodium, mind you, but not the fat content printed a mere three lines above it. In my mental model of the world, noodles don’t have fat in them, so why check to see if they do?

So, moral number one: In a world of human-engineered products, common sense is useless when it comes to ingredients. We can put anything in anything, and we do. We make yogurt red with dye extracted from crushed bugs, we spray viruses on meat to attack bacteria, we put the same kind of clay in cat litter, laxatives and skin cleanser. A block of instant ramen contains 75 percent more saturated fat than a serving of Blitzburgh Crunch.** It makes my head spin, but it’s true.

Second, a lot of people seem to think that providing people information is the beginning and the end of our public-health responsibilities regarding food. (And there’s a faction - it's called the food industry - that wouldn’t even go that far.) Label stuff, let people choose – and f*%# 'em if they choose wrong! They must be stupid, or lack willpower. 

Well, there has been a tsunami of nutrition information over the past couple of decades – the same couple of decades when our obesity rates went through the roof. There’s been a war, and information lost. Cheap, empty calories won, backed by agricultural subsidies and the might of the U.S. advertising industry. Information is a candle sputtering in the hurricane gale of everything else that makes people eat what they do.

Which I think gets us to moral number three: ramen as a signifier of the power imbalances in today’s world. According to that NPR article, ramen poses a painful dilemma for people thinking about global food supplies and food security:
[I]s it really wise for so many people around the world to be so reliant on instant ramen for sustenance? Why can't the urban poor eat something more nutritious than this highly processed, high-fat food?
Sure, that would be ideal, the authors say, but the reality is that in many cities, the poor lack affordable alternatives that are more healthful than ramen. "How are you going to feed these people?" says Gewertz. "I would love to feed them with fruits and vegetables at the local markets, but they are expensive."
Well, that’s because of industrialization, right? Back in the good old days, people lived in homey, communitarian villages where they had access to plentiful local, natural foods. Um, no, not by a long shot:
 An agricultural cereal-heavy diet does not contain enough iron to avoid anemia. It does not contain enough calcium to avoid tooth loss and bone weakness. Rome’s legions were paid in bread and a little salt—that’s what “salary” means. Add to this whatever meat they could find and whatever greens and seasonings they could gather, and you had the diet of the legionaries, collectively at least the most powerful group of men of their age. They wear highly-skilled practitioners of violence. They were mean. They were also short. And they were, by what we would regard as early middle age, largely toothless. …
In 1870 agricultural and commercial societies people were short. Average adult male heights of 5’3” (and adult female heights averaging 4’11”) appear to have been the rule for humanity once we started to farm. This indicates extraordinary malnutrition by our standards. If my wife and I had fed our boy and girl a diet to produce adult heights of 5’3” and 4’11” respectively, Contra Costa Child and Protective Services would have long since came and taken my children away, and I would never have seen them again.

Basically the entire history of “civilization,” as we like to call it, has consisted of masses of poor, ill-nourished people, subsisting on cheap calories, laboring to support a small predatory elite. Instant ramen is just one link in a long, long chain. 


*According to the "Nutrition Facts" on the back of Nissin's Top Ramen package, one ramen block plus all the seasoning equals two full servings. So unless you only eat half a block and half the seasoning (and who does that??) you have to double the nutrition numbers. Nissin doesn't break down the sodium in the seasoning vs. in the noodles, but I'm sure it's mostly in the former. 

**7 grams vs. 4 grams.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Syria. Ecch. And I mean ecch.
I had hoped that reading this highly cited analysis by William R. Polk (posted by James Fallows) would clarify my thinking. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. Polk argues that the U.S. case against Assad is “not proved” – that Assad had no incentive to use chemical weapons in this manner, that the investigations on the ground were too cursory and that our other evidence is too ambiguous to permit firm conclusions.
But I am not persuaded that Assad had no motive to launch such an attack; Polk makes much of the fact that the attacks took place in the Damascus suburbs, not in rebel strongholds, but a big part of Assad’s strategy seems to involve terrorizing his populace to keep them in line. I’m not convinced his thinking would follow the schematic lines that Polk suggests. 
That said, I am as convinced as everyone else seems to be that there is no plausible scenario in which U.S. bombing raids do anything but turn Syria into an even worse clusterf*** than it is today. On one side, you have a brutal, murderous despot. On the other side, a bunch of vicious, fanatic rebel factions with as much commitment to secular democracy as Miley Cyrus has to public decorum. No American who paid even the slightest attention over the past decade can think it’s a winning strategy for us to insert ourselves in such a milieu.

I’m also struck, as Digby was, by the role of climate change in this mess. Syria has been experiencing “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” That would be a major challenge for even the most competent, humane and democratic government to handle, let alone a thugdom like Assad's. 

Books and ebooks

My original motive for buying a Kindle was this: I was buying a fair number of “current events” books – nonliterary works that I generally read just once, but that I wanted to keep around for future reference. Getting a Kindle, I figured, would let me keep such books off my bookshelves, which I could then reserve for books that really merited a place there.

To some extent, that’s how it’s worked out: I have Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order on the Kindle, so I also have the free inch or so of bookshelf space that it’s not taking up. The same goes for The Price of Inequality and Thinking Fast and Slow.

However, the Kindle has altered my book-buying and reading habits more than I expected. Because such huge quantities of out-of-copyright material are available for free – cleaned-up and well-formatted versions cost a dollar or two – I read a lot more 18th- and 19th-century literature than I used to, including some obscure potboilers that I had never heard of before. (J.S. Fletcher, anyone?)  In fact, there's such a cornucopia that it has come to feel painful to pay $9.99 or $11.99 for something contemporary. Moreover, it feels painful to buy any physical book at all – the issue of storing the darn thing rankles in a way it never did in the pre-Kindle days.

In other words, I’ve shifted fairly decisively away from paper books.* Extrapolating from my own experience, I’d expect people in their 20s and 30s to have shifted even more, and have no use for paper books at all. I’d conjecture market is heading toward collapse. 

Apparently, I would be wrong. According to this piece in Nautilus, the rise of e-book sales has slowed, as has the decline in in physical book sales. People still like real books, it seems.

The article cites a study purporting to show that paper books enhance reading comprehension:

A recent experiment conducted with young readers in Norway found that, with both expository and narrative works, people who read from a printed page understand a text better than those who read the same material on a screen. The findings are consistent with a series of other studies on the process of reading. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension,” wrote the Norwegian researchers.

Personally, I don’t feel as though I get less out of a Kindle book than its paper counterpart. What I do feel reduces comprehension is the Internet. I find myself skimming too much and jumping from link to link, until everything merges into an undifferentiated blur of data, assertions and urgent advocacy of … something or other. Darned if I can remember. 

Today, I came across the announcement of Amazon’s planned “Matchbook” feature:

Today, Amazon announced a new feature called Matchbook that will allow owners of hard copies of books to purchase extremely cheap ebook versions for their Kindle collection.
 The prices range from $0.99 to $2.99, depending on the title. If you purchased a book from Amazon in the entire time the company has been around (going all the way back to 1995), you qualify for the ebook sale price. The feature will go live in October, with over 10,000 books eligible at the start of the program.

Hmmm. When moving house, I’ve often weighed getting rid of a book against the chance I might want it again and have to pay $7 or $8 to purchase it used. Wouldn’t object at all to that price plunging to $2.99 or less.

But I can't see buying a "complementary" e-version of a printed book. I tried it once, getting an e-version of Battle Hymn of the Republic as a transportable version of the somewhat cumbersome hardback. The result: I stopped reading the hardback. The slightly nicer reading experience wasn't worth the heft of the thing. 

Books are an odd bundle of the physical and the metaphysical. is a dissertation waiting to happen for some aspiring Platonist out there. 

*It can be startling to see a book in real life that you’ve only known through its e-version. You know the form factor of the Kindle needn’t apply; but still, who would’ve thought the hardback version of Lives of theNovelists would be so big? Also, a long book on the Kindle does not convey quite the same impression as the same thick book in real life. Perhaps they should lengthen or shorten the Kindle’s thermometer icon that shows your progress through a book in accordance with its real-world heft.