April 2008 Archives

Calorie Counts: Again and Again and Again

I read The Consumerist because it often gets on my nerves. Like today, when it squawks about consumer ignorance of Calories in fast food:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Heart Association recently conducted a scientific poll... in which they asked a sampling of consumers to tell them which menu items had the fewest calories. The results? Consumers had no clue....

If you guessed "Tuna Melt"—-you're smarter than approximately 96% of consumers. The Steakhouse Beef Dip with cheese and dressing actually has the fewest calories, with 730, whereas the Tuna Melt weighs in at a hefty 1,420.

You can tell where this is going.

It's a non-sequitur to state that since people can't guess Calories in fast food, public policy must require Calorie estimates in restaurants. While those leading the CSPI and AHA would almost certainly like this to be the case, whether the public would actually benefit from such high-level information is entirely unclear.

That's because there is a serious disagreement within and between scientific communities, doctors, advocacy groups, and consumers about which diet is best for human health and longevity -- not to mention enjoyment!

While almost all people seem to agree the *best* food is that which is fresh and is prepared by the consumer, they do not agree on which foods those should be!

I believe that the number of Calories, by itself, does not provide sufficient information for many, if not most, dieters. Unless you are solely counting calories and nothing else, a list of the total number of Calories on an overhead menus is nearly worthless. It simply doesn't provide what you believe you need to make a good choice.

Many philosophies of eating (e.g. low-fat or low-carb) do not depend on counting calories. Instead, they depend on counting a component of calories: fats, carbs, protein, and (usually left out) alcohol.

Even further, many diets insist should certain types of carbs (e.g. empty sugars and starches) or fats (e.g. trans and saturated fats) should be restricted.

Are we to require that every fast-food restaurant list every single subcomponent of Calories on their menus? Many already do online and in stores, and that's what I use to make my choices.

How does listing Calorie information help these below-Calorie dieters at all? It doesn't, and forcibly listing a crude estimate of the number of Calories in a food may falsely indicate to those not on a diet that counting Calories is the preferred or best or even the only way to healthy diet.

Patagonia's Low Wages!?!

Part 2 of the Steven Greenshouse story cited below tells the story of Patagonia, a highly successful outdoor gear seller.

Apparently Patagonia has an impressive total compensation package that its employees love: 100% health insurance, months off at a time, a childcare facility at headquarters, and -- don't forget this -- LOW WAGES:

Patagonia is so mellow about flextime that the receptionist at headquarters, an 11-time world Frisbee champion, is allowed to take three months off each summer to run a surfing school. “I could make quite a bit more money working somewhere else,” Welling said. “But to have the quality of life and to remain physically fit, by cycling or going surfing, you can’t put a dollar amount on it.”

What's that? Yes, its people are happy to be paid less in cash and more in services, and less overall for less time worked.

This company is an incredible example of why discussion of wages without taking into account benefits, hours, and overall working conditions misrepresents the gains (and losses) made by employees in the US and around the world.

Indy Contractors & Fedex


Part 1 of Steven Greenhouse's "Working Life (High and Low)", adapted from his new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, tells a sad story of Jean Capobianco, a Fedex route owner whose contract was terminated, after she failed to deliver her route's packages. She had developed ovarian cancer, but because she was an independent contractor, Fedex didn't have to make any accommodation for her. When she didn't find a replacement driver for her route (because, it seems, the available short-term replacement drivers wanted an arm and a leg), Fedex terminated her route, and she lost her truck when she couldn't make the payments.

She soon discovered that her new employer
[Roadway, not yet Fedex Ground] had embraced a controversial strategy to squeeze down costs by millions of dollars each year: it insisted that Jean and the other drivers were independent contractors, not employees. The I.R.S., New York and many other states are investigating this strategy, convinced that many companies use it to cheat their workers and cheat on taxes.

Now, Mr. Greenhouse is very cute about this.

First of all, there are a lot of particulars we don't about about that he does. I think that we should have been told that she started at Roadway in 1993, ten years before her route was terminated by Fedex. Presumably she was making decent money some of that time, or she would have tried to get out.

Regarding this open letter trying to shame ABC.

We're at a crucial moment in our country's history, facing war, a terrorism threat, recession, and a range of big domestic challenges. Large majorities of our fellow Americans tell pollsters they're deeply worried about the country's direction. In such a context, journalists moderating a debate--who are, after all, entrusted with free public airwaves--have a particular responsibility to push and engage the candidates in serious debate about these matters. Tough, probing questions on these issues clearly serve the public interest. Demands that candidates make pledges about a future no one can predict or excessive emphasis on tangential "character" issues do not. This applies to candidates of both parties.

Ah, politics... We're always at a crucial point in history, aren't we? The authors say ABC moderators should push candidates on policy, not character. I find this utterly pointless. Might be better to ask them to talk about their favorite cartoon characters. At least we'd learn something new.

Frankly, at this point in the election cycle, we should know exactly where the candidates stand on the most serious policy issues. A candidate that respects the intelligence of the American academic voter would have his staff write honest domestic and international policy proposals, to as detailed a level as is actionable.

And while we know their soundbites and general operating principles, we don't know specifically what Presidential candidates want to do, because even their detailed proposals on issues that are not subject to the vicissitudes of war (like paying for medical care), are simply extensive marketing strategy documents.

I mean, take a good, hard look at Sen. Clinton's "American Health Choices Plan" and Sen. Obama's "Plan for a Healthy America". I have. At best, they are not executable as designed, rely on a hodgepodge of studies of sundry qualities, and assume almost laughably low levels of implementation risk. These are rough guidelines about how these candidates would act, made up to impress. They do not.

Do our letter authors think 50 minutes more of serious debate is going to clarify the differences in immigration policy or healthcare policy between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama? Really?

While a debate presents an additional opportunity for candidates to be powerful, forthright, and rhetorically brilliant, I remain completely unconvinced that any publicly televised debate between candidates generates any information about character or public policy that is not easily available elsewhere.

So I don't value televised debate highly. I think our letter-writers need to step back a minute from their morality campaign against ABC. They should ask themselves whether the high personal and political values they expected from the Sen. Clinton-Sen. Obama debate had any chance of being realized with 50 more minutes of policy discussion.

Would any televised debate be so bountiful? Isn't it more truthful to say that debates, to the academic-oriented, provide zero marginal product?

Your Problem: Selling your wares sight-unseen in a foreign land with limited rule of law through unaffiliated intermediaries.

His Problem: Buying your wares of uncertain durability during an annual fair from some wandering merchant.

Your Solution: Belong to guild that enforces medieval ISO Standards, work rules, creates distinctive products requiring unique raw materials and capital goods.

In Brand Names Before the Industrial Revolution ($5), Gary Richardson argues that the "conspicuous characteristics" of durable goods produced by the end of the Middle Ages in Europe were used by their manufacturers as they would use brand-names today.

He starts with adverse selection (suppliers knowing more than consumers about the true quality of the goods), and moves to counterfeiting (highly prevalent in the middle ages and today -- tons of people in developing nations actually buy knock-off durables and pirated data instead of the "real" thing).

Enter Guilds, which were local manufacturing associations that controlled quality, and required unique production techniques that created distinctive, standardized, readily discernible outputs for consumers.

The heart of the analysis is sown from wonderfully diverse sources:

ABC news reports about a poll of Americans about their attitudes towards the current housing situation:

Nearly three in 10 said they are concerned their home's value will decline over the next two years, while 14 percent of mortgage holders expressed worry that they might miss payments in the next six months.

However, this I find absolutely striking:
The number envisioning falling prices in their area has grown to one in four, while four in 10 think prices will rise, a decrease from two years ago.
Underscoring the public's unsettled feelings, the number saying local housing prices are about right has fallen to 35 percent. Half say homes are overpriced — especially in the Northeast — while those saying housing is underpriced have doubled to one in 10. Midwesterners were likelier than those in other regions to feel this way.
Let me misread the data: 35% of Americans think prices are OK, AND won't change very much. 25% think prices will fall and 40% think prices will rise. These beliefs stand on top of the near majority (~50%) of people thinking prices are too high, and 10% thinking prices are too low.

There are no contradictions there, but absolutely not a monolithic sentiment. I mean, if you're a politician, how are you supposed to pander to everyone?

Italian Public Finance

I've decided to assemble a compendium of links on the historical tradition of Italian Public Finance and its intersection with Public Choice.


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