Monthly Archives: July 2009

Cell Phone Users Of The World Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Ringtones!

David Pogue of the NYT has a campaign:

Over the past week, in The New York Times and on my blog, I’ve been ranting about one particularly blatant money-grab by American cellphone carriers: the mandatory 15-second voicemail instructions.

Suppose you call my cell to leave me a message. First you hear my own voice: “Hi, it’s David Pogue. Leave a message, and I’ll get back to you”–and THEN you hear a 15-second canned carrier message.

[…] These messages are outrageous for two reasons. First, they waste your time. Good heavens: it’s 2009. WE KNOW WHAT TO DO AT THE BEEP.

Do we really need to be told to hang up when we’re finished!? Would anyone, ever, want to “send a numeric page?” Who still carries a pager, for heaven’s sake? Or what about “leave a callback number?” We can SEE the callback number right on our phones!

Second, we’re PAYING for these messages. These little 15-second waits add up–bigtime. If Verizon’s 70 million customers leave or check messages twice a weekday, Verizon rakes in about $620 million a year. That’s your money. And your time: three hours of your time a year, just sitting there listening to the same message over and over again every year.

If enough of us make our unhappiness known, I’ll bet they’ll change.

I’ve told each of the four major carriers that they’ll be hearing from us. They’ve told us where to send the messages:

* Verizon: Post a complaint here:

* AT&T: Send e-mail to:

* Sprint: Post a complaint here:

* T-Mobile: Post a complaint here:

Pogue Part II:

On Thursday, on this blog, in my e-mail column and on Twitter, I launched “Take Back the Beep,” a national campaign to restore your time and money from the country’s cellular carriers. I’m referring, of course, to the obnoxious, drawn-out, 15-second instructions that Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile tack on to your own voicemail greeting. You know: “To page this person, press 5. When you have finished recording, you may hang up. To leave a callback number, press 1,” etc.

The response has been amazing. Gizmodo, Engadget, Consumerist, Technologizer and other blogs joined me in the cause. Radio stations called for interviews. And above all, readers responded, flooding the carriers with such a volume of complaints, three out of the four wound up setting up special channels to accommodate it all.

Kevin Drum:

Apparently Pogue’s campaign to end this ripoff, which he calls “Take Back the Beep,” is already having an effect.  It just goes to show that the mainstream media isn’t dead yet.  Now if only we can get Lou Dobbs hot and bothered about this.

Ezra Klein:

I’ve long wondered about those 15-second instructional messages you get every time you try and leave a cellphone user a message. I know I need to wait for a beep. I also know I should unwrap food from its packaging before eating it and that the magic box in my living room doesn’t imprison very tiny people for my viewing enjoyment. So what’s with the monotone lady telling me how to use voice mail?

Paul Boutin at Venture Beat:

These messages, as anyone who follows the mobile industry knows, are there to run up the number of minutes used by customers who call in to leave or check messages, wasting their lives and running up their phone bills 15 seconds at a time. It’s the same reason voicemail systems are rigged to force you to listen to one message after another, running up more minutes, rather than skipping to the one you want.

In his Take Back the Beep campaign, Pogue has reported, for example, that T-Mobile deleted hundreds of posts from its online customer forums and then blocked posts containing the word “beep.”

Andrew Nusca at ZDNet:


Joseph Lawler at American Spectator:

Good for him. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t, but in that case Pogue’s readers will at least know which services allow you to get rid of the message (iPhone owners don’t have to deal with it). Perhaps in time people will get fed up enough to start switching services, in which case the competing carriers will be forced to rethink the terrible mandatory messages.

It’s interesting that the first thing that occured to Pogue, and also to Mark Thoma, a liberal economist on whose blog I found the story, was not to write that the government should make a regulation preventing mandatory messages. It would be a simple enough regulation, after all.

Why are people like Mark Thoma comfortable letting the market take care of problems like mandatory voicemail instructions, but not things like confusing mortgages? What is the difference between cell phones and personal finance that consumers can take care of themselves on one but not the other?

Harry McCracken

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Filed under Go Meta, Technology

Dude, Where’s My Cash For Clunkers Program?


The program abides, apparently.

Michelle Malkin:

The Obama administration is attempting to use the fact that the program was popular with consumers as evidence that it was a “success,” but that only serves as evidence of government incompetence. Unfortunately for Obama & Company, many people are aware that sometimes “too successful” is far more expensive than “didn’t work at all.” If Apollo 11 had been “too successful” by the Obama administration’s definition, the crew would have overshot the moon, and they’d be dead and halfway to Alpha Centauri by now. “That’s one small loss of men, one giant leap for bureaucracy.”

The fact is that Cash for Clunkers could not have lasted for very long in its present form even if the government didn’t run out of budgeted taxpayer money, for reasons I outlined in part here.

Allah Pundit:

Imagine how stimulative it would be if it wasn’t limited to fuel-efficient cars, per the left’s green agenda, but to any current model. Actually, though, it really isn’t limited: Via the boss, check out Cato’s easy peasy scheme to turn C4C into free money which you can use to buy the clunker or muscle car of your dreams. If they end up extending the program, I’m totally getting that ‘Vette I’ve always wanted. Thanks, Barry!

Bradford Plumer at TNR:

Now, as we’ve noted before, the actual environmental benefits of this program may well prove modest. The efficiency requirements for the new car were fairly lax: You could in theory trade in a Hummer that got 16 mpg and get $3,500 toward a brand new 18 mpg SUV. That’s still an upgrade (and, in fact, that trade would actually save more gas than upgrading a 30 mpg sedan to a 35 mpg vehicle), but it’s a meager one. And any energy savings from a marginal upgrade like that could be dwarfed by the energy required to manufacture the new vehicles (particularly since dealers have to junk the “clunkers” that get traded in—many of which are perfectly good, albeit inefficient, cars). So we’ll just have to wait for data on what people actually purchased.

On the other hand, the program certainly offered a much-needed jolt to the economy, and can provide a huge boon to the ailing auto industry—$1 billion to spur the purchase of 300,000 new vehicles in five days has to rank as one of the more successful stimulus programs to date. (I imagine the program is mostly just moving up purchases that would’ve happened anyway, but in a recession, that’s a good thing!) Still, if the program’s so popular, and everyone’s lining up to trade in their old clunkers, then if Congress decides to re-up, it may as well ratchet up the fuel-economy requirements for new cars and get an even bigger benefit out of this thing.

Henry Payne at The Corner:

When you get right down to it, the program proves the GOP’s point that — if Washington must be involved — the way to stimulate the economy is by giving money back to taxpayers (via rebates or tax cuts), not through a $800 billion federal-spending orgy that hands out goodies to Democratic special interests from teachers unions to pet alternative-energy projects.

Ironic, then, that Congress’s rush to replenish the popular Clunkers program with more money involved raiding the stimulus bill’s Title XVII energy-loan-guarantee program. The energy loans have “been slow to be awarded,” reports the Detroit News (read: bogged down in federal red tape).

That’s right. To continue to feed Americans’ thirst for gas-powered automobiles, Washington has diverted $2 billion from the Democrats’ pet $60 billion to remake the American energy grid with windmills and other forms of expensive, non-carbon energy sources. Pelosi’s House bill called the energy loans “key components to the overall national effort to invest in renewable and low-emissions energy generation, as well as improved electric-power transmission.” Now it’ll be spent on good ol’ internal combustion engines.

John Steele Gordon at Commentary:

The Cars for Clunkers program has been a surprising success. It was supposed to run through November but ran out of cash in less than four weeks, as consumers rushed to take advantage of a program that gave them $3,500-$4,500 rebates on new, fuel-efficient cars in return for junking their old gas guzzlers. (The consumer is supposed to also get the scrap value of the old car, which must, under the terms of the deal, be junked.)

This was a stimulus measure that, mirabile dictu, actually stimulated the economy. It moved 250,000 cars out of the nation’s showrooms in little more than three weeks. In the words of one auto dealer, “Wow.” By increasing the fuel efficiency of the cars on the nation’s highways, it also modestly lowered fuel demand. That cuts air pollution from automobile exhaust. That also puts downward pressure on oil prices, which in turn improves the balance of trade.

So here’s a congressional program that stimulates the economy right now while we are still in recession, cuts pollution, cuts oil prices, and cuts the trade deficit. And it does all that without requiring a vast bureaucracy to administer — and none of John Murtha’s friends had to be cut in on the action.

What are the chances of Congress moving money from other, far less effective programs to continue funding this win-win-win-win program?

Mary Katherine Ham at TWS:

Republican Rep. Dave Camp had this to say on Twitter: “Cash for Clunkers was running on fumes, so we voted to top it off through September.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill at first declared, via Twitter, her intention to vote “no” on a similar provision in the Senate, should it come up next week, as expected: “I will vote no on any extension of Cash for Clunkers program.”

But later prevaricated: “I will consider using EXISTING stimulus $ that has already been appropriated to finish up cash for clunker program. No new $.”

Sen. John McCain was more definitive in his opposition: “House passes $2b additional for “cash for clunkers” – another outrageous act of generational theft!”

UPDATE: Allah Pundit

National Review

UPDATE #2: Jon Stewart

Andrew Sullivan

John Hood at NRO

UPDATE #3: Via Conor Friedersdorf at The Scene:

Radley Balko

Rich Lowry

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic

James Joyner

UPDATE #4: Senate approved the bill


UPDATE #5: Allah Pundit

Jonathan Adler

Andy McCarthy at NRO


Filed under Economics, Environment, Infrastructure, The Crisis

Recession Is Over (If You Want It)

Economy only shrank 1% in the 2nd quarter.

Calculated Risk:

So PCE decreased (as expected), and the investment slump continued.

Exports and government spending were the positives.

For the stress tests, the baseline scenario for Q2 was minus 1.2%, and the more adverse scenario was minus 4.3%, so, before revisions, Q2 is tracking close to the baseline scenario.

This is the fourth consecutive quarterly decline in GDP; the first time that has happened since the government started keeping quarterly records in 1947.

Naked Capitalism:

Down 1.5% was the consensus expectation. But Q1 was revised down to minus 6.4% from 5.5%. The GDP Deflator for Q2 came in at 0.2%, which shows that disinflation risks tipping into deflation still.  The dollar is weaker and the short end of the treasury curve is up massively on these data and revisions.

Also, as I indicated Wednesday, the 2008 numbers were revised down. Q1 2008 was revised from positive 0.9% to negative –0.7%. Q2 2008 was revised way down as well from 2.8% to 1.5%.  Q3 2008 was also very negative, now –2.7%. This confirms the December 2007 recession call.

Joe Weisenthal at Clusterstock

Megan McArdle

Noam Scheiber at TNR:

Obviously this wasn’t all, or even mostly, the doing of the stimulus. A lot of this spending happens automatically, when people start qualifying for government programs because they lose their job or their income drops. (And how long before the right seizes on the 18.4 percentage point swing in defense expenditures?) But I’d just make two points. One, this broadly shows the importance of government spending to offset the drop in demand, which a lot of people on the right still don’t consider a settled issue. And, two, if nothing else, I’d guess those state and local government spending numbers would have looked pretty different without the stimulus money they received in the second quarter.

Andrew Sullivan

Derek Thompson:

There’s more bad news to go along with the “good” news. Consumer spending also fell by 1.2 percent, and there are concerns that consumer spending, which has grown to be about 70 percent of the economy, will continue to lag as people continue to save and pay down their debts. And there are few signs that unemployment, which is scratching the 10 percent mark, will begin to fall in the next few months.

We’re beginning to see a consensus that even when the economy begins to recover, it won’t feel like a recovery.

Matthew Yglesias

Seeking Alpha:

The true health of the economy – broadly defined for the purposes of this article as the ability of the private sector to maintain capital expenditures, create jobs, and service its debt related obligations – has seen virtually no improvement, and in fact has continued to deteriorate throughout the current quarter. What is evident though, is that Government expenditures – a dollar amount that contributes to GDP in the same manner as private investment – have been propping up our largely wilted economy. From the Commerce Department’s press release:

Real federal government consumption expenditures and gross investment increased 10.9 percent in the second quarter, in contrast to a decrease of 4.3 percent in the first. National defense increased 13.3 percent, in contrast to a decrease of 5.1 percent.

James Picerno at Seeking Alpha

Izabella Kaminska at Financial Times

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Filed under Economics, The Crisis

They Want To Believe, Like Fox Mulder Without The Aliens And The Dana Scully

6a00d83451c45669e2011571592b38970c-500wiBreaking down the Birther movement by the numbers. Poll done by Daily Kos/Research 2000.

Allah Pundit:

Party-line breakdowns: Dems 93/4/3 (the last figure is “don’t know”), Indies 83/8/9, and GOP … 42/28/30. Fully 58 percent of Republicans aren’t willing to accept a state-issued Certification of Live Birth as proof that The One was born in Honolulu? I’m skeptical, but, er, not so skeptical that I’m willing to poll this myself at HA. Sounds like a job for Scott Rasmussen. How about it, Scottster?

Glenn Thrush in Politico:

That means a majority of Republicans polled either don’t know about — or don’t believe the seemingly incontrovertible evidence Obama’s camp has presented over and over and over that he was born in Hawaii in ’61.

It also explains why Republicans, including Roy Blunt, are playing footsie with the Birther fringe.

Surprise, surprise: Birther sentiment was strongest in the South and among the 60-plus crowd – presumably because seniors can’t log on to the Internet and rely on rumor, word of mouth and right-wing talk radio.

When do we start a serious dialog about the Birther movement being a proxy for racism that is unacceptable to articulate in more direct terms?

Andrew Sullivan:

And it has nothing to do with his race. Via Benen. What it also means – now that the GOP is an almost entirely Southern party – is that the Republicans cannot really take this on. 58 percent – a clear majority of Republican voters – either don’t believe or are unsure about whether Obama is legitimately the president of the United States.

Jillian Bandes at Townhall:

Poll numbers are poll numbers, but given the record, wouldn’t it be worth taking a second glance before assuming that even a fraction of the Republican political establishment pays deference to these cats? I wish I could travel back in time and see how many Democratic politicians would hesitate when asked how much attention they paid to the conspiracy theorists pushing the “Bush caused 9/11” junk. I doubt any would say they paid attention; none come to mind that actually did. And as The Economist points out, despite 39% of Democrats believing that 9/11 was a conspiracy in 2007, “there wasn’t a corresponding rise in tolerance for 9/11 conspiracy theorists.” Lo – I also don’t recall a massive right-wing blogger orgy claiming that all Dems were convinced Bush was the one blowing everything up.

Democracy in America:

That the question even has to be asked must make Republicans uneasy. Ben Smith suggests that “you can see why Republican politicians are inclined” not to blow off the people who believe this. Except, in 2007, a pollster asked Democrats whether they thought George W. Bush knew anything about the 9/11 attacks before they happened, and only 39% would definitely say no. There wasn’t a corresponding rise in tolerance for 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

Last week, it seemed like this conspiracy theory might have been a media flare-up. It’s looking more like the kind of stubborn obsession that will dog Republicans through 2012, at least, just as 9/11 conspiracy theorists annoyed Democrats in 2004 and 2008.

Alex Knapp:

If those numbers are accurate (and the DailyKos/Research 2000 polls aggregate in line with other major polls, so there’s no reason to immediately question the numbers), then this is a much more serious problem. As my colleague Dodd pointed out earlier this week, if less than half of Republicans believe that Barack Obama is a citizen, that makes it much more difficult for the Republican Party to put forth reasonable debate and opposition against the Democrats and craft sound policy proposals.

You just can’t focus on policywhen 1/3 of your base wants you to focus on the crazy. You can’t craft sound bipartisan legislation by working with the President when a photo-op with him risks you votes in the primaries becaue 1/3 of your constituency doesn’t want you “working with foreigners” and thinks that the President doesn’t belong there.

Steve Benen:

For a crazy, demonstrably false, racist idea, these are discouraging numbers.

But I was especially surprised by the regional breakdowns. In the Northeast, West, and Midwest, the overwhelming majorities realize the president is a native-born American. But notice the South — only 47% got it right and 30% are unsure.

Outside the South, this madness is gaining very little traction, and remains a fringe conspiracy theory. Within the South, it’s practically mainstream.

EARLIER: Obama’s Birth Certificate Was On The Grassy Knoll, Where It Shot Vince Foster And Brought Down The World Trade Center, The End

UPDATE: Jeb Golinkin at New Majority:

It’s hard to believe that 58% of Republicans take seriously the conspiratorial mutterings of a handful of obvious nutcases. What the poll numbers suggest instead is hard-core sore loserdom.

Republicans have to know that birtherism is factually incorrect, ignorant, and idiotic. Ladies and gentlemen: please, get a grip on yourselves.  If you don’t like the fact that Democrats are in power, engage in intelligent criticism. There’s a lot to criticize! But fruit-cake xenophobia will not defeat this President.  It’s nonsense and it needs to stop.

Kevin Drum:

We’ve obviously spun back into a version of the full-bore Clinton derangement mode that swept the nation in the early 90s.  This kind of thing always starts with a few fringe characters, but there’s a difference this time around.  Clinton craziness was initially pushed by the fringe media and then picked up and amplified by the mainstream guys.  This time it started in the mainstream media: Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Andy McCarthy, Sean Hannity, etc. etc.  No middleman required.

Which makes you wonder: what would it be like if Hillary Clinton had been elected?  I think we’ve suspected this all along, but now we know the answer with scientific precision: it would have been exactly the same.  It was never Clinton Derangement Syndrome in the first place.  It was Conservative Derangement Syndrome.

UPDATE #2: Daniel Larison

UPDATE #3: Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

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Filed under Conservative Movement, Political Figures

This Is All Very Heavy, Man


Andrew Sullivan rounds some of this up for us. Atlantic bloggers are all talking about fat. No, this isn’t some delayed MJ punditry going on here.

Megan McArdle interviews Paul Campos:

Megan: Let’s start with the first. If there’s one thing that everyone in America knows, it’s that being fat is really unhealthy. Why do you call it a fake problem?

Paul: The correlations between higher weight and greater health risk are weak except at statistical extremes. The extent to which those correlations are causal is poorly established. There is literally not a shred of evidence that turning fat people into thin people improves their health. And the reason there’s no evidence is that there’s no way to do it.

So saying “let’s improve health by turning fat people into thin people” is every bit as irrational as saying “let’s improve health by turning men into women or old people into young people”. Actually it’s a lot crazier, because there actually are significant health differences between men and women and the old and the young — much more so than between the fat and the thin.

Campos links to the interview at LGM:

An interesting ideological aspect of this is the degree to which lefty folks who usually have no trouble understanding structural arguments turn into the offspring of Horatio Alger and Ayn Rand when it comes to fat. For instance, if you said to such people “We know how to end poverty. Just tell poor people to do X and Y, and as long as they do X and Y they won’t be poor,” and then it turned out that a social policy based on telling poor people to do X and Y resulted in failure 98% of the time, and in fact produced a net increase in the poverty rate, they would consider your opinion to be idiotic on its face.

Conor Clarke:

As someone who feels totally fine slapping additional taxes on soda or cigarettes — in part to reduce public health consequences like obesity and lung cancer — let me say that I don’t think the best justification for this policy has a whole lot to do with to do with reducing health spending. A less obese population that doesn’t die young from fast-onset lung cancer might end up spending more on health care. Totally possible.

Brad DeLong:

Four comments:

(1) Both Paul Campos and Megan McArdle appear to have missed the point by several quadrants. We have managed to turn thin people into fat people–a great many Americans today who are fat would be thin if they had lived forty years earlier in the America-that-was a generation ago. Surely if we can do this, we can undo it?

(2) Both Paul Campos and Megan McArdle appear to have missed the point by several quadrants. Changing sedentary, high-cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar fat people into more active, low-cholesteral, normal blood pressure, normal blood sugar fat people certainly does improve their health.

Democracy in America at The Economist:

Part of Mr Campos’s opposition to controlling obesity stems from a quibble over the definition of “obese”. The definition applied by the medical profession since the 1980s has been a body-mass index (BMI, or weight over height squared—kg/m) of 30 or greater. At 203 lbs for a 5’9″ man, that definition seems reasonable, but Mr Campos says serious health effects don’t set in until BMI hits 35. His claim seems to be belied by the study in Health Affairs to which he was responding, which found that annual health costs for the obese, ie those with a BMI above 30, were 42% higher per capita than those for someone of normal weight. Even if most of that higher spending and reduced health were clustered at BMI 35 and above, the relevance seems unclear: the incidence of the 35-and-up BMI group has risen dramatically over the past 30 years as well.

A related argument seems to be based on poor mathematical thinking. The huge rise in “obesity”, Mr Campos says, merely reflects the fact that millions of people have risen from BMIs in the high 20s to BMIs in the low 30s; and those two groups show no measurable difference in health. But this would be true no matter where one set the obesity marker. If it were set at 35, a huge rise in obesity would mean millions had shifted from 34 to 36, and there might be little health difference between those two groups, taken in isolation. But in fact, the huge shift from high-20s BMIs to low-30s BMIs is one part of a massive shift towards higher BMIs all across the spectrum, with all the expected health consequences; and looking at the rise in obesity is a fair way of summing that shift up.

The real problem with Mr Campos’s stance is in the way he phrases the issue: the impossibility of “turning fat people into thin people.” He is right that it’s almost impossible for an obese person to get to normal weight and stay there. But most of the public-health attention isn’t focused on getting people who are already obese to lose weight. It’s focused on making sure that people who are normal or overweight get no fatter. It’s true that who is fattest among us is determined by environmental and genetic factors over which we have little control, and it is thus very hard for people who are fat to lose weight. But this is irrelevant to the issue of the massive population-wide shift that has pushed the BMIs of all Americans up. The statistics on that shift are stunning, as this PowerPoint display from the Centers for Disease Control shows. In 1985, not a single American state had a prevalence of obesity over 14%. In 2008, not a single American state had a prevalence under 15%; six states had prevalences over 30%. If the problem is less evident to Mr Campos, it may be because he lives in Colorado, the only state in the country where obesity prevalence remains under 20%.

Marc Ambinder:

Nonetheless, a dose of Campos in one’s anti-obesity cocktail keeps one humble about assuming too much. The academic world tends to lump together the slightly overweight, the unhealthy people who have large body sizes, the pre-obese, the active obese and the sedentary obese all into one category. Doing this inevitably leads to public interest group fear-mongering and implies that the problem is unipolar and thus solvable by their preferred approach. Campos — and McArdle — are right to approach the obesity issue with a skeptical, critical eye. But even Campos — and you can see this in his interview with McArdle and in his book, The Obesity Myth — does not make the claim that food consumption and lifestyle aren’t public health problems.
McArdle approaches obesity as if it were a Foucauldian construct: a category invented by the government to justify an exercise of power. The government has no business intervening on the level of individual choice and it shouldn’t get into the business of behavioral suasion because it always fails. She’s right to note that information about health risks associated with overconsuming fat and sugar and salt are saturated throughout society, even supersaturated. Everyone knows how bad this stuff can be. For her, that’s the end of the argument. Government can help to provide information about how to make better choices, but it cannot and should not try to persuade people to make better choices. Indeed, the push for people to make better choices produces the stigma that makes the bad thing bad in the first place.
This assumes that the stigma itself is misplaced. It isn’t. Fat stigma is bad and harmful, and it ought to be reduced. But reducing fat stigma doesn’t reduce the incidence of obesity; it actually seems to increase it in certain populations. What produces fat stigma is not a government or culture that hectors people to lose weight and exercise and then excoriates them when they can’t; it’s a government that expects individuals to lose weight on their own (which is next to impossible) while making policy that keeps people fat. The discrepancy between expectations and reality is cruel, especially for children.

McArdle responds to Ambinder’s first post:

I don’t really care if the government tries to persuade people to make better choices.  But in general, government efforts to persuade people have failed. Government efforts at transparency are useful–it was the surgeon general’s report on smoking and cancer that started the downward trend in cigarette consumption (and, natch, some of the upward trend in our waistlines).  Government coercion has also proven somewhat effective–cigarette taxation and anti-smoking laws have, as far as I can tell, helped cut into smoking quite a bit.

[…] I’m not disputing that the environment has changed in ways that seem to make people get fatter–indeed, you’d have to be a total moron to dispute this.  Nor am I disputing that some of this can be laid at the door of government, like our ridiculous agriculture subsidies, and even our zoning laws.  On the other hand, it’s also true that people really liked riding around in cars even before zoning–unless the landscape makes car ownership prohibitively expensive, people tend to embrace it, which is why car ownership is increasing so fast even in places like Europe.  Either way, this cannot be the only reason.  US government policy and bad zoning is not making people fat in Britain or Australia.

More McArdle (posted before Ambinder):

To put it another way:  I have NEVER had a BMI above the normal range.  How much more awesome am I than you?  30%?  After all, you have to work at it.  My willpower is apparently 100% natural.

I fearlessly predict that more than one person will respond with some variation on “there were no fat people in concentration camps/but I told you, I totally lost 20 pounds last year by taking up marathon running!”  Yes, we could solve America’s obesity problem by putting everyone in the country on sawdust bread and cabbage soup.  We could also just shoot anyone whose BMI is over 28.  Are these good solutions?  Because short of that, we don’t have much.

Ambinder responds to McArdle’s second post:

If everyone responded to the pressures of (a) a corn diet (b) TV advertising (c) the ubiquity of fat and sugary foods (d) the information disseminated by the government and the diet industry (e) technological enabling of a sedentary lifestyle in the same way, it is relatively easy to answer the question. If you tend to blame individuals for their choices, then your answer will be no. But the crucial fact is that obesity does not treat everyone equally. It discriminates according to status, class and geography. And its negative externalities are absorbed by these vulnerable populations.  And in children, being overweight is increasingly become the default. Unless someone intervenes, if you go with the flow,  if you live in a vulnerable population, you’re going to be quite vulnerable to an obesogenic lifestyle.  This debate isn’t about government dictating lifestyle choices to adults. It’s about whether changing policy can reduce obesity among children.

James Fallows weighs in:

Our basic nature as human beings can’t have changed in that time. Nor can our genetics. If you’ve lived in Asia, you know that Japanese and Chinese people are on average taller and much heavier than they were a generation ago. I have met old women in China who looked barely four feet tall. In Beijing or Tokyo 25 years ago, I was always the tallest person on the subway or in a crowd; now, I usually see a few young men over 6’2″. But in these countries there’s an obvious explanation: poor nutrition artificially limited people’s growth before, and the limit is being removed.

Exactly what this means in policies is beyond my time or ambition here. Basically I agree with Marc Ambinder’s statement below. I chime in on the issue mainly to express this view: denying that America’s obesity situation has changed; or that it has harmful consequences; or that it could, like smoking, be affected by public policies strikes me as antifactual denialism.

McArdle responds:

So it seems that James Fallows and Marc Ambinder and I all agree that the increase in obesity in the American population is environmental, though they seem to think I disagree, despite my having made this point several times, and have thus spent a fair amount of time disproving a point no one has made.  The very point of the height example offered in my first post was to note how environment interacts with genes.

It still remains to figure what the environmental change in America is that has caused this:  whether the government is largely responsible, and regardless of that, whether the government can stop it.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think the government is all that plausible as the primary source of the problem.  Obesity is rising everywhere, even in poor countries.  It seems to be rising fastest in the anglosphere, but then, most countries outside the anglosphere rely on self-reporting data, which produces lower estimates.  Eyeballing it, people in other countries are a lot thinner.  But there are also a lot more fat people in Europe than there used to be.

But leaving culpability aside, what can the government reasonably do to make us healthier?  We could change our road building and build denser.  But of course, as I pointed out elsewhere, while being rural is correlated with being fatter, it’s also correlated with being healthier (though that advantage may be eroding).  It’s impossible to tease out the countervailing effects, so which should we do?  Build up dense areas in which people will be thinner, but maybe sicker from the stress hormones of living in a noisier, more crowded area?  This might be liking taking up smoking to lose weight.

Ezra Klein:

I actually do talk to public health experts. Frequently. I know, for instance, that the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which is based out of Yale, has policy briefs arguing that weight discrimination is real, it is pervasive, and it is properly understood as a social justice issue. Does Megan? If she does, she’s not mentioning it. But it seems like the sort of thing you’d want to address if your argument is that obesity researchers are simply revolted by fat people and want them to face more social stigma.

Indeed, none of my many talks with obesity researchers have touched on the issue of the poor being idiots. Nor do they seem to think that the obese are insufficiently aware of society’s aesthetic standards. Megan doesn’t have straw men here. She has invented imaginary friends for her argument.

Rather, the obesity researchers I know believe a number of complicated and dispiriting things. One is that the human brain is wired to protect against the dangers of caloric scarcity. As a species, we have evolved to maximize caloric intake, to make the most of periods of abundance.

The problem is, we now live amid constant abundance. Food is not only available, but cheap. It is the center of our social lives and the respite from our workdays. It is the way we spend time with our families and the way we connect with our culture. It is how we meet mates and hang out with friends. Corporations spends hundreds of billions of dollars developing ways to make food taste better and creating advertising campaigns to make us want it more. Restaurants and drive-throughs and frozen foods have reduced the energy required to create a meal. Portion sizes have shot up. And even as our caloric inputs have grown, our expenditures have decreased. We drive rather than walk. We sit rather than stand. We work at desks rather than in fields. This is why obesity experts think Americans are fatter. Megan may, again, be aware of this research. If so, she’s not letting us know about it.

Matthew Yglesias:

One can do this over and over again. I think there’s decent Campos-style evidence that policy initiatives that amount to government hectoring of people about their wastelines is going to be at best useless. But there’s much more to the policy world. The government provides lunch to tons of children, and determines what stuff is in their school’s vending machines and apples are better for you than Fritos; baked potatoes are better for you than french fries.

The Opinionator at NYT picks up the conversation.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The American Scene reads McArdle and takes the conversation somewhere else (cigarette taxes). The post ends:

One of the reasons I don’t think of myself as a libertarian even though they’re the group whose actual policy preferences most closely mirror mine is because of things like this. Legislation reflects a society’s moral values. In fact, it should reflect a society’s moral values, consistent with individual freedoms, because it is what a democratic polis is all about: a nation deciding by which rules it wants to live.

Government can’t and won’t “just get out of our lives”, simply because what you describe as “getting out of our lives” isn’t the same thing as what I describe as “getting out of our lives”, and, until Jim Manzi finally succeeds at creating evidence-based social science, there is no scientific way to decide what government should or should not do — and nor should there be.

So if you want to disincentivize smoking through sin taxes, that’s perfectly fine. It’s okay to have public policy that disincentivizes bad things just because they’re bad, without having to make budget projections over the next 30 years. I’m willing to pay extra to feed my addiction. But don’t lie about the real reason you’re doing it.

And remember, next time you see me light up — I’m doing my part to save healthcare and pensions.

Joe Carter at First Things:

While I agree with Gobry that disincentivizing smoking through sin taxes is legitimate and that we should be honest about our reasons, I think it can be taken too far. Taxation shouldn’t be used as means of instituting a Healthocracy in which the government uses the tax code to enforce a particular view of health-based morality. From a purely moral point of view, sin taxes are an illegitimate means of controlling the behavior of the citizenry. We should not rely on the state to use its tax code to intervene in an area that is the responsibility of society’s mediating institutions.

From a purely economic standpoint, though, sin taxes make more sense. This form of taxation can be an effective means of reimbursing the state for the cost incurred by participating in a particular negative behavior that it wishes to disincentivize (there is a moral component to disincentivization, of course, but that is true of all legislation).

John Schwenkler

UPDATE: McArdle responds to Klein and others

UPDATE #2: McArlde’s second post on the subject

Alex Tabarrok on McArdle

Ezra Klein responds

And more Klein, linking to Mark Ames, who goes very personal. Klein:

The contracts McArdle pere won as managing director for the General Contractor’s Association have no bearing on Megan McArdle’s argument that health-care reform will reduce private-sector profits and suppress drug innovation over the long term. Megan is either wrong about that or she’s right about it. As I’ve argued at length, I think she’s wrong. But I don’t need to drag her family into that argument. And nor should I.

UPDATE #3: McArdle and David Frum argue at Bloggingheads

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Filed under Conservative Movement, Economics, Food, Go Meta, Health Care, Public Health

What We’ve Built Today

under-constructionUpdates-hay Or-fay Oday-tay:

Faster, Stockmarket! Buy! Sell!

Everybody’s Working For The Weekend

Organs, Urgency, Money, And Reform

The Assassination Of Natalia Estemirova

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Filed under Smatterings Of Nothing

It’s The Potsdam Of Our Times And The Pabst Blue Ribbon Of Our Post-Racial America


The Beer Summit of 2009 is tonight at the White House.

The Daily Beast has a photo gallery of past Presidential beer drinking.

John Dickerson in Slate:

There is a rich history of beer at the White House. George Washington drank it after battle. Thomas Jefferson brewed it at Monticello. During Prohibition, “Beer for Prosperity” was the cry of those who saw repeal as a way to create jobs and raise taxes, and Franklin Roosevelt ran on that platform. At the 1932 Democratic National Convention, he pledged to end dry laws “just as fast as the Lord will let us authorize the manufacture and sale of beer.” Eric Felten, author of How’s Your Drink, says that when that happened, breweries delivered their first batches to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt had promised to have the newly legal beer served.

During Nixon’s first term, when political aide Chuck Colson was courting the Teamsters union, he invited a host of members for lunch in the White House mess. They ordered beer with their Mexican food and were served Michelob, which happened to be distributed by nonunion labor. Thirst triumphed over politics, however, and everyone imbibed.

In entertaining Gates and Crowley, Obama will probably not be able to match Lyndon Johnson, who also used beer to break the ice in tense situations. Johnson used to take reporters on “speed and beer” drives on his ranch. He’d pop some cold ones and race off into the dust of the ranch. Obama can’t do this, obviously—as spacious as the White House grounds are, they’re no LBJ ranch—but even if he tried, Crowley would have to arrest him. And that’s how this mess started in the first place.

Patrick Gavin in Politico:

As Washington — as only Washington can — turns what would otherwise be a gathering over beers among men into a highly scrutinized summit, several beer companies are using the occasion to make the case for their own products and why their beers should be downed this evening.

“Yuengling is proud to be recognized as America’s Oldest Brewery,” a company spokesman told POLITICO. “Family owned and operated since 1829, we’ve been a part of conflict resolution for over 180 years!”

A rep for Sierra Nevada said: “We believe that we are the perfect fit for the matter at hand, and a great choice to represent and facilitate the resilience and understanding of the American people. Sierra Nevada [can] reinforce the idea that whether black or white, rich or poor, we are all first and foremost Americans. American citizens should support American beer.

Think global, drink local.”

Dave Brockington

I now officially regret having voted for the President.  First, no movement on DADT.  Second, bailing out the very people who brought the global economy down.  Third, criminally not pushing for an NHS style socialized medicine for the United States.  (OK, I am angry about the first, moderately miffed about the second, and employing a sense of humor about the third — although one of the best things about living in the UK is the NHS.)

But this is too much.  Bud Light?  What the hell are you thinking, man?
If you have to prove you’re down with the folk, go for Busch, full on Bud, Old Milwaukee, or in a wink to hipsters everywhere, PBR.  But Bud freaking Light?
The NYT has an interesting, even entertaining analysis of this debacle, and correctly points out that the Blue Moon has no craft beer cred.

Michael Warren at The Corner:

Blue Moon has an unwarranted reputation for being less manly than your average brew, but leave it to Crowley, the tough cop, to blast that stigma to pieces. Red Stripe is a Jamaican import, which sort of clashes with the patriotic theme of the beer summit. Obama’s decision to have a Bud Light reminds me of Clinton-era polling. Could the president have picked a more middle-of-the-road, poll-tested, non-controversial beer? All in the name of unity, I suppose.

Chris Good at The Atlantic:

Earlier this week, Daily Show “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore said, “Alcohol…that’ll end well. Hey, Obama, booze isn’t how you resolve a racial incident, it’s how you start one.” MSNBC’s Domenico Montenaro wondered why they’re not drinking Sam Adams; NBC called it “what may be the most anticipated beer ever.” Too bad there aren’t any polls on it…wait, SFGate’s Zennie62 took one online (“other” was the preferred brew, beating out Pabst, Budweiser, Miller, and Sapporo).

Charles Johnson at LGF:

I hope the President has arranged designated drivers for Gates and Crowley. Wouldn’t want anyone ending up with a DUI after this.

Daniel Davies

Flopping Aces

James Matthews Wilson at Front Porch:

Ignoring the many other amusing thoughts that froth up from this story, I would just like to observe how racist and classist it is of our President to invite a white Boston cop over for a beer.  Why?!  Because he’s a blue collar in Cambridge, rather than a white collar meritocrat?  Is our President so blinded by bigotry that he cannot understand police officers are capable of taking pleasure in the same deracinated delectations as the Starbucks and Soy chomping, Thai basil sniffing, California roll chop-sticking, rissotto-insty-pack boiling,  advanced-degree holders of our technocracy?

Now, had old George W. Bush made the invitation, we’d know it was sincere.  He once asked reporters gathered outside his Crawford ranch if they’d be more comfortable back in air conditioning, savouring their “brie and cheese.”  Pleonasms are the soul of authenticity.

Andy Borowitz at HuffPo:

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the ensuing controversy have now officially “jumped the shark,” shark-jumping experts said today.

Tracy Klugian, an expert who tracks when real-life events jump the shark, said that the Gates case threatened to do so for most of last week but now “it has totally jumped.”

“At first, many of us suspected that the Gates case had jumped the shark when President Obama invited Gates and the cop to the White House for beer,” Mr. Klugian said. “But now I would pinpoint the moment of shark-jumping as when the 911 caller hired a lawyer and gave a press conference.”

UPDATE: Henry Louis Gates at The Root

Allah Pundit

David Frum at New Majority


Filed under Food, Political Figures