Monday, November 20, 2017

Why We Get The Government We Deserve

It’s OK to go to the library just to browse.  Taking your time, going through the stacks to see what catches your eye is often a rewarding experience.  You may see a title that rings a bell or an author you have heard of or are familiar with.  It may just be the appearance of the cover that attracts attention.  Perhaps the library has a bulletin board near the entrance, as mine does, showing new arrivals or recommended reading.  All these methods are excellent ways to find some entertainment or broaden your horizons.

In some activities this approach works; in others it’s a recipe for disaster.

Last Monday the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging a law in Minnesota that prohibits voters from wearing inside polling stations T-shirts or other apparel with slogans or other messages regarded as overtly political.  They will decide if a law, which “forbids political badges, buttons or other insignia inside polling places during primary or general elections” applies to such apparel.  Officials have already extended the law to include all campaign literature and material.

The voting booth is not the library.  You don’t go there to browse or to pick up new ideas on the way in.  The right to vote should be taken more seriously than picking out a book for a couple of weeks.  Voters should know the issues and what candidates stand for, with the act of voting merely a confirmation of a set decision.  Apparently the lawmakers of Minnesota (and several other states) either don’t understand this or don’t give their citizens credit for taking the right to vote seriously.

There is ample evidence that they are right to assume the latter, that many voters don’t take it seriously.  Why else would political parties organize bus or van trips to the polls on Election Day?  It’s not like Election Day comes as a surprise to anyone who is paying attention.  Even housebound people serious about voting have sufficient time to arrange for their own transportation or apply for an absentee ballot.  But who in their position would pass up such a field trip, a social opportunity – and, by the way, get to vote.

Talk of making Election Day a holiday, because voters can’t find the time to vote when they are working, also reinforces this idea that they don’t care enough to make an effort.  In third-world countries, voters walk for miles to vote.  Here the polls are generally open at least 12 hours, and again, if someone has a valid reason, absentee ballots are usually available.

Another difference between the library and the voting booth is that the library requires a card to check out a book.  But to have identification to vote is considered a burden.

If Americans are so easily swayed in their political beliefs that t-shirts and buttons must be banned, so lackadaisical about voting that other commitments and conflicts win out, must be herded to the polling place for lack of planning and can’t be asked to present valid identification, it’s no wonder we get the choices and results we do.  It’s also no wonder that most political parties appeal to anger, fear, hype and other emotional manipulation rather than factual arguments.  It’s a failure of responsibility and critical thinking that leaves us with a bloated and ineffective government wavering from one special interest to another without regard for the greater good.  Rights carry with them responsibilities.

The government we have is the one we deserve due to a cumulative failure in the five key dimensions.  Better behaviors lead to better outcomes.  Otherwise, we have no right to complain.

Friday, November 17, 2017

No Vaccinations = No School

That’s the law in California since July of last year. If the kids are not current with the required vaccinations, they do not get to attend public schools. 

Is this an attack on our freedom?  Is this the nanny state overruling decisions that should belong to parents?  I don’t think so - and I’m an advocate of freedom.

Upon signing the bill into law the governor released a statement saying, "The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases.  While it's true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”  This is absolutely true, yet people continue to fear vaccinating their kids based on fraudulent science by a British doctor who wanted to show a relationship between vaccinations and autism so badly that he falsified results to reach that conclusion.

Wikipedia gives a good summary of the history.  “Andrew Jeremy Wakefield (born 1957, Eton, England) is a British former gastroenterologist and medical researcher who was struck off the UK medical register for his fraudulent 1998 research paper and other misconduct in support of the now-discredited claim that there was a link between the administration of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and the appearance of autism and bowel disease.” [Emphasis added.]  The next two paragraphs of the article give more information about financial conflicts of interest, ethical problems and withdrawal of support by reputable organizations.

The New York Times archives for Wakefield contains many telling entries including:  “Anti-vaccine film pulled from Tribeca Festival; A measles outbreak in Britain would never have occurred if parents had respected the proven safety record of vaccine; Autism Fraud and Why some still won’t accept that Andrew Wakefield is wrong.”

Yet an NBC report not too many weeks ago was headlined:  “Vaccine Skeptic Message Gets Bolder,”  and going on to say, “The skeptics have taken on a brasher, bolder tone in recent months.”  Once only demanding safer vaccines, “an increasing number now say most or all vaccines are dangerous, and some accuse the federal government, physicians and the mainstream media of colluding with drug companies to deliberately poison children using vaccines.”  Do they believe that saying it longer and louder will make their arguments true?  This is behavior that was once associated with crazy people. 

Do they trust information from a discredited former doctor, celebrities with no medical training and a Facebook support group over that from medical experts?  Do they think raising the ante from unsafe vaccines to intentionally poisoning children to line corporate pockets will make a faulty argument more powerful?  Apparently so.

But these people in their na├»ve acceptance of a scientific fraud are putting everyone else’s children at risk.  One or two kids in a classroom of vaccinated children may not be a problem.  Who are they going to catch the diseases from if everyone else is vaccinated?  But as the number grows so does the possibility of an outbreak – vaccines are not one hundred percent effective.

This is not an issue of freedom, so much as one of responsibility and critical thinking.  From dangerous behavior comes potentially fatal consequences, and unfortunately, at some point the authorities are forced to step in.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Another Look at Lawsuits

In the past I have objected to unusually high judgments or settlements from legal action as behavioral failures in economic understanding and responsibility.

A plaintiff experiences a relatively minor injury, often because he was not paying attention or taking adequate care.  Examples abound:  “A man police call a Good Samaritan may face a lawsuit after injuring the alleged robber he thwarted;” a $200,000 settlement for bites from bedbugs in a hotel; $95 million to an employee for being “groped, teased, talked dirty to, and poked by her manager;” or a California man at a fast food restaurant who won $1.5 million because he heard the manager mumble what he thought was a discriminatory comment when he asked for a second napkin.  Certainly some of these people deserved some compensation, but the outcomes are often far out of proportion to the injury, real or imagined.

In these cases the lawyers move in to convince the injured party that someone else must be forced to pay.  Legal representation is done on a contingency fee – if you don’t win, you don’t pay.  It’s free money.  The injured party, weak in the dimension of responsibility, agrees.

After the trial, the jury, weak in the dimension of economic understanding, doesn’t consider that the outcome of the lawsuit reflects not only on this case but also on future cases and future actions of many parties.  It portends similar actions from similar juries, which causes all insurance companies, not just the one involved, to assume higher risk.  Their customers, all of us, cover this higher risk by paying higher premiums.  Likewise any other companies in the same industry as the one being sued must think about changing practices, which adds cost to their operations, cost that again turn into higher prices for customers.  One obvious cost is printing or stenciling those ridiculous warning labels I’ve written about before.  The outcome has a cumulative effect, plus money is transferred from one party to another (with the lawyers taking their cut) with no overall benefit to society – nothing is produced, improved or made more efficient.

But when I saw the story about the Alabama man who “was awarded $7.5 million in a lawsuit against Walmart after he tripped while buying a watermelon,” I had a different idea.  Back in 2015, the 59-year-old man apparently caught his foot on a pallet where the watermelons were on display and broke his hip.  Now a broken hip is painful and makes life more difficult for a time, but the store reports that the same display continues to be used.  It’s hard to imagine that the store was at fault if other customers have negotiated the watermelon pallets for the last two years without further problems.

But with Wal-Mart’s reputation as promoted by the media, it’s easy to portray them as evil in this case too.  This is a further case of poor economic understanding.  As this source (among others, including Forbes) reminds us:  “Ideologues who rant against Wal-Mart do not understand economics. In a market economy, success goes to those businesses that best and most efficiently serve consumer needs.”

My latest idea is that most juries don’t even get to economic considerations due to the concept of survivor guilt.  The rough definition from Wikipedia is “a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.”  In this case, the traumatic event is life itself.  They see a person with a broken hip or other injury, physical or psychological, and think of how lucky they are for two reasons - first, lucky not to be in his shoes and second, lucky to be in a position to help out (with someone else’s money) to assuage their own guilt.  Economic understanding never enters the conversation.

The more I think about this idea of survivor guilt, the more it explains many of the other seemingly non-critical-thinking behaviors in our society.  Someone else is always worse off and needs defending or bailing out.  And it’s especially easy to support a cause when other people’s money, efforts or rights are sacrificed.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Pesticides and Fertility

Here is another health and fitness story that has been making the rounds:  “Study ties pesticides in food to reduced fertility in women.”  This one deserves close scrutiny.

It was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, a reputable source, but a close look at the study itself shows that it’s also a case of reporters looking for another scary headline.  Most of the articles covering it start off carefully with phrasing like “The findings suggest that dietary pesticide exposure … may be associated with adverse reproductive consequences.”  The use of all those weasel words indicates vague and weak findings, but the typical media delivery can make it sound dire.

The study looked at 325 women undergoing treatment for infertility at a single hospital in Boston.  Researchers asked them to keep a food diary – self-reporting is always suspect – and then compared fruits and vegetables they ate to a list of those known to contain high levels of pesticide residue as listed in a government database.  They did not test the food the women were actually eating.  There was no evidence that the researchers asked whether or not the women had washed it before eating or even had picked it from their own backyard garden.

Other qualifications listed in the study included:  finding only an association rather than a "cause and effect" relationship; basing results on the estimated level of exposure; testing only women seeking treatment for infertility, not women from the general population or even those having problems but not seeking treatment; and being one of the first research studies done on humans for this relationship with no time for replication.  But it made the news anyway, as if every woman should be seriously concerned, especially those planning to start a family.

Additional information on the study came from another source.  According to the lead researcher, "A reasonable choice based on these findings is to consume low-pesticide-residue fruits and vegetables instead of high-pesticide-residue ones. Another option is to go organic for the fruits and vegetables known to contain high pesticide residues.”

As reference, produce that typically has high levels of pesticide residue includes especially those with rough or irregular surfaces:  peaches, strawberries, spinach, kale, apples, nectarines, peppers and celery.  Some products with lower levels are avocados, onions, orange juice, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage peas, asparagus, eggplant, grapefruit and cantaloupe.  Many of these are the ones where we don’t eat the outer part.

But be careful.  A good rule of thumb is to wash all fruits and vegetables carefully before eating them.  This is a recommendation of American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for pregnant women or those trying to conceive, but it applies to everyone.  A watermelon may seem harmless because the residue and any other bacteria are on the outside, but a knife cutting through the rind will carry those contaminates directly to the part you eat.

And we shouldn’t get complacent if the food is marked as organic.  The publication PPP-109 from the Purdue Extension tells us not to assume natural and organic products are safe.  Organic pesticides “may offer advantage (such as pest specificity), but they are not necessarily safer than pesticides developed in the laboratory…All [pesticide] products have the potential to be toxic.”

Is this really a worry for people concerned about infertility and for Americans in general?  What is the level of pesticides?  “During its 2015 survey, DPR [California Department of Pesticide Regulation] found 97.3 percent of tested California-grown produce had little or no pesticide residues"   (organic or not).  What of the rest of the country?

Bottom line: If everyone washed their produce carefully, it would put these researchers out of business, which is a good thing both for our health and for our sanity as the media continue to exaggerate the importance of every new food safety study.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Spread of Body Cameras

A couple of weeks ago, I published Sound Familiar? pointing out that spotting trends is not difficult with a little bit of critical thinking and imagination.  So autonomous cars lead to autonomous trucks or robotic taxicabs or mail delivery.

In this case I was thinking about body cameras as two people on TV discussed how to clarify when police were using appropriate force.  This should be much more reliable than cellphone video that may capture only part of the exchange or even eyewitnesses whose memory often reflects their own prejudices.

But it’s not that straightforward, as one source tells us.  “The implementation of body-worn cameras has gained increased attention and use among law enforcement professionals, who use them for functions such as obtaining evidence during investigations, promoting officer safety, and improving law enforcement community relations, and accountability. Police body-worn cameras present novel legal and policy questions.”  These include questions of constitutionality, especially regarding privacy.

In another case, there seems to be a problem of the novelty wearing off.  “D.C. police officers wearing body cameras reported using force about as often as colleagues who didn’t have them, and citizen complaints against the two groups were about even, according to a new study that bucks early expectations about the impact of the devices.”  The report found this surprising, but considering that they had them for more than three years, the initial feeling of someone always watching, on both sides of the badge, can easily erode.  Think about reality shows or the people who volunteer to have cameras in their houses.  Before long they start behaving as if the cameras weren’t there.

Another problem is that the cameras cannot be always on.  Omaha is working with a company that sells a device to activate the camera automatically when officers draw their weapons or stun guns.  Ordinarily they are on standby mode until an officer presses a button twice to activate it. It then will record audio and video — including video from the previous 30 seconds.”  But when acting in self-defense or in immediate emergencies, drawing the firearm take precedence over activating the camera.

Just the same, other cities, the later adapters, continue to buy the equipment.  For example, a headline reads, “Peoria police officers to widely use body cameras by spring [of 2018].”

This brings me to my projection.  Where will this lead?  With so many cases in the news of sexual assault and other altercations, cases where it’s often one person’s or one group’s word against another, how long before more and more people begin wearing some sort of recording device on a regular basis?  Look how far cell phones have come in the last decade.  Millions of people carry more computer power in their pocket today than was packed into the entire Cassini spacecraft that just dove into the planet Saturn after a twenty-year mission.  

So how long will it be until vendors start selling designer body cameras for self-defense and entertainment?  We already have sports cameras selling for less than $100 – wear it on your forehead to capture the thrills of skiing or snowboarding.  Other more expensive versions are less than half the size of a smart phone.  Some non-law enforcement folks have dash-cams mounted in their cars.  In the not-too-distant future we’ll be buying broaches and other jewelry with cameras and everyone will want one.  It will be like the old spy-movie spoofs, “Please repeat that into this button.”  Imagine the constitutional and privacy questions then!