Monday, July 30, 2012

Fluoride in Drinking Water

Add this to my series of examples of the battle between public outcry and the scientific evidence.  Here is an anthology of 13 articles on the subject of fluoridated drinking water published by the Center for Fluoride Research Analysis.  They have gathered in a single document “the official policy statements and consumer information on fluoride from the nation’s leading scientific and advocacy organizations that support community water fluoridation.”  (Additional support can be found on the new ADA website.)

A nice summary appears in the AARP document:  “In spite of its well-documented effectiveness and safety, 100 million persons in the United States remained without fluoridated water at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” 

Why would this be?  Part can be attributed to water supplies from private wells, but part is due to negative public reaction to fluoridation.  Another group of well-meaning people stare scientific evidence in the face and stir up opposition based on their personal interpretation of the studies.  As the article from the American Council on Science and Health puts it:  “The combination of a scientifically unsophisticated public and the profusion of easily accessible crackpot information on the Internet is indeed a prescription for disaster.”  The American Cancer Society article reinforces this:  “A review of more than 50 population-based studies…does not support the hypothesis of an association between fluoride exposure and increased cancer risk in humans.”

If so many reputable organizations promote the addition of fluoride to drinking water, where does the opposition come from?  There are, of course, the conspiracy theorists who once characterized it as a communist plot, but many have sincere and well thought out arguments.  The questions we must always ask about such information are: what are the sources, what are their qualifications, and do they have an outside agenda or possible conflict of interests?

Above all we must resist the temptation to stampede into action or opposition without full and reliable information.  See other instances of potential damage from public outcry in such cases as  the “pink slime” (April 2, 2012) and mad cow disease (April 30, 2012) controversies.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Economic Spider Web

Earlier (July 9, 2012) I addressed the problem of juries without economic understanding assuming that no one is really hurt when big corporations or someone else’s insurance pays for a legal verdict.  This mindset often causes corporations to minimize costs by paying a settlement rather than the added expense of a court battle where the odds are stacked so heavily against them.  The point I made was that whether it’s paid after a long trial or as a result of one of those out-of-court settlements, the money does not come from some secret stash or magic money tree.  It comes indirectly from you and me.

The sight of this wonderful spider web while on one of my weekly nature walks reminded me to expand on this topic.  When the fly or bug hits a spider web, the spider hiding in the corner feels the vibration and quickly locates its prey.  The signal is sent through the web and gets back to the spider.  For the spider, this is good news.

On the other hand, when a corporation or government or anyone else we do business with spends more money, the effect is the same, but it’s bad news for us.  Most companies are in business to make a profit.  When expenses increase, profit decreases.  To offset this they either reduce other expenses or increase their prices.  If an action affects a whole industry, it’s very easy for everyone to raise prices.  (Look at how different brands of gasoline go up and down at the same time when they all face an OPEC action or bad weather near the refineries.)  We end up paying more for these cost increases whether the reason is higher utility rates, shoplifting, legal actions, higher taxes, or anything else.  We are all connected, like the web example and the cost comes back to us.

Take cigarettes as an example.  States sued the tobacco companies.  The cost of those legal settlements was merely passed on to smokers in the form of higher cigarette prices  Since all companies were affected,  no one was afraid to raise prices.  The effect of the suit was equivalent to raising cigarette taxes, but raising taxes would have been perceived as "punishing" the wrong people.  Ironically, after the settlement, tobacco companies' stock price and profits continued to rise.  As it turned out, the Attorneys General looked like heros, the tobacco companies prospered and smokers paid the price.

A more recent example comes as a survivor of the Aurora, Colorado shooting is preparing to sue the theater.  Who do you think will ultimately pay for that?  Everyone who plans to see a movie at any theater in the future will be affected by higher prices to cover the additional liability costs.

It is the same story with government spending.  Decisions made in Washington or your state capitol or town hall indirectly affect your wallet.  Local or state politicians, who proudly declare that a new bridge won't cost you anything because it's federally funded, would like us to forget that our federal taxes pay for that bridge and for every other similarly funded project in America. It is our money.  When governments force utilities to buy a certain percentage of their power from higher-cost "green" sources, we end up paying through higher electric bills.  When governments subsidize a product or go deeper into debt, the subsidy or the interest on the new debt is paid for with our money.

It's important to remember that these things don’t happen in a vacuum.  Just as the vibrations of the web reach the spider, the vibrations caused by added costs or higher taxes set up economic vibrations that eventually find their way to our wallets.  To believe in some magic money tree or other isolated source of insurance, government or corporate funds is to delude ourselves.  Many politicians and lawyers would be very happy if we continued to delude ourselves in this way.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Teen vs Magazine

Let’s continue on the subject of perspective, which I reviewed last week adding evidence in the next posting that perspective can lead to happier outcomes, that better behavior in this dimension yields better consequences.  Now I want to take a look at one more example of how to apply perspective to current events.

A couple of weeks ago there was a wonderful news story about a 14-year-old girl from Maine successfully taking on Seventeen magazine for their practice of photo-shopping pictures of teen models.  She used an on-line petition to gather over 84,000 signatures protesting the use of manipulated images.  The complaint was that “Seventeen and other magazines put pressure on girls to emulate perfect-looking models without realizing images have been doctored.”  The outcome was a promise from the magazine to provide access to un-doctored material and “to always feature healthy girls and models regardless of clothing size.”  Advocates fighting anorexia and similar disorders applauded the move.

When I saw the news, I naturally had a slightly different reaction.  I thought, “That's great, but isn’t it too bad that so many teenaged girls (and boys) are so influenced by these and other magazines, that they turn to these sources to learn what they should look like and how they should dress?  Wouldn’t it be even more wonderful to find independent-thinking young people who don’t give so much authority to these outside sources?” 

I admit that sounds pretty unrealistic.  Teens are under tremendous peer pressure to conform to the values and expectations of their group, sometimes even bullying or shunning those who dress or act differently. 

Is it equally unrealistic, though, to expect them to grow out of this stage at some point, to become independent thinkers, to decide for themselves rather than being influenced by magazines or celebrity endorsement?  Yet, how many adults in our society follow a similar pattern, buying more, newer or more stylish houses, vehicles and toys just to impress their neighbors or to fit in with their social circle?  How many buy brand-name or designer goods, not for the higher quality, which is often not so, but for the image?  How many display advertising and logos on their hats, shirts, jackets and golf bags?  When do we mature to a sense of perspective that allows us to ignore this attempted manipulation by the marketing machines and decide for ourselves that what's considered cool or in or trending is not necessarily better and that we can be OK living by our own values, not those imposed on us by society and the pop-culture?

We should celebrate the girl who, nearly single-handedly, took on the magazine, but we must understand that there is always more power in our behavior than in any magazine and strive to exercise that power instead of blindly following the herd.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Perspective on Batman

Wow, right in the middle of a series of postings on how important it is to keep life in perspective, living according to our core values, practicing moderation and separating the important from the trivial, I see this news story.  Three days before the opening of the latest Batman movie, the Rotten Tomatoes website had to suspend comments because they “got way out of hand.”  Angry fans reacted harshly to negative reviews of the film and made profane and threatening remarks about the critics who wrote them.  The staff in charge of policing the comments to ensure they were in line with the site’s standards were temporarily overwhelmed by the volume of hate-based reactions.

Remember, these are angry, threatening comments made about unfavorable movie reviews by fans who have not yet seen the movie!  First of all, where are they getting their information?  Second, where is their perspective?  In America both critics and fans have a right to their opinions, but this is only a movie that they are fighting about.  Quick, name ten things more important in your life than a movie.  It shouldn’t be hard.  Most people can probably name a hundred with ease, but when we lose perspective we go crazy about such unimportant things.

This is very important to remember as the baseball season heads toward the playoffs, the football season gets under way and the folks at NBC try to convince us that the Olympic events are among the most important things in our lives.  It's not just movie-goers who get unreasonably upset and excited.  Except for the athletes and the filmmakers, this is only entertainment.   If it angers more than it entertains, then we probably have some serious soul-searching to do.  Why do we place such a high value on these things, and what gets pushed off our personal priority list as a result?

This is my 120th posting, every Monday and Friday for 60 weeks.  Over this time the number of page views has been steadily increasing, and I would like to tell you how much I appreciate your taking the time to read my blog.  I promise to continue my efforts to keep these pages interesting and thought-provoking.  I know I am presenting some challenging ideas intended for a thoughtful audience not the usual cute or entertaining fare that "goes viral."  I hope you continue to visit and encourage your friends to participate in this modest campaign to improve our consequences by better understanding and improving our behavior.  Thank you, James Jeray.   

Monday, July 16, 2012

Testing the Validity of Perspective

Continuing from last time on the subject of perspective, I expect some people are skeptical about my advice on moderation and gratitude.  Haven’t we been brought up to believe, with few exceptions, that more is better?  As you know, I endorse skepticism, favoring a show-me attitude over the gullibility that we see so often in our society.  (It's a sign of critical thinking.)  Accordingly, here is an article from the NY Times less then two weeks ago with results from several experiments showing the relationship between money and possessions on one hand and happiness on the other.

The article features the results of several experiments and analyses trying to determine this relationship.  The conclusions are very interesting and consistently supportive of the wisdom of using perspective to guide our behavior.  The questions addressed include:  at what point does making more money stop making people happier; how does the way money is spent affect happiness; and how does moderation play into the situation?

Gallup, the polling organization, collected data from nearly half a million Americans finding that “higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.”  Above that point there is no consistent improvement in happiness.  They also noticed that doubling income at lower levels does not double happiness, but does improve it somewhat.  (This represents a very large and significant sample size.)

In answer to the second question, research shows that spending money on yourself, buying the stuff you always wanted, is less effective in terms of making you happier.  They conclude that “you’re better served in many cases by simply buying less — and buying for others.”  Yes, hard to believe but spending money on others and not just buying more stuff often makes people happier.

Other research showed that overindulgence tends to reduce the pleasure associated with an experience, whereas the opposite tends to make that experience more valued.  Getting all you want today decreases the satisfaction of getting more in the future, but limiting quantities today or abstaining for a while will make future experiences more satisfying.   

These findings are interesting, but not surprising.   They merely reinforce the call to exercise perspective as defined last time and in my earlier posts.  It's something we have often heard but easily forget that money can't buy happiness.  As the ancient Greek philosophers and other sources of wisdom reminded us, happiness comes from enjoying "all things in moderation."

Friday, July 13, 2012

What is Perspective?

I recently received an interesting e-mail that I’m sure has been circulating on the Internet for some time.  It begins with a picture of the rocky planets of our solar system shown to scale with Earth the largest among them.  Next it adds the large, gaseous planets:  Jupiter, Saturn, etc.  In this picture the earth is quite small.  The next scaled picture adds the sun.  Now the earth is just a pinpoint.  It goes on to compare other visible stars, which are so large that the sun shrinks to the size of one pixel and must be pointed out with an arrow, and the earth has long since become invisible.  It concludes by asking:  “Humbling, isn't it?  Now How Big Are You?  And how big are the things that upset you today?  Keep life in perspective.”

This was a nice message about perspective, but I kept scrolling down, and a little below the last line I found the following message:  “Ahhh...imagining that irresistible "new car" smell?  Check out new cars at [hyperlink to a website].”  Wow!  Back to commercial reality!  I found this pretty ironic.  That, I think, was a seriously misplaced ad.

Perspective is not about that new car smell or any other material possessions.  You buy a new car when you need one, not when you get tired of the old one or want to impress your neighbors or for the sake of that new-car smell.  Perspective is about gratitude, appreciating what we have instead of yearning for more - even if all we have is an old clunker that reliably gets us around town.  Behaving with perspective is about getting away from the hype, distinguishing between the important and the trivial, the substantive and the superficial, your needs and your wants.  It’s about asking, “Do I really value seeing that game or concert so much that I will spend the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries for my family or half a mortgage payment to buy tickets?”  It’s being able to wisely identify what actions and decisions are consistent with your core values.  Living with perspective leads to favorable consequences and avoids many of the problems and imbalances common in our society - too much debt, too many toys, too much busyness, and too much unhappiness over unfulfilled desires.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Sue the Bastards!

How often do we hear that some activity is not allowed or is no longer allowed due to "liability issues"?  How often do we hear about restricted access or that some courtesy is no longer offered for the same reason?  I’m sure we are all familiar with examples in our own lives.  Here, in plain, blunt language, is what is really meant by the phrase, “liability issues.” 

If we let you do this, there is a possibility that someone may get hurt, frightened or distressed.  If that happens there is a possibility that the person affected will get a lawyer and sue us.  The lawyers will argue that we did not do everything possible to minimize or eliminate the danger.  When that happens, a jury will conclude that the victims have suffered and deserve compensation, even if they were being careless themselves.  With very little economic understanding, the jury will also conclude that some big company or an insurance company will cover the cost and no one is really hurt.  It is this dynamic and the threat it carries that lead to so many out-of-court settlements.

As a result we get fewer opportunities, enjoy fewer experiences, and endure more restrictions to our lives; and it indirectly costs us more for that privilege through higher doctor bills, higher fees on the sports our children play, higher admissions to parks, higher auto/home/renter’s insurance, higher restaurant bills, and in general, higher prices for everything we buy.

This dynamic would change if some one could brief every jury on a few issues:
1.     Life is not 100% risk-free.  There is no way to ensure that people won’t ever get hurt – especially if they are not being particularly careful themselves.
2.     When you think about your own life, did you always do everything possible to make it risk-free for everyone else you come in contact with?  Is every action at work done with the highest possible degree of care?  Do you always clear ice and snow from your driveway as soon as possible?  Are all the trees in your yard pruned to ensure a branch will never fall or poke someone in the eye?  Are your pets and children always impeccably behaved?  The list could go on and on, but the point is that no one is capable of doing everything possible in all cases.  Shouldn’t there be some room for flexibility to distinguish between misconduct or gross negligence versus an ordinary level of diligence?
3.     Do you understand that there is no magic money tree?  When corporate expenses increase, whether it be shoplifting, utility costs, the need to print those ridiculous warning labels or legal settlements, they pass those costs along to their customers – you and me.  This is especially easy to do when all their competitors are exposed to the same conditions and risks.  When an insurance company pays a settlement, they pass the increased cost along to their customers.  When other companies see this increased risk of legal costs, they must account for it and pass that cost along to their customers as well.  In the end we, not big industry or insurance, pay for the actions of sympathetic juries.

Can we fix this problem of an increasingly litigious society through individual behavior – people accepting more responsibility rather than always blaming others and more rational juries with better economic understanding?  You bet we can.

Friday, July 6, 2012

We Get the News We Ask For

Sick of the same old stuff on the news?  Admit it, most of what we see or read, even from so-called serious news sources, is pretty lightweight.  We get fluff about celebrities:  who got married, who got divorced, what Pippa was seen wearing.  We find celebrity gossip attractive because the alternative is bad news.  Who wants to come home from a hard day at work to hear stories about gruesome murders, destructive weather events, economic problems, or civil wars and suicide bombings in foreign countries?

We get results of surveys telling us what we are worried about now and what we should worry about next.  For example, earlier this year they told us that the “strife between rich and poor people is now seen as a bigger issue than other social conflicts, including conflict between immigrants and native-born Americans and tension between black and white Americans” not because of some major shift in attitudes, but because we kept hearing about it, specifically news coverage of the Occupy movement.  As that has run its course, our biggest concern moves on to something new.

Instead of covering hard news in depth, the media use emotion-laden words such as strife, crisis, epidemic and conflict to get our attention.  Pictures and videos emphasize the fear and destruction.  At the fires and floods, instead of telling us the extent of the damage or other “boring” statistics, they interview victims – “How did you feel when your house blew away?”  The human interest touches us deeply and keeps us tuning in, rather than giving us any concrete information.  We come away feeling anything but confident about the future of America.  Then other surveys tell us that the majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

But the news we get is the news we react to by tuning in or clicking on web pages.  Horror, tragedy, Hollywood gossip, cute stories about bears roaming in subdivisions, all the gory details of the Cruise/Holmes divorce and the latest amateur video gone viral are what catch our attention.  We see them over and over, not only on the lightweight magazine-type programs, but also the national news.  Serious, thoughtful reporting is rare.

Networks choose their stories, redo their sets and shuffle or fire their presenters based on appearance and popularity.  Can’t we understand how superficial this is?  Can’t we recognize how the lack of depth in the news reflects our reactions based on our lack of perspective, allowing the superficial to crowd out the substantive?  Everyone in the media caters to our wishes as shown by how we spend our time and our money.  We get exactly what we ask for, and what we are getting today tells us more about ourselves than about what's going on in the world.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Affordable Healthcare?

The cost of healthcare is increasing at two or three times the rate of growth of the economy, becoming a progressively greater percentage of total expenses.  Last time I commented on healthcare (April 16, 2012),  I listed 8 factors behind this on-going cost increase.  One was the design and structure of current health insurance programs.  As the US Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act  last week, I invite you to review that posting and others listed there where I explain simply and briefly why insurance as it exists today is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and how making insurance more affordable is masking the path to real progress.

As I followed the news, I wondered, "What other item can't be purchased by someone without insurance?"  It occurred to me that if the subject weren't healthcare, we might see how insane the path we are on really is.  One issue that separates healthcare from every other purchase is that everyone feels entitled to the very best, top of the line, leading edge resources and expertise.  When we buy a car or groceries, we don't feel like everyone deserves a BMW or fillet mignon with caviar.  Some people can afford the luxuries and the rest buy what we can afford, but with healthcare, with our well-being or lives on the line, there is no room for compromise (despite the fact that this has never been the case through all of recorded history).  Given that difference, let’s do a little thought experiment to help clarify the issues.

Noticing that your gas tank is getting low, you drive to the gas station to find that things have changed.  Before entering, an attendant asks to see your insurance card.  She looks at it and tells you that they used to accept that insurance but no longer do.  If you really need gas, they will fill you up, but you will have to pay them at a higher rate or your insurance will charge you more for “out of network" service.  You wonder why you weren’t notified of this, and you don’t want to pay the higher rate.  After all, you and your employer pay good money for the premiums (which cover fuel, and minor or major repairs).

So you drive out and head to another station.  Your insurance is accepted and you drive in and get gas.  At the same time your car is tested for various problems.  You notice a few things:  the price of the gas is not posted anywhere, all the readings for the pump are inside, and the tests they do differ from the ones your old station did.  You wonder whether all these tests are necessary, but are assured that the attendants are professionals and know what they are doing.  When you drive out, you don’t pay.  They will send the information to your insurance company who will process it and in about a month or two, send you information telling how much they will pay and how much you owe.  This information is very vague about the tests done with some "reason codes" referring you to general explanations of what isn't covered and why.  (Some of these services you may not even recall getting.)  A few weeks later you will get a bill from the gas station and you hope the numbers match.  If they don't you have a 3-way argument with them and your insurance company - good luck!  Sometimes this process becomes so complex that your employer provides the services of an insurance advocate to help sort out discrepancies, an activity that may last several months.

Not everyone has insurance.  They can’t be left stranded on the road, so the stations send tow trucks to help.  The uninsured pay what they can, but the difference is passed along to regular customers.  Another factor that adds to the cost is that everyone demands the very best in fuel, fuel delivery systems, repair diagnostics, and so forth, forcing all the stations to invest heavily in top of the line products and equipment, even those rarely needed.  This only-the-best mindset leads to further costs as attendants and mechanics are held to stricter standards of performance and must pay extraordinary amounts for liability insurance, passing those costs along to their customers.  You drive carefully and take care of your car, but others drive recklessly and neglect their cars; the cost is averaged over everyone.  Finally, there is a small minority of stations that game the system by filing bogus insurance claims, likewise adding to the overall cost.

One thing few people notice is that in areas where insurance is more generous, stations tend to more readily recommend additional repairs and maintenance.  If you live in one of these areas and don’t pay strict attention, you may drive away with windshield wipers or even new tires whereas another station might have let you drive a few more miles with the ones you have.  Two months later you find that your less generous insurance doesn’t cover these and you are stuck with the bill – too late to do anything about it.  Those with the better coverage don't object to the extra services because it's not costing them anything, so the practice continues. 

Now if someone came along and said, “We’ll fix it by making it easier for people to buy insurance and by forcing more regulations on the companies or by setting up a government insurance pool", do you think that would improve the system or provide the incentives needed to bring the long-term cost down?  I don’t think so.  I think anyone who considered the problem critically, seriously and objectively would conclude that the entire system is messed up.  Easing entry into a messed up system doesn’t un-mess the system.  It just exposes more people to the complexity and the mess.  Think about it.