Monday, April 28, 2014

What Next to Worry About?

It’s a habit of the news media and the government to try to raise concern about some particular issue by presenting it as a crisis or immanent danger.  They are forever telling us what can harm us or our families so we react by voting the right way, buying the right products, backing the right groups or just staying tuned for the full story.  It is important for us as consumers and citizens to be wary, especially when our concern may be far out of proportion with reality.  A few current news items serve as examples.

First from the government:  “Deborah Hersman, departing chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Monday that ‘one of her great disappointments’ was that child-safety seats aren't required on planes for young children.”  There are several problems with this idea.  Parents may be discouraged from flying with babies, if they would be required to buy a seat as opposed to lap-sitting, driving instead, a far more dangerous choice.  Also, the question remains:  who is responsible for providing the safety seats and checking that they are of an approved design?  The most important issue is that this crusade of hers stems from a single incident in 1989 in Sioux City, IA.  Another article cites one other incident in 1994 in Charlotte.  This is hardly a trend.  Over the past 10 years, US domestic airline scheduled flights have had only about 150 passenger fatalities and 50 passenger injuries for people of all ages (Source:  NTSB statistical tables).

How big of a problem is this?  Consider by contrast that 66 kids are hurt every day in incidents involving shopping carts!  Problems are often as big as the advocates choose to make them regardless of the data.

Turning now to the auto industry, backup cameras and recalls are top stories.  Backup cameras will be required in all new cars by May 2018 at a cost of $140 per car to save an estimated 59 to 69 lives out of a total of “nearly 210 backover deaths each year.  About one third of these involve children run over by their own parents.  But if 16 million cars are sold each year, that works out to about $35 million to save each life.  How does that compare to $35 million spent on another safety or health measure?  Does anyone even ask these questions?

Likewise GM, and eventually GM's customers, will spend $250 million (plus inconvenience to millions of GM owners) to repair defects possibly related to 13 deaths.  
Finally, what about government funding of research to cure diseases?  Is there any mechanism to ensure funding is proportional to the real size of the problem?  Research estimates for 2013 are:
$5.4 billion for cancer (Some cancers get additional funding, for example $711 million, for breast cancer)
$3 billion for HIV/AIDS,
$1.66 billion for heart disease,
$1.1 billion for diabetes,
$529 million for Alzheimer's

By comparison, based on CDC data, mortality by disease in the US (2010 final data) includes: 
Heart disease (597,689),
Cancer (574,743),
Chronic lower respiratory diseases (138,080),
Stroke (129,476),
Alzheimer's disease (83,494),
Diabetes (69,071),
HIV/AIDS (19,343*)
* “Deaths of persons with a diagnosed HIV infection may be due to any cause.”

I guess the answer is that we worry about whatever we are told to worry about.  Whoever beats the loudest drum, has the most popular platform or has the most influential friends goes to the top of the list (and to the front page).  Charm and hype always trump perspective and critical thinking – it’s the American way.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Religious Extremism - A New Form

This story from a couple of years ago was mentioned again this week.  A mother asked for advice from an on-line advice column when faced with pressure from other mothers to provide only organic snacks for the children in her daughter’s playgroup.  She was surprised and insulted, and afraid of being excluded from future gatherings based on the disapproving and scolding tone of e-mails she received.

From a more recent “mommy blog” comes a similar complaint:  “Unfortunately, as of last session, I'm now the ‘bad mommy’ at Playgroup…I have been notified by society that I have some black marks on my parenting record:  I don't carry all organic snacks with me at all times…”

Another site gives advice to mothers enrolling their child in a playgroup.  “One of the first things that the other mothers will judge you on is the snacks and drinks that you bring. If you pull a few organic snacks or homemade fruit leather out of your bag, they will assume that you are a good mother.”  Merely looking up “organic snacks” and “playgroups” on the Internet yields a host of examples where the two are closely linked, playgroups and daycare list organic snacks as a benefit, almost as a requirement to be considered a responsible choice.

Now consider this recent article from the Washington Post summarizing the current science on organic foods.  It is consistent with many other sources and with all I have learned in Master Gardener training sessions and seminars.  Various food categories are discussed separately and summarized in “bottom line” sections which I have compiled below with emphasis added:

Milk – “Organic milk has higher omega-3 fat levels, but probably not enough to make a difference. Exposure to pesticides, contaminants or hormones is not a significant risk in either organic or conventional milk.”
Produce – “While there may be no significant nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce, organic does have lower levels of pesticide residue. However, there isn’t universal agreement on the risk those residues pose.”
Meat – “There doesn’t seem to be much difference, health-wise, between organic or conventional meats. Grass-fed beef has a slight edge over grain-fed because of higher omega-3 levels, but the amounts are probably too small to affect human health.”
Eggs – “There are no significant differences affecting health between organic and conventional eggs.”
Fish – “There’s not enough research comparing organic and conventional fish to draw any conclusions about their health benefits.”

In summary, there is no science to back the adamant preference.  The behavior is more of a belief system akin to some form of religious zeal, the disciples of organic trying to pressure and convert others to their faith.  I even found a sort of Bible for the movement called Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times.  (Commandments are in the form of suggestions like this one:  “Start a play group for your young children…where healthy, organic snacks are offered…”)

It’s understandable when corporations spread this propaganda, but when neighbors attack neighbors for not following the same faith-based system, it amounts to nothing more than bigotry, no better than persecution of Christians or Jews; And it ought to be viewed as such and condemned with the same vigor by all those who strongly advocate for tolerance and inclusion.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Death of the Stock Market

I joked to my sister one day that I predicted the death of the stock market in about 20 years.  With padded playgrounds, car booster seats and all the other regulations and mandatory protections for our children, upon reaching adulthood they will have no concept of risk.  Who will be around to buy stocks or participate in other risk/reward financial transactions?  My sister who works at a school set me straight.  She informed me that the opposite was true from her observations.  The kids on the playground now take more risks than we did growing up, hanging from one knee instead of two for example, taking advantage of, or in some cases, negating the advantage of the added padding.

In the parlance of psychology, it’s called risk homeostasis.

Risk homeostasis is a controversial theory that the safer an individual feels, the more chances he is inclined to take in order to return to what he considers an acceptable level of risk.  There are many examples both for and against this theory.  A classic one comes from Sweden.  When they changed from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right there was a 40% drop in accidents due to the extra caution exercised as drivers got used to the new feel of maneuvering the car.  A few years later, this feeling of caution stemming from the unfamiliar orientation wore off and the accident rate returned to its former level.  Several other interesting examples are listed in this Wikipedia summary. 

It is a controversial theory, which may not apply in all cases, but it's interesting to consider some possible behaviors where it might.  If parents today expect the world to take over for them with built-in safeguards, their complacency might backfire.  As they spend more at the grocery store, avoiding genetically modified food, indulging their love affair with organics and all natural products, does that make it more likely the kids will become fast food junkies when not supervised?  Does the problem of teens (and others) texting and driving relate to efforts to make automobiles safer and safer?  Do the actions of “helicopter” parents coming to the rescue of their children lead to expectations of a false sense of security resulting in situations like this one where a mother sued because her 19-year-old died from an overdose of an energy drink?  Surely part of parental responsibility consists of an appropriate mix of protection and teaching children that behavior has consequences.  This balancing act, which Bill Cosby calls “some kind of judgment” or “taking back the house,” seems to make sense with or without a controversial psychological theory.

I guess a prediction of the death of the stock market was off base, but a call for better parenting and a bias toward moderation is always a good reminder.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Figures Don't Lie, but...

Last time I was enthusiastic about a sign of better discipline among Americans, that 84% of those receiving income tax refunds planned to use them to pay down debt according to a Bankrate article.  Although I hate to put a damper on such good news, I may have to rethink my position and should surely have been a little more careful.

Since this is the week of the tax deadline, other articles and statistics also appeared along the same lines.  From the USA Today/Gannett on Friday (April 11), the chart shown here tells a different story.  About 58% intend to pay down debt or save the refund.  This is more than half, but quite a bit less than the 84% from Bankrate.  This information looks reliable with references listed as: Internal Revenue Service; H&R Block; Tax Foundation; Tax Policy Center;; Giving USA; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Pew Charitable Trusts.

A few days later on April 15, another small box ran in the USA Today with this information based on a Capital One Bank survey of over 1000 people.  Now only 40% intend to save a majority of it and 42% show up as spenders.  What’s up with all these discrepancies?
The lesson for me and for all of us is one I covered way back in October 2011.  Surveys and polls cannot be totally trusted.  Even if they have an adequate sample size and the professional pollsters have gone to great lengths to ensure a representative sample, other problems may still arise.  When self-reporting, people are not always honest.  Sometimes they want to impress the questioners, as it could be in this case, or even shock them, as may be the case with drug polls of teenagers.  Even when they are trying to make every effort to be honest, the wording of the polling question can influence people – choice of words or introductory phrases can imply the intention of the question.  The order in which the survey presents the questions can develop a mood or a pattern.  Outside events or experiences also can influence the mood or opinion of the survey subjects, for example, opposition to gun ownership peaks shortly after a highly publicized shooting incident.

I’m glad many people are making responsible decisions about the use of their tax refunds, but in retrospect, I’m really not sure if it’s a majority or not.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Good Tax Refund Advice

During tax return season we are bombarded with ads about good ideas for spending our tax refunds.  We are encouraged to spend on cars, vacations, appliances and furniture.  Because many of the companies that sponsor these ads run them on network television, it’s a little surprising to find wise, helpful advice on the CBS website.

Here they list seven smart ways to use the refund:  Pay down credit card debt (or college loans); Start an emergency fund (target: 6 months of income); Increase 401(k) donation; Pay down the principle on a mortgage; Deposit it in a Health Savings Account (HSA); Start a college savings plan for children; or make a home improvement that pays for itself. (Note:  Very few home improvements actually do).  Only the last one represents spending and that is spending with an expected payback.  The rest are ways to put yourself in better financial shape and surprisingly “84 percent of Americans receiving refunds intend to pay down debt,” as this Bankrate article indicates.

A minor problem with the Bankrate report is that they refer to the refund as a “windfall,” which it really is not.  It is your money, over-paid to the government and held by them at zero interest.  People would have been better off using it to make a larger credit card payment in the first place.  According to the figures given they could have saved nearly $500 (based on 17% of the $3,034 average refund).  Nevertheless, it’s not too late to save that money this year by using the refund and possibly adjusting the W-4 to free up money today to continue to pay down the debt instead of letting the government hold it for a year.

With so many temptations to spend the “windfall” this tendency by a large majority of those receiving refunds to do the right thing rather than the easy or pleasurable thing represents a strong showing in the discipline dimension.