Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Responsibility

What do Halloween and sugar have in common?  The easy answer is candy for the trick-or-treat bags.  The correct answer is that each gives organizations an opportunity to identify victims and to pass the responsibility to outside parties rather than where it belongs.

The first such organization is one called Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) working “on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies.”  They are promoting a program to shift the responsibility for children with food allergies away from the children themselves and their parents and onto the community.  Their website reads:  “This Halloween, FARE is encouraging families to start a new tradition: paint a pumpkin teal and place it on your porch to indicate you have non-food treats available.”  They want neighbors to feel compassion for these children who otherwise could find themselves not included in the festivities.

In days gone by parents inspected the trick-or-treat collection for possible problems, ranging from the legendary needles in apples to allergy issues to candy that might affect loose teeth.  In other situations the children themselves were expected to, and did not feel uncomfortable to turn down any foods that were not allowed in their diets.  When they were too young to do so the parent stepped in.  Teachers were often unaware of these problems and not expected to police the situation.

Now all that has changed and neighbors, the community, innocent bystanders are being drawn in to do the work and are asked to raise their own awareness along with that of others on the block, making sure those 1 in 13 kids don’t feel left out.  (They even offer the solution of painting a plastic pumpkin for participants with pumpkin allergies!)

The next bit of information is a trailer for a documentary 'FED UP' which “contains a lot of crucial information that most Americans don't know about the food industry. The increase in certain health problems and fatal diseases has been on the rise, and research shows that sugar is at the core of most these ailments.”  That’s right.  Don’t send the kids out at all on Halloween.  They are the victims of a sugar industry with “extraordinary power” that is “in business to make money, not keep America healthy.”  In this trailer speakers use the word “epidemic” twice and seem to mock Michelle Obama’s statement:  “It shouldn’t be so hard to get them to run around and play,” implying that it’s not the kids problem to solve – it’s the fault of the sugar industry and their willing accomplices in government. 

They support this shifting the blame with statements like: “Your brain lights up with sugar just like it does with cocaine or heroin” and “You’re going to become an addict.”  Their solution is not diet and exercise, because the problem is systemic.  “We are blaming willpower and it’s a crime” (to do so).  They conclude by saying, “We have to change the diet of America.”  Who do you think this we will include?  If we, common citizen, can’t be trusted to feed our kids properly, if we can’t be trusted to read the food labels to know how much sugar our family is eating, if we can’t be trusted to see through the deceptions of the junk food companies that are “acting just like tobacco companies,” I’m sure we can’t be trusted with the vast responsibility of changing the diet of America!  We, especially our children, are the victims here and must look to someone else to save us from the epidemic. 

Halloween is about children who are the victims of food allergies.  We would be heartless to exclude them.  Give them toys instead of the candy we use to feed the addictions of the rest of the children who are victims of the evil sugar industry, a complacent, if not complicit government, and the well-meaning but misguided people who recommend that they just go out and run around.  It’s certainly not hard to find examples of responsibility gone dormant.  Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rumor and Innuendo

A kind of rumor or urban myth has been going around for many years.  As a critical thinker, I pride myself on not being one to take these things at face value without doing some research.  The assertion in question is whether, as even then-Senator Barack Obama said in a 2007 speech, “we have more black men in prison than we have in our colleges.”

This bears looking into.  The belief that this is true gives already-prejudiced white people fuel for their convictions, gives unmotivated black high school students a reason to give up on their education and gives black women a reason to lament about the lack of eligible husbands and fathers.  The latter two groups are coaxed away from the idea of opportunity and toward the idea of being victims of the system.  This thought is dangerous and destructive, especially if it’s not true.  Much like Liza Doolittle, people tend to live up to or down to the expectations set for them by others and by themselves.

My first source contained an interesting chart that is reposted here.  The sources for the data on this chart are clearly printed as footnotes and appear to be legitimate.  The site points out that colleges changed the way they reported attendance in 2002, which may make the earlier numbers understated.  In any case, from that point and beyond, the data contradict that widely held belief.  It appears that consistently from 2003 on more black men are attending college than are incarcerated.

That alone is interesting, but taking it a step further, it would be more interesting to know how the number of black men in college compare to the number of black men of college age in prison.  For that information I sifted through the Bureau of Justice data and found everything I needed in one chart.  With the help of MS Excel I extracted the data from that chart and calculated the pertinent numbers (shown in bold).  The results show that in 2013 the number of black men in prison actually decreased from the 2010 numbers in the first chart and that those of college age were only about 1/7 of the total.  There are far more black men of college age in college than in prison!

It is true that black men are still disproportionately imprisoned, but young black men face enough challenges getting ahead in society without adding this sense of “piling on” as promoted by a negative belief that can so easily be shown to be erroneous.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Best Consumer Protection

Maybe I should listen to different radio stations while driving or not pay attention to the ads, but as it happens I have come to the conclusion that the best consumer protection is between your ears.

The first ad told me that I could make millions just like the announcer presumably did by following his method for flipping real estate.  It is easy and he will share his secrets with me!  Well, if it is so easy and so lucrative, why is he wasting his time making radio ads, designing brochures and holding seminars?  If you had an easy way to make money, would you, or any other reasonable person, stop doing it to put together programs to share it with other people.  If he is so generous, why doesn’t he just keep making money by flipping real estate and then donate that money to a worthy cause?  The premise of the ad makes no sense at all.

It reminds me of another that tells me that some guy knows the secrets about how to make money in the stock market whether it is going up, going down or running in place.  The questions are the same.  If you know the secrets, why stop to share them?  This seems like a poor use of his time when he could be racking up the big bucks, sitting at his computer buying and selling.  Perhaps he is just an extrovert who gets lonely trading stocks all day and yearns to have a big crowd of people around him in his free seminars – act now; seating is limited.  I really don’t think that is the case.

Finally, some guy – why are all these voices on the radio offering me such good deals men? – some guy tells me that he will sell me property for an unbelievably low price.  In the ad he says something like, “you decide if other misleading offers measure up to ours.”  Is that a Freudian slip?  Does he really mean to imply that his offer is just one of a larger set of offers that can all be labeled misleading?  You wouldn’t say that John is going on a field trip with the other girls in his class.  John is not a girl.  To say it that way, you would think that John, or perhaps Jon, is a nickname for one of the girls.  So to ask me to compare his offer to the other misleading ones, makes me laugh, shows that he needs someone to carefully edit his script or might be a subtle clue to run the other way before doing business.

The problem is that these radio ads cost money.  They wouldn’t be spending the money to advertise if it were not showing results, results in the form of people spending money on the programs and seminars that are so transparently presented.  There seems to be a breakdown in critical thinking, the kind of thinking that makes people appropriately skeptical when it comes to these too-good-to-be-true offers.

The FTC and other consumer protection agencies at all levels of government cannot police all of these and cannot protect us from our own foolishness.  The best consumer protection is between your ears.  Many advertisements are a lot more sophisticated than the examples I gave here.  They will use every psychological trick to try to separate us from our hard earned dollars.  Be alert.  Be aware.  Be on guard.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Tough Decisions

In 1967 a British philosopher developed a problem, a kind of thought experiment, called the “Trolley Dilemma.”  Since then it has caused much discussion and spawned several variations.  In it you control a switch that will reroute a trolley from the main track onto a spur track.  The trolley is coming, and ahead on the track are five workmen unaware of its approach.  They will surely be killed.  If you pull the switch the trolley will be diverted and you will save the five lives, but the trolley will hit and kill one other workman on the spur track.  What would you do?

In purely utilitarian terms the right answer is to pull the switch.  The choice between five dying and one dying is a pure mathematical decision.  If you were not there, however, the five would be killed with no one to blame, which is the same as doing nothing.  It is reasonable to assume that pulling the switch is the equivalent of killing the single workman.  One variation, which makes it more interesting, replaces the switch with an innocent bystander and asks if it would be ethical to throw him in front of the trolley to save the five.  This usually gives participants more pause than the more mechanical action of just pulling a switch.  Clearly there is no good answer.  It is a test of values.

Now I digress from the original problem.  Let’s replace the one workman on the spur track with a small tree or rose bush.  Despite the fact that shrubs are living things, it makes the decision much easier.  Even if it was a very rare or a endangered species of rose bush, the problem becomes a no-brainer – you save the people.

As a next step I replace the rose bush with a box of spiders or garter snakes.  These are living animals that benefit us by eating insects, but few would feel squeamish or hesitate to kill the spiders to save the five workmen.  The decision is still simple.

Moving on, I continue the escalation by changing the unaware target from spiders to an ugly, smelly or otherwise unpopular mammal like a rat, mole or skunk.  At this point, or perhaps even at the last stage, some far-out animal rights advocates would object.  They argue that the rat or skunk has exactly the same right to life as a human and the problem has regressed to the original moral choice.  Most of us, though, would not agonize over the choice between killing a rat or skunk vs. allowing five workmen to die – even if it required actually throwing the box of rats rather than just pulling a switch.

At what point then does each of us cross the line?  At what point does the majority cross the line and declare that there is no difference from the original problem?  At what point does the majority allow themselves to be bullied, badgered or worn down, succumbing with indifference to passive acceptance of someone else’s value system?

Do some say it is identical to the original situation if we must balance five human lives against that of a cute bunny, a baby seal or a brown-eyed doe?  How about a puppy or kitten?  Pets can become like part of the family.  We become very attached to them, but by replacing the one workman, a human stranger, in the original problem with our family pet could it ever put the choice into the same ethical category?  (Remember, I wrote previously about a family that tried to refuse entry into a tornado shelter to another family because it would mean putting their dog outside and in danger.)

This is the kind of question I wonder about when I read about people demonstrating to save the life of a dog belonging to an Ebola patient.  The NY Times science reporter tells us that dogs can contract Ebola and can even be carriers without showing symptoms.  Are the demonstrators disregarding this information, or are they making the ethical choice of not pulling the switch because the value the life of a pet equals that of one or more human beings?  I suspect it is neither; they just have good intentions and are going with their instincts.  But is everyone afraid to even question such a decision so as to not appear as cold-hearted and cruel?  Don’t we want those who are protecting our health to try to make the difficult, logical decisions, whatever those are, rather than follow the easy politically popular path?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Gas Prices

There is an eerie silence when the gasoline prices go down.  Most news articles these days concentrate on local changes, but the prices are going down across the county.  According to this source:  “With gas prices in some states already at or slightly below $3 per gallon, the rest of the country could follow suit before the turkey is served on Thanksgiving next month.”  Credit for this is laid at the feet of supply and demand:  a slowing of economic growth in China and other parts of the world along with a greater supply coming from the US due to the use of controversial fracking techniques.  Overall, though, the situation elicits few comments from the media and even less chatter from the community as a whole.

Contrast this with the situation not too long ago when gasoline prices took a dramatic rise.  We heard complaints from friends and neighbors.  There were letters to the editor in local newspapers about the greedy oil companies soaking the little guy to make obscene profits and making accusations of a conspiracy.  News reporters were turning up unusual examples of people trying to decide whether to fill the tank or buy groceries.  Now gas prices are down and you hear hardly a peep out of anyone.  (Is anyone putting aside the extra money, I wonder, to help put food on the table when the prices go back up?)

Here we are right before an election.  If the situation were reversed we would surely hear some politicians telling us about greedy Big Oil getting windfall profits and overpaying their executives, and how, if we elect them, they would institute additional taxes on these profits to give us the feeling of getting a bit of revenge against those who would abuse us in this way.  The greedy speculators in the oil and gas futures market would also get their share of the blame.  Today, with prices moving in the opposite direction, there is only silence.

When the prices go up outside forces have ample opportunity to manipulate us into feeling sorry for ourselves, feeling like victims.  It is such a familiar pattern that many of us now begin to do it to ourselves without any prompting.  But when the prices go down, it’s supply and demand.  Fascinating!