Monday, December 29, 2014

Getting Carried Away By Gas Prices

Right before Christmas the air was filled with reports of more people driving over the holidays due to lower gasoline prices.  The reported per-gallon decrease from a year ago was 89 cents in Connecticut, 59 cents in Indiana, 84 cents in South Carolina and 80 cents in Georgia.  Pictures from Detroit, New Jersey and Louisiana showed people thrilled to be pumping gas for such a reasonable price.

As a result of the lower prices, people were expected to be driving more.  One report told us that in Northern California, “lower gas prices are likely one reason travelers will be driving their own vehicles or rentals to their destination.”  An energy economist from Purdue University was quoted as saying, “Anyone thinking 'should I drive or should I fly' will probably lean toward driving…It's much cheaper to go reasonable distances by car."  With gas prices down the holiday trip would be a bargain.  But is it really so great?

Let’s consider this question by taking the highest estimated savings (89 cents) and round it up to 90 cents per gallon.  (The actual national average is about 65 cents.)  Different people define the idea of driving a reasonable distance differently, but 500 miles is about a full day of driving.  Anything much farther would be considered by most to be a very long drive.  If a vehicle gets 25 miles per gallon on the highway, and many can do much better than that, the savings would be 90 cents (one gallon)  for 25 miles, $9 for 250 miles and $18 for 500 miles.  That’s not really a lot of money, just about enough to buy a family of four a very inexpensive lunch during those 10 or more hours on the road.  But for the prospect of saving less than $20 for a road trip, drivers are making some very impulsive decisions.

Is it cheaper than flying?  Driving a reasonable distance, up to about 500 miles was cheaper than flying last year and will be cheaper than flying again this year.  The decision to fly these short distances usually depends on the need to get there quickly or that someone else, like the company, is paying for it.  The lone exception might be if you have someone to drop you off at your home airport and pick you up at the destination, and you can get one of those rare, very cheap fares.  Otherwise, drive, but not because of gas prices - it's because of airline prices with their other associated costs and inconveniences.

The sad thing is that some people turn a little savings on one item into a lot of spending on another, whether it be extra travel, more Christmas gifts or something special for themselves.  By overestimating this small difference, we give ourselves permission to indulge in other areas.  The Christmas news reports of more decisions to drive also confirm what I predicted in November – that most people will spend the gasoline windfall instead of adding it to much-needed emergency savings.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Decoding Nutrition Facts

Every food package has a table of nutrition facts.  The government has talked about making this information larger, easier to see and read.  But which of these facts is most important?  Is it the number of calories, the amount of fat, the amount of sodium, the vitamin content, or something else?  I contend that the most important number by far is at the top of the label, serving size or servings per container.

One reason that this is very important is that it makes sense of the rest of the numbers.  As an interesting example take a single frozen 16 oz. Marie Callender’s Creamy Mushroom Chicken Pot Pie.  It proudly shows on the front of the box only 430 calories, 10% saturated fat, 600mg sodium, and 4g sugars.  Except that the saturated fat may be a little high, this looks like a pretty healthy meal.  (The small print on the front of the box right above this display of good diet news says:  PER 1 CUP SERVING.)  The first clue should be the 16oz size.  That may seem a little much, but it is chicken and vegetables and crust, and it's only a single pie.

The detail on the back, under the “Nutrition Facts,” states “Serving Size 1 Cup (200g)” and “Servings Per Container about 2” – about 2!  In fact there are 456 grams in 16oz – that information can also be found on the front of the package – so servings per container is a little more than 2 and a quarter.  The effect of this new information is astounding!  The package really contains more like 980 calories, plus almost 115% of daily recommended saturated fat, almost 1370mg of sodium and more than double the sugar.  It’s still only one pie.  Someone might reasonably expect to eat it in one sitting rather than eat half now and reheat the other half tomorrow or split it with someone else.  Cutting a pot pit in half is not the easiest thing to do – it’s semi-liquid inside.  Who would think of doing this?  If you don’t though, all the promises on the front of the package are pretty hollow.  Marie Callender didn’t lie; but without exercising a little more than ordinary care, it’s very easy to be fooled and eat way too much while believing you are eating responsibly.

This is not an isolated case.  Every food package has this information, and it must be all put together to get the entire picture.  Another example where the honest representation can be tricky comes from breakfast cereal.  A 23.5oz box of raisin bran and an 18oz box of bran flakes are about the same size and cost about the same.  The raisin bran box says it contains 11 servings, the all bran 18.  How does that work?  They are sold by weight and raisins weigh more than flakes.  As it turns out, the bran flakes box is 60% cheaper per serving and contains only about 30% of the sugar. 

Now some people have as much faith in serving size labels as they do in the MPG window sticker on a new car.  No one drives that way and no one eats that way.  You can believe the numbers or not, but none of the other important information makes any sense without first considering serving size.

Will the government mandating larger “Nutrition Facts” labels lead consumers to make better decisions?  Time will tell.  But they must also become more careful shoppers, on their toes, and using critical thinking to sort through, recognize and wisely apply the information regardless of font size.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

It's Perspective Season

The dimension of perspective helps us distinguish between what is important and what is trivial.  One positive side effect is the ability to separate wants from needs, which lead to the ability to prioritize conflicting desires.  Another side effect is gratitude, appreciating what we have and not always yearning for more, bigger or better.

One week ago today the news was filled with stories about how retailers and the shipping companies were adjusting their schedules and updating websites to show the absolute last date to order on line and guarantee delivery by December 24.  They were in the process of fine tuning expectations to avoid over-promising and disappointing.

“After facing an avalanche of criticism last year for failing to deliver thousands of packages by Christmas Eve,” UPS is making extra efforts to ensure everything is delivered as expected.  Both UPS and FedEx “began strategizing immediately after last year's disappointing holiday performance,” which combined bad weather with an unexpected increase in online shopping. US Postal Service will likewise be going “the extra mile to ensure packages are delivered” on time and they too don’t lose customers.

Last year some retailers overpromised regarding last-minute delivery, “leaving some online shoppers irate.”  This year they are being more careful about dates and guarantees because “when you miss that date, trouble ensues."

This is where perspective comes in.  Expressions like "an avalanche of criticism," “irate” and “trouble ensues” certainly paints a picture of out-of-whack behavior in this dimension.  Who are these people that their biggest problem is whether Christmas presents, which were obviously not important enough to plan ahead for, are delivered on time?  If they have a delivery address, they have a home, which not everyone can say.  Chances are they have food on the table and a healthy family to share it with.   Even at this time of the year it's so easy for them to forget their blessings and become irate when their last-minute behavior combined with high demand and bad weather to cause a delay in delivery.  

Is this all about a fragile ego – yes, I put it off to the last minute, but I don’t want to be caught and embarrassed?  Is it about not wanting to disappoint the children, because we, aided by society (and especially advertisers) have built their expectations to the bursting point over the excitement of tearing into presents on Christmas morning?  Did we also forget to remind them about their blessings?  Finally, are adults through their behavior teaching their children that the way to respond to disappointment is to throw a tantrum?

It’s too bad this subject even comes up.  Americans who see Christmas as a religious holiday can worship as they choose – one more thing to be grateful for.  Those who do not, need not be committed to any particular day.  What’s wrong with the following weekend?  This kind of patience and flexibility are a better example to our children than stressing out over where all the last-minute packages are.  In short, everyone has bigger problems than what’s been delivered by a particular day.  Some people just don’t seem to have sorted this fact out yet.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Danger of Social Media

Social media is capable of spreading misinformation as quickly as solid facts.  Not only that, but it spreads this misinformation at greater speeds and breadth than ever before.  It behooves everyone, therefore, to be extra alert, cautious and skeptical.  Unfortunately, Americans have not learned this lesson.  This lack of care and skepticism is shown by the very fact that misinformation spreads so widely.

A couple of examples came up this month.  This first is in a report from NBC that begins, “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Have you ever heard of it? The Internet sure has.”  It goes on to say that the use of this procedure that exposes patients to 100% oxygen at greater than atmospheric pressure, at $2000 per treatment, is becoming more common “for treating autism, infant brain trauma, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, cerebral palsy and many other conditions,” which lately include PTSD and traumatic brain injury for veterans.  The trouble is that there is no solid evidence that it works.

They cite a recent JAMA Internal Medicine study on its effectiveness for treating some veterans with PTSD finding that benefits were not a result of the therapy but the placebo effect.  “Those in the tanks felt better because they really wanted to believe they would feel better even when they just breathed room air.”  Belief in remedies can be powerful even when the remedies themselves are no better than sugar pills.  Furthermore, self-reporting is also suspect due to this placebo effect along with many other psychological factors.  That is why we shouldn’t, but often do, take at face value the testimonials of friends, neighbors, social media contacts, or celebrity spokespersons – or even our own experience.

The second example was news that Pope Francis told a young boy that his pet went to heaven.  Pets going to heaven was good news, something almost everyone wants to believe.  It spread quickly, even on the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, that’s not quite what he said.  The New York Times “acknowledged its mistake, saying in a correction on Friday that it had misattributed the remark by Paul VI to the current pope.”  Pope Francis did not make any comments about animals.  It was all a misinterpretation by an Italian reporter that spread with elaboration.  (Later in the month a picture of the Pope circulated on Facebook with a quote about not having to believe in God.  According to a quick check of the Snopes website, “there is no proof for the claim that Pope Francis said it.”)

Whether pets are admitted to heaven or hyperbaric treatment cures PTSD is not an immediate problem in most cases.  These are just current examples, but other misinformation can seriously affect your wallet and your health.  The latest trends catch on based on celebrity endorsements and Internet chatter with no science required.  Think about how foods that would not naturally contain gluten are now labeled gluten-free based on a fad of self-diagnosis.  Think how many foods carry the meaningless label of “all natural” just to attract uniformed buyers.  These may make a dent in the wallet, but far more serious is the bad health advice, such as avoiding vaccinations, taking supplements for serious conditions, turning down proven cures for home remedies or ancient natural alternatives with no track record except the misperception that “ancient” or “Chinese” always means good, safe and effective.  Companies and individuals can get their reputations savaged as the unchallenged stories of misdeeds or dangerous products spreads like wildfire.  As I mentioned last time, a check of original sources is often all it takes to find that a posting about dangers or magical cures is based on incomplete evidence.  Taking the better-safe-than-sorry approach on everything leaves us unwilling to even cross the street.

There have always been dangers associated with not being skeptical, being too credulous or accepting.  Years ago the locals would give money to the traveling medicine man only to find out too late that they had been cheated.  Today we encounter the same interaction many times a day on the Internet, social media, magazines, and the news.  Critical thinking, a skeptical attitude, is more important than ever to protect ourselves against not only cheats and conmen, but also against sneaky advertisers and our naïve neighbors who “like” and repost unproven and unprovable “facts” without doing any investigation. 

Update December 21:  Two days after publication, I became aware of a move by the American Dental Association (ADA) to spend $500,000 to counter the increase of inaccurate information on the Internet posted by groups that try to influence communities to ban drinking water fluoridation.