Monday, September 28, 2015

Are You Afraid of Yourself?

Some pieces of information have come together recently to lead me to the conclusion that people are more and more becoming afraid of spending time with their own thoughts.  They seem to dread facing what’s in their heads.

The first sign was a message on a neighborhood e-mail group when construction workers broke ground for a new branch library.  One neighbor complained that it would increase traffic and possibly draw an undesirable element to this part of the city.  Besides, she said that she had no use for a library and found reading boring.  (I guess the Internet to her is just one long series of cute puppies and kittens.)

That was a little hard to believe, but not too unusual.  Next the post office delivered a card from my cable company telling me in large red letters to AVOID BOREDOM, by signing up to take my entertainment with me everywhere.  Now I like entertainment, but everywhere?  Don’t I want to have a little quiet time to think?

Apparently I am a minority for considering that based on the number of people I see in public who can’t put their phones down, much less turn them off.  This phenomenon is most visible among teenagers, which is why I was very surprised to hear on a television health segment that 60% of high schoolers reported binge drinking.

That was shocking, but also wrong.  Actually, the CDC reported last year that although alcohol is “the most commonly used and abused drug among youth,” and that “people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States,” a reputable survey showed that 35% of these youth reported drinking some amount of alcohol in the last 30 days and 21% binge drank – binge drinking being defined as men consuming five or more drinks and women drinking four or more drinks in 2 hours.  “Around 90% of alcohol consumed among under-21s is in the form of binge drinking.”

Well, 21% is better than 60%, but the National Institute of Health (NIH) published a study (done on rats - no teenagers were intoxicated) with findings showing a strong link between binge drinking during adolescence and impaired cognitive functions later in life including effects on learning, memory, impulse control and making decisions.  With more than 1 in 5 teens setting themselves up for long-term cognitive problems, what that means to our future healthcare needs, not to mention our nation’s future in general, I’ll leave for you to think about.

All that reminded me of an NBC story from a number of months ago about accidental deaths.  The number of overdose deaths “have doubled in the past 14 years and now more people die from accidental overdoses than in road accidents in most U.S. states.”  Overall, more people die accidentally from drugs than from car accidents and more than half of those deaths are related to prescription drugs.

When I lump these seemingly unrelated events together I begin to wonder if Americans are afraid of being alone with their thoughts.  Reading is not as enticing as zoning out in front of the TV.  It takes more concentration and effort.  That can seem boring.  If I am encouraged to take my entertainment with me, the advertisers must assume that I am incapable (or afraid) of amusing myself for even short periods of time.  Their assumption is borne out by the millions of teens who, even with easy access to this 24/7/everywhere music, movies and other entertainment, feel the need to drink themselves into oblivion.  And much of the rest of the population finds solace in prescription pills.  Are these all attempts to numb ourselves against the terrible prospect of some unexpected thought popping up?

It seems like what is called for is a little discipline, choosing to occasionally deny the instant gratification, and perspective, appreciating what we have and rediscovering all the wonderful things about our lives.  This self-induced isolation, drawing away from the outside world without seeming to acknowledge the inner world, is a scary symptom.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Much Ado About Nothing

The latest fast food controversy involves Chipotle’s new advertising campaign announcing that virtually all its items would be free of genetically modified ingredients and antibiotics.  CBS reports that the non-profit Center for Consumer Freedom “launched a campaign last month asserting Chipotle's ‘G-M-Over It,’ campaign is misleading,” because their fast food can lead to obesity.  The counter argument shows pictures of morbidly obese people as examples of what can happen.

The company responds that they are sincere about their commitment, but sincerity is not the same as telling the truth.  You can sincerely believe the world is flat, but that doesn’t make it so.  Reporters side with the company, pointing out that the critic has been sponsored by tobacco and food companies in previous campaigns, that some of those campaign “targets have included unions, the Humane Society and Mothers Against Drunk Driving;” but questionable associations, possible conflicts of interest or just having an ax to grind might imply, but does not necessarily prove, falsehood.

First, despite trying to dress it up with catchy advertising as a healthy alternative, no fast food is really the healthiest choice.  On the other hand, it may lead to, but is not responsible for obesity – behavior is responsible for obesity in almost every case.

Second, what they are fighting about is beliefs and not facts.  GMOs have never been shown to be dangerous or even unhealthy.  Genetic modification has happened in nature for thousands of years, sometimes randomly and sometimes directed by humans and today it also happens in the laboratory.  I have provided details with sound references to back this up several times in the past (Genetic Engineering and More on the GMO Panic and Food Paranoia).

Experts agree.  Last spring, ten doctors from various institutions sent a letter to Columbia's dean of medicine calling for the dismissal of Dr. Oz from the staff.  The letter read in part:  “Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops."

So Chipotle tries to lure in customers based on unfounded beliefs that avoiding GMOs will somehow make what is essentially fast food healthier.  The company is counting on the fact that unlike beliefs in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, people will not grow out of this one.  They are, after all, sincere.

This reminds me of a story I heard in the Seventies from some college students who would mix chocolate milk in the dorm cafeteria with skim milk rationalizing that the low calories of one would offset the less healthy effects of the other, but still deliver the chocolate taste.  At least this had some logical backing.  Trying to rationalize indulging in fast food with the promise of some mythical non-GMO benefit does not even live up to that questionable standard.  So what are they fighting about?

Monday, September 21, 2015

More Economic Reality

Last time I told of how some fast food workers were demonstrating for a $15 wage, while in parts of North Dakota where the economy was strong and unemployment very low, one Wal-Mart was offering over $17 per hour starting pay to attract workers.  It’s purely a matter of the supply of willing and able workers falling short of the demand.  Many of the able-bodied in that part of the state can work in jobs related to oil production for far more money.  Accordingly, the best way to get a good-paying job is to have skills or talents either superior to many others or rare in society.  Examples include top salespeople making the best commissions and star athletes winning tournaments or big contracts, but the principle generally extends to the rest of us who expect to get rewarded for a good education and hard work.  (Of course some get rewarded for being favored by the boss or being related to the owner, but much of that is out of our control.)

That supply and demand dynamic works well if the jobs exist, but where do jobs come from?  Politicians would like us to believe that if elected, they will create jobs.  Later, if the job situation improves, they take credit; if jobs disappear, they blame evil corporations, the general economy or other politicians – or sometimes they make up numbers and take credit anyway!  The truth is that government does not create jobs (except more government jobs).  Politicians can only make it easier, less burdensome, for businesses, especially small businesses to operate and grow.

Do businesses create jobs?  I’ve often heard people, especially during the recession, complain that if Apple or another big company has so much cash on hand, why don’t they use some of it to hire more people.  These complainers don’t take it to the next step by asking what the new employees would do.  Would they help to make more products, products that would just accumulate in a warehouse somewhere?  That might work in the short term, but then those people, plus others, would be laid off until the products sold.  With no one to buy the products or no one interested in the extra service the companies have no reason to hire anyone.  They will continue to accumulate cash while they advertise in an attempt to grow; but they need more sales to hire more workers.

The ultimate conclusion then is that customers create jobs!  Companies must have someone interested in buying a product or service to justify hiring someone to produce that product or provide that service.  The lemonade stand at the bottom of a dead end street is pretty much doomed to failure.  Apple without people lining up to buy the latest phone has no reason to maintain their level of stores, distribution, research and advertising staff.  A large majority of new start-up businesses fail in the first 2-3 years not primarily because they are poorly run, but because they are unable to attract enough customers to cover their costs.  Many entrepreneurs will live on a minimal salary or no pay at all in an attempt to get their business off the ground, and that means building a customer base.

No matter what we hear from politicians over the next 14 months and beyond, government does not create jobs.  Customers are responsible for private sector jobs and our jobs depend on those customers being happy and coming back.  Unfortunately too few executives grasp this concept well enough to value the workers who make their products or otherwise have face-to-face contact with their customers and to treat those workers with the respect and honesty necessary to motivate continuous caring and high performance.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Economic Reality

What can we learn from the oil boom in North Dakota, the protest movement to raise the minimum wage and robots in California? – Maybe something about jobs, pay and the economy.

Start with the protesters.  The Huffington Post reports that the fight for a $15 minimum wage is heating up.  The protesters and organizers represent it as a fight for social justice.  With demonstrations in over 230 cities and on college campuses, they hope to pressure fast food companies into giving their employees raises.  McDonald’s has promised an increase, but the corporation controls wages only at owned stores, while the majority of their outlets are run by franchisees.

Perhaps the protesters will get their way, not the whole $15 but some concession.  As they wait, they should ask themselves a few questions.  When I get on an elevator, why is there just a row of buttons on the wall and not someone standing there all day whose job it is to drive the elevator?  When I make a phone call, how can I contact anyone in the world by just dialing a number without having to ask one or more switchboard operators to plug the wires together to make the connection?  When I call customer service, why must I negotiate past the mechanical voice to speak to a live human?  When I buy gasoline and groceries, why am I expected to do work once assigned to an employee?

These questions are relevant, because as MacDonald’s promises a small pay increase, they are testing order kiosks at restaurants to take the place of workers at the counter.  Of course, they will still need people to make the burgers, won’t they?  Not according to this Reason article about that robot company in California.  The company, Momentum Machines, claims that their equipment can replace “all of the hamburger line cooks in a restaurant,” doing “everything employees can do except better.”  That should not come as a surprise; it was just a matter of time.

That brings us to an important economic point.  Over the long run you can’t secure higher pay by protest.  Higher wages come to those who have developed or were born with superior skills and who are willing to work hard applying those skills.  Just as rare gems are more valuable than costume jewelry, rare skills are more valuable than common ones.  As a dramatic example, near the oil fields in North Dakota where the unemployment rate is about 1%, one Wal-Mart store offering $17.40 per hour to attract entry-level workers.  A similar situation exists near the oil sand in Western Canada.  But in New York City where employment choices are few and low skills are common, workers are forced to resort to coercion. 

The dispute is not about justice; it’s about economics.  This is an important lesson.  It’s too late for those workers who chose to have a family of four before developing the skills and ability to support a family of four -- but it’s not too late for our children.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Get the Facts: Movies and Pop Culture

Movies are very popular.  Americans spent over $10 billion going to the movies in each of the past 6 years.  Most of the movies shown are fiction, made-up stories to try to capture our attention and imagination.  Even those movies that play to the popular sentiment, making big businesses and Wall Street the villains, are made by big business and promoted in a way to get us to part with our money for a couple of hours of entertainment. 

As we sit in the theater mesmerized by the celebrities, special effects and other flickering lights on the screen, we tend to lose the perspective that it’s just a story – often pushing a viewpoint.  Some problems begin when we take the information and situations shown on the screen as fact, or as reflecting real life.  Documentary movies compound this problem by presenting only the facts that support a preconceived position, not giving the balanced viewpoint, apparently afraid to investigate too deeply for fear of being forced to give up their dearly held image of how the world works.  It would deprive them of the opportunity to make money and influence us to side with them by scaring us with these slanted views.

Back in 2004 Morgan Spurlock, an independent filmmaker, released his documentary movie, Super Size Me, which followed him on a 30-day exploration of the fast food industry to show how they use wily advertising to profit from encouraging poor nutrition and unhealthy habits.  A couple of years ago I posted a link to a video showing how a high school science teacher challenged his students to develop a healthy diet for him based purely on the menu from McDonald’s with varied meals and an eye toward total calories and fats.  After eating three meals everyday from MacDonald’s and beginning an exercise program where he walked for 45 minutes a day, he lost 37 pounds and his cholesterol dropped from 249 to 170.   Although it was rightly categorized as a documentary, this Super Size Me filmmaker clearly had an agenda and was appealing to an audience with similar feelings.

In 2014 comes another documentary.  This one, called Fed Up, has the objective of telling us how sugar is responsible for the worldwide obesity epidemic and how it is endangering our children.  Notice the common thread of blaming big business for tricking us while the government sits idly by.  Both try to scare us with a danger that is out of our control, giving us only facts and expert opinions that conform to their strongly held position in what is referred to as the health movement.

A long essay on the Science Based Medicine website specifically disputes many of the facts presented in this movie and points out the prejudices of the selected experts that appear in it.  The article concludes:  “The film’s thesis, that sugar has caused the obesity epidemic, is not well supported by evidence. It is a partial truth that the filmmakers have dogmatically represented as the whole truth, with nary a hint of nuance.”  They praise it for raising awareness of childhood obesity, but that it unfortunately does so through misrepresentation, hype and biased opinions “in support of the filmmakers’ political agenda of increasing food regulation.”

Don’t totally blame documentary films.  Network news does the same thing by deciding what to show and what to omit.  They show over and over a picture of a toddler drowned in the sea off Turkey and then days later marvel at the shift in public opinion on the refugee issue in Europe sparked by that single image.  When we stop thinking and start reacting, they rejoice. 

Americans are outraged by the dentist who killed a lion in Africa and sneer at a Kentucky County Clerk as a narrow-minded hater, but proudly wear t-shirts celebrating Che Guevara as a counter-culture hero and anti-establishment icon, apparently unaware of his history as a mass murderer and inventor of Cuban slave labor camps.  They probably saw him as the hero of a 2008 movie that, according to the New York Times, “cagily evades Che's ugly side, notably his increasing commitment to violence and seemingly endless war, but the movie is without question political—even if it emphasizes romantic adventure over realpolitik—because, like all films, it is predicated on getting, spending and making money.”

When a woman disagrees with the politics of others and refuses to issue wedding licenses, she ends up in jail.  When a man disagrees with the politics of others and has them summarily executed, he ends up as the hero of a movie and on a t-shirt.  Interesting.