Friday, October 30, 2015

Chicken Protests

Sometimes passing by the television or half-listening to the radio or as a sidebar on the Internet, you catch a small part of a news story that gets you wondering.  (It happens to me often.)  This time I heard about people protesting for the better treatment of chickens so they can have a more pleasant life before they are killed and served up at fast food restaurants.  Here is one such story.

The emphasis must be on fast food industry because they have more economic clout than individuals making their choices as the grocery store.  It also gives people an opportunity to force their values on a lot of other people.  Concerning any issue at all, note how easily that a minority of fanatics can impose their will on a majority of relatively indifferent citizens.  They care; you don’t; you lose.

What struck me about the chicken story was a point of perspective.  Does anyone hearing this story, or indeed the protesters themselves sit back and think about what a luxury it is to be concerned about the living conditions of chickens?  These are not your property, chickens you rely on to provide a livelihood.  They are not pets, favorite chickens that live in the backyard and provide you with eggs.  These are stranger chickens, ones that you never interact with until they appear in the freezer section of the store or in the nugget box.

How many problems don’t we have to have to move the welfare of stranger chickens to the top of a priority list, important enough to change our buying habits or even give up our time to try to influence others to change their behavior?  We must have all the food we want, shelter from the elements, a happy and healthy family, a wide circle of friends, job security, enough money in the bank to help us over rough spots in the future and be at peace with our faith or other concept of the power of the universe.  In short, a person has to be pretty set in life to have the luxury to be able to stress about the living conditions of (stranger) chickens!  That is pretty wonderful!

Of course, even those who are so set up in their own lives might consider the living conditions of other human beings, the poor in the inner cities, the refugees overseas, and the neighbor who needs a hand or just a kind word, before chickens.  But people are free to make choices.  It is important, though, when we make those choices to appreciate what we must already have that allows us the freedom and luxury to make them.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Questioning Health News

Sometimes I wonder why I bother to watch the short health segments on the local television news.  They usually strike me as simplistic or condescending – like the one a few days ago telling me that the best way to avoid a cold this winter is frequent hand-washing, duh! Or the only sure way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, duh2!

Every once in a while, though, they make me think, even when the topic has no bearing on my personal situation.  The other day they ran a story telling how more doctors have been recommending a combination of Vitamin B6 and an antihistamine to pregnant mothers with severe morning sickness.  (Suspicious as I am of any supplement, I had to pay attention.)  I could not find the original broadcast but this Baby Center website confirms that information:  “Vitamin B6 and doxylamine have often been used in combination to treat morning sickness. In fact, the FDA has approved this combination for nausea and vomiting during pregnancy under the brand-name Diclegis. Your practitioner may write you a prescription for it or have you take the over-the-counter combination.”

What started me thinking was a statement by one of the interviewed doctors later in the story describing how she would first recommend safer alternatives:  ginger and acupuncture.  Are these really effective treatments, and if not is a doctor behaving ethically when making such recommendations?

First things first.  The National Institute of Health (NIH) reviewed several studies to find if ginger really can relieve nausea.  They found one acceptable study on its use for morning sickness and this study did favor ginger over placebo, but they conclude that its effectiveness for nausea in general is “still a matter of debate.”  The University of Maryland Medical Center found in two small studies women taking 1g of ginger every four days “felt less nauseous and did not vomit as much as those who got placebo.”  It gives some relief but is not a cure.  UMMC adds:  “Pregnant women should ask their doctors before taking ginger and not take more than 1g per day.”

Acupuncture is another story.  NIH has reviewed many studies finding “acupuncture appears to be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain….“However, clinical practice guidelines are inconsistent in recommendations about acupuncture.”  There is no mention of it being effective or even tested for morning sickness, and even for those problems where it shows some effectiveness many researcher saw “no difference between the effects of actual and simulated acupuncture.” 

Of the two, ginger may work, but there is no evidence that acupuncture is effective.  The question follows about the ethics of recommending a treatment with no track record.  This becomes tricky when you consider the placebo effect, which involves administering a pill or shot with no medicinal value or applying a treatment or test with no direct effect, that relies on the patient’s belief system to promote healing.  As this Forbes article explains, doctors do not agree among themselves what course is proper and where to draw the line that may violate either ethical standards or trust in the doctor-patient relationship.  One point to consider, of course, is the cost of a placebo prescription.  Ginger is fairly inexpensive but Harvard Health reports:  “Acupuncture treatments range from $65 to $125 per session. Private insurers usually don’t pay for it, nor do Medicare or Medicaid.”

Critical thinking drives us to ask these kinds of questions of seemingly innocent statements on the news.  Perhaps if enough people begin asking, it will force journalists to be less passive and dig a little bit deeper before passing along all their tidbits and leaving it up to the viewers to sort out fact from fiction from misinformation.  Shouldn’t they consider it to be their job?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Looking for Excuses

Are ethics becoming more situational?  I occasionally hear someone making a comment about getting something for free because the company is not paying attention or because they have found a way around paying: free cable or extra channels, a new cell phone after intentionally destroying the old one before the insurance runs out, free videos and music, etc.  They justify this by saying that the company is big and probably unethical and takes advantage of customers.  This becomes their personal administration of punishment.

Recently, in response to HBO CEO Richard Pepler’s comment that he doesn’t mind people sharing their logins to watch shows online, Emmys host Andy Samberg decided to share his login on national TV – humorous perhaps, but not exactly in the spirit of honesty.  Many jumped at the opportunity to get something for nothing.  According to Variety, “the account quickly hit login limits and has now been deactivated.”  Accordingly, a Consumer Reports survey found that, “46% of American adults said they shared log-ins for streaming media services with people who were not part of the same household—which is generally against the rules.”  It used to be called stealing, but what the heck.  They are big companies with plenty of money.

The government gets the same treatment.  Polls show that approximately 87 percent believe it is unacceptable to cheat on income taxes, which leaves almost 1 in 7 who think it’s OK.  That’s what they say, but “economists estimate the size of the underground [cash] economy at somewhere between 8 percent and 14 percent of total GDP, which could amount to as much as $2 trillion worth of economic activity.”  This is probably not the same 13% of people.  In addition, I told in May 2013 how 99% of taxpayers neglect to report sales tax on Internet purchases and 30% said they would change their shopping habits if a tax were charged at the time of purchase.  No twinges of conscience nag at ordinary citizens when it comes to shorting Uncle Sam or their state department of revenue.

Meanwhile, politicians and their supporters think an acceptable defense is not that they are innocent, but that others before them did the same or worse.  (In many cases voters just shrug off these excuses as if we don’t expect better.)

When the housing crisis struck several years ago, a prominent economist actually encouraged people to default on their loans.  He argued that a smart economic move of walking away from a house worth less than the amount still owed superseded any ethical constraint.  The government was bailing out big companies, so it wasn’t fair for the little guy to be stuck in an upside-down mortgage situation.  One study found that about 17% agreed with this conclusion, but among those who knew someone who had “strategically defaulted,” 82% were likely to agree.

As the left and the right continue to demonize big business on one hand and the government on the other, are we making it easier to justify cheating?  If it is difficult to do business now – getting loans or qualifying for service – what will it be like in the future if companies cannot trust their customers to live up to commitments or expect the public in general to play by the rules?  This behavior too will have consequences.

Monday, October 19, 2015

What, No Raise This Year?!

Americans seem to be able to complain about almost anything.  In 1975 when inflation was out of control, Congress decided that instead of trying to adjust Social Security to meet each new increase, they would pass a law providing a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to be calculated each year in the fall for implementation at the New Year.  Prices, as tracked by one consumer price index (CPI-W), would be the benchmark.  If prices went up from year to year, Social Security would be increased according to a set formula.  If they went down or stayed the same, there would be no change.  That seems simple enough – and generous, considering there would only be an increase or no change but never a cut. 

This Fox News article, which is almost identical to a CNN article released the same day, begins:  “For just the third time in 40 years, millions of Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees can expect no increase in benefits next year.”  The reason of course is that prices did not go up; the CPI-W will be flat or even down from last year.  The culprit, if there is blame to be assigned, is a drop in gasoline prices.  No inflation means no raise.

They go on to tell how terrible this is going to be for seniors and others who depend on Social Security.  Some complain that the CPI-W reflects the spending of younger workers and is not representative of the spending of older adults or other Social Security recipients.  The reduction in gasoline will not offset the increase in medical costs, which are usually more of an issue for all Social Security recipients.  One advocacy group wants the designated CPI changed, but oil prices have come down so far this time that it would probably not make any difference.

On top of that many people have Medicare premiums deducted from their Social Security checks and depend on that annual increase to pay for the any increase in Medicare premiums.  “When that doesn't happen, a long-standing federal ‘hold harmless’ law protects the majority [about 70%] of beneficiaries from having their Social Security payments reduced,” and many of the rest are the high-income folks.  Still, that leaves not a lot to gripe about.

Of course, social media is abuzz.  Republicans want to blame it on Obama (since the only two other times this has happened were 2010 and 2011).  Democrats imply that inaction by the Republican Congress is to blame.  A favorite whipping boy, big oil gets blamed because it’s mainly the fault of lower gas prices (how crazy is that?)!

Get a grip!  It’s a formula, not dependent on a policy change or new law.  Lower gas prices are a good thing affecting the price of food, clothing and everything else that’s moved by truck or train.  The formula didn’t provide an increase this time, but inflation is not a smooth line and it’s likely the drop this year leaves more room for an increase sometime in the future.  Furthermore, Social Security was never intended to be the sole source of income for retirees.

In true news media fashion though, this article and the CNN article and several more came out two full days before the final announcement in an obvious attempt to get everyone in a panic as soon as possible.  Expectations of getting an increase (no matter what) have been set.  Instead of complaining, most retirees should remember 1975 when inflation was out of control and mortgage interest was near 10%.  But we aren’t grateful for the lack of inflation; we are too busy complaining about no annual increase for those of us on a fixed (?) income!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Let's Think About It

A major problem in America is that the decisions facing us are so difficult to research and when the results come in, people only want to believe what they already believe.  At the end of the day we are back where we started, shouting bumper-sticker slogans at each other.  A couple of examples came up in the past week.  One is a pair of studies on the relationship between gun ownership and crime.  The other is about the effectiveness of Medicaid.

First is a 2007 article published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, which has been recently resurrected by those favoring fewer gun laws and labeled as an “overlooked” study.  It compared data from countries in Europe and the US and concluded that the more guns a nation has in private ownership, the less criminal activity.  One website calls this “astonishing” and prints the conclusions in five pages of detail adding that the Harvard article “cites the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the United Nations International Study on Firearms Regulation.  (However, citing an organization does not in any way imply endorsement by that organization.)  Readers sign on below and make comments in favor or against it.

The original article (45 pages of heavy reading with 150 footnotes) contains a warning in the conclusion:  “Each individual portion of evidence is subject to cavil—at the very least the general objection that the persuasiveness of social scientific evidence cannot remotely approach the persuasiveness of conclusions in the physical sciences.”  So as they say in many other studies, more research is needed.

A second, more recent study comes from a closely related source, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.  It shows the opposite effect and is cheered by those favoring stricter gun laws.  One site gleefully announces that this study “obliterates every single NRA lie about guns.”  The study also comes with a warning:  “The results do need to be interpreted with caution — this study method proves that more guns are linked to more gun crime and overall homicide, but not that access to guns directly causes this criminal uptick.”  Nonetheless, readers sign on below and make comments in favor or against it.

The other example comes from Oregon on the subject of Medicaid published by Forbes.  It seems Oregon had more people eligible for Medicaid than money for the program.  “In 2008, Oregon initiated a limited expansion of its Medicaid program for low-income adults through a lottery drawing of approximately 30,000 names from a waiting list of almost 90,000 persons.”  A random drawing resulted in two groups, one with coverage and one without.  It was an excellent set up for investigation.  After one year of data the authors of a study found that having Medicaid was better than being uninsured, but two years later with additional data found that Medicaid “generated no significant improvement in measured physical health outcomes” while those covered by Medicaid spent more on medical services!

These examples are not to favor or discourage gun ownership or to discredit Medicaid.  They merely show that some objective analysis is possible on a range of subjects, and is especially important on big, potentially very expensive issues.  The problems arise when these studies hit the media in a piecemeal fashion and as each result comes out the opposing viewpoints reply either with “I told you so” or with an attack on the methodology or motives of the authors.  No one ever pulls all the information together, perhaps for fear that the final result will not be what they wanted it to be.

This kind of disorganization and emotional knee-jerk reaction will never solve any of our big societal problems.  We will continue to follow the path of popularity vs. finding cost effective and practical solutions.  Politicians will never be motivated to initiate objective investigations unless the public begins to look more like critical thinkers and demand makes-sense instead of feels-good policies.