Monday, June 27, 2016

More Government Protection

Today is a day for celebration!  It’s the thirteenth anniversary of the Do Not Call list.  When you put your personal phone number on the list, it becomes illegal for businesses to call you with unsolicited offers or requests, except for political organizations, not-for-profit organizations, bill collectors and organizations conducting surveys.

How effective has it been?  Here is some information from Wikipedia:  “According to the 2009 Economic Report of the President, prepared by the Council of Economic Advisors, the program has proved quite popular: as of 2007, according to one survey, 72 percent of Americans had registered on the list, and 77 percent of those say that it made a large difference in the number of telemarketing calls that they receive (another 14 percent report a small reduction in calls).”  But is popular the same as effective?  And is fewer calls the same as Do-Not-Call?  “Another survey, conducted less than a year after the Do Not Call list was implemented, found that people who registered for the list saw a reduction in telemarketing calls from an average of 30 calls per month to an average of 6 per month.”

Obviously some companies opted to ignore the list.  I remember early on telling telemarketers that we were on the Do Not Call list and reporting the call on the website.  The information went into cyberspace with no feedback.  Since then technology has improved to give us computers assisting humans to speed up the calling process and robocalls, using a computerized auto dialer to deliver a pre-recorded message.

The main problem with the Do Not Call list is that the process has no teeth.  The enforcement was very weak.  NBC tells us that in the first four months of this year, “the Federal Trade Commission received more than 1.6 million complaints about unwanted calls. Sixty-four percent, or 1.1 million complaints, were for robocalls.”  Imagine the numbers when the people who didn’t bother to complain are accounted for!

Congress recognizes this and now has proposed new legislation requiring landline and mobile carriers to offer free robocall-blocking technology to their customers.  The press release stated, “Robocalls are one of the things that annoy Americans the most and the ROBOCOP Act will finally help put a rest to these dreaded calls that are interrupting family dinners—or worse—scamming people out of their hard-earned money.”  Of course companies who use the technology want the rules loosened rather than tightened.

First, anyone who thinks robocalls are one of our biggest annoyances must lead an otherwise very calm, tranquil and sheltered life.  It’s not such a big deal that we need Congress spending time debating it instead of a thousand bigger issues.

Whether robocalls are among the top annoyances or just a minor pain in the neck, we could always take responsibility and buy an inexpensive phone with caller ID (which most people have already).  If you don’t recognize the caller, don’t answer.  If they really want to talk to you, they will leave a message and you can decide whether to return the call.  (I have been using caller ID to screen calls for several years and haven’t gotten a single solicitation from any organization.  They can’t scam me or annoy me if I don’t answer.)  So once again, why do we need the government stepping in to solve a problem that is so easily taken care of?  They also want to do it in a way that adds costs to the providers, costs that will somehow be passed along to the consumer as they always are.  Nothing is free.

Whenever we don’t take responsibility, acting helpless, acting like victims, some advocate or politician is always happy to step in and solve the problem for us.  Often it doesn’t really get completely resolved; and all we have accomplished is to encourage the attitude of these "helpers" that in this high-tech world of robocalls, scammers or whatever we can’t really take care of ourselves.

Friday, June 24, 2016

More Discipline Evidence

I was not surprised, more discouraged, to see this headline on CBS:  “Nearly a third of Americans have no emergency savings.”  Five months ago a similar survey from reported that about 63 percent would be unable to deal with a $500 car repair or a $1,000 emergency room bill.  Surely this doesn’t mean one-third of Americans don’t have emergencies.  Rather it’s more evidence that Americans have a problem with discipline in their spending habits.

The CBS piece points out that the number who have enough stashed away for at least six months has risen from 22% to 28% in the last year, but it’s still not good news for the non-savers or for the rest of us who may be affected if they begin defaulting on bills. 

Of course a natural reaction when someone is accused of weak discipline is to find an excuse.  (Weak discipline often goes hand in hand with weak responsibility.)  Here CBS comes to the rescue with “11 Tricks Retailers Use to Get More of Your Money.” 

These tricks can be condensed into a few categories.  Some have to do with offering prepared foods:  precut or prewashed or heat-and-serve.  It would be cheaper to do the washing and cutting and preparation at home, but buying prepared foods should be the result of a conscious decision to trade your money for free time rather than an automatic decision.  Another category covers bargain displays, soothing music and confusing store layouts to delay shoppers, getting them to spend more time (and money) in the store.  Finally, constant sales and promotions try to make almost everything look like a bargain, even when a product rarely sells for the full price.  Most of these tricks can be defeated by the age-old advice of shopping with a list and sticking to it.  (I’m surprised the writer left out the common trick of pushing an extended warrantee to get you to buy breakdown insurance on a brand new item.)

I wrote last time about how going after false advertising and other fraudulent activities keeps the FTC very busy.  They can hardly be expected to protect us from these little “tricks” too.  Americans need to take some responsibility.

Finally, some people attempt to control their spending by eliminating credit cards.  This strategy has some significant hidden implications and costs.  Not using a credit card (responsibly) affects your credit score, which in turn can make it more difficult to buy a house, a car or other big-ticket item.  Lower credit scores increase the cost of insurance and travel and may reflect poorly on you when applying for a job.  In addition, credit card companies become your ally when you face cases of fraud or have a dispute with a seller.  You also benefit from any cash-back program, have a complete record of spending and don’t have to carry a large amount of cash, especially for emergencies.  When used properly, credit cards have many benefits.

Even though the trend is in the right direction, a large proportion of Americans still have inadequate savings.  It’s futile to blame it on retailers’ tricks or to try to fool yourself by cutting up credit cards.  The right answer, the real solution, is to know it’s up to you, and only discipline will do.  It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of those without savings and living from paycheck to paycheck can’t find at least one small sacrifice or habitual extra outlay to cut as a source for a small savings plan.  It may seem to hurt at first, but it’s a lot healthier than living with the constant stress of dreading the arrival of the next unexpected bill or emergency.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Keeping the FTC Busy

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the government organization tasked with keeping advertisers honest.  “Its principal mission is the promotion of consumer protection and the elimination and prevention of anticompetitive business practices.”  With all the fears and worries, real and manufactured, about physical and mental health that the pushers of pills and miracle cures take advantage of, the FTC keeps very busy.

I got a tip from a reader to check out the B12 stores that are springing up along the roadside in his state.  They offer Vitamin B12 injections and promise many health benefits.  One Internet site lists 22 areas where B12 helps the mind or body, prevents problems or boosts some function.  But as the reader points out 30 seconds of research on line shows that these injections are a waste of time.

This is quite right.  As this site explains, Vitamin B12 supplements are appropriate only when the patient has a deficiency.  It’s not the cure-all that it claims to be.  Since it is water-soluble, “[w]hen taken in excess, your body eliminates what it doesn’t need…So if you’re not deficient, you’re wasting your money.”  (In one end and out the other.)

The reader goes on to say he reported these false claims to the FTC. They called and thanked him but said they are so backlogged with other investigations that action would take months, maybe years.  What else is keeping them so busy? 

The next week, the answer came, in part, from the Consumer Health Digest, an non-governmental newsletter about deceptive medical claims.  “During the past two years, three marketers of questionable ‘brain training’ programs have settled FTC charges by agreeing to discontinue various claims.”

“The developers and marketers of LearningRx  ‘brain training’ agreed to stop claiming that their programs were clinically proven to permanently improve serious health conditions like ADHD, autism, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, strokes, and concussions and that the training substantially improved school grades, college admission test scores, career earnings, and job and athletic performance.”  

Then there was the case of the Lumosity games claiming to help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.  They settled charges that they deceived consumers with these unfounded claims and agreed to pay $2 million.

Finally about 18 months earlier, Focus Education “agreed to stop making unsubstantiated claims that their computer game, Jungle Rangers, permanently improves children's focus, memory, attention, behavior, and school performance, including for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

In addition to the games and puzzles falsely claiming to make us smarter, more attentive and less forgetful, about 6 months ago “the FTC also settled charges against the marketers of Procera AVH, a dietary supplement claiming to have been clinically proven to improve memory, mood, and other cognitive functions.

These last four examples over the span of less than two years in only one category gives an idea of the size of the workload of the FTC as they try to police the deceptive claims of charlatans and hucksters, the snake oil salesmen preying on Americans looking for that magic cure, a cure for problems real or imagined, an easy way out.  Even some good companies may get carried away, trying to sell their products by promising cures when there is no evidence.   Perhaps they believe that what they are saying is true or that they have worded their ads cleverly enough to avoid legal problems.

In any case, these advertisers know a couple of things for sure.  Today there are so many reports of legitimate new drugs and advances in medicine that we are led to expect and be less skeptical of such claims.  They also know that any mention of Alzheimer’s, ADHD or autism will trigger an automatic, hopeful reaction.  So it’s up to us to be wary.  The FTC cannot protect us from every too-good-to-be-true ad that comes our way.  Discipline to do the work and not be sucked in by the promise of a miracle cure, along with a healthy skepticism that comes from critical thinking will push us to do a little research before accepting these claims at face value.  Such an approach can save significant time and money.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Deception in the News

Someone said:  “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”  Some attribute it to Lenin, others to Hitler or Joseph Goebbels, and others to William James, the American philosopher and psychologist.  No matter – it seems to be true and becomes especially dangerous in light of the casual approach to the Internet information we see on social media.  People see things on Facebook or elsewhere and are thinking up a clever or cutting comment to make on the subject without considering that it may not even be true.

One that has been going around for more than 9 years now and promoted by environmentalists who have an ax to grind with Rep. Joe Barton from Texas, accuse him of saying:  “Wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow the winds down, which would cause the temperature to go up.”  (It is enshrined in one of those on-line, clip-art posters.  You may have seen it.)  This sounded strange to me, even though others in Washington have made equally foolish statements.  So I went to, easy research and a source I have found usually trustworthy.  (I also found another seemingly reliable source with similar information.)

What he said in February 2007 was:  “I am going to read a paragraph which is, if true, very ironic.”  Then he said, “And I quote” and read from a paper published by the executive director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center.  A group from Princeton University was at the time also doing researching along the same lines.  The irony Representative Barton referred to was the emphasis on the dangers of fossil fuel while overlooking possible dangers of the alternatives.  He said it was something to think about.

Now, I’m no particular fan of Rep. Barton.  I never heard of him until this supposed quotation appeared.  Based on the rest of his statement I wouldn’t rely on him for scientific advice, but neither would I rely on most of his colleagues or the people they often call in to their hearings.  The point is that a group or groups took words he was reading from a paper and attributed them to him in an attempt to attack his credibility, and this attack has been going around for over nine years.  Likely many have come to believe it and use it as a basis to discredit any governmental opposition to wind power.

This calls to mind a similar situation many years ago when George H. W. Bush was running for re-election and the New York Times portrayed him as out of touch, based on his apparent amazement over a grocery scanner demonstration.

The incident occurred when he was visiting the National Grocers Association conference.  A New York Times reporter, who was not even present but based his story on one in the Houston Chronicle, described Bush as having a "look of wonder" on his face.  The New York Times took the opportunity to mock the President for not recognizing something ordinary citizens knew very well.
Unfortunately, a little research shows that this was a gross misrepresentation.  “[Mr. Bush] wasn't being shown then-standard scanner technology, but a new type of scanner that could weigh groceries and read mangled and torn bar codes.”  At worst, some present interpreted Bush’s reaction as being slightly bored, but polite.  (Imagine attending a NGA conference with the expectation that you must ooh and ah over all the new technology.) 

The Times and others, however, chose to interpret this reaction as being amazed by technology that common people saw frequently with the intention of portraying him as out of touch, having lived in protected isolation since 1980 as Vice President and President.  “After 12 years' vacation from the real world, there will be a lot of catching up to do.”  If this is what we get from such a reputable source as the New York Times, who can we trust?

Again, I don’t feel any particular warmth toward the elder Bush, but it’s not honest to present your twisted version of reality to drive home your political (or any other) viewpoint, knowing that even with the highly sophisticated communications and information systems of today, people will not have the initiative or exercise the critical thinking to pick through the misinformation.  This lack of critical thinking and passive acceptance of the pronouncements from authority are more dangerous to our future than fossil fuels, wind power or any other subject of debate.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Few Ideas to Challenge Your Thinking

Last time I talked about how people today tend to live in their own “silos” or “echo chambers” with their own friends who stay friends by sharing the same thoughts and opinions.  When their beliefs are challenged, they turn inward looking for reasons to reject or ignore the new information or turn to their friends and like-minded news sources to relieve the tension.  The technical word for this psychological protection is confirmation bias.

Here are a few subjects to challenge widely held beliefs.  Test your reaction.

According to prevailing opinion, acupuncture is ancient and alternative, and therefore good.  News from Great Britain reminds us that acupuncture, like any treatment, should be able to prove its worth in well-designed clinical trials and everyday experience.  Medicine should never be judged on reputation alone or by individual testimonials.   The Guardian news tells us:  Acupuncture is no longer recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a treatment for low back pain.  “The u-turn comes after a review of scientific evidence found that the practice was no better than a placebo in treating those living with low back pain and sciatica.”  After reviewing a large number of scientific trials for effectiveness, “there was still not compelling and consistent evidence of a treatment-specific effect for acupuncture.”  The National Health Service, the single payer healthcare in Britain, doesn’t want to pay for something that doesn’t work.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE) is used in nearly 80% of the school districts in the United States and in many other countries to discourage the use of alcohol and other drugs.  It’s important to know how effective it is.  The program is very popular and appealing.  It’s common to see it advertised on bumper stickers and promoted by schools and the media, but does it really work or is it a waste of time and money?  The news from contradicts the conventional wisdom.  “Scientific evaluation studies have consistently shown that DARE is ineffective in reducing the use of alcohol and drugs and is sometimes even counterproductive -- worse than doing nothing. That's the conclusion of the U.S. General Accounting Office, 1 the U.S. Surgeon General, 2 the National Academy of Sciences, 3 and the U.S. Department of Education, 4 among many others. 5  [Note:  I left their links in the quote for anyone who wants to delve deeper into specific sources.]

Locally grown is the new by-word for produce, despite problems Chipotle had last summer in a number of their locations.  We now have fresh vegetables in the grocery store year round, but that doesn’t seem to be good enough.  Some people are pushing for more locally grown produce claiming it’s fresher and better for you.  Fresher food generally tastes better and delivers more nutrients – that’s why I have a vegetable garden in the backyard every summer – but there is one fly in the ointment.  The assumption that the local food system is as efficient and better controlled than modern farming is wrong, as reports.  “Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.”  Local food is harvested with less efficient methods and delivered in smaller volume leading to higher price – good for the middle class foodie who endorses the practice but another hurdle for the poor.  Those who believe commercial farming is wasteful and polluting, have never seen farm equipment guided by computer and GPS to deliver a shot of fertilizer in the precise quantity to the exact spot at the time required.  It’s fine to support the farmer’s market, but those who endorse moving as much of the system as possible to a local paradigm are trying to turn a personal preference into a requirement that would be a burden on others who are either not so interested or not so well off.

As mentioned last time, sometimes doing the right thing flies in the face of doing what feels like the right thing.  It takes courage to change your own mind and additional courage to challenge the fanatics who refuse to consider new arguments or facts.