Sep 30, 2011
Sep 29, 2011
In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)
In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)This “compare random groups of food that I claim make equivalent meals” approach suffers from a distinct lack of rigor. That is what prompted studies like this one concluding that America’s gigantic farm subsidies make fast food cheaper by the calorie. But wait, Bittman’s ahead of this one too:
Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)This is just goofy. Nobody is saying that the poor need cheap calories; massive farm subsidies (a quarter-trillion dollars between 1995 and 2010) that make highly-processed fast food artificially cheap by the calorie make it more likely for poor people to eat such food. When you don’t have much money, getting the greatest calorie dose for your cash is economically rational, even if it’s also a recipe for Type II diabetes. Certainly there’s more to food than calories, but it remains true that the most expensive calories are fresh fruits and vegetables. How could that not reduce poor people’s consumption of those foods?
Certainly one can get a reasonable amount of groceries for about the same amount of money as a similar pile of fast food (see here for a much better-demonstrated version). The problem is that groceries aren’t a meal; you’ve got to cook those groceries, which requires a non-negligible investment in cooking equipment, spices and the like, plus gas to run the stove, etc. Then, more importantly, you’ve got to consider the time and effort needed to cook. Cooking is not easy, particularly for someone with, say, two jobs and kids to feed.
Still, it’s not totally bogus. This country has a serious problem with obesity (not just among the poor), and it’s not entirely about the money. Fast food certainly isn’t helping.
What’s Bittman’s solution? Moral and cultural reform:
Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life…
The question is how? Efforts are everywhere. The People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people. Zoning laws in Los Angeles restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods. There’s the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a successful Pennsylvania program to build fresh food outlets in underserved areas, now being expanded nationally. FoodCorps and Cooking Matters teach young people how to farm and cook.Bittman’s examples of subsidized groceries and more grocery stores have some merit, but it’s truly striking he didn’t mention agricultural subsidies. If eating too much fast food is a problem, and most agricultural subsidies go into fast food, then why shouldn’t making fast food more expensive be a top priority? (By the way, when was salad-tossing a working-class American tradition? And what is wrong with making McDonald’s sell healthier food?)
The idea of imposing quotas on fast food restaurants seems a lot more troublesome. For starters, how do you define fast food? A USDA list? The government is not exactly immune to pressure from, say, the sugar lobby. How do you stop new fast-food stores from jumping into the market? Would we have to crack down on black market taco stands?
The reason places like McDonalds can make fabulous sums selling lousy food is that their ingredients are extremely cheap—for example, because of subsidies, corn usually sells at considerably below what it costs to grow. Making healthy foods relatively cheaper seems a lot more likely to succeed than gauzy, ill-defined plans to restore our cooking culture combined with dubious regulations.
(Cross-posted at Ten Miles Square over at the Washington Monthly.)
Sep 28, 2011
On the other hand, my home state of Colorado is one of those states with a balanced-budget amendment, and facing declining revenues and legally mandated spending (on things like police), it’s been frantically cutting higher education spending, even long before the latest recession. So even though CU’s sticker price was vastly lower than Reed’s, the university offered me basically no support. For my final two years at Reed, my family was paying about $7500 per year (compared to a sticker price of about $46,000 at the time), and nearly all of that aid came as no-strings-attached grants. CU’s in-state costs total over $25,000 these days. It’s impossible to know for sure how much the school would have given in financial aid, but back in 2004, it offered me $500.
According to Annamaria Andriotis, who has a great piece up about student loan misconceptions, this is a common result at elite institutions:
Ivy League colleges are among the priciest in the country. They also have generous policies that guarantee aid in grants instead of loans to students who qualify for financial aid. In other words, for eligible families who can’t afford the roughly $50,000 per year it costs to attend an Ivy League institution, the college will pick up the tab instead of saddling a student with loans. As a result, students tend to leave college with less debt. At Princeton, for example, 78 percent of graduating students have no debt, while the rest average $5,000 in loans, significantly less than the $27,000 national average.
It’s a trend that’s spread to other top-tier universities. In total, no-loans policies for all (or some) students are offered at 73 colleges and universities, according to FinAid.org, including Emory University, Stanford University and Wellesley College. The schools say the policies have helped them attract and retain the best students, regardless of family means, and that once students get there, they have the freedom to pursue studies that may not be lucrative. And after graduation, the policy “allows students to go into teaching and other professions without worrying if their salaries are high enough or if they can afford to make their student loan payments,” says Robin Moscato, director of undergraduate financial aid at Princeton University.(I should note that Reed, while by no means poor, has nothing like the $14 billion endowment of Princeton.)
Even setting grants aside, there is a similar pattern with the lowest-interest rate student loans:
Financial aid experts agree: the cheapest loan a college student can get is a government-sponsored subsidized Stafford loan. The rate is a rock-bottom 3.4 percent for the current academic year — about less than half the cost of an unsubsidized Stafford loan — and the government covers interest payments while the student is in college and for six months after graduation.
But to get approved for such a deal, students must demonstrate financial need, which is partly determined by the cost of their chosen school. That means a student at an expensive private college can show more need, and therefore, may get cheaper loans, than a student at a lower-cost school, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and Fastweb.com.
This hidden incentive to choose a more expensive college is particularly powerful for students from wealthier families, because higher tuition costs can offset a higher family contribution, at least in the government’s formula for demonstrated need. About one in four students from households earning $100,000 or more receive a subsidized Stafford loan when they attend a university that costs $40,000 or more a year, according to a study by FinAid.org. But only one in 14 do when they attend a school that costs $10,000 to $20,000…See here for the rest, interesting throughout.
(Cross-posted on the Monthly's College Guide blog.)
Sep 27, 2011
But look closer. Just to our left is Canada, where they have single-payer universal coverage. We're spending more just on the government slice of our system, and we don't even cover everyone. In total, of course, we spend staggeringly more than anyone else on healthcare:
This might be an underestimate, since so many people are underemployed, meaning they would take full-time work if they could. Almost 86% of men and 67% of women work more than 40 hours per week.
It also occurs to me that nonprofits are not really immune to the broader trend in American business of wringing maximum labor out of one's employees, especially the salaried ones.
2. Legislators actually listen to constituents. Be a pain!
3. Tyler Cowen has the Eurozone crisis licked.
4. Watch Mitt Romney speak French.
Sep 26, 2011
Moreover, this whole issue seems caught up in the broader macroeconomic downturn. The handwringing about preparedness and educational effectiveness, while a worthy topic, seems ancillary to the issue of massive unemployment and excess capacity. Look again at that chart—every single occupation save five has more claimants than jobs, some hugely so. The only real labor shortage there is in “healthcare practitioners & tech” and there’s no way it could absorb all the excess from the giant blue bars on the left. (Again, that graph is from Maine, but US statistics are quite similar—a few sectors showing many openings, but the vast majority swamped with claimants.) Indeed, I suspect whatever data that one might need to reconfigure community colleges is lost in the swarms of unemployed. The whole idea of colleges providing the wrong preparation for students seems to assume the whole “structural unemployment” narrative, when there is overwhelming evidence of a broad-based downturn. Basically, rejiggering our community colleges isn’t going to help many people if there just flatly aren’t enough jobs.It's really just a blog post, and probably nothing to write home about, but still... Hooray!
One day, his mobile home was broken into, and thieves made off with some stock certificates. Mr. Brick had never used a broker—to him, they were just as untrustworthy as doctors—so he went to the Apothecary Shoppe for help. Before long, Don was making dozens of trips across Disappointment Valley, driving two hours each way, in order to get documents certified at the bank in Cortez, Colorado. Eventually, he sorted out Mr. Brick’s finances, but then the older man’s health began to decline. Don managed his care, helping him move out of various residences; on a couple of occasions, Mr. Brick lived at Don’s house for an extended stretch. At the age of ninety-one, Mr. Brick became seriously ill and went to see a doctor in Montrose. The doctor said that prostate cancer had spread to his stomach; with surgery, he might live another six months. Mr. Brick said he had never had surgery and he wasn’t going to start now.Really good stuff. Maybe I could get something about Dolores in there! Now that the New Yorker is on the case, it seems like an under-covered topic.
Sep 25, 2011
It's way more spontaneous than I would have thought! I was imagining a lot of preparation. I have no idea what that thing is, or the slightest idea how it works other than what I can glean from the video. All I know is I want one.
UPDATE: This dude (?) is good:
Apparently he's seventeen years old. Sigh.
Sep 24, 2011
Whatever its causes, the implications of the historical decline of violence are profound. So much depends on whether we see our era as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide and war or as a period that, in the light of the historical and statistical facts, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.Also check out the video for his awesome hairdo:
Bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut, lest they lull people into complacency. But this prescription may be backward. The discovery that fewer people are victims of violence can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that the dangerous parts of the world are irredeemable hell holes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how moral we are.
Sep 22, 2011
As Rachel Maddow outlines here, it beggars belief that a state that was buying its poison from an illegal supplier in West London could possibly have the kind of institutional quality necessary to ensure 100% accuracy.
Eric Jackson, a former employee of PayPal and now the CEO of the online-investing platform CapLinked, worries that implementing the “Buffett rule” would hurt the pool of investment money available to tech start-ups. His logic on this point is unimpeachable: If the Buffett rule means taxing capital gains more like normal income, then it will, on the margin, hurt investment of all kinds, including investment in tech start-ups.Drum has some good thoughts there, but this reminded me of something I read in 13 Bankers the other day. I've often wondered why it is growth was so weak during the Aughts. Interest rates were super-low for most of that period, and usually one would think that would light a fire under the economy's ass, so to speak. If macroeconomics is to be believed, we should have had screaming growth, bordering on an inflationary spiral. Why not? In 13 Bankers, Kwak and Johnson argue, in a quick aside of sorts, that the reason we had such lame growth during the Aughts is that the financial sector was systematically misallocating capital:
The irony is that the flood of cheap money did not even have the healthy effect it should have had. Ordinarily, businesses should take advantage of low interest rates to make capital investments, which contribute to overall economic growth. In the 2000s, however, as Tim Duy notes, business investment in equipment and software grew more slowly than in the 1990s, despite the lower interest rates. The problem was that the money was misallocated to the housing sector, resulting in anemic growth.ECONned (which is that rarest of books about the financial crisis, an original) makes a similar argument at one point. Ostensibly, the reason the financial sector exists is to allocate capital. Whenever you ask Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein why their employees deserve umpteen zillion dollars in bonuses every year, that's the answer you'll get. Gotta make sure America's throbbing entrepreneurial spirit isn't starved for cash.
Allocating capital is a critical function of the modern economy, it's true. But if Johnson and Kwak (and Yves Smith) are right, not only is Wall Street mostly functioning as a giant casino, it is also actively hindering the economy where it is supposed to be performing its only key function. This seems an under-discussed part of the financial crisis, or even things today. Financial sector profits are back to stupendous heights—I see no reason not to assume they're not systematically misallocating capital again (and probably inflating the next bubble to boot). Is anyone aware of research on this question?
Bringing it back to PayPal, I see no reason to worry all that much about raising capital gains taxes. That part of the economy doesn't work anyway.
Sep 21, 2011
I reckon it's a father-son thing, but shoot. Everything about it resonated with me, even the buzzing sounds as he uses his cell phone. I used to get those calling home on Skype all the time. Who hasn't been there, in one way or another? Imagine how good that must have felt.
Sep 20, 2011
You bet your ass I will.
The game is nearly crippled, however, by borderline-insane DRM (digital rights management) restrictions that interfere with even the simplest session. To even get to the single-player missions (after shelling out at least $50 for a year-old game—Blizzard is still charging $60), you've got to create an account at Battle.net and register the game, and continue to contact Battle.net every 30 days. No internet connection? Tough shit. Plus, you can't create additional characters to wipe your record if you want to start over, or just have a competitive ladder account. Each game is region locked, meaning if you want to play your European friends, you've got to have a European version.
The biggest mistake, though, is the lack of LAN support. (Local area network, like a home network disconnected from the internet.) This was one of the big draws of the original game—in fact, if you had a copy of the original Starcraft, you could "spawn" copies on up to eight computers at once and be playing your friends in minutes with only one CD key. This was a big reason the original became so popular. What's more, the original remains (I believe) the largest "e-sport" in the world, largely in South Korea. Almost all those matches are played over LAN because they are more secure, less vulnerable to hacks and cheating, and most importantly, much faster. The professionals play at lightning speed, where a few dozen milliseconds in latency can be the difference between a win and a loss. Indeed, Starcraft II competitions have been seriously disrupted by internet problems.
I think Blizzard is ultimately shooting itself in the foot. If the game weren't the sequel to one of the most popular in history, if the gameplay itself weren't so great, if Blizzard's reputation for quality weren't quite so good...it's easy to imagine a scenario where Starcraft II was a total flop. It remains very easy to pirate the original game, but something tells me Blizzard still did quite well. A more pleasant experience for the customer, which necessarily entails a bit of "piracy" here and there, can ultimately make the game much more popular and therefore lucrative.
If we take a step back, it's worth noting that this kind of Big Brother control over a product would be considered completely preposterous if we tried to apply it to more traditional forms of media. Yglesias pointed out a similar issue with respect to DVDs:
By modern standards, DVD rentals ought to be illegal. After all, the prevailing wisdom in the United States is that copying a file you don’t have permission to copy is a form of stealing. It deserves to be called “stealing,” according to the prevailing wisdom, because even though nobody has lost a physical object a rights-holder has been deprived of potential licensing fees. When you rent a DVD — or, heaven forbid, borrow one from a friend — you are depriving the rights-holder of potential licensing fees every bit as much as if you copied a digital file. Fortunately for Redbox, though, we have a longstanding legal doctrine in this country called the “First Sale Doctrine,” which says that once you buy a physical object, you’re entitled to do what you want with it. Thus, back in the heyday of the VCR, movie studios faced a stark choice. Either don’t make a videotape of your movie, or else accept that video rental stores can buy your tapes and rent them out to customers. There was no prolonged wrangling over licensing fees. And ultimately, there’s was no incentive to hold things back from the market. All movies were released on video tape, and thus all movies were available for rent somewhere or other (albeit not necessarily at your local Blockbuster). This doctrine doesn’t apply to streaming video, and that’s why availability of streaming video is so spotty.Actually, though Matt is correct about DVDs, software developers claim that even though they're selling a physical object (when you're not downloading a copy, at least), the first sale doctrine doesn't apply because you (the purchaser) are merely licensing the right to use their product, not buying it to own. That's what that EULA (end-user license agreement) thing is that everyone always clicks past without reading. (Check it out sometime, all kinds of things are buried in there.) The courts have disagreed at times, but so far as I can tell there's no solid agreement in law yet, and developers are in the meantime claiming vast and increasing rights, and tiny and diminishing responsibilities.
In any case, this sort of highly restrictive DRM ought to be against the law. Right now the software purchaser has essentially no rights to the thing for which he's forked over hard-earned cash. The developer can create all kinds of ridiculous impositions, like requiring an internet connection for each and every use of the customer's own product. Imagine if you bought a toaster, and you couldn't use it without connecting to the internet and signing up for an online account, to make sure you had bought it from a legally authorized vendor. You couldn't give or sell it to your friends or family without also giving them your online account, which is associated with your email address. Oh, and Bed Bath & Beyond reserved the right to remotely and permanently disable your toaster for any reason.
No one would stand for it.
Sep 19, 2011
Sep 16, 2011
2. The shame of college sports.
3. Funny analogies.
4. Economics remains a kinda dubious discipline. Worthwhile, but dubious.
5. Where did the phrase "cell phone" come from?
Sep 15, 2011
So I just moved in to my new place in Silver Spring. It's a little dingy, but about a 7 minute walk to the metro which is then a 30 minute ride into town, give or take. In direct contravention of some advice a Peace Corps official in Zambia gave me, it is a basement. However, it's in a nice neighborhood and hopefully I can schedule in some outside time during the week. So far, so good.
The next step, I suppose, would be to purchase some kind of device I can put my clothes in. And perhaps a desk, given that I work at a magazine.
Sep 14, 2011
Actually, my new place is in Silver Spring across the border in Maryland, but the Monthly's offices are in DC, and I spend a lot of time there. First, it is deeply weird to go from being the only white person in a village to being a one of roughly a hundred gazillion buttoned-down, white collar, shoulder-bag-wearing professional types with a smartphone. Which, apparently, I need to be looking at every second I'm not working on my computer or ordering something from Starbucks. Speaking of stimulants, I overcome my terror of the espresso machine and made my first cup. Considering the racket the thing makes, it was surprisingly easy and tasty, but I half think I'd rather just cut to the chase and start snorting amphetamine.
I'm still feeling the culture shock in irregular bursts, but I think I may be an atypical example in this regard. I seem to have a kind of autopilot mode that I unconsciously turn on whenever things get real stressful, so I don't have to think about anything very much. In any case, one of the best accounts I've read about coming back from Peace Corps is here:
My second week back, still before I knew what hipster truly meant, I had an interview. The weather report said that there would be rain on the morning I’d be walking around in my suit, so I decided that after taking in a movie (my first in a theater in 17 months!), I would stop somewhere convenient to get an umbrella. Next door to the theater was what seemed to be, from the outside, a chain clothing store: pretty standard mall stuff, if a little trendier than the Gap or J Crew. (I went in only because it happened to be next door and seemed to be the only place in the immediate vicinity that might sell umbrellas. I don’t have a car, and the place I’d normally go — Target — is not easily accessible.) I expected that I might be forced to buy something like an umbrella with a PBR logo on it, but I rationalized the idea by saying it would be worth it to not have to walk all over the place. Thus began my first experience with a place called Urban Outfitters.Read the whole thing.
And I nearly had a panic attack.
The experience was more frightening than anything I ever confronted in Moldova — even hitchhiking with a car full of thick-necked, possibly drunk Russians. I’ve never been in a place where I so viscerally felt I didn’t belong, and while I was cautiously browsing through all of the ironic chatchkas in the accessory section looking for my umbrella, I overheard a girl who was wearing a fedora and a scarf on a 90 degree day call the band Grizzly Bear “too mainstream” for her. She saw me looking at her, stopped, looked me up and down, and (I’m pretty sure) rolled her eyes before continuing. I had to get out of there.
Sep 13, 2011
I half agree with the sentiments in Ezra Klein’s Bloomberg column about the importance of the 2012 election, but I think there’s a dangerously misleading idea lurking there. He quotes Larry Bartels’ brilliant exposition of the point (see this PDF but also this one) that you have to put FDR and the New Deal realignment in comparative perspective. All governments that were in office when the Depression hit lost power, and all governments that were in office during recovery regained it. The implication in the column seems to be a kind of nihilistic one, where economic outcomes are just driven by luck and a bad recession just so happens to take a long time to recovery from...
But the existence of some policies that promote robust recovery from the recession is a necessary ingredient to that mix. The policies we got in 2008 and 2009 were pretty good — they prevented calamity — but they didn’t promote robust recovery and that, rather than bad timing, is why Obama hasn’t benefited from an FDR effect. And whoever’s president in 2013 will have an opportunity — but just an opportunity — to do better on that score. You still need policies that work. It’s entirely possible that we’ll simply shift into a new equilibrium with a permanently elevated pool of long-term unemployed, permanently reduced labor force participation, slow growth, and stagnating living standards.
However, I remembered a couple earlier posts of his positing that perhaps the current housing shortage will eventually touch off a recovery. These charts below tell the story. We've got new housing starts at an all-time low:
And persons per new housing start at an all-time high:
The idea is that eventually, new homes are going to have to be built. With a deeply depressed construction sector, even relatively small growth in new homes would mean a big surge in construction activity, which could spark a virtuous circle of economic growth.
I should note I'm not gunning for hypocrisy here. Again, I agree with Yglesias' point that smart policy is key to recovery from recessions. But it seems that in this particular circumstance, there could be a chance that some kind of recovery could come absent smart any policy intervention at all. After all, there were still recoveries long ago, before Keynes ever wrote any books.
Of course, on the other hand, a GOP president seems likely to ram through a bunch of austerity policies, in which case all bets are off.
I seem to be disguising my total unfamiliarity with DC and office life well, or at least the actual employees here are gracious enough not to point out my glaring mistakes in haberdashery and comportment, whatever they are. I'm feeling very good about this.
UPDATE: Multiple sources who previously worked at the Monthly confirm that, compared to the old days, the magazine is practically swimming in resources. I'll take them at their word—I just hadn't seen a Pentium 4 in the States in quite some time.
Sep 11, 2011
In lighter news, I've now officially got my own place! It's up in Silver Spring, about seven miles or so north of DC, but right on the Red Line so commuting should be a breeze. The first day of my internship is tomorrow. Wish me luck!
Sep 9, 2011
Sep 7, 2011
Apologies for the dead air, I've been in Phoenix meeting some family and friends. Now, however, I'm moving to Washington DC where I'll be interning with the Washington Monthly magazine. Gonna try to make a career out of this blogging thing, we'll see how it goes.
Phoenix is much changed from last time I was there, mostly from the catastrophic collapse of the housing bubble. It's a nightmarish place to build a city, with every day I was there well over 100 degrees, but really it's the inefficiency and sprawl that get to me. You could have a decent city with massively increased density and public transport , but right now it's so utterly dependent on the automobile change is hard to imagine.
Sep 4, 2011
Sep 3, 2011
2. Low crime. By developed world standards, America is a rather violent place. But in my corner of Colorado, we sleep with the doors and cars unlocked. That is simply unheard of in South Africa, and it's quite the psychological relief to not be constantly looking over your shoulder. It's the kind of thing you don't really notice until you stop doing it, like a muscle you didn't realize you were constantly clenching. (I'm moving to DC though, lets hope I don't get beat up by random douchebags.)
3. Road construction. I remember some road repairs in South Africa that had started before I got there in July 2009 and weren't even close to finished when I left in August 2011. Here I saw a road resurfacing out here in the boonies that, though it was a fairly simple and small project, was finished in about three days. I never saw anything even get started in that time in South Africa.
I know I was saying South Africa's got the edge when it comes to dynamic governance, but by that I meant that they try and do big, ambitious projects. Because it's South Africa, once they're started, it probably takes quite a bit longer than it would here, but at least they're trying. Here we've got way better construction crews and the like, we've just got a "can't do spirit" that precludes basically everything except desperately needed repairs.