A heart non-miracle

Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in! Though living in Portland I can’t completely resist the lure of DC, so I’ve joined the blogging team at the Washington Examiner. It’s good to get back to the policy writing I’ve been neglecting lately and publishing there it will reach a larger audience. I’ll link to most of the things I write for the Examiner on this blog too. If you’d like to subscribe to all Opinion Zone blog posts the RSS feed is here.

My first post takes a look at how anti-smoking researchers spin this chart into proof that England’s smoking ban saves lives:


The best they can come up with is to dubiously attribute a 2.4% decline in heart attacks to the smoking ban in the first year of its implementation. This is in stark contrast to the wild claims of 40, 27, and 18 percent in previous studies, which have been decisively revealed as junk science.

In the wake of this statistical drubbing you might think anti-smoking activists would learn not to attribute too much to secondhand smoke. Well, you would be wrong:

A new study published online ahead of print in the Archives of General Psychiatry concludes that secondhand smoke exposure is a cause of mental illness, including depression, psychoactive substance use, schizophrenia, delirium, and mental and behavioral disorder (see: Hamer M, Stamatakis E, Batty GD. Objectively assessed secondhand smoke exposure and mental health in adults.

Here we go again!

[Image courtesy of the always interesting Christopher Snowdon.]

What really happened in Starkville?
An Oregon heart miracle?
Lazy reporting and the Pueblo ban study


USA LOWFAT Act inching closer to reality?

Back in 2004 I wrote a parody piece mocking attempts to compare Americans’ obesity to the dangers of terrorism:

obesity_securityBreaking new ground in the effort to fight the nation’s battle of the belt, Congress met late Friday night to pass the Uniting and Strengthening America by Limiting and Obstructing Wicked Fatty Arsenals of Terrorism (USA LOWFAT) Act of 2004. The Act grants the government sweeping new powers to combat obesity, an effort the law’s supporters say is just as pressing as the War on Terror.

“As we look to the future and where childhood obesity will be in twenty years, it is every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today. It is the threat from within,” said U. S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona. “[It is] a threat that is every bit as real to America as the weapons of mass destruction.”

The most notable aspect of the USA LOWFAT Act is a heavy tax on all fatty and sugary foods. Other features include banning advertisements for unhealthy foods that appeal to children, making it illegal to sell soft drinks in public schools, and creating a color-coded Homeland Obesity Advisory System. “Every vending machine is a cache of chemical and biological weapons, every fast food restaurant a terrorist cell, every kids’ cereal icon an Osama bin Laden of sugary fundamentalism,” said Carmona, introducing the new measures.

A little over the top, but as I explained in an accompanying blog post, many of the quotes are real and it’s not always easy to tell where the fiction ends and truth begins. Which brings us to today’s headline:

Child Nutrition a Matter of National Security

Support for improved child nutrition programs is expanding and, as reported by the Chicago-based American Dietetic Association, coming from unlikely sources. The ADA reports that the Defense Authorization Bill includes support for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, an opportunity that arises every five years.

According to the ADA, during house debate, 341 members voted for an amendment by representatives from Massachusetts, Missouri and Georgia, which emphasizes the impact of childhood hunger and obesity on military recruitment and encourages properly funding the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. […] The “Sense of Congress” amendment states that “reducing domestic childhood obesity and hunger is a matter of national security…”

For the time being at least the labor pool is responding adequately to military demand, so regardless of the merits of the programs in question, calling this a matter of national security seems a stretch.


Privatize the OLCC

Republican candidate for governor Chris Dudley has added Oregon to the list of control states considering privatization of their liquor markets. Elizabeth Hovde explains:

Some people want the state to monopolize the liquor business because they feel safer with it in charge. They believe that with limited access and price controls, the social problems associated with overconsumption are limited as well. But it’s hard to argue that a state monopoly on liquor helps curb alcoholism when distilled spirits are available at more than 200 liquor outlets, and wine and beer are already sold in grocery stores.

Dudley and others pushing privatization in Oregon need to make clear that current safety measures on alcohol sales would not be sacrificed, that the OLCC would keep its public safety functions and that any change in sales would be revenue-neutral to state, city and county budgets. Once that’s handled, the philosophical argument against a liquor monopoly is easy to sell.

Previously covered: OLCC’s “secret happy hour” requirement and anti-consumer special order policies.


Biasing students in econ 101

Does economics education bias one toward a free market perspective? Patrick Emerson thinks it might:

I think a little economics education leaves you with the impression that the answer to all public policy questions is free markets. This is because in intro classes, we often only have enough time to study and understand markets and their wonderful aspects and about the distortions that taxes and price controls create, often leaving very little time to talk about market failures. This can be true of intermediate classes as well. Later in economics classes, market failures come up all the time and you start to get an appreciation of the limits of markets. But those that only take one or two economics classes will be inclined to believe that market failures are really not that big a deal, after all they were just a quick end note in the class… But I also believe that students self-select into economics classes and that those with free market, anti-tax attitudes will find a lot to like in economics classes. In general I think that professors have very little influence on the core beliefs of students and that mostly student gravitate to professors that teach things that resonate with those core beliefs.

For the most part I agree; if studying economics doesn’t make one appreciate markets, then one probably hasn’t been paying attention. But there are some biases pointing the other way as well.

Perfect competition — Introductory economics begins with the concept of perfect competition, an unrealistic model that nonetheless helps us think clearly about how markets work. Sometimes this is misunderstood to mean that all of economics rests on an weak foundation. A post at Blue Oregon is typical:

Free market economists use models that assume that people are given complete information and make rational decisions. How absurd. No one has complete information, most people have terribly unreliable information, and people make stupid decisions all the time.

Well, I guess we can just ignore economists then!

Market failures — The models taught in econ 101 make it easy to find market failure everywhere in the forms of monopolies, unprovided public goods, and positive and negative externalities. Some of the more compelling defenses of free markets stress that markets are needed precisely because our information is imperfect, but I don’t think that perspective gets much emphasis in introductory economics courses.

Government solutions — When these failures do crop up government intervention is assumed to be the answer. Break up or regulate monopolies, provide public goods, subsidize or tax the activities that create externalities, and voila! Problems solved. Government is rarely treated as being run by self-interested individuals with limited information and therefore susceptible to the same sorts of errors as the private sector. There are lots of government solutions, rarely government failures. How many intro courses even mention public choice theory?

I think Patrick’s right in saying that “professors have very little influence on the core beliefs of students.” If one is inclined toward free markets there is plenty in econ 101 to support those views. If one is inclined toward government intervention econ 101 also makes it easy to find roles for it. A richer education would place more emphasis on putting the simplified models taught in class into their proper context.


What the heck is a kopstootje?


Literally it means “little headbutt” in Dutch, but if you order it in a Netherlands bar you’ll get something much nicer: a shot of genever and a glass of beer. It’s a traditional way to drink genever. To spread the tradition to Portland I’m organizing a few events around town and introducing people to the combination. Of course the genever will be from Bols. The beer would normally be a lager, and a good pils is indeed a great choice here, but this is Beervana we’re talking about. We’re not going to keep people away from top-fermenting yeasts and buckets of hops if that’s what they prefer.

We have three events scheduled so far and more in the works, bringing us into each of Portland’s five quadrants. To join us for a kopstootje, meet us at any of these venues starting around 6 pm:

June 10: Hop and Vine, 1914 N Killingsworth Street
June 16: Spints Alehouse, 401 NE 28th Avenue
June 17: North 45, 517 NW 21st Avenue

Come back to this post for additional events coming soon.

[Photo from the Bols Genever Oregon launch event at Carlyle taken by David Lanthan Reamer.]


CA Starbucks extend smoking ban outdoors

A commenter notes that Starbucks stores in California are prohibiting smoking outside their stores:

Starting Monday, Starbucks customers are welcome to sit outside and sip a while — as long as they don’t light up. The international coffee giant is extending its ban on indoor smoking to outdoor patios and dining areas in California.

The change was prompted by an increasing number of communities that have enacted smoking prohibitions in outdoor dining areas.

This is their right obviously, though I would have preferred their hand not be forced by excessive regulations. Previous coverage of Starbucks and smoking policies here and here.


All about oyster stout

I’m writing a new drinks column for Culinate.com. In my first article I take a look at the new popularity of stouts brewed with oysters:

For beer lovers, oysters and stout are a classic pairing. But how about oysters in stout? It may seem strange, but oyster stouts have emerged as one of the hot trends in beer this year, with brewers across the country tossing a few shellfish into traditional stouts.

Read the whole thing here.

Culinate is also the website behind Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything iPhone app, which looks worth checking out for home cooks.

Oysters and beer. Oysters in beer?