Criticisms and growth

I’ve been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for several years. I’ve enjoyed the blog, and his books (The Beautiful StruggleBetween the world and me, and We were eight years in power). They’re all well worth reading.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about TNC is the way he approaches writing on line. I haven’t seen any hot-takes of his that I can remember, and I think he is genuinely engaged in intellectual give-and-take – in learning more, and in particular acknowledging the gaps in his own knowledge, and being willing to learn visibly, to be seen to be learning, which takes some humility to really do.

I saw the piece that Cornel West wrote in The Guardian, which subsequently blew up online. My two cents on that debate aren’t really worth two cents, for a range of reasons. So these are just my own notes, part of my own thinking it through; in the spirit of TNC, I suppose – thinking it through, but acknowledging there’s a lot I don’t know in this area. You should read other people on this, who are better informed and better placed to speak on the issue. There’s a lot out there – I found this tweet string an interesting place to start.

One of the things I’ve found, in reading part of TNC’s work, is that he acknowledges explicitly that there are areas he doesn’t tend to write on, because it’s not his turf. International relations. Broader politics. Which is refreshingly honest, but at times a part of me has wanted him to make that leap – to apply the gift he has of researching, synthesising, and writing beautifully, to bring it all together in writing about power, gender, race and economics.

I’ve read a few critiques of Coates’ writing since the furore occasioned by West’s piece, and the one that stuck out at me was a piece by Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think I agree that there is an ‘analytical lacuna’ in Coates’ writing (although I wouldn’t describe it as ‘conspicuous’).

Part of the beauty of Coates’ writing, is that he is committed to the idea of writing, of ‘art’ as a radically honest vision of the real world around us, as he says in We were eight years in power:

It [art] had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire not to be enrolled in its lie, not to be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.

Mishra writes that ‘… Coates is indifferent to the links between race and international political economy …’ (he writes it in a larger sentence, but I don’t think I misrepresent it by quoting that fragment). I don’t know that I would agree that Coates is indifferent. I would imagine that he is deeply moved, and having read some of his writing, I would argue that you can see a shift over time in his thinking on gender, as his understanding becomes more nuanced (to pick only one power relationship of many). But I would say that if Coates wanted to write about it, I would love reading something by him about how gender, race, and economic disparities of power interlock and are inter-structured.

As Mishra acknowledges, Coates sees himself as someone learning, growing in understanding, and concludes:

Coates’s project of unflinching self-education and polemic has never seemed more urgent, and it has only just begun.

I would agree, that I think I would love to see Coates write about broader economic processes, and how they link to other power dynamics – to give us his version of a people’s history. Having said that, I don’t think he’s under any obligation to do so – if he wants to write solely about racial politics in America, I think he’s entitled to do so.

I also think it’s fair to say that there’s a set of connected issues, that relate to questions about justice, power and truth, that are at the heart of Coates’ writing project. I think it’s also true that if he doesn’t address them, he isn’t giving the full picture to some of his own questions. But, it’s his writing – he’s the one with the MacArther grant. He can write about whatever he wants to write about.

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Rugby league: Tips and odds

The efficient market hypothesis suggests, depending on the form and definition, that the current price reflects publicly available information.

As it happens, I’ve been dabbling in a work ruby league tipping competition. Full disclosure: I know less than nothing about rugby league. Someone had to explain scoring to me.

However, I thought that while betting odds are not publicly traded, they were likely to reflect publicly available information. As it happens, using the betting odds as a guide has worked out reasonably well for me.

I was curious, though, as to what historical data suggested; and fortunately, there’s a website that’s aggregated betting odds and game outcomes since 2009!

I haven’t gone to the trouble of doing any statistical testing, but I thought it would be fun to play with some of the data. In particular, I calculated an odds ratio (the underdog vs. the favourite; a ratio of 0 means very long odds, a ratio of ~1 means they’re even odds).

So it turns out, that just eyeballing the data, the odds already incorporate the home team advantage. The win percentages track closely between all games and where the favourite team is playing at home; if there was a disparity, it’d suggest that the home team had an advantage.

Home team

This is particularly interesting given that there’s a decent amount of data going back to 2009; over a thousand games. On average, the odds favourite wins about 65% of the time; as the odds get longer (or shorter), the win ratio (as per the chart above) gets higher.

Someone suggested that the odds weren’t a good guide in weeks that Origin games were on, or playoff games. The samples are much smaller here; but they seem broadly right, although I haven’t done any tests on them.

But this is something I don’t know much about. Tell me – what have I missed?

The Dictator’s Handbook

The Dictator’s Handbook, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, is the more accessible version of their 2003 book, The Logic of Political Survival. I’ve noted before how disappointing it is that the Logic of Political Survival was published with a significant flaw in their entire statistical approach, which even the authors acknowledge. Given that, I give less weight to the credibility of The Dictator’s Handbook as a summary of their theory.

So. It’s an interesting read, in that it sets out to analyse self-interested politics with a very descriptive (rather than normative) approach. Their ideas centre around the relationship between leaders and the followers that keep them in power: broken down by the authors into the nominal selectorate (those who, in theory, influence the selection of the leader), the real selectorate (those who actually play a role), and the winning coalition (the minimum group necessary for a leader to gain / remain in power). From there, they use some game theory (not spelt out in detail here), to derive a set of conclusions about how leaders operate.

There are a few broad problems in their approach, however. One was the assumption of rationality built into much of what they discuss. As spelt out in Democracy for Realists, there are a number of ways in which people act irrationally, or vote against their own self interest.

You could, I think, make the case that there is an almost Darwinian mechanism, whereby leaders who are not ruthless will be replaced by others who are – but the authors don’t make this argument, and are simply content to rest on the (I suspect false) assumption of individual rationality.

Their model also doesn’t really address the role of intermediaries that are essential in a democracy. The media impacts voting outcomes, and people who lead organisations (unions, corporations, and others) can have a role as well. But that intermediary role isn’t really unpacked, beyond a brief discussion of bloc-voting.

Bloc voting takes seemingly democratic institutions and makes appear like publicly traded companies. Every voter or share has a nominal right to vote, but effectively all the power lies with a few key actors who can control the votes of large numbers of shares or deliver many votes from their village. Bloc voting makes nominally democratic systems with large coalitions function as if they are autocratic by making the number of influentials-that is, people whose choices actually matter-much smaller than the nominal selectorate of the rest of the voters …

The real decisions are made by the group leaders who deliver blocs of votes.

Another gap, unfortunately, is that it feels as though they dance around the question of what might be called the rule of law, or the balance of power within a society. Why is it, for example, that functioning democracies aren’t always repatrimonialized? What keeps the multiple centres of power in balance, enabling a strong state to provide for its citizens, while held in check by the rule of law, and / or being democratically accountable? What is it that stops the leader in a democracy, from consolidating all power? The frame is one that Fukuyama might use, but I think the underlying question (why doesn’t all power collapse to the centre in a mature democracy) is an important one, and one that is elided in this analysis.

They also over-simplify their analysis of economic life; arguing that essential political freedoms such as free speech, freedom of assembly, and so-forth, can be essential to economic growth, and will therefore be introduced as a necessity when economic growth slows. That felt … flimsy on a number of levels to me.

Those were some of the major ones, but other questions felt as though they were unanswered:

  • What exactly determines the size of the coalition that’s necessary?
  • What prevents or enables coups in consolidating democracies?

Their oversimplifications, particularly around democracy and voter behaviour, leave them making statements like:

Democratic politics is a battle for good policy ideas.

Rather than, for example, a battle of social identities, or other aspect. Again, drawing on a model of rational voters, they argue:

… they [voters] are likely to vote for people who adopt policies that benefit them.

And:

People support leaders who deliver policies that specifically benefit them.

The authors draw a distinction between the normative and the descriptive. Which is an important distinction, but their approach is calloused when they come to describing real-life individuals who have suffered for pursuing positive outcomes:

Mr. Ossebi’s error was to cooperate with Transparency International in its lawsuit to recover wealth allegedly stolen by Congo’s president. Mr. Ossebi died as the result of a suspicious fire in his home.

The closest the authors come to a measure of hopeful analysis is their estimation of the mechanisms that are most likely to lead to distribute power.

Coalition members like small selectorates. Their welfare is enhanced if there are relatively few replacements for them. The incumbent cannot use the implicit threat of replacing them with a cheaper backer as a way to keep more benefits for himself rather than paying his essentials their due. This creates tension between a leader and his coalition. The leader would like to establish a Leninist style, corrupt, rigged electoral system that guarantees him an eager supply of replacement supporters. The coalition prefers monarchical, theocratic, or junta style institutional arrangements that restrict those who can be brought into coalition to a select group of aristocrats, clerics, or military elites.

Leaders and their essential share a preference for dependence upon a small coalition, at least so long as the coalition is very small. However, as the coalition continues to expand, a wedge is eventually driven between what a king wants and what his court needs. When that wedge gets big enough we have an explanation for the emergence of a mature democracy that is so stable it will almost certainly remain democratic and not backslide into autocratic rule.

Their model (visualised below), relies on the assumption that expanding the selectorate increases economic growth, so that there is greater wealth to be distributed.

Screenshot 2018-04-29_16-33-45

So, there are two times when the coalition is most receptive to the urge to improve life for the many, whether these are the people or shareholders: when a leader has just come to power, or when a leader is so old or decrepit that he won’t last much longer. In these circumstances coalition members cannot count on being retained … Effective reform means expanding the coalition and that means everyone, including the current essentials, has a good chance of being needed by tomorrow’s new leader.

Quotes

… even if politics is nothing more than a game that leaders play, if only we can learn the rules, it becomes a game we can win …

First, politics is about getting and keeping political power. It is not about the general welfare of “We, the people.” Second, political survival is best assured by depending on few people to attain and retain office … Third, when the small group of cronies knows that there is a large pool of people waiting on the sidelines, hoping to replace them … then the top leadership has great discretion over how revenue is spent and how much to tax … Fourth, dependence on a small coalition liberates leaders to tax at higher rates …

Questions of philosophical values and metaphorical abstractions-these simply don’t apply to the view of politics that we’ll present in the pages ahead …

… we believe that the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why …

The prime mover of interests in any state (or corporation for that matter) is the person at the top-the leader. So we started from this single point: the self-interested calculations and actions of rules are the driving force of all politics.

… The answer to how best to govern: however is necessary first to come to power, then to stay in power, and to control as much national (or corporate) revenue as possible all along the way.

For leaders, the political landscape can be broken down into three groups of people: the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition. The nominal selectorate includes every person who has at least some legal say in choosing their leader …

The second stratum of politics consists of the real selectorate. This is the group that actually chooses the leader.

The most important of these groups is the third, the subset of the real selectorate that makes up a winning coalition. These are the people whose support is essential if a leader is to survive in office.

Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art and science of governing.

… small coalitions encourage stable, corrupt, private-goods-oriented regimes.

Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. 

Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. 

Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue.

Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. 

To come to power a challenger need only do three things. First, he must remove the incumbent. Second, he needs to seize the apparatus of government. Third, he needs to form a coalition of supporters sufficient to sustain him as the new incumbent.

There are three ways to remove an incumbent leader. The first, and easiest, is for the leader to die. If that convenience does not offer itself, a challenger can make an offer to the essential members of the incumbent’s coalition that is sufficiently attractive that they defect to the challenger’s cause. Third, the current political system can be overwhelmed from the outside, whether by military defeat by a foreign power, or through revolution and rebellion, in which the masses rise up, depose the current leader, and destroy existing institutions.

Waiting is risky business. There is no prize for coming second.

The sad truth is that if you want to come to power in an autocracy you are better of stealing medical records than you are devising fixes for your nation’s ills.

Anyone who thinks leaders do what they ought to do – that is, do what is best for their nation of subjects – ought to become an academic rather than enter political life.

Kerensky’s revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in February 1971 because the army did not stop them. And the army did not bother to stop them because the czar did not pay them enough. The czar could not pay them enough because he foolishly cut the income from one of his major sources of revenue, the vodka tax, at the same time that he fought World War I.

In a democracy it is less difficult, for instance, to detach supporters from the dominant coalition because democrats need such a large number of supporters. Leaders rely heavily on public goods to reward their backers, but precisely because so many of the rewards are public goods that benefit everyone, those in the coalition are not much better off than those outside the coalition.

He [Abraham Lincoln] introduced absentee ballots so that soldiers could vote, with an especially important impact in New York. It is widely believed that the vote of soldiers carried the state for Lincoln in his 1864 race against General George B. McClellan.

What we can begin to appreciate is that no matter how well a tyrant builds his coalition, it is important to keep the coalition itself off-balance.

The practice of gerrymandering has made it such that the odds of being voted out of a US congressional seat are not that different from the odds of defeat faced by members of the Supreme Soviet under the Soviet Union’s one-party communist regime.

Democrats, in contrast, are constantly engaged in a battle for the best policy ideas to keep their large constituencies happy.

If a leader cannot find a reliable source of income, it is only a matter of time until someone else will offer his supporter greater rewards than he can.

The general rule is that the larger the group of essentials, the lower the tax rate.

In autocracies, it is unwise to be rich unless it is the government that made you rich. And if this is the case, it is important to be loyal beyond all else.

A company that acts responsibly [by sharing resource benefits with local communities] will necessarily have less money to deliver to the government and that will be enough for them to be replaced by another company that is willing to be more “cooperative”.

Who makes revolution? It is the great in-between; those who are neither immiserated nor coddled.

They [economists] treat politics as just so much friction, to be written off instead of dealt with.

From a leader’s point of view, the most important function of the people is to pay taxes. All regimes need money. As a result, certain basic public goods must be made available even by the meanest autocrat, unless he has access to significant revenue from sources, like oil or foreign aid, that are not based on taxing workers.

The problem is that doing what is best for the people can be awfully bad for staying in power. The logic of political survival teaches us that leaders, whether they rule countries, or committees, first and foremost want to get and keep power.

When fifty-eight votes guarantee victory, and the IOC president can handpick IOC members, politics and control will always revolve around corruption and bribery. As long as the IOC’s institutions remain as they are, vote buying and graft will persist because it is the “right” strategy for any IOC president who wants to survive.

When a system is structured around corruption, everyone who matters, leaders and backers alike, are tarred by that corruption … Increasing sentences simply provides leaders with an additional tool with which to enforce discipline.

Aid is decidedly not given primarily to alleviate poverty or misery; it is given to make the constituents in donor states better off.

Dictators are cheap to buy. They deliver policies that democratic leaders and their constituents want, and being beholden to relatively few essential backers, autocrats can be brought cheaply.

Why, having suffered long and hard, might they suddenly and often in multitudes rise up against their government? The answer resides in finding a crucial moment, a tipping point, at which life in the future under the existing government is expected to be sufficiently bad that it is worth their while to risk the undoubted costs of rebellion. They must believe that some few who have come forward first in rebellion have a decent chance of success and a decent chance of making the lives of ordinary people better.

Many other crucial events in modern political history, from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, also owe their occurrence to the failure of core supporters to suppress the people at critical moments.

Revolutionary moments often arise, as we saw in the cases of Ghana, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, when an economy is near collapse-so near, in fact, that the leadership can no longer buy the military’s loyalty. Such circumstances are practically inevitable in the vast majority of autocracies. Their rent-seeking, corrupt, inefficient economic ways assure it.

Democrats more often that autocrats fight when all other means of gaining policy concessions from foreign foes fail. In contrast, autocrats are more likely to fight casually, in the pursuit of land, slaves, and treasure.

If a democratic leader wants a foreign leader to follow his prescribed policies then he needs to insulate his puppet from domestic pressures. This means reducing coalition size in vanquished states. This makes it easier to sustain puppets and buy policy. US foreign policy is awash with examples where the United States overtly or covertly undermines the development of democracy because it promoted the policies counter to US interests. Queen Liliuokolani of Hawii in 1893, Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973, Mohammed Mosaddegh of Iran in 1953, and Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 all suffered such fates.

It is an understatement to say that making the world better is a difficult task. If it were not, then it would already have been improved.

However, the inherent problem with change is that improving life for one group generally means making at least one other person worse off, and that other person is likely to be a leader if change really will solve the people’s problems.

Slavery has been outlawed for about 150 years and yet the electoral college persists, and the primary reason, even if rarely spoken out loud, for its survival is that it allows politicians to construct a coalition of essential supporters that is substantially smaller than would be the case under direct election.

When economic circumstances dictate that a despot’s flow of cash depends on allowing the people to converse, the dictator is truly between a rock and a hard place.

Article roundup: Politics, octopuses and preppers

It’s been a while, but these are some random pieces I wanted to note down. In no particular order …

Greg Jericho writes in The Guardian that ‘Reform isn’t bipartisan. One party advocates for it and then fights hard to keep it‘. I would have liked to read this in a political science journal article, with better argued facts, but none-the-less it rings true to some of what I’ve seen in relation to particular debates. People talk about the need for bipartisanship all the time, but if politics really is about the alignment of different interest groups, then perhaps it’s unsurprising that even if one group is able to set up a particular structure (healthcare, or a particular form of tax), other groups may want to either contest it at the time, or revisit the issue decades later.

I think squids (especially the giant ones) and octopuses are fascinating creatures. But it’s worth seeing the other side of the argument, presented by Daniel Engber in Slate, Against the Octopus‘.

This article on the teenagers campaigning after a shooting is one of the many excellent pieces being written on their work, and you should read what they’re saying directly. But the piece stuck with me particularly because of this line: ‘… all grand reform movements are failures until they aren’t’.

Not an article, but just something I wanted to note down: Campbell’s law is, roughly stated, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”.

The Plot Against America‘ in in-depth piece in The Atlantic about Paul Manafort by Franklin Foer. It shows a man confused, scared, and while he may have had more experience and resources than many could dream of, was still caught up by currents beyond his control – in part, of course, because of his own decisions that had lead him there.

Mark O’Connell’s account in The Guardian of Peter Thiel’s prepping by buying a property in New Zealand is disconcerting, as it highlights a separate world, where billionaires buy property in far off lands, making plans that most of us can never hope to.

Power and communication are inextricably intertwined; this account of corruption charges in relation to a newspaper and a Prime Minister in Israel are a stark reminder.

I wasn’t paying much attention to politics in the early 90s. But it’s strange to think that a heart attack killing a Treasury secretary in turn launched a personal speech (known as the ‘Placido Domingo’ speech) that marked the break between Keating and Hawke, and in turn a change of Prime Ministership. But at the same time, it serves as a real reminder of the humanity of the individuals involved.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the food giants hooked us by Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss is an excellent read. Moss looks at each of the key ingredients, focussing on how they impact our health and our taste, and how they’ve been used by corporations to make processed food more attractive. He tells his story by using key executives from corporate giants, telling stories about trials they’d run, failed attempts at cutting back on bad ingredients (or sham attempts), and throughout paints a bigger picture, of how corporations have turned food into an unequal playing field, where the typical consumer, unless they have the resources to cook at home regularly, has little chance of eating healthily.

In examining this dynamic, it’s interesting to see the sense of helplessness that emerges even on the part of the leading executives. Some, in retirement, have turned crusaders – but none, in office, seemed able to successfully make a significant difference to benefit the consumer. In part, this seems to be due to corporate tensions – competition is so fierce that those who cut back on sugar or fat, risk losing market share to a more ruthless competitor.

Executives know this – they don’t eat their own food, and they know they are part of a machine that is reducing the nation’s health. Some try to combat this, but largely once they’re outside; steps from within appear to be token, desultory attempts, or well intentioned failures doomed before they begin.

Moss doesn’t take the next step, to painting a bigger picture of the relationship between corporations and politicians – it would have been a useful addition. But for all that, it’s a useful read. There is no single fact that is surprising, in the sense of upending our view of food – but it’s a helpful, detailed, reminder. My sense was that reading about how processed food is designed at a corporate level might have a slightly similar effect to reading about food processing in the days of Upton Sinclair – it made the sausages much less attractive.

Well worth it if you’re interested in thinking a little more about how food, corporations, and your health intersect.

Quotes

[In the 1980s] … the world’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris, became the largest food company by acquiring the two largest food manufacturers, General Foods and Kraft.

But in their hands, the salt, sugar, and fat they have used to propel this social transformation are not nutrients as much as weapons-weapons they deploy, certainly, to defeat their competitors but also to keep us coming back for more.

In her view, soda has moved the bliss point higher across the spectrum of drinks-from vitamin waters to sport ades-that is gaining popularity even as soda consumption begins to taper off.

Moss quotes Moskowitz, one of the earlier food researchers:

I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time, and I had to take what I can get. Would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again. Did I do the right thing? If you were in my position, what would you have done?

Moskowitz uncovers an intuitive but important point about cravings:

Because what Moskowtz found is that hunger is a poor driver of cravings. We rarely get in the situation where our body and brain are depleted of nutrients and are actually in need of replenishment. Rather, he discovered, we are driven to eat by other forces in our lives. Some of these are emotional needs ,while others reflect the pillars of processed food: first and foremost taste, followed by aroma, appearance, and texture.

Like the Hoover-era FBI pursuing its enemies list, the industry infiltrated the association of home economics teachers. This operation started with money and advertising, an archive of the association’s journal reveals. In 1957 alone, General Foods funnelled $288,250 into the grants and fellowship program of the home economics association, winning the gratitude of a generation of teachers. The association then devoted a special section of its journal to publicizing all the convenient products, from Stove Top Stuffing to nine-serving cake mixes … Then the food industry began sending people to further reshape the association to its own designs. It sponsored candidates for the organization’s top leadership posts, candidates who would bring a decidedly pro-industrial view to home economics.

They pored over these [rival’s] cereals like generals, but of course, the other food companies were not the target. The target was the civilians who were buying the rival cereal.

Research suggests that our bodies are less aware of excessive intake when the calories are liquid.

Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. “It was a mind-bending paradigm shift for me,” Putman said. “We weren’t trying to get share of market. We weren’t trying to beat Pepsi or Mountain Dew. We were about trying to beat everything.”

In marketing these drinks to kids and their parents, the brand managers now working for Phillip Morris would use something else to create allure. They would use fruit, or rather the intimation of fruit, to create an even more powerful image of their drinks: a chimera of health.

Like Kool-Aid and Tang, Capri Sun was sweetened mainly by high-fructose corn syrup, but it also now contained juice concentrate, which allowed the drink’s label to boast, for the first time, “Natural fruit drink. No artificial ingredients.”

… scientists have studied the brain’s reactions to processed foods and drugs like cocaine, and have concluded that some drugs achieve their allure, and addictive qualities, by following the same neurological channels that our bodies first developed for food.

This disconnect between moms hating the idea of cold raw pizza and the kids loving it had to do with their distinct approaches to eating it in general. Adults use their mouths when they eat, tasting whatever it is they are eating. By contrast, kids tend to use their eyes, judging the food – initially, at least – by how it looks.

There is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don’t generally partake in their own creations. Thus the heavy reliance on focus groups with the targeted consumer.

… the People’s Department of Lincoln’s imaginings has long been enmeshed in a conflict of interest that undermines its populist roots. On one side are the 312 million or so people of the United States and their health, which the USDA is charged with safeguarding. On the other side are the three hundred or so companies that form the $1 trillion industry of food manufacturing, companies that the USDA feels obligated to placate and nurture.

Kids who were overweight tended to stay that way for life.

Could they find a way to help people ease up without killing off their own company?

Lin found himself caught between corporate and public interests, struggling to reconcile what was best for the company with what was best for its consumers.

… the [consumer advocacy] organization has forced … PepsiCo to change the labeling of its Tropicana Peach Papaya Juice to reflect the facts that it has neither peaches nor papaya and is not a juice. “We’re open to listening to legitimate concerns, and this seemed like a reasonable concern,” a PepsiCo official said in settling the Tropicana case.

It had taken me three and a half years of prying into the food industry’s operations to come to terms with the full range of institutional forces that compel even the best companies to churn out foods that undermine a healthy diet. Most critical, of course, is the deep dependence the industry has on salt, sugar, and fat … companies won’t be giving these three up, in any real way, without a major fight. Salt, sugar, and fat are the foundation of processed food, and the overriding question the companies have in determining the formulations of their products is how much they need of each to achieve the maximum allure.

Making money is the sole reason they [food producers] exist-or so says Wall Street, which is there, at every turn, to remind them of this. Indeed, some experts, believe that Wall Street was one of the chief causes of the obesity epidemic when, in the early 1980s, investors shifted their money from stodgy blue chip companies to the high-flying technology industry and other sectors that promised quicker returns.

“… there is a huge economic issue involved in the obesity problem. It falls most heavily on those who have the fewest resources and probably the least understanding or knowledge of what they are doing.” [said James Behnke, the former Pillsbury executive].

Here they were, these people of Strawberry Mansion, sick of their kids getting the jitters and stomachaches from the corner-store food, trying to rehabilitate their own eating habits, and getting snookered into buying a “healthy” item that was no healthier than candy.

It is, perhaps, not unreasonable in this scenario to think of the grocery store as a battlefield, dotted with landmines itching to go off. And if you accept this, then it becomes all the more apparent why the food industry is so reliant on salt, sugar, and fat. They are cheap. They are interchangeable. They are huge, powerful forces of nature in unnatural food. And yet, for us, knowing all this can be empowering.

Clearing out the bookshelf

You can always use more space on your bookshelf, so I’m clearing out a few books.

There’s a lot been written about The Life of Pi. It’s a beautiful story, a gripping one, about a boy shipwrecked, floating on a boat, defending himself against the tiger that ends up on the boat. There’s a twist in the tiger’s tail [part of that sentence is a metaphor], and it adds extra weight to the story. This is definitely the one to read, not Beatrice and Virgil.

Freakonomics – well, there’s a lot that’s been written about Freakonomics, and the other books in the series. I haven’t undertaken a detailed study of any of the areas the authors write about, so I won’t critique those (although there are plenty out there – just look at the goodreads reviews). I take issue with the idea that applying a statistical analysis to a problem is somehow ‘economics’ – that’s just analysis with numbers. This may be worth giving to a high schooler who’s interested in economics – but I’d recommend rather starting with something like John Quiggins’ Zombie Economics.

Articles: Shrimp, leaky cabinets and speech-writers

A few random pieces.

Not so much an interesting article, as a random factoid, but apparently the phrase ‘shrimp on the barbie’ comes from a 1984 Tourism Australia ad, and referred to shrimp so that Americans could understand.

In what has to be one of the more bizarre security leaks, Australian media has a set of old cabinet files that were found in an old filing cabinet. It puts some perspective on the somewhat harried attempts to guess the source of the leaks, which didn’t triangulate politically (see this example, although behind a paywall).

It’s interesting to compare the current US administration’s unwillingness to provide information on its staffing arrangements with the profusion of information that came out about other staffers in previous administrations (Ben Rhodes, for example). I’m not sure which is actually less informative, despite the differences in output.