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Next up from Paul Shirley: Why did Polish Jews put up with so much anti-Semitism?

[ 0 ] January 27, 2010 |

What if Ayn Rand had been 6’10″ with a pretty good jumpshot?

Dear Haitians -

First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.

As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?


The Rest of the World

Shirley’s nuanced social analysis of the situation in Haiti got him bounced this morning from his occasional gig as an ESPN commentator.

I’ve heard that his book about his travels through the world of professional basketball is actually kind of interesting.

Whole Foods, junk science, healthism, and other stuff white people like

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

Union-busting, health care reform-opposing, global-warming denying John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, has come up with a super idea for cutting his health insurance costs: giving his employees extra discounts on their company store purchases if they maintain or achieve a “healthy” (sic) weight.

The details: employees with a Body Mass Index of between 28 and 29.9 will get a 22% discount on their purchases; those with a BMI of 26-28.9 will get a 25% discount; those with a BMI of 24-25.9 will get a 27% discount; and those below 24 will get a 30% discount (employees must also meet blood pressure and cholesterol criteria and not use nicotine).

How crazy is this? Let me count the ways:

(1) In terms of BMI, the Whole Foods discounts correlate with increasing mortality risk. The most sophisticated study on this subject, published in 2005 in JAMA by Katherine Flegal et. al., used a BMI of 23-24.9 as its referent category for baseline risk of mortality. (This corresponds with the higher end of the government’s “normal/recommended” weight range of 18.5-24.9. The lower one goes in the “normal” weight range, the greater the mortality risk becomes, so using the top of the “normal” range as the referent category actually minimizes the risks associated with “normal” weight). It found 86,000 excess deaths per year in the United States associated with “normal” weight when compared to the mortality risk among people with BMIs in the 25-29.9 range.

You’re reading that right: Whole Foods’ employee discounts based on weight are inversely related to mortality risk. So you have a policy that’s not merely discriminatory on its face, but completely irrational on its own terms.

(2) The highest employee discount has no floor, only a ceiling. In the Flegal study, underweight (BMI <18.5) was associated with a stratospheric increase in mortality risk. (This remains true even when the data is controlled for smoking and pre-existing disease). But if you're an underweight college student suffering from an eating disorder and working as a checker at the Boulder Whole Foods (not a hypothetical as anyone who has ever shopped there can attest) you get a 30% discount for maintaining the "healthiest" weight.

(3) Even if one decides to enter John Mackey’s Epidemiological Fantasyland, where good health is achieved by purchasing $27 a pound Ahi tuna in order to achieve Optimal Thinness, how much sense does it make to make it more expensive for your non-thin employees to purchase said tuna?

All this is a classic example how the habitus of upper class people in America ends up getting projected onto the broader culture, under the rubric of “a healthy lifestyle.” It’s also an example of how healthism and junk science are powerful weapons in the fight to avoid that most dreaded thing, a fair and efficient health care system for all Americans. Few myths in that fight are more pernicious than the idea that if you get sick it’s your fault, because you didn’t make healthy choices, such as searing that Ahi tuna you bought at Whole Foods after lightly coating it in $30 a bottle olive oil.

Relatedly, here’s a talk I gave last week on the general topic. The first link is the talk; the second is the Q&A.



C. Everett Koop fights to keep Medicare free from government interference

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

Not the Onion.

More thoughts on Citizens United

[ 0 ] January 22, 2010 |


I was reading a review yesterday of a collection of Henry Farlie’s essays, and discovered that The Daily Beast and The Daily Brute were lightly fictionalized versions of The Daily Mail and The Daily Express in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, which sounds like fun.

Fat and Identity Politics

[ 0 ] January 20, 2010 |

I’m doing a talk on this topic at UCLA tomorrow. The price is right for any LA LGMers looking to stretch their entertainment dollar.

I’m staying at a guest house on campus tonight and there’s a photo of Lew Alcindor on the wall.

Health care reform is dead for another generation because a Senate candidate couldn’t remember who Curt Schilling pitched for

[ 0 ] January 20, 2010 |

I’m pretty sure that David Broder will conclude this means the system works.

UPDATE [BY SL]: I believe that Massachusetts swing voters have sent a clear message, and the message is, “we already have ours, so piss off!” At any rate, if Congressional Dems want to get clobbered in the 2010 midterms and accomplish absolutely nothing, they should take Evan Bayh’s advice very seriously.

Update #2 [PC] Also, Yglesias

I hope this isn’t some sort of sign

[ 0 ] January 14, 2010 |

If you type a word into Google, it will pull up the most common searches that begin with that word. Currently, the three most common searches that begin with “Is” are (in order):

(1) Is Lady Gaga a man?

(2) Is Lady Gaga a hermaphrodite?

(3) Is the world coming to an end in 2012?

You look marvelous

[ 0 ] January 13, 2010 |

Lane Kiffin’s head coaching resume includes stints with the Oakland Raiders, the University of Tennessee (9th winningest program in major college football history) and now USC (seventh winningest program of all time).

Lane Kiffin has never won more than seven games in a season.

Lane Kiffin is 34 years old.

I wonder what his views are on affirmative action?

Two questions for Glenn Reynolds

[ 0 ] January 12, 2010 |

(1)If Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by the Iranian government because he was reportedly sympathetic to opponents of it, would that terrorism?

(2) If on the other hand he was working an an atomic weapons program for the Iranian government, and was as a consequence quietly killed by the CIA, would that be terrorism?

This is an open book exam. Please be sure to support your answer with specific references to the relevant legal texts and doctrines.

Jon Stewart hearts LGM

[ 0 ] January 12, 2010 |

This is somehow reminiscent of this and this.

It’s not personal, it’s business

[ 0 ] January 10, 2010 |

Kevin Drum likes the idea of not getting hysterical over every terrorist incident, but he’s got practical and theoretical objections to an approach that emphasizes the risk from terrorism is statistically negligible:

This line of argument — that terrorism is statistically harmless compared to lots of other activities — will never work. For better or worse, it just won’t. So we should knock it off.

Second, even in the realm of pure logic it really doesn’t hold water. The fundamental fear of terrorism is that it’s not just random or unintentional, like car accidents or (for most of us) the threat of homicide. It’s carried out by people with a purpose. The panic caused by the underwear bomber wasn’t so much over the prospect of a planeload of casualties, it was over the reminder that al-Qaeda is still out there and still eager to expand its reach and kill thousands if we ever decide to let our guard down a little bit.

So even if you agree with Campos, as I do, that overreaction to al-Qaeda’s efforts is dumb and counterproductive, it’s perfectly reasonable to be more afraid of a highly motivated group with malign ideology and murderous intent than of things like traffic accidents or hurricanes. Suggesting otherwise, in some kind of hyperlogical a-death-is-a-death sense, strikes most people as naive and clueless. It’s an argument that probably hurts the cause of common sense more than it helps.

Whether statistically-based arguments help or hurt on the whole in this context seems largely unknown (we don’t have good stats on that). I concede they’re not nearly as effective as people who have a preference for evidence-based arguments — pointy-headed professors etc., — often imagine they are. As Drum points out, most people consider those sorts of arguments naive, and prefer “common sense.”

Unfortunately in this context Drum seems to be one of those people. His common sense argument is that it makes more sense to be afraid of terrorists than hurricanes because death by hurricane is random and death by terrorism is a product of malign ideology and murderous intent. Even ordinary homicide, he says, is not like that for most of us.

As to the homicide point it’s clearly wrong. The percentage of homicide victims whose killers were random strangers — serial killers, mass murderers, and the like — is quite small. Indeed if you’re a woman (which statistically includes most of us), the odds are far higher that you will murdered by a current or former intimate partner — as I point out in the WSJ piece there are several such murders in the US every single day — than by any other single class of killer.

But even when it comes to things like hurricanes and traffic accidents I think Drum is off track. If anything, getting blown up by a terrorist on a plane is about as impersonal a death as a person can suffer. It’s comparable, in this regard, to getting blown up by Predator drone while attending a wedding in a Pakistani village.

The notion that terrorists want to kill “us” — me and you specifically, or even Americans as a class — because they hate us personally, or if you prefer “hate our freedoms,” is pure narcissism. It’s very much like imagining the the US military actually wants to kill Iraqi or Afghani civilians. From a logistical and political standpoint killing civilians is a pain in the ass for the US military and I’m quite sure they would very much prefer to avoid it altogether if they could, all ethical considerations aside. From a logistical and political standpoint trying to kill US civilians by blowing yourself and the plane you’re on is a pain in the ass (sometimes literally) for terrorists and they no doubt would prefer to pursue their goals in a less unpleasant manner, again all ethical considerations aside.

I also think Drum should be a little more cautious about making arguments framed around the idea that “al Qaeda is still out there and eager to expand its reach and kill thousands.” Whether al Qaeda even exists as a coherent organization any more is far from clear. Naturally Islamic terrorists in Iraq and on the Arabian peninsula are eager to engage in geopolitical equivalent of knock-off branding, but that hardly means we should assume that the Jihadist equivalent of Emanuel Goldstein is still lurking behind every conspiracy.

I’m not drawing a moral equivalence here between terrorism and “collateral damage” in arguably legitimate military operations. What I’d like to insist on is that both kinds of death are highly impersonal and essentially random.

Now this doesn’t mean that the loved ones of the victims of these sorts of death will consider the deaths impersonal and random. Civilian deaths due to terrorism and warfare both fill people with rage and a thirst for revenge. But there’s nothing personal about either one.

Update: The increasingly unhinged Maureen Dowd, by contrast, is annoyed with Obama for not recognizing that “we” are really scared right now, and therefore need a big strong daddy to make the bad guys go away:

No Drama Obama is reticent about displays of emotion. The Spock in him needs to exert mental and emotional control. That is why he stubbornly insists on staying aloof and setting his own deliberate pace for responding — whether it’s in a debate or after a debacle. But it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared.

Our professorial president is no feckless W., biking through Katrina. He is no doubt on top of the crisis in terms of studying it top to bottom. But his inner certainty creates an outer disconnect.

He’s so sure of himself and his actions that he fails to see that he misses the moment to be president — to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders, who reassures and instructs the public at traumatic moments.

He’s more like the aloof father who’s turned the Situation Room into a Seminar Room.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

The politics of cowardice

[ 0 ] January 9, 2010 |

I think it’s a positive sign that the WSJ published this.

On a related note, in the last two days fighter jets have been scrambled twice to “accompany” flights on which passengers became fractious in some unspecified but ultimately non-terroristic way.

Does it really make everybody feel better that the USAF is apparently primed to shoot down commercial airliners at the drop of a hat?

Also, how much does that sort of nonsense cost?

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