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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.




International Criminal Court Redux

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

Later this year, state parties will get together to revisit the Statute for the International Criminal Court. Definitely on the agenda is clarifying the crime of aggression, which was left hanging in 1998 in order to bring discussions to a close. But governments also have the opportunity to add new crimes to the list of those under the court’s jurisdiction (as well as suggest procedural changes). So far proposals relating to jurisdiction include:

1) A proposal by Trinidad and Tobago to try drug traffickers at the ICC. (If in 1989 you suggest a court for this specific purpose, and if nine years later states construct that very court while tabling the issue for which you originally suggested it, instead making it a court to try genocidaires and war criminals, try try again.)

2) A proposal by Belgium to extend the list of prohibited conventional weapons. (Roger Clark has an interesting essay on Article 8 in a Special Double Issue of the New Criminal Law Review organized by Opinio Juris’ Kevin Jon Heller.)

3) A proposal by the Netherlands to include terrorism in the court’s jurisdiction alongside aggression, war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. (Unlike the drug trafficking proposal, which actually aims to define the crime, Netherlands only proposes to include the crime of terrorism hypothetically, pending an agreed definition. Smart. Also somewhat meaningless.)

4) A proposal by Mexico to include the use of nuclear weapons under the definition of war crimes. (Good luck with that.)

Apparently no “States Parties” have taken up suggestions that piracy be added to the list of crimes under ICC jurisdiction.

[cross-posted at Current Intelligence]

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

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

Not the Onion.

The Hoover Gambit: More Reviews In

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

For obvious reasons, including the one Rob and Dave mention below, pretty much uniformly negative. If health care reform tanks, the possibility that Obama “could be seen as a failed pre-emptive president in an overwhelmingly Republican era” is now a depressingly likely outcome.

It could, I suppose be argue that the cuts involved will be (in the context of federal outlays) trivial enough to make the Hoover reference unfair. But if the best case is that it’s an irrelevant political gimmick, you have to consider the politics, which are pretty much a disaster. Hayes:

That’s why this is so inexcusably insidious: because it uses the full power of the bully pulpit to reaffirm and endorse a kind of ignorance that the right-wing has spent years stoking, and in so doing further erodes what little conceptual and rhetorical foundation we have domestically for social democracy. It may be a head fake, the fine print may basically have a lot of loopholes, in which case the policy itself won’t be terrible, but again it reinforces the enemy’s narrative: that government spends too much on “programs,” that defense and “security” spending doesn’t count for the deficit and that times of economic misery and widespread unemployment the solution is fiscal austerity.

In addition to this, you have the fact that Democrats continue to play the sucker, believing that they have to “fiscally responsible” so that Republicans can take a better fiscal picture and piss it all away on upper-class cuts. The most charitable construction, reflected in a couple of Matt’s scenarios, is that he’s trying to expose “deficit hawks” on both sides of the aisle as frauds. The obvious problem is that the actions of Bayh and Conrad, and 6 years of united Republican rule, have already demonstrated that they’re complete frauds. It doesn’t matter. To the Fried Hiatts who care about this stuff being a “deficit hawk” is about inflicting pain on Democratic constituencies, not reducing the deficit. One more demonstration that many “deficit hawks” don’t want to reduce agricultural subsidies won’t solve anything.

Creeping Morgenthauism

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

There’s a passage from Henry Morgenthau’s diaries that has been a staple of right-wing New Deal denialism over the years. In it, FDR’s Treasury secretary describes a meeting with the House Democrats on Ways and Means Committee in which he bemoans the supposed failures of the New Deal to lift unemployment and restrain the balloon of national debt.

We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work…. We have never made good on our promises….I say after six years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started and an enormous debt to boot!

As I noted, this is a popular quotation among people who believe that all taxation is theft and all spending draws the nation closer to full collectivization. But Morgenthau was, quite simply, wrong. The New Deal did work, albeit erratically and despite the fact that Roosevelt could never quite jettison the fiscally conservative instincts on which he based his 1932 campaign. But sure enough, between 1933-39, real GDP rose by nearly 50 percent, while private, non-farm unemployment dropped from just above 30 percent to a shade above 15 percent. Morgenthau can be forgiven for not realizing how dramatically unemployment had been whittled away, since he was relying on BLS statistics that have been dramatically revised over the past 70 years. The debt he alludes to was — as a percentage of GDP — roughly equivalent to the levels the US would later reach during the 1980s, and they were nowhere near the levels (e.g., ~120 percent of GDP) that the US raised during WWII. The US could have avoided those debts by not fighting, but regardless, the debts were paid off, in true Keynesian fashion, by the 1970s.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that Morgenthau — whose anti-Keynesian views put him at odds with most economists in the Roosevelt administration — would have overlooked the data. His obsession with spending cuts and balanced budgets (and FDR’s willingness to listen to him in ’37) helped produce the disastrous recession that marred Roosevelt’s second term and inspired Morgenthau’s wailing about how the New Deal “does not work.” As well, Morgenthau was one of the key figures who successfully persuaded FDR to modify his own advisers’ proposal that Social Security be funded from general revenues rather than (regressively) from the paychecks of workers themselves. The result was a social insurance plan modeled differently from those of every other industrial democracy — a plan that was less generous and more exclusionary, and one that (at least initially) bore no sense that economic security for the aged was at all a “right.”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that conservatives would celebrate a quotation from someone whose analysis of the economic situation in 1939 was — as we now know — wrong on the facts as well as the theory. And we shouldn’t be shocked that these same folks would continue to propose ideas that will, if implemented, assure that the US economy fails to recover before my kids are teenagers.

Why the Obama administration would provide any solace to those who echo Morgenthau’s 70-year-old error is, however, an enormous mystery.

Stoopid, Stoopid, Stoopid

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |


Everyone in Washington who studies the Pentagon budget quickly finds gobs and gobs of wasteful spending. Not some people. Not dirty hippies. Every. Single. Defense. Analyst. If I was so inclined, I could spend my days doing nothing but attending conferences on the latest defense jeremiad or policy paper about how to cut it. I already spend too much of my time reading this stuff on defense-community email listservs.

For the Obama administration to excerpt defense spending from its kinda-sorta-spending-freeze is a position that makes no sense from a policy perspective. None at all. From a political perspective, it only begins to make sense because a brain-dead media would amplify the braying ignorance blasted from a GOP congressional megaphone about Defense Spending Cuts OMG. And even then it doesn’t make sense. A holdover Republican Defense Secretary is now the biggest advocate of an even slightly sensible defense budget in the Obama administration.

Peter Daou:

Rightwing bloggers slamming spending (non)freeze, left hates it– that convergence bodes poorly for ultimate public perception

As a policy/PR stunt, the spending freeze seems geared entirely around satisfaction of the Washington Post editorial page. In terms of political strategy, this seems odd.

As I Suspected

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

At least until Jack Z arrived in Seattle, I always figured that God was on Billy Beane’s side.

Extremely Rare Tuesday Morning Daddy Blogging

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

Yes, Imogen is “reading” The Economist.

I think she just likes it for the pictures. But it’s a start.

Seems About Right

[ 0 ] January 26, 2010 |

Remember Laurie Mylroie? The sometime collaborator of Respected Journamalist Judy Miller whose meticulous scholarship has demonstrated that Saddam Hussein was responsible for such events as 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombings, and Aaron Small going 11-0 with the 2005 Yankees? Now guess who the Bush administration turned to when they needed an, ahem, expert analysis of Al Qaeda.

I’m very happy these people are no longer in power…

Sean Wilentz Positions I Can Endorse

[ 0 ] January 25, 2010 |

Grant is indeed very underrated.

…Yglesias reminds us of this oldie-but-goodie from Nathan Newman

The Internet’s own Gary Farber…

[ 0 ] January 25, 2010 |

…has hit hard times and could use your assistance. The man has been an online institution since before they multiplied the “w” by three and the Internet has been an appreciably better place for it. Help him continue to keep us honest if you can.


[ 0 ] January 25, 2010 |

The Wildcats have reclaimed the #1 Men’s NCAA Basketball ranking after an absence of six years. The Bluegrass rejoices.