Sunday, April 24, 2016

The end of introspection (and why it matters)

A friend of mine who teaches undergraduates provided insight into something I see regularly but don't experience in the thoroughgoing way he does, namely, young people (and some not so young) who appear to be entirely an appendage of their cellphones. One study concluded that "[t]he average college student uses a smartphone for about nine hours each day."

The take on cellphones is that you can customize them to give you exactly what you want. You are in charge. The trouble with this reasoning is that someone else is programming the apps you use; and those apps are programmed to get you to do certain things in certain ways that are generally to the advantage of the companies providing the apps and to advertisers (sometimes one and the same). These apps may be useful to you, but they are certainly not your apps; they are not actually customized. And, they only offer the illusion of control.

Moreover, there is no app I know of designed to get you to stop looking at your cellphone and focus on the world around you or on your inner life. Some people listen to music or podcasts on their cellphones while they exercise, walk, drive, study, read, eat, or do practically anything. I'm all for listening to music and podcasts. But some of the activities listed above are actually great all by themselves.

Then there is the constant texting. Texting is very useful, I find, for telling people I'm running late to a meeting, inviting people to something at the last minute, coordinating family hordes on vacation and so forth. My professor friend tells me that many of his students say they prefer texting to face-to-face encounters. One student went so far as to characterize face-to-face conversation as a form of "aggression." When my friend first told me this, I had the horrifying realization that it's possible that many groups of young people I see texting while standing in a group may actually be texting each other! (Perhaps I'm extrapolating things too far.)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why the fight for GMO labeling is (possibly) over

Ever since it became clear that Vermont's law for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would actually go into force this summer, the big question has been how many food companies would choose to label their products and how many would choose simply not to sell in Vermont.

There is a third choice which purveyor of canned fruits and vegetables, Del Monte Foods, announced recently. The company will eliminate all genetically engineered ingredients from its foods, obviating the need for special labeling. This won't be too difficult since there are very few genetically engineered fruits and vegetables.

While the Vermont law is huge victory for the proponents of labels, the U.S. Congress could still pre-empt state labeling laws, something it failed to do earlier this year. But as more and more of the public demands to know which products have so-called genetically modified organisms or GMOs in them and as the number of products on grocery shelves with non-GMO verified labels increases, growers and processors may have no choice but to acquiesce. They may be forced by circumstances either to label their products (or automatically be suspected of trying to hide something for not doing so) or to eliminate GMO crops and ingredients for fear of losing customers regardless of what happens in Congress or in other states.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books on risk, explains why this is so in a draft chapter of an upcoming book called Skin in the Game. His investigation begins with why nearly every packaged drink in the United States is labeled certified kosher.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Corruption, resources, climate and systemic risk

Corruption is a loaded word. One person's corruption is another's sound social policy. Some people believe providing unemployment benefits to laid-off workers corrupts them by making them "lazy." Many others think such benefits are sound social policy in an economic system that is prone to major cyclical ups and downs.

Fewer people agree that bailing out major U.S. banks at taxpayer expense in the aftermath of the 2008 crash was a good use of public money. An alternative would have been for the U.S. government to seize the banks, inject funds to stabilize them, and then resell them to investors, perhaps at a profit.

Was it corruption that led to the bailout instead of a takeover? Or was it an honest difference of opinion about what would work best under emergency circumstances?

We can argue whether these examples of transfers of funds from one group to another are fair. But by themselves they do not constitute a systemic risk to the stability of the entire economic and social system. In fact, some would argue that such transfers enhance that stability. However one evaluates these transfers, I would contend that a much worse corruption is to subject our society knowingly to systemic failures such as severe climate change and widespread crop failures.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Vermont calls Big Food's bluff on GMO labels

Large food processors have long claimed that state laws forcing them to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would lead to 1) higher prices for consumers who would end up paying the cost of special labeling for one or just a few states and/or 2) fewer food choices as processors simply withdrew some or all of their products from states requiring labeling.

It seems that the state of Vermont has now called their bluff and won.

Neither scenario appears likely when Vermont's labeling law for products containing genetically engineered ingredients goes into effect on July 1. Instead, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., ConAgra Food Inc., Mars Inc. and Campbell Soup Company have announced they will use one label that is in accordance with Vermont law for all markets for products containing genetically engineered ingredients and thus avoid the cost and logistical hassle of separate labels and special handling for products bound for Vermont. This was always going to be the simplest way to comply, and Vermont's governor knew it. Expect more companies to follow suit soon.

The fate of Vermont's labeling law for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients--commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms or GMOs--had hung in the balance as a court challenge and federal legislation threatened to overturn it.