Breaking (Not) News: Politicians are dishonest and hate freedom.

Add Montgomery County, Maryland to the list of governments that doesn’t trust its residents and business owners. Yesterday, it passed a ban on trans fats in “food service establishments”. The story offers the standard fare discussion, which misses how anti-liberty such government intrusion is. For example:

The move comes as health officials across the country decry a rise in bad eating habits, growing waistlines and an increase in heart disease and other ailments. The anti-trans fat bill puts Montgomery in the vanguard of a growing national movement to make it easier to obtain healthy foods in restaurants and grocery stores.

I disagree that easier is the correct word to use in that paragraph. Such anti-trans fat bills seek to make it obligatory to obtain healthy foods. Why bypass that? To make this sound more reasonable? Don’t bother; nothing can make this reasonable.

That doesn’t mean I like trans fats. I avoid them. But I’m not egotistical enough to believe that what I choose for myself is the best, or at least desirable, choice for everyone. We’re all unique human beings with different, subjective preferences and an individual risk aversion not readily apparent to government busybodies. Personal choice is better than institutionalized denial of choice.

Where governments go wrong with that is most apparent in this:

Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), the bill’s chief sponsor, said she thinks the food industry will be able to adjust. Some Montgomery establishments, such as the Silver Diner and Marriott Corp., stopped using trans fats voluntarily.

I wonder what evidence Councilwoman Trachtenberg used to come to her conclusion that the food industry will be able to adjust. Wishing isn’t evidence.

“The goal is to protect the public health,” she said. “People want to know what they are eating.”

And there’s the deceit. Mandatory menu labeling would achieve her stated goal, for customers to know what they’re eating. They’d have the information to make an informed choice. But that’s not the bill Councilwoman Trachtenberg sponsored. What she’s done speaks louder than what she said.

Will Councilwoman Trachtenberg achieve her stated goal?

Gene Wilkes, owner of Tastee Diners in Bethesda and Silver Spring, said the ban will force him to eliminate certain items, such as lemon meringue pie and chocolate cream pie, which he buys from a supplier. His popular biscuits, made in bulk at the diners from a General Mills mix that contains trans fats, will be a no-no. He said he’ll begin making them from scratch, most likely.

I guess if people in Montgomery County want to know what’s in their lemon meringue pie or chocolate cream pie, they’ll know because they’ll have to make it themselves. Mission accomplished. Right?

Perception dictates more than reality.

In the circumcision debate, most regard those of us who would require immediate medical need before permitting the circumcision of children as the nutjobs. Consider this quick analysis of that opinion, based on two competing quotes from an Australian newspaper, The Age. First, this:

Kai is the third son the Barwicks have had circumcised by Dr Russell, a Brisbane GP who specialises in circumcision. “For us we decided to do it because of cleanliness and hygiene,” Ms Barwick said. “My third boy at two weeks had a urinary tract infection and Dr Russell said the circumcision would mean there would be less chance of this happening in the future.”

Second, this:

Dr [George] Williams does not understand why parents choose to circumcise their boys because of cleanliness. “It’s much harder for a female to practise hygiene but we don’t recommend circumcision of a female for that reason. This idea that males are hopeless and unable to look after themselves so they use circumcision as genital hygiene is just stupid.”

Notice, of course, that us in the first excerpt involves those in the family not in possession of the penis in question. Notice, also, that the second excerpt relies on logic, something absent from the first excerpt. A male infant’s intact foreskin adheres at birth, so his penis requires no more care than cleaning his finger. After circumcision, parents must care for the wound, which is clearly more work than having no wound.

Cultural acceptance does not make an argument the sane position in the debate. This is especially true in the first article, as it discards the ethical dilemma involved in forcing medically-unnecessary on a child because there’s “no pain.”

Are we speaking the same language?

I’m always amazed at how little people understand vegetarianism and veganism. Not so much that people don’t grok it to the point of adopting it. I can’t fathom how “consume no flesh” and “consume no animal products” is particularly complicated. Fish is not vegetarian. Chicken is not vegetarian. Cheese is not vegan. These aren’t complicated ideas. Still, the way people persist in being shocked to learn these basic truths demonstrate how little people think about what they eat.

In that context, the journalist charged with telling this story either doesn’t get it, or isn’t thinking about the meaning of the words, only that the word count meets the editor’s need.

Vegetarians who have learned to live without roast beef dinners and bacon sandwiches were yesterday forced to make another major sacrifice: chocolate.

Learned to live without and major sacrifice. Vegetarianism can’t be about choice, because that doesn’t make sense. It must be about willful deprivation.

It came after the makers of Britain’s most popular chocolate bars, including Mars, Snickers, Maltesers and Milky Ways, admitted that they now contain an ingredient derived from a cow’s stomach.

This month, Masterfoods began using animal rennet to produce the whey needed for its products, rather than a vegetarian alternative. Rennet is extracted from the stomach-lining of slaughtered newborn calves, and is used in traditional cheese production in central Europe. In Britain a microbial alternative made from mould is used.

Food manufacturers cheating on their ingredients is nothing new. McDonald’s uses beef and dairy in making its fries. It’s not common sense to think it includes those ingredients. But surprising? No. As long as major chocolate makers include dairy products in their dark chocolate¹, it’s clear how little concern they have for vegetarian/vegan needs.

Here’s the best part, though, courtesy of the journalist:

The admission by Masterfoods presents the country’s three million vegetarians with an ethical dilemma over whether to consume more than 20 best-selling products.

What ethical dilemma? It contains an ingredient derived from an animal’s stomach. That’s not vegetarian.

Paul Goalby, the corporate affairs manager at Masterfoods, told the Mail on Sunday: “Since changing the sourcing of our ingredients we are no longer able to ensure our chocolate will be animal rennet-free. So we made the principled decision to admit it was not guaranteed to be vegetarian. If the customer is an extremely strict vegetarian, then we are sorry the products are no longer suitable.”

They’re admitting it before someone inevitably drags it out. Bravo. That’s an honest move and gives vegetarians full information. But Mr. Goalby fell into the same bizarre non-grasp of what vegetarians choose to eat. He’s off in believing this change only affects the “extremely strict vegetarian”. That term is like saying someone is “a little bit pregnant.” Either you are or you are not.

Link via Fark.

¹ From the Hershey’s website for Special Dark:

Dark chocolate, also known as sweet or semi-sweet chocolate, typically has a higher percentage of cacao solids (cocoa, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter) than milk chocolate.

Well, duh. Dark chocolate shouldn’t have milk. Hershey’s own glossary of chocolate products reflects this. So why does it include milk in Special Dark? I’d guess milk is cheaper than cocoa.

UnFair Tax Assumptions and Goals

Since the recent debates involving declared presidential candidates, much buzz follows (former) Senator Mike Gravel, a Democrat. I didn’t watch the debates, so I haven’t followed him. But with the Internets being excited about him, I looked into his positions. I figured I wouldn’t need to look very far to dismiss him. I was right.

I saw his support for the Fair Tax, which is not quite enough for me to discount him outright. The details of his tax plan did that. For example:

There is only one one [sic] entity in the U.S. that pays taxes: the individual. Businesses and corporations do not, they merely collect taxes from consumers of their products and pass on the taxes to the government. The Fair Tax proposal calls for eliminating the IRS and the Income Tax and replacing it with a progressive national Sales Tax on new products and services. To compensate for necessities, such as food, lodging, clothing, etc there would be a “prebate” to reimburse taxpayers for the taxes paid on necessities.

I can’t figure out why he includes the (true) statement that businesses merely collect taxes. How will this help him in promoting a national sales tax? Who will collect taxes on products sold, if not businesses? But I didn’t want to get too distracted by that. “Prebate” spooked me more. So I followed his links to his more detailed explanation:

But the U.S. Income Tax system is unfair and regressive because Americans earning less than $97,400 pay a larger portion of their income in taxes than those who earn more than $97,400.

I’m not sure the data support that, or his later claim that Americans “with low or moderate incomes will automatically pay less in taxes”. But that’s a minor quibble in a sea of issues.

What sales tax rate will be applied to all new products and services?

The goal is to keep tax reform revenue-neutral. It is not a tax-cut program. Whatever the tax rate on new goods and services that will produce the same amount of money currently raised by the income tax is the sales tax rate. Best estimates indicate that the rate would be somewhere between 20 and 25%. Also, best estimates indicate that it would take a year to transition from one system to the other.

I really hate the phrase “revenue-neutral.” It’s an open (and incorrect) admission from Sen. Gravel that he’s content with the size of government. He’s wrong. And that sort of nonsense also implies that the sales tax rate will have to fluctuate to hit a target for tax-receipts. I doubt that will simplify the tax process.

Here are a few of Sen. Gravel’s basic Fair Tax facts:

Dramatically reduces the price of new products and services, estimated at 20-25%, because corporations no longer need to hide these costs in the retail prices that are now passed on to consumers. This reduction equals the present income taxes being paid.

I don’t care if the price of a book decreases from $25 to $20 if I’m still going to pay $25 after sales tax. That’s marketing, pure and simple. I suspect it isn’t particularly logical or effective marketing, either, because if I owned a retail store, I might advertise after-tax price so customers didn’t get a surprise at the register.

Businesses, and state and local governments collecting the sales tax will keep a small percentage to reimburse themselves for the cost of collecting and forwarding the funds to the U.S. Treasury.

There’s our answer to the statement about businesses collecting taxes. Not only will they continue, but they’ll interact with now-conscripted state and local governments in the collection of sales taxes. That should simplify the process none, as expected.

Encourages the re-use products [sic] and the purchase of tax-free, pre-owned products.

This will, of course, reduce the purchase of new, taxable products. That should do well for the bottom line for businesses, as well as the revenue-neutral mandate. Elsewhere, Sen. Gravel also talks about how bad “exceptions” are in the tax code, because they allow “wealth” to game the system. Isn’t zero tax on pre-owned items an exception?

Eliminates corporate taxes and the costs of compliance. These costs are currently hidden in the price consumers pay for the company’s product or services [sic]

Again, won’t there be compliance costs with state and local governments, as well as compliance costs with tracking the sales tax? Will they not be “hidden” in the price shown to consumers?

All that’s enough to induce fits of laughter, but we must look at the Prebate:

One of the most exciting features of the Fair Tax is the monthly payments to individuals and/or families to reimburse them for the tax they pay on the essentials of life (food, shelter, clothing, medicine). The amount of the Prebate is calculated by multiplying the cost of essentials by the tax rate. The resulting tax is divided into 12 equal payments and sent on the first of each month to consumers who have registered annually for the program. The progressiveness of the Fair Tax can be determined by adjusting the amounts selected for the prices paid for essentials, which should not be taxed in the first place. However, giving these essentials an exception from the sales tax opens the door for wealth to game the system and we are back with the problems we have in the income tax system.

Exciting? Right there, I’m done with Sen. Gravel. But looking at the prebate, I can’t comprehend how anyone can honestly imply that politicians won’t game that system. Also, how can we define one equal amount for each person’s basic food, shelter, clothing, and medical needs? Just assessing food, will Sen. Gravel argue that a petite, 5’1″ woman has the same food need as a muscular, 6’6″ man? How will the government account for this? Not with exceptions, right? Those would be bad. So what is it? Everyone gets 4 steaks, 12 chicken breasts, 5 pounds of bacon, 24 eggs, 1 bunch of carrots, 4 heads of lettuce, 1 pound of broccoli, 2.5 gallons of milk, and 6 cookies? I wouldn’t like that “average basket”.

I dislike the Fair Tax already, but these details are horrendous and show that Sen. Gravel’s plan is little more than the same belief that individuals serve government.

Here’s video explanation from Sen. Gravel at YouTube.

Persuasive Doesn’t Mean Complete

I didn’t comment on the recent hate crimes legislation considered by Congress that would’ve included sexual orientation because I hadn’t considered it enough to have anything intelligent to add to my previous thoughts. I’m not saying what I wrote earlier is correct or the final stance I’ll have. I just hadn’t thought about it more.

While Congress considered the recent bill, Kip posted an interesting analysis based on gambling courts and how criminal justice punishes the same crimes differently based on the circumstances. I’m not wholly convinced, although I admit I can’t clarify exactly why. I’m beyond the simplistic view that such laws punish thought, but I’m still not ready to commit to embracing such legislation. I will say that, as long as we have such legislation at the local, state, and federal levels, sexual orientation should be included in every hate crimes law.

That’s a long way of introducing today’s column by George Will, which is about hate crime laws.

Hate-crime laws are indignation gestures. Legislators federalize the criminal law in order to use it as a moral pork barrel to express theatrical empathy. They score points in the sentiment competition by conferring special government concern for more and more particular groups.

That seems mostly correct to me on its surface, but it improves when considering Mr. Will’s opening statement.

Political entrepreneurship involves devising benefits to excite or mollify niche constituencies.

Politicians govern out of a degenerate self-interest rather than an adherence to the Constitution. This is our most significant political problem, and I don’t see anything in the recent debate over this legislation (i.e. President Bush’s threatened veto) to suggest otherwise. That’s getting in the way of the real debate. We should discuss hate crime laws, but not be afraid to accept that, if hate crime laws make sense, any and every hate-motivated crime should be included. If they make sense, we should apply those laws with a fair and equal hand.

I promise not to throw a touchdown if your cornerback falls down.

I think there’s more to this excerpt from Robert Samuelson’s Wednesday column on China’s trade policies than he’s explicitly stating:

Even Chinese officials favor higher local demand. But either they can’t or won’t stimulate it. Personal consumption spending is a meager 38 percent of GDP; that’s half the U.S. rate of 70 percent. The Chinese save at astonishingly high levels, partly because they’re scared of emergencies. The social safety net is skimpy. Health insurance is modest: Out-of-pocket spending covers half of medical costs, reports economist Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute. There’s no universal Social Security, and only 17 percent of workers have pensions. A mere 14 percent are covered by unemployment insurance.

It would take a much longer essay than I’m willing to write on this to unpack every implication here. Primarily, though, Mr. Samuelson is implying that China doesn’t have enough socialism. Could those oversights be a sign that the Chinese political class is more interested in enriching itself and its supporters than caring about the citizenry? Of course, that’s the experiential reality of socialism, but pay that no mind. So maybe saving for those emergencies has more to do with the way their “leaders” plunder the country’s wealth. Of course, if it’s true the Chinese save at astonishingly high levels, wouldn’t that bust the myth that a publicly-financed and provided safety net is necessary?

It is not “protectionist” (I am a long-standing free-trader) to complain about policies that are predatory; China’s are just that. The logic of free trade is that comparative advantage ultimately benefits everyone. Countries specialize in what they do best. Production and living standards rise. But the logic does not allow for one country’s trade systematically to depress its trading partners’ production and employment. Down that path lie resentment and political backlash.

Again, Mr. Samuelson is saying nothing more than China isn’t socialistic enough. It isn’t interested in the common good, only its own self-interest. And somehow this has the ability to depress its trading partners’ production and employment. Perhaps it’s that, or it could be the stupidity of implementing your own socialist protectionism rather than operating out of your own self-interest. I’m not interested in blaming the victim, but if a country lets itself get pushed around because it wants to insist on different rules, we can’t blame competition and free trade for the outcome.

For example, I negotiated with a recruiter earlier this week. She offered a contract rate significantly below what I’m willing to accept. However, I’m not willing to accept less because I know what my time is worth in this market. I gave her a bare minimum and she was nowhere close to that. I said no.

The next day, she called back and told me she’d managed to secure a higher rate. She was very proud of herself, although it was still significantly less than what I quoted her. I said no again.

Approximately five minutes after we hung up, she called back and said I’d won, she could match the rate I quoted as my bare minimum. This came as no surprise to me because I’ve done my homework on my situation. I still said no, but that’s because I didn’t want to trade negotiate with her anymore. She only met my minimum, and I’m working on better deals for my time and knowledge, which is my product. Under Mr. Samuelson’s analysis, it’s possible to conclude that I’m hurting her company’s production and employment because I didn’t seek the common good, which I presume means reaching a deal, regardless of the terms. Self-interest shouldn’t matter.

Nonsense. I seek what’s in my own interest. I trust my trading partners to do the same.

Did the editor punt this assignment?

Here’s a fascinating story:

Miracles do happen. That’s what doctors said about 30-year-old Shannon Malloy.

A car crash in Nebraska on Jan. 25 threw Malloy up against the vehicle’s dashboard. In the process, her skull became separated from her spine. The clinical term for her condition is called internal decapitation.

I can’t imagine what that must feel like or how I’d respond in the moments after that happened. I’m impressed that she lived.

I can’t add more to that. Instead, allow me to present this horrendous writing in the story.

Five screws were drilled into Malloy’s neck. Four more were drilled into her head to keep it stabilized. Then a thing called a halo — rods and a circular metal bar — was attached for added support. It’s not exactly a pain-free procedure.

Then a thing called a halo? I’m flabbergasted. I predict that will be the worst piece of writing I’ll read this month. At what level of schooling does a writer learn to replace Then a thing called a halo with Then a halo?

I also noted was attached, but I make that mistake, too. Avoiding the passive voice is every writer’s struggle. Every writer struggles with the passive voice.

Story link via Fark.

Shallow Fun With Numbers

Andrew Sullivan links to this story and states that the data suggest that vegetarianism is peaking. From the article:

A number of both positive and negative factors have impacted on growth in the vegetarian foods market over the past 7 years (since 1998/1999). …

On the negative side, the number of vegetarians in the population has been in decline since 1999, after peaking in 1997. Nevertheless, continued growth in vegetarian foods sales supports the fact that the market has become more mainstream with maturity, with such foods purchased and eaten by many people who would not describe themselves particularly as being vegetarian. They might see themselves as meat reducers, or might be seeking healthier and more varied diets. Vegetarian foods are claimed to be lower in saturated fat, and contain higher levels of dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins.

Perhaps the data suggest, as a whole, that vegetarianism is decreasing. But is the sales volume of manufactured (i.e. processed) vegetarian foods a sufficient indicator, sans any other data? The sale of a banana is the sale of vegetarian food. The same applies to a cucumber. Even eggs, milk, and yogurt are vegetarian and could be considered applying to the data on vegetarianism. If they’re increasing because people are swapping bacon for eggs at breakfast, that could imply an increase in vegetarianism, or “meat reduction”.

Consider my pattern of grocery purchases. In the past, I’ve relied heavily on manufactured processed vegetarian foods. Over the years I’ve reduced my consumption of those types of foods. Part of that change has been my full evolvement to veganism, but I’ve also focused on consuming less sodium and chemicals necessary to create such processed foods. As such, I purchase more from the corner of the supermarket and less from the middle.

Does this imply that my vegetarianism has decreased because I buy fewer processed vegetarian food than I purchased in the late ’90s? Or is it proof that one data point does not sufficiently represent the market? Again, maybe vegetarianism is in decline. But such a trend, if occurring, can’t be confirmed by this research alone.

Should I get business subsidies?

Because Democrats apparently can’t look at the calendar to figure out when summer months are coming, among other simpler solutions that don’t involve market interference, they find it more expedient to blame oil companies.

Standing in front of an Exxon station near the Capitol on Wednesday with the posted $3.05-a-gallon price for unleaded regular in the background, half a dozen senators railed against the oil industry.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Congress would look into breaking up the giant companies. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) promoted her anti-price-gouging bill, which the Senate Commerce Committee adopted on Tuesday. And Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) backed a windfall profits tax, pointing to $440 billion in profits over the past six years for the nation’s five biggest oil companies.

“I think it’s time to say to these people, ‘Stop ripping off the American people,’ ” Sanders said.

In order…

  • Good plan. Investment in oil discovery and refining is expensive. Small firms with a smaller capital base are best suited to the task.
  • Right, if the price is “high”, or higher than people want to pay in an ideal world ($0? negative prices?), means that companies are “gouging”. Who needs any context into costs, demand, or other basic economic concepts?
  • Again, “windfall” is an empty buzzword, for it pretends that the laws of economics can be violated. Particularly, as Sanders said, the silly notion that oil companies are “ripping off” American consumers.

For example:

While they haven’t curtailed their driving habits, two-thirds of U.S. adults said in a mid-April Washington Post-ABC News poll that gasoline price increases had caused “financial hardship” for their households; 36 percent said that the hardship had been “serious.”

Rather than first look to strategies individuals can immediately implement, Congress needs to step in and threaten to transfer money from one group (oil company stockholders) to another group (gas consumers). We must make certain to ignore the obvious fact that the former is a subset of the latter.

For a real life example, consider my current unemployment lack of a contract¹. Rather than complain that my income is dramatically reduced while continuing to spend, I’ve curbed my spending in response to an adverse situation. I deem zero income to be “bad”. My actions reflect that.

American drivers don’t seem to agree that gas prices are all that “bad”.

¹ A situation that appears nearing its end, thankfully. Hopefully.

One Last Remembrance

Virginia Tech is holding its commencement ceremonies this weekend for the Class of 2007. Each deceased student is being awarded a posthumous degree, which is an appropriate honor from the university. I don’t want to linger on the tragedy any longer; even though we will never forget, life must continue. I do want to take one last opportunity to remember.