Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Herbal industry poisons the free market

It's rare to find an issue where I side with a Republican over a Libertarian, but today's David Frum column on herbal supplements brought on that unfamiliar feelings.

As Frum correctly spelled it out, the FDA was neutered interfering when herbal hucksters make fraudulent health claims by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. This labeled herbal supplements as "dietary supplements;" so herbs are now considered food and not drugs.

But herbs really are drugs - that is, unless they do nothing. Then they're just a placebo.

I've had to come to terms with this. For once, my concern is that the laws don't let the bureaucrats in the Food and Drug Administration do enough. As much as I love the free market, I still see every dollar that's spent on these silly herbs as a vote for needed government interference. This doesn't make me a Democrat, just merely a Republican on this issue.

While some modern libertarians say that consumer protection activists will warn enough consumers away from scams like herbs, the idea of government shutting down fraudulent merchants was supported by Milton Friedman.

The difference here is that the companies are lying about the products. Fraud is different from just selling a risky product. While I don't want a nanny state, I don't think live wires should be left lying on the ground with a sign saying they're safe to touch.

Frum made a subtle reference to vitamin supplements being hocked on AM radio. By this he means, sadly conservative talk radio like Rush Limbaugh (who I mostly like) and Michael Savage (who I never like). While I'd like think of herbal healing as purely a granola head obsession, the truth is I have seen it from plenty of right wingers.

Not only did Frum get the role of the government right, he also demonstrated a familiarity with modern science that I had given up on finding in another conservative.

As individuals, we have trouble distinguishing between anecdotes: "My neighbor took zinc for her cold and she said it really helped," and data: Most colds last four days, so you could smoke yak-dung cigarettes on day three and feel better on day four.

We are poor balancers of risk: Look at the rising number of Americans who resist taking vaccines because of astronomically remote chances that something might go wrong.

We are vulnerable to placebos: "Hey -- I took the 30-day free sample and I feel sure my vision did improve!"

We are swayed by prejudice and ideology: The film-maker Spike Lee wrote in Rolling Stone in 1992: "I'm convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease."

The reason we should defer to experts is not that the experts know everything. Of course they don't. It's just that they know more than non-experts do.

It's not that science has all the answers. It doesn't. It's just that astrologers, shamans, and natural healers have none of them.

Was there anything in this column that wouldn't make a member of the scientific skeptic movement cheer? Frum nailed this issue, which is rare for a conservative speaking about science. It was all the more impressive because it meant distancing himself from some conservatives and libertarians because that's where the facts lead him.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Take that Ricardo: Blizzard-grown beets

I try to keep my criticism of the "buy local" movement to it's soul-crushing ignorance of economics, and away from the environmental arguments. It's not because I respect the view. I do not. It's just that other people have already done a great job of quashing any intellectual defense those claims held.

My usual response is to just pose the following scenario: would it be better for the environment to grow orange trees greenhouses in a New England winter, instead of trucking them in from Florida?

That always makes them pause to apply some real math, because clearly the issue is more complicated than just the mileage of the rutabaga. So imagine my surprise when the Portland Press Herald reports that a number of Maine businesses will be growing crops in greenhouses during the cold, dark winter months.

The trouble with the environmental arguments is that they assume that the production methods of different sized farms have roughly the same environmental impact, and that the dragon to slay is the fuel used to transport food across the world.

Shortening the supply chain, however, is a lot more complicated than the activists realize. It's unfortunate that they haven't done any real research on the total impact from using wasteful small operations with a ton of overhead and transporting the food by using a fleet of small pickup trucks instead of efficient large boats and 18-wheelers.

I wonder if there's an upward limit to what kind of ridiculous claims the buy local activists can get away with before someone in the press catches on. I'm not expecting them to learn comparative advantage or anything serious, but when a movement that uses a lot of environmental claims to get people to buy its goods sells so many that they build propane-heated greenhouses to keep the operation running year round, it's obvious the green they care about is decorated with dead presidents.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

The audacity of Recovery.org

Whose fault is it when a government website reports fake sunny information on an epic scale?

According to Vice President Joe Biden, it's the general public who submitted the information to Recovery.org, which purports to show the specific effects of the stimulus package.
"There was bad civics classes for those" who reported the data, Biden said. "They had to fill out a form, what district are you in, and there was no such district."
Ed Pound, spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board which operates Recovery.gov, had the same thing to say:

"We report what the recipients submit to us. Some recipients clearly don't know what congressional district they live in, so they just throw in a number for their congressional district."

To recap: The government has an ambitious website to track exactly where they are slinging "stimulus" dollars - a naked attempt at manifesting congressional pet projects - and list exactly how many jobs have been saved. When this website is shown to have major flaws - in this case listing districts that don't exist - it's the fault of the people who filled out the forms incorrectly. In other words, stupid members of the public sent in forms filled out in crayon and government employees aren't responsible for posting it.

Did anyone notice that last leap of faith? Recovery.org employees can't be bothered to check the authenticity of the information, even for something as simple as seeing if Arizona has 15 congressmen or only eight.

What's been left out of the discussion is just how dumb the public must be to fill out those forms incorrectly. On Nov. 2 the Wall Street Journal posted a vanguard story on the issue.

Paula Moore-Kirby, 42 years old, had less trouble with the Web site, but couldn’t work out how to answer the question about how many jobs her father had created or saved. She couldn’t leave it blank, either, she said. After several calls to a helpline for recipients she came away with the impression that she would hear back if there was a problem with her response, and have a chance to correct it. So with 15 minutes to go before the reporting deadline, she sent in her answer: nine jobs, because her father helped nine members of the Corps to work.

“You could fill out the form in 10 minutes, but we were trying to fill out the form correctly,” she said, guessing that she spent up to eight hours on it in total.

In short, a shoe store owner got so frustrated with the forms he asked his daughter to help. They had been selling boots to the Army Corps of Engineers for years, but since nine pairs of boots were bought with $889.60 of stimulus money, they were required to list how many jobs were saved for Recovery.gov. The question was hard to answer and Paula ended up writing nine - for the nine boots purchased.

It doesn't sound like we have a stupid public bumbling through simple worksheets. It sounds like we have an awful web of red tape and cumbersome forms that paints an optimistic view of the stimulus plan.

Thanks to Greg Mankiw for the WSJ link and the chart.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Swords are drawn in southern Maine

It looks like Portland Buy Local has a new enemy - Scarborough Buy Local.

The Press Herald just reported the formation of a like-minded pseudoeconomic activist group in the city that borders South Portland.

The angle I didn't see addressed in the story was that Scarborough residents will now be discouraged from buying in Portland. This Balkanization of Maine business communities simply means people will be discouraged from buying things from not only out of state, but also out of town. Will the city of South Portland be the next to form it's own "buy local" campaign, or does the presence of Maine's largest mall inside the city limits disqualify it?

What's interesting is the Scarborough Buy Local founder Karen D'Andrea seems to be directly responding to my criticism that Buy Local campaigns only succeed in generating more business to its members.
"The real importance of buy local projects is not about getting businesses more business, it's about the community," D'Andrea said. "This will create a stronger, more sustainable local economy."

Contrast this to what some of the owners of the Scarborough businesses who signed on had to say:

Sue Bayley, general manager of Bayley's Lobster Pound, said she joined to help make the family business more visible to residents.

"Some people aren't aware of what's available to them outside the supermarket," Bayley said. "For the advertising alone, it's well worth the cost of joining."

Joe Palmieri, owner of Chicago Dogs on Route 1, also joined. He said it's a great way to promote small businesses in a down economy.

"Together, we are a lot stronger," he said.

Following this is another reguritation of the "success" story of "buy local" retailers to prove the campaign works. It shows that retailers who signed on did better - or as D'Andrea might put it, businesses got more business. There is no mention of the preservation of community or any improvements to the local economy.

D'Andrea snuck one more howler in at the end.

"This is a relatively new way to do business," D'Andrea said... "

This is a completely old way of doing business - ancient, in fact. The only difference now is people have a choice in where they buy things - they aren't humbled by mere geography and the distance their horse can take them in a day.

I'm sure D'Andrea means well, but for someone who has such a strong interest in economics, she doesn't have a good grasp of the basic concepts.


Monday, November 9, 2009

A story is only as good as its sources

Reading between the lines, a story about a Maine family that has suffered two tragedies points to a third: mental illness

On Oct. 29 the body of Michal Flisiuk, 55 of China, Maine was found burned in the parking lot of the New Orleans hospital where his daughter Blanka Peridot died in 2007 after giving birth to a stillborn son.

Fire investigators believe he may have set himself on fire with a cigarette and something combustible or bizarrely committed suicide. The fire was put out before it engulfed the entire car and papers inside the cab of the vehicle were left intact.

The family, however, believes both father and daughter were murdered by a conspiracy that involves the Louisiana State University Public Hospital, New Orleans law enforcement and the city coroner.

Besides going to the media, the family has posted bizarre You Tube videos that juxtapose taped phone conversations, news reports and highway footage shot from a moving car. Michal Flisiuk also ran several websites about his late daughters, most of which is erratic and difficult to follow.

The different "clues" the family mentions carry little weight. A wrong number phone call asking for a name they claim sounded like the name of one of the doctors involved. They also say the hospital has never revealed the cause of their daughter's death. I find this hard to believe, and the reporter did not confirm it. Instead, we have a line saying the hospital did not release a statement.

The reporter failed to mention the phalanx of laws that restrict the release of medical information to the media. Perhaps the family should give permission to the hospital to release the records.

This isn't a joke; it's not a funny subject. Everything I can see here shows a family that tragically lost a daughter, as well as a grandson, and obsessed over finding someone to blame. This may have lead the father to take his own life and it only fits into the paranoia.

And what is the press doing? Holding hands with the delusions as they go over a cliff.

This story could use a few skeptical sources, such as responses to the families' wild allegations from relevant experts. Until that happens, I'm filing this story under journalistic negligence.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Scariest dowsing story ever

I was at a party this week talking to a carpenter. He told me about working at a job site where they were going to be digging near some underground electric cables and hired a surveyor to mark on the ground where the cables were so they didn't contact them while digging and risk a horrible, screaming death.

After marking the length of the cable on the ground with flags, the surveyor volunteered a little piece of advice in case there's ever a rush and they don't have time to have an exert find the electric cables.

I knew exactly where this story was going, but I kept listening with eyes wide and mouth agape.

The surveyor bent a few pieces of wire into L-shaped rods and held them loosely over the underground cable. Sure enough, they started off as parallel, but the rods crossed when held over the cable.

The surveyor actually recommended dowsing for dangerous underground electric lines. Really.

I still can't believe this.

I'm used to dowsing being one of the easy skeptical topics, and we normally associate it with silly water-seekers who make people put their well in the wrong place. There's also the hucksters who sell fake drug-detecting devices to schools and police patrols.

But then there are the dowsers who endanger live with these "tragic wands." - the ones who sell scam devices that promise to find
wounded soldiers or earthquake victims trapped in rubble.

I think underground electric cables may be a new low, as this will actually move people into harms way, instead of failing to detect people harmed by something else. A Google search confirmed that electric line and electric cable detection is in the resume of dowers, along with sewer and gas pipes.

When the stakes are this high, misinformation takes on the mantle of evil.


Why did gay marriage fail in Maine?

It's good to see a reporter break away from just repeating the conventional wisdom and get his hands dirty with some numbers.

After Tuesday's disappointing election results, where Mainers voted down both gay marriage and restrictions on tax increases, there was a lot of grumbling about who was responsible for sinking gay marriage.

Matt Wickenheiser at the Portland Press Herald took on the water-cooler explanations that it was Republicans versus Democrats, rural people versus urban voters or Southern Maine's cosmopolitan population versus the rugged North.

Keep in mind that a "No" vote on question one was a vote in favor of gay marriage.

In Maine, only six counties had more registered Republicans than Democrats in the latest listing on the secretary of state's Web site, from about a year ago: Franklin, Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Piscataquis and Waldo.

Two of the four counties that voted against Question 1 are on that list. Eight of the 10 counties that have more Democrats voted for repeal.

In Cumberland County, Portland, the state's liberal center, voted strongly in support of same-sex marriage, 20,085 to 7,242, a difference of 47 percentage points. Two neighboring cities, Westbrook and South Portland, also voted against the repeal.

But only a few of Maine's other large communities voted "no." Bangor voted against repeal by about 900 votes, as did Saco, by about 600 votes.

After all, why would all these supposed Republicans suddenly dominate a state election in the Democrat-friendly Maine, but also vote down the tax cap on question four by nearly a 21 percent margin.

Instead, Wickenheiser broke down the number to show that specific religious stances correlate with the votes.

Religion apparently played a role in the vote. There are. about 200,000 Catholics in Maine, with the church considering about 30 percent of them "active." Three areas are considered very Catholic – Lewiston, Biddeford and far northern Aroostook County. All of those areas supported the repeal.

Small evangelical churches also played a role, according to the article. While the Bible is getting blamed for a this defeat, it's important to remember that the No on One camp was not shy about using liberal churches in their campaign, as well as making religious statements to back up their arguments.

For example the TV ad with Yolande Dumont of Lewiston and her extended family:

I've been a Catholic all my life, my faith means a lot to me," says the woman. "Marriage to me is a great institution, it works, and it's what I want for my children too.
The article didn't give any numbers to back up the well-understood belief that the gay marriage opinions are easily predicted by age, just testimony from an academic. It also didn't give a breakdown of which religious sects supported and which opposed - but that's to be expected because those numbers aren't available by looking at area voting records.

So while there still is a separation between church and state, there is no separation between church and politics.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Overemphasizing the "youth vote"

The vote on gay marriage in Maine takes place tomorrow, and once again columnist Bill Nemitz managed to alienate me with his weird arguments even though we're on the same side.

Today he tried to glorify the impact of the youth vote on this close race by comparing the voter turnout with the percentage of votes for past gay rights issues. He didn't calculate where the youth vote factored in - which was supposed to be his point - but this must be overlooked because of the conclusion he reached is so silly.
"Bottom line: The more Mainers turn out in special elections on matters involving equal rights for gays and lesbians, the more favorable the outcome for Maine's gays and lesbians."
What were the numbers he listed that he was summarizing with this broad stroke?

In 1995, the gay side lost by 6.5% with 44% voting
In 1998, the gay side lost by 2.5% with 31% voting
In 2005, the gay side won by 10.3% with 40% voting

He's trying to form a pattern with very little information - and his pattern doesn't even exist. It's clear the only correlation is the passage of time and gay-friendly votes, not voter turnout. This dismantles his entire premise.

A better conclusion would be that the public is getting more gay-friendly over time. Perhaps the youth of Maine is more gay friendly - and stay that way when they become 30 somethings, while the older generations eventually die and stop voting against gay rights.

Edit: Gay marriage lost out in Maine this week, with a voter turnout of 54 percent. I'd say this broke the pattern, but there was never a pattern to speak of.