Monthly Archives: December 2008

Off for the holidays – happy new year, everyone

Going to spend the next few weeks with the scioness, the scioness’s mom, and The Manuscript That Will Not Obey. Be back next year. If you’ve stopped by in the meantime, there are short stories (cough, cough) below and to the right. Below those, I’ve also added 10 Favorite Feeds and a whole bunch of new blog and website links. Have a look around, happy holidays, and happy new year.

A lawyer weighs in on the NY cola brouhaha

Reader Andrew Meade writes in with his analysis of the New York cola brouhaha. Please note that Andrew is an actual lawyer, so we are way above my pay grade here. Let’s dive in anyway (his words in italics):

There are two great concerns raised by a “sin” or “obesity” tax. The first being the concept of limitations on individual liberties. Albeit, small ones. Incidental even. Stemming from that concern is the trip down the classic slippery slope — where does the intrusion end. The plausible justification is that the exercise of individual liberties intrudes on the public good — economists would liken this to the concept of cost externalities. Pollution taxes are a way of forcing the problem causer to swallow their own waste. The obesity tax, I suppose is an analogue.

Two issues here: One, the slippery slope fallacy. The unstated conclusion here is that this small government intrusion will lead to a Big Brother future of the government bearing down on your every individual liberty. There is no reason to think this is the case. We already pay sales tax on thousands of items, and somehow have avoided living in an Orwellian dystopia.

Two, in my earlier post, I questioned the notion of personal choice, or “liberty”, as Andrew has it here. However, obviously the individual has some choice: the issue, I think, is just how much. I think the range is rather more limited than the pure freedom some would like to believe in.

The second concern is whether the tax is justified. I see it in two dynamics. First, whether the tax accurately reflects the impact of soft drinks on obesity, and thus is a realistic reapportionment of a cost externality. Much more likely, the amount of tax has no basis in economic reality, but is simply an invented number. Obesity is a justification for the tax, but the purpose of the tax is to nudge a struggling NYC budget back to the black. The second dynamic is why soda? No, it is not the only cause — and to break it down so simply is misleading for sure. But, why not tax sugar itself? Is it because it is better when used in a cookie baked by a mom in a small-town-Kansas-kitchen than a soda packaged by a multinational? Or is it because sugar has a better lobby? Because sugar is closer to the moralistic source…the American farmer?

Andrew, good lawyer that he is, gets into the nitty-gritty. He is exactly right: soft drinks are hardly the only cause of obesity. And the real reason for the tax is not as much to combat obesity as pump some money into New York’s emptying coffers. Now this is the sort of complex analysis of reality I can live with. He’s absolutely right that the main (although not the only) source of unhealthiness in soft drinks is the sugar. Sugar is protected by a powerful lobby, as I am reminded of whenever I return to my hometown and see the sugar factory on the plains that serves no other purpose than to prop up a wildly inefficient local industry. Anyhow. He’s right. By all means, let’s get to the source of things: and sugar is surely one of them.

The obesity tax is just a tax. It has nothing to do with obesity. It’s a fundraiser and the money will go into the general fund. The amount of the tax has no correllation to the cost (obesity) it seeks to offset.

I would hope the bureaucrats in New York would have addressed this issue, but just as likely they did not.

That being said — I am generally a supporter of taxation as a means of internalizing costs. Environmental regulation is prime ground for this. Public health seems also to be. I would like to see a bit more science brought to the table though.

More science – yes. Exactly. Empirical evidence, please, and lots of it. Let’s find out just what causes obesity and who supplies and then let’s tax the hell out of those people. Of course, this will take time and politics will inevitably enter to dirty up the scientific process, and meanwhile the state of New York is going broke. So, as I said at the very beginning of this discussion over at Waka waka waka, it seems to me that in the meantime, a luxury tax on a luxury product like Coca-cola is a sensible step in the right direction.

Thanks for writing in, Andrew.

File Under: You could have been this unlucky bastard

I once worked at a high school in Japan. Called it quits after two years. A “retirement” shindig was held in my honor. Like most official parties I went to in Japan, this one was great: endless courses of excellent food (ummm, ayu fish-kabob). Ceaseless rounds of beer, sake, and whiskey. A series of far-too-expensive going-away gifts appeared, teary bleary speeches occurred. I was generally lauded as the departing generalissimo of English education, a shogun of grammar and elocution. Way, way over the top, I mean. Of course I’d be lying if I said I didn’t relish every woozy minute of it.

After the party, half a dozen of the biggest, drunkest men on staff gathered round to throw me up three times in the air. A common event after farewell parties of this kind. A tradition which derives, I guess, from the innate Japanese fondness for public drunkenness. They didn’t just throw me a little. They really tossed me up there good. I could see blurry bird nests and car roofs and everything. At the time I was too soused to worry about them, you know, dropping me. Good thing my erstwhile colleagues were on the ball. This poor bastard wasn’t so lucky:

A 60-year-old man who was thrown into the air in celebration at his retirement party died after his colleagues failed to catch him and he fell to the floor, a Japanese newspaper reported on Tuesday.

The case came to light after the man’s wife filed a police complaint against colleagues who threw the man up into the air, accusing them of gross negligence, the Mainichi paper reported on its website.

The man died in September, 10 months after the party attended by around 40 people at an unnamed transport company at an inn in Ritto, near the ancient capital of Kyoto in central Japan.

The fall damaged his neck and backbone, leaving him paralysed, and he eventually died of blood poisoning, the paper said.

And just like that, another new stupid way to die is officially invented.

New York cola tax cranks my tulip

Been having an interesting conversation over at Waka waka waka about the recent proposal in New York for an 18% “obesity tax” on pop (as we call soda in Nebraska). Basically, he thinks the tax is akin to fascism; I think it’s a public health measure, akin to a tax on cigarettes. A reasonable disagreement, I suppose. But I confess: I am really having this discussion with the good Mr. Pollack because his premises just plain piss me off:

… whatever the proper role of government may be … it is certainly not to fill its coffers with our hard-won wages while coercing an ostensibly free citizenry into following whatever diet some power-besotted half-wit beaureaucrat in Albany has decided we should be consuming. I am an adult, not a child, thank you very much, and if I want to damage my health, I’ll damage it as I see fit; I do not need the benevolent hand of the State deciding that henceforth I shall be poisoned with aspartame instead of corn syrup.

I suppose it’s because I grew up deep in paleolibertarian country (expressed in my boyhood as mindin’ your own darn beeswax), and that I endured a self-inflicted Ayn Rand phase that I react like a bird-dog spotting a winged duck to such, well, such tripe. The deliberate evasion of reality just sets my tulip to crankin’. And not in a good way. But I will restrain my apostrophisizin’ impulse, and attempt to address the issue reasonably.

The reality is, many – nay, most – Americans routinely opt for unhealthy dietary choices. Such as drinking pop. Obesity is a public health issue (some call it an epidemic). The government has a role – nay, a responsibility – to step in and try to do some good here. Seems to me that a luxury tax is one possible, sensible way to achieve this. After all, what is pop if not a luxury? It serves no useful purpose beyond providing positive P & L figures for a few multinational corporations and making rum palatable. I don’t think those corporations have a right to their profits, particularly when they are peddling poison (albeit a tasty one). The government’s responsibility is to look to the health and well-being of its citizens. I doubt even your most hardcore libertarian would object the government’s polio vaccination program (though perhaps I’m wrong about that), for instance. I see a luxury tax on pop in the same vein. It is a proactive way to try and limit what is in fact a public health menace.

The problem Malcolm is having, I think, is that he sees eating as a “personal choice”. After all, he’s the one purchasing the sugary goodness and swallowing it. Whereas polio is not something that you choose, it’s something you get. But this is simply interpreting your reality very narrowly. Unless you are growing all your food in your own garden (as well as producing all your own seeds, fertilizers, and water supply), nothing you swallow is simply chosen and consumed. It all comes out of an incredibly long supply chain, where thousands of decisions have been made for you, long before you ever crack open that can of Dr. Pepper.

I grew up on a farm, and I can tell you that a farm isn’t even close to the beginning of that chain, my 7th-grade health class workbook notwithstanding. The fertilizers, the fuels, the equipment, the soils … you could trace this out all day. Ditto the evolutionary paths that cause us to prefer, again and again and even against our own better rational judgment, sugary soft drinks over, say, boiled water. We are hard-wired for this sort of thing. It’s what kept us alive on the primordial savanna and what is killing us slowly in New York (and Nebraska, and Phanat Nikhom, Thailand).

Your ability to slurp down a Coke is only possible because an incredibly complex system is in place to deliver it to you. (Starting, I would argue, on Madison Avenue, or wherever advertisers hang out these days.) Too complex, in fact, for you to fully reconsider each and every time you sit down for a nice refreshing drink. That is, if you ever want to finish the can. Nonetheless, your health will be affected if you drink a few thousand cans of Mountain Dew, which will in turn affect my reality when, say, my insurance premiums go up. This happens regardless of whether you acknowledge it or not. Simply put, reality is complex. You can’t sum it up in a few neat little aphorisms and slogans.

But you can certainly try:

Even leaving aside the utter stupidity of this proposal — as if the only cause of obesity were sweetened soft drinks, which is a palpable absurdity — it is insulting and offensive, and is not what government is supposed to be doing. I would like my government to secure the borders, enforce contracts, keep the peace, pave the roads, and perform similar essential services, and for those I am happy to pay a fair tax. But I most certainly do not need my freedoms usurped by a bloated State that seeks to assume the role of surrogate mother.

No real facet of actual reality as we presently know it is acknowledged in the above, that I can see. Simplistic wishful thinking, is what it is. A collection of circular phrases, the philosophical equivalent of pep rally cheers. This annoys me, especially when it comes from someone whose writings I otherwise respect, someone otherwise quite thoughtful on various, widely divergent issues. A dogmatic take – religious, libertarian, socialist, whatever – strips reality of its complexities, and renders further discussions a gridlocked impossibility. Reality is not an easy-to-drink bromide. If you try to make it one you’ll get it wrong, again, again and again.

Anthony Trollope: gold standard for the working writer

Courtesy Daily Routines, here is Anthony Trollope‘s day:

Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

Of course, the question of quality enters into the question. I know someone who claims he would rather be assigned to work-study in Guantanamo Bay than read, say, Can You Forgive Her? I don’t think Trollope ranks in the first tier of writers, even those from the 19th century (who does: Dickens, Austen, and anyone named Bronte), but the fact that we’re even discussing him on a 21st-century blog means he must be of some worth. And ever since coming across this article a few years back I’ve often recalled him when arising for another 4 AM date with the writing desk. I hardly measure up to this workmanlike standard, try as I might – but what’s the point of admiring someone if it’s easy to be just like him?

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

What’s wonderful about this book is how Vonnegut launches a head-on assault on the mythology of the 20th century’s one Good War. History has decreed World War II a Noble Fight Against the Enemies of Civilization, but Vonnegut says it was a freezing firestorm that made a mockery of our very existence. My late grandfather was also a WWII vet. He never read any Vonnegut that I’m aware of, but he spoke of the war in the same way. I think it had something to with actually being there. Both Vonnegut and my grandfather were grunts sent out to do a dirty goddamn job. Neither of them crowed about a minute of it ever after. That doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is that they both carried on with dignity the rest of their lives, when they’d both seen the beating black heart of the worst horrors man can render upon man. I’ve always doubted my ability to do the same, and remain thankful to this day that I’ve never had to find out.

Vonnegut’s anti-war screed has, if anything, only gained in prescience over time. (See Iraq, War in.) Makes you wish the Decider-in-Chief read books. At least this one.

The strange advice (albeit dished out by aliens who see Time akin to a Rocky Mountain panorama) to ignore what’s bad in order to focus on what’s good smacks of the reasoning of a man who has reached the end of all reasoning. Who can no longer compose a rationale for man’s behavior. The sort of conclusion you might come to, say, if you had survived the firebombing of Dresden.

As literature, per se, Vonnegut’s light-hearted dalliance with both the English language and the strictures of plot structure cause you to wonder why you spend any time reading books less fun than this. Then you realize that such an ephemeral style washes over you so quickly very little is left when the book is done, other than the sour taste of a moral lesson unwittingly learned. I suspect that was Vonnegut’s very point. As a general rule, I loathe literature that attempts to teach me a lesson. But I’ll make an exception for Slaughterhouse-Five.

Oddly, among all the carnage and contempt, the scene that stood out most in my mind comes near the novel’s beginning. The narrator is at an old war buddy’s house to discuss plans for his war novel. Old war buddy’s wife stomps angrily around the house. Turns out she thinks the narrator is going to write a book about John Wayne fighting the war, when in fact World War II, like all wars, was fought by children. The narrator assures her John Wayne will not be making an appearance in his book. Vonnegut dedicated the book to her.

I originally read this in high school. Promptly forgot it. (Ah, youth.) I’m very glad to publicly rectify that oversight right here.

Grade: A+

NOTE: Vonnegut himself rated Slaughterhouse-Five an A+. I suggest you take his word for it.

Dubya Liberry Needs Shoes, Iraqi Hurler Signed by Yankees

Of course you know the news about the shoe tossed at the Shrub, but have you given a thought to your shoes?:


As a sign of your admiration, please feel free (compelled) to send your old shoes to;

George W. Bush Presidential Library
c/o SMU
6425 Boaz Lane
Dallas TX 75205

(Via Boing Boing by way of Fighting Liberal. Image a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike photo from Eschipul’s Flickr stream.)

Also, don’t miss the all this Iraqi shoe tosser fun.

And how ’bout them Yankees (via the indefatigable Waka waka waka):

Yankees Sign Iraqi Hurler
Shoe-throwing Right-hander Impresses Scouts

In their latest bid to beef up their pitching rotation for the 2009 season, the New York Yankees today signed Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi to a three-year deal worth $32 million.

The right-handed al-Zeidi, 28, impressed the Yankee scouts with his performance in Baghdad yesterday when he threw both of his shoes at President George W. Bush.

While neither of the shoes hit their target, both throws “had great velocity and good movement,” said Yankee owner Hank Steinbrenner.

“The first shoe was high and outside but the second one was right down the middle,” Mr. Steinbrenner said.

The Yankee boss said that he was also impressed with Mr. al-Zeidi’s fighting spirit when Secret Service agents tackled him.

“That could come in handy when we have a series with Boston,” he said.

How Do Your Days Stack Up?

Now here’s an addicting site: Daily Routines. See how your days stack up against the likes of Darwin, Kafka, Thomas Friedman, and Toni Morrison. You can also see the Decider-in-Chief’s day, if you’re into that sort of thing.

My favorite so far has been Darwin’s day. Half an hour of conversation exhausts me, too. Boy, am I going to be one crusty old codger. Though I don’t suppose I’ll ever attain J.M. Coetzee‘s monk-like enlightenment:

“Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”

Probably that’s a good thing …?

Some Synergy With “Reg’s First Time”

In this interview, The Public Domain author James Boyle talks about how operating in a free culture creates unintended consequences. As an example, making The Public Domain a free download allowed a blind man to load the book into his audio reader to hear the good word – something that could never have happened had Boyle merely released his book in the traditional bookstore way. Unintended consequences, of the very good sort.

Now, that I know of, no disabled people are listening to my stories (though that’d be fantastic). But Anthony Mantuani did read “Reg’s First Time” and create this tag cloud: This is something I would never have done on my own. And, more importantly, it’s something that could never have happened if this story were copyrighted in the traditional way. Also, it’s pretty cool. A whole other way to look at what the story is about. Reg, for instance. But also Time and Trailers and what the characters Got. And Home.

Just some synergy from my part of the Free Culture neighborhood. And an unambiguous demonstration of how creative work builds on other creative work.

This is largely the point of The Public Domain, by the way. A review should be up shortly.

Some Synergy With "Reg's First Time"

In this interview, The Public Domain author James Boyle talks about how operating in a free culture creates unintended consequences. As an example, making The Public Domain a free download allowed a blind man to load the book into his audio reader to hear the good word – something that could never have happened had Boyle merely released his book in the traditional bookstore way. Unintended consequences, of the very good sort.

Now, that I know of, no disabled people are listening to my stories (though that’d be fantastic). But Anthony Mantuani did read “Reg’s First Time” and create this tag cloud: This is something I would never have done on my own. And, more importantly, it’s something that could never have happened if this story were copyrighted in the traditional way. Also, it’s pretty cool. A whole other way to look at what the story is about. Reg, for instance. But also Time and Trailers and what the characters Got. And Home.

Just some synergy from my part of the Free Culture neighborhood. And an unambiguous demonstration of how creative work builds on other creative work.

This is largely the point of The Public Domain, by the way. A review should be up shortly.