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How Food Marketers Made Butter the Enemy

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

James McWilliams—a historian who has made a name for himself in prestigious publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic for his contrarian defenses of the food industry—is back at it. In an item published last week in the excellent Pacific Standard, McWilliams uses the controversy over a recent study of saturated fat as a club with which to pummel food industry critics like the Times' Mark Bittman.

Here's what happened: A group including Harvard and Cambridge researchers analyzed 72 studies and concluded that there's no clear evidence that ditching saturated fat (the kind found mainly in butter, eggs, and meat) for the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind (found in fish and a variety of vegetable oils) delivers health benefits.

Bittman responded to the study's release with a Times item declaring that "butter is back." His real point was more nuanced than that, though. The study's conclusion "doesn't mean you [should] abandon fruit for beef and cheese," he wrote. Rather, he urged, "you [should] just abandon fake food for real food, and in that category of real food you can include good meat and dairy."

After a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat, the food industry began to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Not so fast, McWilliams countered. He pointed out, correctly, that the study turned out to have errors, which the authors had to correct. But even after the corrections, the study's lead author stood by the overall findings, Science reported. Another one of the authors told Science that the study's main problem was the way it was covered by media. "We are not saying the guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much saturated fat as they want," he told Science. "We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines and we need more good trials."

Of course, headline aside, Bittman didn't fall into that trap. He merely urged his readers to accept some fat when they're "looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew," and to use real butter in place of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." Indeed, Bittman's call for moderation in eating animal products is long-standing—he's the author of a book called Vegan Before Six and a longtime champion of the "Meatless Mondays" practice.

But McWilliams' real beef (so to speak) ultimately didn't involve the study itself, or the debate over fat's place in our diets. Rather, it centered on Bittman's critique of the food industry, which Bittman blamed for stoking the public's fat phobia, and manipulating it to its own ends. McWilliams chides Bittman for the "disingenuousness of using a study on fat and heart health as grounds for condemning processed food," and laments the "dubious manner in which processed foods are condemned."

But he misses an important point: You can't meaningfully debate the role of fat in our diets without looking hard at the way the food industry has manipulated the evolving scientific consensus around fat. On NPR last week, reporter Allison Aubrey showed how widespread fat phobia among the public gained traction from a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat—which then got interpreted by the food industry as a license to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Simultaneously, as Bittman correctly noted, trans fats—cheap vegetable oils treated with hydrogen so that they remain solid at room temperature—emerged as the food industry's butter substitute of choice for decades, providing the main substance for margarine. Based on relentless food industry marketing, generations of people grew up thinking trans-fat-laden margarine was healthier than butter—even after science definitively showed that it was much, much worse (a sorry tale I laid out here). 

These fat-related marketing triumphs, quite profitable for the food industry, coincided with a surge in diet-related health troubles, including heightened obesity, diabetes, and metabolic-syndrome rates. Bittman is correct to discuss highly processed food in the context of the controversy over fat; and in trying to force it out of the conversation, McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.

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Nobody Cares What You Think Unless You're Rich

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 5:36 PM PDT

In a simple model of democratic politics, there are three basic drivers of political decisionmaking:

  • The collective opinion of average citizens
  • The collective opinion of the affluent
  • The lobbying of interest groups

But which of these really matter? Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page studied 1,779 policy outcomes over two decades and came to a pretty simple conclusion: the collective opinion of average citizens doesn't matter a whit:

When the preferences of interest groups and the affluent are held constant, it just doesn't matter what average folks think about a policy proposal. When average citizens are opposed, there's a 30 percent chance of passage. When average citizens are wildly in favor, there's still only a 30 percent chance of passage. Conversely, the odds of passage go from zero when most of the affluent are opposed to more than 50 percent when most of the affluent are in favor.

Interest group lobbying, it turns out, also has an effect on policymaking—but business interest groups matter a lot more than mass interest groups. This comes via John Sides, who has much more detail about the study here. But none of it should come as a surprise. We've seen plenty of results like this before.

Dear Hollywood: Please Don't Make the New "Battlestar Galactica" Movie About Drones

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 4:07 PM PDT

Universal is planning a major film reboot of the sci-fi franchise Battlestar Galactica, according to a report in Variety. Jack Paglen (Transcendence) has reportedly signed on to write the screenplay, and original series creator Glen Larson is set to produce.

I have one modest request: Don't make it a movie about Obama's killer drones. Please. Don't do that. It's super zeitgeist-y, but please, just don't.

The rebooted Sci-Fi Channel series, which ran from 2003 to 2009, garnered much critical acclaim, in large part because it was smartly topical and political. That reboot focused on war between human civilization and the cybernetic Cylon race. The series worked as an allegory of the War on Terror, and incorporated themes of religious extremism, suicide bombing, and state-sanctioned torture. Many images called to mind the Iraq War, Nazi occupation, and the Vietnam War.

So it would only make sense if an upcoming film version of Battlestar Galactica were also deeply political. And with the Bush years in the rearview, Hollywood has frequently (almost relentlessly) turned to drone warfare as a go-to subject for big-budget political critique in the Obama era.

Here are a few examples of drones in big Hollywood fare released in the past year or so:

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is about "civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list, [and] preemptive technology," according to its directors.

2. RoboCop (2014), which features autonomous killer robots called "drones" that are prominently used in an American invasion and occupation of Iran ("Operation Freedom Tehran," it's called). OmniCorp, which designs and manufactures these military robots, wants to put this technology to use in law enforcement in the United States. Thus kicks off a national debate on civil liberties and so forth.

3. G.I. Joe: Retaliation, in which the democratic President of the United States is a foreign-born imposter who uses killer drones on American citizens overseas, and desires a world rid of nuclear weapons. (REMIND YOU OF ANYONE???)

4. Pacific Rim, which has drones in the form of gargantuan robots called Jaegers (the robots fight amphibious monsters called Kaiju).

5. Iron Man 3, which fits in snugly with the rest of the Iron Man franchise drone imagery.

6. Star Trek Into Darkness, which covers the ethical question of extrajudicial and targeted killing of terror suspects operating outside American borders.

(And it appears this drone warfare movie is in the works, too.)

This seems like it's on the verge of being played out. If Jack Paglen is looking for something fresher to weave into his script, maybe he can go with US special operations in Africa.

Quote of the Day: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Obamacare?

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 2:22 PM PDT

From a Republican congressional health aide who was "granted anonymity to speak candidly," on the difficulties of creating a Republican plan to replace Obamacare:

The problem with replace is that if you really want people to have these new benefits, it looks a hell of a lot like the Affordable Care Act. ... To make something like that work, you have to move in the direction of the ACA. You have to have a participating mechanism, you have to have a mechanism to fund it, you have to have a mechanism to fix parts of the market.

That's a problem, all right. If you actually want to cover people, you have to pay for it. End of story. Republicans are steadfastly not willing to pay for it, so they aren't going to cover anyone with whatever plan they dream up. No matter what kind of smoke and mirrors they throw up to disguise this, that's the bottom line. No money, no coverage.

Really, though, all this GOP aide is saying is that Obamacare is fundamentally a pretty conservative plan. Liberals nearly all prefer a simpler, cheaper, more comprehensive riff on single-payer of some kind. But that couldn't pass in 2009—even moderate Democrats wouldn't have supported it—so instead we had to cobble together a bunch of conservative ideas into a kind of Rube Goldberg edifice that was at least better than nothing. It only works moderately well, but that's because the conservative take on healthcare is fundamentally incoherent. The more conservative your health care plan, the worse it works.

So Republicans have a choice. They can:

  1. Introduce a more liberal plan that's cheaper and works better.
  2. Introduce an even more conservative plan that's more expensive and works even worse than Obamacare
  3. Toss out a few of the usual pet rocks and just pretend it's a plan.

My money is on Option 3.

Watch Elizabeth Warren Go After Paul Ryan for Blaming Unemployment on the Unemployed

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 2:03 PM PDT

Last month, Paul Ryan generated a minor media storm for a racially tinged comment lamenting the supposedly weak "culture of work" among "inner city" men. "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work," Ryan told conservative radio host Bill Bennett. "There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." Ryan later said that he had been "inarticulate" and forswore any racial meaning in his comments. He was, he promised, referring to our entire culture; not "the culture of one community."

Now, you either buy that or you don't. If you don't think there is something racially loaded about decrying the lack of work ethic among inner city men, then I'm probably not going to be able to convince you that there is. (But there probably is.)

Either way, Ryan's defense could be interpreted as amounting largely to, I was not saying black people are lazy. I was saying poor people are lazy. This is a myth about poverty. It is not true. (Really.)

Enter Elizabeth Warren. "Paul Ryan looks around, sees three unemployed workers for every job opening in America, and blames the people who can't find a job," the senior Senator from Massachusetts said in a speech at the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor’s Humphrey-Mondale Dinner on March 29th.

Paul Ryan says don’t blame Wall Street: the guys who made billions of dollars cheating American families. Don’t blame decades of deregulation that took the cops off the beat while the big banks looted the American economy. Don’t blame the Republican Secretary of the Treasury, and the Republican president who set in motion a no-strings-attached bailout for the biggest banks – Nope. Paul Ryan says keep the monies flowing to the powerful corporations, keep their huge tax breaks, keep the special deals for the too-big-to-fail banks and put the blame on hardworking, play-by-the-rules Americans who lost their jobs. That may be Paul Ryan’s vision of how America works, but that is not our vision of this great country.

Warren is an increasingly popular figure and is set to play a large role in the Democratic fight to maintain control of the Senate in November.

Here's the whole speech:

(via The Huffington Post)

Here's Why the World Is Spending Less on Renewable Energy

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 1:58 PM PDT
A worker checks solar panels at a factory in China, the world's biggest renewable energy investor.

The United Nations climate folks think global investment in renewable energy needs to hit $1 trillion a year by 2030 to keep global warming to an acceptable level. So it might seem disconcerting that in 2013, investment dropped for the second year in a row, down 14 percent from 2012 to $214 billion, according to new data released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) at its annual confab in New York this week.

As investment fell, so too did the total amount of renewable energy being installed worldwide. That's down nearly 7 percent from 2012 to 2013.

But don't worry—at least not too much. Even though fewer renewable power systems (excluding large hydroelectric projects, which BNEF doesn't count in this analysis) were installed last year, we were using more of it: Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of all the power generated worldwide in 2013, up from 7.8 percent in 2012. BNEF estimated that renewables saved 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to keeping 252.6 million cars off the road.

In 2013, renewables saved 252.6 million cars worth of carbon emissions.

There are two forces at work behind the dropping investment figures, one a good news story and the other not so much. The good news is that 80 percent of the investment decline came thanks to the falling cost of renewable energy technology, primarily solar panels, according to BNEF Advisory Board Chairman Michael Liebreich. The cost of a rooftop solar system in California, for example, which is a good barometer of national trends, has fallen by a third just since 2010. The remaining 20 percent was due to a drop in actual construction activity, thanks to the uncertain fate of government subsidies and general economic sluggishness, especially in Europe. 

Still, Liebreich told the clean-energy CEOs and investors gathered here this morning that Bloomberg's proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015. Even last year, renewables accounted for more than 40 percent of all the new power installations (including coal plants, nuke plants, etc.) built in 2013. In other words, any time a new power system gets built, it's increasingly likely to be renewable and not something dirtier.

"This is about a future that's structured differently than the past," Liebreich said.

The global trends weren't spread evenly across countries. Even though China's overall investment dropped, it still managed to surpass, for the first time ever, the sum spent by all of Europe, where a stagnant economy led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to cut spending on clean-energy subsidies. China is the world's top renewables investor, spending $56 billion on it in 2013 (the United States is at $35.8 billion).

In the US, the dip in investment hid a couple other important milestones: Last month California, the nation's biggest solar market, broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days. And in January, the United States got an all-time record 4.8 percent of its power from wind turbines, according to BNEF.

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As UConn Celebrates, State Legislators Look to Help Players Unionize

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 12:37 PM PDT

The University of Connecticut men's basketball team may have beaten Kentucky in the national championship last night, but star guard Shabazz Napier immediately turned his attention to a bigger foe: the NCAA. Napier used his postgame interview to take the NCAA to task for banning the Huskies from postseason play last season due to poor academic standing. Two weeks ago, after calling the Northwestern unionization efforts "kind of great," he said players sometimes don't have enough money for food.

Connecticut legislators were listening. Some state lawmakers are exploring ways to make it easier for athletes at public schools to unionize, in response to the regional labor board ruling in favor of Northwestern football players as well as Napier's comments. "When you look at the issues, they really look like employees," Democratic state Rep. Pat Dillon said. "And employees have the right to unionize."

The NCAA banned UConn from the 2013 postseason when the team's academic progress rate—a measure of academic eligibility that predicts graduation rate—from 2007 to 2011 did not meet league standards. Dillon said it's hypocritical for the NCAA and others to ban a team for academic reasons while defending the billion-dollar system that has players practicing and playing full-time. "You work them like horses and then you bad mouth them if their academics aren't any good," she said. "The team is punished if they try to make sure these kids get a good education. Of course, they’re punished if they don’t either."

UConn responded to Napier's comments about not having enough to eat with a statement saying that all scholarship athletes are "provided the maximum meal plan that is allowable under NCAA rules." An athletic department spokesman said the university has no comment about potential unionization.

This wouldn't be the first time Connecticut legislators took on NCAA athletics—the state passed a law in 2011 requiring schools to fully disclose all athletic scholarship terms, including expected out-of-pocket expenses for athletes, details about who's responsible for medical expenses, and the renewal process for scholarships that only last one year. A step forward on unionization, though, might be harder to pass, Dillon said. "Starting to do the right thing can actually hurt you with the NCAA," she said. "[Lawmakers] would be worried it would hurt UConn’s recruitment. They wouldn’t say it, but I’m sure they would."

My Kinda Sorta Non-Review of Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century"

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 10:51 AM PDT

I'm having a hard time finishing Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. Is this because it's a long, dense tome? Not really, though that doesn't help. Is it because he has nothing interesting to say? Not at all. Capital presents a very provocative thesis. Nevertheless, I started it once, put it down, finally picked it up again, and still haven't finished it.

So what's the problem? It's pretty simple: Piketty's provocative thesis is extremely elementary and he makes it right in the introduction. Here it is in a nutshell:

Over the long run, ordinary labor income grows at about the same rate as the broader economy. That's about 2-3 percent per year these days. Capital, however, tends to produce real returns of 4-5 percent. This means that over the course of, say, 50 years, labor income will increase about 3x while capital stocks will increase about 9x. That in turn means that income from capital will also increase 9x. And since rich people have by far the bulk of all capital income, income inequality inevitably grows forever unless something stops it.

The shorthand for this is r > g. That is, r (the return on capital) is historically greater than g (economic growth), which means that rich people with capital will always see their incomes grow faster than ordinary wage slaves. The rest of the book is a lengthy succession of charts and tables demonstrating that, historically, r really is greater than g. Since I was pretty easily persuaded of this, I had a hard time slogging through all the details.

In any case, the historical data isn't really why anyone other than specialists cares about this book. After all, the world has been ticking along for centuries, and somehow the rich have not, in fact, accumulated 99.9 percent of the world's income despite more than a thousand years of r being greater than g. Why? The simple answer, I gather, is war. This is the great leveler. The rich get richer for a while, but then they lose it all during periods of war, and the cycle starts all over. That's what happened in the 20th century: The rich were obscenely wealthy early on, and then came World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. That wiped out lots of wealth, and the postwar rebuilding era was one of those rare eras when g was actually greater than r. (See chart on right.) So labor did relatively well for a few decades. This ended in the 80s, when the old historical pattern reasserted itself.

This brings us to the question we really care about: Now that we've reverted to a more ordinary r > g world, will this continue? I started skipping through the book to find Piketty's answer, and I was disappointed at what I found. After some preliminary throat clearing to get clear on some details (the nature of private savings, what components should be counted in capital accounts, etc.), we get....nothing.

Basically, Piketty says that historically r has been greater than g, and there's no reason to think this won't be true in the future. That's really about it. Oh, he addresses some technical issues, like the fact that a glut of capital should reduce the return on capital, but basically that's his argument. In the past r has almost always been greater than g, and we'd be foolish to think that's likely to change.

Don't get me wrong: Piketty may be right. Hell, he probably is right. But while the details are of keen interest to specialists and practitioners, the gist of his argument is simply that the future will probably look like the past. That's certainly plausible, but I'm frankly having a hard time plowing through a ton of background material in support of such a simple thesis.

I'm not sure why I'm fessing up to all this. I'm really doing nothing except admitting that I'm not sure what everyone else sees that I don't. As a data-gathering exercise, this book is unquestionably a tour de force, and I'm truly not trying to slight Piketty's seminal achievement here. But as a layman's guide to the future (and it's explicitly written for a lay audience), Capital has little to say except that current trends will probably continue. It might be unreasonable to expect more, since obviously no one can predict the future, but I guess I expected more anyway. Is r > g really a monocausal explanation for the evolution of the entire world economy? Is it possible that r might decline for structural reasons in the future? Or that g might increase thanks to automation? Or that other factors might come into play? That seems at least worth addressing in some depth.

In any case, this is Piketty's story. Capital grows faster than labor income. Rich people have most of the capital. Therefore rich people get richer faster than ordinary wage earners and income inequality inexorably rises. If we don't like that, we'll have to do something about it. Piketty thinks the only answer is a global wealth tax, which he admits is a political nonstarter. Dean Baker has some other ideas here. Or maybe war will once again take care of things. Or maybe the rise of smart robots will make things even worse than Piketty ever imagined. I guess we'll all know in another 50 years or so.

Unless You Can Do It Blindfolded, Please STFU

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 9:31 AM PDT

I've long suspected this, but now we have Scientific Proof™. Professional violinists who insist that there's nothing like a Strad can't even tell them apart from modern instruments:

In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument....On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels.

Wine snobs can barely distinguish red from white when they're blindfolded. Pro violinists can't pick out a Strad from a decent modern violin. Art aficionados are routinely taken in by fakes even when they're allowed to investigate them from inches away. The examples of this kind of thing are endless.

So am I skeptical when you claim your $90,000 turntable is really and truly light years better than some mere $2,000 POS? Yes I am. Am I skeptical when you claim you can distinguish Beluga caviar from Sterlet? Yes I am. Hell, I'm not even sure you can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. If you can do it blindfolded, then I'll believe you. Until then, don't even bother me with this nonsense.

Fox News Confuses NAACP and NCAA 2 Days After SNL Joked About It

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 9:25 AM PDT

On Tuesday morning, Fox & Friends First host Heather Childers referred to the UConn Huskies as "NAACP national champs." This is funny, because what she meant was "NCAA national champs." The NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which, among other things, mounted anti-lynching campaigns in the United States. The NCAA is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which didn't.

So we all had a brief chuckle at Childers' expense, and were ready to move on—until we noticed that her on-air mix-up was predicted by a Saturday Night Live sketch that aired just last weekend.

In SNL's latest lampooning of Fox & Friends, the cohosts start by blasting the Obamacare enrollment numbers. "It's tough to sign up for things, I've tried for years to join the NAACP," Brian Kilmeade (played by Bobby Moynihan) says. "Brian, why would you do that?" Elisabeth Hasselbeck (Vanessa Bayer) responds. "Well, I just loved college basketball," Brian says.

The SNL writers room is full of time travelers. Watch the sketch here:

(H/t Ben Dimiero)