Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler writes:

Politicizing Soda Science

Today’s NYT reports on how New York City’s health commissioner pressured his staff to create a scary anti-obesity ad campaign, featuring this ad, even if it meant stretching the available scientific evidence on the potential health consequences of drinking a can of soda per day. In the end, they produced an ad that was “defensible” because, as one participant in the discussions put it, the ad’s language was “broad enough to get away with.”

Now, there are a bunch of things you might say about this right from the start. Maybe governments shouldn't be in the business of running nanny state ads about personal nutrition. Maybe this particular ad was disgusting and shouldn't have been released. Maybe obesity isn't really that big a deal in the first place. But those weren't the issues at stake. Rather, it was this single sentence in the ad:

Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year.

What, I thought, could be wrong with that? A can of sugared soda contains about 150 calories, and adding 150 calories a day to your diet would almost certainly produce a ten-pound weight gain over the course of a year or so. There are some caveats, of course:

  • If you cut out 150 calories elsewhere, you won't gain any weight.
  • If you exercise more, you won't gain any weight.
  • Your exact weight gain will depend on your age, current weight, etc.
  • If you have a miracle metabolism, you might not gain any weight at all.

This all seems pretty obvious, and while you'd probably mention it in a longer piece, it hardly seems necessary in a 30-second spot. But it turns out the scientists, especially Michael Rosenbaum of Columbia, seemed to think it should all be included. The ad, he said, was "misleading in that there is no reference to energy output changes."

So I'm curious: what do you all think of this? I'm open to argument here, but it seems crazy to me, less a politicization of science from the health commissioner than a case of geekdom run amok among the scientists. I mean, if you can't tell people that adding a bunch of calories to your diet will make you gain weight, what can you tell them?

POSTSCRIPT: And while I'm at this, can I complain once again about how journalistic conventions can ruin a story? It's actually hard to tell exactly what happened here because the reporter insisted on "adding value" by not relating things in a simple chronological fashion. Nor does she tell us what the original sentence they were arguing about was. It's a real mess.

UPDATE: Via comments, I do see one problem with this ad that I didn't notice before. The phrase "10 pounds fatter a year" might lead you to believe that you're going to gain ten pounds years after year. In fact, you'd gain (about) ten pounds and then just stay there.

This interpretation didn't occur to me when I saw the ad. However, it's a plausible one. Something like "10 pounds fatter in a year" might be better.

Here's the latest on texting:

The Nielsen Company analyzed mobile usage data among teens in the United States for the second quarter of 2010 (April 2010 – June 2010). No one texts more than teens (age 13-17), especially teen females, who send and receive an average of 4,050 texts per month. Teen males also outpace other male age groups, sending and receiving an average of 2,539 texts.

I wonder how this really breaks down? The obvious headline result is that teen girls send a text every 6 minutes of every waking hour. But they probably don't. More likely, it comes in bursts: a couple of texts an hour most of the time, but 40 or 50 an hour during serious texting times.

That's my guess, anyway. What say you, parents of teenagers? Do your kids text constantly, or do they do it mostly in bursts? (Via Jon Mandle.)

Megan McArdle thinks we should do away with the corporate income tax. I agree! Here is her most persuasive argument:

Without the corporate income tax, a lot of the incentive for lobbying would go away.  Not all of it, by any means — I am not trying to paint some halcyon future here. But an enormous amount of effort goes into lobbying for tax laws, and politicians often reward favored constituent businesses with little sweetheart fillips to the tax code. Conversely, apparently neutral changes to the tax code often turn out to be excellent ways to hamstring your competition, particularly small businesses who cannot afford a huge tax department.

And just think of all the corporate tax attorneys who'd be out of jobs.1 It's a win-win!

Seriously, though: I agree. The corporate tax code is by far the most popular way for politicians to reward favored interests without making those rewards too obvious. As long as it exists, even if the tax rate is low, it's a way to funnel money to one sector over another or one company over another. Just get rid of it.

The big question, though, is what to replace it with. Higher capital gains and dividend taxes are an obvious possibility. Higher top marginal income tax rates. A carbon tax. A financial transaction tax. There are lots of alternatives.

Of course, the business community would never support this. For starters, they like all the tax goodies they get, and they like the potential of getting more. And of course, businesses are run by rich people, and rich people would frankly prefer that taxes be high on their corporations than high on themselves. On a more substantive level, it would seriously raise the incentives for income shifting scams, so we'd have to amp up tax audits to catch that. So it'll never happen. But it's a nice idea.

1They wouldn't be entirely out of work, of course. There would still be state corporation taxes to worry about, and multinationals would have international tax issues. But it would sure cut down their ranks.

Lying to Pollsters

If you ever wanted evidence that Americans lie to pollsters with abandon, I'd say this is smoking gun proof:

That's from the latest Bloomberg poll. More here.

From Conrad Black, once again a free man, writing about Rupert Murdoch:

I have long thought that his social philosophy was contained in his cartoon show, The Simpsons: all politicians and public officials are crooks, and the masses are a vast lumpen proletariat of deluded and exploitable blowhards.

Via E.D. Kain.

Ryan Chittum takes a look at yesterday's sit-down between President Obama and five bloggers and concludes that the bloggers "didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory."

I guess that's true. But I wouldn't really blame the bloggers. Some of their questions were good, some were lame, and some were in between. But who's done better? Who can do better? Pretty much any big time politician — and Obama's as big time as they come — has heard every question before and knows exactly how to answer them. They filibuster, they distract, they offer up platitudes, and they move on. There's pretty much zero chance of anyone getting anything newsworthy out of a guy like Obama unless he feels like making news. This is just life in our modern media-saturated age.

More Stimulus, Please

Like Matt Yglesias, I don't quite get Peter Orszag's opposition to further quantitative easing from the Fed. He'd like to see Congress pass further stimulus, but thinks that's less likely if the Fed eases monetary policy. Why? Because a stimulus package should only be passed if it has an accompanying medium-term deficit reduction package, "and that medium-term deficit reduction package is less likely to be enacted when interest rates on long-term government bonds are so low."

I don't really understand this. But who cares? As Orszag says, the Fed's anticipated QE2 package will probably have, at best, a modest effect. What the economy really needs is "more fiscal expansion (read: more stimulus) now." I helpfully added italics to that quote since that seemed to be his intent. And remember: Orszag was widely considered the moderate deficit hawk in the Obama administration. If he thinks Job 1 is additional stimulus, people really ought to be listening to him.

Compare and contrast. Here is President Obama, asked about whether he thinks he'll be able to work with Republicans after next week's election:

I’m a pretty stubborn guy when it comes to [] trying to get cooperation. I don’t give up just because I didn’t get cooperation on this issue; I’ll try the next issue. If the Republicans don’t agree with me on fiscal policy, maybe they’ll agree with me on infrastructure. If they don’t agree with me on infrastructure, I’ll try to see if they agree with me on education....I don’t go into the next two years assuming that there’s just going to be gridlock. We’re going to keep on working to make sure that we can get as much done as possible because folks are hurting out there.

And here is John Boehner, likely to be the Republican Speaker of the House next year:

"This is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you that we will not compromise on our principles," Boehner said during an appearance on conservative Sean Hannity's radio show...."I love Judd Gregg, but maybe he doesn't get it," Boehner said Wednesday in a rebuke to Gregg, the top Republican on budget issues in the Senate who's set to retire at the end of his term in January. "We're going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can."

"It," in this case, is healthcare reform, but I think Boehner made it pretty clear that the same sentiment applies to pretty much everything else too. It's gonna be a long two years.

Voter Fraud, Take 2

Kevin Williamson says I'm wrong to say that voter fraud is practically nonexistent. After all, maybe there really is lots of fraud, but nobody is getting convicted of it so we don't know about it.

Well, OK. That's pretty hard to argue with. But I'd still like to see some evidence that it's actually widespread. And unluckily for me, says Williamson, "Kevin Drum has really, really bad timing, I think." This is based on three examples of voter fraud that turned up just this week. So let's roll the tape:

  • Example #1 is some guy who ran for a seat on the Daytona Beach City Commission back in August and apparently requested 92 absentee ballots under suspicious circumstances. Today he was arrested and charged with committing absentee ballot fraud.
  • Example #2 concerns Patrick Murphy, running for Congress in Pennsylvania, who has done — something. I can't quite tell what. "Flooded" the post office with absentee ballot requests is one version of the story. "Fooled" voters into requesting absentee ballots they didn't need is another version. Created a mailer that looked really official, goes another. But I can't tell what's really going on here. At worst, it appears that Murphy is nudging people to request absentee ballots even though they might not actually be absent on election day. On a corruption scale of 1-100, this rates about a 1.5.
  • Example #3 concerns some felons who apparently voted in Hennepin County in 2008. According to the local prosecutor, "The rate of alleged fraud amounted to about 0.00006 percent of ballots cast....'There was no evidence of any organized effort to enable or promote this activity,' he said."

So that's one (alleged) crook in an obscure municipal race, one election mailer that opponents have objected to, and a tiny bit of unorganized (and quite possibly unintentional) fraud two years ago. That's really not a very impressive tally.

But look: the point isn't that there's no voter fraud. Of course there is. It's a big country. If 50 million people vote and 0.01% of the votes are fraudulent, that's 5,000 fraudulent votes. That might seem like a lot, but it would actually be an indication of a really, really clean election system.

In any case, nobody is suggesting we shouldn't police elections. What I am suggesting is that mountains of evidence demonstrate that the actual incidence of voter fraud is minuscule and nearly always freelance. Nonetheless, every two years Republicans whip up a towering hysteria over the specter of massive organized efforts to steal the election from them. Efforts that quite plainly don't exist. And since no party in its right mind would spend gobs of time and money fighting a tiny problem that affects virtually no actual election results, they must have some other motive for doing this. What might that be?

Via Joe Klein, here's a Washington Post poll asking people if they're concerned about making their rent or mortgage payment:

As Klein says, let's concede that there might be some exaggeration here. And that at least a bit of this represents people who knowingly took out mortgages they knew they couldn't afford. It's still a helluva lot, especially considering that about a quarter of all Americans own their homes outright and, by definition, aren't worried about making their mortgage payment. A bit of arithmetic tells us that among people who actually have a rent or mortgage commitment in the first place, something like three-quarters are worried about having enough money to pay it. Yikes.