Wednesday, July 31, 2019

How Congress Created Our Obesity and Mental Disorder Epidemics

You are what you eat. Food is fuel for the body and it turns out cheap food high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates isn’t good for your body or your mind; who knew?. A recent study in the field of neuroscience has found that typical diets in Western countries, especially the United States, are linked not only to obesity and other physical diseases, but also mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and dementia (Jacka, Cherbuin, Anstey, Sachdev, & Butterworth, 2015). A longitudinal study published in BMC Medicine Journal found that unhealthy dietary patterns, characterized by high concentrations of saturated fats and refined sugars and a lack of nutrient dense foods, are independently associated with smaller left hippocampal volumes in older adults compared with dietary patterns characterized by nutrient dense foods (Jacka et al., 2015). A similar rodent study found that diets rich in fats and sugars results in memory impairments due to cognitive impairments affecting the hippocampus (Wu, Ying, & Gomez-Pinilla, 2003). Nutrient rich diets containing vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fish ( and other Omega 3 fatty acids) are associated with reduced risk and prevalence of depression disorders (Jacka et al., 2015). Of course, since the hippocampus has a major role in both memory and motivation, declines in this area of the brain should be expected to have much more detrimental results then what has been uncovered. Given the prevalence and convenience of eating unhealthy diets in the U.S., high in saturated fats and refined sugars, it should be no surprise to us why, according to the CDC, over 70% of Americans are overweight and nearly 40% are obese, including 1 in 5 adolescents. It should be no surprise why 1 and 5 adults experience some mental illness in any given year, with depression being the most prevalent disorder (NAMI, n.d.). Our eating habits are making us fat and miserable and we have good reason to believe that the new “fat acceptance” movement and the mainstream discourse about mental health have grown out of this.

If you think obesity and its associated diseases are just a matter of poor individual dietary choices, then you’re dead wrong. There is no area of our lives that government policy does not touch and this includes our diets. Sure, the government does not force you to eat certain foods, at least not yet, but they do control which kinds of foods are the cheapest and most available. This is mainly done through the annual farm bill used to provide a plethora of subsidies (such as crop insurance) to our agricultural industry. More than half of the daily calories Americans consume are derived from subsidized agricultural commodities (Siegel, Bullard, Imperatore, Kahn, Stein, Ali & Narayan, 2016). Current agricultural subsidies are focused only on a handful of commodities, mainly corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy, and cattle (Siegel et al., 2016). Much of these are used to produce high fat, high sugar processed foods, refined grains and soft drinks. For instance, 50% of domestically grown soybeans are used to produce oils, such as hydrogenated oil prevalent in fast food, and 5% of domestic corn is used to produce high-fructose corn syrup, used to sweeten soft drinks and junk food (Siegel et al., 2016). About 70% of the fats and oils we consume are produced from soy oil and another 8% are produced from corn oil (Wallinga, 2010). In 2002, the USDA concluded that the primary factor contributing to the growing obesity rates was a 300 calorie increase in average daily consumption between 1985 and 2000 (Wallinga, 2010). Out of the extra 300 calories, 24% came from added fats, 23% came from added sugars, and 46% came from refined grains. In a 2007 follow up, the USDA found that the average daily consumption was 400 calories more than it was 2 decades earlier, and 600 calories more than it was 3 decades earlier in the 1970s (Wallinga, 2010). Most of the extra calories came from refined grains, especially corn (Wallinga, 2010). Since almost all of the extra calories Americans have consumed over the past few decades have come from only a handful of subsidized crops and commodities, it should not be surprising that higher consumption of foods produced from subsidized agricultural commodities is associated with a 14 to 41% probability of cardio metabolic risk (i.e. the lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular disease) and other conditions and diseases associated with obesity (Siegel et al., 2016).

The current glut of cheap crops that are being turned into cheap processed food is the result of a 1974 USDA policy that encouraged overproduction of cheap commodities so U.S. agriculture could dominate global markets (Wallinga, 2010). As with most federal policy making, the unintended consequences were out of sight and out of mind. The intended overproduction of these commodity crops resulted in low prices that drove many small farms out of business (Wallinga, 2010). The emergency payments to farmers, which predate the Trump admin, is a result of these cheap food subsidies that encouraged overproduction and plunged prices (Wallinga, 2010). Another unintended harmful consequence of this policy is that Americans consume 24% fewer servings of vegetables daily then what the USDA recommends (Wallinga, 2010). Of course, vegetable and fruit production does not qualify farms for emergency payments and is prohibited in some farm bill programs (Wallinga, 2010). Obesity was not a problem in the 1970’s, so it’s easy to see how they would not have foreseen it, but it does demonstrate how disastrous a simple minded approach to policy making can be. Any decision at the federal level will always have not only one intended effect, but several unintended effects. Since the link between cause and effect is so disconnected and blurred at this level, it’s difficult to spot bad policies unless you study them in depth.

References

FastStats - Overweight Prevalence. (2017). Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm

Jacka, F. N., Cherbuin, N., Anstey, K. J., Sachdev, P., & Butterworth, P. (2015). Western diet is associated with a smaller hippocampus: A longitudinal investigation. BMC Medicine, 13(1), 1-8. doi:10.1186/s12916-015-0461-x

NAMI. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers

Siegel, K. R., Bullard, K. M., Imperatore, G., Kahn, H. S., Stein, A. D., Ali, M. K., & Narayan, K. M. (2016). Association of higher consumption of foods derived from subsidized commodities with adverse cardiometabolic risk among US adults. JAMA Internal Medicine, 176(8), 1124. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.2410'

Wallinga, D. (2010). Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: A food systems and public health commentary. Health Affairs, 29(3), 405-410. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2010.0102

Wu, A., Molteni, R., Ying, Z., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2003). A saturated-fat diet aggravates the outcome of traumatic brain injury on hippocampal plasticity and cognitive function by reducing brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Neuroscience, 119(2), 365-375. doi:10.1016/s0306-4522(03)00154-4

Friday, July 26, 2019

It's The Rent Stupid!

Why raising the minimum wage to $15 or $18 or $20 won’t make low wage/skilled workers wealthier or better able to afford the necessities:

A study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition reveals that in 99% of counties, anyone working full time at their state’s minimum wage cannot afford a market rate one bedroom apartment without spending more than 30% of their income on rent. 40% of renters nationwide, including many who make well over minimum wage, spend more than 30% of their income on rent and 3.6 million renters spend more than half of their income on rent. In New York City, one would need to make at least $30.75 per hour to comfortably afford a modest one bedroom apartment, at market rate, without spending more than 30% of their income on rent. In comparison, the average renter in the city makes about $25 per hour and the current state wide minimum wage is $11 per hour. Obviously, if people making well over minimum wage are struggling to stay afloat, raising the minimum wage a few more dollars over a few years won’t make housing and other necessities affordable. In fact, housing costs would likely grow faster than the proposed minimum wage increase. The problem is not that wages are too low, but that rents are too damn high. In California, especially along the coastal region, the problem is even worse. In San Francisco, one would need to make $49.25 per hour to comfortably afford the average one bedroom apartment, at market rate, without spending more than 30% of their income on rent. In Los Angeles it’s doable at $27 per hour, but still well over the proposed minimum wage hike of $15 or $18 per hour. In Seattle, Washington one would need to earn about $30 per hour to spend less than 30% of their income on a one bedroom apartment. It should be no surprise why these cities have more than half of the homeless population in the country.

Why Higher Skills/Education is Not The Solution

Of course, making $27, $30, or even as much as $50 per hour requires some kind of skill (like coding) or higher education. However, increased skill or education can only raise wages in so far as it gives some labor force participants a competitive edge over others (i.e. it is desirable to employers but rare). If everyone learned to code it would no longer command a high wage and it would no longer be a marketable skill. If learning statistics and SPSS became as common as learning how to use the Microsoft suite, something that every high school student knows, it would no longer allow job candidates to negotiate higher wages. Learn to code or learn a trade is not a solution to a systemic problem as higher skills and education can only ever raise wages individually never generally in proportion to rent. Send everyone to college and four year degree will no longer be a ticket to the middle class and a cushy office job as it used to be; college graduates will end up doing menial labor alongside high school dropouts. Over saturate the market with any skill, trade, or knowledge and it will bring in lower returns to those who possess them.

Why more Development is not the solution

While most major cities are suffering from a housing shortage due in large part to their own legal restrictions on new development, simply building more rental units will not necessarily make housing affordable for everyone. The YIMBY proposal of just get government out of the way and build more apartments fails to account for the fact that what they call the ‘housing market’ is actually city planning. The supply, type and size of housing in a given county or metropolitan area is decided and allocated by a city planning commission not ‘market forces’ or the abstract supply and demand curve. Ultimately, housing is and should be considered a public good just as roads, airports, and hospitals currently are even when they are built or owned by private organizations. Like these public goods, most urban development has been effected through public financing and eminent domain seizures (e.g. Urban renewal in the 50’s and 60’s). Housing instability and homelessness are not market outcomes or individual choices, they are public policy choices. The remedy is to ensure that everyone has a home regardless of their ability to pay.

How to provision affordable housing

Of course, I am not suggesting that we return to the era of public housing projects or build more rent controlled apartments; both of these options have problems in their own right such as decades long waiting lists and crime. A more radical and expedient solution would be to shift all local taxes from wages to incremental land values. Property tax schemes, as they currently stand, pass the burden to tenants and homeowners, place a premium on speculation and a penalty on improvement. Property taxes are not only regressive in nature, they’re also antithetical to development increasing as value is added to the property. A property tax only on incremental land value shifts the burden from tenants and homeowners to landlords, mortgage lenders (by reducing mortgage interest),and speculators. A property tax only on incremental land value places a premium on development and a penalty on speculation making it unprofitable to hold lots out of use to fetch a higher price. As I have detailed in previous posts, this should be done in conjunction with a liberalization of zoning ordinances, in particular, a complete abolition of single family zoning, implementation of density bonuses, and by right development of low income housing. In such instances where a proposed development for low income housing would otherwise need a variance, it should be given approval as a civil rights matter wherein refusal could possibly be contested as discrimination or adverse impact. The legal definition of low income should also be expanded to include all incomes that are at least one standard deviation less than the median area income.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Social Media Regulation: The Rope With Which Conservatives Will Hang Themselves

Well it has happened again; the right is up in arms about social media censorship. This time Twitter refused to advertise for a pro-life group called LiveAction. This culminated into Trump’s social media summit where he floated the idea of regulating social media (like a utility). In a time of censorship hysteria, this call to action seems rational. Besides social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube are unlike any other websites on the web. Like the town squares of old they are where almost all political discourse is conducted. This is where the exchange of ideas and rhetoric happens; it’s really the only way to make your ideas visible. Some have pointed out these sites have a virtual monopoly on political discourse just as AT&T had a monopoly over telecommunications prior to the 1980s. While this may be a fair and reasonable comparison it doesn’t necessarily follow that social media should be regulated like a utility. Unlike telecommunications and utility companies, social media sites offer their services for free, unless you want to pay for ads, and allow users to assume almost any identity they want to and communicate with people outside of their social circle. So while regulation of telecommunications and utility companies might be justified on grounds of consumer protection that rationale doesn’t hold water when it comes to social media; Twitter and Facebook can’t price gouge us or reduce the quality of service we pay for. You are handed the world on a silver platter, you just have to follow the terms of service you agree to prior to signing up. While having terms of service that are ambiguous and selectively interpreted and enforced might be a problem, I am not sure how conservatives plan to regulate social media in a manner that prevents censorship and makes enforcement fair. In fact, experience teaches us that the exact opposite occurs. There are no examples of any countries regulating and monitoring social media to prevent censorship, but there are plenty of examples of, such as in China and throughout the EU, countries adopting measures to restrict speech on social media. This idea also seems to hinge on the naive implicit assumption that the current social media giants wouldn’t have any input on the new rules. Of course, any industry that is being regulated is going to have some input on the rules. The same conservatives who think it’s ok for legislative influence to be bought and sold to the highest bidder seem to be unaware that Twitter and other social media giants have more lobbying power than any grassroots movement to protect free speech could ever muster. Between 2017 and 2018 Twitter spent about $1.65 million on lobbying efforts, with the bulk of it coming in 2018. Almost all of their lobbyists have held federal jobs. Facebook spent $12.6 million on lobbying efforts and, just like Twitter, almost all of their lobbyists are former federal employees. Alphabet Inc, which spent almost $22 million on lobbying in 2018, alone could crush any legislative effort to force social media platforms to allow controversial and unpopular political opinions. Just imagine how hopeless the situation would be if Alphabet Inc, Facebook, and Twitter combined forces. In this case, social media regulation would more than likely just make Twitter’s terms of service binding on all current and future platforms and entrench them as the default platform. Any advantage that future social media platforms might have, such as being open to more controversial views, would be erased and make them no longer worthwhile endeavors. Conservatives on Twitter would end up in the same position they started out, although this time they would have nowhere else to go, giving Twitter even more power to control political discourse.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Link Between Homelessness and Labor Force Participation

Homelessness as a systemic problem

Employment does not guarantee access to affordable housing, and unemployment is not always voluntary. People often involuntary lose employment due to recessions or organizational downsizing and fall behind on rent or mortgage payments. Homelessness, especially family homelessness, peaks during recessions.

Single male low wage workers are the most likely to become chronically homeless

One-third of low wage workers who become chronically homeless become homeless before they lose their jobs and one-third of low wage workers who become chronically homeless are able to hold down jobs even with physical or mental disabilities (Toros, Flaming & Burns, 2019). While chronically homeless young adults (18-24 years) have a lower unemployment rate than non-homeless peers, but also have much lower earnings (Toros et al., 2019). Due to discrimination and exclusion from formal labor markets, homeless young adults and adolescents often engage in informal and often illegal work to meet their basic survival needs (Ferguson, Bender & Thompson, 2015).

Labor markets often reinforce homelessness through insufficient available work, inconsistent pay, and tenuous relationships with employers and colleagues (Shier, Jones & Graham, 2012).

Labor markets often reinforce homelessness through insufficient available work, inconsistent pay, and tenuous relationships with employers and colleagues (Shier, Jones & Graham, 2012).

Temporary employment reinforces homelessness by consuming most of an individual’s time with finding work and meeting daily needs (such as transportation and nutrition) and leaving very little time and resources for future career planning (Shier et al., 2012). Temporary employment also prevents workers from building professional networks with their colleagues and employer and provides no recourse against employers who do not consistently pay for agreed upon hours (Shier et al., 2012).

Social Support for Homeless Employees

A supportive employer is one of the most important contributing factors in helping people transition from homelessness (Shier et al., 2012). Employers can help their employees escape homelessness in tangible ways by withholding money from their paychecks to help them save earlier and providing a work schedule that accommodates their transportation and living arrangements (Shier et al., 2012). Employers who simply express empathy for employees who struggle to find permanent housing can also have a positive impact (Shier et al., 2012).

Homeless services, especially city shelters, can also hinder employment by focusing on the general condition of homelessness instead of responding to the specific needs of residents (Shier et al., 2012). For instance, shelters that only provide meals at specific times do not meet the needs of residents that work night shifts (Shier et al., 2012). Having the same sleep schedule for all residents also may not meet the needs of those who work irregular hours (Shier et al., 2012). Having homeless services that meet the specific needs of residents, such as providing lunches for those who work during the day or allowing them to eat dinner and sleep at a later time would make it easier for residents to secure full time employment and transition into permanent housing.

While labor force participation is necessary for escaping homelessness it is not sufficient. Stable full time employment allows individuals to reallocate time spent looking for the next work opportunity to planning for future goals. Full time employment also makes it much easier for homeless individuals to retain employment and remain an active participant in their community.

References


Ferguson, K. M., Bender, K., & Thompson, S. J. (2015). Risk and resilience factors associated with formal and informal income generation among homeless young adults in three U.S. cities. Youth & Society, 50(3), 351-376. doi:10.1177/0044118x15600722
Fowler, P. J., Marcal, K. E., Zhang, J., Day, O., & Landsverk, J. (2019). Defining homelessness in the transition to adulthood for policy and prevention. Journal of Child and Family Studies. doi:10.1007/s10826-019-01480-y
Toros, H., Flaming, D., & Burns, P. (2019). Early intervention to prevent persistent homelessness: Predictive models for identifying unemployed workers and young adults who become persistently homeless. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3370634
Shier, M. L., Jones, M. E., & Graham, J. R. (2012). Employment difficulties experienced by employed homeless People: Labor market factors that contribute to and maintain homelessness. Journal of Poverty,16(1), 27-47. doi:10.1080/10875549.2012.640522

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Problem With Legalization

Legalization seems to me to be more of a strategy to tighten state control over psychoactive substances than one to promote greater consumer freedom or even remotely recognize the right of self-ownership. Perhaps this is a case of the unintended effects of how 'legalization' is implemented (as a top down process), but I tend to err on the cynical side of things, believing politicians to be psychopathic, and thus pathologically manipulative (there is a mountain of evidence for this narrative). Despite the widespread 'legalization' efforts across the country legal, access to these plants is still hidden behind prohibitive licensing and permit barriers and buried under steep taxes. Even after marijuana is 'legalized' people are still thrown in jail for using and selling it. I would venture to say this has more to do with the state debt crisis than some turn about face from the war on drugs and the overall push towards totalitarianism. The real motive is probably to generate more revenue for state coffers, as we already know this plant has created a revenue windfall for the states that have already legalized it.

Adverse Impact of Cannabis Licensing on Poor and Minority Communities

The first question we should ask is who benefits? While some will reap the riches of a booming cannabis industry others will be left out, not due to a lack of merit or work ethic, but because of licensing statutes that make it prohibitively expensive for some to enter the new industry. For instance, the state of Michigan requires prospective cannabis entrepreneurs to pay a $6,000 state application fee, $66,000 in regulatory assessments, and a $5,000 municipality fee. On top of these overhead costs, prospective entrepreneurs must have a clean record, with no previous convictions for drug possession, and at least $200,000 in capital assets to start. Unsurprisingly, this has had the, perhaps intended, effect of disproportionately excluding minority communities from the legal cannabis industry. Of the 233 dispensary and growing licenses issued in Michigan, only 6 have been issued to non-white entrepreneurs. To make matters worse, the cannabis boom has also spurred real-estate speculation that has made it harder for cash strapped entrepreneurs to lease commercial space for cannabis dispensaries.

We found that so many out-of-state investors had come in and had bought up all the properties in Detroit’s green zone and were just sitting on them. That was the biggest hindrance for us, she said, referring to areas at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks and churches. We don’t own this facility, but we have a 100-year lease, which renews every year and it increases.

As I have pointed out in a previous post,, regulatory capture is a problem in every state that has legalized cannabis. Racial disparities in licensing largely reflect racial disparities in drug enforcement and existing wealth. In every state that has legalized cannabis in some capacity, Black Americans are still 2 to 11 times more likely to be arrested for possession than White Americans even with similar rates of possession and use.

‘After Colorado legalized cannabis through ballot initiative in 2012, the total number of arrests for possession fell 52%; however, Black Americans in Colorado were arrested at nearly twice the rate of White Americans even though Colorado is 84% white. Even after Alaska legalized cannabis in 2014, Black Americans are still arrested for possession at ten times the rate of white Americans. Black Americans only make up 4% of Alaska's population but constitute 29% of people arrested for possession. In Washington D.C. where cannabis is also legal, Black Americans are arrested for possession at 11 times the rate of White Americans; however, white and Black Americans consume cannabis at about the same rate.’

The Solution

Expunging criminal records of previous convictions for possession and distribution of cannabis, providing financial reparations for individuals incarcerated for these activities, and removing licensing requirements, allowing a free market in cannabis, would level the playing field and allow more individuals and communities to profit from the new industry. If politicians were genuine about their ‘war on poverty’ they would spend more time opening up new economic opportunities to poor communities and less time, and money, on means tested welfare programs; the latter can only keep people at a subsistence level; the former actually creates additional wealth and raises the standard of living.


The Implications of "Implied Consent"

The recent Supreme Court opinion in the case of Mitchell v. Wisconsin upheld the doctrine of “implied consent”, specifically within the context of a Wisconsin state law that allows police to have blood drawn from drunk driving suspects without a warrant. The majority opinion justified this on the grounds of exigent circumstances, that evidence, in this case alcohol in the bloodstream, may be destroyed before police can obtain and execute a warrant. In this case, the “destruction of evidence”, is simply the body’s natural process of absorbing alcohol, which is categorically different from a suspect consciously and deliberately destroying evidence to evade arrest. Such an analogy would open up the possibility of making refusing a breathalyzer or a drug test a criminal offence. Of course, “implied consent” also goes beyond BAC testing or any other ‘exigent circumstances.’ The idea that you can give consent without knowingly and explicitly giving consent is absurd on its face and could be used to justify any number of draconian laws that hinge on your presence in a certain jurisdiction or involvement in a contractual agreement, since both could be construed as voluntary. At one time in history, this same rationale was used to justify martial rape and other forms of domestic abuse on the belief that a married woman agreed to supply sex on demand. It could also justify state molestation: random checkpoints and strip searches including very invasive cavity searches simply because a person chooses to travel through a certain area or chooses a particular mode of public transportation (all transportation is ultimately public). In fact, any property that requires a state license to use, such as a car or place of business, could very well be subject to warrantless searches and seizures under this new “implied consent” doctrine because it contradicts any meaningful notion of consent. Implied consent is contrary to the majority opinion in Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, where they held that a suspect cannot consent to a search or provide incriminating statements or evidence under duress or through coercion, which is obvious when the suspect is in police custody and physically prevented from refusing a search. The police in the Wisconsin case planned to forcibly draw blood from the suspect, without a warrant, even before he passed out and gave “implied consent.” Consent was never in question.