Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds is 'Just One Minute' blogger Thomas Maguire.
Federal researchers released a new study on obesity last week which created as much excitement as a Good Humor Man at a Weight Watcher's meeting. The headline grabbing conclusion, as reported by the New York Times — "Some Extra Heft May Be Helpful, New Study Says."
Oh, my. The study confirmed the widely-held belief that the truly obese have high mortality rates. However, the notion that "extra heft may be helpful" followed from the reported result that people classified as "overweight" have a slightly lower mortality rate than the group researchers put in the "normal" weight category.
Pundits immediately leaped to the wrong conclusion. Here is John Tierney of the Times:
After decades of listening to emaciated ascetics lecture us about diet and exercise, it's tempting to return the favor. We could turn into activists ourselves and stand in picket lines outside gyms with signs proclaiming, "StairMaster = Death."
David Brooks, also of the Times, delivered a virtually perfect misreading of the report:
People who work out, eat responsibly and deserve to live are more likely to be culled by the Thin Reaper.
That is simply not what the report said, which led Blogger "Ogged" to chastise Mr. Brooks with energy and commitment.
So, what did the researchers really say, and why the confusion? A few words describing the study will be helpful.
The study looked at health surveys that followed people from the 1970's and forward to observe mortality patterns among different groups. Because of the data collected, researchers were able to control for certain variables, such as age, race, smoking, and alcohol consumption. However, researchers lacked other data such as information on body composition (e.g., percent body fat), or measures of cardiovascular fitness. (These shortcomings have been corrected in surveys from 1999 and forward.)
The researchers divided the survey participants into five groups - thin, normal, overweight, obese, and very obese - based on a simple measure called "Body Mass Index," which is calculated based on a person's height and weight. Tracking mortality for the different groups (and subgroups, based on age, race, smoking, and alcohol use) the researchers reached the headline-grabbing conclusion that the "overweight" group had the lowest mortality rate.
Now, John Tierney and David Brooks are familiar with the use of statistics, so they know a guideline that is critical in understanding this report - Correlation is not Causation.
A fun illustration of this truism is the correlation of ice cream sales with shark attacks on swimmers - both are down in December and up in July, but no one has concluded that sharks are hungry for ice cream eaters, or that banning ice cream sales would improve public safety.
Bearing that rule of statistics in mind, what happened in this study?
The first thing to notice is that, although Messrs. Brooks and Tierney concluded that exercise is futile, or even dangerous, the researchers did not control for physical fitness as a separate variable. In fact, fitness buffs may be confounding the data a bit.
There is a bit of a problem with the Body Mass Index, which was used as a proxy for obesity. The people who study these things are satisfied that most people with a high BMI are overweight. Most - but not all. Regular exercisers can add sufficient muscle mass to confound the classifications. For example, First Fitness Fanatic George Bush, with a BMI of roughly 26, would be classified as overweight despite a percentage of body fat that ranks as "lean."
This suggests two problems with the conclusion reached by Brooks and Tierney—first, "fitness" was not a separate control variable, so there is no basis to conclude that fitness is futile. Secondly, there may be some very fit but not-so-fat people slipping into the "overweight" category and boosting the mortality outlook for that group. We should note that "fitness" and "fatness" are independent concepts, although they tend to be correlated (and linked in the imagination of pundits at the Times).
The folks at the Cooper Institute in Dallas have been gathering data on the relationship between weight and cardiovascular fitness for decades. Their conclusion — a person can be overweight, yet still have good cardiovascular fitness. Such a person will have a much lower mortality risk than an equally overweight person with poor cardiovascular fitness. Conversely, a person can be sedentary and slim - such folks have a poorer mortality outlook than the fit fatties.
For the purposes of this study as reported in the popular press, BMI became a proxy for two things - excess fat (rather than muscle), and a sedentary lifestyle - but it is not a perfect proxy for either characteristic. After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that folks classified as "overweight" based on BMI had a better mortality outlook than people in the normal range.
However, all that means is that a group of people which includes the sedentary overweight, the fit fatties, and the muscled up fitness fools experienced lower mortality than a different group with lower BMIs. That is very different from saying, as Messrs. Tierney and Brooks did, that people who are truly overweight and do not exercise have a better health outlook than folks who watch their weight and hit the gym regularly.
So what is the truth? Is exercise a waste of time?
No. The researchers noted that mortality was reduced in part because medical techniques have improved - drugs control high blood pressure and high cholesterol, surgery repairs damaged hearts, and so on.
And the medical consensus is clear, as described by the National Institute of Health—carrying excess pounds is a bad idea, and regular exercise is a good one. Doctors with the President's Council on Physical Fitness also offer a very interesting perspective on the efficacy of dieting - don't worry about the pounds! You may not lose weight, but it's the effort that counts:
Physical activity is clearly viewed as being essential to the prevention of weight gain but fairly ineffective (at least in clinical trials) at promoting weight loss.
On the positive side, recent evidence suggests that physical activity confers health benefits that are largely or entirely independent of changes in body composition. These findings suggest that overweight and obese individuals can obtain the same benefits of physical activity as lean individuals.
While the public health concerns about the increasing prevalence of obesity are well founded, they may be misplaced. The epidemiological studies reviewed here suggest that the health risks of obesity are largely controlled if a person is physically active and physically fit. The protection appears to come, at least in part, from positive metabolic changes that occur as a result of regular participation in physical activity.
Stop reading Brooks, ignore Tierney, put down that doughnut, and walk to the gym. And walk right past it, if you are not a member.
But get moving.
Lots of people have strong opinions on GM. Some think the problem is the critics:
Name: Terry Koerner
Hometown: Lake St Louis, Missouri
GM and Ford have been around for a long time -- Some of my best times were driving these cars. If the American public would leave them alone, they will do just fine. They always have and always will.
Glenn writes: I'm afraid the American public will soon start "leaving them alone," but that's not usually what companies want from their customers...
Others are less positive:
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
GM's biggest problem is the high cost of doing business with American labor unions. It is very hard for a unionized U.S. company to compete on the world market. Unions raise the cost of doing business so high that eventually the company fails. Democrats support unions to get their vote and unions run the jobs out of our country. Other significant problems are that U.S. cars are less reliable and get less gas mileage than imports. GM will eventually go under unless they move production out of the U.S. and improve their vehicles to world competion standards!
Name: Mike Rogers
Hometown: Dallas, Georgia
If Labor Unions would stop trying to get something for nothing General Motors and the other two would be in a much better position. Labor Unions have out lived ther usefulness. We live in time where the marketplace determines wages not Union boards. Union Leaders only look out for themselves and their deep pockets. Members believe the Leaders want what is best for the working man and yet they will close down a company and put the employees in the streets. I say this as a former Union Member.
Glenn writes: A lot of people are blaming the unions. But management gets its share of whacks, too:
Name: Joyce Wright
Hometown: Phoenix, Arizona
I hope GM can make a positive turn around as they are a great company, with bad management but I am a retiree of GM and know they are bleeding red ink as I was an accountant, and they were very slow to make changes as each manager fought to keep his place and number of people which was nothing more than a grab for importance instead of what was good for GM as a whole.
Name: Bob Welch
Hometown: Greenwich, CT
As a veteran working at Cadillac and Oldsmobile I am familiar of GM's problems, and they do not have anything to do with health premiums for retired workers. Frankly, they have made horrible products in comparison with their competitors.....for the past 30, yes 30 years. Period.
Futhermore, their business plan, 6 domestic divisions plus Saab and Hummer is untenable and will result in the demise of the corporation as we know it. The divisions are duplicative and cannot stand alone, which means their dealerbody is duplicative and cannot stand alone. GM will have to go BK, restucture and reform at a market share in the area of 12-15%, and even that is a stretch. What can survive? Chevy/GMC trucks/SUVs coupled with Saturn/Chevy cars and Cadillac. Forget Buick, GMC and Pontiac.
Saab? Sell it. Hummer? Dual with the trucks. At best they have a 25-40% of surviving after such a scenario. The management is still arrogant and not committed to excellence.
Glenn writes: That's a hallmark of a dysfunctional organization, alas. I would certainly like to see GM get its act together. I'm worried, though, that even its own management thinks that GM is too big to fail. But in the 21st century, nothing is too big to fail.
What's good for General Motors?
My earlier post on GM's problems generated some e-mail. Some people don't much care what happens to the company:
I understand that GM has some problems, and that the health-care plan is not working out, but that's the way capitalism works, and if they continue to pursue these methods, fine. Another company will (already has) rear its head and create those jobs and better exports. It's not like it's essential for America that we prop up a company because it pursues poor business methods. And it seems entirely irrelevant to direct a plea for better fuel economy to solely GM, seeing as that is an industry problem and GM is infamous for standing in the way of, not facilitating, better fuel economy. Thus, it's fine if this is but a plea to the company for better standards, but if they fail, no great consequence, that's what happens to bad companies.
Glenn writes: Well, yes. But I'd rather see them succeed than fail.
Rand Simberg -- who, unlike Michael Moore, actually grew up in Flint, Michigan -- writes on GM's problems from the perspective of a former company-town kid:
This is an issue of personal resonance with me, and one that I write about with heart heavy, because I almost certainly wouldn't be here blogging, or blogging about the topics that I do, if it weren't for GM. I grew up in Flint, Michigan (unlike Michael Moore, despite his claims), the home town of GM. It was part of the proud history of my town, and much of my third grade education was devoted to learning about it. I remember the tales my grandparents told of the proud stand of the union in the 1937 strike, how through the long months wives and mothers brought their husbands and sons sandwiches to pass through the factory windows during the lockdown on south Saginaw Street at the Fisher One plant, now closed, around the corner from which my brother owned a house in the 1980s, when it was still operating.
I worked summers for the company to help with college bills (getting the jobs through the influence of my dad, of course), and it helped motivate me to study harder so that I wouldn't have to spend the rest of my life there. One of the things that these summer job experiences taught me was that in addition to the fact that they made lousy cars (even then, in my humble sports-car-loving opinion), they were dramatically mismanaged, and that ultimately (though I didn't imagine that it would take so long) they had no future.
Now this has all caught up with them.
General Motors is a powerhouse company of the early twentieth century, in a slow-motion collision with the twenty-first.
Read his whole post, which is quite moving, and suggests that GM's problems will be hard to solve. Some people, on the other hand, are trying to do what they can to help. Over at the ChicagoBoyz blog, Dave Foster recently asked readers what they'd do if they were CEO of GM: There are a lot of ideas there. Is Bob Lutz reading?
GM's gold-plated problems
Cars and more...
Poor General Motors. Everybody's talking about its troubles, which isn't surprising as it just declared a $1.1 billion dollar loss for just the first quarter of this year. GM Chairman Bob Lutz, who has a blog, is defending the company's efforts and its new cars. Elsewhere, the reviews are less positive. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins says that the company is being dragged down by the enormous expense of its gold-plated healthcare and pension funds:
GM's boss should be the media's darling, running his company to provide job security and health care for its workers first, second and third. Wonder why GM invests just enough in new product to keep the game going, not enough to make its cars really sought after? Because the extra capital that would have to be invested goes instead to doling out gold-plated health care -- no copays, no deductibles -- to workers and to plumping up their pension fund, which two years ago required the largest corporate debt offering in history to top off.
(The link is subscription-only, but Virginia Postrel has more quotes, along with some additional thoughts).
Mickey Kaus, meanwhile, notes another story reporting beer-soaked lunch hours for GM assembly-line workers and wonders if you'd want to buy an SUV put together by guys who had three beers in a half-hour lunch break. The most telling bit: "A sign in the corner reads: 'Finish your beer. There are sober kids in India.'"
Yes, and they'll be taking American jobs, if things don't get better. As Kaus notes: "Two or three beers in half an hour? That does not seem conducive to precision assembly." Nope.
What happens at GM matters. Charlie Wilson of GM was famously misquoted as saying that what's good for General Motors is good for America. (He actually said something very different: "I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa.") But, in fact, a good -- or at least better -- GM would be good for America. GM still makes a lot of cars; if it sold more, there would be more jobs for Americans, perhaps even sober ones. If GM made better cars, America would be better off, too: Better export earnings, better fuel economy (How much oil would we save if each GM car on the road got just one or two more miles per gallon?), and a host of other benefits would follow. For that to happen, GM is going to have to get its act together.
Those kids in India -- along with their counterparts in Japan, China, and Malaysia -- don't have three-beer lunches, or gold-plated health plans. But they'll be making SUVs and minivans soon enough. And if they're good ones, Americans will be buying them in place of Suburbans.
From socialism to sex shortages -Bad news for Europe
I offended my co-blogger Eric Alterman a while back by linking to studies suggesting that Sweden's economic performance was pretty weak compared to that in America, and that it made a poor policy-model for those advocating higher taxes and more government programs.
Well, there's more bad news for Sweden, and for Eric, as Bruce Bawer reported in The New York Times this weekend that the picture is grim not only for Sweden, but for all of Europe -- and it seems to be the grimmest where taxing and spending and regulation are the highest:
Alternatively, the study found, if the E.U. was treated as a single American state, it would rank fifth from the bottom, topping only Arkansas, Montana, West Virginia and Mississippi. In short, while Scandinavians are constantly told how much better they have it than Americans, Timbro's statistics suggest otherwise. So did a paper by a Swedish economics writer, Johan Norberg. Contrasting "the American dream" with "the European daydream," Mr. Norberg described the difference: "Economic growth in the last 25 years has been 3 percent per annum in the U.S., compared to 2.2 percent in the E.U. That means that the American economy has almost doubled, whereas the E.U. economy has grown by slightly more than half. The purchasing power in the U.S. is $36,100 per capita, and in the E.U. $26,000 - and the gap is constantly widening." The one detail in Timbro's study that didn't feel right to me was the placement of Scandinavian countries near the top of the list and Spain near the bottom. My own sense of things is that Spaniards live far better than Scandinavians.
In late March, another study, this one from KPMG, the international accounting and consulting firm, cast light on this paradox. It indicated that when disposable income was adjusted for cost of living, Scandinavians were the poorest people in Western Europe. Danes had the lowest adjusted income, Norwegians the second lowest, Swedes the third. Spain and Portugal, with two of Europe's least regulated economies, led the list.
The thrust, however, was to confirm Timbro's and Mr. Norberg's picture of American and European wealth. While the private-consumption figure for the United States was $32,900 per person, the countries of Western Europe (again excepting Luxembourg, at $29,450) ranged between $13,850 and $23,500, with Norway at $18,350.
What's more, even the public sector seems impoverished:
In Oslo, library collections are woefully outdated, and public swimming pools are in desperate need of maintenance. News reports describe serious shortages of police officers and school supplies. When my mother-in-law went to an emergency room recently, the hospital was out of cough medicine. Drug addicts crowd downtown Oslo streets, as The Los Angeles Times recently reported, but applicants for methadone programs are put on a months-long waiting list.
It's almost as if high taxes, heavy regulation, and an extensive dole sap people's desire to work hard, making the society as a whole worse off so that those policies don't just redistribute wealth, but actually destroy it. That's probably because they do, and have done so everywhere they're tried. People are usually pointing to some socialist paradise or other where life is wonderful, but -- not to put too fine a point on it -- those places are basically a lie. Socialism just doesn't work, anywhere, for very long. You'd think people would learn.
One of the unfortunate things that happens under socialism is that people have fewer children. (This is a bug. For a while it was seen as a feature, but with the world now facing a global baby bust, it's a bug.) This disturbing essay from The Belmont Club spells out what Europe's demographic collapse means. I think it's a bit on the pessimistic side -- but the Europeans had better hope that I'm right about that. And we Americans should be very grateful that we didn't follow the Swedish model. Socialism produces shortages -- and in Sweden's case, apparently, it's even managed to produce a sex shortage among the formerly randy Swedes. Which just proves that too much government can ruin anything, given enough rope.
The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away
Music and the Web
In the past I've interviewed musicians like Audra Coldiron of Audra and the Antidote (interview
here) and Bob Walkenhorst (formerly of The Rainmakers -- interview here), about the way they've used the Internet to promote their work.
Now my own brother has joined the parade, as his band, Copper, is distributing its music and, now, video via the Web. (Their Web site is here -- just click on the "watch video" link at the top to see the video.)
They've talked with several labels, some seriously, but distributing their own music is working well enough for them that they can be choosy about what deals they take, something that not many musicians could say in the pre-Internet era.
The Internet does a lot of things, but one of the most significant is the way it has enabled people to bypass the middleman -- something that is appreciated by pretty much everyone but the middlemen. Not being a middleman myself, I think that's pretty cool. But I also think that the biggest impact won't be on bands like my brother's -- or at least, it won't all work in their favor.
A while back I wrote on the impact of the Internet and globalization on
filmmakers and musicians, and on Polish software entrepreneurs. As African bands find it easier to compete, of course, life may actually get a bit harder for bands like my brother's.
The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away.
Reforming the judiciary
So I've been pointing out that there's a lot of over-the-top talk about the federal judiciary. But what should more sensible people be talking about, instead of quoting Stalin and calling for the impeachment of Justice Kennedy, when that's never going to happen?
Well, what should be done depends on what you think the problem is. I'm going to outline some potential problems and solutions. I don't necessarily endorse these solutions, but they're all more serious than what we've heard from the Stalin-quoting crowd.
(1) Judicial activism in the Terri Schiavo case. Here, I think the complaint is just off-base. Congress passed a procedural statute, and was disappointed that it didn't get the substantive result that it wanted. (And if it had really wanted to keep Terri Schiavo alive, it could have passed a law authorizing President Bush to draft her; she'd still be in Walter Reed on a feeding tube now if they had done that, and given the extent of government conscription powers, no court could have interfered.)
But if Congress thinks that people are being deprived of their constitutional rights on a large scale by state laws that make it too easy to remove feeding tubes from vegetative patients, Congress has the authority to pass a general statute, applying to all such cases, under its authority to enforce the 14th Amendment -- though the threshold for such action, thanks to the recent (and not at all leftist) Supreme Court "states' rights" decision in U.S. v. Morrison, is fairly high. (One might also note that Justice Scalia, in the Cruzan case, said that this sort of question should be left to state courts: "the federal courts have no business in this field." This has led, as far as I know, to only one call to impeach Scalia, and it's not a serious one.) Still, if there's really a problem, Congress has the authority to set federal guidelines. Proof that the Schiavo case was mostly about posturing can be found in Congress' unwillingness to do so -- backers of the bill, in fact, stressed that it wouldn't create a precedent, and wouldn't apply in other cases.
(2) Arrogant life-tenured judges. Judicial arrogance is certainly a real phenomenon. Changing judicial terms would require an amendment to the Constitution; not impossible, but hard. On the other hand, Congress could expand the Supreme Court -- say, to 12 judges -- by statute. If you believe the problem is arrogant holdovers, that might fix it.
Another possibility, if you're amending the Constitution anyway, would be to switch the federal judiciary to an elected office, with terms long enough to ensure it doesn't become too politicized. Eight or twelve years would do it, I suppose. Many states -- including mine -- have elected judiciaries. They're sometimes political, but then so are the federal courts.
(3) Crazy rulings on sexual harassment, etc. Actually, those could often be fixed by statute. Most of the law in those and other areas is based on judicial interpretations (or misinterpretations) of statutes; change the statute, and you solve the problem.
(4) Reliance on foreign law. I'm not crazy about that, though doing so in the context of deciding what's "cruel and unusual punishment" seems less exceptionable than doing so in other settings. It's possible that Congress could, by statute, forbid federal courts from considering foreign law in interpreting the American Constitution, as part of its Article III power to make "exceptions and regulations" of the Court's appellate jurisdiction. And if not, this is a topic on which, I suspect, a Constitutional amendment might pass pretty readily.
This doesn't exhaust the list, but it's a start. If people are unhappy with the judiciary, they need to think about how to fix it, using the Constitutional methods for doing so. You'll be able to tell the loonies and the posturers from the serious ones by whether they discuss specific reforms, or just fire unaimed broadsides at the judiciary as a whole. I hope that there will be fewer of those than there seem to be, now.
More mau-mauing the judiciary?
My earlier post on the attacks on judges by members of the social-conservative far-right produced a lot of e-mail to the effect that Republicans are in danger of losing it with this issue. I think that's right. Some comments:
Name: Frank Wood
Hometown: Syvania, Ohio
I believe we are witnessing the Republicans "jumping the shark."
Name: Mary-Jo Jagord
Hometown: Getzville, New York
I have been flabbergasted by the statements spewing from the mouths of Republicans lately. Particularly outrageous was the rant made by John Cornyn in light of the Supreme Court's decisions to end the execution of minors. He was a razor's edge away from explicitly encouraging violence against judges. Where is the voice of the "liberal" media in all of this? Doesn't anyone out there care? Can Senator Cornyn say, "Independent judiciary?" How about "separation of church and state?" Maybe "system of checks and balances?" These self-righteous, pompous wind bags should be forced to take a course on Constitutional Law. Apparently the Constitution only applies when it can be twisted to fit their personal agenda. I have seen little outrage in the media (Jon Stewart and Bill Maher excluded) and even less from gutless Democrats who can't seem to muster enough courage to defend our system of government. I am disgusted with the lot of them.
Glenn writes: But not everyone agreed. This anonymous commenter wrote:
Come oh Amnerican Oliver Cromwell, please come! The Federal Judiciary is a mess that needs to be fixed. Glenn Reynolds is a mess that needs to be fixed.
I'm not averse to proposals to fix the federal judiciary -- but the emptiness of the proposals that are being offered leads me to conclude that the proposers are cynical and unserious. (For a more serious proposal, though one I'm not sure I endorse, see this suggestion for term-limiting Supreme Court Justices.)
As for me -- I am not a cat, and have no desire to be "fixed." And, at any rate, seeing human beings as things to be "fixed" according to ideology is indeed a fitting approach for people who quote Stalin.
But Stalinism is not a winning platform, nor should it be.
Mau-mauing the judiciary?Some people seem to be losing it over the federal judiciary:
Michael P. Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, said Kennedy "should be the poster boy for impeachment" for citing international norms in his opinions. "If our congressmen and senators do not have the courage to impeach and remove from office Justice Kennedy, they ought to be impeached as well."
Not to be outdone, lawyer-author Edwin Vieira told the gathering that Kennedy should be impeached because his philosophy, evidenced in his opinion striking down an anti-sodomy statute, "upholds Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law."
Ominously, Vieira continued by saying his "bottom line" for dealing with the Supreme Court comes from Joseph Stalin. "He had a slogan, and it worked very well for him, whenever he ran into difficulty: 'no man, no problem,' " Vieira said.
I think it was Lenin, though, not Stalin, who talked about "useful idiots." And these folks are mostly going to be useful to the Democrats, if they turn out to be useful to anyone. What's oddest is that they're upset about the federal judiciary not for being activist, but rather for not being activist -- for following the law rather than for ignoring the law and doing what they think is right. As Jonathan Rauch observes:
Activists claiming to defend the culture of life ran into trouble not because the public misunderstood the situation but because they themselves misunderstood the public. Life is not the ultimate public value for most Americans. Law is.
Conservatives, of all people, should know this, because they have been saying it for years. More than four years before Schiavo, another difficult legal case transfixed the country. In Bush v. Gore, the outcome of the 2000 presidential race depended on Florida's disputed vote. Democrats, having narrowly lost in the initial tally, demanded manual recounts. In an election, they said, accurately determining the intent of the voters is surely the ultimate value. What could trump that?
Law, replied Republicans. They insisted that a fundamental principle was at stake. Florida's election statutes did not provide time or authority for manual recounts, they said; and if the rule of law means anything, it means not making up the rules as you go along. In The Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery wrote that the two sides had "ended up fighting to vindicate the deepest beliefs of their respective parties.
Democrats believe in intentions and feelings.
Republicans believe in the rules."
That's how it used to be -- though, of course, plenty of Republicans were unhappy with the posturing over Schiavo, too. Now the activist fringe of the Republican Party is out after the judiciary. Have they gone crazy, or is there method in their madness?
Maybe a little of both. Perhaps they think that this sort of noise will intimidate the federal judiciary -- as Roosevelt's court-packing plan did. Or perhaps they're just trying to activate "the base" and -- more significantly -- bolster direct-mail contributors. I suspect that however it plays to the general public, this sort of talk will raise serious money from the GOP equivalent of the MoveOn crowd.
What they're not serious about is reforming the judiciary. Because if they were, they'd be taking serious action toward reform, not quoting Stalin.
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