Follow by Email

Friday, July 18, 2014

True Cost of a Burger by Mark Bittman in NYT

NYT food writer Mark Bittman tries his hand at economics in The True Cost of a Burger in a recent NYT, which I just noticed today (dated July 15, 2014).  He has been working on it for a year, and wrote it with the help of an intern.
He starts off as follows:
"In 2005, the House of Representatives passed an act that forbade consumers to sue fast-food operators over weight gain."
I'll suspend judgment on his economics for now, but it looks like he's got a problem with civics.  An "Act" is legislation that has been enACTed -- i.e., a bill that has passed the House, the Senate, and been signed by the President.  The House "passes" stupid bills all the time for symbolic reasons, knowing full well they have no chance of success in the Senate.  Anyway, the "Cheeseburger" bill was not enacted, and thus is not an "act."

{Update:  having now read the whole article, I can say that his grasp of economics is awful.  See below}
The point of the article is to add up the "external costs" of cheeseburgers, and add them to the price of the cheeseburger, to arrive at a "true cost."  In his view,  "cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades."  I don't know enough about the coal industry or the rest of the food industry to judge this statement on any level, so I won't.

His conclusion is that given the "average" cost of a burger of $4.49, the easily-calculable external costs range from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger.)
He mentions and in some cases quantifies the following:
Litter -- the social cost of cheeseburger wrappers that are not put in the trash. 
Carbon generation -- According to those who know (see “Meat Eater’s Guide” (2011)), the carbon footprint of beef cattle is 27 pounds of CO2 equivalent produced per pound of beef, but when you subtract the savings used by adding ground-up dairy cows into your cheeseburgers, it's down to 25 pounds of CO2 emissions.  Cheese produces 13.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound; he notes but does not quantify the carbon footprint of bread. Estimated cost:  53 cents per burger, based on an average of three competing monetary valuations of greenhouse gas pollution (ranging from $37 per metric ton [the government's official rate, which works out to 15 cents per burger] to an estimate that's almost 10 times as great.

Obviously, when two estimates are off by a factor of ten that means that someone is very wrong, but Bittman can be forgiven for reporting them all and then just averaging.  I'm a big believer in requiring producers to bear the costs of the externalities that they cause, but the problem is in quantifying those externalities.  It sounds like the carbon footprint externalities here are at least 15 cents per burger, so that's a start.  But this is the only place where Bittman's analysis of externalities makes any sense.
Chronic disease costs: 
-- He acknowledges evidence that red meat may increase risk of cardiovascular disease, but because the evidence is not certain, he leaves that cost out.
-- He states that "a main factor in the rise of obesity has been an increase in the availability of calorie-dense foods, and burgers played a big role in this process."  This sounds logical, but when he tries to quantify it, his point loses all logical force.

Here's the process:

--  "Between 1970 and 2000, per capita calorie intake increased by 24 percent . . . ."

-- During the same period, "the 'food-away-from-home sector' grew to nearly half of all food we eat."

-- Restaurants, of course, are the source of most burger consumption.

I suppose this is true, based of the amounts of hamburger buns and meat available at every supermarket, it's a fair bet that a lot of people make them at home, too.  What's interesting is that in the end, his analysis of health-related externalities is limited to externalities caused by fast food burgers, when those same externalities are caused by home-cooked burgers as well.  
-- "Between 2007 and 2010, 11.3 percent of adult Americans’ daily caloric intake came from fast food."

It's not clear how this squares with the apparent fact that half of the food we eat is from the "food away from home sector."  If he's only focusing on fast food, why did he give us the other statistic?

-- "Correlation is not causation, of course, and it seems likely that foods high in sugar and other hyperprocessed carbohydrates are most responsible for high obesity rates, but burgers certainly played a role in rising caloric intake."

The last two bullet points are successive sentences in the article.  I still don't get it.  All we know from the first sentence is that 11.3 percent of caloric intake during a particular 3 or 4 year period came from fast food.  It's hard to relate this to anything else we know.  It's also hard to understand how it relates to his earlier statistic that nearly half of our food intake is from the "food away from home sector," by which I guess he means restaurants (not clear where e.g. workplace cafeterias fall into this; but his stat that 11.3 percent of our calories come from fast food suggest that fast food is only 11.3/50 of our away-from-home food intake).  And there's an acknowledgment that the main cause of obesity is probably something other than burgers (sugar and hyperprocessed carbs).  But hold on, there's more:
"To estimate the share of obesity-related costs resulting from burger consumption, we estimated the share of calories coming from burgers in fast-food restaurants, where the majority are eaten."  

I have to do this one sentence at a time; here I think he is saying we will determine what percent of fast-food restaurant calories come from burgers, and that this will somehow help us understand the overall share of obesity costs attributable to burgers. 

"Assuming that the 11.3 percent of calories is proportional to the incidence rate of obesity (it may be higher), its associated health risks, and its treatment costs, up to 15 percent of fast food’s share of direct and indirect costs arising from obesity (about 1.65 percent of the whole) are attributable to burgers."

Here's where he simply loses me.  The reported 11.3 percent of calories is just our daily percentage of fast-food intake (in calories).  Why should that necessarily be proportional to the incidence rate of obesity?  I guess he is saying that our overall food intake is responsible for our obesity.  But by saying that, isn't he giving away the whole game?  Doesn't this mean that because 88.7 percent of our calories come from non-fast food, we can look at each of those items and determine their contribution to obesity?  Or put another way, if bread is 20% of our diet and carrots are 1% of our diet, doesn't his logic lead to the conclusion that blame bread for something like $50 billion in diet-related health care costs, and carrots for something like $2 billion?  He seems to have calculated that about 1.65% of our total calories come from fast-food burgers, and from this he is saying that fast-food burgers are to blame for 1.65% of obesity's costs.  You could isolate any other part of our diet -- e.g., as above, bread or carrots -- and come up with a similar, or much larger, percentage.  

"The link between obesity and a handful of deadly chronic diseases — arthritis, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, among others — is well documented, as is their enormous economic burden. Direct medical diet-related costs are currently pegged at about $231 billion annually." 

I have to keep quoting, just to be fair; I don't want anyone to think I'm mischaracterizing.  The bizarre thing is that by not making any attempt to distinguish between kinds of foods, he is almost certainly UNDERESTIMATING the effect of burgers, without realizing it.  But I say that just because I happen to believe that there is a causative correlation between excessive burger intake and obesity.  His data does nothing to prove this.

Of course, it's possible to read the data and say we all know that burgers are worse for you than other constituents of your diet.  But we will be generous and treat them as being no more or less linked to diet-related health care costs than any other food item, and that's how we know our numbers are conservative.  But that doesn't seem to be what he is saying.  And the bottom line is that if some Americans are eating too much food, that doesn't mean that each particular food item (which doubtless are eaten by many thin and healthy people as well) should bear some amount of the externalities caused by that.  One needs to figure out WHY those particular Americans are eating so much, and deal with the problem there. 
"These numbers above would mean that this cost of burgers is about $4 billion per year (from fast food burgers only!), which averages out to 48 cents per burger. (Some put these costs five or six times as high, and there are indirect costs as well; again, we’re being conservative.) And between 2010 and 2030, the combined costs arising directly from diseases related to obesity could increase by an additional $52 to $71 billion each year. This could double the cost per burger in additional health costs alone."

Again, what's missing from this article is any evidence that burgers contribute to obesity more than other foods in our diet.   It's intuitive, but the data and analysis presented here almost point the other way.
Other "vaguely calculable" non-zero costs:

-- cost of dealing with "elevated nitrates in water supplies resulting from the chemical fertilizers used to grow corn to feed cattle" [true, but to be fair one would have to compare this sort of thing with pollution etc caused by other production of other foods]

-- "cost of food stamps and other public welfare programs made necessary in part by the ultralow wages paid at most fast-food operations" 

This one seems crazy and reveals an uninformed liberal agenda (again, I'm not particular conservative or liberal -- I just have trouble with uninformed partisan agendas).  It's equally possible (and maybe even more plausible) that the availability of these "ultralow"-wage jobs reduces the overall need for foodstamps, and that the availability of inexpensive fast food saves money for poor people.]

-- "the beef industry’s role in increasing antibiotic resistance, which costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something like $55 billion a year; some measure of E. coli illnesses; and land erosion, pesticide residues, direct corn subsidies, injury rates at slaughterhouses, and so on."  

I absolutely agree that this is a problem.  But this is where he should have real statistics.  Otherwise, there's just no way to say that burgers are any worse than bread.  And to all this I would add the simple moral cruelty of raising animals for food; although of course that doesn't apply just to beef.

"Even more difficult to calculate":

-- "the 'cost' of a shortened life"

-- "the value of loss of biodiversity that results from the destruction of rain forests to provide land for cattle or their feed."

-- "an emerging body of research linking decreased male sperm quality to mothers’ beef consumption."

He concludes with more numbers that don't seem to add up:

"Last year, burger chains grossed about $70 billion in sales. So it’s not a stretch to say that the external costs of burgers may be as high as, or even outweigh, the “benefits” (if indeed there are any other than profits)."

A minute ago he said that he was conservatively estimating the externalities due to burgers at $4 billion (48 cents per burger) for health care, plus 53 cents per burger (say another $4 billion) for carbon.  So that's about $8 billion in external costs.  Note that he could do a similar calculation for all the non-burger fast food that is sold -- by his reasoning, if fast food burgers make up only 15% of 11.3% of our calories, then 85% of our fast food calories -- or 9.6% of our total calories, create another health-care related externality that dwarfs that caused by the burgers (i.e. over $20 billion).  So that means the $70 billion business is causing about $30 billion harm, by his reasoning. 

Economically speaking, it's also annoying that he only concludes that the costs "may" outweigh the benefits (to which he snarkily adds, "if indeed there are any other than profits").  The word "may" renders the statement completely meaningless.  And the lack of any actual attempt to quantify the benefits (and only a very poor attempt to quantify the externalities) makes this a very sloppy statement.  The benefits may well include the availability of jobs for unskilled labor, the availability of cheap and convenient food, the added productivity that comes as a result of access to cheap and convenient food, etc.  Fast food, eaten in moderation, may well be a very good thing for those who eat it that way.

 If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly.  

By his own statistics, maybe 68 cents per $4.49 burger, which doesn't seem like all that much.  But as above, he'd have to do a lot more to prove that fast food is a "silly" business.   And of course, if you make them internalize their externalities, you'd have to do the same to all their competitors (grocery food, restaurant food, etc), so "fast food" might still remain comparatively cheaper.

And now for the grand sum-up:

"In this discussion, the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability."

Perhaps this is his admission that, using his methods, we could use bread as an even more compelling symbol.  Sadly, I actually agree with the overriding sentiment of this sentence.  The problem is that his data and methodology do nothing to support his conclusion. 

To summarize my view: there's no question that our diet contributes to health problems, and mere diet-related health care dollar costs vastly underestimate the cost of this problem -- it's not just the dollars that we pay for treatment when our diet makes us sick, it's also all the lost productivity and unhappiness that comes from being sick in the first place.  And intuitively burgers could be part of the problem.  But as he acknowledges, all the studies on the harms due to red meat are speculative, and the same could be said for fat generally.  And of course, different people are affected differently by different types of food.  

There's no question that the carbon footprint caused by raising beef is an externality that should be internalized somehow.  But I feel that way about almost all externalities.


And this is a horribly misguided way of placing blame for obesity on one particular food.  A much better way to do that is by studying obese people (especially obese people with health problems) and figuring out what is causing their obesity from there. 


Since we're talking about fast food, I'm going to make one point, that is related only to the question of "benefits" of fast food, above.  In all my years of eating fast food, I don't recall EVER having gotten sick as a result of doing so.  On the other hand, I get sick an appreciable number of times after eating at mid-to-high priced restaurants.  Maybe around 10% of the time.  And sometimes very sick -- bad colds, or food poisoning.  I think the reason is that the fast food is processed, and the workers don't contact it nearly as much.  And for many restaurants, workers are reluctant to call in sick and show up for work sick.  This, plus their closer contact to the food -- which is fresher, but also more liable to spoil or have contaminants in it already -- puts customers at far greater risk than fast food.


Friday, July 4, 2014

Insurance for contraceptives and abortions?

Honestly, I might just be out of touch.  But today I happened to read two different articles, both of which rubbed me the wrong way in the same way.  First there was this by Elias Isquith in Salon (followed soon thereafter by this, touting Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the greatest justice since sliced bread).  Then there was this by Loren Clark-Moe in the Washington Post.  I know that abortion and contraception are sensitive topics and I sense that they are particularly sensitive for women, which is why I am trying to be sensitive here.  I'd like to ask the question wholly apart from the normative issue of whether one is pro-contraception (I am) or pro-choice (I am, sort of, but I'm also disturbed by abortion).  Isquith seems furious that Hobby Lobby doesn't have to pay for contraception for its employees, just because of some made-up test about closely-held corporations, courtesy of the Supreme Court.  I get (and agree with) some of the complaints about that case -- yes, the Court has told us that corporations are people, but really, do they have religious beliefs and sensibilities too?  But Isquith is really mad at something else -- just the fact that those poor Hobby Lobby employees have to pay for their own contraception.  And that brings me to poor Ms. Clark-Moe -- who considers it a "punishment" that she had to pay for her own $480 abortion.

My question is WHY HAVE WE GOTTEN USED TO THINKING THAT INSURANCE IS SUPPOSED TO PAY FOR EVERYTHING??  Don't we realize that just means the cost of insurance will go up?  Wouldn't it be more efficient to just let us pay for the small -- and routine and predictable -- stuff ourselves?

But that's the problem with things like ObamaCare -- everybody, including the insurance companies, now is motivated to make insurance as expansive as possible, in the sense that the more transactions are covered by insurance, the more the insurance companies stand to make.  It would  have been so much smarter to provide a system where the "uninsureds" got access to insurance for catastrophic problems.  And if we want to pay for their doctors visits too, then give them tax breaks.

[btw I just had a random unrelated idea -- why don't emergency rooms have a bus service that will drive uninsured, non-urgent patients to nearby clinics?  Sometimes it can take forever to get help in an emergency room (I know, I've been there), whereas a clinic is often much faster.  In fact, it could simply be a service paid for by the clinic, since they would get more business as a result.  On check-in at the emergency room lobby, patients would be told how long they might have to wait and how much they'd have to pay for emergency room treatment, and let them know that a van is waiting to take them to the clinic which will treat them much faster and cheaper]

Again, I understand the basic complaint -- since ObamaCare is a law that was duly enacted by the legislature, and since it apparently requires employers above a certain size to pay for contraception of employees, then that's a legislative judgment that can't be overturned unless it's unconstitutional.  And it's pretty obnoxious of all those Catholic men on the Supreme Court to call it unconstitutional the way they did.  But my point is simpler -- since when can't we pay for our own contraception?  And that goes double for Ms. Clark-Moe.

UPDATE (July 5, 2014) ( the next day):  The NYT reports that the Obama administration is trying to figure out ways to work around the Supreme Court's ruling and deliver contraceptives to these women.  The rationale is that without easy access to contraceptives, there are unwanted pregnancies and overall bad effects on women's health.  This is true enough.  But it's still a distribution question.  ObamaCare (from what I understand from the Hobby Lobby ruling) only requires that employers with greater than 50 employees have to provide contraceptive "insurance."  Isn't that a somewhat skewed distribution?  The only people who get access are the people who happen to work for bigger companies.  Often, the people working for smaller businesses need the financial assistance (and that's what free contraceptives are) the most.  If simply giving all women free contraception is a good idea -- and I honestly believe that maybe it is -- then just do that, and stop creating weird and arbitrary arrangements trying to get other people to pay for it.  In the end WE (the consumers and taxpayers) pay for it, in the form of higher taxes and higher prices.

And now I see this from MSN:  http://news.msn.com/us/free-birth-control-becoming-standard-for-women.  This piece echoes some of what I've said above -- that this is just a "bonus" of Obamacare to the already-insured (like the provision allowing kids up to age 26 to stay on their parents' plans).  It says that the free birth control is worth about $269 a year to the women who get it, but interestingly, the article mentions that it does not appear that more women are going on birth control because it's free.  If that's the case, then it's just a simple wealth transfer to a somewhat arbitrarily selected group of women, which specifically excludes the neediest women.

There's a caption here that makes the point
http://cheezburger.com/6831732992 ("No, it doesn't cover hip replacements, but you're eligible for free birth control!")







 


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Let's invade Nigeria!

Where are the chickenhawks now?  This is perfect -- a hopelessly corrupt, oil rich country is causing untold misery for its inhabitants -- even if there aren't any weapons of mass destruction, really, the government has to go.  Right?  Right??

Seriously, the article in today's Washington Post by Sarah Chayes is worth reading.  Obviously Boko Harom is some kind of a scary and religion-based overreaction -- just like Al Qaeda -- but they are reacting to something.  And what are they reacting to?  A corrupt government, where every single government official (apparently) is essentially an extortionist, and where the top government officials are literally skimming off billions for themselves.

It does kind of put our own low-grade corporate-based corruption in perspective.  Our government is, after all, somewhat accountable to the people at the end of the day, even though you wouldn't know it based on some of the stuff our elected officials do and say.

Here are some key quotes from the article:

"As is nearly always the case in severely corrupt countries, high-level looting of this magnitude [$20 billion in oil revenue unaccounted for in the last 18 months] is part of a system. Government officials down the line take cues from, or have to pay kickbacks to, their superiors. Almost any encounter, including with nursery school teachers and doctors, involves a demand for money. “People feel they can’t get a fair deal,” said Muhammad Tabiu, a lawyer in the northern city of Kano. “They have to bribe. They can’t get justice.”

. . . .

"To get one of the juicy civil service jobs, an aspirant needs a diploma. But the education system itself is corrupt. Students often have to shell out for their teachers’ transportation to examination sites. Meanwhile, membership in ruling networks guarantees success — and impunity.

"In this context, many Nigerians see schooling less as a way to expand the mind or gain essential skills than as a way into a corrupt and abusive system. This education system — and its use to confer unfair advantage — is a holdover from British colonialism. Which helps explain Boko Haram’s moniker: It means “Western education is unclean.” As one Kano businessman put it: “It’s the system of going to school and getting a job in the civil service and skimming off contracts — that’s what they’re angry at. We all feel that way. If they had taken a secular approach, all Nigeria would be with them.”

---

So that's pretty sad.  It's institutionalized corruption, where the common morality seems to be all about finding a position that enables one to simply steal money that one has not earned.  As for elected officials, I suppose it's not that different from our own system -- elected officials do whatever it takes to get the campaign contributions that are needed to keep them in their cushy, high-profile positions of power and influence.  And while our government bureaucracy may be bloated and in some cases incompetent, we don't have the problem that every single civil servant is corrupt.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pfizer's plan to avoid US taxes: buy AstraZeneca

So, it looks like Pfizer is going to buy AstraZeneca for the specific purpose of avoiding US taxes.  That's what the Washingtonpost editorial board says today in "Pfizer’s offer to buy AstraZeneca shows that the U.S. needs corporate tax reform."

So the pharma companies will drop us in a second, if we start asking them to pay taxes.  Why don't we do the same to them?  Why are we the one country which allows almost unrestrained monopoly pricing for patented pharmaceuticals?  They tell us it's because they wouldn't invent the drugs in the first place, but of course they sell them everywhere else (including England) for less.  It just seems weird.  But of course, British companies can own just as many US politicians as US companies can, so it's not likely that anything's going to change.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Joe Biden to MPAA on Chris Dodd: "You've got the right guy with the right influence"

Was driving home two nights ago and happened to tune into C-Span, and heard a speaker making some extremely simple-minded and potentially dangerous remarks on intellectual property policy.  At one point I thought it might be Joe Biden, but then I told myself "certainly not", he's smarter than that.  But then he made a reference to the days with Teddy Kennedy, and I was increasingly sure.  I looked it up and here it is:  http://www.c-span.org/video/?319155-1/vice-president-biden-addresses-mpaa.

I have nothing against intellectual property.  But coming up with the right intellectual property policy for the United States is not easy, and can't be driven by platitudes like copying a CD is "theft" and strained attempts to tie intellectual property to millions of U.S. jobs -- and intellectual property infringement to the loss of those many jobs.

It is also dangerous to talk about "intellectual property" without clearly explaining whether you are talking about copyright, patent, trademark, or trade secret.  In this case, Biden was talking almost exclusively about copyright.  After all, it was a speech to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and could have been written by the MPAA.

I haven't relistened to it (and again, I didn't catch the whole thing), but I just listened to the beginning.  Biden was introduced by none other than Chris Dodd -- the guy who vowed not to become a lobbyist when he left the Senate, and then promptly became one of the most highly paid lobbyists around as lobbyist-in-chief for the MPAA. http://pricefixer.blogspot.com/2012/01/sopa.html.  Dodd gushed about how long Biden has been fighting for entities like the MPAA on these IP issues, and then Biden came on.  Biden started with what was probably an unscripted story about how he had just left a meeting with President Obama and Angela Merkel, and had told them that he had promised Chris Dodd he would give this speech.  He said Angela looked at him as if he were crazy (apparently to leave such an important meeting), and then Biden said he wouldn't be able to stay to talk because he had to get back with Angela and Obama for a working lunch.  And then, speaking of Chris Dodd, he said:

"There's no question that you've got the right guy with the right influence"

In other words, the MPAA was getting their money's worth from Dodd, since by hiring him, they were able to get Biden to leave a top-level heads-of-state meeting to come talk to them.

That's a pretty brazen reference to the power of lobbyists, and the way companies can buy influence at the highest levels in the United States government.

Prediction:  After Joe Biden leaves politics, he will take a high paying job with the MPAA or the RIAA, or a like-minded organization.

His speech makes it sound like strong intellectual property is needed for the US economy, and that unless we have strong intellectual property policy -- a policy that is binding on other countries as well -- the result is that we will simply be robbed blind.  Yes, robbed -- he repeatedly equated copyright infringement with "theft" (just like I'm equating theft with robbery), and accused other countries of doing it, and contended that this has cost the US billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

I'm just going to make four brief points about the content to demonstrate that the issue is much more complex than Biden thinks it is, even with all the years and thought he's supposedly put in on it.  Others have made these points elsewhere (in response to similar copyright industry statements) so I'll be brief.

1.  Perhaps the most overlooked point is that most of the copyright industries in the United States are essentially foreign owned.  That's what's most scary about them -- and their proxies Dodd and Biden -- wrapping themselves up in the US flag and pretending that it's all about U.S. interests.  Don't get me wrong -- the copyright industry certain does provide some jobs in the US (see below), but at the end of the day, most of the copyright profits get funneled out of the US.  Here's a link to a great article -- by Jonathan Band and Jonathan Gerafi, titled Foreign Ownership Of Firms in IP-Intensive Industries -- that gives a sense of how little of the entertainment/coypright/copyright-intensive industry is actually US owned anymore:

http://infojustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/foreignownrep.pdf

The recording industry, is, for example, is mostly foreign owned.  Here's an excerpt from Band and Gerafi:

"The three major record labels had an 80 percent share of the U.S. market in 2010 and 2011. Foreign companies own two of these three major labels. Foreign-owned companies generated 76 percent and 77 percent of the Big Three’s global revenue in 2011 and 2010, respectively. (In November 2011, the French owned Universal Music Group purchased the British owned EMI, contracting the four major labels to three labels. The European Commission required UMG to sell roughly one third of EMI to preserve competition in the industry, and Sony and BMG have announced their intention to bid on these EMI assets. BMG is currently a joint venture of German media giants Bertelsmann and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.)

"Thirteen of the twenty best-selling recording artists are foreign, including The Beatles (UK), Elton John (UK), Led Zeppelin (UK), Queen (UK), Pink Floyd (UK), Celine Dion (Canada), AC/DC (Australia), The Rolling Stones (UK), The Bee Gees (UK), ABBA (Sweden), U2 (Ireland), Phil Collins (UK), and Genesis (UK).

"Major record label Warner Music Group was acquired in 2011 by Access, a privately held company owned by Len Blatvatnik. Blatvatnik was born in the Soviet Union, educated in the United States, and now lives in the UK. He is considered the sixth wealthiest person in the UK."

Admittedly, the Motion Picture Industry is more US-owned than not.  But that, as the Band/Gerafi article shows, is the exception.  And even the Motion Picture Industry is not nearly as US-intensive as the MPAA would have us believe -- after going over the statistics, Band and Gerafi have this to say:

"Accordingly, what is popularly viewed as 'Hollywood' or the U.S. film industry in fact is a network of companies and individuals dispersed throughout what has been termed 'the Anglo-Saxon economy' —the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand."

Ironically, there are those who argue that the MPAA's outsourcing of certain movie-production-related work -- in particular visual effects -- has cost jobs within the US.  And now, the MPAA's preaching is being used against it by the victims of its practices.  Here's something on that:  http://news.slashdot.org/story/14/02/26/2110242/visual-effects-artists-use-mpaas-own-words-against-it

2.  Copyright infringement as theft.  It's just not the same thing.  Yes copyright infringement is a tort and it can cause harm to the copyright owner.  But it's not theft, which involves depriving someone of actual physical property.  The analogy is imperfect, because copyright infringement does not deprive anyone of physical property.  Here's a recent example of a U.S. district court judge ordering the MPAA NOT to use misleading terms like "theft" to describe copyright infringement: 

So perhaps now the MPAA knows better, but nobody was telling Joe Biden.

This dumbing down of IP policy plays a role in the current industry-led push to teach "respect" for IP to children. http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140326/18013826701/girl-scouts-get-badge-intellectual-property-maximalism.shtml.  I have nothing against IP outreach and education, and teaching kids these concepts at an early age.  But I have a strong feeling that the teachers will be trying to indoctrinate the kids with sloppy IP infringement-as-theft analogies.  If Biden doesn't understand the difference between infringement and theft, how is a fifth grader going to?

3.  Copyright Infringement as International Law.  IP rights are national.  Sorry, that's the way it is.  It is only because we have a bunch of treaties (mostly written and negotiated by multi-national corporations) that other countries have to respect "our" IP rights.  The point of IP law in the US originally was to provide just enough of a monopoly return to incentivize creation of useful works, with the goal of getting those useful works into the public domain as soon as possible.  The protections within the US market alone are more than enough to do that [and of course, the ridiculous term extensions that have led to life-plus-seventy copyright durations.are an example of Congress simply ignoring this point].

Anything that we make off of foreign trade has nothing to do with the merits and purposes of IP; it's really just all about bringing home more profits for the IP holders.  That's not necessarily a bad policy (although of course, if the ones who own US-based IP are not paying US taxes, that's another story), but it's not the kind of "natural law" that theft is.  For Biden to analogize foreign IP infringement with the idea that a foreign company might steal a ship full of automobiles (he did, in the context of saying that the countries that are infringing "our" IP wouldn't dream of stealing a shipload of cars) is simply wrong.  

4.  The TPP.  And finally, Biden praised the TPP, yet another treaty designed to make a group of countries -- including the US -- ensure that multinational corporations are able to extract as much money as possible from their intellectual property.  https://www.citizen.org/TPP.  There are probably two sides to the TPP, but the fact that the "pro-transparency" administration has kept the negotiations (and even the text, until a recent leak) secret does make one wonder if it's not just another treaty by and for the corporations.  Here's what Public Citizen says it might do:

.

I'll let the administration speak for itself here:  http://www.ustr.gov/tpp

Oh, and on Chris Dodd and Joe Biden's prior relationship and support of MPAA this is too good not to share:  http://betabeat.com/2012/07/mpaa-kim-dotcom-joe-biden-chris-dodd-conspiracy-theory-07052012/

 MPAA Laughs Off Kim Dotcoms Conspiracy Theory Linking Joe Biden and Chris Dodds Hollywood Cabal


In case you missed it, I repeat my prediction from above:

After Joe Biden leaves politics, he will take a high paying job with the MPAA or the RIAA, or a like-minded organization.







Sunday, March 23, 2014

zzzquil ripoff scam -- it's just benadryl

I was curious as to what zzzquil was.  Now I know, it's benadryl, only a lot more expensive.

Here's an Amazon review that makes the point:

317 of 356 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars SAVE YOUR MONEY; THIS IS ALL HYPEJune 23, 2012
This review is from: ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep-Aid Liquicaps 48 Count (Health and Beauty)
The only active ingredient in this "new" product is 25mg of Diphenhydramine hcl which Nyquil ZZZ labels a "Nighttime sleep-aid." This is the EXACT ingredient in benadryl and store brand equivalents, that cost much less, which those manufacturers label as an antihistamine. All Nyquil did was rename it and give it a hyped up name of ZzzQuil and repurpose it as a sleep aid. Antihistamines can make you drowsy but that's not why people take them. This one has been around since the 1940's. What a bunch of BS.

So what are we supposed to think?  Vick's is leveraging its good name (from Nyquil and Dayquil) to repackage benadryl and sell it for several times what it's worth.  It's not immediately apparent on the label, but Vicks is owned by Procter & Gamble.  Do whatever you want with that information.

I haven't taken zzzquil, but I have taken benadryl.  Yes, it puts me to sleep, but I still feel like I'm underwater for much of the next day.  I do not feel rested after a benadryl-induced sleep, so you wouldn't see me taking zzzquil even if it were priced rationally.  Of course, your results may vary -- I heard somewhere recently (I think it was in a Ben Goldacre Book -- either Bad Pharma or Bad Science) that the more we pay for medicine, the more likely it will work for us.  

Baucus Nomination Part III

I'm still working a month or two behind.  But I now see that Baucus -- nominee for Ambassadorship to China -- is, along with IP-industry-tool Orrin Hatch, a promoter of fast track approval for trade agreements.  I can't compete with all the bloggers and journalists talking about the problems with the TPP.  But I will say that one of the most insidious aspects of these "Trade Agreements" is that they are reached (usually after having been drafted by industry) without much public or Congressional input, and only after that is Congress asked to enact legislation to implement them.  Legislation by trade agreement.

Luckily, the rest of Congress seems to (finally) understand the problem.

Here's a link:  http://www.foreffectivegov.org/blog/updated-fast-track-authority-trade-agreements-faces-dead-end-congress

And here's a quick quote:

"On Jan. 9, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), joined by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), introduced controversial fast-track legislation, entitled the “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014.” Contrary to the bill’s title, the Camp-Baucus proposal is not widely supported by Republicans or Democrats in the House or Senate. The bill was introduced last week without a House Democratic co-sponsor, and Baucus – the president’s nominee for the ambassador to China – is the only Senate Democrat sponsoring the bill."