Monday, July 15, 2013

Unbundling SNAP Makes Farm Subsidy Reform Easier

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Paul Krugman today ripped into House Republicans for voting to extend the terrible policy disaster of the farm bill while stripping funding for the food stamps program, SNAP. Although this move is by no means settled (food stamps could return in the Senate or conference process), Krugman's collection of factoids and jabs all seem spot-on in revealing the maneuver's perverse moral signal.

But if we take a step back from the symbolism and rhetoric, the potential decoupling of SNAP from the farm bill will likely result in better agricultural policy in the future. 

For one, food stamps aren't going anywhere. The program is incredibly popular with a broad beneficiary base; any serious attempt by Congress to eliminate it would result in massive spontaneous public outrage. Some Republicans speak of a desire to lump all welfare assistance together, run through a single committee. That would be great for institutional efficiency, but it makes liberals nervous by creating a single target vulnerable to marginal cuts. That's all irrelevant though--the likely outcome of a SNAP decoupling is Congress passing a targeted food assistance bill with Republican support, purchased with some other random policy concessions. Certainly not a great outcome, but understandable given the bargaining constraints of divided government.

The farm bill, by contrast, desperately needs an overhaul. In an age where most issues break across party lines, the ridiculous subsidies to wealthy farmers have found support from reelection-minded legislators representing rural districts. This is 'public choice 101': benefits flow to a small, intense group, while costs are vague and distributed. What's more, liberal lawmakers representing urban districts who should be voting against the regressive farm subsidies don't, because they need SNAP. 

So this decoupling will make urban lawmakers more willing to push for farm bill reform. At the very least it scrambles the calcified status quo, and raises the visibility of the issue. Even among rural lawmakers, tackling reform may be more palatable: there's surely some subset who vote 'yea' every time by electoral necessity, but privately understand that recent farm bills bear little relation to their original purpose of safeguarding domestic food security.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Digital Manufacturing Continues Its Quiet March Towards Revolution

Quartz has a great piece describing some advancements in 3D printing's less-visible sister technology, CNC milling:

This is clearly a great new tweak to the technology. Much of the coverage about digital manufacturing (of which CNC milling and 3D printing are component technologies) focuses on the economic logic of crashing production costs to near-zero and the impact on society. Total democratic access to the tools of production is seen as the next logical step after the internet opened up near-free access to information and communication capacity. The whole thing has got a real juicy Marxist flavor to it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Few Questions About Ketosis

Over the past few years as the health-food craze has gained momentum, we've seen several waves of faddish diet strategies emerge into the broader society to receive institutional attention by marketers, intellectuals, and policymakers (gluten-free is so hot right now). Seeing this boom-and-bust pattern (based mostly on the difficulty of assessing causation in big epidemiological studies) some commentators have adopted a detached position on nutrition, emphasizing skepticism of any particular weight-loss strategy. The appreciation of the extreme complexity involved in issues of obesity and health is long-overdue, but skepticism is not the only response to the failure of empirical studies to tell us what's what in nutrition.

A popular alternative approach is to use a small number of case studies: we all know people who have dabbled in various health schemes and offer first-hand accounts of their efficacy or failure. The problem here is with generalizing idiosyncratic experiences to broader populations.

A third approach is to mostly eschew data and instead focus on the mechanisms involved with diet and weight-loss. It is here that we find the justification for perhaps the most provocative new health "fad": the ketogenic diet. According to this strategy, high levels of carbohydrates in the diet encourage large appetites and weight gain (mostly via increased insulin secretion). To get healthy one should mostly eliminate carbohydrates and sugar from the diet to push the body into a metabolic state known as 'ketosis', where fat provides for most energy needs, the rest coming from protein and green vegetables.

Essentially the ketogenic idea is a more radical version of the Atkins or paleo strategies, but a better interpretation would be to view it as the collection of value-free mechanisms which underpin these more popular fad diets. The strategy rests solely on the power of its theory, namely the biology of fat metabolism and the logical refutation of the popular 'calories-in/calories-out' conception of weight-loss. Now clearly, relying on theory alone has its problems: looking back at the history of ideas, most theories have been proven wrong, often disastrously so. And yet because of the inability to predict when and how existing paradigms will get overthrown and replaced, curious people have no choice but to engage in useful delusions to further the random walk towards better understanding.

That said, learning a bit about this ketogenic thing (a good urtext is Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes; nice podcast here) prompted more than a few questions:

  1. To what degree does the sciency branding of 'keto' dazzle people into thinking it's more reliable than other health approaches?
  2. To the extent that the ketogenic diet is a logical extension of an analysis that claims to explain the efficacy of all diets, how do different existing fad and ethnic diets 'simplify' to the same framework. Example: can we really show that French and Japanese cuisines (both relatively healthy and filled with carbohydrates) work with this theory?
  3. Although the arguments supporting a causal connection between carbohydrate intake and body fat seem compelling, it may be a logical fallacy to assume that the metabolic state of ketosis is optimal compared to lesser degrees of carbohydrate restriction (much of the ketogenic analysis ignores the possibility of trade-offs between different dimensions of health).
  4. To what extent do the [few] empirical claims about the benefits of ketosis rely on extrapolating from existing studies of low-carb diets, and to what extent is that jump fallacious?
  5. To what degree does the gamification benefit confound the stated biological mechanism viz. keto's remarkable ability to induce stick-to-it-iveness in dieters? i.e. Eating out is like a Where's Waldo of acceptable foods, which can be fun or miserable.
  6. To what degree is the binary feature of ketosis (i.e. bad physical side effects when you cheat) a feature or a bug? It provides an incentive to stick with it, but only for people who... stick with it. On some margin it will turn off potential dieters because it severely constrains one's flexibility: if you find yourself at a social function where you must cheat to conform to social norms, you'll be unfairly punished.
  7. To what degree does a 'keto' regime induce regular scheduling and more domesticity in lifestyle? i.e. cooking more food at home makes going out harder; camping, traveling, and seizing opportunities for cultural experimentation are more difficult.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Narrative Nonfiction is a Scourge Upon the World of Literature

I recently finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a narrative nonfiction (NNF) book by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo about life in a Mumbai slum. It won the National Book Award last year, and made tons of "best books of 2012" lists. The book basically follows a few core characters in their struggle to live good lives amid high levels of material poverty, corruption, violence, environmental deficiency, and economic uncertainty.

From an aesthetic perspective the writing was nice and the book was very enjoyable and readable. From an informational angle the book was thin gruel.

While I appreciated learning about terrible poverty and the dynamics of lives totally at odds with the rich-world experience, I couldn't get past the basic approach to the whole project: that these were stories about real people obtained from years of tireless interviews and research by the author (and her translators). I've developed a mild aversion to the NNF genre over the years with books like And the Band Played On and All the President's Men, but this newest volume really confirms my view. NNF is a manipulative sham, and should be obliterated. Here's why.

All books, fiction or nonfiction, are mixtures of aesthetic and informational values. Most "concept-driven" nonfiction books (theory plus case studies) lean towards the informational end, presenting clear arguments and analysis in plain English. Fiction, by contrast, emphasizes literary beauty, triggering emotion and meaning. Most readers intuitively understand that there exists a necessary trade-off between these two approaches to generating knowledge through books. NNF bugs me because it fails in the informational approach, yet gets represented by authors, critics, and publishers, as informationally-dense. There's an epistemological problem, and a reader-manipulation problem.

According to the popular justification, NNF is a richer, thicker form of description compared to traditional journalistic and scientific approaches. While it certainly contains lots of good details, the demands of constructing a compelling and readable narrative forces the author to compromise on fidelity to the truth. The literary structure virtually guarantees that each page is filled with dozens of minute interpretations and small tweaks to the source material. Cracking open the book to any random page demonstrates this phenomenon (page 216, first sentence):
' "But at least Kasab knows in his heart that he did what they said he did." That had to be less stressful than being beaten when you were innocent. '
Now, it's possible that this minor comment by the narrator is factually grounded in some deeply personal interview that the author conducted. But how do we know? Readers have no way to verify the truthiness of the writing process, which likely entailed months spent "in the kitchen" organizing and experimenting with different arrangements of the source material (wording, ordering, mood, tempo, etc.). By itself this individual digression doesn't matter very much. But taken on the whole, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, we get something that's been so heavily warped and distorted that it basically amounts to a work of masked mockumentary.

Clearly interpretation problems are inherent in any secondary-source material, but the magnitude of those problems in NNF is simply gargantuan. One might respond by claiming that there's no such thing as objective truth, and that according to my quibbling, all books--even non-fiction data-driven timelines--are filled with bias and subjectivity. I agree, but society has by public consensus demonstrated a willingness to accept a certain minimal level of epistemic distortion in different literary genres for the sake of convenience. NNF breaks this norm by not being honest and forthright about the degree to which artistic liberties affect the final text.

This is the second issue that really grinds my gears: the huge gap between what readers think NNF is and what it actually is. That the content is very sensitive to the biases and interpretive whims of the author is, of course, not by itself sufficient justification to condemn the genre to the dustbin of history. After all, pure fiction is entirely author-driven, and has plenty of value. The problem lies with the branding, marketing, and reputational angles of the NNF project.

The genre is parasitic on the good work and identity of the the journalistic method. Readers associate NNF with journalism (many NNF authors are journalists) and all the well-earned positive qualities that go along with it. From the opposite direction, journalists get to differentiate their work from the pile of terrible cookie-cutter nonfiction books by packaging their research in the guise of literary fiction. They get the social and marketing benefits of associating with that more artistic culture and identity. Fiction writers get to be serious and substantive, while journalists get to be literary and cosmopolitan.

To emphasize, there's nothing wrong with constructing counterfactual narratives for the purpose of entertainment--sometimes counterfactuals can even help you understand stuff about the real world. But to portray counterfactual as factual is a massive error that empties the project of all meaningful content while simultaneously abusing the relationship of trust between author and reader. Perhaps there is a place for NNF in our society, but first we must acknowledge its flaws and develop solutions. I suggest we start with renaming the genre. "Real-world fan fiction" has a certain zing to it.