Ask the grumpies: subsidies and obesity

Linda asks:

I saw this story about rising obesity rates and thought there must be an angle here for an economist. http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/chi-report-obesity-rising-dramatically-in-illinois-nation-20120918,0,3401712.story Maybe I am biased, but I’m thinking that one reason the obesity rate is rising is because people are incentivized (is that the right word?) to buy processed food with a lot of fillers, sugar, hydrogenated oils, and many other bad substances because they are so cheap. Of course they are cheap because the products that are used to make them (mostly corn and soy) are highly subsidized. So, if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the costs of cheap food fillers, the product cost would go up, too, right? Then there would be a more level playing field for true costs of foods, whether they be the highly processed junk or the whole foods like vegetables, fruit, etc. If food prices rise, that would impact people’s budgets, too, but is this logical? Factual? Inquiring minds want to know! ;-)

Sorry, typing too fast…if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the cost of cheap fillers went up, the product costs would go up, too, right?

Ok, here we have some huge problems with food deserts, poverty, and, as you so rightly point out, subsidies and lobbies for stuff like HFCS.

#2 says:  There must be answers to this we can cite.

Have you seen King Corn?

#1 says:  Well, this is one where the science isn’t complete yet.  Many folks still believe that sugar is sugar, whether it comes from beets or cane or corn or apple juice or whether or not it has fancy chemical stuff done to it to make it “high fructose” instead of just regular.  However, there’s some compelling (in my mind) new research that suggests that our bodies don’t understand the calorie load of things like high fructose corn syrup, or (with a stronger research base) artificial sweeteners.  Therefore yes, it’s quite possible that these more processed things are making us fatter.  But that’s not mainstream yet and we don’t really know.

We also know that many processed foods are processed in a way to make them addictive– to get that perfect balance of sweet, salty, fatty, and crisp, so that no, you can’t eat just one.  Does that lead to over-eating?  I think it’s likely, but I don’t know that’s been proven.  (People could substitute with lower calorie intake later.)

We do know that you’re absolutely right about these cheap carbohydrates providing cheaper calorie loads.  They also are bad for folks with insulin problems because they’re digested quicker and lead to insulin spikes.  The insulin spikes then lead to weight gain and other health problems.  Are they bad for folks without insulin problems, I don’t know.  But, 10% of women have PCOS, so even with that alone, a lot of people are going to be affected by cheap simple carbohydrates.  We do know that being poor and getting your calories from simple carbs does lead to obesity.  That’s why there are a lot of obese poor people.

And absolutely, the subsidies are on grains that are not good for us.  They’re not on real veggies.  Without them corn and potatoes and bread would cost more, and healthier foods would be more likely to be grown (because there wouldn’t be a kick- back for planing the filler foods) and their costs would actually go down.  Overall food budgets would probably increase, though if we also got rid of tariffs and embargoes, it’s hard to say what the bottom line is.  Your economics logic is impeccable.

I’m sure someone has looked at the hard numbers recently, but it’s not summer so I’m not going to look them up.  I do know a guy who did his dissertation on getting rid of the sugar monopoly, so people do look at these questions and put numbers on them.  With the huge amount of funding going into obesity research, I’m sure there are plenty of numbers on what getting rid of the farm subsidies would do to obesity as well, though they’re really just guesstimates.  (Sorry for not looking them up… it has been a crazy busy semester, and sadly the only two ask the grumpies posts left require actually knowing stuff.  We have fallen down as omniscient bloggers.)

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Doing math multiple ways

On gifted forums, sometimes parents complain that the teacher says the kids have to do something X way, but DC gets the right answer doing it a different way.  So why should they have to do it X way when Y way is obviously working?

It’s kind of reminiscent of the argument that elementary schools no longer need to teach math because we have calculators now.

I disagree with that sentiment.  It’s important to do math multiple different ways.  There’s value in learning a different way to get the same answer.  You get a better understanding of how numbers (and later, symbols for numbers) are put together.  That leads to more accurate math, better estimates, faster calculations even without a calculator or pencil, and a greater knowledge of the possibilities of what can be done.

Even if we have computers that can do calculus, it’s still important to know how calculus works, because you know what is possible, you have ideas about what to try for things… and that’s even ignoring that math just makes you smarter.

DC1’s school just switched from Saxon math to Chicago math, but we’re doing Singapore math at home.  I’m glad ze’s learning the traditional computational methods at school (and we practice them in hir Brainquest workbook during summer and on the weekends), but I love love love that Singapore math looks at the same things in a different way.  For example, we just hit multiplication of 2 or 3 digits by a 1 digit number.  The traditional method ze’ll learn in school (and practice in brainquest) is to start with problems that don’t require any carrying.  Probably lots of x2 and x3 simple problems (23 x 2 = ?, 12 x 3 = ?), in order to cement the idea of multiplying the ones digit and then the 10s digit (and then the 100s digit another day).  Eventually they’ll introduce the concept of carrying (23 x 4 = ?).  (Then next year, the mechanics of double digit multiplication.)

The Singapore method, instead starts with some pictures.  It says, you remember when you learned multiplication how that was like having 3 rows of 4 balls?  And 3 * 4 = 12?  Well, what if, instead of each ball being worth one, that each ball is worth 10.  So you have 3 rows of 4 (10) balls.  (In pictures this is more obvious than in words.)  They’ve done the 10 ball representation previously with place value and with skip counting and x10s, so they’ve seen this idea before multiple times.  So 3 * 40 = 12 tens, and they know that 12 tens = 120.  Then they move on to 3 * 400 with the same pictorial representation.  Finally they finish up with 6 sample problems:  5*9, 5*90, 5*900, 9*5, 9*50, 9*500.  These last problems are set up in a way such that there’s pattern matching insights there for students who are good at getting insights from pattern matching, but it isn’t forced on kids who aren’t.  (At this point DC1 asked if 50*90 = 9*500 and 5*900.)  The next day moves on to 2 and 3 digit times 1 digit without carrying, but teaches it using these insights with the distributive property (13* 2 = 10*2 + 3*2), and this is not the first time they’ve seen the distributive property either– they’ve worked a lot with it with addition.  By the time Singapore math kids get to algebra a lot of tricky algebra concepts should seem pretty obvious.

I believe there’s value to being able to do math with both of these techniques.  They each provide different insights to how numbers are put together.  They each have different numerical problems for which they are the faster and easier method of solution.  In addition, the standard US method tends to be easiest when one has a pencil handy, whereas Singapore math is often best for mental math.  It isn’t that one technique is better than the other (though I confess that Singapore is more beautiful and I can see the sneaky ways it’s introducing higher level math while working with simple numeric problems, something beautiful in itself).

Being able to use multiple methods is even more valuable, however, than the sum of being able to use two individual methods.  Because of the insight given by seeing two different ways to solve the same problem, I would argue that the value of learning a second method isn’t even multiplicative, but instead exponential (or maybe factorial…)  Each new way provides a deeper insight into the magnificent world of numbers.

And, with that pattern matching turned on… if there are multiple ways to get to the right answer in math, maybe there’s multiple ways to get to a solution in other kinds of problems too.  If everyone had that particular insight, then maybe government policy wouldn’t be quite so messed up (a long shot, perhaps).

Do you think there’s a benefit to learning different ways to get the same answer?

Don’t say no, say “Yes, but…”

Seems like this is the year (or month or something) of saying no.  We’ve been enjoying Femomhist‘s series on the topic, and have been cheering Dr. Crazy‘s new found ability to say no to unreasonable requests.

#1 is a big proponent of saying, “Yes, but…” to unreasonable requests.  Think about what you would need to make something worthwhile.  If what you would need in return is unreasonable, so much the better.

So, “Yes, I will teach an overload this semester, but I will need a course reduction in writing in the future.”  “Yes, I will allow my section to be twice as large, but I will need grading support.”  “Yes, I will be chair of the department, but only if you double my salary.”  Maybe not quite that blunt on the last one, but you get the idea.  (Ideally you phrase it in a way that makes it sound like you need the thing in order to benefit the department, “As you know, my research agenda is very important for the department’s ranking…” “As you know, it is vital that the students get feedback on their homework, and without grading support…”  “Doing a good job as chair will take up a lot of time, and I’ll need to be able to make some cuts in time-use at home, may not be able to apply for grants,…”)

Sometimes they say yes, they can get you what you need, and the unreasonable request is no longer as unreasonable.  Often they say they can’t do that and move on to their next victim.

The big benefit to this strategy is that you are no longer the first or even the second person that they ask to do these unreasonable requests.  And, by the time they get to you, they may be desperate enough that they’re willing to give compensation.

#2 notes that her requests for compensation are usually also unreasonable given the monetary restrictions in her department.  So either she gets forced into doing it anyway, or else it becomes a hard NO because the thing that would make it a YES are unavailable.  For example, my college won’t pay me enough to be chair of our department.  I would need a WHEELBARROW more money than they’re willing to give in order to even consider it.  And also, the dean got annoyed when I made it clear that’s what I wanted.  For some reason I should just do it out of the goodness of my heart, I guess?  HAIL NO.  #1 notes that this is how it is supposed to work– that hard NO isn’t really a hard no, it’s a Yes, but it’s too bad you can’t compensate appropriately for what you’re asking.  If the dean really wanted you to do it, ze would have come up with the funds.  Fortunately for you someone else had a lower asking price.

How do you react to unreasonable requests?

Taking into account the full costs

Recently some pf blogs have been doing cost-benefit analyses, but have been forgetting to take into account all of the costs.  Here’s a gentle reminder of things that you should think of before concluding the analysis.

Opportunity costs

An opportunity cost is the value of the next best thing you could be doing/purchasing/etc.  So the daycare cost of a baby isn’t zero when a parent stays home with the child, but instead includes the cost of that parent staying home rather than working.  And that’s just the most  basic opportunity cost, as we talked about before, there’s even bigger costs down the road for the career of the SAHP.

Hidden variable costs

It’s easy to think about the fixed costs for things– what you pay upfront, or what you must pay whether you use the item or not.  But there’s also often per-use variable costs, costs that are only incurred when you use the item.

The cost of car ownership includes not just the purchase price of the car, not just the cost for insurance, but it also needs to include gas costs, repair costs, and so on.

The cost of cloth diapering isn’t zero after the diapers have been purchased.  Calculations need to include water costs (and, of course, the opportunity cost of one’s time spent doing extra laundry and removing poo, though a hidden benefit may be earlier potty training).

Ignore sunk costs

If you’ve already incurred  a cost, that shouldn’t count in your calculation– only the costs and benefits of your future potential actions should rationally count in your decision making.  So it doesn’t matter if you’ve spent 3 (or 4 or 5) years in graduate school already, what matters is if the remaining 3 years are worth it.

What hidden costs are we missing?

Is it better to have link and loved?

Ask the past tells us how to treat freshmen.

NYMag explains how to change a bro- dominated culture.

Usenix with a sad computer science story.

Stacking pennies discusses second generation bias.

Love and disdain’s research statement is almost as good as his teaching statement.  Will he write my cover letter?

A puppy and a baby are delighted to meet each other.

How to refurbish a popstar.

YOUR SAMPLE SIZE IS SMALL AND UNMANLY

this Onion brief report is made of truth!

Adjunctorium discusses the syllabus difference between full timers and adjuncts

When professors keep it real.

The blog that ate manhattan discusses a mammogram study.

The stem crisis is a myth.

an update on the problem of maria

what a bummer, the PA guys are being asshats again

If I had a Google question…

Q: what happened to grumpy rumblings

A: According to Kevin at wordpress: “Your site was flagged by our automated anti-spam controls. We have reviewed your site and have removed the suspension notice.”

Q:  besides job hunting what do people do when they are unemployed?

A:  Well, DH has been doing a lot of baking.

Q:  are/verti le blinds still srojnd

A:  Were they ever?  We think no.

Q:  why do some people want to be controversial in front of others

A:  to get attention?  because they’re bored?  to study the reactions of other humans?  because they have strong beliefs?

Q:  it is better to have loved and lost that never to have loved at all

A:  YMMV

Q: what to say when parents give you money for your wedding

A:  Thank you!  (or Thank you, but we can’t accept this.  Whichever.)

Q:  pros and cons of following your dreams

A:  pro– you keep the never from swallowing up the dreamscape.  con– you start to go insane.  (The former made a much better movie, btw.  But the latter was a thought provoking second half to the book.  Those Germans sure can be trippy.)

Q:  questions that keep you up at night

A:  Crap, did I make those handouts I need for tomorrow’s 8am class?  And did I remember to make my lunch?  Did I put my external hd in my bag?

Q:  why people hate the midwest

A:  snow

Q:  do professors research in the summer

A:  Yes

We’re Back!

Sorry for that little downtime earlier.  It was a WordPress mistake.  Thanks for your patience.  We now return to your regularly-scheduled grumpy rumblings.

[ETA:  Please start/continue conversation on baby words in today’s actual post!  #2 was totally looking forward to reading them.]

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