05 July 2009

Sloppy research is unhealthy

I remember when libertarians had initiative in questioning the basic assumptions of how we govern ourselves, and are governed. You still get small numbers of classical liberals, like Stephen Kirchner or Andrew Norton, who bother to do research to test their theories, but these tend to be the exception. Even Jason Soon will do this to some extent, and when he doesn't you can criticise him for it knowing that he recognises sloppy research is a bad thing.

I suspect that the disappointment of John Howard, who talked a good game about small government when in opposition but who abandoned libertarianism once in office, has turned libertarians to cynicism. These days, libertarians distinguish themselves by pooh-poohing any suggestion that comes up, that any change at all will be worse that what we have and might get.

The prime example of this is silly Chris Berg.
The Federal Government's Preventative Health Taskforce has spent the past year coming up with creative little ideas ...

Because any idea they could have is "little", or even "bad"(see below) eh Chris?
On Tuesday, the taskforce delivered its recommendations to Canberra. But they've been dripping out their proposals to the media for a few weeks.

Indeed, the taskforce seems to have adopted a tactic new to policy debate: if you propose enough bad ideas in a short enough space of time, it's impossible to rebut them all.

Assuming that the only thing to do with these ideas is to rebut them, or that you have the knowledge to distinguish a good idea from a bad one.
One of the least convincing ideas is the one that has got the most attention: subsidised gym membership and fitness equipment to tackle obesity.

Yes, gyms can be expensive ... Maybe we are all craven, stingy fatties, but if we are, then it'd be a good bet that we're lazy too. A few small tax breaks or a small government-sponsored reduction in the price of a gym membership is not exactly a compelling motivator to cast aside the pizza boxes and pump weights.

Speak for yourself, Chris. Nobody is going on a jihad against pizza. A few small tax breaks don't necessarily help all the causes for which charities are set up, but the tax deduction signals a social good that adds some incentive (and you can donate less than the price of a mobile phone plan). Where did that figure come from? I'd suggest the fact that few gym memberships are used to their full value makes this a blunt instrument for achieving desired ends, and would like to see a bit of research into that. Blithe sneering doesn't help anyone.

What also doesn't help are fatuous celebrity references. Is Gwynneth Paltrow (an American lady who used to act in films) the only person you know of who goes to gyms? Does she endorse your policy, or oppose it, and would it matter either way Chris?
One of the more prominent anti-smoking proposals of the taskforce is to scrub cigarette packs of all brand identification — logos, colours, everything — as if stencilled gold foil pasted onto a cardboard box is all it takes to eliminate an individual's willpower.

The nature of an addiction is that ingesting more of the product represents a continued failure of willpower, Chris, not a demonstration of it. You'd find that out if you'd done a bit of research, fellow (there are plenty of celebrities who are addicted to nicotine, why not use them for your next piece?).
Are there really that many people who want to quit smoking, but keep being drawn back by the shiny wrapping, like a nicotine-addled magpie?

Apparently - that would explain why nicotine companies spend millions producing said packaging in that manner. As this is against the wide public interest, to reverse this would discourage non-addicts from taking it up while reinforcing its lack of appeal to those who are addicted. There's plenty of information on this if only you'd research, fellow.
We're a lot further down the nanny state's slippery slope than anybody could have predicted a few decades ago.

Not really, and again a bit of research would put the lie to that.

In the 1940s, for example, the Nazi state had been in operation for more than a decade: governments to the west and east of Germany were devoting considerable resources to its destruction. The Marshall Plan and the Warsaw Pact poured many millions of taxpayer dollars toward rebuilding societies and economies devastated by war. In the face of all this state activity, men like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek complained that various states were re-enserfing the populations who paid taxes, voted and were governed. This took considerable gall but they became recognised as great thinkers once the postwar states were strong enough to be sneered at. An English writer named George Orwell wrote a number of essays and books in which he foresaw what you call the "nanny state", Chris.
There's a big chasm between the medical world and the world of public policy ... They may have good intentions. Nobody wants Australia to be needlessly unhealthy.

You've missed the point, Chris, and that's why your article is so silly.

The health system in this country is overwhelmingly state-funded, and as such there is a public interest in driving down health costs. The demand on our health system is increasingly as a result of "lifestyle factors", ailments where the sufferer could have avoided being in a position where they need expensive medical care if only they had avoided certain addictions, or other behaviours which ultimately impose great cost on individual and state.

What would constitute needful unhealthiness? Does anyone need to be unhealthy?
But these medicos with ambitious regulatory proposals rarely consider some critical questions. Will there be unintended consequences? (Such as drinkers changing from alcopops to hard spirits since the tax was increased.)

Will there be unintended consequences of anything? Why bother getting out of bed? What made you think the alcopops tax was imposed by "medicos"? I thought it was politicians who did that. I'd be interested in seeing the research on that, and if you have it might add some of the credibility you currently lack.
There is an almost unanimous agreement among public health lobbyists and the commentariat that the Government should ban junk food advertising to children. But the Royal Journal of Medicine argues there is "no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children's food consumption".

Is this in Britain, or some part of Britain, or is it universal? If so, why haven't food companies cottoned on to this and axed their marketing departments? Did you have to wade past voluminous research to the contrary to find one piece that may support your view (or may not - volume, chapter and page no. please Chris).
Our peak communications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which has repeatedly looked at the issue over the past decade, agrees.

Thank goodness they agree with Chris Berg, otherwise they'd just be another mob of bureaucratic busybodies.
Nevertheless, we still get vacuous claims about "pester-power" — claims which seem to be driven by the belief that only the government can stop kids nagging their parents.

Advertising is meant to inform consumers of their options in the market. Younger children do not earn nor control sufficient money or freedom to get to junkfood stores and consume said products, and they lack the ability to discern implicit claims against their wider self-interest. Advertisers know this: they seek to manipulate children into altering adults' purchasing behaviour toward the commercial interests of producers (= advertisers' clients), in an emotional manner, away from the interests of the children and the healthcare system. See how it works, Chris?

In modern capitalism, costs are foisted onto government if that's the cheapest place for them to be. That's why the healthcare system is government-run: it's cheaper to offset healthcare costs as part of government than have the market provide them. Every country in the world bar one accepts this, and the US looks increasingly likely to take this step once they realise the sneers of people like Chris Berg count for nothing. It's cheaper and easier for the state to have a monopoly of violence, and there are other issues besides: once you accept that you can understand the place of the state within a capitalist society. You'll be a better Research Fellow for such a realisation.
Mark Twain was concerned that giving the government the power to "meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens" risked people losing their "independence of thought and action".

Yes, and Twain was a funny man, wasn't he? Always calling for this or that to be banned. Richard Doll hadn't reported on nicotine addiction and lung cancer during Twain's life, and there's been plenty more research done since then. New and different information can often required new and different responses, Chris.

The Melbourne curmudgeon is a cliché tradition in The Age. Columnists like Keith Dunstan or Ranald Macdonald wrote columns in favour of the rotary-dial telephone or against teabags, or that Aussie Rules football was better when players weren't paid to play it - but these were always leavened with a genuine understanding of the alternate viewpoint, they were well-written and witty. Kenneth Davidson writes grim columns against capitalism in all its forms, hoping Melbourne will become like East Berlin c.1958, but he at least will draw on empirical research to support the platform from which he whinges. They are running Berg in the hope that he might be a "young fogey", but he isn't a patch on these other grumpies.

Berg is wilfully ignorant of that at which he sneers, making a mockery of the "research fellow" tag and those who slapped it on him. By treating his opponents' points as beneath him, he denies himself both intellectual respect for his own position and personal respect for any generosity toward theirs. Andrew Norton takes great pains to be civil and respectful to those who takes a different view, and to fail to do so fails to advance your cause - such as it is.

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