Weekend Reading 1/13/12

Willpower, climate betrayal, and more.
This post is 43 in the series: Weekend Reading

Alan:

Michael Thomas had this righteous rant in Newsweek over the holidays. The argument is not original: Wall Street and big money generally have corrupted US democracy. But the writing is arresting:

I have lived what now, at 75, is starting to feel like a long life. If anyone asks me what has been the great American story of my lifetime, I have a ready answer. It is the corruption, money-based, that has settled like some all-enveloping excremental mist on the landscape of our hopes, that has permeated every nook of any institution or being that has real influence on the way we live now.

Clark:

Wondering how to make your New Year’s resolutions stick?  Researchers are doing some fascinating work on willpower — see, for example, these articles in the New York Times and Wired.  The trick is to recognize that willpower is limited — so you should focus your limited reserves of willpower where they’ll do the most good. That typically means focusing on simply avoiding temptation, rather than resisting it.  To lose weight, for example, focus all your willpower on not taking a walk down ice cream aisle. Because once you get the treat in your freezer, you’ve set yourself up for a losing battle with your cravings.

Speaking of the Times, in a generally good article on parking lots I found one gem…

As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.”

And also one clunker…

We rely too much on cars because our public transit systems are often so abysmal.

That latter quote struck me as mistaking cause and effect.  The effect is inefficient (or “abysmal”) transit systems.  But the root cause is how we’ve shaped our cities: we rely on cars largely because we’ve designed our towns and cities to make cars convenient.  And a land use regime that designs cities around the car inherently makes an effective transit system exorbitantly expensive, and an affordable transit system is a poor alternative to the car.

And speaking of clunkers and the NY Times, this opinion piece on why Americans are eating less meat struck me as missing the mark. The author argues that, at heart, the decline in meat eating is a cultural shift: we’re eating less meat because we want to eat less meat.  Vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal rights, and the like are shifting our cultural tastes.  But vegetarianism has been culturally relevant for decades, while (by my read of the numbers — see, e.g., the charts here) the decline in meat consumption only started after oil prices spiked and the economy slid into recession. Since then, ethanol demand has caused the prices of animal feed to rise, even as many people had less cash to spend on groceries.  To my eye, you don’t have to assume a deep cultural shift, just a natural human reaction to rising food prices.  Then again, I tend towards a semi-materialist view of history–i.e., I believe that economic and technological realities have an outsized but under-appreciated effect on culture and ideology–so of course I’d look at prices first.

In case you missed it, here’s my favorite item from Sightline Daily all week — a short video about why even modest amounts of exercise are fantastic for your health.

Anna:

If you haven’t already, read this (and weep). Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Obama’s Climate Betrayal” in the New Yorker. After detailing US obstruction of European rules to curb airline emissions, Kolbert’s assessment is this: “It’s bad enough—more than bad enough, really—that the U.S. has failed to lead the fight against climate change. This is very nearly as true under President Barack Obama as it was under George W. Bush…Now, by trying to block others’ attempts to tackle the problem, the U.S. is behaving in a manner that seems best described as unforgivable.” And she concludes: “If the Administration disagrees with the European plan, then it would seem to be under a heavy obligation to propose its own. All it’s doing now is shilling for the airlines. Is this any way to run a planet?”

Lead levels in Americans’ blood track pretty darn closely with dropping crime rates—in Los Angeles—and all around the country. Coincidence? Or unexplored, unacknowledged link? Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum has raised the question several times. There are others who are quite convinced of the connection. And unlike other theories, (like the Freaknonomics authors’ hypothesized link between crime and abortion), the effects of reducing exposure to lead may be easier to measure because different countries have phased out lead at different points, so “they provide a rigorous test. In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.”

 

Lead does a lot of harmful stuff, especially to children—negatively affecting IQ, for one big one. If we take nothing else from this, it’s a regulatory success story and a  good reminder that government regulations protect people—real people!—whatever those people think about the so-called environment!

If drought, heat waves, rising sea levels, pine beetles, and forest fires don’t get you too worked up, here’s one for you: Will climate change wipe out maple syrup?

And, finally, the Patriotic Millionaires group slams the Chamber of Commerce for looking out mostly for a handful of multinationals at the expense of America’s small businesses and families.

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Comments

  1. Shel Anderson says:

    I also read Kevin Drum’s little piece on lead. Interesting check on this hypothesis: here in North Carolina lead from paint is still a serious problem. Probably the same for much of the east coast where old houses still have that problem. Has crime gone down in these places? Doesn’t look like it from here.

  2. Curtis says:

    Anna,

    I thought that the abortion/crime link in Freakonomics was based on a difference in timing of legalization of abortion and crime across US states…but the graph you present is very striking…astounding really… I found more details about this debate on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Impact_of_Legalized_Abortion_on_Crime

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