Obamacare Requires Disclosure of Calorie Content

I think too many people know nothing about Obamacare except that the name Obama is in the title, and that’s enough for them to like it or dislike this very complex healthcare legislation.

No matter how you feel about it, I think the law is an attempt at reform that at the very least is inspiring an important public discourse on one of the most important subjects that we face as a democracy.

So, I’ve been slowly chipping away at learning more about this huge 2010 law. One of the interesting provisions is that chain restaurants must list the calories of menu items in the menu. They must also provide detailed nutritional content info (fat, sodum, carbs, sugars, protein, etc) upon request.

I knew that this has been a growing trend in restaurants, but I thought that it was due to laws passed in major cities and not due to a federal law. In some cases, restaurants have until 2014 to start disclosing this info, so there still might be a few hold outs.

I am a huge fan of government forcing information down our throats. That’s where big government does the most good in my opinion: help inform the public, and let the public make their own individual choices.

Where a lot of people start feeling uneasy is when laws start popping up that limit what people can eat or drink. For example, the following video discusses a recent New York City law that bans jumbo-sized sugary drinks in restaurants, theaters, and street carts. I like this specific law, but it makes me nervous.

Like I said, I’m all for government informing the public, even forcing that information down our throats. But consumer freedom is essential to the economic vibrancy of our nation. We should limit this freedom very carefully, if at all.

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Don’t Draw Muhammad But Defend The Right of Anyone To Do It

It would be funny if it weren’t true, but a publication of yet another cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad in a mocking manner is stirring international protest. This time it’s a cartoon from a French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Here’s the NY Time story on it: French Magazine Runs Cartoons That Mock Muhammad.

The cartoon (on the cover) shown on the left has a Muslim man and an Orthodox Jew saying: “You must not mock us!”

I have grown increasingly aware of the fear that many people in the media have of showing such cartoons. I personally think that the cartoons are distasteful and their importance lies solely in the violent protests they arouse.

I think this has to be used as an opportunity to say again, over and over, Evelyn Hall’s eloquent description of the principle of freedom of speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

As the following debate states: “Free speech is the grievance procedure of the democratic process”.

Freedom of speech is arguably the most fundamental right on which civilized society can evolve, improve, and flourish. But it’s not just the legal declaration of the right that’s important. What’s most important is that we, as Americans, must stand behind this  principle in the face of violent opposition.

So, don’t draw Muhammad, but speak up in defense of the right of any individual or publication to do so. If any freedom is worth fighting for, this one is at the top of the list.

Fortunately, freedom of expression has the world’s most brilliant writers and thinkers behind it. Here’s an example from 2006 with Christopher Hitchens:

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Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin and no Ron Paul

Romney announced that his vice presidential running mate will be the Representative from Wisconsin Paul Ryan. As the chair of the House Budget Committee, he is mostly known to the public as the person who proposed a bold plan that tries to deal with rising Medicare costs. I would make an analogy that he is proposing to deal with a serious infection in the foot by amputating the leg. While this may be an effective solution in an academic sense. In the broader social and economic reality of our country, I think his plan is not only naive but, more importantly for his current political situation, unpopular and unsellable.

So while Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin in that he is intellectually rigorous. He holds some  extreme views on issues that actually matter for our countries future. But neither is he Ron Paul, because his fiscal conservatism extends only to some parts of the economy, and do not seem to be based on a consistent set of principles.

On a purely political level, I think the Romney-Ryan ticket will lose in a landslide election (60-40 perhaps). Romney reminds me of Kerry in that he is a boring, awkward, gaffe-machine. It’s unfortunate, because I would love to see a strong fiscal conservative debate our president, and create some distance between the two candidates. Because without a strong challenger, it seems that our foreign and domestic policies are not likely to change.

On a positive note, I’m glad Romney picked Paul Ryan as opposed to a more gimmicky running mate. Ryan is known to speak his mind, and make careful arguments. So hopefully he will help inspire some good policy debates, as opposed to just the flinging of radicalized talking points back and forth.

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Arguing for The Things That Don’t Affect You

Main point: It may seem useless to talk about things that don’t have a direct effect on our lives, but it’s not useless. It’s all connected by a set of principles, and discussing it, reveals the strengths and weaknesses of those principles.

Ever since Nick Delpopolo (American judo player) was banned from the Olympics for having eaten a pot cookie 1-2 weeks before the event he was competing in, I found myself arguing for the decriminalization of weed. There are a lot of solid argument on the side of the decriminalization movement. And I find it a good gateway topic to broader discussions of the role of government in a society.

The “problem” is that I don’t smoke weed, and to some people that somehow weakens my arguments for its decriminalization. It’s true, I have no “horse in that race”. The same is true about arguing for gay marriage (since I’m not gay), a woman’s right to choose (since I’m not a woman), gun control (since I don’t own a gun), or more wonky fiscal policy topics…

I think these topics are extremely important, but they don’t have a direct effect on my life. The word “direct” is important here. Because these topics certainly do have an indirect effect. Believe it or not, whether gay people can marry has a ripple effect through the fabric of our society that extends to the funding of scientific research, to the policy of nuclear non-proliferation, to the price of oatmeal in the grocery story.

I try to live based on a set of concrete principles and argue for those principles in all aspects of life, even when the immediate effect in my personal life is not obvious.

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An Oppressive Dictatorship With Cheap Salad and No Hypocrisy

Note: The title and topic of this blog post are tongue-in-cheek. I am aware that a government that always “knows what’s best” naturally drifts far away from what actually is best.

I was watching a technical talk on the topic of computational geometry on YouTube and a comment popped up that in one sentence managed to include both a racist and a homophobic slur. This made me wish that I could somehow ban the ability of human beings to do write such comments (just because they are protected by the cover of anonymity). Of course, you couldn’t enforce anything like that, unless…

So I wondered what kind of things I’d love to see a dictatorial government implement. Here are some random ideas that would either benefit me directly or indirectly 😉

  • YouTube comments that contain racist or homophobic slurs would be punished by forcing that person to recite the same comment in-person to a group of people against which the comment was made. The group will then have 30 minutes to do with the commenter what they wish.
  • Salads would be heavily subsidized. So that a salad will always be cheaper than a burger. (Of course, then, the fast food lobby would convince Congress that a burger is actually a salad because it sometimes has lettuce).
  • Every citizen is required to prove on a yearly basis that they have the minimum civics knowledge required of most immigrants seeking citizenship. Questions like “What are the main branches of our government?”, “What is the Bill of Rights?”, “Who is the chief justice of the Supreme Court?”, “What are the rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the constitution?”, etc.
  • Every politician would be required to pass a much more stringent civics test. Basically you should be knowledgeable in 20th century international history, political science, law, and the basics of all major scientific disciplines (biology, physics, chemistry, etc).
  • Hypocrisy in hateful speech (e.g. homosexuals speaking out against gay marriage) should be punished with some kind of humiliation on Twitter.
  • Since the Olympics are going on, my kind of dictatorial government would actually fund the athletes training hard for years to represent their nation in the myriad of Olympics sports that do not provide them with a natural source of income.

On a serious note, while I believe that government (aka the people) can do a lot of good, I also tend to agree with Thomas Jefferson that “I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.”

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Centralized Health Care Record Database

I’m a big proponent of “big data”, of giving people the option of storing anything and everything about their life digitally as long as it makes their life easier, better, more fulfilling.

Unfortunately, too many people are still scared of giving personal information over to “big business” or “big government”. In my view, that’s like being scared of pulling down your pants during a physical exam.

There are areas of our lives, where keeping a centralized database of personal information can have dramatic effects of the quality of life. One such area is the healthcare system, where many records are still not kept electronically, and those that are, cannot be easily synchronized from one doctor to the next.

You could, of course, pass laws that require health care providers to (1) keep all records electronically and (2) to use the same standard that work with the centralized database. My hope is that companies like Google come out with a solution that seems obviously beneficial.

Unfortunately, Google Health tried to do just that and recently closed down. The reason is unknown, there are many suggestions, but the main reason is probably that it was bad PR. People seem scared of putting their health records online due to privacy concerns, and therefore if Google helps them do it, that somehow automatically make Google evil.

The following is a C-SPAN program on this subject from a while back:

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Two Ideas From Jesse Ventura on Improving Our Political System

I knew Jesse Ventura vaguely as a “pro” wrestler and less vaguely as an actor who played alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. So when he ran for governor of Minnesota, without bother to learn anything more about him, I just assumed him to be no more than a gimmick candidate who didn’t really stand for anything, but was damn good at riding talking points and the power of his name.

A couple of days ago, I saw this talk of his at Google and was pleasantly surprised:

The man is principled and reasonable. It’s not easy to put a label on him. He seems to basically be a libertarian, but he is a big supporter of investing in infrastructure. The big thing he wants to cut is defense spending. Like most good libertarians, he is a bit quirky, borderline mad, and totally out of fashion with the way mainstream politics works. But he is full of good ideas, and seems to be incapable of lying which in the very least makes him an interesting speaker and writer.

In the talk he briefly proposed two simple (arguably small) ideas for reforming elections:

  1. Don’t show party affiliation on the ballot.
  2. Add “none of the above” as an option.

The first idea he feels will encourage people to learn about the actually candidates and the details of their positions instead of just voting all Democrat or all Republican. It’s an interesting idea but my cynical side assumes that voters will not do any more research and will either not vote or vote based on something meaningless like the sound of the candidate’s name.

The second idea is interesting as well. It gives the voter a way to voice a disapproval of the system in general, and makes the reason of “I don’t like any of them” a less valid excuse for not voting.

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President Obama Speaks in Support of Gay Marriage

Obama publicly declared his personal belief that gay marriage should be legal. It was truly refreshing to hear the president speak out for gay rights on an issue where he is potentially far enough ahead of public opinion to lose votes over it.

There are a lot of opinions about the political impact of this. While I will engage in such discussion given a few beers, I certainly don’t see value or validity in any opinion on the matter. I have only one general sense, and that is: when people will look back 50 years from now at the fact that gay people could not marry, they will see it the same way as we now see the fact that women could not vote in the United States in a relatively recent past.

In other words, we are making some kind of progress. None of it is trivial (though it might appear to be in retrospect) but it’s comforting to know that I live in a time when we as a society are actively struggling with big moral questions. And all of it adds up to real implications for ourselves and our neighbors.

Of course, I’m confident that in 50 years, there will be newly “identified” groups of people whom the majority will discriminate against, either through the law or just through the way we talk, think, and live. I believe that one such group is robots. It may seem like a joke now, but I do believe that the growth of the personal robotics industry (or perhaps cloning) will bring some damn tough moral questions to the forefront.

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U.S. Prison Population

Main point: U.S. Prison populations are growing, and there is no smoking gun or a clearly-identified simple solution.

Each Friday, C-SPAN’s “America By the Numbers” segment features information from the federal statistical system. This week they did a program on the U.S. Prison Population.

Mostly, they confirmed what I already knew…

The American prison system is growing rapidly due to the fact that there is money to be made in it on many levels. The plot on the right shows the % of US population jailed at 0.22% in 1980 and at 0.76% in 2007. In other words, it more than tripled.

Many libertarians will tell you that the war on drugs is at the core of the problem. It seems that it is part of the problem but not at the core of it. Only 20% of prison inmates are there for drug offenses. However, there is a more powerful but indirect effect of the war on drugs seen in longer sentences for more violent or property crimes if the criminal has a prior record (often due to a minor drug offense).

Of course, the C-SPAN program also highlighted the well-known race imbalance. Black males are imprisoned at 6.5 times the rate of white males. One new interesting statistic I learned is that there is a bit more racial equality among women in that black women are imprisoned at 3 times the rate of white women.

By the way, for people that are unclear about the distinction between jails and prisons… A jail is for short sentences or just for holding people that are awaiting trial. A prison is the long-term cage that most of these financial discussions are center around.

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Game Change: 2008 Election in a Nutshell

Game Change is almost but not quite a history book about the 2008 election. For folks that follow the week-to-week (or even day-to-day) of political commentary, should stop, and just wait to read about the simple truth of it all a year after the election. I feel like I learned more from Game Change than I did from the countless hours of reading the NY Times and other sources in the year leading up to the election. I suspect the same might be true for the current election season.

The book gets at who Obama, Clinton, McCain, Palin, Edwards, and Giuliani really are better than the media did during the campaign. Why? Because most of the book was written from interviews done right after the election. Everyone’s memory was fresh, and there was much less need to lie (or less immediate benefit for doing so). Some of it is a bit gossipy, even if the sources are solid.

The following, off the top of my head, are some of the more interesting things I remember from the book:

Obama is a Political Science Nerd

Obama is a policy wonk. He is known for making flowery speeches and being a good politician, but in fact his interests lie in long private debates over details of policy. Yes, he is a political science nerd, and this alone made me gain a ton of respect for him. He is luckily more than an empty suit with pretty words that I was worried he might be. One problem he kept complaining about (as many other politicians do) is all the time he is supposed to spend fundraising takes away from the valuable policy discussions. I can relate to that problem, as that seems to plague the world of academia as well. Many professors find that a large portion of their time is spent searching for funding of their research as opposed to doing the actual research.

Elizabeth Edwards is Not a Saint

I don’t want to touch this subject too much because Elizabeth Edwards was deceived by her husband and suffered a public death while inspiring many people with her saintly image. What the book reveals is that she was a very difficult person in private life. She was controlling, irrational, and just not good to John. Clearly he didn’t deserve better, but the description of Elizabeth’s real-life character helped me understand that dysfunctional relationship a little better.

Politically, McCain was In Over His Head

I gained a lot of respect for McCain after reading this book, because honestly, his instinct and intentions are genuine in a way that’s rare in politics. As he started losing, however, he let other people define who he is. He started trying to “play” politics and lost. It’s clear that the brilliant politicians in this whole group are the Clintons. McCain and Obama are much more human and real. Luckily for Obama, he can also make a hell of a good speech, and McCain can’t.

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