Friday, July 20, 2012


I'm not feeling very well tonight. The AC iced over, and there's no hair dryer. So, I'm taking a break from my regularly scheduled Friday night goofing off to offer a public service announcement. Figure it'll keep me distracted from my troubles.

We've all seen one of these, I'm guessing:

Would you like to know more?

The majority of Americans probably skip right past these. They're a little complicated, and... really, who cares?

Except that a lot of people need this information to live. Diabetics have to read everything, count their carbs, check for bleached white flour. Rice. Potato. According to a casual Google search, diabetes affects about 8.3% of Americans, and diabetics need to know what's in every meal they eat. Forever.

It's possible to have allergies to all sorts of things. Another casual Google search suggests that many of the most dangerous allergies are food related, including peanuts, shellfish, dairy, soy, wheat and eggs. Consequences of eating the wrong thing can range from discomfort to death. Someone with a peanut allergy can be in for some real hard times, if they eat some.

People with heart conditions have to watch their salt, their cholesterol...

A lot of people need these things, even though the majority of people never do more than glance at them.

The only reason that we have them is government regulation. See, gathering and distributing this information is not free - it's a cost on businesses. Successful businesses are about minimizing costs. This is also information that a business may prefer to keep quiet, because people might choose to avoid their product for a competitor's with a little less sugar or a little less fat.

If you don't believe me, take a look at booze the next time you're at the store. Alcoholic beverages get a pass on labeling, and as a result? They don't do it. I can immediately know what's in a can of Coke or Pepsi or even Fred's Choice, but I don't have that same information when I pick up a can of beer or a bottle of rum.

The only difference is the law.

This whole thing has a long history, too. The FDA didn't happen overnight. People died before we got the rules we have now. Things were, in fact, pretty gross in the time of small government *.

I've heard a lot of talk about how efficient businesses are. How we should 'run government like a business.' I was recently forwarded an e-mail talking about 'taxmageddon,'  and how government was 'strangling' business and 'crushing' taxpayers, and...

Well, it was all very colorful. But here's the thing:

When a business succeeds, it's visible. We know Coke is doing very well. They have a ton of money, and they spend a lot of it telling us how great they are. The success of a business is readily quantifiable and spread around.

When a business fails, that's when things are quiet. Some guy opens a restaurant down  the road and it flops? You probably never even heard of it. That's part of why it failed. And they do fail all the time.

Government doesn't work like that. When a government program flops, you can bet someone is going to tell you. And the truth is, government screws up a lot. It's a human institution, and humans are all about mistakes.

When government works, though? Good government is pretty invisible, apart from going to the Moon or something. Part of the fun is that we can take it for granted. The good the FDA does is preventative: there's no way to tell how many people would've gotten sick or died without them. I couldn't tell you that.

All I can say is that I'd be one of the bodies.

The next time someone talks about small government for the sake of small government - rather than offering a nuanced critique of a specific policy? Try to remember food labels, and take a minute to think about all the other things government does that we don't talk about, because we're free to take them for granted.

Then maybe think about how to fix what's specifically wrong with government, instead of just forgetting the whole thing and returning to a veritable jungle **.

* The Jungle is an amazing read. It's a novelization, but it's based on Upton Sinclair's own experiences, and is held to be a major contributing factor in the FDA existing at all.

People really lived like that in this country.

** No, seriously, read it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Out of Sync

*dusts off the old blog*

I spend a lot of time thinking about this place. It's part of why I update so irregularly - I want the things I say to be accessible to the people who are, (at least hypothetically), reading them.

It's a bad habit for a writer to be in, even an amateur like me.

I come by it honestly, though. I've spent most of my life having difficulty communicating what I think and what I know.

Part of that is simply that I'm very bright. A favorite story of mine about my teen years was the time I skipped from 2nd to 4th year Japanese, while teaching myself Latin. I kept my Japanese notes in Latin for a while, just to maximize study time for both. All this, while managing a full International Baccalaureate course load. I held a B+ average for that program, despite being a very brooding and depressed teenager, and piling on extra things like that.


And I know how that sounds: "I'm super smart, and everyone else is too dumb to understand me!"

I don't mean that at all.

My point is that most people learn to socialize as children. They play with other kids, learn how to get along together. They get a sense for acceptable behavior, figure out how to read unspoken social cues and other very important skills for interacting with people and sharing ideas.

If you're smart enough, you lack a proper peer group at that critical age. Other children are too slow and limited to be interesting. Adults are better, and when I was very young, I mostly leaned on them for human contact... but they're a different species. A smart child is not a miniature adult. The gulf of experience is too wide. When you're that age, you can't even map the differences.

So if you're smart enough, you miss out in a vital skill set.

I know: I did.

Worse, being smart can be an obstacle to learning what to do. When you're smart, you're used to being right. You go to school, and you know the answers. You solve problems more quickly than everybody else. You remember things better. You correct people a lot. It's easy to get caught up in the notion that everyone else should be doing things your way, rather than accepting some need to change yourself. The whole 'everyone else is stupid' thing?

It's seductive.

I know about this one too. I felt like that as a kid. Indeed, I only escaped it because of an epiphany in the 8th grade. I didn't talk to the other students at my middle school much. They were mostly nice kids, and looking around FB, I think they mostly grew up to be very fine people.


We just... didn't have anything to talk about at the time.

Well, one day? I realized that by the time I was grown up, all the people I actually spoke to would be old. My classmates would be running the show. You know, like they are today. I also realized that they would have no real incentive to bridge the gap. It didn't matter what a special snowflake I was, they would never even know. The rest of them had each other. There was no pressing need for them to tease me out of my shell. (I should note that a few did try. The problem was not that I was surrounded by jerks. They were good kids.)

I realized that if I wanted to be a part of the world, a world that would belong to them, I'd have to figure it out myself.

I'm still working on that. I always feel like I'm about a half step out of sync with the whole world, forever bumping into things nobody else would stumble on. Indeed, I mostly see my life as a struggle to solve this. The language thing I mentioned above isn't just idle boasting: I was trying to get a handle on this at the time. I wondered what you could learn about societies from how they used language*. Latin and Japanese weren't the only ones I took a stab at, either - I learned that Greek has irregular nouns, Czech has sounds I didn't know existed and cannot replicate, and Gaelic is just an all around pain. :)

That has gotten easier with age. Life experience helps. Time helps. However, it's still hard to know how to navigate this, some days.

... and so sometimes, I don't talk at all. Particularly if I regard it as important.

I'm going to talk about some other problems with this a different time. Maybe soon, maybe in a year - whenever I settle on an approach I'm happy with. In the meantime, if anybody is still reading this, thanks.

As an aside: language differences really are fascinating. Just learning how and when to be formal in different cultures offers a lot of insight into what people value or fear, I think.