A Red Hot Labor Market? Don’t Believe It!

We’ve been seeing headlines screaming about low unemployment rates and a red hot job market.

I’m not seeing any of this.

The people I know still struggle along, looking for a decent job and taking any short term low wage job they can get. I’ve got a gig at a community college and don’t see any of my adjunct colleagues quitting the part time adjunct grind for jobs demanding graduate degrees and specialized knowledge — even though that is what they all have because it is required by the college.

An increase in the availability of good jobs would be reflected throughout the economy, but does not seem to be happening.

Historically, inflation increases when economies come out of recession and hiring picks up. That is because people are making more money and catching up on the buying they have deferred wile unemployed, creating demand.

But that’s not happening.

Inflation is edging up just a little, but that might because the Federal Reserve has been increasing interest rates just in case inflation increases.

If people were getting hired and making more money we would also expect a rise in home sales, but that isn’t happening. In fact just the opposite is happening. Since 2017 home sales have been sliding down and seem to be accelerating over the last six months or so.

We would also expect auto sales to increase, but nothing dramatic is happening there either, although there has been a slight uptick since August of 2018.

Real labor shortages also change the way employers hire.

When employers need workers they start lowering barriers to employment like credit and background checks, unrealistic demands for education and experience and start offering training programs.

Most significantly wages start increasing.

Although some of that is happening it isn’t what we could consider an economic trend.

The latest Employment Situation form the Bureau of Labor Statistics is not showing dramatic changes in any of its common measures of labor.

Long term unemployment, discouraged workers and those no longer in the labor force are all tracking steady. The only thing changing are the number of people who hold multiple jobs. That group has risen by about 25% since the beginning of 2014 and although progress has been jittery this seems to be a long term trend.

Quite possibly the rise in employment is mostly attributable to an increase in low paying part time jobs. This would explain the lack of impact in the rest of the economy that we would expect if well paying full time jobs were being filled. It also explains the increase in multiple job holders.

So, no, claims of a red hot job market are not supported by BLS statistics, the Federal Reserve or the National Association of Realtors.

Most likely this is just hype coming from people and organizations with an agenda who spread economic fantasies in hopes they will come true.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Multiple Jobholders, Primary Job Full Time, Secondary Job Part Time [LNU02026625], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNU02026625, November 12, 2018. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNU02026625

National Association of Realtors, Existing Home Sales [EXHOSLUSM495S], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/EXHOSLUSM495S, November 12, 2018. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/EXHOSLUSM495S

U.S. Bureau of the Census and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, New One Family Houses Sold: United States [HSN1F], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HSN1F, November 12, 2018. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HSN1F

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Light Weight Vehicle Sales: Autos and Light Trucks [ALTSALES], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/ALTSALES, November 12, 2018. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/ALTSALES

College Takes Four Years. Education Takes a Lifetime

Photo by Heather Schwartz, Unsplash.com

When we think about the value of a college education, it is usually in the context of making a living. We expect that a college education will result in higher earnings over the course of our lifetime. This idea has been drummed into us for the last thirty years. For decades, the education industry has been repeating the mantra that ever more education means ever more income.


There might be some truth to that, but it a relatively new view of the value of education. My parents and grandparents didn’t see things that way. Sure, higher education contributed to a higher standard of living, but that was not really the point of going to school. My parents put me on the college track when I was elementary school, not for the promise of a high income, but because an education built character and made individuals better citizens.


In their view, smart people have a civic duty to get an education because of the benefits it returns to society.


This wasn’t an idea created by the generation before mine. The Founders of the United States had a reverence for education. Concepts like equality, liberty and democracy are abstractions – they are intangibles, sometimes called metaphysical because we cannot see or even visualize them in our imaginations. Without an education, it is very difficult to understand sophisticated arguments about political theory and the rights of man.


Graduating from college meant I was educated and ready to contribute to moving my country past the convulsions of the 60’s and 70’s that was tearing it apart. I was very proud of myself for earning a bachelor’s degree.


That is, until I read the newspaper.


About a week after the formalities of the graduation ceremony, I was sitting on my parents’ couch reading an editorial. I don’t remember what the editorial was about, but I vividly remember a reference to The Scarlet Letter and having no idea what the editorial was trying to say because I had never read the book.


I was stunned.


Here I am, I thought, a week out of college with a newly minted diploma attesting to my new status as an educated American, and I don’t know what a newspaper editorial means because I have not read a well-known classic American novel.


I resolved to plug that hole in my education.


I began going to the city library, working my way through canyons of bookcases packed with classic works of fiction and highbrow literature that I had avoided in high school and college. I’d pick out a book I had heard about but never read, head to the overstuffed chairs at the ends of the bookcases, and start reading.


Some books I just could not manage.


Anything by Dickens or the Bronte sisters are just too slow and boring. And who would want to go to the trouble of writing a book and then title it The Scarlet Pimpernel? I never got far enough in that book to find out what a pimpernel is or why a scarlet one is noteworthy.


The unfamiliar names of characters in War and Peace confused me no end, but I made index cards with mini-biographies to keep everyone straight. Even then, I found the book just plodding along. Just the same, it brought the Russian history courses I took in college to life.


This got me excited about Russian history and I read biographies of Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. I even got to Nicholas and Alexandria, the story of the last Tsar and the revolution that brought communism and half a century of untold suffering to the Russian people.


That got me started on Russian dissent Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works.


I read For the Good of the Cause and found out how the human need for social hierarchy combined with an imposed inhuman bureaucracy creates institutionalized abuse. This is very relevant in an era of Bong Hits for Jesus and school districts reporting sexually active students to law enforcement. Anyone advocating progressivism in education should read For the Good of the Cause to see how a too much of a good thing can undermine human and civil rights.


The relevance of old stories to modern concerns was something else I discovered.


St. Elmo is one of the first romance novels. It was written in the 1880’s, I think, and is so full of archaic words that I kept a dictionary nearby as I read the book.


The plot was follows the formula of modern romance novels. Some things never change – and our appetite for romance novels is one of them.


The main character was a young woman nursing a broken heart who meets a mysterious wealthy stranger, who also lost at love. St. Elmo was the grief stricken mystery man and the narrator was the governess – the nanny — of his children. I found out that back in those days a “bluestocking” was an older, conservative woman who thinks young people have no discretion, decorum or respect for propriety.


Sound familiar? Human nature is very slow to change and books like St Elmo reminds me how similar we are to generations long past.


The Iliad and The Odyssey, both written by Homer almost a thousand years ago, might be the first novels ever written. In the last few years archeologists have found that people and events described in these books really existed. Homer describes the Trojan War in some detail, as well as the duplicity that spawned the famous wooden horse. Helen of Troy makes a series of appearances as well, and Homer explains her role in the conflict.


Something in The Odyssey frequently comes to mind when I see people openly wearing guns in public.


In the book, the main character, Odysseus, finally returns to his hometown after 20 years of adventures. He finds that although his wife had remained pure and true to him, men vying for her bed and her fortune surrounded her. He reveals himself to his son who wants to grab swords and axes to intimidate and scare off the interlopers. The old man immediately rejects the idea saying,


“Bare steel in sight draws men to fight.”


Instead of inviting a bloody confrontation, they hatch a plan to discreetly keep their weapons under their cloaks and use their intelligence and ingenuity to achieve their goals. That part of the book always comes to mind when I see people openly toting pistols in public. If Homer was to reincarnate in Walmart his modern advice might be, “Carry your gun discreetly and like Odysseus and his son, use your wits to avoid using it”.


Something truly amazing about The Odyssey is that the plot of 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on it, although it is set in Depression era Mississippi and the main characters are prison escapees. Imagine, a poem written almost a thousand years ago made into a modern motion picture!


Finally, there is Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, the book is now the focus of racial conspiracy theories. Historical revisionists claim the books’ purpose is to glorify slavery and the antebellum South, but that simply is not true. Most people advancing that assertion have likely not read the book, although they might have seen the movie.


The famous move limits itself to the love story between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, but their romance is just a superficial subplot in the book. The real story is more complex and very relevant to what we are now experiencing in the wake of the collapse of the industrial economy in 2008. It’s as if the southern survivors of the Civil War left a time capsule detailing their struggles creating a new economy from the ashes of an old one.


The book actually explores the question of why, in the aftermath of the destruction of an economy, some people achieve success and others do not. In the beginning of the book author Margret Mitchell tells of listening to adults who were alive during the Civil War incessantly discussing this question.


Some people who were wealthy before the war were able to rebuild their fortunes afterwards, but many of their peers did not. At the same time, there were people who were very poor before the war, yet afterwards did quite well for themselves.


What is it that determines an individual’s financial fate when they live in the ruins of a formally vibrant economy? It not just the ability to work hard – Americans are notable throughout the world for their work ethic. Plenty of people work very hard, but never achieve much material success. We call them the “working poor”.


Why is it some do so well and others do so poorly? This is an especially relevant question today as we move past the collapse of the industrial economy of the 20th century and begin building a new economy.


Individually we are facing challenges very similar to what Mitchell heard her elders discussing when she was a child. Like them, now there are people who struggled in the old economy who are doing very well in the emerging one. On the other hand, some people who were doing quite well in the late 20th century are now living like Tom Joad, a character in Grapes of Wrath, another book, (and movie), examining the plight of people facing the aftermath of a collapse of a national economy.


Education is not just about getting a college degree and making more money than you would otherwise. It is about amassing a wealth of knowledge that makes the world more understandable. A broad wealth of knowledge helps us see important nuances and reveals connections and insights others have experienced.


I found out that in order to learn new things it is essential to have a foundation that new knowledge can build upon. Learning a new language or musical instrument is a good example of this. In the beginning, learning is very slow and difficult because there is no context for the new knowledge. As learning takes hold it becomes easier to add new knowledge to what we now understand. Every morsel of knowledge is a foundation for more knowledge. Every bit of new knowledge has a relationship with previously learned knowledge.


Education is the antidote to “fake news”, conspiracy theories mascaraing as insight, and emotional catchphrases that subtly undermine principles of justice and equality.


Education leverages the value of the struggles and victories of people who came before us. Their knowledge and experiences strengthen our cognitive insights and understanding as we grapple with our challenges and struggles.


A college degree is just the beginning of education. It is a foundation for the real education to come – a lifetime of intellectual excitement and exploration.






Can’t Lose Weight? Create a Diet That Works!

In previous articles about weight loss, I’ve talked about why will power doesn’t work, that simply being aware of one’s excess weight correlates with gaining even more weight, and my own struggles and victories with weight control.

In this article, I’ll give some examples of why we cannot trust ourselves to manage weight loss and why we need to approach the problem like a nutritional scientist.

In his excellent book, Subliminal, Leonard Mlodinow tells us about a fascinating series of experiments in which researchers manipulated the brain arousal of volunteers, then subjected them to a range of situations in which they made decisions about their relationship with other people, the taste and desirability of different foods or explanations for their opinions or observations.

In one experiment, for example, researchers would show subjects two pictures of randomly chosen people of the opposite sex and ask which was more attractive. Later they would show the subjects the picture they did not choose and ask why they found the person attractive. More than 75% of the time the subjects did not realize the picture experimenter presented them was the one they did not find attractive, but that was not the point of the experiment.

The point was how the subjects would respond when the experimenter asked what they found attractive about the person in the picture. The 75% who did not realize the picture presented was of the person they found to be least attractive identified all sorts of reasons for why they found the person in the picture attractive, even though they had identified it as unattractive previously.

That might be of passing interest, but then researchers repeated the experiment in the context of food.

When food is involved things became very interesting.

In supermarkets, researchers set up taste tests of jams by different manufacturers. Again, they presented two samples and asked for a preference based on taste. They kept track of which brands of jam volunteers preferred and did not prefer, and later gave them a sample that was actually the brand the volunteer did not prefer.

Again, when asked about what they liked about the sample they had earlier stated they did not like, the subjects identified all sorts of characteristics such as taste, consistency, color and sweetness or tartness that determined their preference. In reality, they had already tasted the brand and labeled it as less desirable.

Your Brain and the “Pepsi Paradox”

The Pepsi Paradox has bedeviled soft drink marketers for decades.

The Pepsi Paradox is the fact that in blind taste tests people overwhelmingly rate Pepsi superior to Coke, but a large portion of them prefer Coke when they know what they are drinking.

How can this be?

The portion of our brain that rests directly above our eye sockets is the Executive Center. It is the “mission control” center of the brain where complex networking decisions that coordinates the many different organs of our brain.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) resides in the Executive Center and helps the brain determine whether objects are associated with safe, warm and familiar experiences.

In blind taste tests using some volunteers with damaged VMPC and others with intact VMPCs, both groups preferred Pepsi in the blind condition when they did not know which brand they were drinking. This was no surprise and was no different from what happens when all volunteers have intact VMPCs.

However, the preferences of volunteers with damaged VMPCs were consistent in their preference for Pepsi. The Pepsi paradox disappeared. Regardless of whether they knew what they were drinking, they preferred Pepsi. The lack of a fully functioning VMPC seems to keep previous experiences from influencing judgements about current experiences.

The VMPC is the brain organ that undermines our objectivity, at least when it comes to food preferences.

These have been just a few examples of how our brain can fool us about the most basic of our food preferences and decisions making. There are far more.

The IKEA Effect and Diet Planning

I’ve been talking about how unreliable our thinking and decision-making about food choices can be because understanding our biases and prejudices has a huge effect on strategies for weight loss.

Clearly, successful weight loss requires more than just good intentions and will power. It is important that well thought out planning, an effective strategy and choosing cognitive and behavioral supports long before altering eating or exercise habits.

Why is creating a comprehensive plan so important? Something called the IKEA Effect.

Dan Ariely, a well know social psychologist at Duke University, coined the term to label a cognitive-behavioral trait that all humans seem to have. We value things more if we contribute to their creation, and the more we contribute the more we value the product.

In Ariely’s excellent and very readable book, “The Upside of Irrationality” he tells the story of Pillsbury marketers in the 1940’s trying to popularize various powered mixes for desserts, cakes and pies. Homemakers of the era took great pride in the ability to cook delicious foods from scratch, so marketers of instant food, especially cakes, were facing a serious challenge in convincing women to buy the new instant foods.

A marketing psychologist named Earnest Dicter realized that women who took great pride in creating desserts from scratch might find that simply adding water to a ready-made cake mix disrespectful of their talents. It is another version of technology replacing artisanship and diminishing hard won skills of expertise.

Dicter suggested simply printing an additional instruction on the side of the cake mix box to add one raw egg. The very simple change of adding the egg became a symbol of involvement and connection with the finished cake. That simple gesture resulted in a sudden and dramatic increase in cake mix sales.

Ariely launched a number of experiments exploring why we value things more highly when we have a hand in creating them. What is so powerful, he wondered, about creating something?

In one series of experiments, Ariely had volunteers follow directions to make simple and complex origami swans. He then had the volunteers rate both their own creations and the creations of others. Naturally, he found volunteers rated their own creations higher than those made by others.

However, he followed this with auctions of the origami. Again, he found that the people who created a particular origami swan valued it higher than those made by others did. Furthermore, the more effort put into the origami increased the value people had for their creations. Interestingly, only completed origami was valued; incomplete creations had no value at all.

This is why kits of all kinds are so popular. IKEA has made retail history by not selling completed products, but prefabricated kits the customer assembles. We put more value on things when we put effort into completing them than those that are already complete. Our involvement in creating something gives it value.

Amazingly, animals share this trait.

In the early 1960’s psychologist, Glen Jensen noticed that lab rats would continue to press a bar to get pellets of food even though an effort free bowl of food was available. In a controlled experiment all but one of 200 rats would visit the food bowl, but leave it if a bar dispensing food pellets were available.

Subsequent studies support this conclusion.

Psychologists Brooks Carder and Kenneth Berkowitz performed several animal experiments in the 1970’s finding that rats preferred pressing a bar for food rather than eating “free” food as long as the effort was not excessive (Carder and Berkowitz 1970, 1972):

“Rats were trained to eat free food from a dish, then trained to press a lever for similar food. The free food was then presented while subjects were pressing on several reinforcement schedules. Subjects continued to press for reinforcement when one or two presses were required for reinforcement, and ate little free food. When ten presses were required for reinforcement, rats preferred free food and pressed little or not at all. It was concluded that, when work demands are not too high, rats prefer earned food to free food” (Carder and Berkowitz 1970 Abstract).

In her fascinating, book Zoobiquity: What Animals can teach us about health and the science of healing, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz tells us about the controversial practice in European zoos of “Carcass Feeding”. Zoos in Europe are cautiously exploring the health benefits of feeding freshly killed prey animals to large predators.

Although the animals have to work harder when eating a carcass they become healthier and seem less anxious than when eating their usual fair of ground domestic meat. Even though it takes far more effort to crush bones and chew through ribs and hooves, big cats seem to prefer it.

The idea of putting forth effort for a rewarding experience is not limited to animals.

In his fascinating book Satisfaction, Neurologist Gregory Berns tells of an experiment by one of his graduate students, Cary Zink (Zink, Pagnoni, Martin-Skurski, Chappelow and Berns 2004):

It occurred to Zink that if we value money only because it has value, the pleasure center of our brain – the striatum, a structure in the mid brain at the top of the spinal column – would have a consistent reaction no matter whether an individual perceives they are earning money or simply accepting it.

However, if earning money has value, aside from the value of money, our striatum pleasure center should react more strongly when we perceive we have put effort into earning money.

And that is exactly what happens.

Subjects required to press a button in order to receive a reward generated more activity on the striatum than those who didn’t. Pressing a button in an fMRI machine may seem trivial, but it represents effort. Even that minimal effort generated a large increase in striatum activity indicating a pleasurable experience. The reward is in the effort we put into earning, not strictly in the tangible payoff itself.

What this tells us

First Mlodinow tells us how difficult it is for us to think about our eating habits. We say we like the taste of something, but if we are misled, even just a little, we will make up all sorts of reasons why we like the food that we never said we liked.

The Pepsi Paradox illustrates that we have brain structures that emphasize past experiences and opinions to the extent that we have trouble realizing we like one thing more than another.

Finally, Ariely, Berns and Zink make convincing arguments that we value things we create more than things others create, and that we are hard wired to feel pleasure when we earn something.

Putting this all together, we find evidence to support the idea that we are not very good monitors of our eating behaviors. We are easily misled and confused. Even in the best of circumstances, we are very bad at objectively examining our thoughts and behaviors related to eating and weight loss.

What does this tell us about how we need to go about losing weight?

For one thing, it is clear that we must put far more effort into weight loss than simply following a diet we read in a book or magazine. It’s not that diets in books and magazines are flawed, although many of them are. The biggest problem lies within us – we just don’t do a very good job of thinking clearly about food, eating and nutrition. Finding a good weight loss program is easy. The hard part is removing the unconscious thoughts and behaviors that undermine us.

We have to remove ourselves from our weight loss efforts.

But how the heck do we do that? How can we remove ourselves and still have influence over what we do?

Scientists face the same problem. They are searching for truth, but if they allow their personal biases and prejudices to influence their research, grant money will dry up and professional reputations become tarnished.

So how do scientists do it?

They measure everything of importance, record those measurements and examine them for changes. This is “data collection and monitoring” and it is at the heart of determining why things occur.

Let’s revisit Berns, Ariely and Zink for a moment. Their message seems to be that we have more value for things we have a hind in creating. The more effort we put into creating something the more value we place on it.

That is the IKEA Effect.

When we follow a diet plan like the Mediterranean Diet, we are simply along for the ride. Someone else came up with that diet, and we are just following his or her lead. “Eat more vegetables, and don’t forget the olive oil” is about as invested as we get.

However, when we create our own custom diet, designed for our unique biology, life style and metabolism we will be far more likely to lose weight permanently. This is because we care about the success of our own creation more than the creation of a diet book author.

That is because it takes effort. Not the effort of following someone else’s diet, but the effort of going to the trouble of discovering what works for our individual situation. Learning about how our individual body manages food, and fat, then writing our own diet book with only one reader – us – is the most promising path to permanent weight loss.

It sounds like a huge project, and it is. But like any other huge project if we just take it a step at a time we will eventually get to our destination.

The first step is to educate ourselves about nutrition, eating and weight loss. The fact that you have read this far show that you are already taking the first step. Here are a few other sources of knowledge to digest:

The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least Understood Organ and What It Means

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight 

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease

Used copies of these books are no more than five dollars; you can get all three for less than $20.00, including shipping.

(Avoid the Kindle versions – you want physical books that will sit on a desk or table reminding you of the highlighted the parts that are most relevant to achieving your weight loss dreams.)

Do it now. Each book has a link to Amazon. If you can afford $20.00, you can afford to start your education on permanent weight loss.

When you’ve started those, it will be time to begin creating your personal diet plan.

Stay tuned.

I’ll tell you exactly how to do that in a future article at Medium.com and OnwardThrougtheFog.com.




You can find my previous weight loss articles at Medium.com, or my blog site, OnwardThroughtheFog.com

Ariely, D. (2010). The upside of irrationality: The unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home. New York: Harper.

Berns, G. (2005). Satisfaction: The science of finding true fulfillment (1st ed.). New York: Henry Holt.

Carder, B. (1972). Rats’ preference for earned in comparison with free liquid reinforcers. Psychonomic Science, 26(1), 25-26.

Carder, B., & Berkowitz, K. (1970). Rats’ Preference for Earned in Comparison with Free Food. Science, 167(3922), 1273-1274. doi: 10.1126/science.167.3922.1273

Jensen, Glen. (1963). Preference for bar pressing over “freeloading” as a function of number of rewarded presses. Journal of experimental psychology. 65. 451-4. 10.1037/h0049174.

Mlodinow, L. (2012). Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behavior (1st ed.).New York: Pantheon Books.

Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Bowers, K. (2012). Zoobiquity: The astonishing connection between human and animal health (First Vintage Books edition. ed.).

Zink, C. F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurski, M. E., Chappelow, J. C., & Berns, G. S. (2004). Human striatal responses to monetary reward depend on saliency. Neuron, 42(3), 509-517.

How We Ensure a 95% Diet Failure Rate


Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.

Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss, though people placing bets have control over just about everything. They define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.

Not only do they have those technical issues under their control, they are also highly confident that they will lose weight, otherwise they would never make the bet.

Yet in spite of all that control and confidence, the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future.

Almost everyone fails.

How can this be? How can millions of people worldwide fail to lose weight? You would think that at least a few of them would accidentally do all the right things and lose a few pounds.

But no.

In a recent meta-study, 78 academic studies of weight loss attempts were reviewed and their results were recalculated and aggregated. (Haynes, Kersbergen, Sutin, Daly, and Robinson 2018). In other words, the authors statistically re-examined the results of 78 academic studies on weight loss and combined them into one huge academic paper.

Some of the insights they gained were quite surprising.

“We examined peer-reviewed literature published between 1991 and 2017 and found strong evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with a higher likelihood of trying to lose weight and moderate evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with greater use of both healthy and unhealthy weight control strategies. However, those weight loss attempts and strategies did not appear to be translated into healthy weight-related behaviours” (p.357).

“…while individuals who perceived their weight status as overweight were more likely to report trying to consume a healthy diet and increasing physical activity to lose weight, there was no evidence to suggest that these individuals were actually more likely to enact these behaviours than those who did not identify as overweight. …there was evidence of no relationship between perceived overweight and healthy eating habits” (p.359).

“…there was strong longitudinal evidence to suggest that perceived overweight predicts weight gain over time, and this was the case across the majority of participant subgroups” (p.359).

In other words, this study found that people who know they are overweight might try reasonable methods to lose weight — exercise and healthy eating — but were not quite able to accomplish serious weight loss. In fact, the strongest predictor of weight gain is the knowledge you are overweight!

That does not give us very much insight into what specifically causes weight loss efforts to fail, but there is one tantalizing hint that might give us something to address:

“Attempts to lose weight by individuals who perceive themselves as overweight may not necessarily translate into the adoption or appropriate implementation of effective weight control strategies. Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating” (p.359).

“Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating”. It’s not the people do not try to lose weight, the problem seems to be they try in the wrong ways. This study seems to find that unhealthy weight control strategies and “disordered eating” are what keep us from losing weight.

“Unhealthy weight control strategies” and “disordered eating” are eating behaviors that are not quite serious enough to be mental health issues like anorexia nervosa or chronic bulimia. Instead, these are things like obsessive calorie counting, binging, late night eating, abusing laxatives, excessive fasting or chronic restrained eating.

These behaviors are not in themselves things that make us gain weight, but they lead to a breakdown of a healthy eating regimen. These are the ways we undermine ourselves, but taken individually and as one time or occasional behaviors they are harmless. However, when we unconsciously integrate them into our lifestyle they undermine our commitment to healthy weight loss.

Cognition, Behaviors and Weight Loss

The way we think about food and eating has a powerful effect on how we use food to either keep us healthy or make us sick. Our thoughts can undermine our goals or improve the chances of achieving them. Our thoughts have this incredible power because they determine our behaviors — the things we physically do.

Psychologists have a name for this interaction of thoughts and behaviors — Cognitive-Behavioral. Cognitive or cognition refers to internal mental mechanisms like thoughts, memories and intelligence. The inner voice you her when reading or talking to yourself is cognition, so is the process of recalling a memory or making a new one.

Behavior is anything you physically do that you or others can observe and count or measure. If someone can count the times they see, hear or feel you doing something, it’s a behavior. People often confuse emotions with behavior, but emotions are an internal sensation. We can’t see emotions like anger or happiness, only the external physical manifestations, like a frown, furrowed brow, or a smile or laughter. We really do not know what other people are thinking.

We don’t even know what we are thinking much of the time. That is one of the biggest challenges in healthy eating and weight loss. Things we are not even aware of can influence our thoughts, and in turn, our thoughts influence our eating and health behaviors.

Even the most unremarkable things can influence our view of idea of how the world works.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Noble prize in Economics for his work in Behavioral Economics — the melding of economics and psychology to investigate how people make decisions about numbers and money. Thinking, fast and slow is his landmark book that covers all his very interesting experiments and breakthroughs. This is a must have book for everyone interested in behavioral economics.

In a famous experiment at the University of Oregon, Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Tversky, built a Wheel of Fortune, similar to the one on the televise game show. Unlike the television wheel, the Kahneman/Tversky wheel would stop only on 10 or 65. After spinning the wheel in front of a group of students Kahneman would ask two questions that students were unlikely to know and would there for be forced to guess.

“Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote?” and,

“What is our best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?”

Amazingly, students exposed to 10 averages 25% for the two questions, and those exposed to the 65 guessed that 45% of countries in the UN were African. Simply being exposed to larger or small numbers influenced students estimates of the national membership of the UN.

Kahneman and Tversky call this the “anchoring effect”. When we are exposed to a high number, we tend to make higher estimates of anything asked of us afterwards. Students exposed to a higher number in the Wheel of Fortune experiment tended to guess that African nations were a larger part of the UN than students exposed to the lower number.

Even though the number was nothing more than a symbol on a wheel and did not represent quantity or anything else.

In a similar experiment, real estate agents were asked to access the value of a house that was on the market. They visited the house and were given a booklet with pertinent facts. However half the agents had a booklet listing an asking price far above the actual price, while the other half had a booklet with the asking price substantially lower than the real asking price.

Sure enough, the agents exposed to the higher false asking price suggested a higher asking price than those who were exposed to the lower false asking process. Given the results of the Wheel of Fortune experiment, that is no surprise.

In an interesting twist, all the agents were convinced the price they saw had no effect on their recommend price. After all, they assured the experimenters, they were professionals who did such recommendations for a living and were practiced enough that an unrealistically high or low would not influence them.

The experiment was repeated with a group of business students. The business students submitted recommendations that were within 8% of the real estate agents. The only difference was that the students admitted the fake asking prices influenced their price recommendations.

This gives you an idea of how suggestible we are. Think about that. The thing that makes us unique among all other animals on earth — our cognitive abilities — is at the mercy of any random number that happens along our path. Our guesses and assumptions about the world are really reflections of our most recent experiences.

The influence of external factors like exposure to numbers or inaccurate information is only one way our efforts at weight loss are undermined. We also have to think about internal errors in thinking– what psychologists call cognitive errors, like recalling information inaccurately or confusing a set of facts with the wrong issue. Even when we get those things right there are many other variables that sabotage our efforts to eat healthy and lose weight.

This might have something to do with why so many people cannot understand why their weight loss efforts come to naught.

We cannot ignore the powerful effect of our own behaviors on the way we think about weight loss.

Recently I was discussing weight loss with a young woman who admitted she was making no progress in her weight loss efforts. She was telling me about her diet and described increasing he proportion of vegetables in her diet. As she was telling about this, she wrinkled her face into an expression of disgust and described vegetables as “rabbit food”.

This was another example of the anchoring effect, except this time with facial expressions and words instead of numbers providing the anchor. This young woman had no idea she was undermining her diet efforts simply by her words and facial expression.

In a famous experiment that opened the door to the relationship between facial expressions and mood, experimenters simply asked subjects to hold a pencil in their mouths while they rated the humor of cartoons (Strack, Martin and Stepper 1988).

In one experimental condition participants held the pencil just with their lips, creating a frown, while in another condition participants held the pencil with their teeth, creating something approximating a smile. Astoundingly, the subjects with the forced smile rated the cartoons funnier than subjects in a control condition without the pencil. Subjects holding the pencil with their lips creating a forced frown rated cartoons less funny than a control group.

This experiment has been repeated many times in many different variations and the results are consistent. We influence our own judgements with behaviors like emotionally relevant facial expressions, speech patterns and body language.

This young woman was creating a barrier to her own efforts simply by her negative word and facial expressions about healthy eating. She will be far less likely to maintain a diet with a high proportion of vegetables when she turns eating vegetables into an unpleasant experience.

So how do we control things as superficial as facial expressions and our subconscious reaction to numbers?

Stay Tuned

I’ll offer some answers here at Medium, and at OnwardThroughtheFog.com


Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.

Haynes, A., Kersbergen, I., Sutin, A., Daly, M., & Robinson, E. (2018). A systematic review of the relationship between weight status perceptions and weight loss attempts, strategies, behaviours and outcomes. Obesity Reviews, 19(3), 347–363. doi: doi:10.1111/obr.12634

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 768.

An Echo from 2001: A Few Words About Jobs And The Economy

Mark Rasmuson Unsplash.com

This essay was written in January 2001. On the ten year anniversary of the collapse of the old industrial economy it is fitting to take a look back. The industrial economy did not suddenly disappear in 2008; there were signs of big changes long before that, but we had no idea of exactly what was coming our way.

Economic Myths and Fairy Tales

Just as people caught up in the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution knew their economy had been turned upside down and had no idea what might happen next, neither do we. No one really knows what is going on with the economy. Economists in academia who we have traditionally depended upon to unravel economic mysteries and predict future trends can’t seem to agree on what’s happening. While some argue that we are on the verge of an economic Golden Age due to the increasing technical educational of the American work force, others claim that we are facing the same kind of demographically induced calamity that crushed the Japanese economy in the mid 1990’s.

Maybe in another fifty or one hundred years historians will assign a name to the revolution now occurring around us. Although to our eyes the modern economy is a chaotic and unpredictable place, historians of the future will see how our present upheaval merges nicely into the streams of time.

A lot of people who should really know better don’t seem to be aware that basic precepts and standards that applied to economics or employment a few years ago no longer exist. Indeed, employment counselors often tell their new clients that “there’s a place in the job market for everyone”, at the same time that the numbers of long term unemployed is higher than it ever has been and continues to grow.

Just figuring unemployment is challenging. So challenging, in fact, that government statisticians often use six different formulas to figure the state unemployment rate. One of the middle numbers is usually given to newspapers and the public as the “official” unemployment rate. The government isn’t trying to hide anything; it’s just that there is no easy way to define unemployment. And if there isn’t a good way to define unemployment, it’s impossible to put a number on how many people are unemployed. Click here to read all about it.

It’s Nothing New

The truth is that we are in a position similar to that which Americans and Europeans found themselves during the early 1800’s. Although craftsmen of many disciplines existed at that time, the real engine of the worldwide economy was farming. Just about everyone was a farmer — just about everyone had to be because farming was so labor intensive. At that time, economics had been closely tied to agriculture for as long as anyone could remember. A trained economist who knew a little about he weather, growing seasons and transportation could make some pretty accurate predictions about economic trends.

This all began to change in 1781 when James Watt reinvented the steam engine and made it a practical source of power for use in manufacturing plants. It was a much slower world in those days, and at the dawn of the 19th century steam engines were still an expensive curiosity. Gradually though, industry saw the advantages of replacing horses with steam engines. This incredible new technology was much cheaper to maintain and operate than horses, and (unlike water power) could be located just about anywhere.

By 1825 a world shattering transformation was occurring. Thanks to the ever increasing use of steam power agriculture was becoming more efficient, and fewer people were needed to operate the new steam powered grinding and milling machines. At the same time heavy textile industries were flourishing in England and Germany, and the Northern United States began a century long industrial building boom that produced the Steel Belt — that portion of the north central United States that would produce most of the worlds raw steel, trains, railroad tracks, and later, trucks, automobiles and war material.

Young people in Europe and the Eastern United States began leaving farms and moving to cities to work in the new high paying industries. Suddenly craftsmen who had labored for years in order to learn to make beautiful silver and copper dining sets or hand stitched saddles and tack found themselves out of work. With the aide of steam power goods that were once the product of intense and conscientious men patiently creating practical art could be manufactured en mass faster and cheaper than an army of craftsmen. The legend of John Henrys race with the steam engine is a cultural myth invented to explain this bit of economics. (The young ‘uns who entered elementary school after the teaching of American culture became passé can visit the John Henry Homepage to find out about this very relevant allegory.)

Of course, these dramatic changes created some harsh truths for a lot of people. Suddenly skills and abilities that had ensured economic security and social status for centuries counted for nothing. Workers who had been displaced by this technological advancement would need to learn new ways to fit into an economy driven by the steam engine. People who failed to integrate into the new economy faced major consequences — it was as if they no longer existed for any economically related purpose. Men who had previously been artists in metal, wood and leather now found themselves faced with the ignoble future of either shoveling coal to fuel the steam engines, or if they too old to compete with 18 year olds at the end of a shovel, simply becoming burdens to their children.

Does This Sound Familiar?

It should. We are experiencing the same sort of economic upheaval right now. Computers and the Internet are reshaping the entire economy, and jobs that were once plentiful have now either disappeared, or have become unrecognizable. At the same time, measures of economic health are quickly losing their ability to reflect important aspects of the economy.

For example, the service manager of the biggest auto dealership in my city says that that his biggest headache is finding mechanics. This sounds strange to those who remember the old world of fifteen or twenty years ago when it was easy for garages and dealerships to find mechanics. Back then lots of kids were so fascinated by turning wrenches that they trained themselves to be auto mechanics by working on their friends cars for little or nothing. There was a bottomless reservoir of mechanics anytime one was needed.

Today, though, cars run on software and silicone as much as they do on gasoline and rubber. Modern autos are loaded with computers that control so many aspects of the vehicle that diagnostic computers are consulted before a wrench is ever pulled from a toolbox.

What we used to think of an as a mechanic no longer exists.

Anyone attempting repairs on a modern vehicle needs a formal technical education in order to perform anything more complex than an oil change. In the mechanics place is a highly trained technician who understands the sophisticated interplay of computer chips, circuit boards, and hot moving parts. Young people with the basic skills and talents for this type of job are becoming more and more rare.

That’s because it takes far more than a mechanical aptitude and a desire to work on cars to become a mechanic these days. Candidates must be able to read and write well, have knowledge of basic science, (especially physics and chemistry), be computer and Internet literate, and accept the fact that constant improvements in automotive technology means constant education for automotive technicians. With these basic qualifications a young person might get accepted into a training program at a community college and pay $7500 for a two-year course that will be relevant only for vehicles produced three to five years after graduation.

Not surprisingly, there are few people willing to take this road. Young people possessing the degree of talent, intelligence and academic commitment needed to be an automotive technician tend to be attracted to more glamorous and better paying careers.

Car mechanics aren’t the only ones facing this dilemma. Science and technology is elevating the bar for entry-level positions every year and in every industry. Here’s what the US Department of Labor says in it’s comprehensive report on the state of the economy, Futurework — Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century:

“…A 1996 American Management Association (AMA) survey of mid-sized and larger businesses found that 19 percent of job applicants taking employer-administered tests lacked the math and reading skills necessary in the jobs for which they were applying. The AMA’s 1998 survey, however, found that this percentage had increased to almost 36 percent. The sharp increase in the deficiency rate is due, the 1998 AMA report concluded, not to a ‘‘dumbing down’’ of the incoming workforce but to the higher literacy and math skills required in today’s workplace.”

Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century

Chapter 7 — Implications of workplace change

In other words, in just 2 years jobs had become so math and literacy dependant that the number of applicants who did not have the education to qualify for them doubled. Think about that for a moment, and then consider that people generally believe that they have the skills needed to perform the jobs they apply for. This means that according to the AMA survey cited by the Labor Department about one third of applicants at mid size or larger companies did not realize that they were lacking the basic skills needed for the jobs they desired. Necessary job skills had become so sophisticated so quickly that the applicants frequently did not realize they did not qualify for the job.

How could this crazy situation have arisen? Because the constant advances in technology are quickly adopted by businesses in order to remain competitive with other companies who are doing the same thing. Competition has become so fierce that huge, well-known companies with familiar names that were once pillars of the economy are frequently going out of business. Sears, JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Rubbermaid have all either gone bankrupt or been forced to reorganize under Court supervision.

The increasingly rapid spiral of competition and technological sophistication means that workers are expected to become competent in constantly narrowing and arcane specialties. The sad irony is that while companies complain about a shortage of qualified workers, there are plenty of well-educated workers looking for jobs. The speed of change has become so fast, however, that they may not even be aware of the special skills needed to perform the work.

Sometimes even the most menial of jobs requires sophisticated technical skills.

The sales manager of one of the largest manufacturers of wood chipping equipment in the Northwest illustrates this problem nicely. He frequently complains about how difficult it is to find laborers to work on the plant floor. Although the sales manager blames the wonderful economy for the shortage of workers, he seems to be missing some important facts.

First, why is a sales manager concerned with hiring laborers to work on the plant floor? The answer to that question is summed up in one word: Reorganization. The economy is so competitive that businesses of all sizes and types are constantly reexamining the way they manage tasks. The era of mid level managers putting their feet on a desktop and reading the newspaper are long gone. Everyone one in an organization, from the president to the guy who empties the wastebaskets, must constantly prove their worth to the company. Failure to do so results in cutting hours or eliminating positions, and distributing tasks to others in the organization.

This sales manager has to remind himself that the Personnel Department was almost completely eliminated two years ago and replaced with a temp agency. In addition to managing sales, he also serves as the liaison for the temp agency.

In an economic environment so competitive that salesmen are involved with personnel matters it’s no surprise that laborers must be able to do more than sweep floors and clean windows. In a company that survives on its ability to fabricate metal into wood chippers even the laborers at the bottom of the organizational chart must have technical metallurgical skills.

That’s why laborers at this company, working for just above minimum wage, are required to have at least one year of experience in a metal fabrications plant, and be able to recognize all metals used in the plant on sight, as well as have knowledge of the properties of the metals used. This way the company does not have to train newly hired laborers in skills needed to sort and stack the valuable and reusable scrap metal produced in the course of manufacturing wood chippers.

At the other end of the wage spectrum is a man we’ll call Dave. Although Dave is bright, educated, and works hard, there is nothing particularly unusual about him. There is one thing setting him apart from the rest of us, however. He is paid between $200 and $300 dollars for every hour he works at his chosen profession.

Dave writes and maintains the software that medical offices use to organize patient affairs. Everything from X-rays to billing, appointments to insurance claims is instantly accessible to anyone in a medical office using the software he maintains. The software makes managing a medical office so efficient and economical that medical professionals are willing to pay premium prices to lease it and keep it running.

Although Dave is a good programmer, there is nothing exceptional about his education, background, or skills. He graduated with a degree in Computer Programming in 1985, and had the good fortune to go to work for a small company just starting to market medical software. Unlike most of the others who stared with the company, Dave remained in Oregon rather than move to Silicone Valley, and now is one of two programmers in the Northwest who are familiar with this software. Because his skills are so rare, and result in such economy for the medical sector, he is paid an unusually large amount of money for his services.

Job Hunting Realities

So, what do these examples tell us about jobs in the Information Age?

What they show is that in order to be competitive in the job market people need to possess very narrow, specialized skills that are directly relevant to the company and position they are applying to. It is no longer enough to have a degree, or training or even experience. Transferable skills mean nothing to employers — getting the work done is the only thing that matters. Employers are looking for people who can be effective and economical from the first hour they walk into their new position.

Here’s an example form the Classified Section of the Statesman Journal:

Drug and Alcohol
Program Manager

Provide clinical supervision for an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program. Qualifications: Bachelor’s Degree in a relevant field and four years of paid, full time Human Services experience with a minimum of four years direct D & A experience, one year of which must have been in a supervisory and/or administrative capacity. Call 541–396–3173 x232 for a Coos County application packet. Closing Date: January 24, 2001. EOE

Statesman Journal Subclassification: Professional 1/7/2001

There are some interesting things about this very typical advertisement. First, notice that the standard advise touting volunteer or part time positions as a way to building skills and abilities means nothing as far as this position is concerned. The ad specifies that only paid, full time experience counts towards the minimum experience requirement.

Does this mean that the experience needed to do this job can only be learned in paid increments of 7.5 hours each? Of course not. This requirement is arbitrary — it has nothing to do with the skills or abilities needed to perform the job; it was chosen only to eliminate “non-professionals” from the pool of applicants.

The trend among employers today is to marginalize volunteer and part time experience by interpreting it as an indication that the applicant is not dedicated to the field or lacks professional expertise. The inference of working without pay is that the value of the worker is very low — skills given away for free have no value. As one employer puts it, “Why would I consider paying [an applicant with a history of part time volunteer work] when he’s happy working for nothing?”

The same thing is true for the education requirement. Notice that there is no specific field of education specified for this position. As long as a Bachelors Degree is “relevant”, it meets the education requirements. Why would an employer be so vague about education requirements?

Because the academic details don’t matter.

Non technical Bachelor degrees, (like those in Liberal Arts, Humanities and Business), no longer imply that particular skills and abilities have been learned. Non-specific Bachelors Degree requirements are included in job announcements only to exclude applicants without an academic history in a particular interest such as Psychology or Sociology, and to ensure basic literacy and general knowledge ability.

Academic degrees, like part time volunteer experience, are being marginalized by employers who view them as a tool to exclude applicants, rather than as an objective measure of skills, knowledge or expertise.

(Indeed, this trend has been present for some time and is continuing to expand. An admissions director for Phoenix University recently said that the trend on the East Coast for liberal arts and business undergraduates is to forgo job-hunting until they get a Masters or MBA degree. Think about that for a moment — earning a graduate degree just to compete for entry-level positions!)

In addition to this, the employer also requires four years of specific drug and alcohol experience and a year of supervisory experience. This job announcement can be summarized very quickly — the employer wants an individual who has been doing pretty much the same thing at another agency.

This is a common requirement among local social service agencies.

In a moment of rare candor the personnel director for one of the biggest social service agencies in town explained that local agencies tend to trade employees back and forth rather than hire people from “outside the loop”. It seems that most of the social service employers in the this area area hire off the street only to fill the most entry of entry-level positions, and look to each other to share the burden of training for positions beyond that.

In other words, there are so many applicants that social service agencies only hire people who hold similar jobs for other local social service agencies. This ensures that new hires will have the basic skills, knowledge, and training needed by these agencies. People who might have experience from other states or vocational fields are routinely rejected for employment, even when they are highly qualified, because there are so many others who are familiar with local rules, regulations, and methods of client care.

What to Do?

That is fodder for another essay. The first step, though, is to reassess our assumptions about jobs and the economy. Things are changing so fast that what might be true now won’t be in a few months or years. Of course, the corollary is that what was true a few years ago may not be true now. Loyalty — either from employer to employee or vice versa — no longer exists, and the concept of employment is giving way to the necessity of employability.

Anyone who wants to survive in our increasingly turbulent and unpredictable economy has got to make being well informed a priority. Read books about employment and the economy. Talk to people who hire. Call the people who place job announcements and ask them about why they ask for particular skills or word their advertisements as they do.

The best tool we have to make the job market more comprehensible is knowledge. Knowledge is out there; we might not like what we find, and what we find may not be what we think things ought to be, but it’s the only reality we have.


This essay was written in January 2001, seven years before the official onset of the Great Recession. The seeds for our present jobs problem were brewing even than, obvious to anyone who would look below the surface of news stories and rosy assumptions by employment “experts”. Now we must be just as vigilant in our analysis and suspicious of the pronouncements of experts.

Men aren’t from Mars, Women aren’t from Venus. We’re all from Earth. Get over it.

Alora Griffiths–Unsplash

There has been a lot written about gender differences in communication as well as many other activities, but very little of it seems to be of any lasting meaningful value. For some reason these tempests are cyclical with a limited lifetime, coming on suddenly but then quietly dying away.

According to Katherine Hanson, Director of the Women’s Educational Equity Act Resource Center (WEEA):

“Through-out their learning, girls are encouraged to be passive, caring, to take no risks and to defer to the male voice.” [1]

This might be true. On the other hand, maybe females are genetically disposed to be passive, caring, and not take risks. Human history doesn’t provide very many examples of risk taking, aggressive, and uncaring females. One would think that if men and women were genetically equal in terms of skills and personality there would be roughly equal numbers of aggressive risk taking men and women, but there aren’t. If there were traits were distributed equally female Navy Seals would be commonplace.

Then again, I know many women who have male characteristics, as well as men with female characteristics. And no, I’m not talking about homosexuality, either. There are many heterosexual men who are effeminate, as well as heterosexual women who are, well, masculine.

Many of these characteristics are very subtle. My friend Kevin, for instance, makes a decent living jumping out of airplanes videotaping skydivers in freefall. When he was in the Army, he was a Paratrooper, and served with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division during the invasion of Grenada. He’s a macho kind of person.

Well, most of the time.

In some ways, he is more of a mom to his kids than their mom is. When his kids were little and scraped their knees or got scared of something they’d run right past their mom and climb up Kevin’s legs. If you could have seen the way he was with his kids the reason would be obvious.

Kevin was more nurturing, caring and attentive to his kids than many women — including their mother. That’s not to say she was a bad mother in any way, it’s just that Kevin had maternal traits that overshadowed hers, and their kids responded to it.

He’d cuddle and coo and tickle them, and look entirely natural and appropriate while he was doing it. Kevin has traits that are unmistakably female, yet he is unmistakably male. When he’s away from his kids jumping out of airplanes or talking about his war experiences you’d never guess that he can be such a mom, but he is.

It seems to me that we have a culturally necessary myth male and female are opposites, that each gender is well defined, and that there is no overlap, grey area or middle ground. Our gender defines us. Men are stronger than women are, and that’s that. Women communicate, men dominate and that’s the end of the discussion.

That’s not true, though.

To show you what I mean, look at the following table. The word in the left column beneath each gender was collected by asking people to list the attributes of each gender. [2] The words on the right column are antonyms I found in the American Heritage Dictionary. If the genders really are opposites of each other, we would expect the antonyms to be as descriptive of the opposite gender as the chosen words are of the identified gender. But they aren’t.

It might serve a useful social purpose to think of men as active and adventurous and women as inactive and cautious, but I know plenty of people of both genders who do not fit those stereotypes. Some men are timid wimps, and some women are adventurous swashbucklers. And some of those timid men are adventurous in circumstances where the adventurous women are absolutely panic-stricken. And vice versa, of course.

Although a myth of diametric opposition and mutual exclusion might help us socialize into gender roles needed to establish and maintain our culture, it doesn’t otherwise stand up to scrutiny. It might serve a purpose, in other words, but it simply isn’t true. The truth is most of us are androgynous, whether we like it or not.

Gender seems to occur along a range or continuum. Few of us are male or female; we all fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Consider this:

In the 1980’s there was a controversy regarding gender testing of female Olympic athletes. A significant number of women — womanly women — weren’t female according to the tests. We’re talking genetic testing here, you understand, and feminine females, not the stereotypical truck driving diesel dyke weight lifting Amazon woman.

A number of women were emotionally shattered when they failed their gender test and were not allowed to compete in the Olympics. They assured the press that they really were women. They were married, had kids, liked having sex with their husbands. Contrary to initial speculation, this clearly wasn’t a matter of a few steroids or an especially extreme and virulent form of lesbianism.

It turns out that these women — and presumably a significant portion of men and women in the general population — were victims of the myth of gender opposites. Science had come far enough that it could begin measuring where individuals stand along a continuum of gender.

According to Puffer, [Dr James C. Puffer, of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine], there are a number of disorders of sexual differentiation where an individual has a [male] genetic make-up but is female for all intents and purposes. ‘Each case is very complex,’ he says, ‘and needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity because of the issues involved.’
A case in point is the condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) or testicular feminization, which experts estimate affects about 1 in 500–600 female athletes. Although such individuals are genetically male because they have both an X and a Y chromosome, their tissues cannot respond to androgens and they develop as women. [3]

Here is another interesting fact that challenges the diametric opposition gender myth. Women’s scores are catching up to men’s in most Olympic sports. Olympic organizers might one day have to consider combining men and women’s events as a way to cut costs. It just doesn’t make sense to field two competitions in which the competitors are so evenly matched that they turn in the same scores. We aren’t quite there yet, but the trend is very disconcerting for Olympic organizers.

Here is a graph showing the difference between men’s and women’s winning times in the Olympic 100 Meter Freestyle Swimming event from 1912 to 2000 [4]:

The difference in the winning times of men and women in this event has declined from more than 18 seconds to less than six since 1912. Although men and women are both improving their times, women are improving faster. In addition, this is happening in almost every Olympic event. If physical ability defines difference between genders, the difference is getting smaller and smaller.

Col. Des Barker, Commanding Officer Tactical Fighter Defense Command, of the South African Air Force eloquently summarizes the point I’ve been trying to make in this paper in his fascinating article on female fighter pilots:

There’s a reason that there are so few male midwives (less than two percent). These are not the primary or best-developed characteristics or instincts that most men have. There are always exceptions, though. There are also very few female fighter pilots, that’s a job that requires characteristics that, on average, most men possess more than most women. There are a few women fighter pilots, though, that have distinguished themselves in conflict. Very few women want to be fighter pilots, and very few men want to be midwives. That doesn’t mean, though, that those very few outliers can’t be good at these jobs. Most probably, those female fighter pilots wouldn’t make the best midwives, either.[i][5]


Men and women are more similar than they are different.

There is more absolute variation between individuals than there is average variation between genders. In practical terms, gender predicts nothing about the skills or abilities of the next person who walks through your door.

There is a reason that the studies we see every year “proving” a gender difference cost tens of thousands of dollars and require the efforts of highly skilled scientists to create. Gender differences are so subtle that it takes this level of time, money and effort to detect and measure them. Differences between the genders, (beyond the physical ones, anyway), simply are not very obvious.

Communication is hard for everyone. Concentrate on making sure you have a clear idea of what you want to say before you say it, and let someone else maintain the gender score.

Men aren’t from Mars, women aren’t from Venus. We’re all from Earth. Get over it.


[1] Panel: “Gender Equity” and Civil Rights, Independent Woman’s Forum, http://www.iwf.org/pubs/exfemina/January2000g.shtml

[2] Morone, Nicky, Women and Risk, St Martins Press, New York, New York, 1992.

[3] Peak Performance Online, “Why The Olympic Sex Test Is Outmoded, Unnecessary And Even Harmful, http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/0082.htm

[4] Index to the Olympics, http://www.hickoksports.com/history/olympix.shtml (I created the graph)

[5] Women Pilots In Operational Combat, Col Des Barker, Officer Commanding TFDC, SALUT, August-September, 1999, http://www.mil.za/Magazines/SALUT/3women_pilots_in_operational_comb.htm


How Progressivism Can Lead to Fascism

Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Progressive Era in the United States – that time between roughly 1880 and 1920, which saw so many reforms to industry and politics.

Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle about the meat packing industry, and that brought us the USDA and child labor laws. Lincoln Steffens wrote Shame of the Cities and we got political reform.

These Progressive Era reforms brought needed changes, but Progressivism can be taken too far.

Progressive ideology contends that government is the best way to drive social change. Laws are passed with the idea of changing people’s behavior for the better. That works pretty well, but only in small doses. It seems that whenever government gets too much power it abuses it. That is why we have constitutions – constitutions are rules that limit government.

The United States is a liberal democracy.

In this case “liberal” is a political science concept alluding to freedom, particularly freedom from excessive government constraints that violate natural law. A liberal democracy is one that gives special protections to personal liberties, such as those guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. This is the traditional meaning of liberal, and one of the bedrock principles of the Libertarian political philosophy.

The Founders of the United States wrote protections against the over reach of political power into the Constitution. Slowly those protections have worn away.

This is where the dark side of Progressivism begins to emerge.

For example, Oregon school District 24 J turns over to police students who school officials believe may be having sex. Imagine government entities actively policing the naturally occurring hormone driven sex lives of teenagers. This is especially ironic given that schools can’t seem accomplish their prime duty of teaching reading writing and arithmetic.

In the 1980’s a flurry of new Progressive laws intended to prevent children from economic exploitation in agriculture went into effect. Now one of the unintended consequences – low teen employment – is becoming an issue. Teenagers not only face grim employment prospects, now they face criticism for not knowing how to work once they make it into the labor force. At one time, summer jobs on farms taught teens about work.

Although the Founders argued against “standing armies” and the use of the military to enforce civil laws our militarized police force amount to just that. Inner cities of places like Baltimore and Chicago are under military occupation in the form of police with military weapons, military equipment and military tactics. Essentially a military force.

Their intention is to maintain social order – one of the fundamental aims of Progressive ideology.

Progressivism and authoritarianism go hand in hand.

Glaring examples of this is the trend towards insulating police from laws the rest of us must obey. It is illegal for us to lie to a police officer, but it is not illegal for the police office to lie to us. In fact, they are trained to do just that. You may recall the FBI attempt to dupe Richard Jewel, the hero of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, into making a “training film” documenting scripted self-incriminating statements.

The controversy and court cases arising out of the police use of Stingray is another example of how Progressivism is perverted by powerful government. Stingray is a device about the size of a briefcase that acts as a surveillance device by disguising itself as a cell tower and sucking up all cell phone traffic in the immediate area. The police claim to limit themselves to targeting only individuals under investigation.

This is nothing new. Attorney General John Ashcroft told Congress the Patriot Act would target only international terrorist suspects. Within eighteen months, the FBI used it to seize financial records of a Las Vegas nudie bar.

As if all this is not enough, the Supreme Court continues to issue rulings further insulating police and prosecutors from legal consequences when they lie, cheat and kill.

Birth control was a Progressive idea originally intended to end poverty. Margret Sanger’s goal was to convince poor people to limit the number of kids they had so there would not be as many people impoverished.

That might seem like a laudable goal, but when government applies it to the mentally ill and mentally retarded — over their objections — in the form of castration and hysterectomy it becomes a crime against humanity. (Yes. This still happens. Twenty-one states have laws regulating involuntary sterilization.)

Birth control does not always mean limiting births. Sometimes it means creating babies. The right kind of babies. In Germany, the government took birth control to the logical extreme with Lebensborn, a government program assisting people considered genetically elite to mate and produce children. China enforced the one child rule on their population for a generation and now faces a host of unintended consequences.

Sincere Progressive goals lend themselves to the emergence of Fascism by this process.

It is not as if a democracy accidentally elects a fascist leader, then repeats that mistake until the entire government becomes fascist. It is bureaucracies – organizations that, by design, are undemocratic and run by unelected officials – pushing their mission of managing social policies to fascist extremes.

Like school districts reporting sexually active students to law enforcement.

Or the Justice Department promising restraint when using the Patriot Act, then directing their agents to use it to go after owners of topless bars.

And birth control — intended to mitigate poverty — used by government agencies for eugenics and genocide.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about how far Progressivism goes.

First, Fascism is just another form of government like any other. It is not inherently evil, but it allows evil to flourish.

Fascism is dedicated to social unity and harmony. Anything threatening those social goals are ruthlessly suppressed. Like conservative speakers at Progressive universities or Populist organizations meeting in Progressive cities.

This lack of tolerance for the expression of social or political speech show how Fascism depends on authoritarianism to squelch competing ideas. Bureaucracies create endless rules that generally carry the force of law. Bureaucracies create and cite these rules when denying social or political comment. A dramatic example is threatening high school teachers with career ending and possibly criminal sanctions if they do not report sexually active students.

Next, Fascism features very tight relationships between government and business. Like the military industrial complex, or the ObamaCare medical industrial complex. (For a chilling documented example, see Conspiracy, a recreation of The Wannsee Conference – German military leaders and industrialists planning the logistics of the Final Solution.)

Finally, instead of the government existing for the good of the people, Fascism holds that people exist for the good of the government. Hence, it is permissible for police to shoot innocent civilians in the name of “officer safety” because the safety of government agents is more important than civilian lives. (Even to the extent of ordering a man to get naked, crawl on his hands and knees while begging for his life and then machine-gunning him in the back.)

So that’s a little about Progressivism and Fascism. I hope that by writing this I can encourage a little more thought and less emotion into our current political thought and discussion.

If You Want Social Mobility, Choose Your Parents Well!

A few years ago, I was researching the value of bachelor’s degrees and discovered a research study for the Department of Education called Baccalaureate and Beyond (Cataldi, Siegel, Shepherd and Cooney 2014).

It is a longitudinal survey – one that follows a group of individuals over a long period. In this case, researchers looked at subjects four years after earning a bachelor’s degree. The thing I found interesting was that about 30% of the subjects did not have a single full time job.

This caught my attention because the education industry insists that the more education one has the better job prospects become and the more money made. That promise implies that college graduates would have “good” jobs – traditional 40 hour per week positions with some degree of job security.

This study certainly did not support that claim.

Of the thirty percent who did not have a single full time job, about half, or 15%, were working one or more part time jobs and the other half were unemployed. The other half had dropped out of the labor force, either returning to school or becoming a housewife/husband.

I found this so stunning that I called up the lead investigator of the study and asked him, rather bluntly, “If a bachelor degree is not a good predictor of socioeconomic success, what is?”

He didn’t skip a beat.

“Zip Code”

The best indicator of future social status is the social status you happened to have been born into, even more than education. socio-economic status is inherited, it seems.

In his still very relevant and interesting 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies, physicist and college president, Robert Fuller argues that social hierarchies are natural and needed but takes special aim at the unfairness inherent in them.

In one passage he shares the divergent life courses taken by him and his childhood friend, Gerald, whose family owned a chicken farm. Both boys were interested in math and they enjoyed a friendly competition for twelve years that sharpened their math skills.

“At a high school reunion a few years ago, I asked Gerald whether he regretted not developing his talent for math…With an unmistakable wistfulness, he explained that it had always been assumed he’d work the farm. None of his teachers took his mathematical talent seriously. No one ever encouraged him to aim higher. He never even considered anything beyond high school. I’m sure he could have become a college math professor…” (Fuller 2003, p. 36).

Both men started at the same place with the same interests and talents, one becomes a physicist and college president, while the other spends his life driving an egg truck. The only difference between the two was the social status of their families.

If your parents were wealthy and went to elite universities you will likely follow that path. On the other hand, if your parents went to land grant colleges and end up in the working class that is probably your fate as well.

That just rubs me the wrong way. So I started researching academic studies in order to bring some sense and clarity to the issue of the value of education.

Here is Alison Wolf, (2009), a leading UK professor writing in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning:

“In Britain, returns to degrees have already dipped badly for specific groups, especially those majoring in the liberal arts or attending low-status schools… You earn more…if you go to a highly selective institution, particularly if you go on to advanced academic or professional education and even more if is a world-renowned university (Harvard, Oxford).” (Wolf, 2009, p. 14).

There is no doubt that the choice of major has a lot to do with earnings, but notice that Wolf has added something new – the status of schools.

So, if the status of schools influences future earnings, what happens when aspiring students compete for entry into highly respected schools?

Just this month the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis released a study asking this very question. Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, (July 2018), performed a meta-study of 42 previous research papers and data sets going all the way back the early 20th century.

A meta-study does not involve any original research. The investigators combine all the data from previous studies and subject it to statistical analyses. The goal is to aggregate data from a range of previous studies to look for long-term trends or consistent results.

Here is what these investigators say about how intense competition for high quality education affects US colleges and universities:

“The key intuition is that although the rising demand for college accepts all types of students equally, it sets off a chain reaction …”

“…The result is a transition from an equilibrium where all students had access to colleges of roughly the same quality to an equilibrium where high-ability students had access to better colleges but low-ability students had access to worse colleges…” (Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, July 2018, p. 36)

In other words, the competition between colleges for good students has created a hierarchy of school quality. People aspiring to college try to get into the best schools, but the schools are “sorting” students by ability. Elite schools accept people with the best student skills, while people with lesser student skills go to less respected schools.

The path one takes to a bachelor’s degree signals social status to employers and graduate programs. A path starting with community college and transfer to a land grant college signals something much different from four years at an elite university or notable local institution.

This starts making sense.

If you know anything about social psychology or sociology you are aware of one very basic truth about human beings – we always arrange ourselves in a social hierarchy. It is such an automatic and inherent ability that we barely take notice. Our social circle usually consists of people very much like us – and that means people with similar socio-economic status.

So, what is it about our family of origin that anchors us so permanently into its socio-economic status?

Annette Lareau tells us all about it in her eye-opening book, Unequal Childhoods (2003). Lareau is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who took on a monumental study of how parents transmit social values related to class their children. She and her graduate student assistants observed interactions of poor, working class and middle class families over a period of years and came to some sobering conclusions.

Lareau identified two general differences in the way parents socialized their children, “concert cultivation” and “natural growth”.

Middle class families and “concerted cultivation”.

According to the observations Lareau and her team made, middle class families tend to see their role as nurturing their children. They have the resources to dominate and control their children’s lives with all sorts of structured experiences intended to enrich their lives. These parents are highly involved in managing their children’s after school time, with organized sports, music and dance lessons and other highly structured activities.

They interact with their children much like adults, explaining why things are best done in certain ways, reminding the kids about chores and homework, and negotiating conflicts with reason, logic and compromise rather than using their authority to end them.

According to Lareau, these middle class children tend to develop a sense of entitlement, but also learn sophisticated methods of interacting with adults who are in positions of authority, such as teachers and doctors.

Middle class children, even in the fourth grade, frequently succeed in requesting special attention and privileges from teachers and other adults in positions of authority. They learn this from seeing their parents reminding teachers to respect their children’s learning style, or encouraging their children to ask doctors or dentists specific questions. Lareau contends this grows out the sense of entitlement middle class children develop.

They learn middle class “rules of the game”.

Poor and working class families and “natural growth”.

Lacking the resources of middle class families, poor and working class parents see themselves as authorities keeping their children on the proper path to adulthood. They are less concerned with feelings, opinions and thoughts, and more concerned with compliance and respect.

Their parents are working overtime, or on a second job or using time consuming public transportation and do not have the time or resources to closely shepherd their children. For these families the focus is on simply staying on top of things such as jobs and transportation instead of teaching the “rules of the game” like middle class.

Poor and working class children have far more unstructured time. They spend far more time playing with other children, interacting with extended family like aunts and cousins, and considerable time in cooperative activity with siblings and other children.

School structure is very rigid compared to structure found at home. Poor and working class children very quickly developed a sense of constraint in schools. They readily accept directives by adult authorities such as teachers, but resent the loss of autonomy and self-direction they enjoy at home.

The result is “neck down compliance” – going through the motions of compliance, but not integrating into the education system. For these kids there is no value in school and the point of learning is lost to them.

According to Lareau, poor and working class parents teach their children powerlessness in the face of schools because they don’t know how to assert themselves to authorities any more than their children do.

Putting it all together

So what does all this mean?

First, we find that bachelor’s degrees don’t return the level of value promised by the education industry, at least not for everyone. A researcher reveals a variable – zip code – that seems to influence the outcome of education.

Next, Robert Fuller, physicist and college president, shares a story illustrating how powerful the socio-economic status of the family of origin can be in determining the course of ones life.

After that, an observation from a UK academic about how much more valuable a degree from an elite university is than a degree from lesser-valued schools.

Next, the meta-study from scholars at Minneapolis Federal Reserve supporting the observation that universities have a hierarchy of value. Further, they conclude that schools and students “sort” themselves into hierarchies with poor students attending poor schools at the bottom and excellent students attending excellent schools at the top.

Finally, Annette Lareau identifies the mechanism parents use to transmit assumptions of how the world works into values that determine socio-economic status.

If any of this is an accurate explanation of how socio-economic status passes from one generation to the next, it brings in to question how much influence we have over the course of our lives. See what Robert Sapolosky thinks here, and share a comment.

Here are the sources cited in this article:

Cataldi, E. F., Siegel, P., Shepherd, B., & Cooney, J. (2014). Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On (B&B: 08/12).

Fuller, R. W. (2003). Somebodies and nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Hendricks, L., Herrington, C., & Schoellman, T. (July 2018). College Access and Attendance Patterns. Minneapolis, MN: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wolf, A. (2009). Misunderstanding Education: Why Increasing College Enrollments Can’t and Won’t Fix the Economy. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(4), 10-17.

Thanks for reading! You can fine more like this at www.OnwardThroughTheFog.com


How Poor Sleep, Expanding Intestines and Foreign Microbes Keep Us Fat

Anyone keeping a healthy lifestyle knows that temptation is all around. Convenience stores and fast food outlets alternate on every corner. Marketers pay food psychologists to design sales tactics that overcome our will power and best intentions. Intentional combinations of fat, sugar and carbohydrates, engineered by food scientists, get us hooked on junk food in much the same way we are hooked on drugs.

We are aware of that environment. But there are other environments we cannot see that are attracting the scrutiny of researchers – the colony of bacteria in our intestines, activity within our brains and the weird ability of our intestines to expand and contract.

There is no doubt that night shift work is associated with weight gain and obesity. No one knows exactly what goes on inside our brains to make us fat when we work at night, but we know it happens.

A 2018 meta-study reveals interesting and puzzling details.

Combing the results of 28 studies of weight gain and shift work found that working at night increased the risk of being overweight by 23%, however the increased risk of dangerous abdominal or belly fat was even greater at 35%.

Robert Lusting, in his revolutionary book, Fat Chance, tells us all bout abdominal fat and why it is so dangerous.

Fat comes in a different varieties, and not all of them are bad.

Subcutaneous fat is “healthy fat” laying just under the skin. It is what gives women their curves, provides energy reserves when we are sick and seems to protect against disease. Elderly people without a modest amount of subcutaneous fat get sick more often, die younger and experience more injuries than those with a healthy amount.

Visceral fat – that kind that collects around our middle – it’s what kills us. Visceral fat causes insulin resistance, and insulin is the main player in how we digest our food. According to Lusting, insulin resistance promotes diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and general ageing.

Our body easily turns visceral fat into energy to fuel our muscles and organs. But that leads to one of the very dangerous aspects of visceral fat – it resides near our organs. We can’t see the damage visceral fat does when it surrounds our liver or heart, but that is the essence of metabolic disease.

The only place we can easily detect visceral fat is when we see it around our belly. Lusting cites studies indicating that our waist circumference is the best predictor of risk of death from metabolic diseases. In other words, belly fat is a proxy or symbol for dangerous intra organ fat. But how do we measure it? How can we tell how much risk our visceral fat is subjecting us?

Lusting offers three suggestions.

First is belt size. Anything more than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women is a likely indicator of excess visceral fat.

Another easy way to spot excess visceral fat is looking for darkening, thickening or ridging of the skin around the neck, armpits or knuckles. Lusting says this is excess insulin reacting with hormone receptors just under the skin.

For a more accurate measure, calculate the ratio between waist and hip. Research suggests that ratio less than .80 indicates a healthy amount of visceral fat. (Interestingly, David Buss, a well-known researcher and author of The Evolution of Desire finds that men consistently prefer women with a waist-hip ratio of .70.)

But why would shift work have anything to do with gaining visceral fat?

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, explains the biology behind circadian rhythms in her book Zoobiquity.

All the cells in our bodies contain “oscillators” built by clock genes. These oscillators influence the timing of everything in our bodies – how fast calories burn to when we feel like eating. Plants, animals, bacteria and even single celled organisms manage circadian rhythms.

Creatures with complex brains have a collection of neurons coordinating all these oscillators. Located at the point where the optic nerve connects to the hypothalamus is a tiny brain structure about the size of a sesame seed. Called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, (SCN), this tiny organ detects light levels detected by the optic nerve and directs our circadian rhythms – that is, helping us to sleep at night and remain awake during the day.

Think of its job as synchronizing external time signals with our internal oscillators.

When researchers expose mice to constant light, even dim light, they gain weight and carry higher blood-glucose ratios than mice exposed to natural rhythms of light and darkness. We also know that plants and animals living further from the equator have lower levels of sugars in their systems.

The annual switch from standard time to daylight savings time creates an opportunity for research on disruptions to circadian rhythms. Researchers find that depression increases during the switch to daylight savings time, as do car accidents, heart attacks and stoke. And that is just a modest change of one hour.

We know that lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain. In his book Go Wild, John Ratey, MD, points out that sleep deprivation studies consistently show that lack of sleep is associated with weight gain, even though there is no measurable change in caloric intake or energy expenditure.

It is interesting to point out that researchers have a hard time controlling for increased caloric intake when doing sleep deprivation studies. Simply not getting enough sleep causes disruption of hormones that signal satiety, resulting in cravings for sugar and carbohydrates, especially in the evening.

Putting all this together shows us that there is a complicated interplay between light, sleep and the secretion of hormones that affect our appetite, even to the point of causing a desire for certain foods.

But there are even more things that we have very little awareness of, yet can have far-reaching effect on how we gain, lose and carry our weight.

Natterson-Horowitz spends quite a bit of time telling us about our intestines and what scientists are finding in them.

The intestines of many animals can contract or expand. The remarkable ability to change the length of intestines is common among animals that migrate and hibernate. Fish, frogs, snakes squirrels voles and mice all have this ability. The exact mechanism is unknown, but it probably related to circadian rhythms. When stretched out intestines can absorb more nutrients from food passing though. They become more efficient.

It is unsettling to think that is one more thing we can’t control that affects our weight.

However, we are learning far more about our biome – the collection of microbes who call our intestines home. At birth, we have no intestinal microbes – our innards are sterile. This changes as we are exposed to microbes in our environment.

Parents can tell when their babies develop gut microbes – diaper changing suddenly becomes a very smelly affair. By the time we are only a few months old trillions of microbes reside in our mouths, skin, teeth, even our lungs. It is thought that only about ten percent of the cells in our body are human. The rest are little friends we pick up from the environment.

There are two dominant types of bacteria in our biome, firmicutes and bacteroidetes. Firmicutes are associated with obesity and bacteroidetes with leanness. Obese individuals tend to have more firmicutes bacteria in their gut biome than people with a normal weight do.

Each of us has a unique blend of these microbes, which accounts for the differences in how what we eat affects our weight. Some people can eat pasta and wine without giving their weight a thought, while others have to be careful about eating an apple or avocado.

It turns out that bacteroidetes are far more efficient at extracting calories from food than firmicutes are. When obese people lose weight, the ratio of firmicutes to bacteroidetes changes, and bacteroidetes eventually out number firmicutes.

Whether or not we can change the ratio of firmicutes and bacteroidetes and lose weight by taking probiotics is an open question. But not for the weight loss industry. They are taking advantage of the discovery and offer us a range of products designed to increase gut bacteroidetes. How much of an effect these products have on weight is hard to determine.

At this point, you might be wondering whether the controversial practice of giving farm animals high doses of antibiotics has an effect on the humans who eat them. Agribusiness is no longer allowed to administer massive doses of antibiotics for purely preventive measures.

However, the rules are very liberal, and routine use of antibiotics allows animals to get fatter on less food. Exactly why this happens is unknown, but it is possible that some gut microbes like firmicutes are more resistant to antibiotics than others are. The effect that antibiotics administered to farm animals has on the humans who eat them is unknown.

Scientists are making discoveries almost daily showing how intimately interconnected we are with our environment. The more we learn, the better we can make decisions pointing us to a long and healthy life.

Books mentioned in this article:

Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Lustig, R. H. (2012). Fat chance: Beating the odds against sugar, processed food, obesity, and disease. New York, New York: Hudson Street Press.

Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Bowers, K. Zoobiquity: What animals can teach us about health and the science of healing (1st ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ratey, J. J., Manning, R., & Perlmutter, D. (2014). Go wild: Free your body and mind from the afflictions of civilization (First edition. ed.). New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

If you enjoy what you read here, check similar articles at Onward Through the Fog





Central Bankers Don’t Know Any More Than the Rest of Us

“Your faith that central bankers know “where they are” is a little surprising (“Central banks correctly go their separate ways”, editorial, June 16). Since the crisis nadir, inflation and growth outcomes have consistently fallen short of what was expected by the central bankers of major market economies despite an unprecedented period of low policy rates alongside outsized balance sheets. Current policy may be moving in different directions for reasons that seem logical today but the reality is that no one knows how smooth or bumpy the path will be from this point forward.”

Quin Casey, Letter to the Editor, Financial Times, June 22, 2018


Jerome Powell, our new Federal Reserve Chairman replacing Janet Yellin, delivered a revealing speech to the European Central Bank Forum in Portugal recently.

The speech is illuminating and important because it shows how out of touch our central bankers are with the economy. It is stunning to see statements of purported fact followed by another that contradicts it. Equally baffling, the Chair does not seem to be aware of the information released in the most recent Employment Situation, the official government report on employment released monthly by the Bureau of labor Statistics, (BLS)

For example, first statement:

“Today, most Americans who want jobs can find them.”

Next statement:

“High demand for workers should support wage growth and labor force participation–the latter a measure on which the United States now lags most other advanced economies.”

Yes, high demand for workers should promote wage increases, but it wages have barely increased in the last decade. The BLS data contained in The Employment Situation tells us that wages have risen only 2.7% in the last year.  According to Trading Economics, wage growth has been declining since 1979 and now is about as low as it ever has been. There does not seem to be any pressure on wages at all.

So, no, there hasn’t been any wage growth, bringing into question whether there really is a high demand for workers.

What about labor force participation?

Trading Economics shows that labor force participation is now about what it was in the late 1970’s when women were just beginning to enter the labor force. Again high demand for workers would draw people back into the labor market, but that does not seem to be happening. Powell seems to have some understanding of this because he points out that our labor force participation rate is lower than other industrialized economies with which we compete.

A little later in the speech, another contradiction…

First sentence:

“As is often the case, in the current environment, significant uncertainty attends the process of making monetary policy.

Note the term “significant uncertainty”.

The economy is not recovering. Saying that it does implies that we are going back to something like what we had before, Things have changed so much that it is more accurate to say that we are building a brand new economy. That is why there is “significant uncertainty” – old concepts and metrics don’t work in the emerging economy as they did in the old industrial economy.

For example, there is the “Phillips Curve” that measures the relationship between employment and inflation. As people go back to work following a recession, they have more money, creating demand, which causes prices to increase. That is why a little inflation is a good thing.

However, unemployment is at 3.8% and there is little sign of inflation, implying that people don’t have enough money to create a demand strong enough to fuel inflation, even though they count as employed. That might be because of low wages in the gig economy.

Contingent workers make a lot less than people do in traditional jobs. We don’t know what the effect of contingent labor market has on other parts of the economy because we haven’t figured out a way to measure contingent employment.

Second sentence:

“Today, with the economy strong and risks to the outlook balanced, the case for continued gradual increases in the federal funds rate remains strong and broadly supported among FOMC participants.”

Powell sounds very confident in light of his previous comment about the significant uncertainty supporting monetary policymaking.

Finally, this:

“Unfortunately, with the passage of a half-century and important changes in the structure of our economy and in central bank practices, in my view the historical comparison does not shed as much light as we might have hoped.”

Here he mentions “structure”. Structural changes in the economy mean permanent change, not just normal cyclical changes.

Examples of this might be the end of mass employment in industry. It’s not that industry has left the United States; there is more than ever right now. It’s just that robots and software do most of the work.

The shift of traditional well-paying 40 hour a week jobs to low paying contingent employment is another example. Now we have to remember that just because someone has a job does not mean they can afford food and shelter.

So why is Powell running in circles? Reading between the lines, as we have been doing here, reveals a much different picture than taking the speech at face value.

I’ve been a little harsh on him, really. He’s in a tough position. The integrity of the banking system has as much to do with perception as reality. When people stop having faith in the financial health of a bank, they withdraw their money. When people see others withdrawing money the safety of their deposits come into question and they are inclined to withdraw as well. This is what a “run on the bank” is – panicked withdrawals that may or may not be necessary.

When this happens to one bank, people tend to lose faith in all banks. This is what social psychologists call “social proof”. This is one of many heuristics, or shortcuts to decision making. When we see many other people doing a particular thing we tend to trust their judgment and join in, usually without thinking.

James Surowiecki has written a wonderful book about heuristics in economics and finances, (and many other settings), in his book Wisdom of Crowds. I highly recommend it.

It may come as a surprise, but banks do not have enough cash on hand to cover all their debts to customers. Deposits go out the door in the form of loans, or during the collapse of the industrial economy in 2008, in the form of loans to other banks buying blocks of risky home mortgages. This is where the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and central banks, like the Federal Reserve come in.

The FDIC insures consumer deposits for up to $250,000 and central banks stand by to infuse troubled banks with huge amounts of cash to forestall a run and maintain faith in the banking system.

This is why Chairman Powell has to be so careful about what he says. On the one hand, he can’t just make outright falsehoods about the economy because the first time someone catches him in a lie will be the last time anyone believes him. He can’t be brutally honest about the economy, either, without undermining faith in the future.

So you have to listen carefully, take note of what he does not say, and examine exactly what he does say. Powell is saying that things are better than they were, we aren’t sure why, and we’ll move ahead cautiously.

But bank customers aren’t the only ones for whom Powell is designing his messages. He is the Chair of the Federal Reserve and one of 11 members of the Feds Board of Governors. The Federal Reserve consists of 12 of the largest banks in the United States.

The Board of Governors are the presidents of those banks and they creates monetary policy as a group. Most of their influence lies in inter-bank standards, like how much interest these banks charge one another, and agreements on length and volume of bond sales.

Remember Qualitative Easing? That was when the Fed was buying back bonds. Bonds are debt instruments – when you buy a bond you are loaning money to the bond issuer. Buying back Treasury bonds – like savings bonds except a lot bigger—is a way for banks to shed debt, but it also a way to pump money back into the economy.

For more than a year following the crash of 2008, the Fed was pumping $80 billion a month into the economy. It was the only thing keeping the economy solvent.

Yes, things were that bad.

You can read all about it in Mohamed El-Erian’s detailed and very readable account of the 2008 financial crisis, The Only Game in Town.

The challenge for Powell as Chair of the Fed is to get all 12 members of the Fed to agree on monetary policy. It sounds like dull and boring issues to most of us, but members of the Federal Reserve are passionate about economics – they all have PhDs from leading universities – and they are very ambitious and driven.

Powell has to get these all people to agree on specific and detailed monetary policy. Think about the last time you tried to get a few of your friends to decide on where to go for lunch or dinner. That’s hard enough.

Getting intelligent, personally ambitious and driven people to agree with one another is a herculean task. Getting them to agree on something the President supports and Congress might tolerate compounds the challenge, but this is at the core of Powell’s job description.

So no, the Fed chair can’t just make outright lies, but he can’t be brutally honest either. He has to construct a narrative that fits the facts and doesn’t get anyone upset while using data that is incomplete and uncertain.

That is why it is so important to listen carefully to what he says, and look for nuance and veiled meaning. It is also important to remember that the Federal Reserve doesn’t know everything. As Powell tells us repeatedly, we are in an entirely new emerging economy and there is “significant uncertainty”.

After all central banks don’t know any more than anyone else.


Sources used in this article:

El-Erian, M. A. (2017). The only game in town: Central banks, instability, and avoiding the next collapse. New York: Random House.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday.