Friday, May 14, 2010

FO News Roundup: May 14, 2010

Been a while, but we're alive and well. Well, I am.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Unintended Consequences and Happy Meals

Supervisors in Santa Clara County, California participated in America's great experiment of "laboratory federalism" last week by enacting a law that prohibits restaurants from providing toys with children's meals, unless the accompanying food meets certain nutritional standards.

The regulation, which for the sake of shorthand we'll call "the Unhappy Meal Law," only applies in areas where the county supervisors are the sovereign local authority — i.e., only in those pockets of land in Santa Clara County that are not incorporated into a city or town (which of course can pass their own laws). Thus, rather than entirely beat back the hordes of junk plastic movie tie-in action figures past the county lines, the law only makes Happy Meal toys a little less ubiquitous in fast food restaurants in the county. This will, of course, cause great confusion and consternation among Bay Area five-year-olds, who absent access to a GPS device, a county map, and an understanding of California's principles of local government and jurisdiction, won't know on a given day whether, where, or why they won't be getting a Mermaid Barbie doll with their cheeseburgers. And it's just this sort of random arrangement of cause and consequence that, according to behavioral psychologists, leads to "learned helplessness" and depression.

But hey — at least our kids won't be obese. At least that's the thinking, as county supervisors, applying the "Joe Camel principle," have concluded that Happy Meal toys draw children to fast-food restaurants, where they become tracked into the habit of eating unhealthy food.

Needless to say, I have some thoughts on this subject. Four fingers of thoughts, in fact:

☞ McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal in 1979. I remember when this happened. My father took me to McDonald's every Saturday. It was one of my favorite things in the whole world. Then one day I got to McDonald's, I read the menu, and I realized that not only was I going to get a burger and fries for lunch, but I was going to get a toy, too. And McDonald's became even more awesome.

Because I went to McDonald's, as a child, both before and after McDonald's launched the Happy Meal, I can count myself as something of an authority on the drawing effect of Happy Meal toys. As I recall my state of mind in the Pre-Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. And of course, in the Happy Meal Era, I always frickin' wanted to go to McDonald's for lunch. Check my math, Mithridates, but as I calculate this, the net drawing effect of Happy Meal toys = 0. Zero.

☞ Whether or not I actually did go to McDonald's for lunch as a child was a question that turned not so much on what I wanted to do, but on what my parents wanted to do. And of course, now that I'm fully grown with children of my own, I'm the one who gets to make the call on whether my children get to go to McDonald's. So now that we've dispensed with the notion that Happy Meal toys make children marginally and meaningfully more interested in McDonald's, it seems worthwhile to cover the effect of the toys on parents' decisions.


[deep breath]

Yes, um, where were we? Oh, right: I always frickin' want to go to McDonald's for lunch. But if I'm with the kids, then they're of course going to come along, and that means I'm going to bring home more godawful nine-cent hunks of plastic that will, without fail, find their way into my bed, into my bathtub, under foot as I walk through the dark into the bathroom, between couch cushions for me to sit on. So yes, if anything, the Happy Meal toys actually reduce my interest in taking the kids to McDonald's. Seriously.

☞ Anyone who has actually given a child a Happy Meal knows that the accompanying toy actually reduces the amount of food the child will ingest. The logic is simple: if you give a kid a big pile of greasy, delicious junk food, he'll eat it. If you give the kid the same big pile of greasy, delicious junk food and a toy, he'll find himself torn between eating the junk food and playing with the toy. If you withhold the toy until the kid is done with his lunch, he will in most cases prematurely declare the lunch finished and actually allow you to throw out his McNuggets and fries so that he can get a crack at the toy.

I've seen this dynamic at work: just today I took The Boy to McDonald's. No toy, I said, until we got into the car. The Boy ate one McNugget and insisted that lunch was over. I told him that we were going to sit for a few more minutes ("for our digestion") before leaving. If he wanted to have some more lunch during that time, he was welcome to do so. The Boy ate two more McNuggets and a fistful of fries. Q.E. freakin' D.

☞ Finally, consider how McDonald's might respond to the Unhappy Meal law. If McDonald's accepts, as Santa Clara County does (and I don't), that Happy Meal toys make their restaurant more attractive to children, and therefore families, then they'll have to find some other way to market to children. Deprived of the ability to offer collateral inducements, they'll have to beef up (pun intended) their food offerings. And since it's axiomatic that food is more appealing when it tastes better, and that the worse food is for you, the better it tastes — well, McDonald's now has an incentive to make its food even greasy, junkier, and more delicious. And/or cheaper.

I could talk more about how a county restriction means city kids get toys and country kids don't, how the Unhappy Meal law seems entirely predicated on the suggestion that parents don't know how to say no to their children, and so on. But it ought to be enough to note that either the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors don't have kids and never were kids, or they just didn't think this one through.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Lieberman's Absurd Miranda Workaround

Here we go again. Another terror arrest, another round of trumped-up hand-wringing from the right about having to "read rights to terrorists." Once again, it seems this "rights = soft on terror" concern is much more theoretical than practical, because the Times Square Rube Goldberg Smoking Car Bomber is talking.

Never mind all that, says Joe Lieberman: we need to strip homegrown terrorists of their citizenship. If we can do that, then we don't have to worry about all these rights, and we can do anything we want to these jerks:
“I’m now putting together legislation to amend that to [specify that] any individual American citizen who is found to be involved in a foreign terrorist organization, as defined by the Department of State, would be deprived of their citizenship rights,” Lieberman said Tuesday.

This would be a clever answer to the Miranda "problem," if indeed (1) there were a problem, (2) this approach resolved the problem, and (3) it were clever. But Lieberman's whacked-out law doesn't meet any of these three conditions. Here's why:

We don't always know if a person is innocent or guilty.

The rights and protections we extend to criminal suspects and defendants are designed, among other reasons, to ensure that the state doesn't manufacture guilt. Folks in America don't disappear into black holes of detention — without access to attorneys, under conditions that allow law enforcement to extract forced confessions — not because we think criminals deserve kid-glove treatment, but because it would really suck to have that happen to you, if you weren't a criminal.

So let's imagine life in Joe Lieberman's World. You're sitting on a plane, on the tarmac at JFK. You're looking forward to your vacation. Tray tables are up, you've switched off your cell phone, and suddenly federal agents storm into coach and carry you off. They're thinking you tried to blow up a car in Times Square. Well, there's obviously some mistake; a quick call to your attorney will help clear all this up, except someone just declared that you're "involved in a foreign terrorist organization." No lawyer, then. You're back out on the tarmac now, but it's a military transport plane, and you're heading to Bagram, and not Barcelona.

How could this have happened? you ask. Well, it's frighteningly simple. You've been accused of terrorism. Terrorism is an awful, awful crime — so awful, in fact, that just being accused of it is enough to see you stripped you of your citizenship and all the rights that flow from that. Even if the rights bear importantly on the question whether you're a terrorist at all.

Ick. Nice one, Joe.

Of course, that's not the case here at all. Faisal Shahzad has freely confessed his guilt already. We know he tried to kill dozens, if not hundreds of innocent people, over some unspecified grievance that may have something to do with frickin' South Park. So yes, even this purported bleeding-heart liberal correspondent actually would love to see this guy beaten, waterboarded, and humiliated in public (Times Square seems an appropriate forum). And what the heck, when we're done with him, let's strip the guy of his American citizenship. I'm all for that. Screw Faisal Shahzad.

But do we have to strip folks of their citizenship before we know whether they're guilty of terrorism — for the express purpose of facilitating a finding that they're guilty of terrorism? That's the worst kind of legal bootstrapping. It's beneath America. Hell, it's even beneath Glenn Beck. It's just not beneath Senator Lieberman.

Joe, you, too, have the right to remain silent, and we well and truly wish you'd exercise that right a little more often.