Monthly Archives: August 2013

Public health vs Private freedom

Peter Singer, Project Syndicate

PRINCETON – In contrasting decisions last month, a United States Court of Appeals struck down a US Food and Drug Administration requirement that cigarettes be sold in packs with graphic health warnings, while Australia’s highest court upheld a lawthat goes much further. The Australian law requires not only health warnings and images of the physical damage that smoking causes, but also that the packs themselves be plain, with brand names in small generic type, no logos, and no color other than a drab olive-brown.

The US decision was based on America’s constitutional protection of free speech. The court accepted that the government may require factually accurate health warnings, but the majority, in a split decision, said that it could not go as far as requiring images. In Australia, the issue was whether the law implied uncompensated expropriation – in this case, of the tobacco companies’ intellectual property in their brands. The High Court ruled that it did not.

Underlying these differences, however, is the larger issue: who decides the proper balance between public health and freedom of expression? In the US, courts make that decision, essentially by interpreting a 225-year-old text, and if that deprives the government of some techniques that might reduce the death toll from cigarettes – currently estimated at 443,000 Americans every year – so be it. In Australia, where freedom of expression is not given explicit constitutional protection, courts are much more likely to respect the right of democratically elected governments to strike the proper balance.

There is widespread agreement that governments ought to prohibit the sale of at least some dangerous products. Countless food additives are either banned or permitted only in limited quantities, as are children’s toys painted with substances that could be harmful if ingested. New York City has banned trans fats from restaurants and is now limiting the permitted serving size of sugary drinks. Many countries prohibit the sale of unsafe tools, such as power saws without safety guards.

Although there are arguments for prohibiting a variety of different dangerous products, cigarettes are unique, because no other product, legal or illegal, comes close to killing the same number of people – more than traffic accidents, malaria, and AIDS combined. Cigarettes are also highly addictive. Moreover, wherever health-care costs are paid by everyone – including the US, with its public health-care programs for the poor and the elderly – everyone pays the cost of efforts to treat the diseases caused by cigarettes.

Whether to prohibit cigarettes altogether is another question, because doing so would no doubt create a new revenue source for organized crime. It seems odd, however, to hold that the state may, in principle, prohibit the sale of a product, but may not permit it to be sold only in packs that carry graphic images of the damage it causes to human health.

The tobacco industry will now take its battle against Australia’s legislation to the World Trade Organization. The industry fears that the law could be copied in much larger markets, like India and China. That is, after all, where such legislation is most needed.

Indeed, only about 15% of Australians and 20% of Americans smoke, but in 14 low and middle-income countries covered in a survey recently published in The Lancet,an average of 41% of men smoked, with an increasing number of young women taking up the habit. The World Health Organization estimates that about 100 million peopledied from smoking in the twentieth century, but smoking will kill up to one billion people in the twenty-first century.

Discussions of how far the state may go in promoting the health of its population often start with John Stuart Mill’s principle of limiting the state’s coercive power to acts that prevent harm to others. Mill could have accepted requirements for health warnings on cigarette packs, and even graphic photos of diseased lungs if that helps people to understand the choice that they are making; but he would have rejected a ban.

Mill’s defense of individual liberty, however, assumes that individuals are the best judges and guardians of their own interests – an idea that today verges on naiveté. The development of modern advertising techniques marks an important difference between Mill’s era and ours. Corporations have learned how to sell us unhealthy products by appealing to our unconscious desires for status, attractiveness, and social acceptance. As a result, we find ourselves drawn to a product without quite knowing why. And cigarette makers have learned how to manipulate the properties of their product to make it maximally addictive.

Graphic images of the damage that smoking causes can counter-balance the power of these appeals to the unconscious, thereby facilitating more deliberative decision-making and making it easier for people to stick to a resolution to quit smoking. Instead of rejecting such laws as restricting freedom, therefore, we should defend them as ways to level the playing field between individuals and giant corporations that make no pretense of appealing to our capacities for reasoning and reflection. Requiring that cigarettes be sold in plain packs with health warnings and graphic images is equal-opportunity legislation for the rational beings inside us.

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The destabalisation of marriage

The Disestablishment of Marriage – NYTimes.com

nytimes.com  | by STEPHANIE COONTZ on June 22, 2013

AT first glance, the prognosis for marriage looks grim. Between 1950 and 2011,according to calculations by the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen, the marriage rate fell from 90 marriages a year per 1,000 unmarried women to just 31, a stunning 66 percent decline. If such a decline continued, there would be no women getting married by 2043!

But rumors of the death of marriage are greatly exaggerated. People are not giving up on marriage. They are simply waiting longer to tie the knot. Because the rate of marriage is calculated by the percentage of adult women (over 15) who get married each year, the marriage rate automatically falls as the average age of marriage goes up. In 1960, the majority of women were already married before they could legally have a glass of Champagne at their own wedding. A woman who was still unwed at 25 had some reason to fear that she would turn into what the Japanese call “Christmas cake,” left on the shelf.

Today the average age of first marriage is almost 27 for women and 29 for men, and the range of ages at first marriage is much more spread out. In 1960, Professor Cohen calculates, fewer than 8 percent of women and only 13 percent of men married for the first time at age 30 or older, compared with almost a third of all women and more than 40 percent of all men today. Most Americans still marry eventually, and they continue to hold marriage in high regard. Indeed, as a voluntary relationship between two individuals, marriage comes with higher expectations of fairness, fidelity and intimacy than ever.

But marriage is no longer the central institution that organizes people’s lives. Marriage is no longer the only place where people make major life transitions and decisions, enter into commitments or incur obligations. The rising age of marriage, combined with the increase in divorce and cohabitation since the 1960s, means that Americans spend a longer period of their adult lives outside marriage than ever before. Continue reading

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Where we are shapes who we are

Very interesting!

nytimes.com  | by ADAM ALTER on June 14, 2013

IN the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms along the East Coast and recorded how many lost letters found their way to a mailbox. The researchers counted each posted letter as a small act of charity and discovered that students in some of the dorms were more generous than others.

Nearly all of the letters dropped near uncrowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.

Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college mates and this apparently dampened their generosity.

Later, when the researchers asked a different collection of students to imagine how they might have responded had they come across a lost letter, 95 percent of them said they would have posted it regardless of where they were living.

Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings. Continue reading

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Should art really be for its own sake alone?

The Guardian  | by Alain de Botton on January 20, 2012

Descent into limbo andrea mantegna

A detail of Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna. Photograph: Sotheby’s/AP

You often hear it said that “museums of art are our new churches”: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture, but in practice art museums often abdicate much of their potential to function as new churches (places of consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption) through the way they handle the collections entrusted to them. While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem unable to frame them in a way that links them powerfully to our inner needs.

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as “reductive”. We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art” – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean? Continue reading

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The spying game

Peter Singer, Project Syndicate

project-syndicate.org  | by Simon Chesterman on July 5, 2013

MELBOURNE – Thanks to Edward Snowden, I now know that the US National Security Agency is spying on me. It uses Google, Facebook, Verizon, and other Internet and communications companies to collect vast amounts of digital information, no doubt including data about my emails, cellphone calls, and credit card usage.

I am not a United States citizen, so it’s all perfectly legal. And, even if I were a US citizen, it is possible that a lot of information about me would have been swept up anyway, though it may not have been the direct target of the surveillance operation.

Should I be outraged at this intrusion on my privacy? Has the world of George Orwell’s 1984 finally arrived, three decades late? Is Big Brother watching me?

I don’t feel outraged. Based on what I know so far, I don’t really care. No one is likely to be reading my emails or listening in on my Skype calls. The volume of digital information that the NSA gathers would make that an impossible task. Continue reading

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Is there a case for mass surveillance?

Slate, William Saletan

What’s wrong with the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program? The answer, according to civil libertarians, is its scope. Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who exposed the program, calls itomniscient, automatic, mass surveillance.” Glenn Greenwald, the Guardianreporter who broke the story, accuses the U.S. government of  “collecting the phone records of all Americans, regardless of any suspicion of wrongdoing … monitoring them, keeping dossiers on them.” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says the feds are “trolling through billions of phone records.”

It sounds as though NSA goblins have been studying everyone’s phone calls. But that isn’t how the program works. It’s a two-stage process. The first stage—collection—is massive and indiscriminate. The second stage—examination of particular records—is restricted. We can argue over whether this two-tiered policy is too intrusive. But either way, our debate about it has focused on the wrong stage. The problem isn’t the data collection. It’s how the data are used. Continue reading

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Finnish education vs SG

It’s been more than a little difficult to stay updated what with work becoming all-consuming, but I’ll try to post up some good op-eds and interesting reads more frequently in the weeks to come. I can’t quite remember why I didn’t post this one up on education – a two-part commentary by TODAY on the Finnish education system vs the Singapore one. It’s occasionally depressing (if not heart breaking) to read students rant about the local system championing only ‘rote learning’ and bemoaning the levels of stress, given that so much work goes into avoiding precisely that – okay, more of the former than the latter.  I suppose in a country where more-is-more, something’s got to give. Other commentators seem to think otherwise: we are an innovative, response-driven system that allows for experimentation, even failure. A lot of good work goes on in the Primary schools like this report here

More on the Finnish system here: http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/teachers-they-trust

In sum: No standardised national exams till 18 or 19, high degrees of flexibility and teacher autonomy, stringent teacher training and quality of mentorship for beginning teachers.

Contextually, SG and the Finland/Denmark/Norway/Sweden are poles apart, but there is something to be learnt about cultivating and supporting a more autonomous teaching culture, a blunting of the standardised-testing instrument, and fundamentally, a  broadening of the definition of what it means to succeed. We cannot allow fordism to seep into the heart-work of teaching, and release students batch-by-batch as economic beings rather than transformational beings.