Friday, January 28, 2011

Never Buy in a Store, Part 1

There are plenty of foodstuffs I would never consider making from scratch. Philo dough pops immediately to mind. The techniques required are too complex, the ingredients are too hard to find, and/or it would take just too damn long. However, for the past thirty years or so, advertizing has turned all cooking into an unholy inconvenience, making all food that requires preparation beyond “peel skin off banana” not worth your time. Like so much in this world, the problem is not that there is processed food, but that processed food dominates the market, even when the those foods don't actually save that much time. Simply put, there are some foods whose from-scratch preparation is so quick and easy, they might as well be “Open and serve.” One should never, as far as never goes, buy these from the store. Food number one in this category: guacamole.

The hardest and most time consuming aspect of making guacamole is extracting the avocado flesh. If you've never done it before, it can be intimidating, but that's what the internet is for.

At most, extracting the flesh of a couple avocados will take you five minutes or so, but it will take less time each time you do it. Then you mash up the avocado with some salt and lemon juice. Then you dip your chips in it. That's it. Watching your salt intake? Add less salt. Like a little heat in your dips? Add some cayenne pepper. By making it yourself you have complete control over the product. Furthermore, guacamole in the “wild” doesn't have much of a shelf life. I mean, if you delay in adding the lemon juice, the guacamole will go brown on your quickly (still edible just doesn't look as good). This means that something must be done to it, in order for it travel from wherever it was manufactured to the grocery store and then sit there long enough for someone to buy it. I'm not saying that anything dangerous is done or that you are automatically going to get cancer or autism or whatever from the preservatives, but I will say that none of those techniques and preservatives have flavor in mind. Your guacamole will absolutely taste better than anything bought at the store.

Some food takes a long time to prepare and buying processed versions of them can make sense. Furthermore, there are plenty of “processed foods” whose process is fairly mild. But with guacamole, and the other foods I'll mention in this ongoing essay series, at most, you save five minutes. And the better you get at dispatching the avocado, the less time store bought will save you. As I've cooked more, I've found more and more foods that aren't much harder to make at home than to buy from the store, and the homemade stuff is almost always cheaper and tastier.

At some point in our nation's history cooking turned into an inherent inconvenience. It's not that certain techniques are challenging, or certain dishes require specialized hardware, or certain foods demand lengthy efforts, but that all cooking is a hassle. (Don't worry, there's a big essay about how we got to this place in the works, or maybe, worry, there's a big essay about how we got to this place in the works.) Our ability to differentiate between “inconvenient” and “requires some effort” has been advertized out of us. The problem, then, is not picking up some guacamole on your way to the party because you forget to make some at home, but our attitude towards cooking in general.

We have a long way to go to free ourselves of this fetish for convenience. The real goal is not to always make everything from scratch all the time, but to get to a point where the convenience of a store bought food is a real value and not just a way to avoid the inconvenience of cooking at home. It's so that you feel positive when you throw something in the microwave and not a sense of obligation. We have a long way to go to reach that world, but it could certainly start with your homemade guacamole.

Friday, January 14, 2011

America's System of Wealth Redistribution

Most of the time when you hear someone use the term “the redistribution of wealth” that person is a conservative arguing against a social spending policy or tax increase on the wealthy. It has become a less than subtle euphemism for “this is kinda socialist;” another way to argue against a policy without actually arguing against the policy. Let's forget for a second that an economy is inherently based on the redistribution of wealth, on the movement of money from one entity to another in a process of exchange, and let's also forget for a second that any change in government spending and taxation is a redistribution of wealth; taking wealth from those whose programs were cut or who had their taxes raised and redistributing it to those whose programs were added or taxes were cut. In fact, any changes in government regulations that effect the making and spending of money are redistributions of wealth. It could be argued that no administration redistributed wealth more than the Reagan administration, but, even if you forget all that there is still a major aspect of the American economy that operates as a redistribution of wealth.

Some people have a level of wealth based on their health. Because of good lifestyle choices, a lucky draw in the genetic lottery, and a benevolent array of circumstance in the wider world, some people rarely have to pay health care bills. I'm one of them. I don't have any congenital diseases, or allergies, I eat alright, I exercise a bit, and I've never been injured enough to require serious medical care. I get check ups, I wear reading glasses, and I have to get some small fillings in my teeth, but on the spectrum of health I'm doing alright. Thus, I have a health based wealth. But I still pay healthcare premiums. 

My health insurance company redistributes my wealth to those who have a health based poverty; people who because of poor health decisions, an unlucky drawn in the genetic lottery, and an malicious array of circumstance in the wider world have to pay a lot of health care bills. Being a radical lefty, I don't have any problems with the idea of mechanisms that redistribute wealth from the wealthy to the poor...if they work.

The thing about the redistribution of wealth as done by the mechanism of health insurance (and all other insurance really) is how inefficient it is. How inefficient is it? Well, it's fairly easy to get at least a sense of this. First look at the profits taken in. One study stated that the five largest for-profit insurers “closed 2009 with a combined profit of $12.2 billion.” This means that, at an absolute minimum, health insurance companies redistributed to those with health based poverty, $12.2 billion less than what they took in from those with health based wealth. And this doesn't count the overhead; printing those extremely complex descriptions of benefits books, paying customer service representatives to answer questions about those extremely complex benefits, billing, mechanisms for denying benefits, lawyers if they are sued for denying benefits, janitors to keep their offices clean, executive and management salaries, office supplies, utilities... 

Despite what some might say, our health care system is already a system of wealth redistribution. Through the mechanism of private health insurance, the health based wealth of some is distributed to the health based poverty of others. Some might argue, with an eye towards critiquing the recent health care reform, that an individual could opt out of this redistribution by not carrying health insurance, and though there is some truth to this, those individuals (assuming they are able to pay out of pocket the costs they incur if they get hit by a car or diagnosed with cancer) wouldn't avoid redistribution all together. Since doctors and hospitals, by law, are required to treat people in need of care, whether they can pay for the care or not, doctors and hospitals must roll the cost of treating those who cannot pay into the fees charged to those who can. In the exact same way that the cost of all retail goods are slightly higher than they need to be to make up for lost inventory, the cost of treatment is slightly higher to compensate for treatment that is not paid for. In this case, the wealth is redistributed from those who have money to those who don't through a pricing mechanism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a system of wealth redistribution. All economic activity, at it's core, is wealth redistribution. The problem with health care insurance as a system of wealth redistribution is its inefficiency; not nearly enough of the wealth actually gets to those who need it. Too often, people who carry insurance still can't pay their health care bills, even with the benefits from their insurance policy. Even if those massive profits (all those companies had enough to pay lobbyists, don't forget) were cut to nothing, the private insurance system would still be fairly inefficient as someone would have to administer it.

Soon, House Republicans are going to waste our time and tax payer money by bringing a bill to repeal the recent health care reform to the floor even though there is no chance such a bill could pass the Senate, and even if by some miracle it did, it would certainly be vetoed and Republicans do not have a big enough majority to overturn a Presidential veto. To me, this is more proof that they have no concrete policy solutions to the problems of the American health care system, and, frankly, only seem interested in the issue as a way to discredit, in general, the efforts of the administration. Regardless, as anyone with a lot of prescriptions or an impending surgery knows, the recent health care bill has not solved the problem of inefficient wealth redistribution.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Greatest Sports Statistic

Statistics serve a lot of different purposes in sports, but for most spectators they serve as something to argue about over nachos. They are fodder for definitive statements and though, like all statistics, they can be made to prove just about anything and a stat can be found for just about any statement, there is some primal joy we get out of arguing about sports by throwing numbers at each other. (The source of that joy, though, is another essay.)

With the birth of fantasy leagues and the easy access to data provided by the internet (especially now that the internet can be easily accessed in bars) the world of sports statistics has grown even larger, whether the casual spectator actually gains any addition insight into the sport of their choice or not. (Hi Bill James. That's a nice new car you've got. Anyway, catch you later.)

Not all statistics are created equal though, and what distinguishes the insightful spectator from the rest is knowing which statistics actually communicate useful information in evaluating or enjoying whatever you're watching. For all our hyper-specificity (my personal favorite is from baseball: batting average with runners in scoring position in the 7th inning or later with the difference in score 2 or fewer runs. Hi, David Ortiz. Glad to see you're hanging out with Shawn Thorton. He's good people.) it's hard to argue that anything tells you more about a batter in baseball than batting average, or about a running back in football than yards per carry, or a basketball player than field goal percentage. There's a reason why those show up on standard players displays on TV. However, one statistic rises above the rest. Its uniqueness in sport, its rarity in occurrence, and its communication of the character of the player make it far and away the greatest sport statistic.

The Gordie Howe hat-trick occurs when a player, in a single game of hockey, records a fight, a goal, and an assist. There isn't another statistic like it. No other major sport has institutionalized fighting like hockey does, and though I supposed one could argue that pitchers in baseball hitting batters is a form of enforcement, I don't think there is a statistical way to differentiate plunking a guy in the back in response to a cleats-up slide from a curve ball that slips out of the hand. In other words, no other sport has a clear enforcer statistic, so no other sport has a statistic that keeps track of when enforcers score or when scorers enforce.

As in all sports, hockey players have roles and specializations within the game. Since offense and defense flow into each other, hockey isn't as specialized as American football or baseball, but it still has its roles. To put it bluntly, fighters don't usually score and scorers don't usually fight. Most of the time a Gordie Howe hat trick is evidence of someone doing something they don't normally do, and most of the time, it's the fighter doing the scoring. In this case, the Gordie Howe hat trick is a reward for spending most of one's time willingly getting punched in the face.

Perhaps what makes the Gordie Howe hat-trick so special is how it encapsulates the entire spirit of the game of hockey all in one stat. In all other sports, the relevant statistics describe particular aspects of the sport, and you can build a picture of the sport through the accumulation of statistics; but hockey is a sport that mixes moments of profound violence fluidly with moments of profound dexterity. To earn a Gordie Howe hat trick a player needs to individually demonstrate that fluidity. And this fluidity is at the core of what is entertaining about hockey. That not only can grace and violence can exist in the same space of sport, but they flow back and forth into each other as the game moves.

And to make it even better, it's not an official statistic. Though one could crunch the numbers and figure it out, no one will be inducted into the Hall of Fame because they have the most Gordie Howe hat tricks. The stat is a pure expression of what fans find exciting about hockey. And there's something interesting about the term “Gordie Howe hat trick.” The stat is named after Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, one of the game's first superstars and ambassadors to the world. He scored goals. He recorded assists. He hit people. He got in fights. He was tough and fast and skilled. He was the embodiment of hockey, so naturally, a stat that embodies hockey would be named after him. The interesting thing, is that Gordie Howe did not record that many Gordie Howe hat tricks. Despite his lengthy career, he only recorded two.

In a way, one of sports most important roles is conversation fodder. Being social animals and being verbal social animals, we are often in situations, with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family, where we are compelled or even obligated to converse whether there is something to talk about or not. Sport is often perfect fodder for those moments. In fact, a worldly and astute individual could simply offer a “Did you catch the game?” and then figure out what the game is from the context of the conversation. And if someone then mentions a Gordie Howe hat trick, not only do you know the game was a hockey game, you will also know that the game included one of hockey's perfect expressions.