Friday, December 28, 2012

Can the government make us happier by regulating what we eat and drink?

A guest post by Bridget Sandorford*
Introduction by Winton: The post comes at a time when some readers may be considering New Year's resolutions relating to what they eat and drink. When we have to make tough choices it is often tempting to think that governments ought to make life easier for us by introducing more regulation. The article has been written with particular reference to the US, but he issues raised are relevant in many countries, including Australia.
The post comes at an ideal time for me because it discusses an issue touched on in my book, 'Free to Flourish', published last week.
Bridget writes:
There have been a number of changes to the regulations surrounding the food and beverage industry in recent years, with the intention of cracking down on the nation's obesity epidemic. Fast-food chains have started posting fat and calorie counts directly on their menus, limits have been passed on the size of sugary drinks like sodas, and so-called "fat taxes" have been proposed as a surcharge on unhealthy foods and drinks.
All of these changes and proposals have been introduced as a way to curb the unhealthy eating habits that have become so ubiquitous in our culture and to stem the rising obesity numbers.
But is all this regulation really making us healthier? Happier? Here are a few reasons why it can't:
Spotty Regulation
The recent law in New York City banning sodas and other sugary drinks from being sold in containers over 16 ounces is a good example of the ineffectiveness of such programs. The ban, which will take effect in the spring, will only apply in restaurants, fast-food chains, theaters and other places that are under the regulation of the Board of Health. What that means is that if you really want a 32-ounce soda, you won't be able to get one when you're at a Broadway show, but you can get one by walking right next door to the 7-11.
Spotty regulation like this means that only some food or drinks will be targeted, and only in some cities, and will only affect some consumers. If measures such as these are to be effective, they have to be all-encompassing.
Personal Choice
Even with more wide-reaching regulation, bans and taxes will never be truly effective for one reason: Personal choice. If you live in New York and you want a 32-ounce soda, you can get one. You just have to buy two 16-ounce sodas -- and there's no rule against that. Fat taxes are never likely to be high enough to be cost prohibitive. Those who want the foods that  are taxed will spend less on other foods to afford them -- or, in the case of Denmark's fat tax, the citizens will just go to neighboring countries (or states) that don't have the tax to buy foods.
Personal choice will always be the trump card for any attempt to regulate or curb behavior. Even if penalties are imposed, they may not be a deterrent. The key is to get to the heart of the choice -- to find a way to change the behavior.
Food Culture
The reasons for our obesity epidemic are complex and include the current food culture. Not only have servings sizes increased, but the quality of foods has decreased. Fast food is considered acceptable dinner fare (as well as breakfast and lunch), and not enough people seem overly concerned about feeding children chicken nuggets and fries for a meal. Even foods that seem healthy have become overly processed and loaded with harmful chemicals. GMO foods, corn and soy are pervasive.
Education, a change in food-manufacturing regulations, and a shift in our food culture will help to solve our obesity problem. Forcing people to make the choices we want them to will not.
What do you think about regulations attempting to curb the consumption of unhealthy food and drinks, like container controls and fat taxes? Do you think they can be effective? Share your thoughts in the comments!

* Bridget Sandorford is a freelance writer and researcher for In her spare time, she enjoys biking, painting and working on her first cookbook.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

How easy is it to self-publish a Kindle eBook?

Only a few days have passed since I published 'Free to Flourish' at Amazon, but I am already starting to think that it can't have been as difficult as it seemed at the time.

If I didn't have any end notes or images it would have been easy. The book, 'Building Your Book for Kindle', published by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is easy to follow and provides adequate guidance for a publication with no end notes or images.

My book contains a substantial number of end notes and images, and I wanted the end notes to be 'active'. The advantage of active end notes is fairly obvious. They enable you to click on a number, read the note, click return to get back to the spot you were reading, and then read on without any problems. By contrast, without active notes, you first have to find the note you want to read, which may require you to go back to the contents page first to find what chapter you were reading. After you have found the note and read it, you then have to get back to the spot you were reading. This is manageable with a printed book if you can remember to keep a finger inserted in the relevant page, but you can't insert your finger into an eBook.

I found Scott Locke's book, 'The Kindle Publisher's Guide', particularly useful for instruction on how to deal with notes and images.

Scott Locke recommends use of kindle-notes, freely available third party software, to make footnotes active. It is necessary to get the text in the required format for this purpose, but the time-consuming part of the exercise was restoring punctuation in the document after it had been processed.

After processing in kindle-notes, my document was returned with just about all punctuation other than full stops and commas replaced by question marks. This meant that it was necessary to look at every question mark in the document and decide whether it was meant to be a question mark, inverted comma, a dash, a colon or whatever. I tried to do it quickly late at night, made a lot of mistakes and then had to correct them (with the help of my editor). This is not a process that anyone would want to go through more than once per book. Once in a life-time might be enough for me!

Scott Locke recommends the use of Mobipocket Creator to insert images back into the document prior to uploading at KDP. I found that to be good advice. The alternative method recommended by KDP (creating and uploading a zipped file) didn't work for me, possibly because I had a substantial number of images to deal with.

In retrospect, I can't claim that it was enormously difficult to publish a Kindle eBook with a substantial number of end notes and images. The process was just more tedious and time-consuming than I thought it would be. This was despite the warnings I had been given by others (including the suggestion that it might be wise to use an aggregator, alluded to in an addendum to a guest post on self-publishing on this blog in October).

I still don't understand why publishing an eBook is a much more tedious and time-consuming process than publishing pdf documents and web pages. No doubt the technology will improve. At this stage, however, direct publishing of eBooks with a lot of notes and images is not a piece of cake.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Do we need to be free to flourish?

I hope that anyone who wants an answer to that question will be able to find it in my book, 'Free to Flourish' which has just been published as a Kindle eBook.

The book can be downloaded free of charge until about mid-night on December 21, 2012 - after which the price will be US $5.00.

Much of the material in the book has appeared as a first draft on this blog at some stage over the last few years. The book refines the main messages and draws them together in a more coherent form in order to make them more readily accessible.

As I wrote the book, I was asked by various people what audience I was writing for. The answer I have given in the Preface is that the book is intended to be read by anyone who has an interest in happiness, politics, or public policy - although different parts of it have been written with different readers in mind. People who only want a broad overview of the book should be able to obtain what they are looking for by reading the first and final chapters. Researchers and students who wish to scrutinise the underlying reasoning and evidence should be able to find plenty to interest them in the notes provided.

 I added that I hope the book will provide a catalyst for further discussion at all levels. If readers send me comments, I will endeavour to respond and may open up further discussion of particular issues on this blog.

If you don't have a Kindle or Kindle app on a tablet, an app for personal computers can be downloaded for free from this site.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Can happiness surveys predict the desire to migrate?

The Gallup organization has found in its surveys that about 15 per cent of the world’s adults would like to move to another country permanently if they had the chance. The rate varies substantially between different parts of the world, with about 38 per cent of adults in Sub-Saharan African countries saying that they would like to move permanently if they were able.

About 80 per cent of those who wish to leave low-income countries would like to go to high-income countries, with the United States the most popular destination in terms of absolute numbers. The desire to move tends to be higher in countries with medium to low human development, according to the UN’s Human Development Index.

Gallup has constructed a Potential Net Migration Index (PNMI) which relates the desire to move into and out of particular countries to their population. The PNMI is the estimated number of adults who would like to move permanently into a country if the opportunity arose, subtracted from the estimated number who would like to move out of it, as a percentage of the total adult population. There are a substantial number of countries with a PNMI score above 100 per cent (which implies that the population would more than double under free migration) and a substantial number with a PNMI score below 50 per cent (which implies that the population would fall below half current levels under free migration).

Can PNMI scores be viewed as indicators of the perceived wellbeing in different societies? Unless we have reason to believe otherwise, it would be reasonable to expect societies with high PNMI scores to have potential to provide high levels of wellbeing and societies with low PNMI scores to provide low levels of wellbeing.

On that basis, we might expect that happiness levels (i.e. indicators of subjective wellbeing) in different countries would predict PNMI scores. If indicators of subjective wellbeing are not good predictors of PNMI scores, we would need to consider the possibility that PNMI scores reflect factors other than wellbeing levels in different countries and/or that wellbeing indicators are biased by cultural or other factors.

The subjective wellbeing indicators that seem most relevant are the Gallup estimates of the percentage of people thriving and suffering in each country. Gallup classifies survey respondents as thriving, struggling or suffering, depending on their evaluations of their current and future lives using the Cantril ladder. The percentages thriving could reasonably be viewed as a ‘pull factor’, encouraging immigration, while the percentages suffering could be viewed as a push factor, encouraging emigration.

I have been able to match the PNMI and life evaluation data for 111 countries. There is some correspondence between countries in which a relatively high proportion of the population is thriving and high PNMI scores. The top 10 countries on both criteria include four countries in common (Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Among the countries not included in the top 10 in terms of percentage thriving is Singapore, ranked first in terms of PNMI scores, but with only 34 per cent of the population classified as thriving. Of the countries included in the top 10 in terms of percentage thriving, Brazil had the lowest PNMI score (ranked 59th ) even though 58 per cent of the population of that country was classified as thriving.

At the other end of the scale, there is no correspondence among the 10 countries with highest levels of suffering and lowest PNMI scores. The 10 countries with lowest PNMI scores are Haiti, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, El Salvador, Comoros, Senegal and Ghana (all with scores below -40 per cent). Of the countries included in the top 10 in terms of percentage suffering, Bulgaria (with 45 per cent classified as suffering) had the highest PNMI score (ranked 32nd i.e. well above Brazil).

For those who are technically minded, the estimated coefficients of a regression analysis explaining PNMI in terms of percentage thriving and percentage suffering had the expected signs, but only the coefficient on the thriving variable was significantly different from zero at the 95 per cent level.

This analysis suggests that happiness levels in different countries are better at predicting the attractiveness of different countries as destinations for migration than at predicting the desire to emigrate. That is consistent with Gallup’s research findings suggesting that people who want to migrate are disproportionately young and educated and more likely to have relatives or friends who have lived in foreign countries.

However, the analysis doesn’t do much to improve my confidence in subjective wellbeing indicators. If 59 per cent of people are thriving in Brazil, why isn’t it a desired destination for migration? Again, if only 34 per cent of the population of Singapore are thriving, why would so many people want to move there?