The regulations that should be cut

Was about to do a really long excerpt in quick hits.  Too long; own post:

Way too many jobs have far too onerous licensing requirements (whether that’s the case with Uber or not).  Nice story from Eduardo Porter— and I like that he hits the issue of NC’s dentistry cartel:

In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in an antitrust case pitting the Federal Trade Commission against North Carolina’s board of dental examiners, which is trying to drive unlicensed teeth-whitening services out of business in the state.

To hear the dentists, the case is simply about the state’s right to regulate as it sees fit: That six of eight members on the dental board are dentists elected by other dentists who stand to lose money to unlicensed rivals should have no bearing on the decision.

But it is hard to overlook the pecuniary interests at stake. The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry reported that in 2006 its members performed, on average, 70 teeth-whitening procedures for annual revenue of $25,000, or $350 a pop. Unlicensed rivals do it for $150.

One study by Mr. Kleiner and Rubert T. Kudrle of the University of Minnesota suggests that tighter licensing of dentists does not improve the quality of dental health. It does reduce the number of dentists. Crucially, it improves their earnings.  [emphasis mine]

Many regulations are there because the protect the public.  Alas, many regulations are there because they protect various groups’ profits, and those groups, of course, pretend these regulations are protecting the public.

Fixing McDonald’s

I really enjoyed this NYT piece where they take celebrity chef Jeffrey Zarkarian (whom I am quite familiar with from my wife’s love of the Food Network) to a McDonald’s to get his take on improving it.  Nothing I haven’t heard before, though– focus on fewer things and do them well:

Most of all, he said, McDonald’s should focus. “That’s the message from Shake Shack and Chipotle,” he said. “They have very limited menus. McDonald’s should do what it does well. You get the feeling they’re throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. You can’t be all things to all people.”

To some degree, I thought that was kind of McDonald’s niche– trying to be all things to all people.  Maybe that’s a niche not worth having.  All the McDonald’s I regularly visit have been nicely redesigned and I quite like the interiors, but this paragraph is just wrong:

Mr. Backus noted that Shake Shack and Chipotle use design to reinforce a consistent message. “Both of these companies are obviously trying to communicate more about their values than what is being served in their physical space,” he said. “They’ve focused on the overall presentation, how it’s packaged, presented and the environment it’s served in. They created places where people want to stay and linger. [emphasis mine] That builds customer loyalty. At McDonald’s, you feel it’s all about getting in and getting out.”

Now, I’ve never been to Shake Shack, but as for Chipotle… stay and linger?  Seriously?!  I love Chipotle and there’s something to be said for their decor, but it sure as hell doesn’t say stay and linger.  It strikes me as more of “eat your food in this hip, trendy, metallic, place and then get the hell out of here.”   My friends at work definitely agree.  We like to stay and linger wherever we eat lunch and Chipotle is pretty much out of our group lunch rotation because it’s vibe seems to be pretty much the opposite of that (nobody wants to stay and linger on a stool, for one thing).

Photo of the day

Love this Wired gallery of deer roaming the streets of a Japanese city:


The bleating of the lambs

New York Times ran an amazing expose a couple weeks ago on the USDA Meat research lab in Nebraska that I’ve been meaning to write about ever since and damn if I’m not going to just let it fall semi-anonymously into quick hits.  Here’s the captivating intro:

At a remote research center on the Nebraska plains, scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry. The potential benefits are huge: animals that produce more offspring, yield more meat and cost less to raise.

There are, however, some complications.

Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed.

Then there are the lambs. In an effort to develop “easy care” sheep that can survive without costly shelters or shepherds, ewes are giving birth, unaided, in open fields where newborns are killed by predators, harsh weather and starvation.

Last Mother’s Day, at the height of the birthing season, two veterinarians struggled to sort through the weekend’s toll: 25 rag-doll bodies. Five, abandoned by overtaxed mothers, had empty stomachs. Six had signs of pneumonia. Five had been savaged by coyotes.

“It’s horrible,” one veterinarian said, tossing the remains into a barrel to be dumped in a vast excavation called the dead pit.

These experiments are not the work of a meat processor or rogue operation. They are conducted by a taxpayer-financed federal institution called the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, a complex of laboratories and pastures that sprawls over 55 square miles in Clay Center, Neb. Little known outside the world of big agriculture, the center has one overarching mission: helping producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit as diets shift toward poultry, fish and produce.

Wow.  And how is this possible?

It is widely accepted that experimentation on animals, and its benefits for people, will entail some distress and death. The Animal Welfare Act — a watershed federal law enacted in 1966, two years after the center opened — aimed to minimize that suffering, yet left a gaping exemption: farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture.

Basically, you can be as cruel as you want to to farm animals.  And this research center is sure doing that.  I found the part about the research on the lambs the most fascinating and disturbing:

The center added a daring twist: pasture lambing, an attempt to take domesticated sheep, which are dependent on human help, and create a breed that can survive on its own. Ranchers commonly shelter ewes giving birth in special barns, which cost money to build, maintain and staff. So the center began sending pregnant sheep out to open pastures in hopes of identifying those that would nurture their babies despite severe weather and predators.

Even under the best conditions, ewes are notorious for abandoning newborns; sheep growers typically enclose mother and baby in tight stalls, called jugs, for a day or two, so the mother cannot flee before they bond.

Predictably, many ewes in the experiment ignored their lambs. And the scientists did the same: They withheld help for the newborns, typically leaving them in the pastures — till death, if necessary — to test whether mothers would respond to the young ones’ growing desperation.

I knew shepherds were important, but I had no idea we had artificially selected modern sheep to the point that they cannot even successfully raise birth and raise their babies without human intervention.

The whole piece raises important questions about the nature of this research and how much all this animal suffering (they have tried and tried and tried to have cows birth twins, but they are clearly just not meant to) is actually doing to help American agriculture.  As for the twin cows, the ranchers– to their credit– are not on board:

At one industry conference, center officials acknowledged the high death rates, yet argued that the math still worked in ranchers’ favor: The combined weight of surviving twin cows was nearly 50 percent more, on average, than for conventional cows.

Many ranchers were unswayed. The center’s efforts to shore up the cows’ health only convinced them that breeding twins was too much work and too expensive. A decline in consumer demand for beef was forcing the industry — small producers for the most part — to pare costs.

“Twins are nothing but a pain in the a$$ and I personally would never intentionally breed for them,” a Wisconsin beef producer wrote in a 2011 chat-board discussion. “Cows were not designed to have litter IMHO.”

Jeanne White, a rancher in Groton, N.Y., who posted her own critique — “I HATE TWINS!!” — said in a recent interview that added costs were only one reason that ranchers resisted the project. “For every farmer, whether you’re young or old, a woman or a man, it’s an excitement, a joy, to have a birth,” she said. “And when you have a calf that dies, it gives you an empty feeling.”

A more definitive verdict came in a 2009 report by a New Zealand cattle expert, Duncan Smeaton, who had visited the project and spoken to ranchers. “The consensus view is that they do not want twins,” he wrote.

Anyway, the whole thing is fascinating and you should read it.

The grades are in

North Carolina released it’s school report cards yesterday (based predominantly on standardized test scores), and, surprise surprise, schools with lots of poor kids fared poorly and schools with few poor kids fared well.  Who would’ve thunk it?  Apparently not the Republican legislators who thought this was a useful idea.

A great story on the matter from the N&O, which does not engage in pointless “he said, she said” or ignore the big picture, but cuts right to the chase and does it’s own analysis.  In fact, the headline pretty much says it all: “NC public school letter grades released, reflect student family incomes”

Under the new A-to-F grading system, schools with fewer low-income students were more likely to score As or Bs, while high-poverty schools were more likely to get Ds or Fs, according to a News & Observer analysis of statewide data.

The analysis shows:

• Lower grades for lower wealth schools. About 80 percent of schools where at least 8 of 10 children qualify for a free or reduced lunch received a D or F grade. Only one of those schools received an A.

• Higher grades for higher wealth areas. At more than 90 percent of the schools with less than 1 in 5 students on a free or reduced lunch program, the grade was an A or B. Only one of those schools received an F.

A friend shared this FB image that was kind enough to put the key info into chart form:


Of course, the fact that, of course, some schools are outliers, suggests this is all a useful exercise:

Senate leader Phil Berger, the force behind establishing the school grades, said they are an important tool for parents, administrators, policymakers and taxpayers. Not all high-poverty schools scored poorly, Berger noted, and those schools should be studied and used as an example for others.

“I think it should help dispel the notion that just because a school is high poverty that the kids in those schools are relegated to situations where the schools are not going to do well,” said Berger, a Republican who has led the Senate since 2011.

Actually, there probably (though far from a sure thing given random statistical variation and such) is something to learn from higher-performing high-poverty schools, but I’m not particularly confident much effort will be made to learn and apply whatever those lessons may be.  And it is quite unclear to me just what the “important tool” is in knowing that a high poverty school has low test scores and that rich schools have high test scores.  Maybe the poor schools just need to find a way to emulate the rich schools and have a bunch of highly-educated, high income families move there– that will surely solve things.

There’s so much we can do to improve our schools.  Handing out “report cards” based on our problematic standardized tests probably does not crack the top 500 best ideas.

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