Essays worth reading

My last reading list was so popular that I am tempted to make this a regular thing. Here’s a second installment of fun things I have read lately.

Missouri charmer led double life, masterminded one of the biggest frauds in farm history. This piece is based on the case of Randy Constant, who was just sentenced to prison for fraudulently selling $120 million of grain designated as organic when it was far from it. He was selling such volume of “organic” grain that his sales amounted to 7% of all comparable organic corn grown and 8% of all organic soybeans grown in the United States (according to the Department of Justice).

That grain was then fed to chickens and cattle, whose meat was then sold as organic meat, even though it technically wasn’t because they were living on a diet of chemical-treated grain.

I found this article somewhat hilarious. Although I make an effort to eat organic food, I have had so many arguments with people who think the US has strong regulations and oversight over the organic food industry. We don’t. The fact that a random dude in Missouri with a Vegas gambling and prostitute problem managed to build a $120 million organic grain empire with garbage grain that he wasn’t even growing himself at his certified organic farms shows how weak regulation is. (See also some of the mass recalls for tainted “organic” food recently.)

The funny thing is this guy will go to prison, but the retailers who hawk overpriced organic content with zero care for its origins will carry on with business as usual.

Fortune has an intriguing series on how bad actors (criminal enterprises, spies, etc.) are jamming GPS systems to wreck havoc with the shipping industry. As a family that loves sailing and dreams of doing ocean crossings some day, this was a bonkers series to read. (Seriously, maybe there’s something to learning to read the constellations as a sanity check on the devices.) It made me think of the controversy a while back about how US Navy ships frequently started having accidents. I don’t know what became of that whole ordeal, but I wonder if these two things are related. Absolutely bizarre.

The myth of the “moderate” public option: The Biden and Buttigieg plans would bust federal budgets, hurt patient care and gut private insurers. This is an opinion piece from  Lanhee J. Chen at Stanford University from the Wall Street Journal. Very interesting argument about how a public option would interfere with the operation of private health insurance:

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg claim they’re proposing a moderate, less disruptive approach to health-care reform when they advocate a public option—a government policy offered as an alternative to private health insurance—in lieu of Medicare for All. Don’t believe it. My research finds that such proposals would increase the federal deficit dramatically and destabilize the market for private health insurance, threatening health-care quality and choice.

While estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts have concluded that a public option-style proposal would reduce federal deficits, those effects are predicated on two flawed assumptions: first, that the government will negotiate hospital and provider reimbursement rates similar to Medicare’s fee schedules and far below what private insurers pay; second, that the government would charge “actuarially fair premiums,” which cover 100% of provided benefits and administrative costs.

History demonstrates we should be skeptical of cost estimates that rely on such assumptions. Political pressure upended similar financing assumptions in Medicare Part B only two years after the entitlement’s creation. The Johnson administration in 1968 and then Congress in 1972 had to intervene to shield seniors from premium increases. Objections from health-care providers to low reimbursement rates have regularly led to federal spending increases in Medicare and Medicaid. The result isn’t hard to fathom. If premiums can’t rise to cover program costs, or reimbursement rates are raised to ensure access to a reasonable number of providers, who’ll pay? Taxpayers, who were promised a self-sufficient government program.

With Hoover Institution research fellows Tom Church and Daniel L. Heil and support from the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, I estimated the fiscal and tax implications of creating a federally administered public option. If Congress’s past behavior is a guide, a public option available to all individuals and employers would add more than $700 billion to the 10-year federal deficit. The annual deficit increase would hit $100 billion within a few years. Some 123 million people—roughly 1 in 3 Americans—would be enrolled in the public option by 2025, broadly displacing existing insurance. These estimates don’t include the costs of additional Affordable Care Act subsidies and eligibility expansions proposed by Messrs. Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg.

The fiscal effects are even more pronounced over the long run. We estimate that federal spending on the public option would exceed total military spending by 2042 and match combined spending on Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and ACA subsidies by 2049. In the latter year the public option would become the third most expensive government program, behind only Medicare and Social Security. The public option alone would raise the federal debt by 30% of gross domestic product over the next 30 years.

While some, like Mr. Biden, claim their health reforms can be paid for by simply taxing the wealthy more, that seems unrealistic. We conclude that if tax increases to pay for a politically realistic public option were limited to high-income filers, the top marginal rate would have to rise from the current 37% to 73% in 2049—a level not seen since the 1960s. Such large rate increases would undoubtedly have economic effects, causing revenue to fall short of our static estimates.

If policy makers want to avoid a large increase in deficits, then, a public option would require tax hikes on most Americans, including middle-income families. An across-the-board income-tax hike to support this policy would mean that taxpayers in the 28% and 33% tax brackets would see their marginal tax rates increase by about six percentage points by 2049, while the top tax bracket would rise above 47%.

Alternatively, Congress could enact a new broad-based tax similar to Medicare’s 2.9% Hospital Insurance payroll tax. The new tax would be levied on all wage and salary income and would reach 4.8% in 2049.

These fiscal estimates may underestimate the cost of the public option, as they assume no changes in use of medical services. The generous cost-sharing rules in the public option would likely increase demand for health-care services, while the federal government would be unlikely to implement the stringent and sometimes painful cost-management procedures needed to limit use.

Beyond fiscal considerations, the public option would quickly displace employer-based and other private insurance. This would force some private insurers to exit the market and encourage greater consolidation among remaining insurers. Consumers seeking coverage would be left with fewer insurance options and higher premiums.

Meanwhile, many health-care providers would suffer a dramatic drop in income, while at the same time experiencing greater demand for their services. Longer wait times and narrower provider networks would likely follow for those enrolled in the public option, harming patients’ health and reducing consumer choice. Declines in provider payments would also affect investment decisions by hospitals and may lead to fewer new doctors and other medical providers.

Politicians like Messrs. Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg like to market the public option as a less dramatic and cheaper alternative to Medicare for All. That’s far from the whole story. A politically realistic public option would produce dramatic fiscal costs and harm the U.S. health-care system. Policy makers may yet find the middle ground in health reform, but a government-run public option isn’t it.

Joseph Epstein has written a wonderful piece on Ralph Ellison’s life and the libel of his critics, upon the release of a collection of his letters. I read The Invisible Man in high school back-to-back with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and that is definitely something I will assign for our daughter down the line.

Owing to a want of money, Ellison had to ride the rails to get to Tuskegee College in Alabama, where he went to study music. He played trumpet, and his ambition was to complete a classical symphony by the age of 26 (as did Wagner). At Tuskegee he worked in the school kitchen. A number of his early letters from there are addressed to his mother, asking for shoes, clothes, any spare cash she could provide. At one point he was harassed by a homosexual dean. One of his teachers told him he would do better to study something practical, like agriculture. Such was the economic and other pressures on him that he dropped out in his third year.

But at Tuskegee he also encountered a few gifted teachers who made a marked impression on him. One of them was Hazel Harrison, who had studied music in Paris under Ferruccio Busoni and knew Percy Grainger and Sergei Prokofiev. Walter B. Williams, the college librarian, befriended Ellison and introduced him to European culture. He made a few friendships that were to endure through his adult life. One of these was with Albert Murray, himself later to become a novelist and the correspondent in the Selected Letters with whom Ellison communicates most freely, both about Negro life, its pleasures and flaws, and his own aspirations.

Time and again in his letters Ellison makes plain that, though proudly Negro (“who wills to be a Negro?” he wrote. “I do!”) he is also something more—an American, not to mention a man of the West and thereby of Western culture. His reading, often noted in his letters, gives evidence of the extent of his cultural interests. In 1956, he wrote to Albert Murray: “have been reading Stendhal and rereading the Idiot in a new translation and The Sound and the Fury, [Wylie] Sypher’s book on Renaissance style, etc. etc.” In music he listened to Stravinsky, Webern, Hindemith, though Duke Ellington was his god. The same year, he suggested to the publisher Pat Knopf that for Vintage Books, Knopf’s new quality-paperback line, he include “the Unamuno, the Herzen, the Matthiessen, the Bodkin, the Gertrude Levy, the Ford Madox Ford, the Melville, the Dodds, and the Mirsky.” He later claimed to have been influenced by André Malraux, André Gide, James Joyce, and the essays of Paul Valéry. The black writers Richard Wright and Chester Himes may have been his literary “relatives,” but he felt that Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot were his “ancestors.”

In his letters, Ellison frequently quoted Henry James: “Being an American, Henry James has written, is a complex fate; and being a black American is more complex than even that finely honed mind could have suspected.” Later, in 1987, he told the editor Robert Silvers, who had asked him to review a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, that the critic Kenneth Burke “was a far more important influence [on him] than Du Bois has ever been.”

Shaking off the idea that Richard Wright was a major influence was an almost lifelong problem for Ellison. He wrote to the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman that he continued “to reject the notion that my Invisible Man was inspired by Wright and insist that my character was inspired by the narrator of [Dostoevsky’s] Notes from Underground.” Ellison met Wright soon after his arrival in New York in 1936, introduced by Langston Hughes. Wright was six years older and soon to be famous as the author of the powerful novel Native Son. Hughes and Wright encouraged Ellison to write, and he soon published his first reviews and a short story in a magazine Wright edited.

I chuckled my way through this essay on the infatuation with self-help books among literary titans. I can’t even:

How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals; they are not born, they are spawned.’ So jeered the influential New Yorker journalist Dwight Macdonald in a 1954 screed against the self-help guides he worried were taking over the culture. Macdonald voiced the prevailing view that the distinct spheres – or species – of literary author and self-help writer had little, if anything, in common. Serious authors create; self-help writers multiply. But the influence of self-help on prestigious literature is much deeper and more sustained than figures such as Macdonald would have us believe.

With the rise of the 20th century, literary authors had a new book genre to reckon with. It might seem anachronistic to picture the French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire bingeing on ‘how to get rich quick’ books in 1864, or to imagine the late-Victorian aesthete Gustave Flaubert annotating a do-it-yourself manual, or to conceive of the ethereal modernist Virginia Woolf becoming so inflamed by Arnold Bennett’s practical guide How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (1908) that she writes her own time-books Mrs Dalloway (1925) and The Years (1937) in response. But this seems surprising to us only because most scholars – particularly literary scholars – have been so busy ignoring or dismissing self-help that they have failed to recognise its long history and tremendous impact on even the most prestigious literary authors. These authors often made fun of self-help, deriding its crass instrumentalism but also, and more surprising, they learned from its appeal, borrowed its techniques, and coveted its cultural influence.

As firmly canonised literary figures, Baudelaire, Flaubert and Woolf might have won the culture wars, but we are living in self-help’s world. A formidable force in the publishing ecosystem, the self-improvement market in the United States will be worth $13.2 billion dollars by 2022, according to Market Research. And though it is difficult to obtain exact figures due to the different labels under which it is sold, self-help – whether in American or native form – is a bestselling genre in Latin America, China, Africa, the global South, the Middle East – in short, all over the world.

The industry’s international appeal dates back to the first blockbuster improvement manual: Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), which turned the term into a catchphrase, and described successful labourers, artists and inventors who had used industry and perseverance to improve their conditions. Critics disparaged it, according to Smiles, as a ‘eulogy of selfishness’, but he saw his manual as a tool for working-class inspiration and uplift. The book marshalled scores of aspiring autodidacts in early 20th-century Nigeria, Syria, Guatemala, Trinidad and Japan (it’s said that late-19th-century Japanese samurai lined up overnight to buy a copy of the manual). In a 1917 review, the American poet Ezra Pound dismissed such ‘improving literature’ – ‘Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help and the rest of it’ – likening it to a ‘virus’, and the English author H G Wells wrote a cautionary tale, ‘The Jilting of Jane’, about a young man whose reading of Self-Help goes to his head, inspiring him to abandon his fiancée and his principles in favour of a higher match.

Fat cells can sense sunlight—not getting enough increases metabolic syndrome risk. I truly believe that people in future decades will laugh at the popular advice nowadays that you should avoid the sun and slather yourself in sunblock every time you leave the house. So much of how the body operates – how food is processed, how our eyes function, our mental health – depends on sunlight from a chemical perspective. (Not to mention the fact that your skin is your body’s largest organ and slathering it with chemicals every day is probably not a swell idea.)

China’s ‘mermaid descendants’ weave final garments from skin of fish.

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