Kenneth W. Phifer: My Sermon

Ferenc Dávid  holding his speech at the Diet of Torda in 1568, (today  Turda ,  Romania ) when the Unitarian Church was recognized legally by the Transylvanian Diet. By  Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch  (1896)    Link to the Wikipedia article “Unitarianism.”       Link to the Wikipedia article “Universalism.”

Ferenc Dávid holding his speech at the Diet of Torda in 1568, (today Turda, Romania) when the Unitarian Church was recognized legally by the Transylvanian Diet. By Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch (1896)

Link to the Wikipedia article “Unitarianism.” Link to the Wikipedia article “Universalism.”

When I left Mormonism for the Unitarian Universalism in 2000, Ken Phifer was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He gave beautiful sermons. I am grateful for his permission to reprint one of them here.

Ken’s sermon The Faith of a Humanist also appears on supplysideliberal.com. And you will find links to some of my own UU sermons here.

Below are Ken’s words.


It is a truism among those of us who have chosen homiletics, that is, preaching, as our field of expertise that we each have only one sermon in us. Since our work requires that we deliver far more than just one sermon, and preaching the same sermon every week would likely clear the pews/chairs very quickly, we have to learn how to ring the changes on our one message so that we can continue to “mount the pulpit” week by week and remain at least minimally interesting. 

In that regard, all of us who preach do well to remember the biting words of Anthony Trollope in his novel Barchester Towers: “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented.”

I, of course, have no power to compel you to do anything, much less to force you “to sit silent and be tormented.” Indeed, it is one of the great strengths of our Unitarian Universalist religion that people participate according to their free will and not some notion of eternal suffering if they fail to attend.

UU’s don’t sit in torment. They leave, as during a section of one of my sermons that dealt with money some 15-20 people did. Only later did I learn that they were all headed for their children’s RE class for a special presentation. I learned only at the coffee hour why they had gone: because they were good parents, not because they did not like what I said.

I think.

Some stay physically but leave mentally, preparing grocery lists, ruminating on a problem at work, or admiring some fine specimen across the way. Albert Shanker once noted that people generally listen to the first ten

minutes of any talk and doze through the next ten minutes. After that, he remarked, people begin to have sexual fantasies.

This is the reason that I always talk for more than 20 minutes, so that every one can come away with at least something of interest.

Whatever congregants may do, preachers, unless they are genuinely unselfaware, preach their one sermon but in different ways, using different words with different emphases, expanding, contracting, amending, finding better phrases to express their one message.

Like a jazz musician who has played a tune hundreds of times but never the same way—Coleman Hawkins playing his classic Body and Soul, for example, or Art Tatum playing anything in his virtuoso piano style—preachers try to keep the message fresh and interesting, comforting and inspiring, challenging and caring, seeking always better ways to state the message.

The work of the preacher is not unlike that of the singer in a story told by Saul Bellow. She was young and making her debut at La Scala. After a particularly beautiful but difficult aria, the applause was thunderous. There were cries for her to do it again. After the fourth such encore, worn out from the challenging music sung again and yet again, she asked her audience how many more times she must sing it. A voice cried out, “Until you get it right!!” 

Each week we preachers hope that we will get it right, or at least get closer to right than before. We know that we will likely fail, but we do not share the philosophy of the man who said, “If at first you don’t succeed, quit!”

Let me try this morning to get it a little bit right, placing before you three themes that are at the heart of my faith and, I believe, at the heart of the Unitarian Universalist faith. They form the core of my one sermon.

The first theme is history.

I majored in history in college because I saw history as an academic discipline within which I could study virtually anything. My doctoral work in Christian anti-Semitism continued this interest in the historical as the human arena within which all subjects could be studied.

As I began the process of moving into Unitarian Universalism, one of the most attractive features of the movement was its attitude towards history.                                                                                                                                                                                      In UU understanding, history, human experience, is where we find authority for our theologies and our moral values. 

UU’s see past, present, and future linked together without thinking that one part of history is more important than another. All three matter. All are intertwined. Each affects the other two.

What we know and think about the past helps us to live in the present and plan for the future.

How we live in the present helps us to redeem the past and shape the future. 

How we dream of and work for the future helps us to live meaningfully today and to accept the past.

This is in contrast to the orthodox understanding of history where some person, event, or revelation in the past is determinative. The orthodox believer says that all the truth that matters is in the past.

This rigid commitment to the past is why it was only twenty or so years ago that the Roman Catholic Church agreed that evolution was a sound theory, amounting to a fact, a position that creationists, now using the alias of intelligent design advocates, are still unable to accept.

Or consider the power of the violent right-wing Islamic believers, who are able to justify murder in their own minds because they think that the critical truths of life took place in the seventh century.

The radical says that the most important moment is yet to be. Despise the wicked past, loath the evil present, and look only to the glorious future is the message of the radical. The 20th century saw the coming to power of various totalitarian communist governments who blithely murdered millions in order to usher in that glorious future, ignoring present day evils and their own wickedness in the process.  

Christopher Buice, a UU minister in Knoxville, Tennessee, captures the spirit of the UU approach to history, when he writes of bowling as a spiritual discipline. Bowl a ball too far to the right and you end up in the gutter of orthodoxy, trapped in the past. Bowl too far to the left and you end up in the gutter of radicalism, postponing a good life to a never-to-arrive future. To knock down the pins, you must strive to roll the ball in the lane between the gutters.

The Buddha taught the same wisdom: seek the Middle Way between the extremes that seem so tempting. Aristotle called it the Golden Mean.

UU’s respect the past, knowing in what measure it affects our lives. Our genetic inheritance, the social history of our species as well as the history of our family, and the environmental developments of the ages that have produced our present earth all have significance for us.

Historian Donald Kagan says that writers of history have “the responsibility of preserving the great, important, and instructive actions of human beings.” By knowing what has happened, we can see what good and evil are, what actions help human beings and what actions harm us.

History shows us clearly the wickedness of slavery and the oppression of women, the folly of war and of designing societies that are unjust so a few get rich and the many live in misery.  Hitler and Stalin were evil and did monstrously evil things. Clara Barton and Sophia Lyon Fahs were good and did wonderfully good things. 

Our moral values emerge out of seeing what actions and systems do good and which ones hurt people.

Then we create a vision of what might be and begin working to realize it. We understand the truth of Reinhold Niebuhr’s words that “nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime.”

Worthy goals are not easily accomplished. The time to start working on them is now. We must do what we can, even if we do not see the completion of the task, and trust that others will carry on the work to make real the vision of a peaceable and just community.                                                                                                

History is about two things: remembering and dreaming.  

We remember so that we can overcome the mistakes of the past and carry forward the noblest aspirations of humanity.

We dream so that we never become complacent about who and what we are, always striving to be better and help the world to be better.

The importance of history is the first theme of my sermon.

Humility is the second.

Humility is an impossible virtue. How on earth can we ever know if we are properly humble?

If I go on a diet, I have something to measure how well I am doing—the scales, how many times I succumb to the delicious pecan pie that I love or have that gorgeous Reuben sandwich, how many days I do not exercise. I can keep a chart of how I am doing and give myself pep talks about doing better.

How can I tell if I am improving in humility? How do I know if my humble demeanor—or yours—is not really a mask for vanity and arrogance?

I have never thought of myself as a particularly humble person. I am not sure if that means that I am or that I am not humble! I just do not know.

Despite the difficulties, I am persuaded that humility is a great virtue. I like what Max Ehrmann said about humility in “Desiderata,” though he did not use the word: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

That is excellent advice for staying on course—the middle way!—but hard as the dickens to do. Most of us at one time or another do compare ourselves with others and find ourselves either desperately wanting or wallowing in self-admiration. Ehrmann was right to caution against it.                                               

The trick is to appreciate ourselves, respect others, and enjoy life. Several things can be helpful in doing this.

First, who is not humbled by an awareness of the sheer vastness of the universe: hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. In the microscopic world, we seem to keep discovering teeny, tiny, miniscule little things that count as fundamental pieces of the make-up of physical reality. The last count I saw was 64 such elemental pieces.

There is vastness in time also, billions and billions of years of time that the earth has been around, billions and billions of years since the universe started, and no one knows what came before that point of singularity.

My goodness! How could anyone be uppity in the face of that knowledge?

The earth and its various life forms are also amazing. Beetles seem to be the most prolific life form with 400,000 species. Cockroaches seem to be the most durable form of life, said to be capable of surviving and prospering even in a nuclear war. Giraffes! Hippopotamuses! Duck-billed platypuses! Monkey pod trees! Roses and thorns! Mountains! Water! The human being!

Life is strange and beautiful and full of mystery and it long predates our brief interlude as part of it.

One last element of humility is the limits that constrain us.

The first and most painful of these limits is our mortality. Religions may propose faith commitments about living beyond this life, but there is not one scrap of evidence that we do. Even if we survive for another go-round—and I would welcome that, as most people would—that does not make this life any easier.

Here’s the truth about our mortality, told in two statements a quipster thought up in the heyday of the God Is Dead movement of the 1960’s.  First came these words: “God is dead—Nietzsche.” Then came these words: “Nietzsche is dead—God.”                                                                                          

Whatever we consider the ultimate force of the universe to be, whatever our God is, it will long outlast our very short existence. 

There are limits as well in what we can do. Like it or not, no matter how hard I might apply myself, I will never be able to play the piano as well as Fats Waller or Van Cliburn. For that matter, I can’t play as well as Fats Cliburn or Van Waller!

Very few are those gifted in all aspects of life. Some of us can cook and some of us cannot. Some of us are comfortable and capable with technology and others of us are not. Some of us are good with numbers and others of us are not. Some of us can hit a curve ball and others cannot.

Nobody does everything well.

Humility is an attitude firmly rooted in the reality of our situation, an infinitesimal part of life in a vast space-time universe in which our mortal days are few and our talents limited.

Accepting our real condition frees us to enjoy life, to appreciate what we have and what we can do rather than long for what we do not have or cannot do, to respect others and take delight in their accomplishments.

In the UU movement, humility is part of the reason why we have no binding dogma, no required creeds to believe, no rituals one must perform on pain of eternal loss. Humility teaches us that no one of us has the truth, no individual, no religion. At best, we may each have a little bit of the truth. Sharing humbly we can enlarge our understanding.

Humility is the reason we celebrate diversity.

Humility is the second theme of my sermon.

The third is learning how to distinguish between that which is of enduring value and that which is of only passing worth.                                                                                                   

One of the watershed moments in UU history was the occasion of the installation of the Rev. Charles C. Shackford on May 19, 1841. At that ceremony, Theodore Parker preached a sermon called “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.”

Parker made the point that the authority of Christianity or of any religion rests on the truth of its words, not on who said the words, not on any doctrines of the faith. Doctrines are transient. So are rituals. So are people.

The permanent is found in love and morality and divine living, acting on the goodness that is part of every one of us. Parker said that what is demanded of us is “a divine life; doing the best thing, in the best way, from the highest motives.”

He went on to note that living in this way does not “demand that all men...(and women) think alike, but to think uprightly, and get as near as possible to truth; not all men…(and women) to live alike, but to live holy, and get as near as possible to a life perfectly divine.”

There are many ways of speaking the wisdom in Parker’s words. That wisdom is found in the words of the prophet Micah, when he declared that what is required of us is not rituals or sacrifices properly performed  or doctrines correctly stated and believed, but that we “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

Jesus taught us to love not just family and friends and those who agree with us, but also to love our enemies.

The Koran instructs us in the many ways that Allah’s voice can be heard, different voices in different places to different people.

The permanent is about love and morality, not transient things like wealth or power or fame or comfort.

We live in an age that celebrates the transient. A cartoon in a recent New Yorker showed a man being held up on the street and the robber saying, “Hand over your most recently acquired technology.”                                                                                                

Not even the thieves can keep up with the rapidly changing array of technological gimcrackery that crowds our lives and demands our attention. It’s all very exciting and all very lucrative for the inventors and sellers and all very temporary.

What religions are supposed to do is to remind us of what we need, remind us of the things that endure, the things that really matter: love and morality, justice and compassion, laughter and learning, sharing and hope, respect and thoughtfulness.

What the UU religion says is that these things can be found everywhere in life, not just in the teachings of one religion.

At the 2005 commencement exercises of my alma mater, the actor John Lithgow, a member of the class of 1967, spoke of what he had learned from some of the recipients of the Harvard Arts medal, awarded each year at the springtime Arts First Festival that Lithgow founded. “I began to see,” he said, “that many of the qualities that made them great artists were the same qualities that made them good people.” He then referred to folksinger Pete Seeger, who spearheaded efforts to clean up the Hudson River, to blues guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt, who donated funds for guitar lessons for inner-city kids, and filmmaker Mira Nair, who started a film school in Uganda.

He briefly suggested four qualities these and others who have contributed to the welfare of humanity have. He urged his audience--he urged us all—to “be creative, to be useful, to be practical, and to be generous.”

That is wisdom that fits any age, truth that endures.

So is the kind of celebration of life that the poet Mary Oliver expresses in her poems, like this one:

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
you live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said: thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses, there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

—Mary Oliver, “Some Things Say the Wise Ones,” in Why I Wake Early (2004) 

To see the sacredness in every part of life, to really live the truth of being part of the “interdependent web of all existence,” is to be in tune with the universe, with that which goes on, with that which endures.

Hold fast to love, morality, life, to that which endures.

We live best when we live consciously in history, when we live with humility, and when we live with permanent values not transient ones.  

That is the central message of our Unitarian Universalist faith. When we live it, we make the world a better place and we make ourselves better people.

That is my faith.

That is My Sermon.

Bloomberg #1—>Fight the Backlash Against Retirement Saving Nudges: Everyone Benefits When People Save More for Old Age

Link to the article shown above. Originally published in Bloomberg Opinion June 29, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

Link to the article shown above. Originally published in Bloomberg Opinion June 29, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

"Fight the Backlash Against Retirement Planning Nudge" is my first piece as a Bloomberg columnist. Thanks to Noah Smith for recommending me to my new Bloomberg editor, Jonathan Landman. I am grateful to Bloomberg Opinion for permission to reprint the full text of my column here. They retain all rights. You can see links to all my other columns in the popular press here.


Wall Street Journal analysis recently concluded that “more than 40 percent of households headed by people aged 55 through 70 lack sufficient resources to maintain their living standard in retirement.”

It isn’t easy to solve the problem for those already at retirement age, but behavioral economists, working at the border of economics and psychology, have a magic bullet for getting younger people to save more: make enrollment in retirement savings plans automatic. In 2006, Congress blessed this approach by shielding companies from legal complaints if they automatically enrolled workers in life-cycle funds that use a formula to choose a mix of stocks, bonds and other assets appropriate to a worker’s age.

A key aspect of automatic enrollment is that workers are allowed to opt out. So it isn’t forcing anyone to do anything, just nudging them in the right direction. This idea of nudging people to do the right thing without forcing them has been called “libertarian paternalism.” It's a politically attractive approach to improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, and is the core idea of the book "Nudge" by the Nobel-prize-winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler and the Harvard University law professor and Bloomberg Opinion columnist Cass Sunstein, who was head of White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in former President Barack Obama’s first term. The conservative opinion writer George Will wrote in favor of libertarian paternalism in a 2008 essay, “Nudge Against the Fudge.”

Many states, with Oregon leading the way, have begun to roll out automatic enrollment in individual retirement accounts for workers not covered by company retirement savings plans.

Automatic enrollment has now gained so much traction that it has generated a backlash. Some of it targets extra paperwork for small companies. But the stronger critique is coming from analysts who unearthed evidence that workers may run up debt to make up for the reduced take-home pay (when money is deducted to feed the retirement account).

Andrew G. Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, a top conservative think tank, is one of those leading the charge against automatic enrollment. He is on target in saying that the low-income workers for whom automatic enrollment has the biggest effect are also the ones who may not need to save much for retirement because their Social Security checks will be almost as big as their paychecks. And many people at the bottom of the heap economically would be better served by encouragement to pay off credit card debts than encouragement to save in a retirement account.

Biggs also finds some support for the idea that automatic enrollment can cause people to run up debt in research by many of the key players who got the idea of automatic enrollment off the ground. In a Jan. 29 essay posted on aei.com, “Can retirement saving increase your debt,” he wrote:

If we push low-income workers who don’t need to save more for retirement to do so, one reaction might be to borrow more elsewhere. Sure, state auto-IRA plans would let you withdraw if you chose, but inertia is strong. Many households might remain in the IRA plan and have contributions automatically deducted from their paycheck, but then borrow in order to make up for the lost take-home pay.

But the story is complex. Though it is true that the U.S. Army’s 2010 introduction of automatic enrollment in its Thrift Savings Plan caused employees to run up more debt, this was because it helped people save up for down payments for houses and cars.

Rather than failing to get people to save, the Thrift Savings Plan had an intentional loophole that let people "borrow" their own savings for near-term purchases of cars and houses rather than requiring them to use it in retirement. That's probably a good thing, since Biggs has made the point that low-income people don't need much retirement saving. 

Crucially, comparing employees in the years just before and the years just after automatic enrollment was introduced, there wasn’t any evidence that those automatically enrolled in the Thrift Savings Plan took on more credit-card debt. What they did do was to take out larger mortgages and larger auto loans. It is possible that they took out larger mortgages and auto loans because they made smaller down payments as a result of having less take-home pay. But given the ease of borrowing from their Thrift Savings Plan account, it seems more likely that they borrowed more because they were able to put down bigger down payments for better houses and cars than they would have been able to swing otherwise.

It's important to get the facts straight about automatic enrollment because there's more at stake than making sure people have enough resources for retirement.

When people save more, the whole economy benefits. A higher saving rate has the potential to reduce the trade deficit without protectionism. If accompanied by appropriate monetary policy, and not canceled out by bigger government budget deficits, a higher saving rate would also make more funds available for research and development. It should raise wages and reduce inequality. Advocates of automatic enrollment have been underplaying their hand by focusing only on the benefits for financial security in retirement.

Update December 21, 2018: Robert Flood writes on the Facebook page for this post:

Nudge is "rules vs discretion" dressed up and wearing a mustache.

Evidence that Gut Bacteria Affect the Brain

Some of the most important unknowns about diet and health center around the effect of different foods on one’s gut bacteria—also called the gut microbiome. Different types of gut bacteria like different kinds of food, so what we eat affects which types of gut bacteria flourish and which types of gut bacteria wither away.

The best types of gut bacteria do part of the processing of food and can serve as a buffer between problematic aspects of food and the intestinal wall. And the worst types of gut bacteria can themselves produce unpleasant chemicals. And even if a type of gut bacteria is neutral in and of itself, if it crowds out the worst types, that is a big service. So it matters which types of gut bacteria are flourishing.

So far, the one set of recommendations I have discussed that are heavily informed by thinking about gut bacteria are those I discuss in “What Steven Gundry's Book 'The Plant Paradox' Adds to the Principles of a Low-Insulin-Index Diet.” And I talk about evidence that eating sugar causes bad gut bacteria to thrive in “Anthony Komaroff: The Microbiome and Risk for Obesity and Diabetes.”

Possible mechanisms involving gut bacteria should keep you from being complacent about the effects of diet on your health. David Kohn’s Atlantic piece, “When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function,” points to likely effects of gut bacteria on the brain. Here are some key passages from that article, shown by indentation, with my characterizations interleaved without indentation:

By now, the idea that gut bacteria affect a person’s health is not revolutionary. Many people know that these microbes influence digestion, allergies, and metabolism.

Putting B. fragilis bacteria into a mouse model for autism reduces repetitive behavior and symptoms that look like anxiety and being noncommunicative:

In a paper published two years ago in the journal Cell, Mazmanian and several colleagues fed B. fragilis from humans to mice with symptoms similar to autism. The treatment altered the makeup of the animals’ microbiome, and more importantly, improved their behavior: They became less anxious, communicated more with other mice, and showed less repetitive behavior.

Exactly how the microbes interact with the illness—whether as a trigger or as a shield—remains mostly a mystery. But Mazmanian and his colleagues have identified one possible link: a chemical called 4-ethylphenylsulphate, or 4EPS, which seems to be produced by gut bacteria. They’ve found that mice with symptoms of autism have blood levels of 4EPS more than 40 times higher than other mice. The link between 4EPS levels and the brain isn’t clear, but when the animals were injected with the compound, they developed autism-like symptoms.

Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium reduce anxiety-like symptoms in mice, while gut bacteria from anxious humans increases anxiety-like symptoms in mice:

Stephen Collins, a gastroenterology researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has found that strains of two bacteria, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, reduce anxiety-like behavior in mice (scientists don’t call it “anxiety” because you can’t ask a mouse how it’s feeling). Humans also carry strains of these bacteria in their guts.

Collins transferred gut bacteria from anxious humans into “germ-free” mice—animals that had been raised (very carefully) so their guts contained no bacteria at all. After the transplant, these animals also behaved more anxiously.

Humans who were fed the a favorite food of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria—galactooligosaccharide (GOS)—ended up with lower levels of cortisol and were drawn more to positive words:

Some subjects were fed 5.5 grams of a powdered carbohydrate known as galactooligosaccharide, or GOS, while others were given a placebo. Previous studies in mice by the same scientists had shown that this carb fostered growth of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria; the mice with more of these microbes also had increased levels of several neurotransmitters that affect anxiety, including one called brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

In this experiment, subjects who ingested GOS showed lower levels of a key stress hormone, cortisol, and in a test involving a series of words flashed quickly on a screen, the GOS group also focused more on positive information and less on negative.

Gut bacteria produce many chemicals that could potentially affect the brain:

It’s not yet clear how the microbiome alters the brain. Most researchers agree that microbes probably influence the brain via multiple mechanisms. Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which play a key role in mood (many antidepressants increase levels of these same compounds). Certain organisms also affect how people metabolize these compounds, effectively regulating the amount that circulates in the blood and brain. Gut bacteria may also generate other neuroactive chemicals, including one called butyrate, that have been linked to reduced anxiety and depression. Cryan and others have also shown that some microbes can activate the vagus nerve, the main line of communication between the gut and the brain. In addition, the microbiome is intertwined with the immune system, which itself influences mood and behavior.

Two types of effect not clearly stated in this extensive just above are the possibilities that (a) certain gut bacteria could intercept and neutralize chemicals from food that might otherwise affect the brain and (b) certain gut bacteria could intercept and neutralize chemicals that might otherwise damage the intestinal wall, which in turn would let other nasty chemicals into the bloodstream.

Why would certain types of gut bacteria do helpful things? One possibility is that it might help aid the spread of that type of gut bacteria:

Cryan suggests that over time, at least a few microbes have developed ways to shape their hosts’ behavior for their own ends. Modifying mood is a plausible microbial survival strategy, he argues that “happy people tend to be more social. And the more social we are, the more chances the microbes have to exchange and spread.”

The other possibility is that, other things equal, killing off one’s host is bad for the spread of one’s type of bacteria. But it takes many humans dying over a long period of time for this to create significant cumulative evolutionary pressure towards nice bacteria, and any change in dietary habits can put in motion a much quicker process of nasty bacteria flourishing.

Conclusion

There are many things about gut bacteria that we still don’t understand. For a simple example, to what extent do gut bacteria themselves burn calories so that get absorbed through the intestinal wall are less than the calories that are eaten?

In terms of guesswork, an argument I alluded to above is that it takes many generations of humans, with those infested with bad gut bacteria being more likely to die, in order to cumulate a significant evolutionary advantage to nice gut bacteria. That is, coevolution of gut bacteria with humans requires many human generations, since it is differential survival of the human hosts that gives an advantage to the nice bacteria. Other than evolutionary pressures from the deaths or degradation of human hosts, evolutionary pressures on bacteria are all for the benefit of the bacteria, not for the benefit of humans.

Evolutionary pressures on bacteria for the benefit of the bacteria, without regard to their effects on their human hosts, can act very fast. It is likely to be quite delicate to maintain a short-run equilibrium that keeps a nice type of bacteria ahead of the nasty type of bacteria for long enough to gain the long-run benefit from human hosts not dying as much. Dietary changes could easily disrupt that short-run equilibrium so things shift toward a nasty type of bacteria that persist for a long time before the long-run disadvantage of killing of human hosts takes its toll on that type of bacteria.

So the bottom line is that it is wise to eat in a way that is close to how our ancestors ate over the period of time when gut bacteria coevolved to be nice to humans. Eating in a newfangled way that changes the competitive environment for bacteria is likely to hurt the competitive strength of some of the old friends we have among gut bacteria. “True paleo” (as distinct from what is called “paleo”) is what I talk about in ““What Steven Gundry's Book 'The Plant Paradox' Adds to the Principles of a Low-Insulin-Index Diet.”

In principle, we should be able to figure out the details of which bacteria we need to take care of to stay healthy and what we need to do for them. In the meanwhile, before we have figured everything out about the gut microbiome, eating in a fairly traditional “true paleo” way is a good precautionary strategy.

Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography.

John Locke: Legitimate Taxation and other Appropriation of Property by the Government is Limited as to Quantity, Procedure and Purpose

John Locke takes for granted the necessity of taxes, but stipulates three conditions for taxes and other government appropriations of property to be legitimate.

  1. The taxes cannot be so high that some individuals would be better off in the state of nature than as taxpayers within the nation.

  2. The taxes must be approved by some kind of majority vote of the populace representatives of the populace who still have the interests of the populace at heart.

  3. The taxes must be for the good of the nation as a whole—or at least include among their beneficiaries many who are not themselves politically powerful.

These views are laid out in John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, Chapter XI (“Of the Extent of the Legislative Power”), Sections 138-140.

The first point—that taxes cannot be so high that some individuals would be better off in the state of nature instead, I infer from the beginning of Section 138:

 §. 138. Thirdly, The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that, by entering into society, which was the end for which they entered into it: too gross an absurdity for any man to own. 

The remainder of Section 138 sets forth the need for representatives to approve taxes who still have the populace’s interests at heart:

Men therefore in society having property, they have such a right to the goods, which by the law of the community are theirs, that nobody hath a right to take their substance or any part of it from them, without their own consent: without this they have no property at all; for I have truly no property in that, which another can by right take from me, when he pleases, against my consent. Hence it is a mistake to think, that the supreme or legislative power of any commonwealth can do what it will, and dispose of the estates of the subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure. This is not much to be feared in governments where the legislative consists, wholly or in part, in assemblies which are variable, whose members, upon the dissolution of the assembly, are subjects under the common laws of their country, equally with the rest. But in governments, where the legislative is in one lasting assembly always in being, or in one man, as in absolute monarchies, there is danger still, that they will think themselves to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community; and so will be apt to increase their own riches and power, by taking what they think fit from the people: for a man’s property is not at all secure, though there be good and equitable laws to set the bounds of it between him and his fellow subjects, if he who commands those subjects have power to take from any private man, what part he pleases of his property, and use and dispose of it as he thinks good. 

The beginning of Section 139 then speaks of “consent”:

§. 139. But government, into whatsoever hands it is put, being, as I have before shewed, intrusted with this condition, and for this end, that men might have and secure their properties; the prince, or senate, however it may have power to make laws, for the regulating of property between the subjects one amongst another, yet can never have a power to take to themselves the whole, or any part of the subjects’ property, without their own consent: for this would be in effect to leave them no property at all.

Consent is then defined in Section 140 as majority approval:

§. 140. It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i. e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?

For current debates, John Locke’s most important stipulation is about the legitimate purposes of taxation. In the latter part of Section 139, he is not explicit about exactly what purposes are appropriate, but has a very revealing parable: a general can order a soldier to almost certain for a public purpose—the preservation of the nation from destruction by its enemies in war—but cannot legitimately steal a penny from the soldier for the general’s personal enrichment:

§. 139. … And to let us see, that even absolute power, where it is necessary, is not arbitrary by being absolute, but is still limited by that reason, and confined to those ends, which required it in some cases to be absolute, we need look no farther than the common practice of martial discipline: for the preservation of the army, and in it of the whole commonwealth, requires an absolute obedience to the command of every superior officer, and it is justly death to disobey or dispute the most dangerous or unreasonable of them; but yet we see, that neither the serjeant, that could command a soldier to march up to the mouth of a cannon, or stand in a breach, where he is almost sure to perish, can command that soldier to give him one penny of his money; nor the general, that can condemn him to death for deserting his post, or for not obeying the most desperate orders, can yet, with all his absolute power of life and death, dispose of one farthing of that soldier’s estate, or seize one jot of his goods; whom yet he can command any thing, and hang for the least disobedience; because such a blind obedience is necessary to that end, for which the commander has his power, viz. the preservation of the rest; but the disposing of his goods has nothing to do with it.

Debates about quantity and procedure for taxes are frequent and obvious in the news. Debates about purpose of taxes are even more frequent, but come in a slightly different guise: they show up as debates about whether particular government expenditures are appropriate or not. In many countries, the battle for what John Locke argues for in these three sections has been won. We are fortunate to have democratic governance of taxes and government spending.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Quartz #69—>The Most Effective Memory Methods are Difficult—and That's Why They Work

Here is the full text of my 69th Quartz column, "The most effective memory methods are difficult—and that's why they work," now brought home to supplysideliberal.com. It was first published on August 8, 2018. Links to all my other columns can be found here.

If you want to mirror the content of this post on another site, that is possible for a limited time if you read the legal notice at this link and include both a link to the original Quartz column and the following copyright notice:

© August 8, 2018: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2020. All rights reserved.

The column itself is between divider lines. Below the text of the column itself are some passages that were cut to keep the column tight, plus suggested reading.


In the 2014 book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learningauthors Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel describe which learning techniques work, and which ones don’t. I can distill their message into one sentence:

If it isn’t making you feel stupid, it isn’t helping you learn.

Since most people like to feel smart, they run away in terror from learning techniques that make them feel dumb. Instead, they mistakenly focus on methods that give them the satisfaction of feeling like they’re improving in real time. Some of the most common ones are:

  • rereading a textbook

  • underlining and highlighting key themes

  • burning an idea into your memory by going over it again and again and again in a single intense session

  • waiting until you fully understand an idea to try to apply it or explain it

But unfortunately, any improvements made evaporate quickly with these methods.

What makes knowledge and understanding stick in the long run is studying in a way that guarantees that you fail and fail and fail. Testing your knowledge and understanding in ways that make you realize what you don’t know is the rocky path to genuine learning. The details are in a battalion of studies the authors cite—many in which they participated. These studies make the key points: testing your memory, mixing things up with different kinds of conceptsestablishing memory cues, and generally making things hard on yourself are crucial.

It’s a no pain, no gain philosophy. After all, real life is hard—it taxes your memory, mixes things up, and rarely gives you multiple choice options. Any approach to learning that isn’t hard won’t match what you experience in real life.

There are three key activities that effectively sear what you want to learn into your long-term memory:

  1. Doing things in real life, or in a simulation as close to the real thing as possible.

  2. Flashcards done right.

  3. Building your own picture and story of the ideas.

Let’s dig into each of these in turn.

“Practice like you play, and you’ll play like you practice.”

This is a key bit of folk wisdom endorsed by the authors of Make It Stick. The military conducts war games. Pilots train on simulators. Footballers practice scrimmages against second-string “scout teams” who mimic the strategies of their next opponents. If you only run the drills in optimal, predictable conditions, you’re never going to be prepared for a curveball. (Quite literally in the case of baseball—practicing hitting unpredictable pitches has been shown to do a lot more good than concentrating on hitting one type of pitch at a time.)

If you are a student, you need to do practice exams under conditions that are as close as possible to the real ones. If you aren’t allowed notes on the real exam, don’t allow yourself any notes when you do a practice exam. If you have to write an essay on the real exam, force yourself to really write an essay for the practice exam. Most importantly, do the practice exam under exactly the same time limits as the real exam. That way you can learn whether you get flustered by time limits and if there are things you get right but can’t do fast enough yet.

In non-academic settings, you can’t expect to learn much by just watching. For example, you can drive to the store 20 times while relaxing in the passenger seat and still not know the route yourself. But once or twice driving there yourself—making your own mistakes along the way and correcting them—and you’ll have the route nailed.

In the modern era, we’re often in the driver’s seat physically, turning the steering wheel, but rely so heavily on directions from our smartphones that we still don’t learn how to get from point A to point B. If you are sure a crutch will always be there for you, then using it counts as “practicing like you play.” But practicing with a crutch doesn’t prepare you well for a time when the crutch isn’t there.

The work counterpart to having someone else drive is letting the IT department just fix your computer problem rather than first trying fix it yourself. It is awfully hard to learn how to do something without doing it, however messy or unsuccessful your attempt.

Recall a piece of information repeatedly

Most of the information we absorb in a typical day is not only forgettable: It should be quickly forgotten. Do you really want to remember forever all the menu items you didn’t choose for lunch or what all the strangers you passed today on the sidewalk were wearing?

So how does your brain know whether something should be put into your long-term memory or not? Research finds that that attempting to remember an item repeatedly over an extended period of time is what puts it into long-term memory.

This means you need to intentionally try to retrieve items from your memory repeatedly to make them stick. The catch is that you can’t wait too long, nor try to solidify it too fast. If you try to remember too late after the fact, the original memory will be nowhere to be found; but if you wait only a few minutes to try to remember something, it’s too quick for you to signal your brain to put it into long-term memory. The key is to space out the attempts to remember in just the right way. The extensive references in Make It Stick include quite a bit of detail, but those results aren’t likely to be as useful as experimenting with the frequency and spacing that works best for yourself.

Done right, flashcards, whether they’re physical or virtual, are a great way to do memory retrieval practice. This is because they help space out attempts to remember an item, and you can come back to them easily periodically. But flashcards require some discipline in order to help. The number one principle is that you need to guess the answer before looking at the back of the card. Even if you think it is hopeless for you to remember, try. Sometimes you will surprise yourself. But even when you guess hilariously wrong, that effort of guessing carves out a space in your mind for the real answer to go—and you’ll definitely remember that’s not the right result next time.

The second principle is that you need to make it hard. Wait long enough between practice sessions—or put enough flashcards in the deck—that by the time a card comes around, you have to struggle to remember it. Third, cards you think you have down can be put in a slower rotation—but they shouldn’t go out of the rotation entirely. (Cards you make a mistake on can be put in a faster rotation.)

Another way to make memory-retrieval practice harder and really get your brain working is to shuffle in different kinds of tasks. The benefit of “interleaving” is one of the most surprising results from the research on learning, but it has been verified over and over again, such as in the batting practice study.

For example, if you are studying German vocabulary, have half the cards with German on top so you have to try to remember the English equivalent, and half the cards with English on top so you have to try to remember the German.  If you are using an app, choose one that switches between different types of challenges—like Duolingo, which tests you on verbal, aural, and text-based examples simultaneously—or go back and forth between apps on different subjects.

Teach what you are learning—if only to yourself

If you want to learn something you were taught or heard about, write about it in your own words, from memory, after the fact. It is great if you can find someone else to teach what you are learning to, but this principle works even if you just pretend to teach it.

If you had to explain things without notes, based only on your memory, what would you say? What are the most important ideas? How do they hook together? Why should your listener care about the ideas? Trying to figure out how to teach something not only involves a lot of retrieving things from memory—it also involves putting things together in a structure that creates a lot of memory cues. This creates hooks to hang the memories on and drag them out of hiding when you need them.

Another great way to teach yourself this structure-building skill is to try to guess where a teacher or manager is going next when they’re explaining a concept. Here you are harnessing the power of surprise and your competitive spirit to imprint things on your memory. If you made the right guess, you won; if not, it was a surprise. Either way, it will be more memorable.

The same technique will help you understand someone else’s point of view. In conversation, instead of trying to think of what you are going to say next or interrupting when you think you already know where things are going, say silently to yourself exactly what you think the other person will say next—then notice where you guessed wrong. Not only will you perhaps learn something you didn’t know—you’ll also be a better conversation partner.


Here are some passages that were cut, plus some further reading if you want to dig into this issue.

When people think of technological progress, they usually think of technological progress in the natural sciences and their applied wings: physics, biology, engineering and medicine, for example. Bu at least one area of the social sciences where technological progress has the potential to make a major difference to conventionally-measured GDP: the science of learning and teaching. Between learning and teaching, the science of learning comes first, since teaching is nothing more than helping someone to learn.

Some of the most exciting science about learning comes from psychologists rather than education school professors. ...

Implications for teaching. For teachers, this research on learning points to the value of anything that gets students to work hard during class. For example it helps to get students up to the board, to give them mini-quizzes or questions they answer with clickers, or to have students write a few sentences about what they learned at the end of class. But what really works for lasting learning is so individualized that classroom techniques only go so far.

In an extensive 2017 survey of randomized field experiments of schooling, Harvard economist Roland Fryer finds that tutoring is one of the few educational interventions with big effects. One likely reason for this is that tutors quite naturally challenge students in the way the ideal flashcard app would, as well as challenging students to explain concepts in their own words. The effectiveness of tutoring is not lost on college students. During the time I worked at the University of Michigan, so many students from relatively well-off families were hiring tutors as a boost to their coursework that many of our economics graduate students could make just as much money being a tutor as they could as official teaching assistants.

The trouble with human tutors is that they are expensive. Fortunately, there is hope that computers can become better and better tutors. Typical classes are so ineffectively taught that learning software designed to go along with the regular curriculum typically doesn’t do much good, but experimental evidence already indicates the value of learning software designed to act as a tutor.

But you don’t need a tutor or tutoring software to be an ace learner. All you need is the courage and determination to brave the hard knocks of techniques that constantly make you feel stupid by showing you what you don’t know yet.

Conclusion. There are some other things to learn about learning. For example, there are excellent tricks to get good memory cues: The alphabet song has helped millions of kids master the alphabet, the acronym OCEAN has helped psyche students remember the Big Five personality traits and memory champions use more elaborate “memory palace” techniques (described here) that also work like a charm. But the basic principle is the one above:

If it isn’t making you feel stupid, it isn’t helping you learn.

Or less bluntly, in the words of Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel in Make It Stick:

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.

We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.

Related Columns:

Link to the Amazon page for Make It Stick

Suggested Further Reading by Make It Stick (quotation, bulleting added, bold changed to italics)

Scholarly Articles

  • Crouch, C. H., Fagen, A. P., Callan, J. P., & Mazur, E. (2004). Classroom demonstrations: Learning tools or entertainment? American Journal of Physics, 72, 835–838. An interesting use of generation to enhance learning from classroom demonstrations.

  • Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14, 4–58. Describes techniques that research has shown to work in improving educational practice in both laboratory and field (educational) settings, as well as other techniques that do not work. Provides a thorough discussion of the research literature supporting (or not) each technique.

  • McDaniel, M. A. (2012). Put the SPRINT in knowledge training: Training with SPacing, Retrieval, and INTerleaving. In A. F. Healy & L. E. Bourne Jr. (eds.), Training Cognition: Optimizing Efficiency, Durability, and Generalizability (pp. 267–286). New York: Psychology Press. This chapter points out that many training situations, from business to medicine to continuing education, tend to cram training into an intensive several day “course.” Evidence that spacing and interleaving would be more effective for promoting learning and retention is summarized and some ideas are provided for how to incorporate these techniques into training.

  • McDaniel, M. A., & Donnelly, C. M. (1996). Learning with analogy and elaborative interrogation. Journal of Educational Psychology 88, 508–519. These experiments illustrate the use of several elaborative techniques for learning technical material, including visual imagery and self-questioning techniques. This article is more technical than the others in this list.

  • Richland, L. E., Linn, M. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2007). Instruction. In F. Durso, R. Nickerson, S. Dumais, S. Lewandowsky, & T. Perfect (eds.), Handbook of Applied Cognition (2nd ed., pp. 553–583). Chichester: Wiley. Provides examples of how desirable difficulties, including generation, might be implemented in instructional settings.

  • Roediger, H. L., Smith, M. A., & Putnam, A. L. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In B. H. Ross (ed.), Psychology of Learning and Motivation. San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press. Provides a summary of the host of potential benefits of practicing retrieving as a learning technique.

Books

  • Brooks, D. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011.

  • Coyle, D. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. New York: Bantam Dell, 2009.

  • Doidge, N. The Brain the Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

  • Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.

  • Dunlosky, J., & Metcalfe, J. Metacognition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2009.

  • Dunning, D. Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (Essays in Social Psychology). New York: Psychology Press, 2005.

  • Dweck, C. S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.

  • Foer, J. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin, 2011.

  • Gilovich, T. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.

  • Gladwell, M. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2005. _______. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little Brown & Co, 2008.

  • Healy, A. F. & Bourne, L. E., Jr. (Eds.). Training Cognition: Optimizing Efficiency, Durability, and Generalizability. New York: Psychology Press, 2012.

  • Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Mayer, R. E. Applying the Science of Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2010.

  • Nisbett, R. E. Intelligence and How to Get It. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.

  • Sternberg, R. J., & Grigorenko, E. L. Dynamic Testing: The Nature and Measurement of Learning Potential. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2002.

  • Tough, P. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

  • Willingham, D. T. When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

  • Worthen, J. B., & Hunt, R. R. Mnemonology: Mnemonics for the 21st Century (Essays in Cognitive Psychology). New York: Psychology Press, 2011.

'Is Milk Ok?' Revisited

Because I love dairy, I need to keep reanalyzing the evidence about possible downsides to milk and other dairy as I run across relevant articles. Anne Karpf’s article “Dairy Monsters” in the Guardian throws some additional curve balls about milk. Here I am going to limit myself to potential health worries about milk and dairy, leaving aside environmental concerns (which could be important). I will also leave aside lactose intolerance, because that issue is well understood.

Is It Just the Devil in Milk? First, there is a set of issues that could be entirely due to the A1 casein in regular milk, and possibly can be avoided simply by sticking to A2 milk—whether a2 brand cow’s milk or goat milk. See “Exorcising the Devil in the Milk.” Here are passages from the article above about this set of issues that could result from the structural weakness in A2 casein the lets a nasty 7-amino-acid peptide break off:

According to various studies, there's a whole catalogue of other illnesses that can be attributed to cows' milk, among them diabetes. A 1992 report in the New England Journal of Medicine corroborated a long-standing theory that proteins in cows' milk can damage the production of insulin in those with a genetic predisposition to diabetes. The dairy industry dismisses this as "just a theory" - along with "myth" and "controversial", a term it applies to almost all studies critical of milk.

The anti-milk lobby also claims that consumption of dairy products can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis and has been implicated in colic, acne, heart disease, asthma, lymphoma, ovarian cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Don’t Give Cow’s Milk to Infants! In addition, milk with A1 casein in it could be quite dangerous to give to infants, since infants drinking regular cow milk is is linked to Type 1 diabetes (more than where cow herds naturally lean toward the a2 casein). But there is another danger that should make you think thrice about giving infants cow milk:

Frank Oski, former paediatrics director at Johns Hopkins school of medicine, estimated in his book Don't Drink Your Milk! that half of all iron deficiency in US infants results from cows' milk-induced intestinal bleeding - a staggering amount, since more than 15% of American under-twos suffer from iron-deficiency anaemia. The infants, it seems, drink so much milk (which is very low in iron) that they have little appetite left for foods containing iron; at the same time, the milk, by inducing gastrointestinal bleeding, causes iron loss.

Animal Protein is a Problem. Second, there is the general problem that animal protein builds strong cancer cells. On this, see “Meat Is Amazingly Nutritious—But Is It Amazingly Nutritious for Cancer Cells, Too?” and the other posts flagged under “Anti-Cancer Eating” at the bottom of this post. Here is the relevant quotation from Anne Karpf’s article:

Major studies suggesting a link between milk and prostate cancer have been appearing since the 1970s, culminating in findings by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2000 that men who consumed two and a half servings of dairy products a day had a third greater risk of getting prostate cancer than those who ate less than half a serving a day.

In the same year, T Colin Campbell, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, said that "cows' milk protein may be the single most significant chemical carcinogen to which humans are exposed".

Not only is animal protein a problem in causing cancer, protein—especially animal protein—can contribute to osteoporosis. Here is Anne on that:

To the milk critics, the shibboleth that osteoporosis is caused by calcium deficiency is one of the great myths of our time (each side accuses the other of myth peddling). Mark Hegsted, a retired Harvard professor of nutrition, has said, "To assume that osteoporosis is due to calcium deficiency is like assuming that infection is due to penicillin deficiency." In fact, the bone loss and deteriorating bone tissue that take place in osteoporosis are due not to calcium deficiency but rather to its resorption: it's not that our bodies don't get enough calcium, rather that they excrete too much of what they already have. So we need to find out what it is that's breaking down calcium stores in the first place, to the extent that more than one in three British women now suffers from osteoporosis.

The most important culprit is almost certainly the overconsumption of protein. High-protein foods such as meat, eggs and dairy make excessive demands on the kidneys, which in turn leach calcium from the body. One solution, then, isn't to increase our calcium intake, but to reduce our consumption of protein, so our bones don't have to surrender so much calcium. Astonishingly, according to this newer, more critical view, dairy products almost certainly help to cause, rather than prevent, osteoporosis. …

A study funded by the US National Dairy Council, for example, gave a group of postmenopausal women three 8oz glasses of skimmed milk a day for two years, then compared their bones with those of a control group of women not given the milk. The dairy group consumed 1,400mg of calcium a day, yet lost bone at twice the rate of the control group. Similarly, the Harvard Nurses' Health Study found that women who consumed the most calcium from dairy foods broke more bones than those who rarely drank milk. Another piece of research found that women who get most of their protein from animal sources have three times the rate of bone loss and hip fractures of women who get most of their protein from vegetable sources, according to a 2001 National Institutes of Health study.

Thus, instead of drinking more milk, those worried about osteoporosis would be better advised to avoid animal protein. And exercise may also be a big help against osteoporosis, especially if started young:

A 15-year study published in the British Medical Journal found that exercise may be the best protection against hip fractures and that "reduced intake of dietary calcium does not seem to be a risk factor". Similarly, researchers at Penn State University concluded that bone density is affected by how much exercise girls get in their teen years, when up to half of their skeletal mass is developed. The girls who took part in this research had wildly different calcium intakes, but it had no lasting effect on their bone health.

Are There Countervailing Health Benefits of Milk? Some studies claim health benefits from milk. But:

The critics say these are small studies, in which other dietary and genetic factors, exercise and alcohol may swamp the effects of milk drinking. But couldn't the same accusation be levelled at studies revealing the malign consequences of milk? Not so, say the critics: those studies are far larger, build in the countervailing factors and still come up with a strong correlation between the saturated fats in milk and the risk factors for ill health.

And no claim that milk is essential to human health after weaning can stand up to even a cursory examination. The prevalence of lactose intolerance has led to broad scientific agreement that drinking milk after weaning is a relatively recent innovation for humans, and then only in some ancestries. A large fraction of people today, and in all likelihood an even larger fraction of ancestral humans have drunk very little milk after weaning, and have been fine.

Milk May Get in the Way of Vitamin D. Anne misses at least one important point. Despite talking about the importance of Vitamin D (see “Carola Binder—Why You Should Get More Vitamin D: The Recommended Daily Allowance for Vitamin D Was Underestimated Due to Statistical Illiteracy”) Anne misses T. Colin Campbell’s argument that dairy can inhibit the body’s production of the active form of Vitamin D. (I have a section on this in “Is Milk OK?”).

Balancing the Health Costs and the Culinary Benefits of Milk and Other Dairy. Despite all of this, I don’t intend to give up dairy. Health consequences have to be balanced against the pleasure one gets from a particular food. But how can I minimize any health costs from dairy? Here is my approach:

  1. Stick to A2 milk. On how, see “Exorcising the Devil in the Milk.”

  2. Keep your overall animal protein consumption down. If you love milk like I do, then you should eat less meat and eggs. I recently cut back my egg consumption from two per day to one per day to make more room for animal protein from milk.

  3. Substitute coconut milk for animal milk in anything it tastes almost as good.

  4. Take time off from food, frequently. That is, fast often for at least 16 hours, (a) to make it hard on your cancer cells, (b) to give your body a chance to make the active form of Vitamin D, (c) lower your insulin levels, and (d) to give your body a chance to repair itself in other ways.

  5. Consider milk and other dairy as a special treat and appreciate every bit of it. Try to keep the overall quantity down.

Conclusion. I believe there are many worse foods than milk. For people who don’t have obvious problems with milk, I advise them to worry first about eliminating sugar before worrying about dairy. However, switching to a2 milk is an obvious winner. Few of my readers are in a low enough income category that the extra expense of a2 milk (and goat or sheep cheese instead of cow cheese) will be a big deal, and the likely health benefits are large. Reading “Exorcising the Devil in the Milk” will put you onto an intervention with one of the best benefit/cost ratios in all of the diet and health area. (If you don’t believe me after reading that post, please post a comment on that post and I’ll think about what you have to say.)

Finally, let me emphasize that, in my view, milk fat is not a problem. The only thing I worry about with cream is the small amount of protein in the cream. I have my doubts about the first half of my earlier blog post title “Whole Milk Is Healthy; Skim Milk Less So but not the second half. Don’t ever drink skim milk and avoid all products made from skim milk! Lowfat products tend to have a high insulin index. (See “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.”) As a result, skim milk is less healthy—and in any case, if you are going to brave the possible health impact from milk, you might as well get the wonderful experience from full-fat milk!

Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography.


The Religious Duty to Care about the Welfare of All Human Beings

As a Unitarian-Universalist, it is my duty to care about the welfare of every human being. The first of the “The 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism” is “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”—and the second is like it: “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” There are no limitations of color, gender, ancestry, place of birth or citizenship to this these two principles.

Unitarian-Universalists are also expected to wrestle to figure out their own beliefs, both in relation to the supernatural and in relation to what is the highest good. When I had newly started attending the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, back in 2000, I took a small class taught by the minister then, Ken Phifer (see his guest post “Kenneth W. Phifer: The Faith of a Humanist”). It was called “Building Your Own Theology.” Someday I’ll post the “Credo” (the “I believe”) that I developed in that class. But I have a somewhat more developed expression of my core religious beliefs in “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life.” One way of putting that core belief is that a nascent God is working through us to bring God fully into being. Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person is a step toward bringing God fully into being.

Jesus said “I must be about my Father’s business.” My belief is that doing our best to make earth as close as possible to what we think heaven would be like is the business we must be about. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a key part of making earth more like heaven.

What follows, and the quotations below, comes from the Wall Street Journal article flagged above. Nine individuals associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson have been charged with misdemeanor trespassing for trekking into the Sonoran desert to provide food—and more importantly, water—to people who otherwise might die of thirst there. They did not get the required permits to enter the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, because they intended to save lives in the desert in a way forbidden by law:

The defendants say they didn’t get permission to enter the refuge because of new rules adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forbidding Cabeza Prieta visitors from leaving behind food, water bottles, blankets, medical supplies or other personal possessions. 

Why would saving lives in this way be forbidden? Plausibly, in the pursuance of what I consider another injustice: laws that restrict legal immigration so much that people wanting a better life, in desperation, turn to illegal immigration.

Defense lawyers assert that the restriction on relief supplies—adopted by the Trump administration in July 2017—is part of a crackdown on border relief efforts. A defense motion quotes a text message from a Border Patrol agent referring to the volunteers as “bean droppers.”

This case raises interesting legal questions:

A central question in the case is whether the defendants are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Clinton in 1993.

… Under the statute, the federal government may not hinder a person from exercising sincerely held religious beliefs without a compelling and unavoidable reason.

Department of Justice lawyers argue that the government has a compelling and unavoidable reason to inhibit this activity in order to use the possibility of dying of thirst in the Sonoran desert as part of the deterrence for illegal immigration, and that the provision of relief may result in the wilderness getting hurt or becoming less of a wilderness.

Prosecutors have also questioned whether the defendants’ relief missions are truly religious in nature, suggesting the defendants were motivated by political or “purely secular” philosophical concerns.

I suspect that, by implication, the prosecutors are questioning the religiousness of what I consider my religious beliefs as well. What would strike at the core of Unitarian-Universalism is a government rule that a a conviction can be religious only if it is based on the belief in something supernatural. Some Unitarian-Universalists believe in the supernatural, some don’t. They are all alike Unitarian-Universalists. Saying that

  1. those who believe in the supernatural have the protection of the religion clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution and of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but

  2. those who, like me, believe that God can be brought forth within the natural world studied by physics,

would be unfair. Not as unfair as letting people die in the Sonoran desert, but unfair nevertheless.

My own activities on behalf of immigrants to the United States are all protected by the “freedom of speech” clause of the First Amendment, my religious beliefs are not legally pivotal for what I am doing. But I feel a lot of solidarity with those nine who felt that death of thirst was a cruel punishment for trying to become part of the miracle of nature and history that is the United States.

Don’t miss "The Hunger Games" Is Hardly Our Future--It's Already Here,” which pulls together many of my thoughts on immigration and provides links to other pieces I have written about immigration.

Oren Cass on the Value of Work

Beyond the day-to-day tussle in Washington and other capitals, one of the most important policy debates today is between advocates of a higher minimum wage, advocates of universal basic income and advocates of government wage matching. Oren Cass, in his interview by Jason Willick flagged above, makes a good case for wage matching. All the bullet points below (except the links to other posts at the very bottom) are quotations from this Wall Street Journal interview.

Work isn’t just about getting money. It is also about getting self-respect and respect from others:

  • Whether and how people are employed—what their role is in society’s productive system—“is both an economic and cultural question.”

  • Karl Marx speculated that workers with leisure time would “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.” He was wrong. People out of the labor force—especially men—are more likely to be “sleeping and watching TV” than hunting or fishing, Mr. Cass says. Unemployment, more than any of life’s other rough patches, leads to unhappiness and family breakdown. People want to “know what our obligations are, and feel that we’re fulfilling them,” he adds. When this foundation of society starts to crumble, political upheaval tends to follow.

  • Work determines “whether we feel that we’re respected and admired,” Mr. Cass says, “and whether we have something that we’re good at.” Technocrats haven’t yet figured out how to redistribute self-esteem.

  • Can working-class Americans “buy more cheap stuff? Absolutely. And do we now transfer more money to them, so they can buy even more cheap stuff? Yes,” he says. “But their ability to participate meaningfully in the labor market, and to become self-sufficient supporters of families has eroded badly.”

Most of those at the bottom say they want jobs, not handouts:

  • … says Mr. Cass, the “further down the income ladder you go, generally speaking, the less enthusiasm there is for redistribution as a solution. People will tell you they want to work.” He adds: “It’s when you get to the top of the income distribution that you find a whole lot of people are basically like, ‘Why can’t I just write a check?’ ”

Oren advocates wages subsidies—a match rate by which the government matches a certain percentage of earnings. Funds would have to be found for wage matching in the government budget, but as a way to help those at the bottom who are able to work, wage matching has key advantages:

  • Unlike programs such as unemployment insurance, wage subsidies don’t reduce the incentive to work. His imagined subsidy would add a percentage of workers’ earnings to each paycheck up to a target amount, boosting the return on their labor.

  • Government benefits “can start to get pretty close to what a low-wage job provides in the market,” Mr. Cass says. In contrast, a wage subsidy increases the difference in value between social programs and work so that more people choose the latter.

One of Oren’s most intriguing points is that a wage-matching program needs to be paired with a cultural shift toward viewing low-skilled labor as honorable—and providing such jobs as honorable:

  • He argues that this widened economic gap between idleness and work should be paired with a cultural one, where idleness is stigmatized and work of all kinds is valued and celebrated. Today, he says, “being an employer of less-skilled workers is sort of a straight ticket to the exposé about how your workers don’t earn enough money.”

Personally, I find the line of attack that companies providing jobs for low-skilled workers are taking advantage of the government safety net especially annoying. Surely, offering jobs for low-skilled workers is better for society than not offering jobs for low-skilled workers. These workers need more take-home pay, but if we are OK with redistribution at all, it is appropriate that the take-home pay they need for a living wage should come from the taxpayers rather than hoping that an employer will react to a higher minimum wage by hiring more workers.

Wage matching can be even more powerful if paired with an online government-sponsored market for workers. Morgan Warstler designs such websites, and writes about their benefits in his Medium post “Guaranteed Income & Choose Your Boss: Uber for Welfare.” I have become more and more favorable to this idea over time. There are many benefits to government wage-matching done through a website like that for delivering Obamacare subsidies, but with more stability and a better user interface. Here is my list:

  1. There will be better incentives to work.

  2. There will be a lower cost for low-skill services—which will lower the cost of living, especially for those at the bottom, who can’t afford high-skill services. (Note that occupational licensing restrictions have to be relaxed to get the full benefit of this effect. One way to do this is by adding a new occupational category in each general area of work that is specifically designed for low-skill workers, and has few hoops to jump through. For example, it could be expected that someone meeting the definition for a “haircutter”—which might have only, say, one weekend’s worth of required training, entirely focused on safety—would have lower skill than someone meeting the definition for a “barber” or “hair stylist,” who has had to jump through more hoops.)

  3. With a star rating system (stars), those who have little experience, or are ex-cons, can develop a good record as workers.

  4. A star rating system for each day or at most each week of work makes the power one wields by a rating on any one occasion small enough that it should be hard to sue someone for giving a low rating for someone’s work. That contributes to honesty of those doing the rating. (There should also be ratings of bosses; that helps workers avoid choosing a bad employer.)

  5. Honest ratings of workers can lead to a lower natural (long-run-normal) rate of unemployment.

I explain the last point in my post “Janet Yellen is Hardly a Dove—She Knows the US Economy Needs Some Unemployment”:

Low pay affords workers an attitude of “Take this job and shove it!.” If workers have no reason to obey you because they are just as well off without the job—and owe you nothing—it will be hard to run a business. And if you hire someone at very low pay who actually sticks around, it is reasonable to worry about what is wrong with the worker that makes it so that worker can’t do better than the miserable job you are offering them. The way out of this trap is for an employer to pay enough that the worker is significantly better off with the job than without the job.

It might sound like a good thing that firms have a reason to pay workers more, except that, according to the Efficiency Wage Theory, firms have to keep raising wages until workers are too expensive for all of them to get hired. The reasoning goes like this: There will always be some jobs that are at the bottom of the heap. Suppose some of those bottom-of-the-heap jobs are also dead-end jobs, with no potential for promotion or any other type of advancement. If bottom-of-the-heap, dead-end jobs were free for the taking, no one would ever worry about losing one of those jobs. The Johnny Paycheck moment—when the worker says “Take this job and shove it”—will not be long in coming. If they were free for the taking, bottom-of-the-heap, dead-end jobs would also be subject to high turnover and low levels of emotional attachment to the firm. …

There are other conceivable ways to reduce the necessity of motivational unemployment in the long run.

  1. If all jobs had advancement possibilities—that is, no jobs were dead-end jobs—it might be possible to motivate workers by the hope of moving up the ladder. This works best if workers actually learn and get better at what they do over time by sticking with a job.

  2. If doing what needs to be done on the job could be made more pleasant, it would reduce the need for the carrot of above-market wages or the stick of unemployment.

  3. If workers could trust firms not to cheat them and were required to pay for their jobs, they would be afraid of having to pay for a job all over again if they were fired.

  4. There could be a threat other than unemployment, such as deportation.

  5. Unemployment could be made less attractive.

  6. Worker’s reputations could be tracked more systematically and made available online.

To make possibilities 5 and 6 more concrete, let me mention online activist Morgan Warstler’s … proposal that would make unemployment less attractive and would better track workers reputations: An “eBay job auction and minimum income program for the unemployed.” The program would require those receiving unemployment insurance or other assistance to work in a temp-job—within a certain radius from the worker’s home. The employer would go online to bid on an employee to hire and the wages would offset some of the cost of government assistance. Both the history of bids and an eBay-like rating system of the workers would give later employers a lot of useful information about the worker. Workers would also give feedback on firms, to help ferret out abuses.

(Even if it is reduced, if any motivational employment is necessary, it is an important thing to understand in macroeconomics. See “Why We Want More Jobs.”)

I suspect surveys show that a majority of Americans feel that those at the bottom should be able to make a living wage. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that will happen without some government intervention. Consider the alternatives:

  1. Universal basic income makes people want to work less, making them more likely to forgo the non-money benefits of working as well as the money.

  2. Higher minimum wages make employers want to employ people less (especially when they are very high in relation to the marginal products of the relevant category of workers).

  3. Wage-matching honors work and, in particular, honors those who produce valuable output. And it helps the poor by giving them access to inexpensive services from their peers as well as by augmenting their wages.

Don’t miss these other posts (some of them link-posts to outside pieces) on these alternative policies: