Cause and Effect

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I was talking to my friend Ann the other day about a problem we’ve been having at The Scrap Exchange; something that’s supposed to happen every day isn’t always happening. However there’s a little bit of a trick to making it happen, it’s a two-step process and if it’s not something you’re used to doing, you might think it’s done after the first step, you won’t necessarily realize you need to do something else to finish up.

I said we need to figure out what the problem is, if it’s that people think they’re doing what they’re supposed but just aren’t doing it right, or if it’s that they’re not doing it at all. We can’t come up with a solution it until we know what’s going on.

I told her I’d been looking at Holistic Management, one of my favorite books of all time. She said, “I should read that.” I said, “No, you shouldn’t. It’s 600 pages long and is mostly about livestock ranching.” I told her I’d write some posts about it and she could read those. Here’s the first. (Though she heard this part already, so she’ll have to wait for the next one to get anything new.)

I said I’d just re-read the chapter on the cause and effect test (subtitled “stop the blows to the head before you take the aspirin”) that talks about how you need to make sure your solution addresses the cause of the problem and not just the symptoms. Because if your solution only treats symptoms, the symptom you focus on might go away, but the underlying problem will still be there, you haven’t really solved anything, and sooner or later it will come back.

I gave her the example that Allan Savory gives in the book, about his tractors breaking down. When he first asked why his maintenance costs were so high, people said it was because his tractors were old, the solution was to get new tractors. But he wasn’t sure if that was it. He looked at his repair records and it didn’t seem like age was the problem, it seemed like lack of maintenance was a much bigger  problem. He realized that his workers had no incentive to maintain the tractors; they got paid regardless of whether the tractors were running or were in the shop.

So instead of getting new tractors, he changed his pay structure and offered the operators a bonus for every day they met a specific list of maintenance criteria for the tractors (oil checked, belts and hoses checked, screws tightened, etc). Lo and behold his maintenance costs dropped to a fraction of their previous level.

His solution addressed the cause of the problem and the problem was solved.

This idea of making sure your solution addresses the cause of the problem came to mind for me again the other day when a friend sent a link about an article in Health Affairs concerning the cost of food. I said I had seen something about the study and made a note of it; I wanted to read the original paper and not just the news articles about it. It sounded to me like the logic behind the study’s conclusions was somewhat suspect.

I also said I was about ready to give up trying to argue that you can eat good-for-you food for less than you can eat bad-for-you food, it feels like a losing battle. And part of me thinks I should just let it go, but another part thinks there’s still a case worth making.

The intense focus on food costs implies that the reason most people eat badly is because healthy food is too expensive. If the cost of food is the problem, then the solution is to adjust the pricing structure of food—tax unhealthy food or subsidize healthy food or similar approaches.

But I don’t belive that the reason that people eat French fries instead of green beans is because green beans cost too much. People eat French fries instead of green beans because French fries taste better. And because you can buy them on every street corner. And the reason you can buy them on every street corner is because people will buy them on every street corner. As Brian Wansink notes in Mindless Eating

Companies want to make a profit. If, starting tomorrow at noon, we all went into Taco Bell and Burger King and ordered only salads, their menus would change faster than you could say “Lite Italian.” Within a year, people would be able to eat at a Taco Salad Bell anytime they wanted to make a run for the border. Within another year, there would be a Broccoli King.

The law of supply and demand says that the greater the supply of something, the lower the price. It’s true that some unhealthy foods are cheaper because of government subsidies, but it’s also true that many unhealthy foods are cheap because they are immensely popular, and the economies of scale for producing them are enormous. If you’re selling a million bags of Doritos a day, you don’t need to have much of a profit margin on each one to make the economics work.

Cause and effect.

I see the cause of Americans’ unhealthy diets stemming primarily from the following factors:

[1] Taste Preference
Once you’re used to eating it, junk food taste good. (Though if you stop eating it for long enough and then try to start again, most of it is pretty disgusting.) Most people have grown up eating processed food and have developed a taste for it. Eating healthy food feels like a punishment to them.

[2] Accessibility
Junk food is ubiquitous. If you’re not preparing your own food, getting things on the fly that aren’t unhealthy is a real challenge.

[3] Lack of Skills and Knowledge
People (okay, women) used to grow up learning how to cook. Most of the time people didn’t use recipes, they just made basic meals from basic ingredients. You had to cook if you wanted to eat — there weren’t 24-hour restaurants or convenience stores on every corner. However we now have several generations of people who have grown up eating processed, ready-to-eat foods, and who have never (or rarely) cooked anything from scratch. If you’ve never cooked before, it can be daunting. (Anything you’ve never done before is daunting.) And if you don’t cook on a regular basis, you’re always starting with nothing and have to think about it and expend energy on it and it all feels like a big pain, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

I actually would not put cost on the list at all, because preparing healthy food from scratch is in fact cheaper than buying prepared processed food. And buying healthy food, if you go about it the right way, can be cheaper — often much cheaper — than buying unhealthy food. It also takes less time than eating out. [Note: This link is to an interesting series of experiments that a blogger in California made: he ate every meal in for a month and then ate every meal out for a month and made some comparisons. If you scroll to the bottom of the page linked you’ll see his note about how much longer it took him to eat out than to eat at home.]

As long as you know what you’re doing.

So then people say well yeah, but that’s because you know what to do and you know how to cook. Other people don’t know that.

And that is exactly my point.

The cause of the problem is not that food is too expensive, it’s that people don’t know how to shop for and cook healthy food. They don’t know how to quickly put a good meal on the table using what they have on hand. They don’t know what to buy that’s good for them and cost-effective, they don’t know what to do with food so it doesn’t spoil before they’re able to eat it, they don’t know how to fit cooking and shopping into their schedule. (And obviously there are other issues: accessibility to fresh food and general exhaustion from economic insecurity and all kinds of things that should not be dismissed, but that to a large extent can be worked around.)

And this is not a blame the victim thing, I’m not saying it’s their own fault. How would you know how to shop and eat if you’ve never done it before? I’m just pointing out that money is not the main impediment to people eating better, so money should not be the first solution that gets pointed to. I see increasing knowledge as the solution to people eating poorly.

I’m guessing I’m not going to convince anyone of this any time soon, and maybe I will just give up, but anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a glutton for punishment so I decided to write this post anyway.

And now that I’ve provided this important and wide-ranging exposition on cause and effect, I will range a little wider and leave you with the other thing that the discussion of cause and effect reminded me of, which is the first chapter of one of my other favorite books of all time, Candide.

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in a little neighboring woods, which was called a park, she saw, through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects. She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the desire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

On her way back she happened to meet Candide. She blushed, he blushed also. She wished him a good morning in a flattering tone, he returned the salute, without knowing what he said. The next day, as they were rising from the dinner table, Cunégonde and Candide slipped behind a screen. The miss dropped her handkerchief, the young man picked it up. She innocently took hold of his hand, and he as innocently kissed hers with a warmth, a sensibility, a grace—all very particular: their lips met; their eyes sparkled; their knees trembled; their hands strayed. The Baron chanced to come by; he took note of the cause and effect, and, without hesitation, saluted Candide with some notable kicks on the backside and drove him out of the castle. The lovely Miss Cunégonde fainted away, and, as soon as she came to herself, the Baroness boxed her ears.

2 Responses to “Cause and Effect”

  1. Marcia Says:

    I just finished reading Mindless Eating. Great book! Fascinating how people will eat stale popcorn because it’s there.

  2. Terri Says:

    I see increasing knowledge as the solution to people eating poorly.

    That little sentence really sums up your argument. An argument I happen to agree with completely. Growing up, my favorite breakfast in the world was blueberry muffins. My mom made them “homemade” from a box. It wasn’t until I was out on my own, that I figured out that scratch blueberry muffins were super easy to make and were much healthier than the box variety. Now, I happen to like to cook and bake. If I didn’t have those interests, I probably wouldn’t have searched out how to make scratch muffins.


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