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Insights 14: 22 April 2016
The Health of the State - Panel Discussion on 20 April 2016
The Health of the State - download PDF
Read Roger Partridge's column in the NBR - The plight of those left behind

Junk science on junk food
Jenesa Jeram | Policy Analyst |
If you read a headline claiming chocolate can help you lose weight, what would be your first reaction?
Based on their own experience, some people may be sceptical. Some may even be sceptical enough to check out the research themselves. But it’s likely most won’t.
Not even those whose job it is to inform the general public.
In a great example of media trolling, journalist John Bohannon purposely designed a shoddy science experiment. We’re talking classic methodological warning signs, like having a small sample size, looking at too many variables, and featuring in a pay-to-publish journal.
The study concluded that – as you may have guessed – chocolate may help you lose weight. You shouldn’t need a PhD in science to question whether this study is legitimate.
Nevertheless, the media unquestioningly published the results of the study – as Bohannon knew they would.
Bohannon’s point was that in today’s media environment, it is too easy for bad science to be reported and believed. With pressing deadlines and an incentive for sensationalism, sometimes reading the press release is all a journalist has time to muster.
This is a problem. The only thing worse would be if bad science became the basis for equally bad policy. And there is a real risk of that.
This is the very subject of The Health of the State, The New Zealand Initiative’s latest report on public health and lifestyle regulations.
The report looks at current regulations like those around e-cigarettes, as well as policies commonly advocated for, such as sugar taxes, or more restrictions on alcohol advertising.
It finds that a lot of the studies which form the evidence base of these regulations are methodologically flawed. Further, there are some studies which are robust, but don’t actually prove what policy advocates say they prove.
For example, proving a soda tax reduces a household spending on soda is not the same as proving a soda tax will reduce obesity.
The Health of the State showcases the things that can go wrong when interpreting health studies, making the limitations on individual choice even more morally contestable.
These regulations need to be challenged. A good start would be for the government to consistently apply quality cost-benefit analysis. Although that alone won’t count the costs to individual liberty.
Until then, I guess few people would object too loudly if the government was to subsidise chocolate.
Download The Health of the State report and two-page summary here.

Scream it from the rooftops: Supply!
Jason Krupp | Research Fellow |
With Auckland’s housing crisis now a permanent feature on the Herald’s front page, it is worth restating how this problem started: not enough homes were built to keep up with natural demand. When too many buyers chase too few goods, prices have to rise. It is a basic fundamental of economics, but one that gets lost in the rolling maul that sometimes passes for a debate around how to fix the housing problem.

If you are looking for reassurance that this diagnosis is correct, consider a recent infographic published by the Wall Street Journal, which we have made our Graph of the Week. Quite simply, it shows the US cities that expanded their residential capacity the least have the highest house prices.

San Jose, for example, saw home values increase by over 180% between 1980 and 2010, while the city’s developed residential area only increased by 30%. The phenomenon is repeated in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, albeit to a slightly lesser degree.

Conversely, cities like Phoenix, Atlanta, and Las Vegas experienced the opposite. There, values rose between 10% and 30% in the period due to significant expansion in residential housing capacity. In the case of Austin and Raleigh by over 200%.

It is a powerful graph and one that needs to be shown to local and central policymakers. If, as publicly stated, they are serious about tackling the high cost of housing, then they need to focus their attention on measures that free supply.

Practically, that means lifting artificial density restrictions in the inner city, but also freeing land at the edge of cities for housing. There is not a shred of evidence that shows compact city planning has improved housing affordability, but plenty to suggest it has made the problem worse.

Infrastructure investment is an important consideration. Auckland planners proudly state that the city has seven years of greenfields land available for development under the Unitary Plan. The point of building houses in Pukekohe or Warkworth is questionable if the people living there cannot access the areas of the city where the agglomeration returns are the greatest. 

All of this has of course been said before. But it bears repeating over and over until the message that we need to free up supply to make houses affordable sinks in. 

Beware the will of the interwebs
Khyaati Acharya | Research Assistant |
Had Telecom left its renaming to the online world, it is unlikely ‘Spark’ would have been the name chosen. After all, this is a community whose vernacular specialises in cat videos, with an attention span that rarely exceeds 160 characters. Leaving major rebranding decisions to the fate of the internet democracy doesn’t often make for a bulletproof corporate strategy.

If you’re reading this with a quizzical brow, recall the recent debacle in which Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) put the naming of their brand-spanking-new £200 million polar research vessel to an internet poll.

The triumphant moniker, with a whopping 124,000 votes and an almost 90,000 lead on the next contender, was none other than RRS Boaty McBoatface. Try saying that with a straight face.

Nothing mocks conservative British pomp more than a ludicrous name for an otherwise respectable research vessel.

The sensationalised phenomenon has polarised the cyber world. Twitterati are gleefully praising the power of internet democracy, creating abundant memes and GIFs rejoicing the absurd choice. Meanwhile others, like Spiked-Online editor Brendan O’Neill, have taken great offence, lamenting the demise of society as we know it and mourning the ushering in of a culturally-deprived generation.

O’Neill writes, with a pen dipped in acid, “The Boaty McBoatface thing speaks to the rise of a new post-modern generation that has absolutely no sense of history or depth or meaning”.

Perhaps he’s right. But does the decision really warrant such hyperbolised vexation? Or are we feigning surprise and outrage? This is the mysterious interwebs after all, a virtual community that scarcely abides by the (mostly) sensible etiquette of the physical world.

That is what you get when you put a decision to the democratic will of the internet.

And what’s the worst that can happen? It is just a silly name. Besides, NERC has conceded it is unlikely to endorse the popular choice after it became evident the internet was not to settle upon a title considered more befitting of such a vessel.

If anything, the event has made for a brilliant PR campaign for NERC. Perhaps the masses will more keenly support NERCs mission with such a comically-dubbed vessel?

The consequences here aren’t so bad. But it is a cautionary tale of what should – and should not – be left to online popular opinion. If I were to lobby my boss to change the name of this organisation, it’s unlikely he’d leave it to an internet poll…

On The Record
All Things Considered
  • Graph of the Week: Housing - what can be done?
  • When you think of Hershey's, you probably think of chocolate bars, or the iconic Hershey's Kisses. You probably don't think of meat bars. This is not a drill - the company plans to introduce jerky, in flavours such as basil citrus and pineapple orange. We'll take the chocolate, thanks...
  • Forget a 'New York minute' - what happens in a 2016 internet minute
  • Personally, this correspondent is pleased that 'athleisure' has been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, amongst others...
  • Happy birthday, Your Majesty
  • Why not take a look back, 30 years ago, to 1986?
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