Worrying About All the Wrong Things

The average consumer is 15 times more likely to drown in the bathtub than to die of pesticide-related causes, and they are 1,500 times more likely to die in a car wreck than die of pesticide-related causes. But people still get in their car and drive.
--Jayson Lusk


It's interesting to think through examples where we as humans are both risk-blind and probability-blind. We fear flying and would rather drive, despite overwhelming evidence that the risk of the latter vastly exceeds the risk of the former. In my case, even though I know the relative risks of flying versus driving, I'd still rather drive.

Our minds evolved to their modern form perhaps half a million to a million years ago, long before statistics and probability were conceived as a way of looking at reality, and long before our day-to-day reality became as complex as it currently is. And once you have any familiarity with domains of behavioral finance or the psychology of human decision-making, you quickly absorb the disturbing truth that the decision making process of our own brains is obscure and opaque to us. We don't even understand ourselves.

Back to flying for a second. When you think about what flying really entails--basically waiting in a line to use a kiosk, followed by waiting in another line to get into another line to line up for a shoeless, beltless and semi-dehumanizing kabuki theater of body scans, luggage x-rays, and getting yelled at, followed by another long wait, followed by another line, followed by multiple hours in a cramped seat inside an aluminum tube breathing in other peoples' germs--all of a sudden a long drive doesn't seem so bad. Even when we know all the statistics. Thus it's completely understandable that our brains tell us to avoid the entire experience of flying.

I enjoyed writing that last paragraph, but it pretty much ruined flying for me for a while.

Now, on to pesticides. One thing that's extremely compelling to our hindbrains about PESTICIDE RISK!!1!! is its vividness. It brings to mind rhetorically powerful books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, spunky activists like Erin Brockovich, and infamous pollution disasters like the 1970s-era Love Canal. All you have to do is juxtapose these stories with a few reports of babies with birth defects, or young women with cancer (even better if you have photos), and you can easily hack readers' amygdalae.

And of course not only do we fear multi-syllabic chemicals and pesticides, and we fear even more so the idea that we might actually be eating them.

But then again: How sedentary or active are you? Do you make sure to sleep properly? Do you use seat belts? How many (surprisingly toxic) acetominophen or ibuprofen pills do you take in a given week? How much sugar do you consume in a given week? How much alcohol? And to go "meta" for a moment: How much time do you spend worrying about things that seem worrisome... but aren't?

These would all be questions worth considering long before worrying about pesticides.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not telling you to go out and drink a glass of Roundup. I'm certainly not saying pesticides aren't bad. I'm just asking readers with critical thinking skills to think through what's worth worrying about.


Further Reading:
1) Jayson Lusk is the author of The Food Police, a book well worth reading and discussed here at Casual Kitchen in multiple posts.
2) Risk Savvy by Gerd Giggerenzer
3) For better risk awareness in the healthcare industry, see H. Gilbert Welch's excellent book Less Medicine, More Health.
4) Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


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Forgetting Forgettable Brands

Readers, take a look at these photos of a can of Chock Full O' Nuts brand coffee, front and back:



This was a well-known coffee brand to anyone growing up prior to the 1970s or early 80s. Millennials, however, have never heard of this brand. And Gen Z will need trigger warnings before they learn what coffee is.

Imagine if you were CEO of the consumer products company that bought this brand[1] right before an entire generational turnover in coffee buyers, and, to your horror, that next generation of coffee consumers had absolutely no institutional memory of your brand of coffee. So much so that they needed to be told that this is coffee.

Also, keep in mind: we're in the OMG PEANUT! era, which explains why this company feels the need to inform us this product "contains no nuts."

Worse still, because it doesn't cost twice as much and say "fair trade" or "sustainable" somewhere on the label, earnest young consumers will assume this coffee was either harvested by slaves, packaged by a company that literally hates the planet, or both.

At the end of the day, this is a can of unremarkable commodity arabica coffee, little different from any of the other brands sitting on the shelf next to it--including the much lower-priced store brand. Readers here at CK know this and are quick to use this to their advantage, buying this commodity coffee when on sale at significant discounts, and not buying it when not.

But to a consumer products company--or to an investor in a consumer products company--this is an unmitigated disaster. New consumers don't even know what this product is. The brand has no value to them.

Keep this in mind, as both a consumer and an investor, as you navigate the consumer products landscape.


[1] The (current) owner of Chock Full O' Nuts coffee is the Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group, a privately-owned Italian company that owns several coffee brands including Hill Bros, Chase and Sanborn and others.




You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Frugality and Tradeoffs

Is frugality always worth it? Is it always worth it to trade your time to save money?

And at what point does frugality simply become not worth it?

One of the interesting ironies of frugality is if you get really good at it, you get to a point where you don't have to do it any more. You'll have plenty of money left over because you're using that money as efficiently as possible.

Which then leaves you with a new decision layer: what types of frugality are worth it relative to the tradeoffs in time required?

Grocery shopping gives us an excellent example of this decision layer: A competent frugalista will reduce his or her grocery bill to a point where it takes up a smaller and smaller portion of the household budget. Then, all of a sudden, it stops being worth it to invest an extra 25 minutes driving to another grocery store to buy a couple of cheaper items there. The few bucks you save stops being worth it.

Now, granted, some frugality skills become automatic and thus require no effort. Like buying lower cost unbranded or store brand items. After all, the less expensive product is right there, buying it requires no extra effort. Further, some frugality techniques may remain worthwhile because they offer sustained payoffs. Examples here would be a one-time phone call every few years to renegotiate a cellphone or cable bill, or a quick call to tweak coverage on an insurance bill. That phone call could save you hundreds of dollars a year for years.

And then there are big-ticket frugality decisions that always stay worth it. Replacing a high fee mutual fund with a near-zero fee index fund is a prime example here. This single decision can save you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of an investing career, and the savings differential grows as your assets grow.

In our home we are grappling with this new decision layer too, and I finding I'm retaining the frugality habits I do automatically and habitually, the ones that come naturally to me and don't require any thinking or extra cognitive energy. And then I try to maintain any frugality habit that saves me both money and time, so I can entirely sidestep the money/time tradeoff above. And this often involves avoiding shopping and avoiding buying things entirely, and re-allocating that time to things I'd much rather do. It's another one of frugality's rich ironies.

One last thought. What happens to readers who "get" the value of frugality, learn and then master it… and then master it so well that they don't really need to be frugal any more?

They stop reading blog posts about frugality! It's an interesting second-order question for frugality and budget bloggers to think about.


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You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Triggered to Pay Extra

There's a new field of battle in the chess game between consumers vs the companies who sell to us. Have you noticed how easily consumers fall for words like:

Sustainable
Ethical
Green
Baby-Friendly
Chemical-Free

These words are magical. All you have to do is wave a few of them in front of consumers and they instantly say "Ooh, ooh! Can I pay extra?"

We're teaching a brand new generation of consumers to respond autonomically to any premium-priced product containing any of these words.

So what company then wouldn't use these words? Words are free! You can as many of them as you want, in any order, anywhere on the package, and you can trigger a meaningful percentage of consumers to pay more for product. Often significantly more.

This reminds me of the post I wrote years ago about a bar of extra ethical chocolate I received, which used a lot of these types of words, along with photos of smiling females meant to represent definitely-not-exploited members of a Bolivia-based cocoa harvest cooperative.

What was shallow and deeply cynical about this chocolate was that you could easily see from the label that most of the ingredients came from totally different countries from where this cooperative was, and worse, all the high-value, highly profitable work--the making of the chocolate itself--was done in Switzerland, thousands of miles away. For all we know the smiling, definitely-not-exploited laborer on the package could have been a stock photo.

With all this in mind, an empowered consumer therefore has to consider a few things. Such as:

1) If a company uses a word on a label, does that make it true?

2) What do these words really mean? ("Chemical-free" would be a good place to start.)

3) Are these words really any different from vacuous marketing words from prior generations, like "heart-healthy" or one of my personal favorites: "a good source of seven vitamins and minerals"?

4) Have you ever seen a product with marketing copy that said "Unsustainable" or "Unethical" or "Baby-Unfriendly"?

And finally:

5) What price premium are you willing to pay for words? Will you pay double? Triple? Quadruple? Where is your limit?

Readers, what do you think?


You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

All the Things You Can’t Do -- Instead of All the Things You Can

Peter Drucker, in his seminal book The Effective Executive, makes an arresting point about focusing on what you can do rather than what you can't:

"Most executives I know in government, in the hospital, in a business, know all the things they cannot do. They are only too conscious of what the boss won't let them do, of what company policy won't let them do, of what the government won't let them do. As a result, they waste their time and their strengths complaining about the things they cannot do anything about.

Effective executives are of course also concerned with limitations. But it is amazing how many things they find that can be done and are worth while doing. While the others complain about their inability to do anything, the effective executives go ahead and do."

We see this same dynamic in many of the life domains we discuss here at Casual Kitchen--of how far too many people give away their power, complaining about things totally outside their circle of control, rather than taking specific action inside their circle of control.

Some examples:

1) Complaining about greedy food companies trying to make us all fat--instead of thinking about what specific actions you can take to help your family eat healthier.

2) Raging about the political environment, or holding generalized negative feelings about those idiots in that other party who are all total idiots. Usually this is a direct function of consuming too much media. Remember! The media's function is not to inform you, it's to capture your attention by inducing rage or fear.

2a) Related: Letting a certain orange-colored President derange you, letting him live rent-free in your head, letting him make you mad from thousands of miles away. Instead of impotently shaking your fist at him on Twitter, you could be directly and positively impacting the people right around you, right now.

3) Complaining that the investing game is rigged (because of "high frequency trading" or "rich insiders" or whatever reason), rather than taking action yourself by improving your own investing game and getting better at it. As with politics, the investing realm is cruel to those who overreact to the media. Also, an innocent question about your personal circle of control: What's the last personal finance book you read? What is the most recent concrete step you've taken to improve your family's financial footing?

4) One of the more pernicious traps of modernity: fooling ourselves into thinking we're taking action by reading and talking about things, rather than actually doing them. We get the illusion of taking action with none of the results. I wrote about one painful example of this on my writing blog, about an acquaintance who talked about a novel he would someday write. Unfortunately, his novel never existed in reality--it only existed in an idealized state in his imagination.

"The assertion that 'somebody else will not let me do anything' should always be suspected as a cover-up for inertia. But even where the situation does set limitations--and everyone lives and works within rather stringent limitations--there are usually important, meaningful, pertinent things that can be done. The effective executive looks for them. If he starts out with the question: 'What can I do?' he is almost certain to find that he can actually do much more than he has time and resources for."

And he (or she!) can do much, much more than all the people sitting around complaining. Put together.


READ NEXT: Money Sundays: Is Looking For Tax-Efficient Investments Icky? Or Intelligent?

AND: The Official YMOYL Reading List






You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Major Media Food Writing Is Now Officially Dead. Here's the Guy Who Killed It.

Want to know what the labor market looks like for food writing? Have a good look at this job "opportunity" at Epicurious for an aspiring food writer:

So far, so good. But here's where it begins to get ... depressing:

...So, this is three jobs, then? Maybe four.
"Links to published work" ... for someone "who is at the beginning of her/his career"?

At this point, this poor un-self-aware gentleman and his "amazing job" began to receive severe blowback.
This tweet was particularly blunt:
And then... things got serious:

There's an old saying: "Never go inside a sausage factory, you might see how the sausage is made." Well, major food media is sausage--and now we've had a good long look at exactly how it's made: on the backs of people working "amazing jobs" like this.

This ought to shatter any serious reader's interest in Epicurious as a site, and perhaps also shatter any reader's interest in any of Conde Nast's publications.


Footnotes:
A list of Conde Nast publications:

Allure
Architectural Digest
Ars Technica
Backchannel
Bon Appétit
Brides
Condé Nast Traveler
Epicurious
Glamour
Golf Digest
GQ
Pitchfork
Self
Teen Vogue
The New Yorker
Vanity Fair
Vogue
W
Wired


You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!

Neomania


neomania [nee oh MAY nee uh] noun; An obsession with the new.

Neomania is disease of modernity. And in fact the most telling examples of neomania usually involve tech gadgets. Ask any iPhone owner, especially while he's lining up outside an Apple store excitedly waiting to be separated from a thousand dollars.

But neomania exists in the world of food too. It appears in ingredient bragging, a topic we've discussed previously here at Casual Kitchen. It seems so cool to be the first food blogger to share some exotic-sounding ingredient with your readers. For example, ten years ago, if you were one of the early bloggers to offer a recipe featuring "garlic scapes" you were too cool for school! You were in the know, ahead of everybody else.

What about neomania in restaurants? I know I unfairly pick on New Yorkers all the time here, but New York City is simply loaded with people obsessed with going to the latest restaurant. And since restaurants in New York City have an 80% fail rate within five years, neomaniac New Yorkers always have an unlimited supply of the "new" to chase.

Travel? Yep. If you're the first person in your circle to go somewhere, you get tremendous status heirarchy points. First among your friends to visit Medellin? Check. First to Iceland? Check. Bali? Laos? Tibet? Check. Another bonus: trendy locations go in and out of fashion over the years, so when a hip tourist location goes from new to old to new again, you can say you went there before it was cool--and be right twice!

What's consistently depressing about neomania is how within months of a thing being new, it's quickly no longer new, and we contemptuously roll our eyes at things we recently thought were amazing. You might be too cool for school if you were early to the garlic scapes trend, but heaven help you if you were late to it. Borrrr-ing!!

Think about various trendy concepts in the restaurant industry: sea foam, lobster ravioli, avocado toast, or, for the beverage neomaniacs among you, overpriced "mules" served up in a distinctive copper cup. And think about how, if we look back honestly at the trumpeting of these experiences when they were trendy, how we all now feel vaguely sheepish having participated in the neomania when it happened: how we wish we hadn't written that me-too recipe featuring garlic scapes, just like everyone else did at the same time. How we wish we hadn't paid $15 for that mule in the trendy copper mug in that trendy upscale bar. And how we'd rather forget all about that time we paid $42 for an entree of "scallops and sea foam" at some restaurant whose name we can barely remember... that isn't even in business any more.

Neomania in cooking
There's one instance where I find neomania to be particularly offensive: when I see a perfectly perfect recipe appallingly butchered by neomaniacs. One example that comes to mind is taking a flawless, timeless recipe like apple pie or apple crisp, and using some abstruse, expensive neomaniacal new apple variety that nobody's ever heard of [1] when anyone with half a soul knows that in-season, traditional Macintosh apples [2] are the only acceptable variety to use for apple pies and crisps.

Finally, if we extend our time horizon a bit, we can see how neomania has caused us to introduce needless, even harmful elements to our lives. Consider the now-infamous government food pyramid, or worse, things like olestra, a new (and supposedly healthier) oil. I'm not sure which is worse: a set of food recommendations that were exactly, exactly wrong, or a new oil that became infamous for causing anal leakage.

Neomania is a type of infirmity, an illness, because it causes us to shun already-familiar things that work well and chase "new" things that usually don't work at all.

The new is rarely better, but it's always designed to seem so. And it certainly tricks enough of us as we scramble from vacation spot to vacation spot, from ingredient brag to ingredient brag, from new restaurant to newer restaurant, from tech gadget to tech gadget, constantly straining for more, when what we already had worked better all along.


READ NEXT: Is Organic Food Healthier? Or Just Another Aspirational Product?
AND: A False Referent


[1] The new "Jazz" apple variety comes to mind, itself ironically a cross of two other neomaniacal apples: Royal Gala and Braeburn.

[2] Okay, maybe Cortlands in a pinch.




You can help support the work I do here at Casual Kitchen by visiting Amazon via any link on this site. Amazon pays a small commission to me based on whatever purchase you make on that visit, and it's at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

And, if you are interested at all in cryptocurrencies, yet another way you can help support my work here is to use this link to open up your own cryptocurrency account at Coinbase. I will receive a small affiliate commission with each opened account. Once again, thank you for your support!