Sunday, September 20, 2009

Getting accurate information to market - by Judge Jim Gray

In many ways, one of the functions of government is to establish systems whereby accurate information can get out into the marketplace. What people do with the information most of the time should be none of the government’s business, but the information should be publicly available. Along those lines, Abraham Lincoln showed his faith that the public would choose wisely when given accurate information when he said: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

There is now an opportunity to put this faith into practice, because a bill is pending in Washington that would require restaurant chains that have more than 20 outlets conspicuously to list the number of calories that are found in their regular menu items. We should all contact our representatives in Washington in support of this measure. California already has a similar law on its books that is scheduled to go into effect in 2011.

Once it is passed into law nationally, that should be sufficient. We do not need — nor want — to establish the “food police,” although there should be some sanctions for knowingly posting false information. And we should not impose extra taxes on high-calorie, high-fat or sugary foods. Just placing accurate information conspicuously in the marketplace is sufficient.

What would happen if this occurs? As a matter of course, one restaurant chain that serves lower calorie foods, whether fast food or otherwise, will soon take advantage of the situation, and begin to advertise that their hamburgers, tacos, etc. taste just as good or better than their competitor’s, but have only two-thirds the saturated fat or calories. Or whatever.

Will everyone stop going to the places with the less healthy choices? No, at least not at the beginning. Obviously this action will affect some people more than others. And I acknowledge that the lower fat and slightly higher cost experiment at McDonald’s with the McLean’s burgers about a decade ago was not successful. But slowly people’s awareness and understanding have been changing. Those changes will continue, and this legislation will hasten the process. Soon not only will it be fashionable to choose more healthy meals, it will also become more generally accepted.

Why would a Libertarian favor this legislation? Why not simply rely upon adults to make nutrition decisions for themselves and their children? In fact, some of my friends said that if I publish this column they would figuratively seek to revoke my Libertarian card. The answer is that I do it because obesity is expensive. And the cost of obesity to all of us is increasing quickly, to the degree that today it accounts for about 9% of national health-care spending, which is up from about 6.5% just a decade ago.

Similar to the passage of helmet laws for people riding motorcycles, if those riders want to take a risk with their own safety, that would be fine with me — as long as I am not required to pay for their injuries. But in today’s world, the health-care costs are not restricted just to those risk-takers, but are spread to the rest of us as well. Therefore under these circumstances, the public has a right to impose these safety requirements.

The costs for publishing information about the nutrition of the menu items would be almost insignificant. There are several simple computer programs that can easily compute the calorie and fat information, and for restaurant chains that have the same menus, the computation would only have to be done once. Yes, most menus would have to be reprinted, and the boards above the counters at the fast food outlets would have to be supplemented, but these would not be material costs, particularly because there would be a phase-in period. But the benefits could be substantial. So any cost/benefit analysis should come down in favor of taking this action.

But this approach should not simply be restricted to passing laws. Each of us should do what we can to make healthier food choices available for people we are involved with. The first and most obvious place to start is in our schools. If you see that your child’s school still has cafeterias, snack stands or vending machines that sell soda pop, potato chips, cookies and other “foods” high in sugar, calories and fats, use whatever influence you have for those items to be replaced with things like juices, vitamin waters, yogurts, apples and other more healthy alternatives. Yes, many of these more nutritious foods cost somewhat more, and have a shorter shelf life, but that is a small price to pay for materially greater health for our children.

Happily, many caring schools have already taken this action, and so have several institutions like the YMCA. But we should also not neglect the snack stands at events like school concerts and recitals, as well as soccer, basketball and little league baseball games.

This will go a long way to put peer pressure in favor of more nutritious eating.

In a similar manner, I am encouraging the managers at my alternative dispute resolution office to stop furnishing potato chips, corn nuts, cookies and other junk food to our clients, and to replace them with more healthy offerings. I have told the story that when I was in junior high school I had a package of corn nuts with almost every lunch. But I had not eaten them since that time, until I retired from the bench and began with my mediation business, where those packages of corn nuts were always there on the tables, just looking at me. So I confess that I sometimes weakened and ate some. But had they not been there, I would have never missed them. So the bottom line is that most people have a weakness, but if caring people “remove us from temptation,” we will all be assisted in making healthier choices.

So please consider doing everyone a favor in this area. Accurate information and a little thoughtful caring can and will go a long way to reduce obesity in us and our children, and will also reduce an appreciable amount of our health-care expenses along the way.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The great Pacific Ocean garbage patch - by Judge Jim Gray

Recently I was shocked to hear of an area in the Pacific Ocean somewhat north of a line between San Francisco and Hawaii that is simply a heap of trash twice the size of Texas! Just as things tend to drift toward the drain in your bathtub when the water is being emptied, this trash has gravitated to this area for decades because of prevailing wind and current conditions.

Could this be true? On occasion, there are stories that are too wild to believe. Maybe this one fits that category, or maybe it doesn’t. Twice the size of Texas is a big area. It sounds unlikely to me, if only because occasional hurricanes have a tendency to move things around a little bit. But people report that they have seen it, and about 90% of the trash is said to be composed of plastic, and the layer of trash varies between 3 inches and 300 feet thick!

Well, after doing some research on plastic, I discovered that it goes into about 225 million tons of products in the world each year. Most of the plastic is manufactured from petroleum, but some also comes from natural gas. So in addition to pollution problems, this has more than just a minor effect on our country’s importation of oil.

And our usage of plastic is increasing. For example, each person in our country consumed an average of 1.6 gallons of bottled water in 1976. That increased to 10.5 gallons in 1993, 22.6 gallons in 2003 and 28.3 gallons in 2006.

As a result, 3.3 billion plastic water bottles were sold in 1997, and 15 billion were sold in 2002. That is a lot of plastic, and the amount is growing, since plastic containers are almost completely replacing those made of glass. In fact, there is even talk of putting expensive wines into plastic bottles.

Since most of the bottled water is consumed away from home, only a small amount of the plastic bottles are recycled, and that rate is decreasing. For example, about 53% of the plastic water bottles were recycled in 1994, but only about 19% were recycled in 2003.

The rest often find their way onto the streets, where many of them eventually flow into drains and out into the ocean.

Today, only 11 states have plastic bottle recycling laws and, of those, only three include plastic water bottles in their programs. They are California, Hawaii and Maine. That is shortsighted, because where there are recycling laws, about four of five bottles are recycled. And in states such as Michigan, which has a return rate of 10 cents per bottle, a full 95% of the bottles are recycled.

When I was growing up, a friend of mine and I routinely went to housing construction sites and picked up the soda bottles, which had a 2-cent return rate. Of course, we did it to make money. By the way, the beer bottles back then did not require a deposit, so we left them alone. Just another example that “Incentives Matter!”

As further proof, we don’t see many aluminum cans littering our cities and highways today, because either the consumer holds onto them for their return value, or various “Dumpster divers” hunt them down and return them for the money.

The same phenomenon explains why used hypodermic needles and syringes are mostly not found on streets and in parks in cities that have needle exchange facilities. As a result, those programs protect people from inadvertently stepping upon a dirty needle and thereby sometimes contracting AIDS or hepatitis!

So why don’t more states have plastic bottle recycling laws? For the same reason: Incentives matter. The water industry knows it will sell more product if the merchants don’t have to charge the return rates, and the beverage industry has more political clout than the environmental groups.

But recycling is a good idea for more reasons than merely cutting down on pollution. For example, the energy saved from making just one aluminum can from a recycled one instead of starting from scratch is enough to power a television set or computer for three hours, or power a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours! And the energy saved from recycling a six-pack of aluminum cans is able to move a standard-sized automobile about five miles.

Similarly, the energy saved from recycling a one-gallon milk jug will power a 100-watt bulb for 11 hours. And recycling a one-foot stack of newspapers will save enough energy to heat a standard-sized home for 17 hours.

So when we see that, of the estimated 28 billion water bottles that are consumed each year in our country, only about 20% of them are recycled, we can see how wasteful we are. And the other 80% either end up in landfills, or as litter that either pollutes our countryside, or ends up in the ocean.

To make matters worse, plastic is not biodegradable, like most of the more natural products. Instead, it is photodegradable, which means that the sun’s rays will make it brittle, similar to what the rays do to the vinyl roof of an automobile. That will cause the plastic to break into smaller pieces, and eventually emerge as a fine dust. But otherwise, it takes decades to break it down further.

So instead of being good stewards of the Earth, we are literally fouling our own nest! And in addition to the pollution issues, many of the birds and fish confuse plastic trash for jellyfish and other food. So when they eat the plastic, the wild beings can’t either digest it or expel it, which means that many of them simply starve to death with their stomachs full of plastic.

All of this is disturbing, but what can we do? Obviously, this is a monumental problem, and each of us is only one person. Nevertheless, we can all help by using recycling programs to the fullest, and also by insisting that legislators from all over the country pass recycling laws. And when asked “paper or plastic,” we can choose paper.

Or better yet, we can form the habit of taking canvas bags with us to do our shopping. And we can also remember to decline using a bag at all when it is not necessary.

In the final analysis, whether this trash dump story is true or not, the problems of plastic trash disposal are enormous. But like with so many other things, the resolution is up to us, and every effort helps!

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of “Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts” (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Take time to donate on Labor Day - by Judge Jim Gray

Many of you will not be home this weekend to receive this greeting because you will be taking a short trip for the Labor Day weekend. Nevertheless, happy Labor Day!

This is one of the heaviest getaway weekends of the year, and everyone appreciates it. But what is the derivation of this holiday, which is always on the first Monday of September?

The holiday originated in Canada in the late 1870s, when labor unions were first successful in establishing a nine-hour work day. By 1882, the festivities spread to the United States, where parades and speeches were held celebrating the contributions of laborers. Then, in 1894, it became a federal holiday, largely in an effort to avoid further labor strife. But over time, the celebrations, where there have been any at all, have placed increasing significance upon economic and civil progress and goals, instead of the contributions of labor.

So now, I suggest we take that process one step further, and ask ourselves every year on this holiday the question of whether our own labors are being well spent, what our individual goals are, and what we stand for as individuals. Another way of addressing this is to anticipate what would accurately be said about us at our memorial services after we leave this earth, or what would be placed on our tombstones.

In that regard, I am reminded of an actual tombstone I once saw at a Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibit in Chicago that had inscribed on it a recipe for an apple pie. Then below it were inscribed words like: “Here rests Mary Jones. She said you could have this apple pie recipe ‘over my dead body.’”

But more seriously, do you really think a fitting remembrance of anyone’s life would be a testament like “My yacht was bigger than your yacht”? Or “I accumulated more power than you ever did”?

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had Eva Peron in “Evita” saying “As for fortune, and as for fame . . . they’re an illusion, they are not the solution they promised to be . . . ” Whether this young prima donna ever came close to any such insightful thoughts herself is problematical, but I think the statement attributed to her is correct.

So what is the best thing that can happen to a person here on earth? The answer is not to have wealth, fame, power or even love. Instead, the best thing to have in life is gratification, which is the inward satisfaction and pleasure you can receive by doing things as well as you can. And in that way, to borrow a recruitment slogan from the U.S. Army, you can “Be all you can be.”

To my way of thinking, the No. 1 source of gratification in this world is for people to see their children grow up to be happy, well-adjusted and thriving. Of course, many other things can also provide lasting gratification, such as contributing to a loving relationship; giving best efforts in your work; creating wonderful music, poetry or other art; and donating your time, talents and treasure to helping others. That explains why so many “starving artists” actually are still genuinely happy, and also how the phrase “you only really own something when you give it away” came into being. Even better would be to make donations anonymously, which is actually a heavy part of many religious traditions.

So join with me in creating a new tradition in our lives, and that of our families and friends. Monday, and every Labor Day that follows, stop and think about your life and how it is going. What are your true passions? What are the things that gratify you and give meaning to your special and individual life? And what are you doing to pursue those things?

You don’t have to be a Bill Gates and create a philanthropic foundation all on your own. There are lots of genuinely worthwhile institutions that can use your own special help. Some of them that have been discussed previously in this column are Canyon Acres (which provides a place of learning for mentally disabled children, and a welcome respite for their parents), the Orange County Rescue Mission (which has a fabulous facility for the homeless, combined with a plan that helps them to become self-sufficient), the Heritage Museum (which shows young children what it was like to live in Orange County in the early 1900s) and Good Will (which is establishing low-cost housing for the mentally ill).

To those, I add another wonderful organization that is just in the initial stages of establishing a campus for brain-injured adults. It is called B.R.A.I.N., which stands for Brain Rehabilitation And Injury Network. Their goal is to establish a place where these mentally fragile people can live, work and play up to the highest level of their abilities. Currently there is no place in California that I know of that would provide such a refuge, and this need is dramatically increasing with the return of brain-injured GIs from the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The sponsors of B.R.A.I.N. are having a concert Oct. 1 to raise awareness to the need of building such a long-term facility in Southern California for the brain-injured, and to raise funds to lay the groundwork for such a facility. If you are interested in supporting this worthwhile cause, call Sue or Jerry Rueb at (714) 625-7225, or visit

Otherwise, there are opportunities all around you in your own neighborhood to help others. Many of your neighbors are silently living with pain and grief, and could really use a friend who is simply a good listener. In fact, I am passing along a challenge I recently received in church for us to knock on the door of the houses of neighbors that we don’t know, and invite them over for dinner. This is a wonderful suggestion. My wife and I are going to do it, and you might want to do it as well. It could very well help to give you the gratification you are seeking.

So, once again, happy Labor Day! Life is good — particularly if we use it to further the things that really matter.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and the author of “Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts.” He can be contacted at or via his website at . This is his 100th column for the Pilot.