April 22, 2011

Internet Kids' Games as Junk Food Advertising

Myriad processed-food conglomerates including General Mills, Unilever (which also owns Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream), Post Foods, Kraft and Kellogg's, have pledged to stop or significantly limit their marketing of less healthy options to kids. But is seems that few if any of these companies are actually sticking to their word. As this excellent investigative report in the NYT reveals, it seems all (except for perhaps Kraft, which is not mentioned) are finding new ways to market junk food to kids: Free online video games.

I blogged on this issue once before. So instead of repeating myself, you can read that piece here.

This is a perfect example of a nefarious side effect of the nominally "free" internet. And it's hard to come up with a solution to the problem, as my previous blog argues. The causes of child obesity are systemic socioeconomic forces. Essentially, the poorer a child is nowadays in the U.S., the higher his or her chances are of being--and remaining--obese into adulthood. As the NYT article reports via an interview at a charter school on the highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that strives to give disadvantaged kids a good education:

"Administrators at the school say students face many challenges to maintaining good diets: busy, low-income families, and lots of marketing. “They’re home alone, with no one to give them direction. They’re very susceptible to this marketing,” said the principal, Chala Salisbury. “What we’re seeing is children who are lethargic, some really heavy, but most on the heavy side. Most of the reason is diet.” 
Even some critics of the food industry say parents have some responsibility to limit access to marketing and to simply say no to pleas for junk food. But they also say that the aggressive pitches wind up pitting parents against children and, at the least, putting them in a position of constantly saying no."

Ultimately, we need to foster a society in which large corporations do not prey on disadvantaged children, whose numbers are unfortunately continuing to grow as fewer and fewer good middle class jobs remain in this country. But achieving this vision means to have the courage to do what is necessary to make this country great once again. And that will require a serious commitment from not just business, but citizens and their elected representatives.

Indeed, citizens must absolutely shop more responsibly, and parents must absolutely parent more responsibly, while legislators and regulators valiantly uphold the peoples' interest over corporate interests. Without that kind of concerted collective effort, there is little hope corporations will generally uphold their end of the great moral responsibility our free-market social contract now cedes to them.

April 17, 2011

B-School Mission Drift

Here's a fascinating investigative piece in the NYT (with several related pieces in the Chronicle) on the lack of rigor in most undergraduate business programs, i.e., outside the top 50
"Paul M. Mason does not give his business students the same exams he gave 10 or 15 years ago. “Not many of them would pass,” he says. 
Dr. Mason, who teaches economics at the University of North Florida, believes his students are just as intelligent as they’ve always been. But many of them don’t read their textbooks, or do much of anything else that their parents would have called studying. “We used to complain that K-12 schools didn’t hold students to high standards,” he says with a sigh. “And here we are doing the same thing ourselves.” 
That might sound like a kids-these-days lament, but all evidence suggests that student disengagement is at its worst in Dr. Mason’s domain: undergraduate business education. 
Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than students in every other major. 
This is not a small corner of academe. The family of majors under the business umbrella — including finance, accounting, marketing, management and “general business” — accounts for just over 20 percent, or more than 325,000, of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States, making it the most popular field of study."
The piece goes on to suggest ways to counteract this downward trend in business school rigor, based on some of the most admired programs. The upshot is there should be more of an emphasis on writing and rigor, particularly in core liberal liberal arts areas such as history, political science and philosophy. 

As I have myself argued in the Chronicle, Henry Mintzberg, a professor at McGill University, claims the mission of business school should be "to educate people, not to give them a lot of functional business stuff.” He says it's a “travesty” to offer vocational fields like finance or marketing to 18-year-olds. Instead, he supports a humanistic, multidisciplinary model of management education.

I would add, that the rather hollow vocational mission of traditional business degree programs contributes to student disengagement with their education. Bringing philosophy into such programs, starting with required stand-alone courses in business and society and professional ethics, can be an excellent start. But these courses should be taught by professors with the appropriate philosophical degrees. This means more business schools need to follow the example of their more highly-regarded counterparts  such as Babson, which counts numerous liberal arts professors among its faculty.http://www.businessadministrationdegree.net/

April 3, 2011

The News We Deserve

Here is my op-ed on the New York Times' new online subscription terms. Essentially, it's a piece on journalistic consumer ethics. Here are the first paragraphs:
"Last week, the New York Times decided to start charging $15 a month for online subscriptions, discontinuing unlimited free access to its pages. The Onion sardonically called this bold plan to actually charge people money for consuming goods and services a groundbreaking new business model. It concluded that if the plan fails, it would frankly be better that The New York Times not exist in a world where people are unwilling to pay the price of a movie ticket for a monthly online subscription.
I tend to share this view. Because essentially, we get the news we deserve. 
I hear many people today, often rather educated as they tend to read the Times regularly, complaining about this new charge, saying that they will not pay it. This confounds and infuriates me. Since when does one expect to get something for nothing? The truth is that free online access to journalism is far from free. As a result, newspapers are crumbling because they cannot generate enough ad revenue to continue providing quality investigative journalism. 
Geography is not yet history. That is to say, we cannot report everything from desktops. We still -- and will surely always -- need to rely on reporters out in the field doing in-depth investigations. And as the world gets increasingly complex and interconnected, we need more of this, not less."
         Read more.

We all share an obligation here to preserve quality journalism. For the freedom and protections our liberal democracy affords require an informed citizenry. And they aren't free. But at $15 a month, that's about as close to free as it's going to get. So if you use the NYT enough to soon run up against a web page requiring you to subscribe, do the right thing for yourself, and for democracy.