Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Political calculus

Stan Collender, who is not exactly a socialist, (see here if you need convincing), writing in Forbes Magazine, which is not exactly Pravda, thinks the Republican Cut, Cut, Cut! bill is insane. It will blow out the federal debt by billions of dollars, making it impossible to invest in necessary infrastructure and forcing massive cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And no, it will not stimulate economic growth, or increase wages. Yeah, yeah, Krugman is a liberal so why believe him just because he has  that stupid Nobel Prize.

So you're thinking, "I don't care, I want a tax cut." Well you aren't going to get one. The Republican bill raises federal income taxes and reduces income for people making less than $70,000/year, and does nothing for people making less than $200,000/year. All of the tax cuts go to wealthy people and mostly to extremely wealthy people.

Now, this probably doesn't sound like the greatest political calculation. But you might be wrong about that. The tax increases on moderate income people won't become apparent for a few years; and that cuts in Medicare won't happen right away either. Because capitalists are stupid, if the bill passes the stock market will stay bubbly and since we're already in a growth phase that will likely continue for a while. The catastrophe may not be obvious to voters by November of next year, and if Collender and Krugman are telling them to be worried that will be a fart in a whirlwind.

However, 2018 is likely to be a bad election cycle for them after which it's just going to get worse. Ultimately, this will be politically, as well as economically, catastrophic. So why are they in such haste to do it?

That's easy. It's because their true constituency is the wealthy donor class, led by the Koch brothers. They are under orders. And they won't have to worry about the political catastrophe if the U.S. is no longer a republic, which is also part of the agenda. So maybe they aren't so insane after all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ubermensch


I've mentioned here before the rapid advances in precise gene editing. We're getting close to being able to correct specific genetic defects in germ line cells. George Church (who was my high school classmate for two years until they kicked me out) offers a fairly technical discussion of the state of the art. He is quite solicitous of people who have moral objections to the destruction of human embryos, however sincere I don't know, but his point is that fixing germ line cells results in fewer destroyed embryos than the current technology, which is to test gametes for genetic defects and discard the bad ones.

The other serious ethical cloud over germ line editing is that you could create designer babies -- super intelligent, athletic, long lived, tall, physically beautiful, whatever. Actually we are very far from that and it might never be really feasible for two reasons. First, the phenotype -- the nature of the mature organism -- depends on the interaction of the generic heritage with the environment, with all of the experiences of the organism as it matures. A baby designed for a particular environment might not give you the results you want if the environment is a bit off, and it isn't fully controllable. Another reason is that these sorts of qualities aren't determined by a single gene either. They are really the result of complex interactions among many genetic traits and the environment, and we are a long way from even beginning to figure out the picture of what predisposes a baby to being smart -- not to mention there are various ways of being smart.

In fact optimizing for one characteristic could mean creating bad results in other areas. Maybe your supersmart baby will turn out to be a psychopath, or your designer NBA superstar will drop dead at age 42. George doesn't seem to worried about any of this but he does suggest that if you're trying to fix a defect, you will probably aim for better than average. And that's really an ethical quagmire. Where is the line between fixing a defect and making a person better than average? What height or IQ or facial deformity crosses the line from being on the short side or not the brightest bulb on the tree or plain looking, which it would not be ethical to fix, to having a defect or disability that is ethically fixable?

Bryan Cwik is worried about the ethical problems of designing clinical trials for germ line editing, and it does seem daunting. You have to follow the baby for a lifetime, and the offspring and probably grand offspring, which they might not consent to. As a matter of fact, none of them ever consented to the procedure in the first place.

However, my view is that all of this hand wringing is for nought because no matter what politicians or scientists or ethics panels in the U.S. think, if it looks like it's possible to create a superbaby, somebody is going to do it. There are rich people in every corner of the earth who will want it, won't have scruples, and will pay for it. It will happen.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Judge Moore


It seems that highly credible reports of molesting a 14-year-old girl are enough to make some conservative pundits and maybe a couple of senators think that the subject should not be a U.S. senator. On the other hand a lot of them don't think so. However, Roy Moore was obviously not qualified to be a U.S. senator long before we found out any of this.

He is a raging bigot and a Christian dominionist whose political objective is to impose religious tyranny on the nation. He has twice been removed from the bench for flouting the constitution of the United States. All of that was more than fine with the majority of Alabama voters, it's what they want in a Senator. As DR Tucker reminds us, they live in an alternative reality. The allegations can't be true because they were reported by the Washington Post, and anyway they can't be true because the voters don't want them to be true. As David Roberts writes (and as quoted by Tucker):

The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.
The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute. 
In their place, the right has created its own parallel set of institutions, most notably its own media ecosystem. But the right’s institutions are not of the same kind as the ones they seek to displace. Mainstream scientists and journalists see themselves as beholden to values and standards that transcend party or faction. They try to separate truth from tribal interests and have developed various guild rules and procedures to help do that. They see themselves as neutral arbiters, even if they do not always uphold that ideal in practice. . . .
But the right did not want better neutral arbiters. The institutions it built scarcely made any pretense of transcending faction; they are of and for the right. There is nominal separation of conservative media from conservative politicians, think tanks, and lobbyists, but in practice, they are all part of the conservative movement. They are prosecuting its interests; that is the ur-goal.
Indeed, the far right rejects the very idea of neutral, binding arbiters; there is only Us and Them, only a zero-sum contest for resources. That mindset leads to what I call “tribal epistemology” — the systematic conflation of what is true with what is good for the tribe.
Hear, hear. This is not symmetrical. No, both sides don't do it. They exist in different epistemological universes, one the legacy of the Enlightenment, the other the legacy of the 12th Century. That's where we are in this country.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Post Truth

John Ehrenreich in Slate has an interesting essay on why conservatives are more likely to believe stuff that isn't true. This is actually something of a tautology because believing stuff that isn't true is more or less the definition of "conservative" nowadays, but I suppose it's worth asking how it got that way. Excerpt:

[A]t the most basic level, conservatives and liberals seem to hold different beliefs about what constitutes “truth.” Finding facts and pursuing evidence and trusting science is part of liberal ideology itself. For many conservatives, faith and intuition and trust in revealed truth appear as equally valid sources of truth.
Ehrenreich associates this psychological tendency with submission to authority, in other words conservatives tend to believe what people in authority (within their world) tell them to believe. They believe their preachers, and Donald Trump, for example. In general, they are less inclined to critical thinking and more inclined to tribalism and motivated reasoning. During the election, many purveyors of fake news who were only in it for the clicks and the money tried putting out fakery that might appeal to both Democrats and Republicans; but only the pro-Trump material got results. You will never see the equivalent of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria pedophilia ring hoax, or birtherism, or "death panels," get over on liberals. 

True, some people on both the left and right thought the official story of the 9/11 attack was fake, and some people -- again, left and right -- continue to doubt the official account of the Kennedy assassination. In my view what we are told about these events is more or less the truth, though likely incomplete; but doubt about these events is not nearly as preposterous as birtherism or pizzagate.

We have a problem, however, if some 35-40% of the population is simply never going to believe certain plain facts. What happens when Robert Mueller proves the corruption of the Trump campaign and the candidate, and they simply won't believe it? 


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Deplorables


So a year ago we woke to the horrific, unbelievable reality of a candidate whose electoral rallies were filled with Confederate flags, who exhorted his followers to beat up protesters and reporters from the podium, who flung racist and misogynist insults, who threatened to prosecute his opponent, a manifest idiot and ignoramus with no knowledge or interest in public policy whose promises ranged from inane to impossible, a malignant narcissist whose only evident motivation was power and adulation, a sexual predator, a habitual and remorseless liar, a vulgar repulsive thoroughly evil lunatic, had managed to capture the presidency of the United States.

So obviously I don't think very highly of the Resident. But guess what -- I don't think much of people who voted for him either. Sure, many of them were to some extent victimized by propaganda -- some of it fueled by Russia. Many of them were bamboozled by the phony scandal about Hillary Clinton's e-mails and the relentless campaign of Clinton hatred the corporate media had engaged in for the past two decades. A small number of them, I suppose, really did believe they were going to get their old factory or mining jobs back with a decent wage, health care and a pension. (Though I largely doubt that.)

But mostly, they cheered on the racism. They cheered on the misogyny. They admired the bullying, the insults, the strong man posturing. They wanted to see women and negroes and Mexicans put in their place. They hated Muslims. They were excited by all the idea of beating foreigners and white ascendancy and male privilege. They were indeed deplorable, and so is every single person who still admires and endorses the Trump presidency. Really. You are disgusting. You can fix that. Wake up.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Depths of Depravity


By now you have probably heard about, maybe even read, Dylan Farrow's new story in the New Yorker, "Harvey Weinstein's Army of Spies." In case you are too busy destroying your stash of Miramax DVDs to read the whole thing, it turns out that Weinstein hired "corporate security firms" -- i.e., private spooks including one firm that consists of former Mossad agents -- to try to dig up blackmail material on women he assaulted and reporters who might be inclined to write about it.

Their tactics included assuming false identities, pretending to befriend victims, notably Rose McGowan, or to be victims who were approaching reporters. I don't know if all this makes Weinstein out to be any more of a scumbag than we already know him to be -- presumably if you're a serial sexual predator and you're rich enough you'll invest in whatever it takes to try to get away with it. But this does introduce us to a whole new class of scumbags, including the attorney David Boies who apparently coordinated the whole effort, while simultaneously representing the New York Times. (And the NYT is righteously pissed off about it, BTW.)

There are people who will simply do anything for money. Maybe all this is not illegal, but you know the guy really did assault these women or he wouldn't be hiring you to do this, and once you trick McGowan into thinking you're her friend, you'll know it for damn sure. So you are in the employ of a serial rapist and you are making your living trying to help him cover it up so he can keep doing it. Then you go home at night to your family.

So, not that there was any danger of this happening, but don't hire David Boies.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

General John Kelly is a liar, a racist, and a coward


William Saletan is not actually my favorite writer, but he does a good job on the liar and coward part. Kelly lied about Rep. Frederica Wilson, his lie was exposed and proven to be a lie beyond any doubt. Now he claims to have witnesses who will confirm that something which wasn't actually what he said originally is true, but he won't say who they are or how he knows that they can confirm his claim; whereas the mayor of Miramar, who was present, has come forward to say that Kelly is indeed lying. As Saletan puts it:

Kelly publicly invokes unspecified allegations by anonymous witnesses. If he has witnesses, he should present them. If he won’t put them on the record—or at least specify where and when they claim Wilson made the statements he attributes to her, so that reporters can check out their stories—then he’s just compounding his smear. There’s nothing honorable or trustworthy about claiming to have secret evidence. And it’s particularly damning that Kelly has retreated to unfalsifiable allegations after his falsifiable allegations were discredited.
As for the racist part, perhaps there is room for doubt that there is a racist undertone to Kelly's lies about Rep. Wilson. But there is no room for doubt about this. Kelly told Faux News propagandist  Laura Ingraham:

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it's different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.
Lee of course did not fight for his state, but for the Confederate States of America, a treasonous alliance that existed for the sole purpose of preserving and defending the institution of slavery. His conscience told him to defend slavery, which means that he was not an honorable man. And one demands to know what sort of "compromise" Kelly has in mind about slavery.

Maybe it doesn't shame a four-star general to be a racist. But a liar and a coward? 

Update:  I anticipate someone coming along and claiming that the cause of the Confederacy wasn't really slavery. Read this.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Scum of the earth award

May I have the envelope please? And the winner is: John Kapoor. Actually I was originally going to give it to this schtickdreck, Rhode Island physician (now defrocked) Jerrold Rosenberg. Rosenberg took $188,000 from Kapoor's company to prescribe an opioid formulation containing fentanyl. It is only approved for what's called "breakthrough" cancer pain, which means pain that can't be controlled by more conventional opioid formulations. Since the patients didn't actually have cancer, Rosenberg also had to defraud their insurance companies. The story doesn't say whether any of his patients became opioid addicts, or maybe, you know, died.

Kapoor, who was the founder and CEO of the company, is a billionaire who somehow managed to avoid arrest while 6 of his senior executives are already awaiting trial for bribing doctors in 6 states to do what Rosenberg did. Today they finally grabbed his evil ass and charged him with RICO conspiracy, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and conspiracy to violate the Anti-Kickback law. How about murder, while we're at it?

Just keep in mind that the number 1 priority of the Republican party is to make sure that assholes like these guys don't have to pay taxes. Kapoor is worth $1.8 billion by the way. You know, he's a job creator. A maker, not a taker. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Truth

Ariel Dorfman has an essay in NYRB which says what a lot of people are saying, but says it particularly well. Here's a key paragraph:

There has always been a disturbing strand of anti-intellectualism in American life—the very title of Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book—but never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity, such lack of intellectual curiosity and disregard for rigorous analysis (despite his untested boast that his IQ is “one of the highest,” certainly higher than Obama’s and a host of other worthies’). “The experts are terrible,” Donald Trump said during his campaign. “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.” It is hardly surprising, then, that his administration is over-stocked with know-nothing fundamentalists. Across the board, he has appointed amateurs who are hostile to science and sport obscurantism as a badge of honor. Accordingly, the policies they have adopted are as stultifying as they are noxious.
The noxiousness takes two basic forms. One is the suppression of inquiry and the entombment of truth. Although congress hasn't gone along with all of the administration's proposals, they wanted to drastically cut funding for the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and other key government scientific resources. They have forbidden government scientists from speaking publicly and attending conferences (just today three EPA scientists were barred from a conference here in Rhode Island about Narragansett Bay, because it will include discussion of climate change); scrubbed scientific material from government web sites; and hired non-scientist cranks for scientific positions.

The other form of noxiousness is the resultant killing of people -- workers who will lose safety protections, people who breathe (I assume that includes you) and of course people who live on the planet (also including you) who will be subject to climate catastrophes.

The fact is that modern conservatism is not a socio-political philosophy. It is a set of demonstrably false beliefs. You may have heard about the cub scout who was kicked out of his den for questioning a state senator. Here is his specific sin:

“I was shocked that you co-sponsored a bill to allow domestic violence offenders to continue to own a gun,” Ames said in a question that took more than two minutes. He continued, “Why on earth would you want somebody who beats their wife to have access to a gun?” The event took place not long after the Las Vegas shooting. As part of her answer, Ms. Marble, a Republican from Fort Collins, defended her position on gun ownership, saying that shootings in Las Vegas and Aurora, Colo., happened in so-called gun-free zones, and that “the more guns a society has, the less crime or murders are committed.”

No. The more guns a society has, the more crime or murders are committed. This is an empirical fact,. which you can read all about here. The U.S. already has the most firearms per capita in the world, and our gun-related murder rate is 25 times that of the other wealthy countries. Wayne LaPierre likes to say that "an armed society is a polite society." Uh huh. As the author of the linked study points out, "Offenders take into account the threat posed by their adversaries. Individuals are more likely to have lethal intent if they anticipate that their adversaries will be armed."

But as you know, federal support for public health research on firearms is forbidden. As Dorman puts it, "The administration is obstructing the collection of data and the publication and discussion of research, as if in expectation that inconvenient truths will magically melt away." It's not just the administration. It's conservatism in general. Being a conservative, being a Republican, requires believing what is just not true.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Death Panels


One of our medical students, Vishal Khetpal, has a column in Slate about the "R" word, that is "rationing" of health care. He says we need to do it.

If you've been viewing this space for many years, you know that I used to talk about this quite a lot. One of the most popular tropes of right-wing opponents of government-provided health care, whether we're talking single payer or kludgier methods, is that it will mean "rationing." The horror! The horror!

That was of course supposed to be the single most evilest thing about the Affordable Care Act, that it included death panels that would supposedly decide who would get the privilege of meeting Jesus in the sky. Obviously, it doesn't have any such provision. Nor does it have any rationing, however conceived or implemented. On the contrary, prior to the ACA most policies had lifetime dollar limits. But now they don't. To quote health benefits consultant Ryan Seimers:

On the eve of the ACA, most plans still had a lifetime dollar limit . . . often at $1 million or $2 million. The actual occurrence of a $1 million claimant was very rare. [But now] "No longer did hospitals have to "tap the brakes" as costly care approached $1 million. Specialty drug developers (and their investors) were provided a limitless runway to fund therapies . . . potentially costing $100,00s per year.
He cites surveys showing various insurers facing increases in claims above $1 million of three times or more. You might want to read the whole slideshow to understand the issue.

So there were all sorts of rationing before the ACA -- including annual and lifetime limits. And of course, denial of insurance entirely to people who would likely be expensive. And limited benefit packages -- no vision, no dental, no behavioral health, that sort of thing. There wasn't a group of people in black robes sitting around a table deciding that Pemberton P. Throckmorton of Nutley, New Jersey, must be denied medical treatment. But there were plenty of reasons why Pemberton might be shit out of luck.

The fact is, we condemn people to death in this country every day because they can't afford medical care. The difference now is that thanks to the ACA, we do it to fewer of them. And if we had universal, comprehensive single payer national health care, we'd do it to even fewer.

But -- and this is the part that people have trouble with -- it would be a bit more obvious when it did happen. And it would have to happen. Resources are finite. It is always possible to find ways to spend more money to give desperately sick people a small chance at extending their very unpleasant life by a few days. And there are other demands on society's resources, including investing in improving population health and reducing the prevalence of disease. Health care could easily devour the economy if we let it.

So no, we don't need any panels to rule specifically on the individual fate of Pemberton Throckmorton. But we do need to decide that there are some treatments that just aren't worth the cost. If you're as rich as the Koch brothers, you can still pay for them yourself if you want to, but as a taxpayer, you need to set limits. That's just the way the world works. But as long as we're doing it -- and we are, right now, today -- we should find ways of doing it more fairly and transparently.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Base

There is a great deal I can say about the recent executive orders regarding health insurance, but let's start with this from David Anderson (formerly known as "Richard Mayhew" on Balloon Juice.)

The executive orders basically do three things:

  • Eliminate the cost sharing reduction payments to insurers, which subsidize premiums for low-income individuals
  • Allow people to buy insurance through "associations," which does not meet the minimum benefit standards of the ACA
  • Allow people to buy so-called "limited duration plans" for up to a full year. These also offer limited benefits and can exclude people with pre-existing conditions
There are two basic effects from this. First, it will enable people who are relatively young and healthy to evade buying insurance with the minimum benefit standards. Over time this will have the effect of segregating lower-cost and higher-cost people into separate risk pools. That, along with elimination of the cost-sharing subsidies, will drive up premiums on the ACA exchanges.

Funny thing though -- people with incomes below about $48,000, or families below $98,000, are eligible to receive subsidies for buying ACA policies on the exchanges, and the subsidies are based on cost. So their subsidies will go up along with the rising premiums, and their insurance will remain affordable. The subsidies, of course, come out of tax dollars and so this will increase the federal deficit. However, people with incomes above those amounts do not receive subsidies -- they will bear the full brunt of the premium increases.

By the way, contrary to conventional wisdom, that's where the Trump voters are. Funny thing about that.

The only reason for doing this, of course, is to try to wreck the ACA, since it was stubbornly refusing to wreck itself. In other words, the purpose is to screw people out of spite.

And you don't have to take it from me. Well known Communist Chuck Todd and friends say that these moves, along with other efforts to sabotage the exchanges:

[M]ake a strong case that the Trump administration is deliberately trying to break Obamacare. After all, if fewer people enroll in the marketplaces, premiums will go up and fewer insurers will participate.“Cutting health care subsidies will mean more uninsured in my district. @POTUS promised more access, affordable coverage. This does opposite,” Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., tweeted last night in response to the Trump administration’s subsidy announcement. Trump himself seemed to suggest that he was ending this subsidy to force Democrats to negotiate (which they’re ALREADY doing, given the ongoing negotiations between Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.)
So even if you don't think the ACA is the greatest, why deliberately make things worse? Maybe because you're a psychopath.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Flat Earth Society

I'm at a conference in Baltimore, specifically the International Conference on Communication in Healthcare. I might have something to say about the conference at some point, but today I'm going to talk about, well, today.

I actually got here yesterday. I drove, because by the time I drive an hour to the airport and pay for parking there, and a cab from BWI to here, and the time and money involved, it was just easier. I made excellent time until I got off the highway and onto the Baltimore streets, after which it took me an hour to get to my hotel which was ordinarily only ten blocks away from the Interstate.

I had no idea why the streets were blocked and the whole city gridlocked, until I saw the leading edge of what turned out to be a parade in honor of Columbus day. For this they must have paid a quarter million dollars in police overtime and probably more than that in lost business and truck idling time, to send a parade right down the main street in the heart of the city, blocking all the cross streets long the route as well, and by the way nobody, and I do mean nobody, was watching this stupid parade which consisted of old guys in medieval Italian attire carrying banners and a couple of high school bands.

In case you didn't already know, the story they told you in school was completely false. People in 1492 did not believe the earth was flat. Every sailor knew perfectly well that it was spherical. (Okay, it's only approximately spherical in reality but that's beside the point.) The ancient Greeks knew that and they also knew how big it is. The reason people didn't try to sail west from Europe to China is because they knew that if they tried it, they would run out of provisions and starve long before they got there. Columbus, however, believed that the earth was only 16,000 miles in circumference.

He was of course wrong, and he would indeed have starved to death had he not accidentally run into a continent Europeans didn't know about. (Actually the Scandinavians knew of the existence of what is now eastern Canada but they didn't know the extent of the land mass.)

What followed upon the fortunate blunder of luck fool Christopher Columbus was genocide, expropriation, and slavery. Making me sit in traffic for an hour to celebrate this evil idiot caused a big change in my opinion of Baltimore.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Motive

People, including the Las Vegas sheriff and reporters are all obsessing over discovering Stephen Paddock's motive for mass murder. That's actually a very easy question.

He was fucking nuts.

In case you don't want to take my word for it here's neurobiologist David Eagleman explaining the possibilities. Just to summarize, Paddock wasn't schizophrenic -- that has onset typically before age 25, and he clearly was fully functional his whole life. And while it's conceivable he had some psychopathic tendencies, there isn't really any evidence of that. He wasn't the most sociable guy but he seemed generally well behaved. And even if he did have a lack of empathy that would not affirmatively motivate his actions.

The likely possibilities are a brain tumor - as Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman was found to have on autopsy -- or frontotemporal dementia. Unlike Eagleman, I'm leaning against FTD, because Paddock didn't seem to have any noticeable impairment other than the selection of a highly abnormal purpose in life. Usually signs of FTD include such symptoms as aphasia or cognitive impairment along with personality changes. But a tumor would work.

The reason I bring this up is simply to clarify that this incident had nothing whatsoever to do with anything about the culture. It was not the result of the decline of morality, or community. It did not result from atheism or religion, liberalism or conservatism, the abandonment of traditional values, multiculturalism, or any other cause you happen to dislike. It happened because the human cerebral cortex, which we tend to take for granted because we all have one and in fact it is the very essence of what we are, is an awesomely capable machine that can also go haywire. Set it to work on the wrong objectives and you get Las Vegas, or the Holocaust.

Paddock's actions could not have been prevented by a better mental health system, because he was never ascertained as mentally ill and he never sought treatment. They would not have been prevented by him finding God, or joining a bowling league, or Making America Great Again. The only way to prevent this catastrophe would have been to make it much more difficult for him to obtain a massive arsenal of weapons of war, that have no conceivable purpose other than killing people. A registration system that alerted authorities to a guy acquiring 30 or more assault rifles, high capacity magazines, and thousands of rounds of ammunition might have been helpful. Outlawing the manufacture, import and sale of all that crap would have helped as well.

That's why this kind of thing only happens in America. By the way, owning guns does not make you more safe, it makes you less safe. Gun owners are more likely to be shot than non-gun owners, and much more likely to kill themselves. And the successful use of firearms by law abiding citizens in self-defense is vanishingly rare. You don't have to take it from me.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Terrorism

Here's the breakdown of mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, by the race/ethnicity of the perpetrator. (I came across this in the discussion by Jen Hayden at Daily Kos, which also features tweets by Nelba Márquez-Greene whose daughter was murdered at Sandy Hook elementary school.)

So yes, the majority of mass shooters in the U.S. are white men, and very few of them are Middle Eastern terrorists. Many bloggers, such as Duncan Black, are complaining that it isn't called terrorism if white people do it. The justification you will get from the corporate media is that the word "terrorism" implies a political motive, and most of these rage killers don't have one. In other words it's not the race of the shooter, it's the reason.

Now, if you want to use the word that way, you can. As of now there is no evidence of a political motive behind the massacre in Las Vegas. This is looking like a brain tumor to me. That might change of course. But in the meantime the issue is that being worried about politically motivated terrorism, whether or not you think that includes right wing extremists and white supremacists as well as Muslims, while not being nearly as concerned about non-political violence, is irrational. People who commit mass murder of random people out of some ostensible political motive are just a particular kind of nut. They embody their rage and alienation in a political ideology but what difference does that make? The people in Las Vegas are equally dead and injured no matter what was going on in the shooter's head.

The reason why this happens in the U.S. and not so much in other places is that our country is full of firearms. In this case, clearly the shooter used an automatic rifle, probably the equivalent of an AK-47 or an M-16. It is legal to own these in the U.S. if they were first sold before 1986. They have to be registered and most of them are at specially licensed gun ranges, though private citizens can keep them in their houses. There are about 390,000 such legal weapons in the country. But it is actually very easy to convert a semi-automatic weapon to be fully automatic. So there are an unknown number of illegal automatic rifles in the U.S., and Stephen Paddock had at least one.

Update: As we all know by now, he had a dozen semi-automatic rifles that had been modified to shoot rapid-fire like an automatic rifle using a device which is perfectly legal. So it's even worse than I thought.

This could be fixed by legislation that outlaws semi-automatic assault rifles and large capacity magazines. (Based on the sound of the gunfire, which I heard on NPR, Paddock had 30-round magazines.) Instead, congress is getting ready to repeal the ban on gun silencers, because they are obviously essential to recreational shooting and self-defense.

We are insane.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Herbert L. Needleman

I just learned, via BMJ, that Herbert Needleman died on July 17. Here is a remembrance from Dr. Richard Jackson. Needleman discovered that even low level exposure to lead, below the threshold of any immediately observable symptoms, damages the developing brains of children.

At the time, exposure to lead was pervasive. Lead was in house paint and gasoline. While few children could escape its effects, the likelihood of substantial exposure was higher in children who lived near highways and heavily trafficked areas, and in sub-standard housing with deteriorating paint. In other words, poor children.

So he was a hero, right?

No, he became a pariah. He was attacked by the lead industry, hounded by columnists, snooped after by hired investigators, had his files endlessly combed over by high priced consultants, and was indifferently supported by many of his colleagues at his university. Herb and his steadfast wife Roberta went through years of attack.
Just like the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry, industries responsible for poisoning children with lead spent vast sums to relentlessly deny the science and persecute the scientists. This is profoundly evil.

Anyway, Needleman was ultimately vindicated and lead is now banned from fuel and paint, and other possible sources of exposure such as pottery glaze. The fake controversy over the dangers of tobacco is behind us although, sadly, the mass poisoning of populations all over the world by tobacco is not. It is long past time for people to stop pretending there is any legitimate controversy over anthropogenic climate change.