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


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


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


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


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


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.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Economics 101

Bruce Bartlett is not exactly Leon Trotsky. He was a senior policy advisor to Saint Ronald Reagan, and an architect of Reagan's famous tax cut. Bartlett states clearly and simply what economists now know to be true, at least those who try to practice an empirical science rather than a branch of theology.

In reality, there’s no evidence that a tax cut now would spur growth. . . . Strenuous efforts by economists to find any growth effect from the 1986 act have failed to find much. The most thorough analysis, by economists Alan Auerbach and Joel Slemrod, found only a shifting of income due to tax reform, no growth effects: “The aggregate values of labor supply and saving apparently responded very little,” they concluded. . . . We saw another test of the Republican tax myth in 2013, after President Barack Obama allowed some of the Bush tax cuts to expire, raising the top income tax rate to its current 39.6 percent from 35 percent. The economy grew nicely afterward and the stock market has boomed — up around 10,000 points over the past five years.
One class of people who haven't gotten the message is journalists who work for the corporate media. When Republicans say that cutting rich people's taxes will cause economic growth, they just take it for granted. This has become a truism in American political discourse, like, oh, saluting the flag. It is not true.

Marginal tax rates are much higher in most of Europe than in the U.S., and their economies grow just as fast, or faster, than ours. Cutting rich people's taxes does not cause capitalists to create jobs or raise wages. It just let's them keep more of their money and starves government of money it needs to solve problems and invest in our future.

The reason for this I have explained before. Investors only start enterprises or build up existing ones when there are potential customers out there with the money to buy their crap. And that is not rich people, who already spend all they want to. The way to stimulate growth is to put money in the pockets of low and moderate income people who will spend it, and the best way to do that is to invest in projects that will put them to work, such as health care, education, renewable energy development, research and public infrastructure. Mass transit is a good one! In times of recession, government can borrow the money. Right now, borrowing is cheap, but rich people also have far more money than they can possibly use and we can raise their taxes and put the money to work, thereby employing people and raising their wages. We could also cut taxes on low and moderate income people and yes, they would spend most of the difference.

Somebody please explain this to Chuck Todd.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Even today, two days after the Sunday NFL games, the lead story everywhere seems to be the argument over the national anthem protests. The ostensible president made this the main focus of his communication with the public even as a U.S. territory of 3 1/2 million people descends into mass starvation. (Just for example, there is no running water in any hospital in Puerto Rico right now.)

The Twitter-in-Chief has apparently not miscalculated -- by most accounts, not only his fans but a majority of people disapprove of the protests, strongly enough to weaken their allegiance to their beloved teams.

Tyler Cowen offers some perspective on the anthem and sporting events. The practice of playing the anthem before every game started in World War II, then it just continued after the war was over. It's worth asking what playing the anthem and saluting the flag has to do with playing games in the first place. But, since we're stuck with it, let's remember that freedom of political speech is a fundamental value that the flag is supposed to represent, and that people have every right to interpret or reinterpret the ritual as they choose.

The players who kneel, or lock arms, or choose not to be on the field at all during the ritual are not "disrespecting the flag," they are invoking its purported meaning as a symbol of justice and equality. And even if you think they are "disrespecting" it, it is a piece of colored fabric. We don't worship graven images. A popular meme right now, in case you didn't know, is an American flag rendered in blue and white. It's supposed to represent support for the police -- or  perhaps support for their right to murder black people with impunity. Is that "disrespect" for the flag? What if I say it is?

Let's just get over this and start worrying about reality, not symbols.

Monday, September 25, 2017


I'll outsource to Mark Sumner the necessary rant about the abandonment of Puerto Rico. The extent of the catastrophe is almost unimaginable. Nearly all of the crops have been destroyed, the entire island is without electricity except for a few generators powering hospitals and other essential services. Telecommunication is mostly down and much of the island is still incommunicado. Overflights have revealed washed out and blocked roads so that travel to many places is impossible. There can be no doubt but that people dependent on oxygen, insulin or other technical resources to stay alive have already died. It won't be long before people are literally starving.

It hasn't been so long ago that you can't remember that non-stop, wall-to-wall coverage of the disaster in Southeast Texas, and Florida. So what is on the front page of all of the corporate media web sites right now? The twitter war between Orange Julius and the NFL. Almost nothing about Puerto Rico. And Twittler himself, by the way, has said nothing about it either. Not one word.

And where is the massive response from the navy, air force and coast guard? Where is the televised fundraising concert featuring all the big pop stars? This is crazy.

Update: Case in point, on the front page of the NYT today there is absolutely no mention of Puerto Rico. Headlines are travel ban, NFL protests and attendant tweetstorm, German elections, budget bus lines.

Yes, some relief has arrived but it is not nearly enough. We're talking about 3 million people who are without food, safe drinking water, or medicine. Unbelievable.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Oh, oh, Mexico

Unlike James Taylor, I have really been so I do really know.

As with most natural disasters, the disaster part of earthquakes is only partly natural. Apart from tsunamis, earthquakes per se aren't even very dangerous. If you were standing in an open field and experienced the most intense earthquake in history you'd just feel the ground shaking, be weirded out for thirty seconds, and then get on with your business. (Perhaps you would stop to make a sacrifice to the gods.) There's always the chance of a landslide or flooding from a displaced body of water but these are pretty rare.

What kills and injures people in earthquakes, for the most part, is architecture. In California, building codes have gotten more and more stringent over the years as tragic experience has pierced through denial. As the building stock has been replaced and upgraded, the death toll from earthquakes has gone down.

Of course making buildings and viaducts earthquake proof is more expensive, and more expensive is a harder sell in a poorer place. Mexico uses a lot of masonry construction, and a lot of the most dangerous kind, which is unframed masonry. The New York Times has a video of the scene at the collapsed Enrique Rebsámen elementary school and sure enough, you can see that it was an unframed masonry building. It consisted of concrete slabs resting on concrete pillars. There is no sign of any steel framing. This is a heart rending tragedy -- at least 40 children are known dead and there be many more.

But you will notice that the other buildings around it did not collapse. Whether the current operators of the school understood the construction or the danger I have no idea. But somebody built it, presumably as a school, and the authorities allowed it to be built and occupied. So no, this is not a natural disaster. We know that earthquakes will occur there, they do so regularly. But the consequences can be mitigated, if there is political will, and no corruption. I don't know how old the building was, whether it was non-compliant with codes when it was built, or anything more about this story than what I could see in the video. But I hope people in Mexico and beyond will learn from this.

BTW there have been similar tragedies in China where school buildings in earthquake prone areas were shoddily constructed. I hope the Chinese are taking this seriously as well.

Update: According to NPR, three quarters of the school, which was built some 40 years ago, remained intact. The part that collapsed was ten years old, built after the last earthquake. Mexico City has stringent building standards, but the problem is enforcement. Evidently the death of all those children was indeed a crime. Let's hope the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

La Isla del Encanto

I worked for 15 years at Latino Health Institute in Boston. About half of my colleagues there were Puerto Rican. I have visited the island, and a college girl friend (it's a painful subject, but still) was Puerto Rican. So I feel an affinity for the island and its people.

I fear they are suffering a catastrophe from which they will never really recover. The country was already in trouble, due to a combination of policy changes by the U.S. federal government (into which they have no real input) that eliminated some advantages for manufacturers on the island; competition from lower-wage countries; and fiscal mismanagement, mostly by local governments. The population was actually shrinking as people moved to the mainland.

Now the infrastructure and the economy will be utterly ruined. It will likely be months before electricity is fully restored, and perhaps it will never be in some places because they will become uninhabited. The housing stock, businesses, roads and bridges, all massively destroyed. I expect a mass exodus now. It will likely never be the same.

The warming waters of the tropical Atlantic cause hurricanes to be more powerful. The horrific destruction in the Caribbean this year was absolutely exacerbated by climate change. Another place that's getting trashed is Kenya, where the rains have failed three years in a row and children are now starving. The UN report on the situation is horrifying, but nobody here in the US seems to care. We're all too busy taking health care away from 32 million of our own people so that the Koch brothers won't have to pay taxes on their blood money.

Cue the fool to tell us none of this is really happening.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Not subject to debate

Here is a partial list of entities and people who accept that human activity is causing dangerous changes in the earth's climate.

  • 195 sovereign nations (participants in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). That is every country on earth including the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It also includes countries whose economies are heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Saudis are planning to leave much of their oil in the ground. 
  • Exxon Mobil Corporation (although they lied about it for decades)
  • Former Exxon CEO and current U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
  • Virtually every scientist who works in a relevant field. (The commonly cited figure is actually 97% but the work of the 3% has been discredited.)
The only major political party on the earth that does not accept this reality is the Republican party in the U.S.  Conservative parties everywhere else do accept it.

How do we know this is true? Actually, scientists have understood since the late 19th Century that the lower atmosphere is as warm as it is because of the presence of carbon dioxide. Arrhenius published this conclusion in 1896, and he later noted that burning fossil fuel would increase the CO2 in the atmosphere, presumably warming the climate. This is completely understood and it is quite straightforward. The atmosphere is largely transparent to visible and UV light. The sun's light warms the ground which then radiates heat back as infrared, to which CO2 is opaque. The CO2 absorbs the light and gets warmer, and it transfers this warmth to the other gases in the atmosphere. That's what keeps the earth warm. More CO2=more warmth. There is no doubt of this whatsoever.

Since reliable records started being kept in the 1880s, the atmosphere has warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, while the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 43%. This is entirely consistent with model predictions. The extra CO2 is coming from humans burning fossil fuel, which is confirmed by radioactivity analysis, and also because there is no other plausible source for it. The warming is accounted for entirely by human activity. Yes, the climate has changed in the past, but over geologic time scales of thousands of years. This very abrupt change is unprecedented, as far as we know.

Most of the excess heat has been absorbed by the ocean, or the atmosphere would already be warmer. Coral reefs are dying and, as you may have noticed, storms are getting stronger. Warmer oceans make stronger hurricanes, and warmer air holds more water vapor so that rain events are more intense. At the same time, warmer places dry out faster, exacerbating the effects of droughts. And as global rainfall patterns change, some areas are becoming drier anyway. The result has been famine, and civil unrest. The collapse of Syria began with the migration of starving farmers to the cities and attendant social stresses. Agriculture has also collapsed in parts of Africa.

Sea level is now rising at a rate of about 1 foot per century, but it appears to be accelerating. Coastal areas are already experiencing more flooding, even in fair weather, just from the tides, and it's just going to get worse.

The only reason sane people deny this is because they are blinded by ideology. The Free Market™ can do no wrong. If this is really happening, we need to tax fossil fuels or otherwise find ways to reduce their use through regulation. But that can't possibly be necessary because Ayn Rand said so. Other people, such as the Koch brothers, deny it out of insatiable greed, even though they probably know that it is actually true. And some people are just easily fooled by propaganda. The tobacco companies did the same thing when it came to smoking and lung cancer, and they were just as evil.

I will not tolerate denial of anthropogenic climate change here, just as I will not tolerate holocaust denial or for that matter, a claim that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. This is not a matter that is open to dissent, or disagreement, or debate. It is a fact. People who refuse to believe it are not worthy of my time or attention.

P.S. If you don't want me to call you a moron, don't be a moron.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Homeland Security

Michael T. Klare makes a point about climate change that hasn't occurred to most people. While the Resident has stacked his administration from top to bottom with climate change deniers, the one federal department that still accepts reality is the military. And the military is tasked with responding to the consequences. In fact, as Klare describes, the response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma was the equivalent of a war. For example:

The military’s response to Harvey began with front-line troops: the National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, and units of the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), the joint-service force responsible for homeland defense.  Texas Governor Greg Abbott mobilized the entire Texas National Guard, about 10,000 strong, and guard contingents were deployed from other states as well.  The Texas Guard came equipped with its own complement of helicopters, Humvees, and other all-terrain vehicles; the Coast Guard supplied 46 helicopters and dozens of shallow-water vessels, while USNORTHCOM provided 87 helicopters, four C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft, and 100 high-water vehicles.
Still more aircraft were provided by the Air Force, including seven C-17 cargo planes and, in a highly unusual move, an E-3A Sentry airborne warning and control system, or AWACS.  This super-sophisticated aircraft was originally designed to oversee air combat operations in Europe in the event of an all-out war with the Soviet Union.  Instead, this particular AWACS conducted air traffic control and surveillance around Houston, gathering data on flooded areas, and providing “situational awareness” to military units involved in the relief operation.
The navy also deployed an amphibious assault ship and a dock landing ship. The response to Irma was comparable but also included deployment of an aircraft carrier, a destroyer, and two additional amphibious  assault ships. Now hurricane Maria is going to re-destroy the Virgin Islands, followed by massive destruction Puerto Rico and who knows what after that. All this is going on while the U.S. military is engaged in war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and active maneuvers in the western Pacific. Climate change is likely to increase pressure on the military around the globe as well as at home, as climate disasters exacerbate conflicts and produce refugee crises, but the over-extended navy is becoming a nautical demolition derby.

I have plenty of reasons to despise the malignant clown in the oval office, but climate change denial is probably number one. The consequences are already here -- it's like passing a law repealing gravity. And it's terrifying.

Thursday, September 14, 2017


The details of the Bernie Sanders Medicare for All proposal aren't really important, because obviously it isn't going to become law. If you're interested there is an accessible discussion here.

It is interesting that he's rounded up 16 senatorial cosponsors. At least we're finally talking about -- yep -- universal, comprehensive, single payer national health care. The term "comprehensive" does apply, because this actually goes beyond existing Medicare to provide dental and vision coverage, and he also appears to envision lower out of pocket costs. Also, Medicare would negotiate drug prices. Long term care would still be handed off to something unspecified, which would presumptively be the existing Medicaid long-term care benefit, which requires that people impoverish themselves. We can debate that issue separately.

While at least talking about this is a necessary step, there are many reasons why it seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Here are some of the main bullets.
  • Names will never hurt me? I'm afraid they will. It's socialism! Well, maybe so, you can apply the term to it if you want to. Sure, that makes Canada and Norway totalitarian dungeons, which is not what the people who live there seem to think, but the word has power in this country. It's a government takeover of health care! No, not really, it's a government takeover of health insurance. But still, the rhetoric will fly about bureaucrats sitting between you and your doctor, just as it did with the Affordable Care Act. The largest tax increase in history! Probably so, but the taxes replace the money you're already paying for health insurance and out of pocket costs. In fact most people would save money, and for that matter, so would most employers. Which makes one wonder why big corporations aren't for it. As a matter of fact, many of them used to be. Lee Iacocca, when he ran Chrysler, favored single payer health care, arguing that having to pay for employee's health insurance put U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage with their counterparts in more civilized nations. But it's contrary to the ideology of current corporate executives, plus which their personal taxes would increase and their personal wealth is all they care about. The corporate media won't be of any help explaining all this.
  • Yes, it would largely put the health insurance companies out of business. They might have some residual role selling supplemental insurance for people who want to get their health care without having to mingle with the riff raff, maybe some long term care insurance, maybe there would still be something like the Medicare Advantage program which would give them a role as middlemen. But basically, Aetna is history. I'm not sure what you would do about this -- there is a fair argument that the federal government would need to buy them out at the market price before passage of the act. That adds to the cost. Also their employees would be out of work. Yes, it's unnecessary make work, but so is the army. These are big political problems.
  • Drug companies would see their profits reduced. That's a good thing, but obviously they have enormous lobbying arms and they give  lot of money to politicians. Same consideration as above may apply to their shareholders. Yes, there are always political risks in owning stocks but this is pretty radical.
  • Not clear what the American Medical Association will think. They have opposed single payer plans in the past because they don't trust the government not to squeeze their incomes. 
There are  other political obstacles but these seems like plenty enough to make this very unlikely. Do you see a plausible path to single payer health care in the U.S. any time soon?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

23 and BS

If you are unfortunate enough to watch television, you have no doubt seen ads for a company that will analyze your DNA and tell you where your ancestors come from.

A sample ad consists of a woman saying, "I used to think I was Hispanic. But when I got my results back, I discovered that I'm everything! I have ancestors from all over the world." A pie chart displays behind her showing percentages of ancestry from various places. "Now I know I'm not Hispanic after all. When they ask my ethnicity, I check 'other'."

Whoa. Talk about people unclear on the concept. She is the very paradigm of Hispanic, which means people who come from the Spanish speaking countries of the Americas. The current population of Latin America consists of the descendants of indigenous Americans, Spanish settlers, imported African slaves in some places, Africans who escaped from slavery, and lesser numbers of settlers from all over the world. The George Washington of Chile was named Bernardo O'Higgins. Italians, Germans and Jews went to Argentina in large numbers, especially around the time of WWII. A key concept in Mexican nationalism is "la raza," the "new race" that emerged from the mingling of peoples. The point is they all wound up speaking Spanish and adopting the nationalities and cultures of the places where they found themselves.

Of course some people in Latin America have a narrower set of ancestors -- some are entirely indigenous, others European -- but mixed ancestry is pretty much the norm.

Equally bizarre, although perhaps less obviously so, is the guy (I might have this exactly backwards but it doesn't matter) who says "We always thought we were Italian. We ate spaghetti and sang Santa Lucia. But it turns out I'm German!" Now he's wearing leiderhosen and drinking Lowenbrau. Listen up, this is not complicated. Over the course of history, people sometimes moved from Germany to Italy. Once they did so, they started speaking Italian and eating spaghetti, and maybe changed their name from Braun to Bruno. After a couple of generations they forgot all about Germany. Then some of their descendants moved to the U.S. and considered themselves Italian-Americans. Which they were.

This company is selling a bizarre, fraudulent and frankly dangerous racialized concept of ethno-national identity. Our ethnic identity is not encoded in our genes, it is a product of our history -- the cultural milieu in which we grew up. And to believe otherwise is to buy into the scientifically bogus concept of race which has caused global catastrophe. So getting this DNA analysis may satisfy your idle curiosity, but beyond that, it doesn't mean anything at all.

Monday, September 11, 2017

I get e-mail

There are various ways people with strange agendas can harvest my e-mail address, but I am often puzzled by their motives in putting me on their list. For example, I get messages every day from the batshit crazy Zionist Organization of America. Now, for some reason, I got a message from "Pastor Paul Blair's Moment of Truth" newsletter, promoting the candidacy of Dan Fisher for governor of Oklahoma. Here's his platform:

There is only one candidate in the race for Governor that has the courage to:
  • END ABORTION IN OKLAHOMA.  If Colorado can use the Tenth Amendment to legalize marijuana, Oklahoma can use the Tenth Amendment to end the murder of pre-born children.  WE CAN AND WE WILL!
  • AUDIT EVERY STATE AGENCY.   There is no such thing as “public funds.”  The government does not have any money.  The only money the Legislature has is OUR TAX DOLLARS and the bonded indebtedness that they obligate us to repay.  Yet, no governor will audit spending to expose the corruption and give an account to the people.  They simply want to dip deeper into our pockets by raising fees and taxes! 
  • PROTECT OUR CHILDREN.  The Bible says that God created male and female.  There is no third option.  Science says that females have a pair of XX chromosomes and males have an XY pair.  Again, there is no third option.  We cannot endanger our children in public restrooms and school locker rooms with this NONSENSE of gender fluidity.  Your bathroom selection should be based on your God given equipment.

I expect my faithful readers don't need my help to respond to this, but here goes.

Colorado did not use the Tenth Amendment to legalize marijuana. Colorado simply eliminated the prohibition in state law. The federal laws against marijuana trafficking are still in effect, it's simply that the Justice Department is showing forbearance. Details here. The Tenth Amendment has nothing to do with this whatsoever.

I'm not sure what it means to say that "The government does not have any money." Yes, most money in the government's possession comes from taxes, and borrowing. (Not quite all of it -- there are user fees.) This is supposed to be news? State agencies are already audited. Here is the web site of the Oklahoma State Auditor, who most definitely exists and is at work.

Does science say that females have a pair of XX chromosomes, and males have an XY pair, and there is no third option? Why no, science does not say that. If you want a summary of what science says about this, the World Health Organization has one. First of all, many people do not have either an XX or XY pair -- and some people who do end up with the physical characteristics ordinarily associated with the opposite endowment. Some people's "God given equipment" is ambiguous, probably not because of the so-called sex chromosomes at all. As WHO explains:

True’ hermaphroditism is a genetic condition in which affected individuals have both mature ovarian and testicular tissue. (29) There are no published population-wide estimates of the frequency of true hermaphrodites. (30) The autosomal inheritance of this condition suggests that genes controlling sexual development and differentiation are not limited to the sex chromosomes.(31) Blackless et al. suggest that such familial inheritance “opens the possibility that, as with other inherited forms of sexual ambiguity, there may be pockets, perhaps even large geographical regions, with relatively high frequencies of true hermaphroditism.” (32)

And of course, gender identity is a psychological, not a physical, characteristic. Some people are born with ambiguous sex, and have choices to make (or, in the past, typically, to be made for them). Others, for reasons we don't fully understand, feel that their gender does not correspond to their apparent biological sex. This is not a choice, it's just the way they are. And really, why the hell does the scientifically illiterate Dan Fisher even care? What does it have to do with him and his sheep-like followers?

Monday, September 04, 2017

Some true facts for Labor Day

We celebrate Labor Day at the beginning of September because of course we can't participate in that commie May 1 celebration. Anyway, here are a few points to remember when you hear politicians talking.

Coal mining: The reason there aren't nearly as many coal mining jobs as there once were is not because of environmental regulations or restrictions on mining on federal lands. Coal mining jobs started to disappear decades ago, because of automation. Back in you great grandparents' day, miners used to dig out coal with picks. Nowadays coal is removed by giant machines that do the work of dozens of men. And the demand for coal is falling, mostly because of competition from cheap natural gas. Coal provided 52% of U.S. electricity a decade ago but now it's down to 30%. The growth of renewable energy will drive it down further. Even Robert Murray, a coal baron who hates environmental regulations because they interfere with his ability to get even richer, and thinks global warming is a hoax, doesn't think there's anything the president can do to bring back coal mining jobs.

Trump has consistently pledged to restore mining jobs, but many of those jobs were lost to technology rather than regulation and to competition from natural gas and renewables, which makes it unlikely that he can do much to significantly grow the number of jobs in the industry, said Murray. “I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” said Murray. “He can’t bring them back.”
 Manufacturing: This is a similar story in that technology accounts for much of the decline in manufacturing jobs in the U.S. This is nothing new, of course. When the U.S. was founded, the majority of people were farmers (or farm slaves). Now, we eat a lot more than we did back then (for better or for worse) but only about 2% of the population work in agriculture. There used to be lots of jobs for stable hands and horse shoers as well, but now most horses are just rich people's toys.

In fact U.S. manufacturing output per capita has been basically steady since WWII, even as employment has fallen. The jobs that have gone to China and Mexico of course matter as well, but the upside for U.S. workers is that they get to buy a lot of stuff really cheap. I had a table fan that was maybe 20 years old. The knob that turns it on and off broke off so I controlled it with pliers. When that finally stopped working I went to WalMart to buy a new one, figuring it would cost maybe $25. I bought one for $11. Made in China, but better than the old one. Instead of mostly plastic, it's mostly steel. It can spin at higher speed, it pushes more air, and it's more compact. It may seem surprising that it's worth it to ship these things 10,000 miles to sell them for $11 but that's how cheap it is to make them.

Manufacturing output is in fact growing in the U.S. As manufacturing becomes increasingly automated, the wage differential is less important than the knowledge differential. With a technically educated workforce, we may still have fewer manufacturing jobs than we did in the 1980s, but we'll have better ones. We'll still be buying cheap stuff from China, however, unless the president decides to screw American consumers with a trade war.

Taxes:  Rich people are not job creators. Letting them keep more of their money by not taxing them will not create any jobs. Not a single one. Jobs are created by demand. When people have money to spend, and spend it, on goods and services, that's when investors step in to create more jobs to meet the demand.

If you cut Scrooge McDuck's taxes, and he says "Oh boy, I have more money to invest, I'm going to open a weeble factory," and it so happens that there are already enough weeble factories to meet the demand, his weeble factory will go bankrupt, and whatever jobs he created will be gone. Or, possibly his weeble factory is more efficient and a different one goes bankrupt; but in that case, there are fewer weeble manufacturing jobs than before.

In fact, recessions and depressions are shortages in aggregate demand. People aren't spending enough money to keep each other employed. Letting rich people keep more of their money is counterproductive because they tend to spend a smaller proportion of their income than do low and moderate income people. Sure, they'll buy the occasional solid gold toilet seat, but they can't spend all of their money and they don't want to anyway because they like being rich.

In order to create demand, and create jobs, you have to put money in the pockets of low and moderate income people who will spend it. The best way to do that is to raise taxes on rich people. Then you can put the money to work investing in good stuff that will make us richer and happier in the future. There's a lot of talk now about roads and bridges, but mass transit, education from pre-school on up, a smart electrical grid than can make use of sustainable energy, all kinds of great projects, will put people to work directly, and put money in their pockets that they will then spend to put even more people to work. If you cut rich people's taxes, rich people will be richer. And you will be poorer.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Individual Liberty

This is really simple. Whatever liberty you are granted may well come at the expense of some liberty for others. For example:

There aren't any zoning regulations. That gives developers the liberty to pave over wetlands and put a lot of houses and businesses on them. That later exacerbates flooding that destroys the property of people living nearby, after which they have less liberty than they did before.
In other words, substantial government intervention is required to protect liberty. All liberties are a tradeoff. If you are given liberty to drive unsafely, that deprives me of my liberty to drive. If you are given liberty to pollute, that deprives me of my liberty to breathe the air and drink the water.  If you are given liberty to sell contaminated or mislabeled food, that deprives me of my liberty to eat safely.

Libertarianism is obviously bullshit, and you don't have to think about it very deeply. We can argue individual cases, but there isn't any magic universal solvent.

Oh yeah, there's this famous quote from John Rogers:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Natural Disasters

Sorry for my recent absence. I was moving my mother to senior citizen housing. She's made the move but the ordeal for me is far from over, since I'll be dealing with liquidating the house and contents and otherwise managing her affairs. It's incredibly complicated dealing with all the financial issues, utilities, change of address, and getting the power of attorney to all of the relevant institutions and having them accept it. I do have to wonder what happens to people who don't have a family member to cope with everything when their capacity diminishes.

Anyway, that's really just a personal note, not the main subject of this post. With the Houston metro area and much of south Texas drowning, we're reminded of a key truth of natural disasters -- most of the time, they are only partly natural. In the case of Houston, lack of zoning regulations (which are a commie plot) has led to massive, unregulated urban sprawl without regard to environmental consequences. That accomplishes 2 things:

  1. It fills in and paves over the lowlands that formerly absorbed storm water and mitigated flooding; and
  2.  It puts a whole lot of houses and businesses into flood plains.
On top of that, Houston has experienced 3 of what were thought to be 100 year floods in the past two years. What's happening now is supposed to be a million year flood, i.e. something that couldn't happen. It's bad luck that this particular storm has lingered within a small area for a long time, but the fact is severe rain events are becoming more common, in south Texas and many other places.

Flooding and landslides also occur in more hilly or mountainous terrain when the hillsides are deforested; and there has been a whole lot of coastal development that puts more property and people in harm's way from storms regardless. We just cannot continue to be so heedless of our impact on the environment. For the sake of short term gain and libertarian ideology, we are trashing ourselves. It's time to wise up.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The estimable Atrios observes:

Since the election there's been this weird back and forth about whether Trump voters were motivated by The Economic Insecurity or by The Racism. . . .

I think it's important to note that the average Trump voter isn't actually an unemployed coal miner, because facts matter, and the portrayal Trump as Working Class Hero (sometimes they remember to write "White") is silly and wrong. Trump's base are not the marginal voters who switched to him from Obama, they are the same Republicans who vote Republican every 4 years. But as for the "but they're racists!" argument. Yes, yes they are. People who are racists generally vote for Republicans.
So on the way home yesterday I got behind a car with four bumper stickers.  The driver was a white guy in his 30s with tattoos on every visible square inch of skin.

The first bumper sticker read "Pave the Bay." That's supposed to be a parody (ha ha, very funny) of "Save the Bay," the movement to clean up and protect Narragansett Bay, which is the defining geographic feature of Rhode Island. His proposed engineering project seems implausible, and I don't see what is to be gained by it. I suspect that for some reason he just doesn't like people who want to save the bay.

The second bumper sticker read "Speak English, or go back to whatever sorry-assed country you left." Ha ha again. Funny thing, he had an Italian flag decal in the back window.

Third bumper sticker: "Some people are alive simply because it is illegal to kill them." So he wants to kill people. That seems nice.

Fourth bumper sticker, and I'll bet you can guess it. "Trump. Make America Great Again."

The Trump base is scheduled to show up in Phoenix tonight. What the over-under on the number of confederate battle flags?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The view from abroad

I don't think most Americans are fully aware of how precipitously the stature and influence of the U.S. around the world has fallen since we installed a malignant clown in the presidency. It's important to get this information across, because it's an undeniable fact that is still true regardless of your personal view of the Resident. I commend to your attention former U.S. correspondent for The Guardian, Simon Tisdall, who actually kind of liked George Bush the First and even gives some props to Ronald Reagan. This is a long form piece which you should read, but here are some pull quotes:

Reactions [from abroad] range from amazement and amusement to shock and dismay. How has this frightening travesty come about? What does it mean for the America we love? And what does it portend for a world accustomed to sensible, reliable, rational American leadership? Every country has its political mavericks and clowns. But to put a shadow figure like Trump, a profoundly ignorant, self-obsessed narcissist lacking any discernible moral compass, in charge of the nation’s affairs looks like an act of collective madness. . . .

This reckless divisiveness, this shameless moral ambiguity, this historical know-nothingness, this thinly-disguised bigotry – these are not the qualities one expects of an American president. This is not leadership. This is not change. This is not greatness renewed. This unworthy man, and the far-right ghouls who cling to him, set a dreadful example for the rest of the world, from the very country that is deemed by many to be the ultimate symbol of justice, liberty and democratic governance.
He goes on to say that the U.S. is "better than this." But is it? That remains to be seen, because it isn't only far right ghouls who cling to him. It's Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell, and most Republican politicians. Not to mention most of the people who voted for him, who seem only more and more devoted as he turns his office into an atrocity.

People need to understand that voting is not a gesture. It isn't a communicative act. It determines who will occupy offices of power and responsibility. So don't vote for insane idiots just because you think it sends some kind of a "message." That is all.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Public monuments matter. They make assertions about the values shared by the groups that erect and maintain them. When those entities are governments, in a purportedly democratic society, the monuments are claims about the public consensus.

Monuments are also considerably more complicated than one might think without giving them much reflection. For one thing, they are time dependent. They purport to be about a person, or multiple people, or events. But that which is memorialized existed, or happened, some time before they were erected. So as statements, they refer not to the time of their subjects, but to the time of their creation. Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial was controversial because of the assertion it seemed to make about how we should view the Vietnam conflict at the time the monument was erected.  But after a while, that is also in the past. When we view monuments today, they are saying something about the time of their creation, and that may be jarringly different from our time. As it turns out, Lin's memorial has not only held up very well, it has come to seem even more appropriate over time. Her vision was prescient, not limited to the historical moment. But  obviously that isn't always the case.

My office is in the middle of Providence River Park, and specifically that part of the park that is full of monuments. There are monuments to the dead of both World Wars, to the Irish famine, and to the Shoah. The latter was erected last year, as it happens. This year, a monument (privately sponsored but on public land) to the Easter Uprising was installed next to the Irish famine memorial. There is also a Civil War memorial which, obviously, commemorates Union soldiers.

Some 20 years ago, I worked as a consultant for the sponsors of the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Again, it was privately financed but stands on public land. It has been vandalized twice this year.

Most of the memorials near my office do not, as far as I know, attract much controversy today. People in Providence don't have a problem honoring the war dead or the victims of the Shoa. The Irish memorials would be problematic for some English people. The question of English responsibility for the Irish famine is contested, as is the righteousness of the Easter rebellion. But English identity has not been enduring among North American settlers, whereas lots of people still think of themselves as Irish. So these go up on public land without any visible fuss.

All that throat clearing leads to this. The Confederate monuments which have suddenly become incandescently controversial do not, in fact, refer to the Civil War. They refer to the post-Reconstruction era, the rise of Jim Crow, and the Reign of Terror that re-established white supremacy in the South. They were erected during that era, generally 50 years or more after the Civil War, as a message about the present, not the past. That is not to say that the past was any less reprehensible. The cause of the Confederacy was treason in defense of slavery. The heroes of the Confederacy are not remembered for any other accomplishments of historic significance. Whether the monuments refer to 1865 or 1915, that is still true.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that they were not erected to commemorate history, but rather to enforce a current ideology -- an ideology which it is imperative, in the present era, that we utterly repudiate. Anyone who does not understand this is unfit for public office in 2017.

Monday, August 14, 2017

It is happening here

The BS debate about how Democrats can win back Trump voters through economic populism needs to end now. Donald Trump appeals to Republican voters because he articulates and enables racism. That's what they mean when they call him a "straight shooter" and says he "tells it like it is" even though he lies ever time he moves his lips. He refuses to condemn Nazis and Klansmen because a) they are his base and b) they are among his closest advisers. (Bannon, Gorka and Miller, to get specific. His Attorney General is also a racist.)

Here's an interview with historian Timothy Snyder. I'll give you a pull quote:

What's most striking, if you want to try to link what happened yesterday to our own history, is that we now have a president who doesn't regard Nazis as a symbol of evil. . . .  His reaction to this event is to say that everyone is at fault, and we should all hold together. That's not the reaction that one would expect from the president of the United States. But it is consistent with what I've been trying to get across for the past few months. It's consistent with Trump and Steven Bannon's attempt to do away with the part of the American story that celebrates entering and winning the Second World War. It's consistent with their attempt to do away with the part of the American identity that has to do with being anti-fascist, or anti-Nazi. It's consistent with their botching the Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. It's consistent with the utterly bizarre way that Sean Spicer talked about the Holocaust, when he said Hitler didn't kill his own people. It's consistent with Trump being the first major American politician in recent memory to skip visiting the Ghetto Memorial when he came to Warsaw in August.
And above all, it's consistent with his “America First” slogan. This is what America First means. America First means an America where a Nazi Germany was not the enemy. So that's the broad historical circle. We have an administration which has "America First." What "America First" meant when it was used during the WWII era was that we should not resist Nazi Germany. Mr. Trump's remarks on Saturday are totally consistent with that. This is who and what the administration has been from the very beginning.
And believe me, the white supremacists are getting the message loud and clear.

This must end. This racist, malignant, demented psychopath must be removed from office. If we can't get that done, our century of progress has ended.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Crispy Critters

That would be millions of us Homo sapiens as much of the Middle East and Europe bake in unprecedented heat. Yes, Iraq is normally hot in the summer, but not it is close to uninhabitable:

As temperatures rose towards 51C on Thursday, Iraq’s government declared a mandatory holiday, allowing civic servants to shelter at home.
So far this month in the Iraqi capital, every day but one has reached 48C or higher, and the forecast is for the high temperatures to continue for the next week. July was little different, in Iraq and in Syria, where the capital, Damascus, has also been several degrees hotter than usual nearly every day since late June.
In Kuwait, where birds have reportedly dropped from the skies, and Riyadh, where building work has ceased this week, locals have called for mercy from a hotter-than-normal air mass that has remained nearly stationary over central Arabia for more than three weeks, stretching the capacity of electricity networks beyond limits.
For those of you who don't know, that's 124 degrees Fahrenheit. In Europe temperatures are hitting 104 Fahrenheit, as they have in the U.S. northwest. Healthy people will survive that, but it's pretty damn miserable. In Seattle, where the 90 degree heat is rare, the misery is compounded by suffocating smoke from wildfires in British Columbia. I could continue to go around the world, from methane seeping from the melting arctic permafrost to the possible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and on and on. A major precipitant of the Syrian civil war was the collapse of Syrian agriculture due to extended drought and the flood of unemployed refugees into the cities.

If your tribal identity depends on denying what is obviously true and right in front of your nose, I expect that nothing I can say will matter to you.

No, it's not the only thing that matters, but if we don't get very serious about this, very soon, nothing else will matter very much.

Monday, August 07, 2017

CRISPR critters

I suppose I should say something about the recently announced work of Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, who claims to have successfully edited the genome of human embryos, in this case to eliminate a disease causing mutation. This work is as yet unpublished and not peer reviewed, but let's assume it is sound.

The technique, which has been much in the news, is called CRISPR/Cas9. I'm not going to go into the technical details here but you can certainly look it up if you are interested, the Wikipedia article is actually reasonably accessible if you have some basic understanding of genetics. But getting under the hood doesn't really matter. This is a genetic system that evolved in prokaryotic cells to combat viral phages. It turns out that it provides a method for precise editing of DNA. Previously, the best they could do was shoot DNA into a nucleus and hope that it would be incorporated somewhere; or they could selectively eliminate genes. This provides a method for editing specific genes.

Before Mitalipov's work, however, attempts to edit genes in human embryos weren't very successful, mostly because the editing didn't work in every cell. The Mitalipov team got in early, however, and they claim to have had potentially clinically useful results. This sounds like good news for people who carry genetic disorders and who want to have children, and it may well be. But it's setting off all sorts of ethical alarm bells.

Obviously you have to make a bunch of embryos and you'll end up destroying most of them. That already happens with in vitro fertilization, however, and the anti-abortion ideologues seem to have pretty much gotten used to it. As I have said many times, they do not really believe that blastocysts are human beings or that zygotes have the moral status of persons. That's just an excuse.

Once we've gotten past that, the obvious question is whether the technique could be used, not only to fix hereditary diseases, but to make designer babies -- with enhanced intelligence, physical capacities, specific talents, whatever their wealthy parents want.

I have a two-part answer to this. The first part is that the border between fixing disease and enhancement is very fuzzy. The boundary between say, just being short and dwarfism, or not being the brightest bulb on the tree and cognitive disability, is essentially arbitrary. So if you don't think enhancement is ethical, you need to decide where to draw the line -- and that's always going to be open to dispute.

Part two is that phenotypes are not generally highly determined by genotypes. While a single mutation can definitively cause certain diseases such as Huntington's or Sickle Cell, for the most part our genetic heritage interacts with our environment to create us. For example, people might be at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes if they consume a particular diet; while many people with the same genetic profile will never get Type 2 diabetes. Do we blame it on their genes or the culinary culture?

Intelligence, musical ability, athletic ability -- all of these are also products of genetic heritage unfolding within a particular environment and personal history. You might have John Coltrane's genes, but if you don't practice, or you could never afford a saxophone in the first place, you won't be John Coltrane. Furthermore, these proclivities for some outcome to occur within some given environment are determined by a whole suite of interacting genes. Scientists have so far found only very small influences on outcomes such as heart disease or IQ from any given gene variant, and even these often turn out to be spurious on further investigation, or might not occur at all in a different environment.

If you tried to maximize the genetic profile for intelligence, it might well be at the cost of some other characteristic, such as longevity or sociability or something else people would be loathe to damage. Or it might only work if the child could be guaranteed some specific form of nurture, and otherwise be affirmatively harmful.

So this is a bridge we won't have to cross for a long time, if we ever get there. Nonetheless I can't say it's impossible that nobody will ever try it. People should probably try to be educated about this issue and we should be talking about it, but there's no need to panic.