Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

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

BernieCare

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.