Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sunday Sermonette: A likely story

There's too much to say about Genesis 3 to do it all in one post, so today I'll just discuss verses 1 through 15. Here they are:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

Talking animals are a commonplace in folk tales -- viz Aesop and Bre'er Rabbit. But people don't take them literally. One would seriously doubt that the ancient Hebrews thought any of this was literally true. After all, they could see for themselves that snakes can't talk.

But that is hardly the only oddity in this. God is not omniscient. Indeed, he depends on the ordinary physical senses of his apparently quite ordinary body for basic information. If he didn't happen to be walking in the garden and see the man hide, and hear the man tell him that he was ashamed of his nakedness, he never would have known about the consumption of forbidden fruit.

Even stranger is the question of why God doesn't want the people to know good from evil.  If he thinks it's not good to be naked in front of him, then presumably he would want the people to know that. If it's better for them not to know, then they're going to around naked all the time, which is presumably bad, right? And why did God put the tree there in the first place? Oh, by the way, he also made the serpent, so the whole thing appears to be a setup.

It's interesting that whoever thought up this incoherent drivel intuited that snakes had once had legs and had lost them, presumably because all other animals have legs. Today there are some 3,000 species of snakes. Their ancestors indeed had legs.  Scientists have wondered whether snakes first evolved on land or in water. The oldest fossil of a snake without legs dates to about 85 million years ago, and it lived on land. Older fossils of snakes, however, retain remnants of legs. Modern humans, of course, did not appear until 85 million years later, more or less. So there must be some other reason why snakes evolved their legless bodies.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sunday Sermonette: In the beginning, all over again

So, if you are one of those who claims that the Bible is the literally true inerrant word of God, you already have a problem. You've read the first page, which says that a good part of the energy God expended on creation went to building a "vault of heaven" (King James makes it a "firmament"), which divides waters above from waters below, and on which the sun, moon and stars are hung. Unequivocally, there is no such structure. On a clear day, one has the illusion of living under a dome, but we now know that is because of the scattering of sunlight by the oxygen in the atmosphere. We've gone up there and looked down on the earth from the moon, which isn't hanging on anything, and there isn't any water up there beyond some widely scattered dirty balls of ice.

So let's move on. As I mentioned before, the divisions into chapters and verses were made by medieval monks. It is obvious that the scribe who created the book of genesis took two creation stories from different sources, but the monk put the division in the wrong place. Here's Genesis 2. As you can see, the first three verses actually belong with the previous story:

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested.
The second creation story

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
This is what we call a major "continuity error." In the first story, God makes the plants on the third day, and then gets around to making humans -- male and female --  on the sixth. Here he makes a man, then he makes the plants, then he makes a woman.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
We have a problem here, obviously. The Tigris and the Euphrates do have headwaters fairly close to each other in the Anatolian mountains; but they do not have a common source. "Cush" in the Bible refers to lands south of Egypt, which would have to make the Gihon the Nile, but obviously the Nile originates in central Africa and flows north. Nobody has been able to figure out where Havilah is or what the Pishon might refer to.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Not clear why God doesn't want the man to know good from evil, but in any case, as we shall see, Adam does eat from the tree and he does not die when he eats from it. In fact, he lives for another 930 years.

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
    for she was taken out of man.”
Adam has quite a task, making up names for millions of species of metazoans.  Because of this story about the rib, people literally believed -- and it is sometimes said today -- that men have one less rib than women. It isn't true, we have the same number of ribs.

24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
 I would like to be able to say that this is all very interesting and meaningful as allegory and metaphor, but I really don't think so. These were stories that nomadic goatherders used to tell around the campfire. They probably didn't really believe any of this, it was just fun to tell stories, and indeed, they told at least two different ones that happened to get written down here. There were probably several others that didn't, and of course innumerable versions of the ones that did.

However, I will agree that the symbolism of the stories does get a bit more interesting. We'll see what Chapter 3 is all about next week.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

After me, the deluge

Conor Lynch gives a history lesson. He alludes only in passing to the essential precedents in U.S. history, which are the reforms of the progressive around the beginning of the 20th Century, and the New Deal of the 1930s. These did not happen because radical had seized control of the government, but precisely because the wisest among the economic elite realized what had to be done to save capitalism.

The regressive plutocrats who have now (illegitimately) seized power in the United States are too ignorant of history and too blinded by insatiable greed to understand what they are doing. Lynch quotes Barack Obama:

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” said the president in a meeting with top Wall Street CEOs in 2009. “I’m not out there to go after you. I’m protecting you. But if I’m going to shield you from public and congressional anger, you have to give me something to work with on these issues of compensation.”
Lynch concludes:

If defenders of the status quo were students of history, they would recognize that preserving the current system and its institutions will require confronting problems like inequality head-on. Reformers on the center-left seem to understand this, and support policies akin to the social democratic reforms of the mid-20th century.

The most pro-capitalist party in the world, on the other hand, is currently implementing an agenda that will no doubt heighten the contradictions of capitalism. The Republican tax bill, the most regressive tax reform of the past half-century -- a period that included the extremely regressive Bush tax cuts -- won’t just make the rich richer, but the middle class poorer. Income inequality has been rising steadily for the past 40 years in the United States, and one of the major drivers behind this trend has been tax cuts for the rich.

At a time when global capitalism seems to be heading toward the dystopian nightmare that Marx predicted 150 years ago, Republicans seem intent on telling the “forgotten men and women” of America to “eat cake.” Rather than taking a hard look at the consequences of corporate capitalism and neoliberalism, the GOP is enthusiastically doubling down on the policies that got us here in the first place. “I think Republicans are underestimating the extent to which this tax-cut bill is going to radicalize their future opposition,” Slate writer Jordan Weissmann tweeted earlier this month. It is safe to say that Republicans are also underestimating the extent to which their policies will destabilize capitalism itself.
 How many votes Donald Trump received, and why, is irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of this analysis. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The S word

Brad DeLong is an economist at the University of California. He is also an extremely active blogger. Here he addresses the plutocrats who support the Republican party and the tax heist scam. He asks them to look beyond the pile of money now in front of them, and consider the fate of their grandchildren:

In the America the politicians you support are building, it may well become the case that one day your grandchildren are in the center of a web of political influence, and the next day they will find themselves not: Some of them will be involuntary guests at the Wichita Ritz-Carlton, The rest will try to make a run for it in the Learjet, or in the rubber boat. So is it really wisdom on your part to want to win this round?

To be blunt: a social democratic middle-class society is much better society in which to have a large stock of entrepreneurial, inherited, or rent-derived wealth than is a communist society. But it is also a much friendlier society to the wealthy than is a fascist society. And social democracy and fascism—hard or, if you are lucky, soft—are the only options the future will allow: tertium non datur.
 Socialism is a word. It has a meaning. It is not an expletive.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The moral low ground

An aside: Before getting to today's subject, I ask you to take a look at the previous post. Tax revenues as a percentage of GDP in the U.S. are about 2/3 the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. That's before the tax scam the Republicans just passed. Total taxation in the U.S. is 26% of GDP (and it's already been declining steadily since 2000). It's about 34% in the other wealthy countries. Which, by the way, are healthier, happier and less unequal than the U.S.

Now, as for the moral low ground, one occupant thereof is the recently deceased Bernard Law, the former Archbishop of the Diocese of Boston. He spent his career spouting off sanctimoniously about his version of sexual morality, which as it turns out did not include abstaining from raping children. The Boston Globe discovered that he had a regular policy of covering up for pedophile priests by moving them around from parish to parish, keeping their behavior a secret from parents and law enforcement. This led to the world eventually learning that this was the practice of the Catholic Church worldwide.

The church was in fact in essence a vast conspiracy to provide pedophiles with victims and protection. Everything else was window dressing. They rewarded Law with a cushy sinecure in Rome, by the way. As of now more than 6% of U.S. priests have been accused of child abuse. The figure in Australia is 10%. So don't let your kids near the priests.

Law is going to get a big fancy funeral presided over by the pope.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Monday, December 18, 2017

Make America Crappy Again

Fareed Zakaria is not exactly Leon Trotsky, and he tells it like it is. "The Republican tax cut bill may be the worst piece of legislation in modern history." I don't say "may be," I say "most certainly is." There's more wrong with it than I can possibly tell you, but Zakaria focuses on this:

The medium- and long-term effects of the plan will be a massive drop in public investment, which will come on the heels of decades of declining spending (as a percentage of gross domestic product) on infrastructure, scientific research, skills training and core government agencies. The United States can’t coast on past investments forever, and with this legislation, we are ushering in a bleak future.
The tax bill is expected to add at least $1 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, and some experts think the real loss to federal revenue will be much higher. 

This will mean automatic cuts in spending, at a time when public investment in the U.S. is already lowest in 60 years, as a percentage of GDP. We're talking transportation, education, scientific research, public health. And right now, according to the World Bank, the U.S. has the highest unmet infrastructure needs of any of 50 countries they surveyed. Zakaria concludes:

[D]uring the Depression, World War II and much of the Cold War, a sense of crisis and competition focused America’s attention and created a bipartisan urgency to get things done. Ironically, at a time when competition is far more fierce, when other countries have surpassed the United States in many of these areas, America has fallen into extreme partisanship and embraced a know-nothing libertarianism that is starving the country of the essential investments it needs for growth. Those who vote for this tax bill — possibly the worst piece of major legislation in a generation — will live in infamy, as the country slowly breaks down.
Well okay, but the beleaguered middle class needs a tax cut, right? Maybe so, but they aren't  getting one from this bill. As David Leonhardt explains, working people pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes, and:

Now President Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are trying to widen inequality even further. Their tax bill doesn’t touch the payroll-tax rate — again, the single biggest tax that most households pay. The bill does cut income taxes for the middle class, but only modestly and only temporarily. The tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, including cuts to the inheritance tax and the corporate tax, are much larger and permanent.
And the spending cuts that inevitably follow will more than wipe out those temporary little tax cuts. Why are the Republicans doing this? To benefit their billionaire donors. That is the only reason.

Anybody who votes for any Republican, ever, is a fool.

And, right on cue, "Top Republicans are already talking about cutting Medicare and Social Security next."

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The beginning

I should have mentioned yesterday that the division into chapters and verses was done by medieval monks; it's not in the original documents. But it's handy, so we'll go with it. Here is the first creation story. I say first, because there is a second one right after it, and they are completely irreconcilable. That's obviously embarrassing, so preachers mostly just go with the first one. I'll deal with the second, contradictory story, which appears in Genesis 2, next time.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
This is kind of weird because he hasn't made the lights yet.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
This structure, of course, does not exist. It's an illusion created by the scattering of sunlight. Nor is there any water above it. We know all this for sure, we've been up there.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
We know now, of course, that life began in the oceans. Life on land came much later. Also, God made the vegetation before he made the sun. Apparently he didn't know about photosynthesis.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
Again, there is no vault of the sky, nor are the sun, moon and stars set in any structure of any kind. The people who told this story perceived what we now know to be an illusion,

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
Again, the order is all wrong. Birds came long after marine life.

24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.
Back in these days, people imagined that God had a physical body. He was humanoid. We'll see more of this anon.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

Of course many plants are inedible, even poisonous. And humans, especially back then, did not rule over the birds or most living creatures, some of which were happy to eat people. It's an interesting attitude, however, characteristic of modern day conservatives.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bible Background

I'm going to start reading the Bible tomorrow. In order to keep tomorrow's post a manageable length, I'll provide some background and explain the parameters of what I am going to do.

The Bible is a compilation of many documents, from various historical and cultural contexts, which were produced for various reasons. People made decisions about what to include, and there were some debates about that along the way. The Old Testament is largely but not entirely based on the Jewish scriptures, called the Tanakh, although the organization is different; but the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments include additional material. I'll put off talking about the New Testament for now.

The Tanakh was mostly written in Hebrew, of course. (A bit of it was originally in Aramaic.) So we're dealing with a translation. I've chosen the New International Version, which was produced by an interdenominational committee of  Christians. Although it is generally well respected, we can never be sure exactly how to render concepts from an ancient and not entirely well understood context.

Keep in mind also that books in Biblical times were not produced in the same way they are now. Typically today one person writes an entire book, then gives it to a publisher who produces any number of identical copies. Back then documents had to be copied by hand. There was no copyright and there was no money to be made in books either. Scribes were free to take whatever they wanted from whatever source, to combine, to remove material, to change whatever they wanted. They also made mistakes.

I'll just talk for now about the provenance of the first five books,  which Jews call the Torah and Christians the Pentateuch. I won't bother with the details, but if you're interested you can look at this Wikipedia entry on one of the hypothesized authors called the Jawhist because he calls God Jahweh (or Yahweh). The leading theory is that there were four main sources, but in fact any of these could have been composites made earlier, and whoever compiled them may have made edits and interpolations. So it's not surprising that it contains multiple versions of some stories, contradictions, and material that appears to be missing. We'll cross those bridges when we come to them.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Editor's Note

Yesterday morning on my way in to work National Pubic Radio, as is its wont, featured a lengthy, slobbering interview with a wingnut voter, specifically in this case a Roy Moore supporter. He said he was actually a convert to Christianity. He portrayed himself as a skeptic, and said that if somebody tried to tell him what the Bible said he'd confirm it for himself.

Then he said that he was voting for Roy Moore because the Bible says that life begins at conception and abortion is murder.

News flash: it doesn't. Read the Bible, young man, from cover to cover, as I have done, and you will find that it does not contain one single word about abortion, or when life begins. The only possible exception is a ceremony described in DeuteronomyNumbers, which some people think is actually intended to induce abortion, although that is not clear.  In fact Christian condemnation of abortion is a modern innovation, dating only to the 19th Century. The complete lack of biblical authority for the Catholic and Evangelical position on abortion ought to be a major embarrassment, but the preachers and their sheep just pretend that it exists.

Surveys consistently find that atheists tend to know more about the Bible than do believers. The reason for that is that you cannot possibly simultaneously know the contents of the Bible; be sane; and be a Christian. It is full of contradictions, moral depravity, and absurdities.

Accordingly, I will start a new series on Sundays in which I read the Bible. Perhaps it will be educational.

(I started a similar project before, on a blog I maintained called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, but abandoned it due to lack of a suitable interlocutor. That was supposed to be a conversation with a believer. I'm just going to do this myself.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

Slightly off topic but not really?

Brexit is an obsession of Atrios but I have not had anything to say about it. However I think it is actually somewhat instructive for us. As Simon Wren-Lewis explains, the expectations Brexit advocates had were literally impossible. The most likely outcome at this point is that Britain continues to be constrained by all the rules of the European single market and customs union, but will no longer have a vote.

This is because the border between the nation of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland is an open border. The Irish, on both sides, will not stand for it becoming a closed border; while the Northern Irish will not stand for a closed border with the rest of the UK. Therefore there will have to be an open border between Britain and the European Union, and that will require that Britain continue to be a de facto member of the EU economic zone.

That also means that Britain will not be able to negotiate trade deals with other nations: Sayeth W-L:

The Brexiters’ dream was to rid the UK of the shackles of the EU so it could become great again, but it is a legacy of empire that has brought this dream to an end. All the stuff about bringing back the glory of a once great trading nation will not happen. Instead we will still be acting under the rules of the EU, but because we are not part of it the UK will be largely ignored on the world stage. A rather large country, which nevertheless gets other countries (like Ireland!) to set its trade and associated rules for it, and which it is therefore not worth bothering with in the international arena. A Britain that can no longer pretend to be a world power, not as a result of the actions of some left wing government, but because of the delusions of Brexiters.
Hmm. The Conservative government has to go through with this, however, or they will make themselves look stupid. Which they are, and which will become apparent to everybody in due course. Does this remind you of any, say, tax bills?

Friday, December 08, 2017

Southern Culture

You may be aware, or have some vague idea, that the bluegrass classic "Rocky Top" is the unofficial fight song of the University of Tennessee. It's a good song! It's also rather an odd choice for a university fight song.

It's about moonshiners who murder outsiders who come to their mountain. (Could be referring to law enforcement but doesn't explicitly say so.) The song boasts that they don't engage in agriculture, and by implication any productive activity, other than illegally distilling whiskey and consuming the product. The song also boasts about not having telephone service.

I do not think this represents the aspirations of the typical college student, even at the University of Tennessee. Nor would I think it describes their personal origins. It seems rather surprising that the university officials and Tennessee politicians who routinely evoke the song as a symbol of Tennessee pride want the state to be viewed in this way.

Perhaps people have some thoughts.

Required Reading

Quite a lot of discussion in the blogosphere of this study in Columbia Journalism Review but you must read it or you will be profoundly negligent. Bottom line, don't blame Fake News for the 2016 election, blame -- oh wait, do blame Fake News, specifically the New York Times.

Like I say, you must read it, but I'll give you a money shot. This is an analysis of New York Times coverage, but it is representative of the corporate media in general:

Of the 1,433 articles that mentioned Trump or Clinton, 291 were devoted to scandals or other personal matters while only 70 mentioned policy, and of these only 60 mentioned any details of either candidate’s positions. In other words, comparing the two datasets, the number of Personal/Scandal stories for every Policy story ranged from 3.4 (for front-page stories) to 4.2. Further restricting to Policy stories that contained some detail about at least one candidate’s positions, these ratios rise to 5.5 and 4.85, respectively. . . .

The problem is this: As has become clear since the election, there were profound differences between the two candidates’ policies, and these differences are already proving enormously consequential to the American people. . . . In light of the stark policy choices facing voters in the 2016 election, it seems incredible that only five out of 150 front-page articles that The New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail.

In this context, 10 is an interesting figure because it is also the number of front-page stories the Times ran on the Hillary Clinton email scandal in just six days, from October 29 (the day after FBI Director James Comey announced his decision to reopen his investigation of possible wrongdoing by Clinton) through November 3, just five days before the election. When compared with the Times’s overall coverage of the campaign, the intensity of focus on this one issue is extraordinary. To reiterate, in just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election (and that does not include the three additional articles on October 18, and November 6 and 7, or the two articles on the emails taken from John Podesta). This intense focus on the email scandal cannot be written off as inconsequential: The Comey incident and its subsequent impact on Clinton’s approval rating among undecided voters could very well have tipped the election.
Comes the question: Why? I should add that the e-mail "scandal" was not a scandal at all. Clinton's use of a private e-mail server was a) completely legal, b) consistent with State Department policy at the time, c) was done at the suggestion of Colin Powell, who did the same thing, and d) did not result in any leak of classified information. It is completely ginned up nonsense. By the way, she did not at any time lie to the FBI or anybody else about it, as the FBI has confirmed. No, it probably was not a good idea.

The editors of the Times have completely refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, errors in judgment, or responsibility.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Economics -101

Jonathan Chait has a few things to say about the Republicans in congress and their tax bill. As you may recall if you have not been in a coma for the past 9 years, the Republicans have been yelling and screaming that the federal budget deficit is a mortal threat to the long-term health of the economy and the very foundations of the Republic. Now they are in a mortal panic to pass a massive tax cut for the wealthy that will balloon the national debt by something like $14 trillion in the next decade.

They claim that won't happen because it will generate so much economic growth that the additional revenue will make up the difference. In fact, no reputable economist believes that, including right wingers who are normally in the Republicans' pocket. As Chait says:

Not even macroeconomic forecasters in the private sector — people putting real money behind the accuracy of their analyses — have concluded the tax cuts would come close to recouping their cost. Goldman Sachs forecasts the tax cuts would recoup just 20 percent of the lost revenue, and beginning in 2020, the growth effect “looks minimal and could actually be slightly negative.” A survey of 42 economists found only one who even agreed that, if the tax cut passes, economic growth “will be substantially higher a decade from now than under the status quo.” And even that endorsement of “substantially higher” growth falls short of endorsing the belief the tax cuts will be self-financing.
However, what will happen is that as soon as the deficit explodes, the Republicans will claim that we can no longer afford Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- although we can afford to expand the military budget -- because the deficit is unendurable. This is the game they have been playing ever since Ronald Reagan. The deficit exploded under Reagan and Bush I, was completely eliminated under the Clinton administration, exploded again under Bush II and was substantially reduced under Obama. Now the Republicans want to blow it up again and leave it for the Democrats to clean up. They are nothing but liars and hypocrites.

Also, too: Economists on the overall economic impact:

Though Republicans insisted repeatedly over the past few weeks that the $1.4 trillion in tax cuts, most of them geared toward wealthy individuals and corporations, would pay for themselves by stimulating economic growth, they presented no evidence to support their claims. Instead, the economists and former government officials predicted, the bill will drive up the federal deficit, shrink and destabilize the health care market, exacerbate already historic income inequality, and pressure Congress to make deep cuts to the social safety net and government programs.
 If you vote for Republicans, you are being conned. Duped. Used. Owned. Don't do it.

And also, too: This is pretty damn funny! Coal CEO: Senate tax plan 'wipes us out'

Friday, December 01, 2017

Not that he had his marbles to begin with . . .

. . . but retweeting the Britain First hate videos was batshit insane. Theresa May rather awkwardly find herself in Amman, Jordan as this is going on, where she had this to say:

The fact that we work together does not mean that we are afraid to say when we think that the United States have got it wrong and to be very clear with them. I am very clear that retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do. Britain First is a hateful organisation. It seeks to spread division and mistrust in our communities. It stands in fundamental opposition to the values that we share as a nation – values of respect, tolerance and, dare I say it, common decency.
So what does that say about Twittler? And here's Kim Darroch, Britain's ambassador to the United States:

British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right, which seek to divide communities & erode decency, tolerance & respect. British Muslims are peaceful and law abiding citizens. And I raised these concerns with the White House yesterday.
Here's Labor MP Stephen Doughty:

This is the president of the United States, sharing with millions inflammatory and divisive content, deliberately posted to sow hatred and division by, as the home secretary says, a convicted criminal who is facing further charges and who represents a vile fascist organisation seeking to spread hatred and violence in person and online. By sharing it, he is racist, incompetent or unthinking – or all three.
Britain First says it has received hundreds of membership applications  as a result of the "president's" action.

Here's what Mitch McConnell has said about it:

And here is Paul Ryan's response:

Update: I'll just add this from Michelle Goldberg:

If you think 2017 was bad, imagine an America without allies fighting another two-front war, this one involving nuclear weapons, under the leadership of the most hated president in modern history, while a torture apologist runs the C.I.A. The world right now is a powder keg. Trump, an untethered maniac, sits atop it, flicking a lighter that Republicans in Congress could take away, but won’t. If everything goes up in flames, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Monday, November 27, 2017

I'll retire to bedlam

The minus signs in the above might confuse you so let me make this clear -- a negative number means you pay less in taxes, a positive number means you pay more -- except for the poor, for whom the calculus also accounts for reduced federal subsidies for health care. The Cut Cut Cut! act also adds $1.4 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years. So if you make less than $75,000 a year, the Republicans -- the party of small government and fiscal responsibility -- want to raise your taxes to partially pay for a massive tax cut for rich people.

Why do they want to do this? They claim that it will boost economic growth and wages, but that is a lie. The reason for this is because Republican politicians are beholden to obscenely rich donors, not voters.

Speaking now for the academic community, the House bill does the following:

  • Imposes a 1.4% tax on income from university endowments. This income is used to provide financial aid, graduate student fellowships, summer internships and research awards for students, and faculty research.
  • Taxes tuition waivers for graduate students as income. Since the students will be taxed on income that they never actually see in the form of money, it will be impossible for them to pay it. That means only people with rich parents will be able to get doctorates.
  • Eliminates the tax deduction for student loan interest, further restricting educational opportunity for low and moderate income people.
Of course, Republicans don't like universities or people with advanced degrees because they don't like truth and knowledge. They prefer a world in which they can spout lies and nobody will sort out truth from falsehood. Maybe they'll get their wish.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Keep your government hands off my Medicare

For some reason the corporate media doesn't bother to point out that the Republican tax bill, whether the House or Senate version, will perforce immediately cut Medicare by $25 billion and force ever deeper cuts in the years ahead. This is because existing law requires cuts in spending to make up for tax cuts. The congressional leadership and the head of the Office of Management and Budget are hostile to Medicare -- they want to eliminate it entirely. This is true.

Remember that in the 2010 midterms, the Republicans claimed that the Affordable Care Act cut Medicare and that they were the defenders of Medicare against Democrats. The claim about the ACA was misleading at best -- it reduced some payments to providers but did not cut benefits. But enough voters believed them to produce big Republican gains. The current Resident campaigned on a promise to protect Medicare and Medicaid, but of course he was lying, as he is every time his lips move.

Do you or your parents or grandparents depend on Medicare? You might mention this to them, since CNN won't.

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.