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      Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – August 18, 2019 by Tony Wikrent Economics Action Group, North Carolina Democratic Party Progressive Caucus Strategic Political Economy Rebecca Gordon, How the U.S. Created the Central American Immigration Crisis [TomDispatch, via Naked Capitalism 8-16-19] How the Supreme Court Is Rebranding Corruption — Ciara Torres-Spelli […]
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Gruber, Serial and Stupidity

Jonathan Gruber thinks you’re stupid.

Much has been made recently of Jonathan Gruber, ACA architect, giving away the game when he admitted that creating and passing the bill depended in part on the stupidity of Americans. There were also a lot of Democrats who relied on that. Even now, those of us forced in to buying these junk health insurance plans at inflated prices, or suffer a penalty that doesn’t fall on those blessed with employer based plans, are told to suck it up because it’s for our own good or the good of some other person. It’s funny that the moralizing seems to be falling on our heads all of the time but not on those people temporarily secure in their jobs that pay bennies. How is this different than the fundy Republicans who are always telling us that if something bad happens to us, it must be something we’ve done and not just a series of unfortunate events that have happened while they idly stood by and watched?

But I digress.

I won’t beat a dead horse about how the Obama administration has been counting on the stupidity of the people that voted it into office since 2008. The administration and it’s campaign managers are, after all, the “culture of smartness” that runs the finance industry. I think we are all on the same page about that now, are we not? Some of us came to that conclusion sooner than others, mainly because our former jobs consisted of sorting out patterns and data and not believing things that were not supported by evidence.  It doesn’t make us better people or smarter people but it does help just enough to know who’s bulls%^&&ing.

I have to believe that if Americans were better trained, they would have spotted the missing data when it came to Obama’s true opinions on the wars. They might have been more attuned to the misogynism coursing through the campaign stops. After the election, they might have noticed that the administration coasted on the Lily Ledbetter Act as if it ensured paycheck fairness when it clearly did no such thing. They might have made a bigger fuss about the fact that the Obama administration only tweaked slightly the Bush Conscience Rule until recently. Or that in spite of Obama’s evolution on LGBT concerns, federal contracts were still allowed to discriminate. They might have caught on sooner to the flaws with HAMP. Or holding the bankers accountable. You know, stuff like that.

It’s the kind of thing the Obama administration is famous for.  It announces things, initiatives, changes, to make Americans think it’s doing something and then it quietly doesn’t really do them. It depends on your stupidity and the fact that you will quickly dismiss anyone they have previously labelled as a “racist” because the troublemaker and naysayer hasn’t gratefully accepted their portion of poisoned mushrooms. (Have you ever had to prove you’re not a racist? Go ahead and try it. The burden of proof is on the accused regardless of the motive of the accuser. You can be perfectly innocent and have hundreds of character witnesses. It only takes one person with a particular goal in mind and a very big microphone to ruin your reputation.)

Anyway, I keep wondering why it is that the people who should be better critical thinkers can be so clueless. Why is it so many of us keep falling for the same old lies and misdirection? Some of it can be attributed to the fact that we are herd animals and usually adopt the opinions of those people in our immediate cohort but it’s really quite puzzling how so many of us manage to screw up so often.

Take Serial, for example. The podcast is a little more than half way through its exploration of the murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her former boyfriend Adnan Syed for the murder. I am a faithful follower and have come to the conclusion that Adnan Syed was not found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He shouldn’t be behind bars. He is not guilty for the same reason that Casey Anthony was not guilty for the crime of killing her daughter Caylee, and that is, there is no physical evidence tying Adnan to the crime and plenty of clues that someone else did it. In particular, Adnan’s friend, Jay, who was the prime witness in this trial, had the motive, the means and, most crucially, knew where Hae Min Lee’s car was parked. He lead police right to it.

Years later, Jay is refusing to talk to Sarah Koenig, Serial’s investigator, about the crime. But where Serial’s team, and many Slate readers, see this as Jay’s trying to move on past a painful period of his life, I see it as an attempt to avoid self-incrimination. After all, Jay was never tried for Hae’s murder and it’s possible that something he says will trip him up and revive the case, this time in a different direction.

But what really floors me is the number of Slate readers who are still not convinced that there’s been a huge miscarriage of justice in this case against Adnan. Two weeks ago, Koenig spoke to an innocence project type team and they all came to the same conclusion that I did. This case shouldn’t have come to trial. There wasn’t enough evidence. It looks like Adnan’s conviction and sentence of life in prison relied heavily on the fact that the jury was easily lead, impressed by in court demeanor and the fact that Adnan did not testify on his own behalf. There is also the very real possibility that the jury was influenced by ethnic, racial or cultural issues.

Then, there was something the innocence project lawyer said that stuck with me. She said that when reviewing this case, they needed to give Adnan back the presumption of innocence. Everyone is entitled to that in court. But in this podcast, we are starting with a presumption of guilt that Adnan must somehow overcome. The deck is stacked against him because he is always trying to prove a negative and it’s not difficult to come up with exceptions that don’t conclusively rule him out as a suspect. But what keeps getting buried in all this is that there is no physical evidence tying Adnan to the crime and very little attempt by the prosecution to come up with any. There’s not a single hair, clump of dirt or strand of DNA that links Adnan with the crime. Thousands of people in Baltimore can’t account for their whereabouts on the day of the murder. The only thing that links this one individual with the victim is a past relationship that ended amicably, the dubious account of a former friend and some inconclusive cell phone records. How do you send a 17 year old to jail for life without parole on that?

I get that the jury was fooled. But after all that we’ve heard in this case, it is baffling to me that so many presumably educated readers and listeners still have doubts. Don’t mistake what I’m asserting here. I’m not saying Adnan is innocent. I’m saying there’s not enough to go on to convict him and a disturbing amount of material to point to someone else. But the listeners are not looking at the evidence. They are all caught up in perceptions of likeability and innocence. And beneath it all is the frightening possibility that we have trained a generation of citizens to give equal weight to the other side even when the argument is full of holes. We have lost our ability to evaluate accurately. The concept that there must be something there or an innocent kid was thrown in jail does not automatically strengthen the case for doing so. Similarly, just because Jay is a well spoken, polite kid on the stand doesn’t mean he’s a good person.

It’s depressing. We just don’t seem to have the collective IQ to think our way out of most deceptions.

What is the purpose of Serial anyway? Why take a case so badly flawed and present it as a real mystery? What if the real mystery is why couldn’t the justice system figure this out? What if Koenig is out to expose something else entirely? Why are we so stupid? And is it leading to punishment and injustice on a grander scale?

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Bernie Sanders and the $1Million dollar drug innovation prize

Bernie Sanders sent out a tweet yesterday pointing to a Slate article from 2008.  It’s a proposal for revamping the patent system.  The idea is to reward drug innovators with a $1Million dollar prize instead of a patent.

 

When I told the BFF about it, he said, “Great!  What do we do on day 2?”

Seriously, Bernie, this is not necessarily a bad idea.  There are a lot of drug innovators out of work right now, or their work situations are very precarious.  This is especially true of medicinal chemists who specialize in transforming chemical scaffolds into drugs.  Then there are people like yours truly who design drugs who are vamping until our next gigs.

The problem is that drug research is incredibly expensive.  Any idea we have has to be ordered or made, and then tested.  There will have to be multiple assays run to verify structure activity relationships and biological activity.  Then there is the gauntlet of safety analyses required by the FDA.  It could work in a virtual environment but it requires the drug innovator to assemble a pharmaceutical company by themselves and presumably that $1M prize would have to be used to pay all of the contributors back.  After all, pharmacologists have to eat too.  What I fear would happen with the prizes is that desperate innovators would end up signing all their rights away to venture capitalists in order to make payroll while they’re starting up and going through the necessary iterations to prove a concept.

In other words, it’s not enough to live on or start to innovate, especially when one considers that it takes years and overhead expenses of the painstaking trials and errors to bring a drug to market.  Incubators have a very high failure rate.  I’m sure that the incubator model is just perfect for someone out there looking to feed on carrion but for labrats with families?   Ehhhhhh, not so much.  How do you bring down the startup costs?

I have a better idea.  The government can start its own companies.  Right now, pharmaceutical companies are trying to shed or tear down their labs in the US.  They want to rent the space to incubators but frequently, the price is too high for little companies.  In the end, it’s cheaper to just demolish them.  Buy the suckers up along with the equipment.  Better yet, snap up the old labs in the midwest.  That way, the scientists you need to hire to run the places can afford to live there on reasonable salaries.  Give us a place to do what we love and let us make the management decisions without the constant restructuring and mergers.  Then, we’ll sell the patents back to the government for a dollar.  That’s the going rate at the old pharma I used to work for.  It’s a fair deal.  You get dedicated scientists who can focus on their work without worrying about losing their houses and their kids’ college funds and you get the patents you need to bring the costs of prescription drugs down.

While you’re at it, reform and update the FDA so new drug entities can come to market.  You’re also going to have to level with the public about drug safety.  It is going to have to assume some level of risk or new drugs will never make it.

The big pharma companies won’t like it much.  In fact, I can already hear them howling and marshalling their army of lobbyists.  In general, I’m sympathetic to their predicament but if they hadn’t bet the pharm on short term solutions instead of the hard work to fix a broken system, they wouldn’t be in mess they’re in.  This is where we are in terms of drug innovation: research for antibiotics, cardiovascular, CNS and reproductive health drugs are getting severely scaled back by big pharma.  The big companies are going after biologicals, which have their own set of problems.  Well, alright then, let the pharmas knock themselves out on antibodies and have the government focus on the other therapeutic areas they have decided to pass on.

So, go, Bernie, but think this through thoroughly. You want to set it up in a way that makes it resistant to political games.  What pharma research needs is stability in order to innovate.  Any potential public-private partnerships need to be set up in way that protects and preserves this country’s scientific infrastructure and allows innovation without the chaos of the quarterly earnings report.  In other words, R&D has to be sequestered from the pressures of the business environment to some extent.  Just as you don’t want your insurance company deciding your medical treatment, you don’t want MBAs directing research.

Make sure to consult people in the R&D industry who are already in the process of setting up their own mom&pop drug companies in their garages.  That means you need to talk to the people who actually do the work, not the management class.  You will get a completely different assessment of what is broken in the current system and how to repair it.  You will have to compensate us well enough to induce a future generation of scientists to discover drugs.  That’s because this is hard work, requiring years of study and lab experience.  It has to be rewarded appropriately.  Health care and pensions would be very attractive.  But in the end, it could be a bargain.

Tuesday: Science, politics and niche theory

Update: I totally missed this.  The FCC is proposing new rules for broadband and wireless providers.  Depending on whether you have a landline method of delivery or wireless, your internet stream will be regulated differently.  This is particularly important because the world is going wireless so it could be a coup for the masters of the universe that want more control of content and how much you will pay for it.  They’re already gouging us.  Why make it easier for them to control what you can have and how fast?  We already lag Romania in terms of internet connection speed.  Romania.

According to the report “2010 Report of Internet Speeds in All 50 States” released recently by the Communications Workers of America (CWA):

“The report shows that the rate of increase in U.S. Internet connection speed is so slow, it will take the United States 60 years to catch up with current Internet speeds in South Korea, the country with the fastest Internet connections.”

It’s inexcusable that we’re going to let wireless companies off the hook and not make them invest in their infrastructure.  Allowing them two tiered data plans gives them exactly what they want: more money without having to lift a finger to improve their equipment.

ROMANIA.

Jeez, just twenty years ago, Ceaucescu was running the country, it was dark and dreary, there was nothing to buy there and babies in orphanages were dying from HIV infected blood transfusions.  Now, they have better internet access than we do.  I have an iPhone in central NJ and I still can’t get a signal in my office at work right in the heart of AT&T country.  How can lawmakers even contemplate this kind of change without requiring wireless companies to get with the program that the rest of the world enjoys?

Unbelievable.

Moving on…

Yesterday, I was perusing Derek Lowe’s pharma chem blog, In the Pipeline, and he had a post up called Politics in the Lab about a recent article in Slate with the weird title “Most Scientists in this Country are Democrats.  That’s a problem”.  I don’t know that’s a problem and I’m not sure it’s even true, but I’ll get to that below.

The chewy center of this article seems to be that until there are more Republican scientists, the field won’t be bipartisan enough to get its point across.  Huh?  The author states:

Yet, partisan politics aside, why should it matter that there are so few Republican scientists? After all, it’s the scientific facts that matter, and facts aren’t blue or red.

Well, that’s not quite right. Consider the case of climate change, of which beliefs are astonishingly polarized according to party affiliation and ideology. A March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats(and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?

It doesn’t seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic.

Yet there is clearly something going on that is as yet barely acknowledged, let alone understood. As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more “science literacy” as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.

Ahem.  I find this article truly disturbing for several reasons.  But let’s go back to YearlyKos2 in Chicago when Pharyngula of ScienceBlogs, presided over a panel on Science and the public or some silly title.  I was shocked by how arrogant and dismissive the panel was of the average American who didn’t believe in climate change and evolution.  Yeah, I know how incredibly frustrating it is to get family members to buy into evolution.  But I’ve made peace with the fact that if I describe the theory of natural selection well enough, they will accept it without having to go back to the beginnings of time to find out where God is in the picture.  It can be done.  You have to choose your battles.

What’s frustrating to me is that there are a lot of Democrats who are just as irrational and gullible.  Their fears and misunderstandins are just different- nuclear energy, genetically modified seeds, colony collapse, thimerosol in innoculations (that absolutely do not cause autism).  I’ve argued with many of them to no avail.  They are as resistent to facts as creationists.  It has been particularly frustrating when it comes to pharmaceutical science where many people on the left, and you dear reader may be one of them, are convinced that the researchers are cold, heartless, profit driven monsters who are either making nothing but “Me too!” drugs or don’t care if they make poisons that only serve to treat some manufactured quality of life problem or they get all their ideas from government sponsored labs and don’t contribute anything.  They just take, take, take and never give back.  Admit it.  That’s what some of you think, right?  (If I were you, I’d ask myself who benefits from that perception?)  But I don’t really want to go there right now.  That’s not my point.

Here’s my point: Not everyone is cut out to be a scientist.  That’s why people don’t go into the field.  It means studying lots of math, wrapping your head around stuff like quantum theory (which isn’t necessarily impossibly hard to understand but it is very, very weird) and spending hours in a lab hunched over smelly chemicals and microscopes.  Some people take their required science courses in high school, get a passing grade and move on.  And that’s fine.  The world needs writers and mechanics and accountants and elementary ed teachers too.  It’s not that the field is too hard.  If you are diligent and motivated enough, you can learn anything.  But some people just aren’t passionate about science. If it’s not your  niche, that’s OK.

But if that’s the case, please don’t pontificate on science.  I don’t care if you’re right or left.  Just don’t.  You sound uninformed to those of us who do it for a living.  Like most Americans, Democrats find it just as hard to assess risk and can be just as gullible when it comes to evaluating the merits of a science article in the New York Times.  That kind of analytical ability comes with time and from reading a lot of papers.  There are even some bloggers who I love in most every respect except when they go off on a science jag.  Then they quickly lose their mojo and I just have to walk away shaking my head.  And I don’t think that the labs are teeming with Democrats.  There may be a slight tilt that way but there are just as many Republicans in the lab as Democrats.  Most people I know are independents.  In my humble opinion, Democrats are born that way; Republicans evolve.  And when Republican scientists evolve, they become management, which may mean that they are finding their own niches.

Now, don’t go away mad.  I’m not saying that Democratic bloggers should never discuss science.  And I’m not saying scientists are knowledgeable about every field.  We’re not.  Gawd knows I struggle every day to understand new science.  Things remain a mystery until you beat your head on the bench long enough.  What I am saying is that if it isn’t your cup of tea, proceed with caution.  If you *are* interested in a particular area of science or science issue du jour, you owe it to yourself to read up on the subject in the way that any scientist would.  Dig into it by learning all you can from people in the field before you pop off some opinion. Learn to evaluate data (BTW, the nomination of Obama during the 2008 primary season should put to rest the notion that Democrats are better at evaluating evidence. Really, there’s nothing to crow about there guys.).  

Now, where can you get information about science?  First, if you have an eReader of any kind, you can find free text books in just about any subject.  Second, our government does an outstanding job providing resources to the public through such sites as PubMed and PubChem where you can find abstracts and links to scientific literature, entire genomes, sequences, chemical structures and their properties, etc. The abstracts are free, the actual articles may not be.  You can purchase access to full articles through several services at nominal cost. There are tools like BLAST to compare nucleic acid and protein sequences, a database repository of protein structures in the RCSB, and lots of other sites of open source information in easy to use interfaces.  Some of them come with java viewers so that you can rotate molecules of interest.  If you wanted to start your own pharma, be a real entrepeneur, like the Republicans are always advocating, there’s plenty of free stuff online to use.  This is real time, up to date information, free to the public from the NIH and other government funded sources. We share our information with the world and the world with us.  That’s the way we advance science.  The sites belong to us, courtesy of us, the US taxpayer, and it’s one of the most valuable things we do.  Third, there are some popular blogs and podcasts out there where new science is covered in detail but also explained thoroughly for the non-science type.  I recommend the Naked Scientists from Cambridge University in the UK.  Their podcasts are challenging but fun and they will not talk down to you.

If there is one thing you can do for science this year, it’s advocate for the continuation of these valuable online tools.

One more thing:  Derek linked to a survey from the Pew Foundation on the public view of science.  You can test your scientific knowledge and get your score compared to the rest of the country by taking this online quiz.  I scored a 100%.  Nyah-nyah!