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It is a very detestable, grotesque argument that has never been made with so little evidence or reason.

[ 0 ] July 31, 2008 |

I don’t have much to add to this appropriately purple reaction to Herr Pantload’s latest trip to the Diaper Genie. I will, however, draw attention to Goldberg’s atrocious implication that John Carlos and Tommie Smith are somehow responsible for the massacre of Israeli wrestlers and their coaches at the ’72 Munich Games:

China is using the Olympics to paper over the brutality of its repressive regime, just as Hitler did in 1936. In 1972, Palestinian terrorists — grateful for 1968’s lesson in the propaganda value of Olympics media attention — slaughtered Israeli athletes. Nations are political entities, so you can’t take the politics out of national rivalries.

And you can’t take the doughnuts out of Jonah Goldberg’s hands, lest he jam them back into his pants again.

But seriously. That just might be the most abject stream of fuckuppery ever to appear under the Doughboy’s byline.

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Libertarians: Sometimes Right

[ 32 ] July 31, 2008 |

To push the points made by Matt further, [update: and to disagree with Ezra], I have to say that libertarians are right about regulations banning further fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. First of all, I object to the ends of the legislation, because I don’t think for the most part it’s the job of government to make basic health/pleasure tradeoffs involving food for its citizens. This isn’t to say that I’m a strict libertarian. I have no objection at all to NYC-type regulations requiring restaurants to inform customers about the nutritional content of their food: allowing customers to make informed choices is a necessary and desirable function of the state (and I would think that even a sophisticated libertarian should see these regulations as acceptable.) I also support the recent bans on trans fat bans in New York and L.A. because they represent a substantial benefit for public health while having a trivial effect on consumer choice (indeed, in most cases using alternative fats will make food not only healthier but better.) But these goals are going to far; I don’t think suppressing the market for fast food like this makes much sense.

But even if I thought that the end was a legitimate function of government, as Ezra says there’s the additional problem that it’s not clear if the policy has any chance of accomplishing its ends. It would be nice if a lot of Burger Kings and Carl’s Jrs. got replaced by cheap, high-quality, low-margin grocery stores, and it would also be nice if I had points on The Dark Knight‘s gross, and the policy in question is equally as likely to accomplish both. And there’s no magical health or even taste advantages that derive from having sitdown service; I’d rather have a Wendy’s near me than an Applebee’s or Denny’s. Suppressing one type of business in the hope that a better one will spring up in its place is not a plan, and the food policies that encourage fast food chains over good indpenedent restaurants and good food stores need to be addressed at the federal level.

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Manny Being Marlin

[ 6 ] July 31, 2008 |

Whoa–this would be something if it happens. My initial impulse was to say that this is making Boston’s season look all the more 2005ish, but it’s not that bad. It helps the Red Sox in the future because Ramirez was pretty clearly gone after this year anyway, and when you factor in defense Bay’s probably not actually much worse. A lot depends on Bay’s defense, which his hard to read; his numbers are all over the place. If he does the job in the field, it could work out well even this year.

It’s also an interesting move by Florida, who seem to be doubling down: having an good offensive team with poor defense, they’ve added…a world-class hitting butcher. Their lineup becomes pretty fierce, although Manny playing a left field of that size is pretty frightening.

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Political Culture, or Feckless Political Elite?

[ 28 ] July 31, 2008 |

Houston has a problem:

Houston recycles just 2.6 percent of its total waste [30th among the 30 largest American cities], according to a study this year by Waste News, a trade magazine. By comparison, San Francisco and New York recycle 69 percent and 34 percent of their waste respectively. Moreover, 25,000 Houston residents have been waiting as long as 10 years to get recycling bins from the city.


“We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up,” said Mayor Bill White, who favors expanding the city’s recycling efforts. “Houstonians are skeptical of anything that appears to be oversold or exaggerated. But Houstonians can change, and change fast.”

Ooh, an independent streak! But wait…

Even largely blue-collar Milwaukee and the rival Texas metropolis of Dallas, both with larger recycling budgets and smaller populations, have significantly higher recycling rates than Houston.

Dallas’ rate is roughly five times that of Houston. I guess the people of Dallas-Fort Worth don’t have an independent streak.

But city officials say the biggest barrier to recycling in Houston is cheap landfill fees. It only costs $32 to dispose of a ton of waste here, compared with $70 in the Northeast, according to the National Solid Wastes Management Association’s latest survey, in 2005.

Some reject that argument, however, citing other cities with even lower landfill fees.

“Blaming landfills is a completely flawed argument, old-fashioned thinking that is really just laziness,” said Eric Lombardi, the director of Ecocycle, the nation’s largest nonprofit recycler, in Boulder, Colo.

Mr. Lombardi’s operation claims a 60 percent recycling rate, despite landfill fees of $15 a ton — less than half of Houston’s costs. With commodity prices at a record high, he said, if recycling can be profitable “in my landlocked state without easy access to buyers like China, then it can be profitable anywhere.”

What we seem to have here is a city political class that’s unwilling to make the effort to make the case for recycling. This political class would appear to be using political culture (“we rebel against anything trendy or hyped up”) as an excuse not to invest more in the infrastructure necessary to maintain a recycling program. It doesn’t help, of course, that the state of Texas seems utterly uninterested in pushing Houston to do anything useful. Here’s a critical line:

About 25,000 households are on the waiting list for the bins, but the city says it cannot afford more bins. Those without the special bins must cart their recyclable garbage to one of just nine full-service drop-off depots in the city.

Right. The problem isn’t that 7% of the city’s households are being denied recycling bins because of lack of funding; instead, it’s all about the independent streak. Makes it seem more democratic if you put it that way.

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Hurlburt-Farley Death Match

[ 1 ] July 31, 2008 |

Heather Hurlburt and I have an entirely-too-cordial discussion at Bloggingheads…

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[ 27 ] July 30, 2008 |

Detroit media outlets reporting Yankees have acquired Ivan Rodriguez. No word on what the Tigers got.

While obviously not close to the player he was in his prime, IRod is an exactly average AL hitter at this point, which makes him a better than average hitter for a catcher. Even though his defensive skills have deteriorated quite a bit from their once unparalleled height, he’s still a much better gloveman than Posada.

Hopefully Dave Dombrowski pried away a couple of good prospects, and this isn’t a salary dump (doesn’t seem likely as he’s a free agent at the end of the season).

BTW Rodriguez is only about 90 games away from the all-time MLB record for games caught.

Update: Sweet Jebus, apparently it’s a straight-up deal for Kyle Farnsworth. I’m a big fan of Dombrowski but if that’s accurate that’s ridiculous.

Further update: Just remembered that if anybody signs him as a free agent after this season the team that loses him gets two compensatory draft picks between the first and second round. So it looks like Detroit traded two months of IRod for Kyle Farnsworth and a couple of late first/early second round picks. I know Farnsworth has been decent this year but come on . . .

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Obama’s Mythical "Woman Problem"

[ 10 ] July 30, 2008 |

Shorter Carol Marin: “Data is the plural of anecdote! And arbitrary subdivisions of broader classes — even Dick Morris can see the logic of that!”

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Hands around a white man’s throat

[ 18 ] July 30, 2008 |

I suppose you’d have to be one of the more deliberately uninformed assholes on the planet — which is to say, you’d have to be Dan Riehl — to make this sort of argument:

The first “American” slaves weren’t black, they were white and usually from Europe. Shouldn’t we be given special credit for being first and all that?

Also, it was in large part a system of laws and government, otherwise known as Western Civilization, established in Europe that was most likely the primary reason why there weren’t even more European slaves brought to America. The societies there were somewhat able to protect their own. Logically, then, isn’t it ultimately the fault of an under-civilized tribal system which could not protect its own that is a key reason for why traders in men and women turned to another continent for more “product?” It was simply easier to be had, particularly, and often with the cooperation of competing tribes. In that sense, it would seem to me that the black descendants of slaves in America should really be thinking about apologizing to themselves.

Remarkable. I’m not sure what’s more obnoxious (or predictable) here: the overused cliche that Africans are to blame for the labor system that ensnared them; the ahistorical confusion of slavery with convict and orphan labor redemptioners and indentured servants; or the amnesia that allows one to forget that the first conscripted laborers in the Western Hemisphere were the people who happened to be living there when Europeans arrived. But I suppose that’s what makes Reihl such a special presence in the conservative blogosphere. Unlike your average wingnut, he’s not satisfied with merely one inane argument against the greatest act of white racial treachery since the Harper’s Ferry raid a meaningless Congressional apology for slavery and Jim Crow; instead, he offers a cornucopia of dumb.

That’s the sort of fortitude his kidnapped orphan great(x7)-grandfather must have needed to endure all those cold nights sleeping in a Pennsylvania hog pen.

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Fall Woman

[ 0 ] July 30, 2008 |

I agree with Turley and Bazelon that it will be pathetic if Monica Goodling ends up taking all of the responsibility for the frequently illegal cronyism and ineptitude at the DOJ. It’s a nice scam they have going: immunize the subordinate so she can discuss illegal reactions without risk, while expecting that nothing she reveals will be used to go after her superiors. I wish I could say that it wouldn’t work, but…

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The Real Drug War

[ 83 ] July 30, 2008 |

A top government research scientist I know has a theory about the “obesity epidemic.” Dr. X isn’t allowed to speak on the record to the media about X’s work without getting permission from X’s superiors (one thing that came as a shock to me when I started studying this stuff was the extent to which U.S. government scientists are censored by their employer) so X calls and emails me a lot to complain about the craziness currently engulfing X’s field.

X’s theory is that most of the current panic over fat is a product of a simple and cynical swindle: The pharmaceutical industry wants to increase the market for its products, so it spends lots of money in all sorts of creative ways in order to generate a sense of crisis, fueled by ridiculously unscientific definitions of what constitutes “diseases” that require “treatment.”

This NYT story, about medicating “overweight” and “obese” children, is a classic example. The news hook for the piece is that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending prescribing statins to kids as young as eight, as a response to — of course — the “childhood obesity crisis.” (I hate having to use so many scare quotes but there’s no good alternative when the discourse you’re analyzing consists of a bunch of terms that don’t actually make any sense).

As per usual the piece includes no explanation of the current definitions of overweight and obesity in children, let alone any hint of where those definitions come from, or why they might be controversial. Instead, its sole representative of these categories is a 267-pound 13-year-old girl whose grandmother’s leg was amputated as a consequence of diabetes. The author, Stephanie Saul, then adds that kids this fat were rarely seen more than ten years ago, but now as many as 30% of America’s children are “overweight.”

The piece, also per usual, is structured around a debate between people who want to make kids thinner via lifestyle interventions and those who say we tried that and it doesn’t work so now we have to drug them. Dr. X laughs and laughs when s/he reads this stuff: “The drug companies love these stories! Yes, by all means, lets debate whether we should use lifestyle interventions or drugs to ‘treat’ ‘overweight kids.’ Guess what? Lifestyle interventions never ‘work.’ Ever! Just like with adults. So I guess it’s time for Plan B — Lipitor for eight-year-olds!”

Some history: Until about a decade ago, there was no medical definiton of overweight or obesity in children. The Body Mass Index definitons for adults (BMI 25 = overweight, BMI 30 = obese) were considered inappropriate for kids, in part because BMI correlates positively with height in children (taller children have marginally higher BMI than shorter kids). Another reason was that there was very little data on correlations between weight and health risk in children.

But in the 1990s, as panic over fat in America began to build, people at the big federal public health agencies were put under pressure to come up with some definitions. As UCLA sociologist Abigail Saguy has suggested, the current concern over body weight displays many of the features of a moral panic — and moral panics often end up focusing on children.

So definitions were created. A complex bureacratic process at the Centers for Disease Control, which was beginning to get into obesity panic in a big way, ended up spitting out the following labels: kids in the 95th percentile of body mass for their age would be declared “overweight,” while those in the 85th and up would be labeled “at risk for overweight.”

It’s important to understand that these definitions were completely statistical, rather than outcome-based. In other words, they were based on literally no data whatsoever suggesting that these cutoffs correlated with increased risk for any particular medical problem, let alone increased mortality risk. CDC simply drew a couple of statistical lines and attached labels to everybody on one side of them — thereby pathologizing the bodies of millions of American children for no better reason that someone (lets call this person “William Dietz“) thought it was a good idea to do so.

Now a question that might occur to you is, if these are the definitions, why do I keep reading stories in the New York Times about how 30% of America’s children are “overweight?” How is that statistically possible? The answer is that, for those who are profiting from the panic over an “epidemic of childhood obesity,” the great disadvantage of these definitions is that they don’t allow for epidemics, which are by definition increases over some statistical baseline.

This problem was solved by using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey . This is the best data pool available on the health of the American population: NHANES has followed a statistically representative sample of Americans for several decades now. By examining the early versions of NHANES, it was possible to compare the weight of children today to those from the 1960s and 1970s. This data shows that in the late 1990s around 30% of children had a body mass that would have been in the 85th percentile or higher in the early NHANES surveys. Bingo: Epidemic!

Meanwhile, Dietz started lobbying to get CDC’s terminology changed. He wanted to change the definitions so that the 95th percentile of BMI among children in the early NHANES data would now be considered “obese” (not “overweight”), and the 85th percentile in the same 30 and 40 year-old data would be used to define “overweight” (not “at risk for overweight”). This is a battle he seems to have won.

So we’ve gone practically overnight from a situation where 5% of America’s children were defined as “overweight” according to an almost completely arbitrary definition, to one in which around 15% are now “obese” and more than 30% are “overweight,” by even more radically arbitrary definitions — even though America’s children weigh no more than they did ten years ago.

And none of this, of course, even begins to address such basic questions as whether the weight of American children 40 years ago (when malnutrition was more common than it is today) was “better” than it is at present — an extraordinarily complex question, given the complexity of the enormous number of medical, scientific, economic, political, social, and cultural variables involved.

One thing that frustrates Dr. X no end is that, just as in the case of adult definitions of “overweight” and “obesity,” people have no idea what any of this means. “The 85th percentile of body mass in NHANES I and II is nowhere close to what people think of as a fat child,” s/he tells me. “These are ordinary-sized kids. But people hear “childhood obesity” and in their heads they see a 250-pound ten year old.” (Of course the New York Times story is a perfect illustration).

Which brings us back to statins. Consider the following:

(1) There is little evidence that statins are an effective primary prevention tool for lessening the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in adults. The tables in this story about a recent meta-analysis of the data from eight large studies show no statistically significant lessening of risk for mortality, or serious adverse medical events, among adults using statins for primary prevention of heart disease (that is, adults who don’t already have heart disease). Nor was there any lessening of risk for cardiovascular disease in women. The only group that seemed to benefit from using statins to lessen the risk of heart disease (although not mortality risk or medical risk overall) consisted of high risk men under the age of 70 — and even there the effect was marginal enough that it brings into question whether the cost of use was worth the benefit.

(2) There is no data at all on what effect statins have on children in terms of disease risk.

In other words, what the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending is that an (enormously profitable) class of drugs that seem to be of little or no value to adults who don’t already have heart disease be given to eight-year-old children, on the grounds of the following chain of reasoning:

There is a very weak association (approximately .10) between CVD risk and obesity in adults. It’s possible that statins might be of benefit to adults who don’t already have CVD although we don’t actually have any data at this point demonstrating that. It’s possible that “overweight” kids might develop as adults the very weak association between CVD risk and heart disease seen in “obese” adults, although we have no data on that either. Therefore it’s also possible that giving statins to kids might benefit them somehow in the future, although we have less than no data on that.


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The Suspense Is Over!

[ 30 ] July 29, 2008 |

I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath to see which wholly arbitrary subdivision of the center-right white bourgeoisie Mark Penn would invent this year and claim requires the maximum amount of pandering. The answer is: “active grannies.” Hopefully lazy journalists looking for think-pieces composed entirely of cliches will update their vocabularies accordingly!

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Apocalypse Now

[ 38 ] July 29, 2008 |

I’ve just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Robert Farley reviewed on LGM back when it was published a couple of years ago. I hadn’t read anything by McCarthy before, and was very impressed with his stylistic talents, which reminded me of a sort of poor man’s Joyce, in the same sense that Bobby Bonds was a poor man’s Willie Mays, i.e., a great player in his own right, although one who could be harmed by too much being made of a loose parallel.

It’s a compelling book, and it made me want to touch on something Rob mentioned in his original review, which is the enduring popularity of apocalyptic literature in American culture — a genre that’s diverse enought to include, among many other things, Jonathan Edwards sermons, and Jonathan Schell New Yorker articles, and the frighteningly successful Left Behind series.

My sense is that this tradition is wrapped up with a deep if largely unconscious cultural faith that in some sense America represents the End of History, and that there’s nowhere to go from here than up (or down). It’s a kind of millenialism that gets expressed in both obviously religious contexts, but also in the world views of various secular ideologues, who use supposed American exceptionalism to justify all sorts of utopian views of their own, that end up producing a kind of apocalyptic imperialism. The City on a Hill Reagan rhetoric drew on this tradition, as does the “national greatness” conservatism of McCain, who sees foreign policy in terms of a single idea: that America is a unique country that has a special obligation to bring freedom and justice to the whole world (Bush II used to talk this way, but the disturbing thing about McCain is that he seems to take such ideas far more seriously).

A curious thing about the psychology of utopianism and anti-utopianism, or optimistic and pessimistic eschatologies, is how quickly they shift. In the first years of the 20th century, as Orwell notes somewhere in a passage I’m too lazy to look up at the moment, the knowledge classes had a largely unlimited faith in progress, technology, and a great gleaming future of concrete and steel. By the late 1940s it was a routine assumption that civilization would blow itself up definitively within a few decades at the most. (Richard Feynman wrote about how the day after the atom bomb he helped build was detonated over Hiroshima he walked down the streets of New York City with an unreal feeling, wondering why people were continuing to engage in such ridiculous activities as building skyscrapers and bridges and roads).

That feeling gradually ebbed away, until by the 1990s the End of History was being proclaimed by various neo-Hegelians. Then a couple of skyscrapers got knocked down and we were plunged into the current strange mixture of utopianism and dread, as represented by the absurd and childish idea that 9/11 “changed everything.”

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the movie.

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