God, the Constitution, and Huckabee

My modestly soft spot for Mike Huckabee may completely harden up if he keeps up with comments such as:

“What we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so it's in
God's standards rather than trying to change God's standards so it
lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how
we treat the family.”

Salon's Tim Grieve draws out the logic to show just how absurd this statement is:

In an interview with Fox News — Crooks and Liars has the video
— Huckabee says an amendment banning abortion and another banning
same-sex marriage “are the two areas I'm talking about. I'm not
suggesting that we rewrite the Constitution to reflect tithing or
Sunday school attendance.”

Fair enough, but why not?

If it is, as Huckabee said the other day, “easier to change the
Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God,”
what's the basis for stopping at abortion or same-sex marriage or even
at tithing or Sunday school? Why not push for an amendment outlawing
homosexuality entirely? On the other hand, maybe God would be
interested in passing the Equal Rights Amendment. How about an
amendment banning the death penalty? Or maybe an omnibus amendment
outlawing preemptive war, the touching of pigskins and the getting of
haircuts?

Who should be the arbiter of “God's standards”? How do we decide which
of those “standards” can be ignored and which are important enough that
we “need” to address them by amending the Constitution? And how would
Mike Huckabee feel about having someone else — say, Hillary Clinton or
Barack Obama or John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich — making those
decisions for him?

Here's an idea, let's leave God's laws to God (and churches) and America's laws to American citizens.

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It’s all about the bacteria

This week's science news that a particularly nasty strain of MRSA (a highly antibiotic resistant staph bacteria) is becoming the scourge of gay men in San Francisco has given me the push for finally posting on the best non-fiction book I read last year: Good Germs Bad Germs by Jessica Snyder Sachs.  This book helps explain how we got to the point where we have a previously easily-treated type of staph that is now resistant to 6(!) potent antibiotics.  At first, the book was quite distressing, as we learn the story of how the amazing hubris and shortsightedness of modern medicine has led us to a point where, after a golden age of antibiotic success, it seems that we may again be facing many bacterial diseases for which there is no effective treatment.  The good news, is that scientists are using a variety of truly amazing (and smarter) techniques to come up with new ways to fight bacteria that should not lead to this current cycle of creating resistance.  What I found most interesting about the book, though, is the emphasis on “good germs.”  In truth, the human body is really a complex ecosystem that has evolved symbiotically with hundreds of bacterial species over tens of thousands of years.  I've been telling everyone I know my favorite fact from the book– for every one of your own cells, you have ten cells of bacteria.  The vast majority of these are quite beneficial to you, though.  A clear lesson, both in terms of antibiotic resistance and autoimmune disorders, is that we should be very careful in messing with this ecosystem.  I've also mentioned to a number of people that I've never been on antibiotics and I've been quite surprised at just how uncommon this appears to be.  I'm also bummed that I have my own (very minor) autoimmune disorder (seasonal allergic rhinitis, i.e., hayfever) despite this fact.   Last factoid: children are less likely to acquire autoimmune disorders if they: spend time in daycare, have a family dog, and have older siblings– all of which expose people to a broad range of bacteria. 

I could go on, but I'll stop.  The book is great– I actually stayed up and lost sleep several nights while I was reading it.  For a short auditory introduction, check out the podcast on it from Quirks and Quarks

With Daily Alcohol Use, Male Fruit Flies Court Other Males

The headline says it all.  Details here:

A team of researchers at Penn Sate has used an animal model to reveal,
for the first time, a physiological basis for the effect of alcohol on
male sexual behavior, including increased sexual arousal and decreased
sexual inhibition. The research resulted in four novel findings with
broad importance for further addiction research. It is the first study
to characterize the effects of chronic alcohol exposure in fruit flies…

Among the team's discoveries is that male fruit flies, which typically
court females, also actively court males when they are given a daily
dose of ethanol.

Losing the War on Drugs

Back in November, Rolling Stone ran a great story, “How America Lost the War on Drugs.”  I printed it out (it's pretty long), and just got around to finishing it.  A truly fascinating read, especially as I had enjoyed reading Mark Bowden's Killing Pablo, about Pablo Escobar's rise and fall, several years ago (special thanks to my friend Jeff P for getting me an autographed copy).  Anyway, I won't say too much about the story, other than to strongly suggest you read it, but I will mention a couple of points…
1) Just in case you were under any illusions we were winning, or even at a draw, in the “War on Drugs,” we're not.
2) Really interesting story about how we probably had the ability quash the spread of meth before it really got going, but pharmaceutical companies lobbied hard to prevent more restrictions on the availability of pseudoephedrine. 
3) Due to a number of studies, we have a pretty good idea of what works and what does not work in the war on drugs.  I'm sure you will be shocked (shocked!!) to realize that George W. Bush's administration does a lot more of what doesn't work and less of what does. 

Well, no sooner do I post this than I come across Jack Shafer's “Stupidest Drug Story of the Week” in Slate.  Apparently, the Drug Czar has decided to make a big deal out of ecstasy being laced with meth, yet it turns out that this has been the situation for years and is actually nothing new.  From the article:

The New York Times' Jan. 9
story about the alleged avalanche of methamphetamine-laced MDMA
(ecstasy) cascading down on the United States from Canada?”Rise Seen in
Trafficking of Enhanced Ecstasy”?harmonizes, almost bar for bar, with
the Jan. 3 press release from the office of White House “drug czar” John Walters.

The “drug czar's” press release attempts to foist as news the frequent adulteration of MDMA with other drugs, and the Times
article helps advance that notion. The “drug czar” would have you
believe that the MDMA-meth recipe is something new. Again, the Times lines up the official sources to make it appear so…

The only significant deviation comes when the Times declines
to confirm the catastrophic public health threat that the “drug czar”
posits. Sheepishly?if a news story can be sheepish?the paper reports
that the MDMA-meth cocktail “has not been the source of emergency room
admissions, overdoses or new clients in substance-abuse programs,
according to experts on both the law enforcement and the treatment
side.”…

Because Canadian authorities and journalists know all about ecstasy
adulteration, they were perplexed by the urgency of “drug czar”
Walters' media event. The Jan. 4, 2008, National Post reported:

Yesterday's
release of the alert by the top American anti-drug official took a
senior RCMP drug officer by surprise but he does not dispute the
message.

“He is not wrong. But this is nothing new. We've been
telling them this for years,” said Superintendent Ron Allen, head of
the RCMP's Drug Section for the Greater Toronto Area.

Furthermore, it turns out that the amount of meth is really not that significant:

the “median amount of meth in the [ecstasy] tablets was eight
milligrams, with 16 mg the high and four mg the low.” How powerful is
16 mg? Consider prescription methamphetamine, which is used to treat obesity and attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity in children. The manufacturer's recommendations (PDF) state that children 6 and older take no more than 20 to 25 mg of the drug daily.

Obviously, putting meth and MDMA together creates an
additive, and potentially adverse, effect. I intend no endorsement of
ecstasy tablets by pointing out how little meth often appears in them,
but there you are. But at least I'm giving it to you straight,
something the Chicken Little “drug czar” and the Times didn't do for you this week.

Just a little bit of pointless scaremongering in the War on Drugs. 

A ballot order victory?

There are, of course, all sorts of explanations for Hillary's dramatic NH victory on Tuesday (for a really nice analytical run-down, check out Mark Blumenthal at pollster.com), but I wanted to highlight one interesting factor that may be enough to account for Hillary's narrow victory margin– the order of the candidates on the ballot. 

Back when I was at Ohio State and had the distinct pleasure of knowing and even working with Political Scientist extraordinaire, Jon Krosnick, I remember him presenting some really interesting data on how the order of candidate on the ballot can affect results.  I seem to recall that he was an expert witness in an Ohio court case on the matter.  Anyway, Slate's Trailhead blog cites Krosnick's research in looking at how NH's ballot order advantaged Hillary Clinton:

Until this year, New Hampshire rotated the order of the candidates from precinct to precinct. An analysis of recent primary elections in New Hampshire by Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick,
an expert in polling methodology, found that candidates averaged 3
percent better than their overall performance if their names were
listed first among the leading candidates…

The new law
dictates that New Hampshire now set its ballot order by publicly
drawing a random letter of the alphabet to determine where the state
will begin listing names alphabetically. (For example, drawing an E
would have meant that, among major candidates, John Edwards? name would
be listed first, while Chris Dodd would be last.) This year Z was drawn,
effectively starting back at the beginning and listing Joseph Biden
first, even though he was no longer in the race. The system applies to
every ballot in the state uniformly. 

This method might appear to be equally unfair for
everyone, except that candidates? surnames are not equally distributed
throughout the alphabet. On the Democratic side, for example, the major
candidates where heavily skewed toward the front of the alphabet. The abecedarian
lineup of Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Edwards meant that the latter three
had only a 1-in-26 chance of being first?that is, only if the letter of
their last name was drawn (since their last names were adjacent to each
other in the alphabet). With Biden out of the race, the advantage
effectively fell to Clinton. 

Clinton?s gain was Obama?s loss. As the last
candidate alphabetically (not counting the various fringe candidates
who were on the ballot), Obama faced a large probability of being last.
There are 11 letters after O in the alphabet, all of which would result
in Clinton being first among viable candidates still in the race once
the alphabet cycled back to the beginning. Add three for the odds of
drawing an A, B, or C, and Clinton had a 14-in-26 shot at being first.
(That?s 54 percent.)  

One might scoff at the idea that this really
matters, but Krosnick insists that the data is there to support it.
When I spoke with him last night at about 11 p.m. ET, he said that, had
the previous rotation of names been in effect, ?my guess is this race
would be too close to call.?

Even had Hillary lost by 1 point, instead of triumphed by 2, this would have been portrayed as a huge comeback, given how she far exceeded media expectations.  Nonetheless, it is much better to be the victor, and should she go on to win the nomination, wouldn't be interesting to wonder if NH's (stupid) ballot law played a role.

New Hampshire thoughts

Given Hillary's narrow win last night over Obama, the scenario that took place between Iowa and NH is about the best possible thing that could have happened to her.  The media does not judge campaign performance on any absolute level, but simply relative to expectations.  Given the media's pre-existing dislike for Hillary and a series of polls that showed a clear movement toward and clear lead for Obama, the political media was all set to write Hillary off.  Thus, her rather small victory, which might have even been considered disappointing considering her recent substantial lead in NH polls just a few weeks ago, is rather a dramatic, come-from-behind victory that completely shattered expectations.  Thus, although Hillary only won by a narrow margin (and given the way the Democrats allocate delegates probably only received a handful more than Obama), this is actually a huge victory for her.  Of course, if our political media behaved rationally this would be covered as an important, but narrow victory that is just a small part of the overall battle.  The political scientist (and teacher) in me is very excited that the campaign is really on, and not destined to be the boring cakewalk Kerry ended up having in 2004.  Heck, today was just the first day of classes and I would hate not to have the Democratic nomination wrapped up before we even got to discuss it during the semester.  Here's to a brokered convention!

The (un)Fair tax

One of the interesting things about Huckabee's campaign is that the press has largely ignored the fact that he has an absolutely ludicrous tax plan– the Fair Tax.  Berkely economics (and blogger) Brad Delong, nicely deconstructs this absurd plan for Salon:

Enter the FairTax. It promises to be a game changer. It would abolish
the IRS and all current federal taxes, including Medicare, Social
Security, and personal and corporate income taxes, and replace them
with a national, across-the-board, 23 percent point-of-purchase retail
sales tax. It would also give each household a multi-thousand-dollar
“prebate” every year on their expected annual taxes and exempt people
living below the poverty line from taxes altogether…

From another perspective, however, you have to scorn Huckabee. He is
adding yet more layers of confusion to America's conversation about
taxes. Huckabee says that the FairTax would mean a 23 percent sales tax
rate on all items. First of all, the real tax rate proposed is 30
percent. The FairTax would add 30 cents to every dollar spent, but
since 30 cents is 23 percent of $1.30, the FairTaxers call the rate 23
percent.

Second, and more important, both conservative and liberal economists
believe the real rate would end up even higher. Estimates of the actual
rate of taxation required for the FairTax to be “revenue neutral”
(meaning for it to bring in exactly the same amount of revenue that the
federal government collects under the current system) start at 30 percent and keep climbing. William Gale of the liberal Brookings Institution think tank says it's a de facto 44 percent
sales tax. Calculations go still higher once you add in all the
necessary and politically inevitable exemptions on big-ticket items —
like a new home or hospital care. Congress' Joint Committee on
Taxation, which draws members from both parties and both houses, says
the real rate would be 57 percent. (And this leaves aside the enormous
federal outlay required by the “prebates,” which even FairTax advocates
say would cost the government $485 billion per year.)

Here's the kicker:

Also, Huckabee calls his proposal a “fair” tax. But it's a mammoth tax cut for the crowd making more than $200,000 a year and a substantial tax increase
for those making between $30,000 and $200,000 a year. Does this make
economic sense? It is hard to see how: What makes the $200,000-plus
crowd especially deserving of a tax cut?…

Does the FairTax make political sense? It is hard to see how — at
least not if people know what he is really proposing. After all, a lot
more people make between $30,000 and $200,000 a year than make more
than $200,000. Politicians prefer, other things being equal, to take
positions that are advantageous to more people rather than those that
are advantageous to fewer.

So, how can Huckabee get away with this?

I believe the reason is that he is counting on people not knowing
what he is really promising. I believe he is counting on the nigh total
fecklessness of America's press corps — a fecklessness that I at least
now see as deployed with a sharp partisan edge. As economist John Irons
laments on his blog, ArgMax.com: “I'm not sure how he is getting away
with adopting the FairTax as part of his platform. Wouldn't Democrats
be skewered in the media if they proposed a tax increase on people
making between $30,000 and $200,000?” Yes.

But Huckabee is a Republican. And it is different if you are a
Republican. The New York Times in its big Huckabee profile by Zev
Chafets said:

Huckabee's answer to his opponents on the fiscal
right has been his Fair Tax proposal … Governor Huckabee promises
that this plan would be “like waving a magic wand, releasing us from
pain and unfairness.” Some reputable economists think the scheme is
practicable. Many others regard it as fanciful … In any case, the
Fair Tax proposal is based on extremely complex projections.

And that's all the crack journalism of the New York Times has to say. If you are seeking information in a daily newspaper, look elsewhere — I recommend the Financial Times.

Delong goes on to further explain just how politically infeasible and policy-wise unsound the plan is, should you be curious.  For now, just remember that the “Fair Tax” would most likely mean increasing your taxes so the rich could pay less.  As for my readers in the $200,000+ tax bracket– “Hello, Douglas.”

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