The “I vote for the candidate” self delusion

Most Americans when asked their voting preferences, give some variation on “I vote for the candidate, not the party.”  Not to put too fine a point on it, but for pretty much any federal of state legislative office this is just dumb.  The most important vote any member of the US House takes is for Speaker of the House.  Everything else is just details.  The majority party totally runs the show.  A Democrat that voted for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker and then voted against almost every individual Democratic agenda item is still a net plus for the Democratic party (except for the extraordinarily rare case where a single vote matters).  Yet, we go along fooling ourselves that the “leadership,” “integrity,” “character,” etc., of each individual candidate matters.   Ezra Klein has a post on Charlie Crist that ends in a nice riff on this:

Olympia Snowe is arguably the most independent Republican in the Senate — and she’s stuck with her party on 67.3 percent of votes in this Congress. That is to say, if you knew nothing about Snowe save that she was a Republican, you could predict her vote about 70 percent of the time.

And Snowe is actually uncommonly willing to vote with the other side. Ben Nelson is in Snowe territory, voting with the Democrats 67.6 percent of the time, and so is Susan Collins. But that’s about it. Scott Brown voted with the GOP 82.1 percent of the time. Joe Lieberman was there for the Democrats 90.6 percent of the time. Lindsey Graham showed up for the Republicans more than 92 percent of the time. (You can look up any politician you please here.) The reality is that the single most important thing to know about any politician is which party they’ll caucus with. Full stop.

Campaigns are built to fool us into thinking that we’re voting for individuals. We learn about the candidate’s family, her job, her background — even her dog. But we’re primarily voting for parties. The parties have just learned we’re more likely to vote for them if they disguise themselves as individuals. And American politics would work better if we understood that.

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The Koch brothers

Jane Mayer has a great profile in the New Yorker about the Koch brothers, a pair of super-rich libertarians who use their money to fund political causes with the basic purpose of enriching themselves and their business (i.e., lower taxes on their fortune and less regulations for their pollution-prone companies).  You should read it— probably the most talked-about New Yorker article of the past few months– and it’s really stuff you should know (and Jane Mayer pretty much rules).   Obviously, a lot of interesting takes all over the blogosphere, but I most like Jon Chait’s take on how all the money has shaped the conservative agenda:

Conservatives are happy to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the role played by conservative donors in helping conservatives fight ideological battles against liberals. But they are loathe to acknowledge the role that conservative donors play in waging ideological battles within conservatism itself. I’d say conservative donors have made the conservative movement and the Republican Party far more responsive to the interests of corporations and high-income individuals. There is an unusually large supply of capital to finance propaganda extolling the benefits of lower taxes for the rich and casting doubt on proposals to account for the externality cost of carbon dioxide emissions. But you don’t see conservatives admitting that that fnancing has had an effect.

If all you knew about conservatism was its foundational ideological texts, you could just as easily imagine that conservatives would believe that it’s senseless to cut taxes without cutting spending, and that it would make perfect sense for the government to tax carbon emissions rather than something else, once science has established the harmful effects of such emissions beyond a reasonable doubt. That conservatism has evolved in a different direction owes a great deal to the interests of some its its richest donors.

And, if you’re more the auditory type, there was a great interview with Jane Mayer about the article on Fresh Air last week.  Listen.

“Limited Government”

In the “another great blog post I found in a friend’s facebook feed category” here’s a really nice one on the intellectual dishonesty and logical incoherence in conservatives’ cries for “limited government.”  Former Cato scholar, Timothy Blee:

In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. This has some unfortunate results. It means that cutting children’s health care spending is just as good as cutting a dollar from subsidies for wealthy corporations. And since wealthy corporations typically have lobbyists and poor children don’t, the way this works out in practice is that conservative politicians staunchly oppose the former while letting the latter slide.

Worse, mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass. Conservatives vociferously (and correctlyoppose giving the FCC expanded power over the Internet, but they actively supported the NSA’s much more comprehensive and intrusive scheme of domestic surveillance. Conservatives support a massive expansion of government power at our southern border to restrict the freedom of Mexican migrants. They seem unconcerned by the fact that we have more people in government-run prisons than any other nation on Earth.

This distinction makes no sense. When American soldiers gun down Iraqi civilians and blow up a van that comes to rescue the survivors, that’s a government program. When a SWAT team conducts a military-style raid on the home of an innocent Maryland mayor and kills his dogs, that’s a government program too. Obviously, law enforcement and national defense are important functions of government, but these highly coercive government programs should be the subject of more public scrutiny, not less.

Personally I’m not interested in “limited government” as an end in itself, but as a means to greater individual liberty. I’m opposed to government programs that waste taxpayer dollars because higher taxes restrict my freedom. But I’m much more opposed to government programs that use taxpayer dollars to restrict freedom directly. I’m not interested in joining a “limited government” movement that considers the two equivalent. And I’m definitely not interested in being part of a movement that gives torture and preemptive war a free pass under the heading of “national defense” while it focuses instead on fighting the tyranny of SCHIP and unemployment insurance.

True dat.  Mostly, that is.  I really don’t feel like my freedom is particularly restricted when my marginal tax rate, etc., goes up by some modest amount, but Blee is exactly right in focusing on the fact that “limited government” in and of itself is just a non-sensical goal.

Meet the new drug; same as the old drug

I just discovered yet another site I’m going to have to become a regular visitor of (there’s really just way too much good information and analysis out there on the internet)– the Accidental Economist.  Anyway, here physician Austin Carroll has a really nice post about just how absurd some of the “new” drugs are and how we keep using them anyway.  For example, the oldest and cheapest blood pressure medication is the most effective, yet still routinely ignored for newer, more expensive (and much more marketed) medications.  Especially discouraging is the use of drugs in which the pharmaceutical companies simply take half the molecule of of a drug and patent and market it as a new drug:

However, in many other instances, new drugs are just sleight of hand “changes” to old drugs that have no expectation of being better.  When creating drugs through organic synthesis, mirror image molecules are created.

So, if drug D is created, in the last step you wind up with half D and half D’(the mirror image of D).  The mirror image is usually inert and has no effect on the drug or the individual taking the drug, but it is left in because there is an expense to remove it.  Years ago, the drug companies hit upon a brilliant idea.  If they removed that non-working, mirror image part of the pill, they could claim they devised a new drug!

Think this is rare?  Ever heard of Nexium (“the purple pill”)?  Nexium is just Prilosec, with the mirror image part removed.  And Prilosec is an effective, and now generic, drug for heartburn.  Prilosec is P + P’; Nexium is just P.  There is no reason to believe that equivalent amounts of the two drugs are not the same – and research supports this.  Four head-to-head studies compared 20 milligrams of Prilosec to 20 or 40 milligrams of Nexium.  But you have to remember – half of Prilosec is P’(filler)!  So these studies really compared 10 milligrams of P to 20 or 40 milligrams of P.  Shouldn’t more be better? One would think so, but it was barely so, and only in half the studies.  And, of course, none of the advertising stated that you could get the same improvement just by taking more Prilosec.

AstraZeneca, the maker of Nexium and Prilosec, isn’t the only drug company to do this.  Lexapro is “half” of Celexa (Forest Pharmaceuticals).  Nuvigil is “half” of Provigil (Cephalon).  Xyzal (Sanofi-Aventis) is “half” of Zyrtec (Pfizer).  Lunesta is “half” of Imovane (Sepracor).  Levaquin is “half” of Floxin (Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical).  Focalin is “half” of Ritalin (Novartis Pharmaceuticals).  And so on and so forth. In fact, since 1990, the proportion of these “half” drugs, among approved new drugs worldwide, has become greater than half of those new approvals.

I suppose I don’t blame the companies too much for this, but what in the world are doctors who should know better doing prescribing these things?  If any doctor ever tried to prescribe me Xyzal and 100 times the cost of my OTC generic Zyrtec, I would find another doctor immediately.  You think this is bad, here’s Carroll’s ultimate example:

These aren’t even the worst offenders.  In the worst cases, all that the drug companies change is the color of the pill.

Sarafem, marketed by Lilly for premenstrual dysmorphic disorder, is exactly the same molecule as that found in Prozac.  The only difference, besides the cost, is that Prozac has a green coating, and Sarafem’s is pink.  That’s it.  There is no reason you couldn’t just buy cheaper generic Prozac (Fluoxetine) and color it pink for the exact same experience and effect.

Again, this is nuts, but it only works so long as physicians are willing to write prescriptions for Sarafem instead of generic prozac.  The fact that apparently many are willing to, is the problem.

Friday Book Post (Game Change)

Yeah, I know, I’ve got a real problem with actually getting these out on Saturday.  Anyway, so I wanted to assign a fun and interesting read on the 2008 election for the Campaigns & Elections class I’m teaching this semester.  Despites my skepticism, several people suggested I consider Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

My students will not be reading this book.  My skepticism (based on various things I read when it came out) was most definitely warranted.  Sure, the book was filled with fun little observations and anecdotes (e.g,. Elizabeth Edwards screaming and ripping off her blouse in an RDU airport parking lot), but that’s ultimately all there was.  It was just detail after detail with almost no perspective or meaningful analysis.  It was the view of the campaign from 6 inches, when it would have been useful to also include the view from 1000 feet.  It also struck me as an almost perfect embodiment of the pathologies of modern political journalism.  Everything in the book was explained by the actions of various candidates and political actors.  The authors seemed oblivious to the fact that factors beyond the actual campaign (e.g., the demographic bases of each candidate’s support and how these varied across states) could have explained the results.  I don’t entirely regret reading this book, as there were some fun and interesting anecdotes about all the candidates (especially enjoyed the ones about Palin), but ultimately it does depressingly little to actually educate the reader.

Worth repeating (stem cells research)

With the recent judicial decision on embryonic stem cell research (Saletan’s got the best take), my discussion board got into a pretty good discussion of the matter.  I was about to write a post on it here, but thought surely it was something I had addressed before.  And yes, I wrote a post on it 4 years ago.  Since my blog readership has probably gone pretty dramatic turnover since then, I’m reposting it in its entirety…

One thing I have always admired (even when I disagree) about the Catholic Church (of which I am a member) is its commitment to moral consistency (something I would not say about the pro-life movement in general).  One glaring inconsistency has always really bugged me, though.  If you are against stem cell research on moral grounds, you absolutely have to be against in-vitro fertility treatments.  The embryos for stem cell research are essentially an intended byproduct of the IVF process.  If not implanted in a woman or used in stem cell research, they will be destroyed.  If experiment on human embryos is morally wrong, certainly so is creating more than you need and throwing away the extras.  I’ve read a fair amount of theology in my day and I certainly understand the Catholic Church (and other pro-life groups’) position against stem cell research, but to be morally and intellectually honest and consistent, it really requires that you oppose fertility clinics just as, if not more, strenuously.  So, why don’t we have fertility clinic protesters?
That’s pretty easy– it would be a political disaster.  Any sympathy those in opposition to stem cell research have would quickly evaporate if they were seen to be preventing desperate potential parents from fulfilling their dreams of having a baby.  The day that stem cell opponents start openly advocating against fertility clinics, I’ll have a lot more respect for their position.

Why you like me

I think I’ve found a new favorite website: Miller-McCune.  I’ve come across the stray article before, but I didn’t realize that they basically take social science findings and turn them into well-written and smart journalism.  There’s some really cool articles I plan to blog on soon.  For now, this one caught my attention:

Why are we drawn to one person and not another? Physical attractiveness is one obvious ingredient, but researchers have identified another, quite different factor that heightens one’s personal appeal.

It seems we enjoy socializing with people who have found meaning in their lives…

“Meaning is a powerful and independent predictor of interpersonal appeal,” reports a study titled “Meaning as Magnetic Force,” just published in the journalSocial Psychological and Personality Science. “People seek interpersonal connections with those who have found meaning in life.”

The idea that the search for meaning in life is a basic human drive was famously articulated by psychologist Viktor Frankl in 1946, not long after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. According to team behind this new research, “a natural extension” of this idea “is that people will seek to affiliate with those who have a strong sense of meaning.”

In other words, people searching for a purpose in life — whether or not they are consciously aware of this deep-seated desire — will likely be attracted to others who have arrived at an answer.

I certainly feel I’ve found meaning in my life.  That must be why you like me.

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