Missing for forty years

A whole bunch of people linked to this via FB back when it came out in January, but somehow I never got around to reading it until yesterday.  It’s really pretty amazing.   The title and sub-head pretty much tell you the deal:

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of WWII

In 1978, Soviet geologists prospecting in the wilds of Siberia discovered a family of six, lost in the taiga

It’s pretty short and pretty amazing, so just read it now and don’t repeat my mistake.

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Eat more salt!

Okay, not quite, but people really need to get it out of there head that salt is the bad guy.  The evidence that it is not has been accumulating for years.  And now the Institute of Medicine has a comprehensive report about the uselessness of low sodium diets for most people.  From the NYT:

In a report that undercuts years of public health warnings, a prestigious group convened by the government says there is no good reason based on health outcomes for many Americans to drive their sodium consumption down to the very low levels recommended in national dietary guidelines.

Those levels, 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, or a little more than half a teaspoon of salt, were supposed to prevent heart attacks and strokes in people at risk, including anyone older than 50, blacks and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease — a group that makes up more than half of the American population.

Some influential organizations, including the American Heart Association, have said everyone, not just those at risk, should aim for that very low sodium level. The heart association reaffirmed that position in an interview on Monday, even in light of the new report.

But the new expert committee, commissioned by the Institute of Medicine at the behest of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there was no rationale for anyone to aim for sodium levels below 2,300 milligrams a day. The group examined new evidence that had emerged since the last such report was issued, in 2005.

“As you go below the 2,300 mark, there is an absence of data in terms of benefit and there begin to be suggestions in subgroup populations about potential harms,” said Dr. Brian L. Strom, chairman of the committee and a professor of public health at the University of Pennsylvania. He explained that the possible harms included increased rates of heart attacks and an increased risk of death.

What I found most interesting, which I had not learned before, was just how poor the science was for the low sodium recommendations:

The committee said it found more recent studies, published since 2005 that were more careful and rigorous. Much of the new research found adverse effects on the lower end of the sodium scale and none showed a benefit from consuming very little salt.

Although the advice to restrict sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day has been enshrined in dietary guidelines, it never came from research on health outcomes, Dr. Strom said. Instead, it is the lowest sodium consumption can go if a person eats enough food to get sufficient calories and nutrients to live on. As for the 2,300-milligram level, that was the highest sodium levels could go before blood pressure began inching up.

Also, quite interesting (though not at all surprising) is how harda time people and institutions have in changing their positions and adapting to new sets of facts.  When you’ve been telling the world 1500mg of salt per day maximum !) for years, it’s very hard to admit you are wrong and that the data is pretty clear on that score.  Alas, both the American Heart Association and CSPI which have been scaring far too many people about their sodium intake for years are not backing down.  Now, surely, there are subgroups of American who need to carefully watch their sodium intake, but there’s just no evidence that a low sodium diet is needed for the vast majority of Americans.

Local control. Or not.

I actually find it somewhat tiresome to point out hypocrisy in politicians of any stripe, as I just take it as par for the course.  But the NC Republicans’ complete aversion to local control in government is both so brazen and so wrong-headed.  Two different WRAL stories on the matter today.  First:

RALEIGH, N.C. — House lawmakers voted largely along party lines Monday night in favor of two bills that would limit the power of cities and counties to inspect housing, require emissions reductions or allow union dues deductions.

One measure, House Bill 773, would curb local programs that increase inspections of low-income housing in problem areas.

Last session, lawmakers approved a rental registry for landlords as a way to help local police deal with crime-ridden properties. The measure also allowed additional property inspections for areas considered blighted.

Got that?  So, if a particular locality decides that they have a problem with landlords or auto pollution that is unique to them the NC legislature will forbid them from legally addressing the problem.  Apparently, one-size-fits-all government after all, so long as that one-size is what the NC Republican legislature wants.  Meanwhile, they also want to limit the ability of localities to regulate outdoor smoking.  Why?  Because one of them wants to smoke at Wrightsville Beach, damnit!

A key Senate committee voted Tuesday to overturn outdoor smoking bans in cities, on beaches, and on community college campuses.

Under Senate Bill 703, no local ordinance on outdoor smoking could be more restrictive than state law. State law places no restrictions on smoking outdoors.

Sponsor Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said blanket bans on smoking in public places around the state are making it “impossible” for adults to consume “a legal product.”

He said the issue came to his attention recently when Wrightsville Beach enacted a beach smoking ban.

“If you’re on a windy beach in NC you ought to be able to consume a tobacco product,” Newton said. “I find it ridiculous that we can’t be outdoors and have somewhere for people who choose to smoke, to smoke.”

For supposedly believe that the government closest to the people knows best, they sure don’t buy it in Raleigh where they clearly believe Raleigh always knows best.  Of course, I’m still waiting to hear conservatives complain about this.

Photo of the day

Amazing series of snake photos, yes snake photos, in the New York Times of all places.  Here’s a pit viper:

Photo: Mark Laita

Cost of college

Let’s start the day off with the economics of college again.  There was a study last week that basically showed how colleges are screwing poor families in their efforts to court rich families.  Best summary I’ve seen so far is Jordan Weissman’s in the Atlantic:

Neat fact: If the federal government were to take all of the money it pours into various forms of financial aid each year, it could go ahead and make tuition free, or close to it, for every student at every public college in the country.

Will it ever happen? Ha. Not unless Bernie Sanders somehow leads a Latin American-style coup down Pennsylvania Avenue. But one of the reasons Iargued for the idea a couple of months back was that it would allow us to finally stop burning money subsidizing obscenely expensive tuition at dubiously worthwhile private institutions. At the time, I singled out the for-profit college industry, which has been rightfully savaged for devouring federal aid dollars while charging poor students backbreaking prices.

Today, though, I’d like to apologize to the University of Phoenix and its kin. It seems there are plenty of traditional, non-profit colleges leeching off the system as well.

For proof, see the demoralizing report released this week by Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation on the state of financial aid in higher ed. It documents the obscene prices some of the poorest undergraduates are asked to pay at hundreds of educational institutions across the country, even as these same schools lavish discounts on the children of wealthier families in order to lure them onto campus.

And here’s the key bit: Many colleges, he argues, appear to be playing an “elaborate shell game,” relying on federal grants to cover the costs of needy students while using their own resources to furnish aid to richer undergrads.

“With their relentless pursuit of prestige and revenue,” Burd writes, “the nation’s public and private four-year colleges and universities are in danger of shutting down what has long been a pathway to the middle class for low-income and working-class students.”

Yowza.  That’s not good.  And sadly, pretty hard to argue with the facts that are presented.  Meanwhile, Joseph Stiglitz has a piece in the NYT about the crushing burden of student loans and how it is only driving further inequality:

The crisis that is about to break out involves student debt and how we finance higher education. Like the housing crisis that preceded it, this crisis is intimately connected to America’s soaring inequality, and how, as Americans on the bottom rungs of the ladder strive to climb up, they are inevitably pulled down — some to a point even lower than where they began…

Everyone recognizes that education is the only way up, but as a college degree becomes increasingly essential to making one’s way in a 21st-century economy, education for those not to the manner born is increasingly unaffordable. Student debt for seniors graduating with loans now exceeds $26,000, about a 40 percent increase (not adjusted for inflation) in just seven years.

And, alas, once again, America clearly finds itself alone and on the wrong side of a major economic policy issue:

America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities. Average tuition, and room and board, at four-year colleges is just short of $22,000 a year, up from under $9,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 1980-81.

Compare this more-than-doubling in tuition with the stagnation in median family income, which is now about $50,000, compared to $46,000 in 1980 (adjusted for inflation).

And, why does this matter so much?

Curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity. College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries. No matter what happens with currency wars and trade balances, the United States is not going to return to making textiles. Unemployment rates among college graduates are much lower than among those with only a high school diploma.

America — home of the land-grant university, the G.I. Bill and world-class public universities from California to Michigan to Texas — has fallen from the top in terms of university education. With strangling student debt, we are likely to fall further. What economists call “human capital” — investing in people — is a key to long-term growth. To be competitive in the 21st century is to have a highly educated labor force, one with college and advanced degrees. Instead, we are foreclosing on our future as a nation.

So, what to do?  Australia’s model sounds pretty smart:

But a real long-term solution requires rethinking how we finance higher education. Australia has designed a system of publicly provided income-contingent loans that all students must take out. Repayments vary according to individual income after graduation. This aligns the incentives of the providers of education and the receivers. Both have an incentive to see that students do well. It means that if an unfortunate event happens, like an illness or an accident, the loan obligation is automatically reduced. It means that the burden of the debt is always commensurate with an individual’s ability to repay. The repayments are collected through the tax system, minimizing the administrative costs.

Smart– check.  Fair– check.  Now imagine trying to get Republicans to go for something like that. Right.  One last quote:

Some wonder how the American ideal of equality of opportunity has eroded so much. The way we finance higher education provides part of the answer. Student debt has become an integral part of the story of American inequality. Robust higher education, with healthy public support, was once the linchpin in a system that promised opportunity for dedicated students of any means. We now have a pay-to-play, winner-take-all game where the wealthiest are assured a spot, and the rest are compelled to take a gamble on huge debts, with no guarantee of a payoff.

No great thoughts or insights from me.  I just find the whole thing depressing.  What I think is most sad is that there are clear, very feasible (in a non-political sense) policy solutions, but the political feasibility of any genuinely helpful solution in the near future is probably near 0.  Meanwhile, the rich get richer and the poor don’t.  Personally, it’s not good enough for me that this will probably work to the benefit of my own kids.  But, that’s why I’m a liberal.

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