Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fat Shaming?

According to the Today Show:

Daniel Callahan, a senior research scholar and president emeritus of The Hastings Center, put out a new paper this week calling for a renewed emphasis on social pressure against heavy people -- what some may call fat-shaming -- including public posters that would pose questions like this:

"If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way that you look?"

The article does inject a note of sanity, quoting Dr. Tom Inge, an expert in childhood obesity at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

"No amount of teasing, probing questions about what they wish they could do, or medications seem to help," Inge said. "So if one is proposing to help them by more stigmatization, that would seem at once both antithetical and unethical."

Callahan is a former smoker who figures that since he was shamed out of smoking, the same approach would work for weight. It is too bad that he is being given any voice at all about this since the two are not comparable.

You either smoke or you do not. There is no minimum amount of tobacco that you have to consume to live.

On the other hand, you do have to eat to live. Granted, if you eat too much you become overweight, but you cannot just quit eating.

Also, once you become overweight, it is very difficult to lose the weight. You are fighting your body. Your metabolism slows, trying to recover the lost calories. Take two people who weigh the same. The first used to weigh more but lost weight. The second has always weighed that amount. The first person has to consume fewer calories than the second to keep from gaining the weight back. At the same time, the first person's body is sending signals, calling for more calories.

Think about that. If you want to lose weight then you have to go hungry, every day for the rest of your life.

Yes, if you shame people enough then they might prefer constant hunger to weighing more but what you are really doing is inducing eating disorders. What else can you call it when someone is constantly hungry but ashamed to eat?

This approach carries a big risk of causing eating disorders among people, especially women, who do not need to lose weight.

Around 30 years ago I shared an office with someone who had an eating disorder. I pointed this out to her and she agreed that she had some of the characteristics of an anorexic but insisted that this did not apply to her because she wasn't thin, she was fat. Trust me, she was not fat.

So the Today Show is repeating the advice from this quack - develop an eating disorder or face increased social stigma.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Gun Myths

There are a lot of myths floating around about "assault guns". Currently this term usually means some variation of the AR-15.

For the last few years variants of the AR-15 have been the most popular rifle. There are millions of them out there but fewer that 700 people are killed by rifles annually. Not only is this not the weapon of choice for most murders, it comes behind knives and other sharp weapons.

It is not a military weapon. It is made to look like a military weapon. You have to pull the trigger for each shot (semi-automatic). Military weapons have an option to keep firing as long as you hold the trigger (full automatic).

There are several reasons why the AR-15 is so popular. Some people like it because it does look like a military weapon. Others like it because it is light-weight and dependable. It is also versatile. I have heard it described as a "platform" because it is so modular. It is possible to swap out most of the parts. You can change the stock, add or remove the grip. There is a lot of controversy among shooters about the best type of sight. This is easily changed and you can use different types of sights depending on the type of shooting you are doing. Some people want to be able to shoot different caliber bullets. Normally that means buying multiple guns. With the AR-15 you can swap out the barrel and a few other parts. This saves a lot of money over buying an entire second gun.

A lot has been made of the high-capacity magazine. There is some magical thinking involved here. Magazines were developed to make reloading faster. The State of New York seems to think that limiting a magazine to 7 rounds will keep a shooter from carrying multiple magazines (or keep him from carrying illegal high-capacity ones). In an open environment that might give people time to run but in a closed space like a school or theater it just means that the shooter has to change magazines more often. The Aurora shooter did reload multiple times.

Sports shooters do have a legitimate use for high-capacity magazines. People at a shooting range go to shoot. They usually have a limited amount of time and don't want to waste it reloading. Neither do they want to pay extra to carry multiple magazines.

Some people have insisted that these guns are more deadly than regular guns because they were designed for military use. They claim that these guns were designed to kill people. Actually, military weapons involve a series of trade-offs. They have to be light enough to be easily carried. The standard 9mm NATO is not the most lethal out there. I remember a lot of complaints when the army switched from .45 to 9mm that the new ammunition did not have the same stopping power. A shotgun loaded with deer slugs is much deadlier but it is painful to shoot and not as accurate at longer ranges.

Ironically, military ammunition is less lethal than sporting ammunition. According to the Geneva Convention, it has a full metal jacket. That makes it pass cleanly through the body and makes the wounds more survivable. Hunters commonly use hollow-point bullets which mushroom on impact and create bigger wounds.

Historically, the military has been slow to implement advanced in gun technology. Sportsmen had rifles centuries before they were standard issue to soldiers. At the turn of the last century, the US military did not want to army its troops with rifles that could accept five round clips. They felt that soldiers would aim more carefully if it took them longer to load. That attitude continued in Germany through WWII. Similarly, semi-automatic and full-automatic weapons were considered too expensive and delicate for field use well into the 20th century.

So, we have tens of millions of sportsmen being told that their preferred weapon is too dangerous to be owned based on misinformation and false urgency. Is it any wonder that there is significant push-back?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Global Warming - the fine print

Earlier this month the headlines screamed "2012 Hottest Year in History". If you looked closely, the actual story was "2012 Hottest Year in History in the US". No one ever mentioned that last part. Instead we heard about how this should satisfy the skeptics (or "deniers") once and for all. Immediate action is needed! We have to start taxing carbon right now!!

But what about that fine print? When the US has a cold year the experts tell us that the only thing that matters is global temperature.

So what was the global temperature last year? It turns out that 2012 was the 10th hottest on record. While that still sounds hot, you have to remember that we seem to have reached a plateau 14 years ago. the world isn't getting any cooler but it isn't getting any warmer, either. That goes against all predictions of global warming. As CO2 increases, the temperature is supposed to go up. Period. A few years without a rise can be dismissed as an anomaly but 14 years is becoming significant. If the models do not predict such a long pause then there is something fundamentally wrong with the models.

That is why you hear about the US temperature but not the world temperature. The world did not warm last year, the cold, Canadian air was deflected by warm Pacific air. We got someone else's warm temperatures and the cold that we normally get went elsewhere. This meant that it was warmer than usual in the US and colder elsewhere.

And that is why you have to look at global temperatures instead of local.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Debt and the President

President Obama has made it clear that he expects Congress to raise the debt limit without any restrictions. There will be no deals tying a debt increase to long-term cuts. He is supposed to have warned House Republicans that if the debt limit hasn't been raised by his State of the Union speech, he will use it to denounce them.

When it is pointed out to him that he voted against an increase while a senator, Obama gets testy and insists that the election was all about this and adds, "And by the way, the American people agreed with me."

He is wrong on this but it does not matter. He campaigned on making some cuts while raising taxes on the rich. He did not get much more specific than that because he did not want to be tied to election promises. Now he is using that vagueness to insist that the election gives him a mandate for anything he wants.

He will never be on a ballot again which is why it does not matter. He will not have to answer to the voters for his actions. In the meantime he has convinced himself that his reelection gives him blanket approval.

He is mistaken about a couple of other things, also. He seems to be convinced that the fight over spending is about him. He has taken a policy and personalized it. In his mind, if you complain about the massive debt you are attacking him.

And he seems to think that the debt doesn't matter. Either that or he recognizes that it has to be addressed but does not want to be known as the president who cut Social Security.

Obama will get what he wants for the same reason that he could vote against the debt limit increase when he was in Congress. He knows that the Republicans will do the responsible thing. He has already shown that he is willing to destroy the world's economy in order to get his way and he knows that the Republicans will not do this.

He refuses to come up with a Plan B. If he had one he might be forced to use it. Instead he wants an all-or-nothing deal. He also knows that the Republicans will get blamed if the debt ceiling is not raised.

The problem is that the debt is dangerously high and projected spending on entitlements needs to be addressed as soon as possible. It looks like it will be at least four years before anyone in the White House is willing to admit this.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Gun Control Round Two

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of elementary school children at Sandy Hook, there was a loud call for new gun control. The media insisted that this time something must happen.

Since the shooting took place in December nothing could actually happen until January at the earliest. By that time, things had cooled and gun proponents had a chance to push back.

Yesterday was the kick-off of round two. This was lead by General McChrystal and Gabby Giffords.

McChrystal was quoted as being against assault rifles:

I spent a career carrying typically either an M16 or an M4 Carbine. An M4 Carbine fires a .223 caliber round which is 5.56 mm at about 3000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It's designed for that," McChrystal explained. "That's what our soldiers ought to carry. I personally don't think there's any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America

McChrystal's opinions are being used selectively. He also cautions against our current strategy of drones. His support for gun control was front-page news but I hadn't heard about his opinion on drones until I searched for his quote on guns.

"What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world," he said in an interview. "The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes ... is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one."

McChrystal said the use of drones exacerbates a "perception of American arrogance that says, 'Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.''

Other things not mentioned - McChrystal was relieved of command after reports came out of him allowing his staff to openly mock President Obama. The type of weapon he refers to - an assault rifle (not an assault gun) is only a tiny part of gun violence.

Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly (or a ghost writer using their names) wrote a column for USA Today. This has a number of disingenuous phrases. For example:

America has seen an astounding 11 mass shootings since a madman used a semiautomatic pistol with an extended ammunition clip to shoot me and kill six others. Gun violence kills more than 30,000 Americans annually.

Several things stand out. The word "astounding" for example is given without any qualification. Are mass shootings on the rise or are they just better reported? Yes, an extended ammunition magazine was used but I have it on good authority that those add so much weight to a gun that they make it difficult to aim and much more likely to jam.

The term "extended ammunition clip" is a red flag. The proper term is a magazine. A clip holds cartridges together until until they are loaded. A magazine encases the cartridges. Mark Kelly is ex-military. It is hard to believe that he would make that mistake. That makes me wonder how closely he read the column printed under his name.

The number "30,000" is also a red flag. That includes suicides and accidents, mainly suicides. Numerous studies have shown that the suicide rate is not affected by the availability of guns. They are just included in order to pad the figures. Calling suicides and accidents "gun violence" is like calling automobile deaths "car violence". The actual number of homicides is closer to 12,000 than 30,000. Of that 12,000, only a tiny number are mass shootings or caused by assault weapons.

If the problem is mass shootings then we are only talking about 11 in two years. Numbers like 30,000 are brought in to give the issue a false sense of urgency.

The column continues

This country is known for using its determination and ingenuity to solve problems, big and small. Wise policy has conquered disease, protected us from dangerous products and substances, and made transportation safer. But when it comes to protecting our communities from gun violence, we're not even trying — and for the worst of reasons.

Upon analysis, this part gets very interesting. This paragraph claims that wise policy has conquered disease but in the last two years, more people have died from the flu than from mass shootings. In a rational debate we would look at the relative number of deaths and devote our resources accordingly. This is an emotional appeal, not a rational one so no numbers are given.

They talk about the horrors of the well-financed gun lobby then continue:

As a result, we are more vulnerable to gun violence. Weapons designed for the battlefield have a home in our streets. Criminals and the mentally ill can easily purchase guns by avoiding background checks. Firearm accessories designed for killing at a high rate are legal and widely available. And gun owners are less responsible for the misuse of their weapons than they are for their automobiles.

You would never know from this paragraph that the murder rate has been dropping for years and is half what it was 20 years ago. Background checks will not stop criminals. They are already breaking the law and they are seldom involved in mass shootings (the criminal who shot two firemen does not count as a mass shooting). As for the mentally ill, a common thread with mass shootings is looking back and wondering why the shooter hasn't been declared mentally ill? Background checks will not stop people from buying guns unless we become better at identifying them ahead of time.

The statement about gun owners not being responsible is puzzling? Do they think that I will be in more trouble if my stolen car is involved in a fatality than if my stolen gun is? Or do they think that fatal shootings are treated more lightly than fatal auto accidents?

Forget the boogeyman of big, bad government coming to dispossess you of your firearms. As a Western woman and a Persian Gulf War combat veteran who have exercised our Second Amendment rights, we don't want to take away your guns any more than we want to give up the two guns we have locked in a safe at home. What we do want is what the majority of NRA members and other Americans want: responsible changes in our laws to require responsible gun ownership and reduce gun violence.

And these changes are...? They continue on for several paragraphs but never offer any specific proposals. From context we can assume that they want to require background checks on all gun purchases and outlaw high-capacity magazines, semi-automatics, and high-velocity ammunition but they never commit themselves. Of course, if they committed themselves then the flaws in their proposals would be open to criticism.

They also promise that they will come up with funding to match the NRA. Where will this come from?

Finally, notice the bit about having their guns locked in a safe at home? The message here is that it is ok for you to have a gun as long as it is locked away and unusable.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Problems with a Democratic Government

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

~ Winston Churchill

There are several problems that can happen in a democracy. The worst is that a non-democratic government might be elected. That has happened many times. Similarly, the governing party might suppress any opposition and run unopposed.

Another inherent problem in a democracy is the "cruel majority" where the majority votes to suppress a minority.

There are hints of all of these problems in Egypt. The majority party does not really care for democracy and began investigating the opposition for treason. Also, their new constitution limits the rights on Christians and Jews.

Our own government was created during a period of distrust for strong governments so checks and balances were built in to prevent these problems. We have a strong two-party system where neither party has enough of a majority to suppress the other. We have regularly scheduled elections which are harder to suppress than the election-on-demand that other countries have. Minority rights are enshrined in the Constitution which was designed to be difficult to change.

There is one problem that we have not been able to avoid - the problem of over-promising. Our government has made promises it cannot keep and it has become politically impossible to do anything about it.

Some of the promises were made in good faith. Social Security is an example. The biggest problem with Social Security is demographics. Our birth rate is dropping and seniors are living longer. Social Security has always been a program where the benefits paid to the retired come from the current workforce. Yes, there has always been a surplus but that was never meant to be an investment fund. We are approaching a time when more people will be supported by a smaller workforce.

Medicare and Medicaid have similar problems which are made worse by the fact that medical costs have grown faster than projected ever since the programs were created.

These problems are not going to go away but action will be politically difficult. Because of promises made decades ago, people feel entitled to these programs without change.

If both parties acted with one voice on this then something could be done as happened with Social Security in the 1980s. The Republicans have made some proposals but the Democrats have rejected them.

There are two issues driving this. One is that the Democrats recognized that they obtain a political advantage by claiming that these programs do not need reform. If they admit that there are any problems at all they blame the rich for not paying enough.

The other problem is that the current crop of Democrats believe in big government. They point to these programs as successful examples of government in action. Admitting that there are problems cripples their argument. So they deny reality.

This is where the problem with democracy comes in. We have two parties - one says that the programs are in trouble and that they will cut benefits. The other party says that the programs are strong and that they will save them. In a closely divided electorate the promise that, "You can have anything you want and the rich will pay for it." is the winning argument.

This is the argument at the core of the Fiscal Cliff and the Debt Limit talks. The Republicans want some action before we reach a crisis, the Democrats refuse to even discuss it and point to the last election as justification for their lack of action.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The Fiscal Cliff and the Left

The Fiscal Cliff was an artificial construction. It came about when Congress was asked to raise the debt ceiling (again) and balked unless the unsustainable deficit was addressed. The eventual deal was that a super-committee would come up with a grand bargain that would address both the deficit and long-term entitlements. The Cliff was set up as an incentive for the super-committee to do its job.

The Super-committee failed miserably. The Republicans and Democrats are too polarized. I'm going to throw a lot of the blame at the Democrats. To make my case, I'm going to use left-of-center columnist Eugene Robinson. He wrote:

There is widespread agreement that the federal government faces two huge tasks. I would rank them in this order: First, encourage the sluggish economic recovery to gather steam, on the proven theory that solid growth makes our other problems much easier to solve. Second, take prudent steps to begin addressing our long-term debt problem and put entitlement programs on a sustainable course.

Some people would reverse those priorities and put debt reduction first. I think that would be a mistake. Let's have that argument. But we should all be able to agree that "none of the above" is not the right answer.

I agree with him. The trouble is that President Obama and the Democrats do not. Their top priority is not on Robinson's list. To them the nation's worst problem is that the rich are not paying a high enough tax rate. Nothing else is as important. They don't care if taxing the rich will hurt the economy. They seem to think that they can squeeze enough money from the rich to solve our debt problems but the rich are not that rich.

The Republicans offered deals in which the rich would pay more in taxes without raising the tax rates. This was rejected. The Democrats are fixated on the tax rate the rich pay instead of the actual amount of taxes. They have to be punished for being rich.

The items on Robinson's list aren't even on the Democrats' radar. Half-hearted attempts at stimulating the economy have given us the slowest recovery since the Great Depression. Throwing money at the economy through low interest rates and deficit spending is not working. Obama isn't even trying any longer.

The Democrats are going in the wrong direction on long-term debt. Obama's original offer called for twice as much new spending as new revenue. He and the Democrats have decided to take advantage of the political benefits of ignoring long-term problems and to leave actual solutions to future administration - what Obama called "kicking the can down the road."

Until the Democrats get serious about the nation's problems we will careen from one artificial crisis to the next.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Fiscal Cliff Winners and Losers

The agreement to stave off the fiscal cliff is more complicated than it appears and there are unlikely winners. In the long run, the Republicans won by losing. President Obama ran on a platform of raising taxes on the rich. That was it. He wanted a blank slate so that he wouldn't be tied down. He got his tax increases but now he is without a mandate to do anything in his second term. While that leaves him free to try anything he wants, it also means that he cannot claim a mandate on anything.

It also frees the Republicans from the Democrats' most effective charge - that they are the party of the rich. That will not stop the Democrats from saying it but it will be harder to make the charges stick. This will be important in the next two elections.

Another winner is Social Security. The Social Security tax, euphemistically called the Payroll Tax, was cut two years ago in an effort to help the economy. Obama and the Democrats chose to cut this tax because it falls disproportionately on the lower incomes. The problem is that after the cut, there was not enough money coming in to pay current benefits. Social Security had to start cashing in its special bonds. Even if you believe in the trust fund, this was bad policy.

The President and the Democrats are short-term winners and long-term losers for the reasons given above.

The rich are losers. Ironically, the majority of them voted Democrat. Let them see the effects of the policies they voted for.

The economy might be a loser.

A final loser is the vacation from reality that we have been living under for the last four years. We have been cutting taxes and increasing spending at an unsustainable rate. This is nothing but a token down payment and it is accompanied by new spending (an increase in unemployment insurance) but at least it is something and it gives the Republicans a stronger position in calling for actual cuts.