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Monsanto Halts Its Bid to Buy Rival Syngenta—For Now

A clash of agribiz titans takes a breather.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 4:17 PM EDT

After four months of hot pursuit, genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto formally ended its bid to buy rival Syngenta Wednesday—at least for now. Earlier in the week, Monsanto had sweetened its offer for the Swiss agrochemical behemoth—most famous for its controversial atrazine herbicide and neonicotinoid pesticides—to $47 billion, in an effort to convince Syngenta's management and shareholders to accept the merger. They balked, and Monsanto management opted to halt the effort, declaring in a press release that it would instead "focus on its growth opportunities built on its existing core business to deliver the next wave of transformational solutions for agriculture." 

However, Monsanto may just be pausing, not fully halting, its buyout push. The company's press release states that it's "no longer pursuing [the] current proposal" (emphasis added) to buy its rival, and quickly added that the combination "would have created tremendous value for shareowners of both companies and farmers." And as Dow Jones' Jacob Bunge notes, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant "has coveted Syngenta since at least 2011, and said in a June interview that he viewed the effort as 'a long game.'" 

The logic that has driven Monsanto's zeal for a deal remains in place: It wants to diversify away from its reliance on seeds by buying Syngenta, the world's biggest purveyor of pesticides (more on that here). 

Meanwhile, Monsanto has been actively hyping up a new generation of pesticides, still in the development stage, which work by killing crop-chomping pests by silencing certain genes. But the company doesn't expect the novel sprays to hit the market until 2020—a timeline that may be overly optimistic, as I show here

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How Much Is 1.6 Months of Life Worth?

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 3:04 PM EDT

From Carolyn Johnson at Wonkblog:

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month....

Hey, that's me! A friendly FedEx delivery person just delivered this month's $10,000 supply to me an hour ago. So, what's up?

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month, doctors have begun to ask one nagging question: Do drug prices correctly reflect the value they bring to patients by extending or improving their lives?

A study published Thursday in JAMA Oncology aims to answer that question by examining necitumumab, an experimental lung cancer drug....in a clinical trial, researchers found that adding the drug to chemotherapy extended life by 1.6 months, on average.

....In order to estimate what the price of this drug "should" be based on its value to patients, the research team modeled various scenarios....one additional year in perfect health in the U.S. is worth somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000....Based on their calculations, the drug should cost from $563 to $1,309 for a three-week cycle.

....There are many variables that go into the price of a drug, but mounting evidence suggests that the value it brings to patients is not the biggest factor. "How they price the drug is they price it at whatever the market is willing to bear," said Benjamn Djulbegovic, an oncologist at the University of South Florida.

Well, sure, but this raises the question of why the market is willing to bear such high prices. Why would an insurance company approve a large expenditure for a drug that has only a tiny benefit?

There's a lot that goes into this. Obviously some people benefit from necitumumab by a lot more than 1.6 months—and there's no way to tell beforehand who will and who won't. And it costs a lot to develop these drugs. And patients put a lot of pressure on insurers to cover anything that might help. And, in the end, insurance companies don't have a ton of incentive to push back: if drug prices go up, they increase their premiums. It doesn't really affect their bottom line much.

There's also the size of the total market to consider. The chemo drug I'm currently taking, for example, is only used for two conditions. There's just not a whole lot of us using it. In cases like that, a drug is going to be pretty expensive.

But here's something I'm curious about: who puts more pressure on insurance companies to cover expensive drugs, patients or doctors? My doctor, for example, was totally gung-ho about my current med. I was much less so after I read some of the clinical studies online. Why? Because most chemo drugs have unpleasant side effects (though mine has turned out OK so far), which means that, like many patients, I'm reluctant to take them unless the benefit is pretty clear cut. Doctors, on the other hand, just want to do whatever they can to help, and have no particular incentive to hold back. So maybe it's doctors who need to be in the forefront of pushing back on expensive drugs. They're the ones in the doctor-patient relationship who know the most, after all.

Trump: "This Isn't a Gun Problem, This Is a Mental Problem."

The Republican front-runner says he's "a very strong Second Amendment person."

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 2:24 PM EDT

A day after two journalists in Virginia were fatally shot on live television, Donald Trump is rejecting calls to strengthen gun control laws. Instead, he told CNN's Chris Cuomo today that mental health issues are to blame for gun violence in America. This isn't a gun problem, this is a mental problem," the presidential hopeful said.

"You're not going to get rid of all guns," Trump added. "I know one thing: If you try to do it, the bad guys would have them. And the good folks would abide by the laws but be hopeless." The real state mogul defended the Second Amendment, which he said he was "very much into."

Trump's opposition to stricter gun legislation in favor of focusing on mental health problems is not new. But many experts argue such thinking is flawed. "Consider that between 2001 and 2010, there were nearly 120,000 gun-related homicides…Few were perpetrated by people with mental illness," psychiatry professor Richard A. Friedman wrote in the New York Times after the Newtown shooting in 2012.

Trump is just one of the 2016 candidates to weigh in following the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward on Wednesday morning. Speaking at a press conference in Iowa, Hillary Clinton told reporters that she was "stricken" by the shooting. "We have got to do something about gun violence in America," Clinton said. "And I will take it on."

Speaking to Fox News' Megyn Kelly on Wednesday night, the father of one of the victims vowed to fight for increased gun control measures. "Whatever it takes to get gun legislation, to shame people, to shame legislators into doing something about closing loopholes and background checks and making sure crazy people don't get guns," Andy Parker said.

Saul Bellow Was 30 Years Ahead of Me

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 1:50 PM EDT

Here's a fascinating little August tidbit, via Jeet Heer on Twitter. It's an excerpt from The Dean's December, by Saul Bellow, published in 1981. Albert Corde, an academic, is talking to a scientist (obviously modeled on the seminal lead researcher Clair Patterson) about the "real explanation of what goes on in the slums":

"And the explanation? What is the real explanation?"

"Millions of tons of intractable lead residues poisoning the children of the poor. They're the most exposed....Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead. It comes down to the nerves, to brain damage."

....Direct material causes? Of course. Who could deny them? But what was odd was that no other causes were conceived of. "So it's lead, nothing but old lead?" he said.

"I would ask you to study the evidence."

And that was what Corde now began to do, reading through stapled documents, examining graphs....What was the message?....A truly accurate method of detecting tiny amounts of lead led to the discovery that the cycle of lead in the earth had been strongly perturbed. The conclusion: Chronic lead insult now affects all mankind....Mental disturbances resulting from lead poison are reflected in terrorism, barbarism, crime, cultural degradation.

....Tetraethyl fumes alone could do it—engine exhaust—and infants eating flaking lead paint in the slums became criminal morons.

What's interesting is the mention of crime. Lead was a well-known neurotoxin by 1981, strongly implicated in educational problems and loss of IQ. So it's no big surprise that it might pop up as a prop in a novel. But nobody was yet linking it to the rise of violent crime. That would wait for another 20 years. And a truly credible case for the link between lead and crime wouldn't appear for yet another decade, when the necessary data became available and technology had advanced enough to produce convincing brain studies. Neither of those was available in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, the germ of the idea was there. In a way, that's not surprising: I've always felt that, given what we know about what lead does to the childhood brain, its link to violent crime should never have been hard to accept. It would actually be surprising if childhood lead exposure didn't have an effect on violent crime.

Anyway, that's it. Your literary connection of the day to one of my favorite topics.

Nerds and Hacks Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose Except Your Chains.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 12:22 PM EDT

David Roberts has a long post at Vox about tech nerds and their disdain for politics. He highlights one particular tech nerd who describes both major parties as "a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things," and jumps off from there:

There are two broad narratives about politics that can be glimpsed between the lines here. Both are, in the argot of the day, problematic.

The first, which is extremely common in the nerd community, is a distaste for government and politics....a sense that government is big, bloated, slow-moving, and inefficient, that politicians are dimwits and panderers, and that real progress comes from private innovation, not government mandates. None of which is facially unreasonable.

The second is the conception of politics as a contest of two mirror-image political philosophies, with mirror-image extremes and a common center, which is where sensible, independent-minded people congregate.

There's about 4,400 more words than this, so click the link if you want to immerse yourself.

But I have a little different take on all this. The truth is that politics and tech are the same thing: inventing a product that appeals to people and then marketing the hell out of it. Back in the dark ages, this was a little more obvious. Steve Wozniak invented, Steve Jobs sold. It was so common for tech companies to be started by two people, one engineer and one salesman, that it was practically a cliche.

The modern tech community has lost a bit of that. Oh, they all chatter about social media and going viral and so forth. As long as the marketing is actually just some excuse for talking about cool new tech, they're happy to immerse themselves in it. But actually selling their product? Meh. The truly great ideas rise to the top without any of that Mad Men crap. Anyway, the marketing department will handle the dull routine of advertising and....well, whatever it is they do.

Politics, by contrast, leans the other way. Inventing new stuff helps, but the real art is in selling your ideas to the public and convincing your fellow politicians to back you. It's all messy and annoying, especially if you're not very socially adept, but it's the way human beings get things done.

Well, it's one of the ways. Because Roberts only tells half the story. As much as most tech nerds disdain the messy humanness of politics, it's equally true that most politicians disdain the eye-rolling naivete of tech nerds. You wanna get something done, kid? Watch the master at work.

In politics, you have the wonks and the hacks—and it's the hacks who rule. In tech, you have the nerds and the salesmen—and it's the nerds who rule. There are always exceptions, but that's the general shape of the river.

But guess what? The most successful nerds have always been the ones who are also willing to figure out what makes people tick. And the most successful politicians have been the ones who are willing to marry themselves to policy solutions that fit their time and place. That doesn't mean that nerds have to slap backs (Bill Gates never did) or that successful politicians have to immerse themselves in white papers (Ronald Reagan never did), but wonks and hacks and nerds and salesmen all need each other. The political hacks and the tech nerds need to get together and get messy. And more important: they have to genuinely respect each other. When that happens, you have a very, very powerful combination. So get to work.

TGIAS: Finally, August Is Almost Over

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 11:39 AM EDT

August is almost over. Huzzah! Kids are back in school, the weather will soon turn balmy, and we only have to pay attention to Donald Trump for a few more days. In September we'll have more important stuff to obsess over. Right?

Well, we can hope. In the meantime, Dan Drezner has a question:

For this entire calendar year, I’ve heard how the current crop of GOP presidential candidates “showcase[s] the party’s deep bench of talent”....And, to be fair, this seemed to be a fair analysis. There are no fewer than nine sitting and former governors of big states in the field....And yet, after all the declarations, we’re at a political moment when Trump is clobbering all of these talented politicians in the polls — and doing so by honing the lessons he learned from reality television.

....So here’s my question: What does it say about the deep GOP bench that none of them have managed to outperform a guy who has no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path?

I've had the same thought myself. Nor is this a partisan question: the Democrats have such a weak bench this year that there's literally only one truly plausible candidate in the entire field. And this isn't because Hillary Clinton is so widely beloved: there's just no one else around who seems to have the usual bona fides to run for president. Hell, even the sitting vice president, usually a shoo-in to run, has a public persona that's a little too goofy to make him a strong candidate.

In other words, there are hardly any decent candidates in the entire country. What the hell is going on?

But Drezner actually prompts another question that's been rattling around in my brain: Is there anyone out there who could be the Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump? There was some inane blather earlier this month comparing him to Bernie Sanders, but that was always pretty preposterous. Sanders is a serious, longtime politician. He may be too extreme for you, but he's not a buffoon.

More specifically: Is it even possible that someone like Trump—no political experience, buffoonish, populist, boorish—could ever make a big impact in a Democratic primary? It's never happened before, but then, it's never happened quite this way in the Republican primary either. It makes me wonder. What if Trump had held on to his lifelong liberal beliefs instead of "evolving" so he could compete as a Republican? What would be the fate of a liberal Donald Trump? Would a big chunk of the liberal base embrace him?

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Virginia News Station Pays Tribute to Slain Journalists

"Adam and Alison, this is for you."

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

A day after Virginia journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were fatally shot while filming a live broadcast, their colleagues at WDBJ went on air to pay tribute with a moment of silence.

 

Please take a moment today to pause and reflect to remember Alison Parker and Adam Ward. Gone, but never forgotten.

Posted by WDBJ7 on Thursday, August 27, 2015

"We want to pause and reflect and share with you once again what made these two so special, not just to us, but to all of our hometowns that WDBJ serves," Kimberly McBroom, who was anchoring from the station when the shooting erupted, said while fighting back tears.

On Wednesday morning, Parker and Ward were killed during a live interview at a shopping center. The suspected gunman is Vester Flanagan, a former coworker at the local news station. The segment's interviewee, Vicki Garndner, was also injured. She went through emergency surgery and has reportedly recovered from stable condition to good condition.

US Economy Growing Faster Than We Thought

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 10:49 AM EDT

This is welcome news:

The U.S. economy expanded at a brisker pace than initially thought in the second quarter as businesses ramped up spending, a hopeful sign for an economy that has been repeatedly buffeted by bad weather, domestic political standoffs and overseas turmoil.

Gross domestic product, the broadest sum of goods and services produced across the economy, expanded at a 3.7% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the second quarter of 2015, the Commerce Department said Thursday, up from the initial estimate of 2.3% growth.

Average growth in the entire first half of the year was still fairly sluggish, thanks to a miserable first quarter, but today's news might be evidence of some decent acceleration in the economy. Given all the bad news of the past month or so, this comes as a bit of a relief.

Here's Why No One Cares About Modern Philosophy

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 9:48 PM EDT

Via someone on the right (I don't remember who, sorry) I learned of a minor tempest over at Vox.com. One of their editors asked a Swedish philosopher, Torbjorn Tannsjo, to write a piece defending the "repugnant conclusion," which Tannsjo describes thusly:

My argument is simple. Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.

There are a number of caveats in the piece, but that's basically it. Vox ended up rejecting it, partly because they decided not to launch a planned new section for "unusual, provocative arguments," and partly because they were squeamish about the implications of a piece which argued that "birth control and abortion are, under most circumstances, immoral."

Brian Leiter, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, was appalled:

If you solicit a piece from a philosopher, knowing what their work is about (as was clearly the case here), you have an obligation to publish it, subject to reasonable editing. What you can't do, if you are an even remotely serious operation (and not an echo chamber), is reject it because someone not paying attention might think the argument supports a conclusion they find icky.

I'll confess to some puzzlement about this affair. Leiter is right that Vox editors must have known exactly what Tannsjo was going to write. That was clear from the start. So why did they get cold feet after seeing the finished product? On the other hand, Leiter is dead wrong that any publication has an obligation to publish every piece it solicits.1 That doesn't pass the laugh test, whether the writer is a philosopher or not. Stuff gets rejected all the time for a million different reasons, potential offensiveness among them.

But here's the part I really don't get: Why on earth would anyone take Tannsjo's argument seriously in the first place? The entire thing hinges on the premise that we all have a moral duty to maximize the absolute amount of felt happiness in the universe. If you don't believe that, there's nothing left of his essay.

But virtually no one does believe that. And since Tannsjo never even tries to justify his premise, that makes his entire piece kind of pointless. It would have taken me about five minutes to reject it.

I dunno. Too many modern philosophers seem to revel in taking broadly uncontroversial sentiments—in this case, that we have an obligation to future generations—and then spinning out supposedly shocking conclusions that might hold if (a) you literally care only about this one thing, and (b) you take it to its absurd, ultimate limit.2 But aside from dorm room bull sessions, why bother? That just isn't the human condition. We care about lots of things; they often conflict; and we always have to end up balancing them in some acceptable way. Nothing in the real world ever gets taken to its ultimate logical conclusion all by itself.

I suppose this kind of thing might be interesting in the same way that any abstract logic puzzle is interesting, but it's not hard to see why most people would just consider it tedious blather. If this is at all representative of what Vox got when it started looking around for unusual, provocative arguments, I don't blame them for deep sixing the whole idea.

1Depending on the publication and the type of article, they might owe you a kill fee for the work you put into it. But that's all.

2Well, that and ever more baroque versions of the trolley problem.

This GOP Presidential Candidate Is Trying to Destroy Planned Parenthood. Now Planned Parenthood Is Fighting Back.

Cuts to the health care organization threaten access to care for thousands.

| Wed Aug. 26, 2015 6:23 PM EDT

Planned Parenthood in Louisiana is asking a federal judge to halt presidential candidate and state Gov. Bobby Jindal's efforts to cut Medicaid funding for the health care organization, arguing that the cut would hurt nearly 6,000 low-income women, men, and teens who access the group's services each year.

Referencing the series of attack videos that depict Planned Parenthood officials in California and other states discussing fetal tissue donation, Jindal earlier this month directed the state's department of health to terminate Planned Parenthood's contract with Medicaid, saying the organization was not "worthy of receiving public assistance from the state."

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which operates clinics in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, does not offer abortion services in Louisiana. It does, however, provide physical exams, breast cancer screenings, and testing for sexually transmitted infections to 10,000 people each year, 60 percent of whom are enrolled in Medicaid. 

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, lawyers for the health care organization wrote that those patients will be cut off from health care access as early as next week, causing them "significant and irreparable harm," unless the court blocks Jindal's decision. Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood, which totaled nearly $730,000 last year, are set to end September 2 unless the court steps in. 

A key issue is whether cutting off Planned Parenthood's Medicaid funding is legal. This month, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) warned Louisiana that terminating Medicaid provider agreements likely violates a federal rule requiring Medicaid beneficiaries to be able to obtain services from any qualified provider.  

The point of that provision, according to CMS, is to "allow [Medicaid] recipients the same opportunities to choose among available providers of covered health care and services as are normally offered to the general population."

Louisiana isn't the only state to cut funding for Planned Parenthood: Alabama, Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Utah have taken similar steps. And Republicans in Congress tried, but failed, to push through a bill to slash $500 million in federal funding. 

Jindal is also one of a handful of Republican governors who have launched investigations into state Planned Parenthood affiliates in the hopes of finding criminal activity related to the sale of aborted fetal tissue. Those investigations, many of which are taking place in states that don't have fetal tissue donation programs, have so far turned up nothing. The investigation in Louisiana, however, has put on hold the construction of a third Planned Parenthood clinic, which was approved by the department of health earlier this year after months of pushback.

But coming out swinging against the country's largest women's health care organization hasn't translated to a more successful presidential campaign for Jindal. He was one of two sitting governors who did not get to participate in the first prime-time Republican debate this year because the forum was limited to the top-polling candidates. National polls have consistently put him in the low single digits.