In May, President Obama nominated a renowned scientist known as the "father of green chemistry" to head the EPA's Office of Research and Development. For an administration that supports ambitious climate change legislation and stresses the importance of sustainability, the nomination of Paul Anastas, director of Yale's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and a former White House environment director, was very much in keeping with its broader agenda. Anastas' nomination was unanimously approved in committee in July, and his confirmation seemed all but assured. Yet six months later Anastas still isn't confirmed. Standing in his way is Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose block on Anastas' nomination raises questions about Vitter's close ties to the formaldehyde industry.
Today, the future of the formaldehyde industry is very much in jeopardy. A few years back, the International Agency for Research on Cancer definitively announced that the chemical, used in building materials and household products, causes cancer in humans. The EPA, which has studied formaldehyde's risks for more than a decade, doesn't go quite so far, saying it's a "probable human carcinogen." But that could soon change. The EPA has recently signaled that it plans to definitively assess formaldehyde's health effects. "This is not the time for more delay," an EPA spokeswoman told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in September. As the agency's research director, Anastas would surely have a role in this assessment. Given that one of Anastas' specialties is researching "the design of safer chemicals and chemical processes to replace hazardous substances," the formaldehyde industry is predictably concerned about his nomination.
It's been a great couple years for the personal genomics company 23andMe: an Oprah appearance, a Invention of the Year accolade from Time magazine. But despite all the good press, last month the news turned sour: it was confirmed that 23andMe had laid off employees due to the economic downturn. "This was a very difficult decision," a company statement read, "but one that we felt was necessary to achieve 23andMe's long-term business development goals and maintain our strength in the industry."
Which begs the question: What exactly are those "long-term business development goals" for 23andMe, and indeed for the nascent personal genomics industry as a whole?
The genomics companies claim their goal to help us live longer, better lives; to understand what diseases we're predisposed to; and to better prepare for the future. But as Shannon Brownlee, author of the award-winning book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, writes in the November/December print issue of Mother Jones, this selling point isn't what these companies are actually after. What they really want is your genetic data for large-scale research; in their hands, that data can be sold to researchers and Big Pharma to develop new medications—and for much more than peddling personal tests. "We are the broker," 23andMe cofounder Linda Avey tells Brownlee. "We make the connection between [the drug firms] and the individuals."
Consumers can plunk down as much as $68,500 on one of these tests. But as Brownlee points out, in many instances the data they get back isn't even all that useful—or accurate. The personal genomics field is still in its infancy; even 23andMe mentions in its genetic reports that its findings shouldn't be used by doctors for prescriptions. Actual, useful data is years, even decades away, she writes, though that won't stop these services from cashing in on your DNA in the meantime.
You've read about all the jostling behind the scenes in Washington's quest to reform health-care: Big Pharma cutting a $80 billion backdoor deal with the White House, health insurers fighting tooth and nail against a public option, all affected parties and industries positioning themselves to reap the benefits of an overhaul of our $2.5 trillion health-care system. But there's another industry, one you've likely heard less about in the debate, that also stands to win or lose from reform: medical device makers.
The companies bringing you artificial hips, stents, defibrillators, and much more, medical device makers have not cut a deal with the White House or Democratic lawmakers, and face new taxes costing $20 billion or more if the legislation now circulating in Congress becomes law. But as writer Peter Stone points out in his story "Take Two Kickbacks" in Mother Jones'November/December issue, a lot more than tougher taxes is in order to reform the fraud-ridden, flawed medical device industry.
Stone's story highlights the prevalence of doctors receiving lucrative kickbacks in exchange for using and promoting a company’s medical products. This kind of illegal plying is so widespread, Stone reports, that between June 2006 and July 2009, device makers paid $535 million to the federal government for illegal marketing activities. One example: In 2006, Stone writes, device maker Medtronic "agreed to pay the feds $40 million to settle allegations that from 1998 through 2003 it had set up sham consulting and royalty agreements, trips to strip clubs in Tennessee, and other incentives to entice surgeons to use its spinal products." Though the consequences of these kinds of deals can be fatal, they're hardly novel in an industry plagued by graft and fraud.
If Stone’s story shows us anything, it's that, like health insurers and drug makers, the medical device industry is long, long overdue for reform, too.
It was a tall order last fall when then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson Jr. asked Congress for $700 billion and nearly unilateral power over how to spend it. With the nation on the precipice of economic Armageddon, Paulson's request was granted. But now, as financial reform legislation makes its way through Congress, some lawmakers are worried that Paulson's replacment, Timothy Geithner, may be attempting another Paulson-like power play.
Currently circulating on Capitol Hill is a draft of the House financial services committee's "Financial Stability Improvement Act," a wide-ranging effort to rein in too-big-to-fail institutions and bolster oversight of the financial-services industry. The legislation, spearheaded by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the committee's chairman, and Secretary Geithner, who helped to craft the bill, would also create an oversight council staffed by government financial regulators, and would abolish the Office of Thrift Supervision, an agency faulted for its flimsy regulation before the crisis. (The Wall Street Journal has a good run-down of the legislation here.)
The legislation is meeting stiff oppostion, though, from members of both parties. What has lawmakers like Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Alab.) riled up is a provision in the bill they say gives the White House and Treasury unchecked authority to spend taxpayer money, without Congressional approval, to bail out any too-big-to-fail bank that's poised to topple the economy. Sherman calls the provision "TARP on steroids," writing in The Hill:
Geithner's proposal reminds me of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion Wall Street bailout adopted last year, but the TARP was limited to two years, and to a maximum of $700 billion. Section 1204 is unlimited in dollar amount and is a permanent grant of power to the executive branch. TARP contained some limits on executive compensation and an array of special oversight authorities. Section 1204 contains absolutely no limits on executive compensation and no special oversight.
Disconcerting, indeed. The economy reached the point of near collapse, in large part, due to a gross absence of oversight. And the TARP as well has been marred by a lack of transparency and oversight: As bailout watchdogs have consistently pointed out, we still know very little about how TARP money was spent by institutions that received billions in bailout cash. With that in mind, do we want financial regulation that institutionalizes this opacity?
Far more melancholic than On the Road or The Dharma Bums, Big Sur describes a fictionalized (though clearly autobiographical) Jack; his flight from fame to the West, his alcoholism, and his ensuing breakdown. Musically speaking, Farrar and Gibbard's interpretation is lighter than that, even as it pulls various lyrics straight from the text. And while the artists meld well in songs like "There Roads Don’t Move" and "Sea Engines," the overall album feels like the work of two distinct artists.