A Penal Colony With a Nice Coastline

As of yesterday, fees to attend a Cal State university have gone up by a third in the past year:

As several hundred students shouted "Vote no!" outside the chamber door, California State University trustees Tuesday approved a student fee hike of 20% and agreed to furlough most faculty and staff, including college presidents, for two days each month.

....Cal State also plans to cut its 450,000 enrollment by 40,000 students over the next two years, and $183 million more in budget cuts will be borne by individual campuses.

The 23-campus university system, the nation's largest, has almost tripled its basic fees over the last eight years, approving increases in every year but one. But Tuesday's was by far the steepest, and followed a 10% hike approved just in May.

When I went to school at Cal State Long Beach in 1978, I paid about $100 per semester, plus another $50 or so for books.  Call it $300 a year.  Basically, even the poorest could afford it without going into debt.  Now it's more like $5,000 per year.

I know there are some pretty good arguments for having higher public university fees.  After all, why should the taxpayers subsidize kids who are just going to use their degrees to earn a lot more money over the course of their lives anyway?  And yet.....I don't buy it.  Applied to Harvard, maybe.  But I really like the idea of having a public university system that isn't world class (that's what UC is for), but does provide a basic, good quality, no-frills education to anyone who wants it, and is designed to attract as many people as possible to give it a try — without having to worry that they're racking up a huge debt if it turns out they can't make it.  There's not only a meritocratic ideal in this that appeals to me greatly, but it says something about the priorities of the citizenry that's inspiring as well.

Maybe I'm living in the past.  Maybe community colleges provide that function these days.  A lot of people think so.  But I don't.  And if I had the choice of keeping Cal State universities accessible to everyone vs. shoveling another 10,000 petty crooks into prison, I know which I'd choose.  Over the past 30 years my fellow California residents have decided they'd rather become a penal colony with a nice coastline than a land of opportunity.  It's not a change for the better.

Older Prisoners Denied Social Security

Not long ago I described the plight of the growing numbers of older prisoners filling up the country’s prisons and jails. They receive poor health care and are subject to any number of cruel and inhuman punishments—people with bad arthritis are required to climb into upper bunks to sleep; it's next to impossible for inmates in wheelchairs to access parts of prisons available to younger people, like baths. Among the worst sights described to me by a medical consultant were sick and often older inmates of an Alabama women’s prison who were forced to get out of bed at 3 a.m. and stand in lines to obtain medicine.

Another major issue faced by older prisoners is that they do not receive Social Security from the fund they paid into for years before being convicted of a crime. Lois Ahrens, who runs the indispenable Real Cost of Prisons Project, alerted me to the situation of David Hinman, a prisoner in Iowa. Now 65 years old, he contributed to Social Security for years while in the free world. He is not eligible for parole for a number of years. He wrote to Ahrens:

Currently the government will not pay people in prison social security. I am speaking about paying social security to those who paid into the fund. Payment is based on what they paid in. Even though I am now 65 and paid into the fund, since I am in prison I am not allowed to collect unless I am released from prison. By not paying inmates the social security to which they are entitled, I believe this is in some manner, theft.

In 2009, when you hear the word "terrorist," who and what comes to mind is no secret. However, many of us forget that in the 1970s, leftist terrorism was a major cause for concern. In the US, it was the Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, and Black Liberation Army who were the main proponents of these unlawful tactics. But Italy was the true global epicenter of these movements. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, legions of Italy's most radical communists (led by the Red Brigades)  terrorized their country with regular bombings and murders in an era that became known as "The Years of Lead."

In Pushing Past The Night, journalist Mario Calabresi (currently the managing editor of Italy's La Stampa newspaper), takes readers back to these troubled times, starting with the events that led to the brutal murder of his father Luigi on May 17, 1972, when the author was just two years old. Calabresi goes to great lengths to explain why misguided left wing radicals have for years symbolically invoked the name of Luigi Calabresi when using propaganda to justify other heinous actions. With a remarkably beautiful translation into English by Michael F. Moore, Calabresi weaves back and forth between the 1970s and the present day, illustrating the lack of justice for Italy's criminals (many obtained immunity by moving to France or have been let off because of the statute of limitations, and some have even become high-ranking elected officials) and the falsehoods in the national consciousness surrounding the death of his father. To debunk the claims made by leftists that his father was guilty of a crime, Calabresi carefully and scientifically has many experts recreate the events of the death of Giusseppe Pinelli (whom the leftists claim his father killed), leading to the solid conclusion that Luigi Calabresi is innocent of all wrongdoing. Calabresi's discussion of how many of Italy's former terrorists became acclaimed scholars, intellectuals, and philosophers while serving little to no time for their crimes depicts the chaos and inadequacy of the Italian justice system, as well as how faux-revolutionaries are made into pop culture heroes.

What I appreciate so much about this work is Calabresi's ability to create such rich emotion while retaining his own values and morals. For instance, when writing about the Italian government's failure to inform his family that one of his father's murderers was released from prison, Calabresi notes, "I don't think the government should be required to seek victims' permission before passing laws or deciding whether to grand a pardon, parole, early release or supervised furloughs. Such matters should be carried out in the general interest, which might not coincide with the interests of the 'families of the victims.' If the state, the judiciary, the government or the president thinks that an act is appropriate, necessary, and justified, then the pain of private citizens should obviously not be an impediment."

This memoir presents history through many angles on poignant subjects that most Americans would likely only be aware of if, during the 1970s, they attentively read the foreign section of a national newspaper. For the rest of us, catching up on what we missed by reading Pushing Past The Night is the next best thing.

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, July 22

Looking for more health, science, and environment news today? Look no further:

Wary of Waxman-Markey? Kevin Drum on why carbon cap-and-trade is not just another subprime debacle waiting to happen.

Sketchy green jobs skeptic: An ExxonMobil-funded Spanish economist claims that for every green job created, 20 jobs are lost. Turns out he has it backwards.

The hard sell: How do you convince Americans who already have health insurance to support healthcare reform? Scare them with the facts.

Cell phone driving data, finally: The government has known since 2003 that at least 1,000 people die on the road every year because a driver was talking on a cell phone (and hands-free devices don't help). So why are they only telling the public now?

Report Finds Huge Potential for Conservation to End California's Water Crisis

 A report released today by California's Pacific Institute estimates that reasonable water conservation improvements on the state's farms could save a huge amount of water--far more than what farmers have been forced to relinquish to protect fish habitat during the state's ongoing drought. The amount that could be saved, 1.8 trillion gallons annually, is more than 15 times the size of the municipal supply of San Francisco. 

The report, Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future, provides considerable ammunition to environmentalists in their fight with farmers over the West's dwindling water resources. In the midst of the third year of drought in California, growers are blaming endangered species laws for crimping their water supply and contributing to $1 billion in lost revenue this season. Though they've used their plight to call for weakening environmental regulations and building more dams and reservoirs, the report suggests their efforts are misplaced. Smarter conservation has allowed some growers "to increase their income, crop yields, and production, even during drought," says Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick. "Such success stories offer the state a vision of what a healthy agricultural future might look like."

The water conservation methods that the Gleick studied are already in use in the state, though many farmers cling to older practices. For example, 60 percent of crops in California are still irrigated by flooding the field, even though drip irrigation methods can easily halve water use. The report also suggests that farmers apply less water to crops during drought-tolerant growth stages and use sensors that can detect when soil is dry. 

These ideas can seem far-removed from our lives until we realize that the products we consume account for more than 90 percent of our daily water use, far more than what comes out of our taps. I explore this idea in "What's Your Water Footprint," a piece in the current issue.  The Pacific Institute and other environmental groups eventually hope the concept of a water footprint will catch on much as carbon footprints have. The idea could be used to reward farmers who do the right thing, either with tax breaks, loans, or a premium for the products they sell. 

The case for looking at carbon footprints and water footprints together is stronger than ever. A new study from the University of Colorado found that climate change creates a 50 percent chance that the reservoirs supplied by the Colorado River, the West's main water source, could run dry by 2057. And a study released today by UC Davis found that California's $10 billion fruit and nut industry is under threat from higher temperatues, which could make it impossible to grow walnuts, pistacios, peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries almost everywhere in the Central Valley. If that happens, all the water conservation technology in the world probably won't save us.

Taming the Blue Dogs

Karen Tumulty reports that President Obama is starting to twist arms on Capitol Hill a little more:

One close Obama ally predicted to me: "He's going to become increasingly specific — and increasingly persistent — about the things he does and doesn't want" in the health care bill. This afternoon found the President knee-deep in negotations with the conservative Democrats known as "Blue Dogs," who have been slowing down Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman's efforts to get a bill through his panel. And as a result, the President and the conservative Democrats are making common cause on one cost-containment measure that both would like to see added to the House bill.

In a conference call with a group of reporters after the session, Obama Budget Director Peter Orszag said that the White House and the Blue Dogs agree that the "biggest missing piece" of the House bill is a proposal — similar to one championed in the Senate by Democrat Jay Rockefeller — to take the job of setting Medicare reimbursement rates out of the hands of Congress, and turn it over to an independent agency that presumably would have more expertise — and more insulation from political pressure. (You can read our earlier discussion of it — and Orszag's argument for it — here.) The idea has also won words of praise from the Mayo Clinic on the very blog where it criticized the House bill yesterday. And Obama's engagement may be bringing the Blue Dogs aboard.

Right now rate setting is little more than a naked annual porkfest, and there's really no good reason Congress should be involved in it except at the hundred-thousand foot level anyway.  I don't know if giving it to an independent agency will actually contain costs very much, but if this is what it takes to bring the Blue Dogs on board it's fine with me.

Waist Management

So what's happening over at Slate these days?  Let's take a look:

For years, critics of the body mass index have griped that it fails to distinguish between lean and fatty mass. (Muscular people are often misclassifed as overweight or obese.) The measure is mum, too, about the distribution of body fat, which makes a big difference when it comes to health risks. And the BMI cutoffs for "underweight," "normal," "overweight," and "obese" have an undeserved air of mathematical authority. So how did we end up with such a lousy statistic?

Oh man, not this again.  Yes, it's true: there are a few of us with such Adonis-like physiques that our BMI is high even though we're not overweight. But not many, and you know who you are anyway.  For most of us, let's face facts: if you have a high BMI it's because you've been eating a few too many Snickers bars.

What's more, it's no mystery why BMI has become so widely used: it might not be perfect, but it's a pretty good rough-and-ready measure of obesity and it's really, really easy to measure.  Mine is about 28.  And anyway, all these articles moaning about how bad BMI is never give us anything better to use.

Except — wait!  Hallelujah!  This one does:

Our continuing reliance on BMI is especially grating given there's a very reasonable alternative. It turns out that the circumference around a person's waist provides a much more accurate reading of his or her abdominal fat and risk for disease than BMI. And wrapping a tape measure around your gut is no more expensive than hopping on a scale and standing in front of a ruler.

OK, so what's the formula?  WC squared divided by neck size?  Or what?  Is Slate seriously going to make us click those links and wade through a couple of epidemiological studies instead of just telling us?  Jeebus.  But fine.  I'll go look.  From the second link, here it is:

Men and women who have waist circumferences greater than 40 inches (102 cm) and 35 inches (88 cm), respectively, are considered to be at increased risk for cardiometabolic disease....Waist circumference measurements should be made around a patient's bare midriff, after the patient exhales while standing without shoes, both feet touching, and arms hanging freely. The measuring tape should be made of a material that is not easily stretched, such as fiberglass.

That's it?  No formula?  Just one number?  That's pretty nice — though I don't really like this one much.  My BMI tells me I'm a little heavier than I should be, but not that much heavier.  Hooray!  My WC, on the other hand, clocks in at 42 inches, clearly higher than it should be.  Boo!

But as it turns out, this is a point in favor of WC since I've always felt that BMI is too kind to me.  My gut is considerably more jello-like than it should be, and my WC measurement makes that clearer than my BMI does.

Still, don't take this too seriously.  The study in the first link above shows that WC is a better measure of various kinds of fatty tissue than BMI, but not that much better.  And the second study says that although WC provides "incremental value" in predicting diabetes, CHD, and mortality rate above and beyond that provided by BMI, it's not clear if it provides enough incremental value to be worth it: "Based on NHANES III data, 99.9% of men and 98.4% of women would have received the same treatment recommendations proposed by the NHLBI Expert Panel by evaluating BMI and other cardiovascular risk factors, without an assessment of WC."

So go ahead and measure your waist.  It's fast and easy, and if you don't cheat it's a fairly decent predictor of body fat.  But for 98% of us, if you know your BMI already you're probably not going to learn anything you don't already know.

(Now, whether you should care is another question entirely.  I'll leave that for another day.  But regardless of your weight, don't forget to exercise!  Everyone agrees that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for you.)

Who's Afraid of Futures Contracts?

It's become popular lately to attack the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill as yet another giveaway to Wall Street.  In his recent tongue-lashing of Goldman Sachs, for example, Matt Taibbi warned that trading in carbon credits would be the next subprime debacle:

Instead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an "environmental plan," called cap-and-trade.  The new carbon credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that's been kind to Goldman.

As you know, I'm pretty skeptical of this.  The market for carbon credits may be big, but it's nowhere near big enough to cause the kinds of systemic problems that abuse of subprime mortgages did; the derivatives in question are simple ones like options and futures, not CDOs and swaps; and Waxman-Markey has some pretty good language regulating them in any case.  Today Paul Krugman takes up the argument:

Any time you have a market, there’s some opportunity for speculation....So, should fear of speculation lead us to ban trading in wheat? Nobody would say that....Now substitute “emission permits” for wheat. It’s exactly the same story. Why should you address it any differently?

....The prime example of an energy market gone bad is the western electricity market in 2000-2001; and let me say that I have some moral authority here, since I called it when it was happening. That was the real thing — but what made it possible was a combination of at least two factors. First, the demand for electricity was highly unresponsive to prices; second, the relevant markets were fairly small (northern and southern California were isolated both from the outside world and from each other by transmission bottlenecks).

In the case of emission permits, demand will probably be quite responsive to prices — and the market will, as Joe Romm says, be huge.

Read the whole thing. Joe Romm has more here. I'm all in favor of Waxman-Markey containing strong language to restrict fraud and speculation, but there's no reason tie ourselves in knots thinking that this is another subprime debacle waiting to happen just because it involves commodity trading.  The facts on the ground really don't back it up.

Mom Eats For Two Forever

A series of reports from the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction reinforce the growing notion that our health is affected by the actions and choices of our forefathers—or foremothers.

It's all about epigenetic inheritance: the nongenetic variations acquired during the life of an organism that can be passed on to offspring.

We already know—and I've already written—that fruit flies exposed to certain chemicals transmit changes down at least 13 generations. And that people malnourished in adolescence transmit higher rates of heart disease and diabetes to their children and even their grandchildren.

Now the following studies demonstrate how maternal nutrition, protein intake, and fat in the diet cause epigenetic changes in developing fetuses, with long-term health consequences. Some changes occur before pregnancy, some during—some don't manifest for a long time:

  • Mouse studies suggest that subtle differences in maternal metabolism have long-lasting effects. When embryos were transferred from a diabetic mouse to a nondiabetic mouse, all kinds of birth defects ensued (neural tube defects, heart defects, limb deformities, and growth defects in offspring)—suggesting we need to redirect ideas about maternal health to prior to pregnancy.
  • Maternal nutrition at the time of conception alters fetal development. Sheep and rodent studies reveal that offspring of mothers with vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies are fatter, become insulin resistant, and have higher blood pressure by the time they reach middle-age—proving that early molecular changes may not manifest for many years.
  • Low protein levels in female mice during the first few moments of conception caused abnormal growth, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and jumpy behavior in their offspring. They also grew bigger, extracting as many nutrients as they could to compensate for poor nutrition in the womb.
  • According to epigenetic theory, changes in the genome can happen at any time through the impact of environmental factors on the expression of genes over time. One of the most critical periods is early life when epigenetic memories are created that may impact a person's susceptibility to disease later in life. These "memories" may lie dormant until an environmental trigger brings them to the surface and modifies disease risk.

 

Bright Green Idea: Trash Track

Ever wonder what happens to your trash after you toss it? If you live in New York City or Seattle, you may soon get the chance to find out.

The cities are hosting Trash Track, an MIT project enlisting volunteers to trace their waste's odyssey via electronic tags. By forcing people to confront how their garbage impacts the environment, program directors hope to inspire more recycling. Come September, the project will culminate with an exhibit at the Architectural League in New York City and the Seattle Public Library.

Any cool, eco-friendly ideas you've heard about recently? Post in the comments section below.