The Good Flu Still Needs Stopping

It’s been interesting to watch the media ramp-up to hysteria over the new influenza strain and now drop it like spoiled news because it’s not deadly enough for the headlines. Too bad that's wrong twice.

First off, during the initial discovery of influenza A(H1N1)—no, it’s not swine flu anymore—many outlets were far too quick to diagnose and prognosticate, when all anyone could reasonably do was take a breath and wait a second for the science to sort through the fiction. That didn’t happen. Instead, imaginary death tolls mounted.

Now it’s clear this new flu is more gentle than ordinary flu. Yet this is just the moment when it’s potential for lethal harm blossoms.

Why? Because the farther the virus spreads, the more chance it will mix or reassort with other flus and turn into something more lethal. Already the unusual A(H1N1) flu combines strains from three species—swine, avian, human—from three continents—North America, Europe, and Asia. That’s new.

The mix provides an order of complexity we don't yet understand, says Kennedy Shortridge of the University of Hong Kong. AAAS’s ScienceNow reports that Shortridge led investigations into the initial emergence of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997.

Shortridge is concerned this newly-hacked virus might prove unstable and ready to reassort with other viruses encountered in a human or animal host. It’s already arrived in Asia where the H5N1 virus is circulating and where strains of Tamiflu-resistant human H1N1 are circulating. He speculates that swapping genes between these viruses could result in one that is more pathogenic or more easily passed from person to person or both. The prospects for change in the virus are considerable and truly worrying.

But this is just the moment when the media is sheepishly casting around for a bigger news story. They’ve already cried Wolf and infected everyone with boredom. Now, when we drop our vigilance, is just the moment when a good flu can go bad.

And, btw, I can’t help in the midst of all this to picture a world where for the sake of atmospheric health we all become vegetarian. You know, just to reduce our carbon footprint by a whopping 33 percent. I know, it’s a fantasy. But imagine it anway. Without the brutal disease-making factories of pig and fowl farms, we’d all be healthier—people and planet.
 

Video: The RNC Tries This Thing Called "Humor"

The comedic geniuses over at the Republican National Committee apparently decided to showcase Obama's 100 days by producing this big bucket of web ad fail, cleverly disguised as a parody video. No wonder you don't see many Republicans doing stand-up.

Via Wonkette:

Watch what appears to be a Southern white man doing his "blacky voice" over video of Obama’s inauguration speech...The introductory text reads, "100 days ago, a man read a grand speech from a TelePrompter. What if the Teleprompter had accidentally switched to reality-mode?" Then: "A parody from the RNC." OH JESUS, RUN.

Is it that bad? Watch below and decide for yourself:

John Murtha Airport: Earmark Reform Poster Child

Pennsylvania Congressman John "Jack" Murtha, a Democrat and the powerful chairman of the House appropriations committee, is a creature of the Washington culture that needs to be changed. Here's another example of why:

At the behest of Rep. John P. Murtha (D), chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, the Pentagon has spent about $30 million equipping the little-used airport named for him so it can handle behemoth military aircraft and store combat equipment for rapid deployment to foreign battlefields....

Some locals call the Johnstown airport "Fort Murtha" because of the stream of wartime projects at the facility. Although its runway is capable of servicing the largest airplanes in North America, the airport now is used only by small commuter planes that make six trips a day back and forth to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Many of the commercial flights, which are subsidized by federal transportation dollars, carry only a handful of passengers. On a recent visit, all of the departing flights were less than half full, and one had only four passengers -- screened by seven federal airport personnel.

All told, Murtha has steered about $150 million in federal funds to the airport. This spring, it was among the first four in the country to receive stimulus money -- $800,000 for a runway-widening project. 

I consider that money stolen from the American taxpayers. High time for earmark reform.

Chart of the Day - 4.30.2009

Ezra Klein points to an intriguing bit of opinion polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation today: 61% of Americans say that in order to fund healthcare reform they'd support higher taxes on "items that are thought to be unhealthy, such as soda, alcohol, junk food, and cigarettes":

Problematically, the poll question lumps a lot of different policies together. Paying for health care by taxing cigarettes is actually a common strategy. It's how we funded S-CHIP, for one. Taxing soda is rather further from the center of the consensus. But there's no evidence, in this poll at least, that the public instinctually recoils from the idea.

In a sense, I'm not too surprised by this.  I suspect that most people know that soda and junk food really are a scourge and would like to cut back.  So either through guilt, or maybe a sense that they need someone else to prod them into doing the right thing, they support higher taxes on this stuff.

Further down, however, there's a followup question:

This is a fascinating example of just how thin opinion polling like this is.  The real lesson here is that most people haven't given this issue even a few seconds thought, and their response to the poll question is practically meaningless.  Faced with even the slightest pushback, large majorities of both supporters and opponents flipped their views almost instantly.

So the real question isn't how people feel about taxing junk food now, it's how they're likely to feel about taxing junk food after hearing both sides screech about it for a few days or weeks or months.  This is true of most other opinion polling too.  Caveat emptor.

Gambling on Fiat

The Chrysler bankruptcy is now official:

Once Chrysler restructures, the company would receive $4.5 billion in financing to restart its operations....That is $2 billion more than Mr. Obama initially said the company would receive if it successfully reached a deal with Fiat.

Chrysler has already received $4.5 billion from the government, under a bailout plan put into effect by the Bush administration in late December....The Canadian government also is expected to provide $1 for every $3 in American support, the official said, meaning Chrysler could receive another $2.6 billion.

So that's nearly $12 billion in total assistance.  All to prop up a company that, I'll bet, won't last two years.  Compared to the vast sums of taxpayer cash we're handing over to the banking industry practically for free, I suppose this isn't really all that much, but it's still pretty hard to swallow since it seems almost vanishingly unlikely that Chrysler will survive in the end.  I mean, does anyone really think that the management genius of Fiat is going to save them?  Fiat?

 

 

The Only Birth Control Method Conservatives Like

Courtesy Harvard Medical LibraryCourtesy Harvard Medical LibraryAn exhibit at the Center for the History of Medicine doesn't sound like a good date night, but this piece in Harvard Magazine turned me on to one Dr. John C. Rock, the longtime Harvard Medical School gynecologist who pioneered hormonal birth control in the early 1950s and pushed for the FDA to approve the Pill in 1960—a development that did make for some good date nights.

Prior to that, the article notes, Rock would have given patients at his Rhythm Clinic the "scientific prediction dial" or, later, the Rythmeter (above). Back then, the rhythm method was the only legal form of contraception in Massachusetts. (Feb. 2012 update: Now, apparently, it's the only method religious conservatives want your health insurance to cover.)

Mainly, I just liked this gizmo. Probably required a Ph.D. to use the damn thing.

Quotes of the Day - 4.30.09

#1 comes from entertaining Republican loon Michele Bachmann, who apparently doesn't know that Herbert Hoover was president in 1930:

FDR applied just the opposite formula — the Hoot-Smalley Act....That's what we saw happen under FDR. That took a recession and blew it into a full-scale depression. The American people suffered for almost 10 years under that kind of thinking.

#2 comes from Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, explaining the facts of life:

And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.

We've noticed.  #3 comes from Megan McArdle:

If my husband sacrificed our child to save thousands of people, I might recognize, at some abstract level, that he had done the right thing.  But we wouldn't stay married.

Discuss.  Would you stay married?

The Party of No

Mark Schmitt thinks that Barack Obama's bipartisan tone has worked pretty well, defining the landscape and marginalizing a Republican Party that's gotten steadily crazier in opposition.  Matt Yglesias isn't so sure:

To take just one example, climate change. The administration and the congressional leadership have ruled out the use of the reconciliation process to pass their energy/climate agenda. Since it’s completely inconceivable that you could get 60 votes in the Senate for the sort of cap-and-trade proposal that Barack Obama outlined during the campaign, this means they’ve preemptively surrendered on an agenda that they ran and won on during the course of a two-year presidential campaign.

....So you can say that congressional obstruction has succeeded in derailing Obama’s efforts on the most important short-term issue that congress has jurisdiction over, and also derailing his efforts on the most important long-term issue that he’s facing. That’s pretty impressive for a small and unpopular minority!

I'd sort of agree with this except for one thing: Obama never really campaigned on cap-and-trade in the first place.  Sure, it was part of his energy proposal if you dug down into his website and looked for it, but during the debates, on TV ads, and in speeches, he barely even mentioned it.  It was all windmills and blue skies and green jobs.  He did virtually nothing to build any public support for the tougher parts of his energy plan.

Now, maybe that was the right thing to do.  Presidential campaigns aren't notable for going out of their way to highlight tough choices for the electorate.  Still, the result is that there's essentially no organic public support for cap-and-trade right now, which means it's wide open to demagoging by Republicans.  This in turn makes it scarier to on-the-fence Dems, which is why a really solid cap-and-trade bill not only can't get 60 votes in the Senate, it might not even be able to get 50.  Partisan gridlock may be responsible for some of that, but Obama's unwillingness to risk selling it during the campaign deserves some of the blame too.

Chrysler to File Bankruptcy

According to people "familiar with the talks," several of Chrysler's bondholders have rejected the government's deal, which amounted to paying them off a little more than 30 cents on the dollar.  So that means it's probably Chapter 11 time.  Blecch.  I hope the holdouts all end up getting less from the judge than they would have gotten from Obama.

Like everyone else, I was amused when Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, requested help from the CDC with swine flu medication just a week or so after he said that the "federal government has become oppressive" and that if Texans started considering seceding from the union, "who knows what might come out of that." Perry didn't seem to realize that throwing off the yoke of the federal government would mean no more help when the going got tough.

Today comes news that Perry has issued a disaster declaration for the state of Texas, the first step in getting assistance from federal agencies like FEMA, DHS, and HHS. I decided to take a look at how many times the federal government has bailed Texas out during Perry's tenure. The results are pretty incredible.