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.)

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.

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.

 

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.

Scientists have suspected for a while that like many substances, pesticides affect children and adults differently. It stands to reason: Kids have less mass to absorb chemicals, and their organs are still developing. But it's hard to figure out exactly how toxins interact with children's bodies—or how dangerous they are.

Some encouraging news: A team of U.C. Berkeley researchers  pinpointed an enzyme—called paraoxonase—that helps the body break down organophosphate pesticides. They found that until children reach age seven, they don't have nearly as much of the enzyme as adults do:

Although it has been known that newborns have low levels of the paraoxonase enzyme, it was previously believed that paraoxonase concentrations reached adult levels by 2 years of age.

This assumption was based on one earlier study of 9 children. Now a new study of 458 children followed from birth to age 7 shows that paraoxonase levels continue to increase steadily until age 7. At age 7, the average paraoxonase level in children was similar to, but still lower than, adult levels.

The bad news: Organophosphates are cheap, and this mosquito season, an inexpensive pesticide will look awfully appealing to financially strapped cities.


 

 

A study by a Spanish economist showing that as many as 20 jobs are lost for every “green job” created, has been criticized by the Spanish government as being “simplistic” and “reductionist” and based on “non-rigorous methodology.”

The study (here in pdf) by associate professor Gabriel Calzada, who has received funding from a variety of corporations including ExxonMobil, has been sited frequently by GOP members of Congress in opposing cap-and-trade provisions in a federal climate bill — most recently by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on green jobs held this morning (July 21, 2009).

Looking exasperated following Crapo’s comments, Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced into the record an evaluation by the Spanish government that takes the Calzada report to task.

The government document includes this letter sent on May 20th to Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) from Teresa Ribera Rodríguez, Spain’s Secretary of State for Climate Change, expressing the official Spanish government view of the Calzada paper. It’s available here in it’s original form as a pdf file.

A second part of Boxer's submission is a document produced by the government of Navarra, a small region in northern Spain that the journal Nature dubbed, "one of the world's wind-energy giants."

As the Navarra report shows, Calzada has the story backwards.

Sixty-five percent of the electricity used in Navarra comes from renewable sources -- primarily wind -- built over the last twenty years. Over those years, the region went from having the highest unemployment rate in Spain to having the lowest rate, today.

"Under President Obama's leadership," the report concludes, "the United States' decisive support of renewable energies...will aid in rapidly overcoming the current economic crisis..."

The full Navarra report can be downloaded here (pdf).

Still, just because Calzada's methodology have been slapped-down and his links with global warming deniers exposed, don't expect the GOP faithful to stop quoting him. The study is harder to kill than Rasputin.

Last October, we reported what the New York Times has now discovered—something we've all probably suspected, but had little hard data to go on: that driving a car while yakking or texting on an electronic device is an extremely risky proposition. And that the hands-free laws many states have enacted are of little value, a politically expedient solution that is unlikely to save lives, but lets lawmakers seem to be doing something without incurring the wrath of the powerful cell phone industry.

The moving story by Mother Jones contributor Myron Levin involved the plight of the Teaters, a Michigan family whose 12-year-old (pictured) was killed by a chatting motorist, and his father's determination to get some answers. The driver, Levin reported, "had clear skies and good visibility. She was sober. And yet she had failed to process a whole string of visual cues. To Dave Teater, this made no sense at all—so he began to do some research." Key to Levin's story was the quashing, by top Transportation Department officials, of an extensive report on cell-phone driving risks that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) had intended to make public.

Get your Chimichurri Chicken Wrap on! That's the message of a new Jamba Juice website that blatantly rips off the late, great comic strip Get Your War On. It's got the familiar clip-art office drones, but they're no longer ranting profanely about the murderous absurdities of the Bush years and the depredations of global capitalism. Instead, these guys just want to "capitalize on a Gobble'licious Sandwich." GYWO creator David Rees, rightfully annoyed, has declared "No Juicetice, No Peace!" But he also gets that there's not much he can do about a big company appropriating appropriation from the cool kids. His advice to his supporters:

Pray. Pray for the destruction of the Temple of Juice. No, seriously? Just remember that most corporations are lame, and most advertising/marketing agencies are lame, and this kind of lame, dispiriting appropriation happens all the time. Just always keep that thought somewhere in your head. And drink wine instead of juice.

Though I'm kind of wondering if Rees didn't plant the seeds for the Jamba "tribute" site with his penultimate strip in January. Did this...

...get some ad team thinking it would be clever to answer with this?

F-22 Fail

The Senate has voted 58-40 to cut off funding for the F-22.  There's still more to come on this, both in the Senate and in conference, but it's promising news.  The case against the F-22 was pretty rock solid, and if the funding cutoff had failed it would have meant that, basically, it's impossible to cut anything in the Pentagon budget.  Score one for common sense.