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Marco Rubio Lashes Out Against Call For Religious Toleration

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 7:36 PM EST

President Obama, during a speech today at a Baltimore mosque:

If we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.

Marco Rubio, commenting a couple of hours later on Obama's speech:

Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today: he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims....It's this constant pitting people against each other that I can't stand.

There you have it. Ask Christians to reject the politics of bigotry, and you're pitting people against each other. And Marco Rubio, for one, will have no part of that.

UPDATE: Revised to include exact quote from Rubio.

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Yet Another Look at BernieCare

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 5:35 PM EST

I hope you'll pardon a bit of real-time navel-gazing. It won't take long. A couple of weeks ago Bernie Sanders released an outline of his single-payer health plan, and I pronounced it "pretty good." A week later, Emory's Kenneth Thorpe took a detailed look at Sanders' plan and basically concluded that it was fantasy. Why the huge difference between us?

It has little to do with the details of the Sanders plan. We're both looking primarily at the financing. Here was my reasoning:

  • Total health care outlays in the United States come to about $3 trillion.
  • The federal government already spends $1 trillion.
  • Sanders would spend $1.4 trillion more. That comes to $2.4 trillion, which means Sanders is figuring his plan will save about $600 billion, or 20 percent of total outlays.
  • I doubt that. I'll buy the idea that a single-payer plan can cut costs, but not that much. I might find $1.7 or $1.8 trillion in extra revenue credible, which means that Sanders is probably lowballing by $300 billion or so—which, by the standards of most campaign promises, is actually not that bad. I'd be delighted if a single Republican were that honest about the revenue effects of whatever tax plan they're hawking at the moment.

But Thorpe says Sanders is off by a whopping $1.1 trillion. Yikes! Where does that come from? There are several places where Thorpe suggests the Sanders plan will cost more than Sanders thinks, but the main difference is shown in the table on the right. Thorpe, it turns out, thinks the Sanders plan would cost an additional $1.9 trillion in the first year. So he and I are roughly on the same page.

But I stopped there. I basically assumed that both costs and revenues would increase each year at about the same rate, and that was that. Thorpe, however, figures costs will increase substantially each year but tax revenues will increase hardly at all. So that means an increasing gap between revenue and spending, which averages out to $1.1 trillion over ten years.

Other details aside, then, this is the big difference. If Sanders' new taxes fall further and further behind each year as health care costs rise, then he's got a big funding gap that he would have to make up with higher tax rates. But if he can keep cost growth down to about the same level as his tax revenue growth, his plan is in decent shape.

So which is it? Beats me. This is the kind of thing where the devil really is in the details, and even a small difference in assumptions can add up to a lot over ten years. Still, I was curious to see why Thorpe and I seemed to diverge so strongly, and this is it. Take it for what it's worth.

And Now For a Short Dental Interlude

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 2:21 PM EST

I'm off to the dentist. My teeth are actually in fine shape, but when you hit your 50s all the fillings you got in your 20s and 30s apparently start to go south, so they have to be removed and refilled. Or so my dentist says, anyway. Today I get two or three of them replaced. I don't remember exactly. Hopefully she does.

UPDATE: It was three. Two of them were old silver fillings, which she hates because of the mercury. So out they came.

The Republican Field Is Shrinking Rapidly

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 1:06 PM EST

I know how easy it is to lose track of things. So just for the record, we're now down to seven real candidates on the Republican side of things:

  • Cruz
  • Rubio
  • Bush
  • Trump
  • Carson
  • Christie
  • Kasich

This doesn't count the three dead-enders who haven't officially quit yet: Jim Gilmore, Rick Santorum, and Carly Fiorina. By my figuring, New Hampshire should kill off Bush and Carson and get us down to five real candidates. Maybe even Kasich and Christie, too. For all practical purposes, by next Wednesday we might finally be down to our long-fabled three-man race.

Chris Christie Promises to Beat Hillary Clinton's "Rear End"

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 12:30 PM EST

After capturing a whopping 1.8% of the vote during Monday's Iowa Republican caucus, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has turned his attention to the future. At a campaign event in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Christie promised to "beat [Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's] rear end" if given the nomination and the chance to debate against her for the presidency. 

"You know the last person she wants to see on that stage in September? You're looking at him," Christie said to a group of laughing New Hampshire citizens. "You know why? She's been running away from federal prosecutors for the last six months. Man, she sees a federal prosecutor on the stage—I'll beat her rear end on that stage, and you know what? After I do, she'll be relieved because she'd just be worried I'd serve her with a subpoena."

The Excuses Are Flying High in Trumpworld

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 12:00 PM EST

Watching Donald Trump make excuses for yet another business failure is edifying. Here's Trump on why he lost in Iowa:

I think we could've used a better ground game, a term I wasn't even familiar with....But people told me my ground game was fine. And I think by most standards it was.

Hey, "people" told him his ground game was fine! And it was. By most standards. Anyway, Iowa doesn't really matter. And Ted Cruz cheated. And the grass was wet. And the sun was in his eyes.

This is Trump all over. He hops from one failure to another, always with a handy excuse. Football is a lousy business. Eastern Airlines ripped me off. The Plaza would have done great if the economy hadn't turned down. Atlantic City was overbuilt. I never really had anything to do with Trump University.

This is the same guy who thinks that running America will be child's play. It's so easy. Just watch. But he's such a lousy manager that he never bothered to learn what a "ground game" is—which is roughly the equivalent of understanding about food costs if you run a restaurant.

I wouldn't hire Donald Trump to run a lemonade stand, let alone the United States of America. I don't think I could stand the pity party. He needs to take his daddy issues to a shrink, not the Oval Office.

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Rand Paul Drops Out

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 11:26 AM EST

Rand Paul dropped his bid for the White House Wednesday morning after a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

"It's been an incredible honor to run a principled campaign for the White House," Paul said in a statement. "Today, I will end where I began, ready and willing to fight for the cause of Liberty."

The first-term Kentucky senator's Iowa finish, with 4 percent of the vote, was a poor showing compared with the third-place finish of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, there four years ago. Ted Cruz worked hard to win over the more libertarian-leaning voters who had caucused for Ron Paul four years ago. At many Cruz rallies, his campaign showed a video of former Ron Paul supporters pledging their support to Cruz. "He's really picked up the mantle of Ron Paul in many ways," Joel Kurtinitis, Ron Paul's 2012 regional director, says in the video. In the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul spoke at his son's final rally on Sunday night in Iowa City, but his presence didn't give his son the lift he needed Monday night.

Out of the presidential primary, Paul won't have a long reprieve from campaigning. He is up for reelection to the US Senate in November and already has an opponent in Jim Gray, the Democratic mayor of Lexington.

Here's Some Context For Blood Lead Levels in Flint

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 11:05 AM EST

I don't have any special point to make with these charts. They show blood lead levels in children over the past couple of decades for a few selected states, and they're meant only to provide a bit of context for reporting about Flint. Complete data is here if you're curious about how your state is doing.

For comparison, at the height of the water crisis Flint reported BLLs above 5 m/d for about 6 percent of its children. The latest round of testing suggests that Flint is now down to 3 percent.

Trump Accuses Cruz of Fraud in Iowa

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 10:33 AM EST

After losing the Iowa Republican caucuses to Ted Cruz on Monday, Donald Trump was uncharacteristically gracious in conceding the contest. His cordiality didn't last long. 

In a series of more classically Trumpian tweets on Wednesday morning, Trump accused Cruz of using underhanded and fraudulent tactics to win in Iowa, and he called for Cruz's results to be nullified or a new election to be held.

WTF Happened to Golden Rice?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 6:00 AM EST
Golden rice packs a beta-carotene punch, but can it deliver in the field?

Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality. 

"This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," announced a Time magazine cover back in 2000. Orange in color, the rice is genetically modified to contain a jolt of beta-carotene, the stuff that gives carrots their hue and that our bodies transform into vitamin A. Diets deficient in that key micronutrient are the leading cause of blindness of children in the global south, where rice tends to be a staple grain. A decade and a half since the Time article, golden rice has yet to be planted commercially—but it continues generating bumper crops of hype. "Is Golden Rice the Future of Food?" the great hipster-foodie journal Lucky Peach wondered last fall, adding that "it might save millions from malnutrition."

Golden rice has yet to be planted commercially—but it continues generating bumper crops of hype.

If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it's intended to grow? The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains. This is made all the more challenging in the face of debates over genetically modified crops and eternal disputes about how they should be regulated.

After seed developers first create a genetically modified strain with the desired trait—in this case, rice with beta-carotene—they start crossing it into varieties that have been shown to perform well in the field. The task is tricky: When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth. The Washington University anthropologist and longtime golden rice observer Glenn Stone describes this process as "bringing a superfood down to earth," and it gets little attention in most media accounts.

The most serious effort to commercialize golden rice is centered at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the globe's most prestigious incubator of high-yielding rice varieties. Launched with grants from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations in 1960, the IRRI spearheaded the Asian part of what became known as the Green Revolution—the effort to bring US-style industrial agriculture to the developing world. (My review of Nick Cullather's excellent Green Revolution history, The Hungry World, is here.)

Today, the IRRI coordinates the Golden Rice Network and has been working to develop a viable strain since 2006. And so far, it's having trouble. On its website, the IRRI reports that in the latest field trials, golden rice varieties "showed that beta carotene was produced at consistently high levels in the grain, and that grain quality was comparable to the conventional variety." However, the website continues, "yields of candidate lines were not consistent across locations and seasons." Translation: The golden rice varieties exhibited what's known in agronomy circles as a "yield drag"—they didn't produce as much rice as the non-GM varieties they'd need to compete with in farm fields. So the IRRI researchers are going back to the drawing board.

Via email, I asked the IRRI how that effort is going. "So far, both agronomic and laboratory data look very promising," a spokeswoman replied. But she declined to give a time frame for when the IRRI thinks it will have a variety that's ready for prime time. Washington University's Stone says he visited the IRRI's campus in the Philippines in the summer of 2015 and heard from researchers that such a breakthrough is "at least several more years" off. The IRRI spokeswoman also declined to comment on Stone's time frame report.

That's not a very inspiring assessment, given that researchers first successfully inserted the beta-carotene trait in the rice genome in 2000, and that the technology has been lavished with research support ever since—including from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative), USAID, the Syngenta Foundation, and others, according to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

Of course, among people who think biotechnology has a crucial role to play in solving developing-world malnutrition, the IRRI's agronomic struggles are compounded by anti-GMO zealotry as well as what it sees as overregulation of GMOs in the global south. David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Berkeley, points out that most developing-world nations, including the Philippines, have adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which stipulates a precautionary approach to introducing new GMO products, including restrictions on how trials are conducted. The Cartagena regime stands in sharp contrast to the much more laissez-faire one that holds sway in the United States, Zilberman says.

If the developing world embraced US-style regulation and treated vitamin A deficiency as a medical emergency solvable by golden rice, "it would have become available in 2000," Zilberman says. Based on that premise, he and German agricultural economist Justus Wesseler co-authored a 2014 paper claiming that golden rice has "been available since early 2000" and opposition to it has resulted in "about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India" alone. Such claims abound in pro-GM circles. At a speech at the University of Texas last year, the Nobel laureate British biochemist Sir Richard Roberts accused golden rice opponents of have having committed a "crime against humanity."

According to some researchers, opposition to golden rice has resulted in "about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India" alone.

To be sure, opposition to golden rice has occasionally gone overboard. In 2013, activists destroyed one of the IRRI's golden rice field trials in the Philippines, for example. "Anti-GMO activism has set back our work, in that we not only concentrate with our research, but we have to also spend time and resources to counter their propaganda," the IRRI spokesperson told me. But the group makes clear that regulation and activism are only two of the challenges facing golden rice—getting it to perform well remains a major task.

Even if and when the IRRI does come up with a high-yielding golden rice variety that passes regulatory muster, it remains unclear whether it can actually make a dent in vitamin A deficiency. As the Washington University's Stone notes, vitamin A deficiency often affects people whose diets are also deficient in other vital nutrients. Vitamin A is fat soluble, meaning it can't be taken up by the body unless it's accompanied by sufficient dietary fat, which isn't delivered in significant quantities by rice, golden or otherwise.

According to Stone, only one feeding study (PDF) has ever showed a powerful uptake of vitamin A by subjects eating golden rice. The paper was much cited by golden rice proponents, but Stone says it had a major flaw: The subjects were "well-nourished individuals" who already took in sufficient fat in their diets. The study "demonstrated only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it," he writes. (The study has since been retracted on claims that the author failed to obtain proper consent from the parents of the participants).

Meanwhile, as the IRRI scrambles to perfect golden rice, the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is declining in the Philippines—according to the IRRI itself— from 40 percent of children aged six months to five years in 2003, to 15.2 percent in 2008. "The exact reasons for these improvements have not been determined, but they may be the results of proven approaches to preventing vitamin A deficiency, such as vitamin A supplementation, dietary diversification, food fortification and promotion of optimal breastfeeding," the group noted. That drop is part of a long-term trend that involves all of Southeast Asia. According to a 2015 Lancet study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, vitamin A deficiency plagued 39 percent of children in the region in 1991 but only 6 percent in 2013—without the help of golden rice.

But VAD, as the deficiency's known, remains a huge scourge on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa, the study found, affecting more than 40 percent of children in both regions. Whether golden rice will ever help mitigate that ongoing tragedy won't likely be known for some time. But the technology's hardly the slam-dunk panacea its advocates insist it is.