Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 14, 2013

Dollars and Dentists

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

NY Times October 13, 2013
Patients Mired in Costly Credit From Doctors
By JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG

The dentist set to work, tapping and probing, then put down his tools and delivered the news. His patient, Patricia Gannon, needed a partial denture. The cost: more than $5,700.

Ms. Gannon, 78, was staggered. She said she could not afford it. And her insurance would pay only a small portion. But she was barely out of the chair, her mouth still sore, when her dentist’s office held out a solution: a special line of credit to help cover her bill. Before she knew it, Ms. Gannon recalled, the office manager was taking down her financial details.

But what seemed like the perfect answer — seemed, in fact, like just what the doctor ordered — has turned into a quagmire. Her new loan ensured that the dentist, Dr. Dan A. Knellinger, would be paid in full upfront. But for Ms. Gannon, the price was steep: an annual interest rate of about 23 percent, with a 33 percent penalty rate kicking in if she missed a payment.

* * * * *

About a month ago I began to feel some pain in a molar on the lower right side of my mouth. I was puzzled since the pain was only felt biting down, unlike the nonstop pain that usually accompanies a cavity.

A visit to my dentist revealed the problem. My tooth had a hairline fracture that extended beneath the gum line. Bacteria was penetrating through the opening in the tooth and causing an infection inside the tooth that was oozing out into the gums. He referred me to a root-canal specialist who took one look at the tooth and told me it had to be extracted.

I went back to the dentist and discussed my options. I could get a bridge, either permanent or removable like the denture described in the Times article above. A permanent bridge involves drilling holes into the two teeth bordering the one that is removed in order to support the bridge and the false tooth it supports. But the best option was what they call a dental implant. This involves putting some bovine bone into the pit beneath the removed tooth to replace the bone that bacteria had eaten away. Once the bone fused with my own, the oral surgeon will put in some hardware into the bone that could support an artificial tooth. I have already had the tooth removed in a procedure that costs $1390. I go back to his office in February to get the implant, which will cost around $3000. That’s just one tooth. What if I develop other fractures? An old friend from Bard College, who was featured in a video I did about Hurricane Sandy’s impact on his neighborhood in Rockaway, is 5 years older than me and just had implants to replace three teeth. The cost? Including extractions, it will come to $20,000.

Puzzled by the fracture itself, I asked my dentist how it could have happened. My wife warned me from time to time about eating hard candy, but more I suspect because the crunching sound annoyed her late at night rather than any threat it posed to my teeth. Could that have been the cause, I asked the dentist. He replied that teeth tended to have a life span. Oh great, another sign of my approaching demise.

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

William Shakespeare, “All’s Well that Ends Well”

I can’t remember exactly when my old friend Tony Long, the creator of massive minimalist sculptures who died of leukemia in 2002, told me this but it has stuck with me over the years. “Louis, you have to take care of your teeth. Can you picture what it will be like if you end up with dentures that you have to put into a glass of water at night? What would some younger woman think of that when you take her to bed?”

Ironically, I have led a charmed life dentally. Except for a wisdom tooth that I had pulled about a decade ago, I have never had an extraction before this one. Not only that, I have not had a filling since living in Houston in 1974. My trips to the dentist for the past forty years have been for cleaning and exams. My dentist told me that it is much more typical for someone my age to be enduring root canal work and bridges or implants on a regular basis.

Despite this, I have had bad dreams over the years of my teeth decaying. My guess is that these dreams and an irrational fear I have of having a tooth pulled (there is zero pain involved plus you get the benefit of a Vicodin prescription) are some kind of Freudian neurotic projection of castration fears. There’s actually a website called http://www.teethfallingoutdream.org/ that tells you everything you need to know, including this:

Dream Psychology: Freud and Jung

The interpretation of teeth falling out in dreams has been widely covered in psychology. Freud associates this symbol to sexual references, such sexual repression or fear of castration for men.

Jung and many other contemporary dream interpreters have a wider perspective and focus their analysis on symbols of personal power and the ability to renew oneself. For instance, they prefer to talk about the representation of loss or the process of releasing the old to give place to the new, as opposed to focusing only on more Freudian sexual references.

On a more mundane level, there’s also my memory of a woeful tale my mother told me when I was 9 years old or so, about to go to a dentist for my first filling. She told me about having a tooth pulled when she was in her teens. It was a painful disaster with the tooth breaking as it was being pulled and the dentist being forced to cut the remainder out with a scalpel—at least that’s the way I remember it.

Leaving aside all the existential dread summed up in the phrase that my Rockaway friend told me–“We are falling apart”–there’s the economics. When I retired from Columbia University, I lost my dental insurance. My wife has a plan through her workplace that covers me but it is utterly useless. I tried to make an appointment about six months ago for a routine checkup but the fucking dentist did not even return my call. In a way, this besides the point since dental insurance generally does not cover implants as a September 30, 2010 NY Times article explained:

An implant to replace a single tooth can cost $3,000 to $4,500, depending on where you live. Implants to replace a full or partial set of teeth can run from $20,000 to as much as $45,000.

Why so much? Implants typically involve the work of both a surgeon and a dentist. Several office visits may be needed to put in the screws and to add the prosthetic teeth.

More dental insurance plans are covering the costs, but the annual reimbursement limit is typically $1,500, an amount that hasn’t changed in four decades. That may be enough to cover half the cost of a single implant; you will end up paying the rest.

Fortunately I don’t need to apply for credit (my oral surgeon thankfully is not set up for this) or borrow money to have the implant done but what if the rest of my teeth start to develop problems? I like the idea of having implants if necessary but not if the cost approaches that of a hip replacement. Maybe going toothless (sans teeth, as Shakespeare put it) is not the worst thing in the world, especially for someone like me who has been married for more than a decade and whose only hope is that I can enjoy another couple of decades of marital bliss.

PBS aired a documentary on “Dollars and Dentists” last year that can be seen at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/dollars-and-dentists/. This is much more about how poor people are being screwed through the new business model of corporate dental chains that cater to poor people on Medicaid, often run out of storefronts like Kool Smiles. If you’d prefer to read a transcript of “Dollars and Dentists”, you can go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/health-science-technology/dollars-and-dentists/transcript-23/. Be prepared to see just one more example of how the wealthy are screwing the poor on every level, from home foreclosures to dental work:

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] FRONTLINE and the Center for Public Integrity have spent the past year investigating the business of Medicaid dentistry and the new corporate model for treating America’s poor kids.

We were able to obtain and analyze Medicaid data from two states, Virginia and Texas. We found that, on average, Kool Smiles used crowns more frequently than other providers on children 8 and under.

In Texas, half of all the restorative care on kids 8 and under, stainless steel crowns, 50 percent more than the state average. Virginia, 50 percent more crowns than average. That’s a big difference than other Medicaid providers. Why?

Dr. POLLY BUCKEY: Our focus is looking at each and every child and looking at where their decay is, what their risk for getting cavities.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s not because the crown pays more?

Dr. POLLY BUCKEY: The focus on each and every child we see is to restore that child to a state of good oral health.

MILES O’BRIEN: Then how do you explain that discrepancy, that difference?

Dr. POLLY BUCKEY: All I can tell is what we do. I can’t tell you what someone else does.

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] Kool Smiles later gave us data comparing itself favorably to other providers. But the company did not address whether kids who visit Kool Smiles are more likely to leave with a crown.

Kari Reyes was not happy with what happened when Marissa went to get her crowns.

KARI REYES: The doctor was shoving the crown into Marissa’s gums, and her gums were bleeding just everywhere. She started screaming like, painful, like a shrieking, painful, scary scream for a mother to hear come out of her child.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kari says she thought Marissa’s local anesthetic had worn off.

KARI REYES: I asked Dr. Collins, I said, you know, “Could you stop and numb her mouth?” She ignored me. So I, you know, just kind of sat there, and I was rubbing Marissa’s legs. And she’s crying and screaming this whole time.

What a nightmare. And certainly a lot worse than anything a middle-class man like me would ever have to put up with. Capitalism sucks, especially when it comes to health care.

October 13, 2013

Obamacare’s Achilles Heel

Filed under: computers,health and fitness,technology — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Signing up for Obamacare

My political career (for lack of a better word) began in 1967 just one year before my professional career as a programmer/analyst. The software career came to an end in August 2012 but I am still going strong politically. With such a background, I probably had a keener interest in the lead article in the NY Times today titled “From the Start, Signs of Trouble at Health Portal” than the average person. The lead paragraphs should give you an idea of the depth of the problem. While it is too soon to say if the technical flaws of the Obamacare website will doom a flawed policy, it cannot be ruled out.

In March, Henry Chao, the chief digital architect for the Obama administration’s new online insurance marketplace, told industry executives that he was deeply worried about the Web site’s debut. “Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience,” he told them.

Two weeks after the rollout, few would say his hopes were realized.

For the past 12 days, a system costing more than $400 million and billed as a one-stop click-and-go hub for citizens seeking health insurance has thwarted the efforts of millions to simply log in. The growing national outcry has deeply embarrassed the White House, which has refused to say how many people have enrolled through the federal exchange.

Even some supporters of the Affordable Care Act worry that the flaws in the system, if not quickly fixed, could threaten the fiscal health of the insurance initiative, which depends on throngs of customers to spread the risk and keep prices low.

“These are not glitches,” said an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange. Like many people interviewed for this article, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not wish to alienate the federal officials with whom he works. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’ ”

I got my first inkling of how screwed up the system was from my FB friend Ted Rall, the well-known leftist editorial page cartoonist who started off as an engineering student at Columbia University and who is technically proficient. You can find his scathingly witty account of trying to enroll here. I got a particular chuckle out of how the system responded when he entered his SS number:

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 2.08.01 PM

Once he got past the SS number snafu and began the enrollment process he was shocked at the rates he would have to pay for “affordable” health care.

For this 50-year-old nonsmoker, New York State’s healthcare plans range from Fidelis Care’s “Bronze” plan at $810.84 per month to $2554.71 per month. I didn’t bother to look up the $2554.71 one because if I had $2554.71 a month lying around, I’d buy a doctor.

$810.84 per month. $10,000 a year. After taxes. Where I live, you have to earn $15,000 to keep $10,000.

Not affordable. Did I mention that?

I was surprised to see that the primary consultant for the Obamacare website was CGI, a Montreal-based company that was one of the chief competitors of Automated Concepts Inc., the consulting group I worked for in the late 70s and early 80s. I have no idea when ACI went out of business but CGI has obviously become a major power. What I found most shocking was the late date at which programming began: “The biggest contractor, CGI Federal, was awarded its $94 million contract in December 2011. But the government was so slow in issuing specifications that the firm did not start writing software code until this spring, according to people familiar with the process.”

For a project of this size, it would be difficult to meet a target date of Fall 2013/Winter 2014 if it had started in Spring 2012 let along Spring 2013. I am amazed that it is even 70 percent complete, as the Times reports. My guess is that is probably only half-done.

There’s a lot of ass-covering going on now. Oracle, the company whose registration software gave Ted Rall such headaches, says, “Our software is running properly.” Oracle’s CEO is Larry Ellison, the third richest man in America whose yacht just won the America’s Cup in San Francisco. After 9/11 Ellison offered to supply a National Id card system to help weed out terrorists. With all of Ted Rall’s SS number woes, we can be thankful that his offer was turned down. Or else half the population would be in Guantanamo right now.

Like Bill Gates, Ellison got rich exploiting the intellectual breakthroughs made by others. Oracle was one of the first relational database systems marketed to corporations in the early 80s, along with Sybase, the proprietary software I supported for twenty years at Columbia University. Relational databases (basically a rows/columns approach similar to the spreadsheet concept) were invented by the mathematician E.J. Codd who made much more of a contribution intellectually than Ellison but never had ambitions to be a billionaire.

The Times has a graphic to illustrate the problems of the Obamacare website at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/13/us/how-the-federal-exchange-is-supposed-to-work-and-how-it-didnt.html.

This particular feature would seem to explain not only the technical challenges that make the system difficult to implement but also a fatal policy flaw:

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 2.38.01 PMThe government is offering what is called a “many-to-many” relationship in database terms: many applicants choosing from many plans. This is historically a challenge to implement in financial systems such as the kind found typically in investment plans.

It would have been a lot easier to simply extend Medicare to the entire population. Not only would the private insurance companies be eliminated, the existing software would have only required a relatively minor change—eliminating the 65 year old criterion.

And going one step further, what is the purpose of having a bunch of different insurance companies competing with each other to provide the same service? Why not a single payer like in Canada that can be run on a nonprofit basis? And, then, to make it even more manageable why can’t we implement a public health system like in France with doctors functioning more as servants of the public rather than entrepreneurs? This sounds rather utopian, I realize, but only in terms of the resistance we would meet rather than the feasibility. Instead of policies that are economical and rational, we get jury-rigged, Rube Goldberg systems that can barely get off the ground like Howard Hughes’s plywood super-plane.

As long as we are talking in utopian terms, managing an economy would be a whole lot easier if we eliminated the profit motive that pits private enterprises against each other basically offering the same goods and services. I defy anybody to tell me why he or she picks one detergent against another. There will always be a need for small businesses such as restaurants (something the Cubans unfortunately did not realize until too late—not too late, one hopes) but the commanding heights of the economy?

If you think in terms of spreadsheets (or relational database systems), planning an economy is not that big a deal. You think in terms of resources, labor, and social needs that can be arranged in rows and columns. From that you allocate on a rational basis and according to the priorities a democratically elected government deems wise—such as spending more on public transportation than automobiles.

Of course, until an aroused population takes control of the economy and puts people like Larry Ellison and Barack Obama on a secluded island where they will be stripped of the power to exploit and to destroy, those hopes will remain utopian. For me, the need to defend such an orientation will remain with me with every living breath.

September 6, 2013

Fire in the Blood

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

(This opens today at the IFC in NY. I am too swamped with other projects to write a review but recommend it highly.)

http://www.villagevoice.com/2013-09-04/film/fire-in-the-blood/

In Fire in the Blood, It’s Big Pharma vs. AIDS Patients
By Daphne Howland Wednesday, Sep 4 2013

Fear, greed, and cowardice have a way of sullying things like medical breakthroughs. In the mid-1990s, the antiviral drugs that checked the AIDS crisis separated the meaning of “HIV positive” from full-blown AIDS because, for the first time, the existence of the virus in the blood was not a death sentence. That was a triumph of an unprecedented amount of focused research, largely paid for by government agencies like the National Institutes of Health. But it felt like a miracle.

In Fire in the Blood, his documentary on the pharmaceutical keep-away that perpetuated the AIDS emergency in Africa and elsewhere, director Dylan Mohan Gray describes how protective patent laws guaranteed not only profits for drug companies but also the deaths of more than 10 million AIDS sufferers. He maintains a merciless calm throughout, aided by William Hurt’s low, slow, careful narration, as he documents a case of stupendous disregard for humanity.

Because miracles are wondrous and rare and patents are ironclad, drug companies could charge $15,000 per person per year for the new cocktail. That gouged anyone who could pay it—health insurance companies, the well-off and well-insured, government programs like Medicaid and Medicare—and left out anyone who couldn’t. Yet even if they had charged just five cents per pill, the companies would have still seen a profit, a fact that is just one of many maddening details in this story.

Gray’s images are exquisite and unsparing, in the style of the best National Geographic photography. Especially disheartening is the helplessness of doctors, who knew about the combination therapy but couldn’t offer it to their patients. “There were nonstop funerals taking place on a daily basis. The orphan population had exploded,” says Peter Mugyenyi, a Ugandan physician. “I saw so many people who’d have lived. I saw them die painfully, excruciatingly, and yet their death was not inevitable.”

The film’s sources maintain impressive composure in relating the repeated obstructions, sophistries, and obfuscations they faced, but their frustration is palpable. The drug companies cowed the United States, the United Nations, and us all, really, with ludicrous arguments that stoked fears and abetted inaction. It took years and a great deal of stubbornness for a coterie of smart, caring, connected people from all over the world, including Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, to finally begin to deliver the drugs to stem what was, essentially, a genocide. (In the film, Clinton pulls a fast one that helps turn things around.) While it’s hardly a joy to watch, Fire in the Blood is artful in nearly every frame, perhaps so we don’t avert our eyes. We can’t; Big Pharma is relentless and, thanks to a new international trade agreement that once again favors its patents, this isn’t over.

August 11, 2013

Off Label

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 11:19 pm

“Off Label”, now playing at the Cinema Village in New York and on-demand (nationwide screening info is here), is about the human guinea pig—those people forced by economic circumstances to take part in clinical trials, the first of whom is a young Asian man who became homeless after losing his job as a bus driver. Back in the sixties I knew many radicals who used to sell blood from time to time to augment the paltry wage they were making in the antiwar movement but eventually they moved on. The typical human guinea pig, like the pet he or she is named after, never gets off the treadmill.

There was a time when big pharma had free rein in exploiting prison labor for clinical trials. Jusef Anthony, an African-American victim of these Josef Mengele type experiments, states that the true nature of the drugs he was taking was never revealed to him. In addition to the $30 pay he was rewarded with pus-filled sores that broke out all over his body in Job-like fashion, not what he would have expected from a dermatology clinical trial. He thought it might have had something to do with hand lotion. It turns out that he was just one of the victims of Dr. Albert M. Kligman, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who was in partnership with Johnson and Johnson in developing Retin-A, a medication to treat acne. Kligman used Holmsburg Prison in Philadelphia in the same way that Mengele used Auschwitz—a place to conduct experiments on untermenschen. That Kligman was Jewish was just one of history’s ironies. When Kligman first stepped into Homsburg, he was practically delirious when he spotted “acres of skin”.

We also hear from Mary Weiss, the mother of Dan Markingson who was a student at University of Minnesota who took part in a clinical trial for Seroquel, an anti-psychotic medication. The trial was carried out under the auspices of AstraZeneca, the drug’s manufacturer in a clear case of conflict of interest. Most students dropped out after a few months but Dan stayed on mostly under duress. While he was not destitute or behind bars, he was basically coerced by his psychiatrist who warned him that unless he continued taking Seroquel he would be put in a mental institution. Unlike the other students, he had a history of psychotic episodes.

Evidently the drug only made things worse. Finally driven off the deep end, he took his life with a box-cutter. After slashing his throat, death was not coming quickly enough so he used the blade to open his abdomen. When his corpse was discovered, his hand penetrated his belly up to his wrist. As Mary Weiss put it, if he simply wanted to take his life, he would have found some other way to go. His death turned her into an activist, helping to enact “Dan’s Law” in Minnesota that prevents conflicts of interest in clinical trials.

“Off Label” is the second documentary from Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. Their first was “October Country”, about the Mosher family itself that lives in the Mohawk Valley Region in upstate NY, a hard-scrabble area that will be familiar to Russell Banks readers.

The San Francisco Chronicle described “October Country”:

The Moshers, working-class residents of the depressed Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, suffer multiple wounds, many of them self-inflicted. The sheer quantity of trouble, parceled out among four generations, might lead you to conclude that the family is cursed. Domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, missing fathers, abortion, co-dependency, scrapes with the law – a virtual catalog of dysfunction is on view.

You can probably extract a sociological or political message from the film, but I don’t think that was the intention. This lack of an agenda seems to add to the movie’s intensity. “October Country” doesn’t have any program in mind and doesn’t ask us to do anything but simply watch and remember.

This affinity for common folk would seem to motivate everything they do. Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher are truly in the vanguard of filmmaking today.

March 4, 2013

Food, Fasting and Health–the personal and the political

Filed under: food,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

miami_fattyThe Unrepentant Marxist in South Beach, January 2011: 160 pounds

skinny_louThe Unrepentant Marxist today: 145 pounds

Back in 1989 I read a terrific novel by Oscar Hijuelos titled “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” about a couple of Cuban-American brothers who co-led a band in the 1950s whose greatest achievement was an appearance on the “I Love Lucy” show. After one brother dies in an auto accident, the other stops performing and takes a job as super in Washington Heights. Most of his free time is spent listening to old records of the Mambo Kings and hanging out in the neighborhood, playing dominoes, eating comidas tipicas, and drinking beer.

As happens to many people in their 60s, the surviving brother’s health starts to decline. After he survives a heart attack, the doctor puts him on a strict diet. No more comidas tipicas–just salads, fresh vegetables and lean meat. And absolutely no beer and no salt. After a month or so of this regimen, he develops such a craving for a Cuban sandwich (ham, pork, and melted cheese topped with a nice salty pickle) and a bottle of beer that he decides to go out in a blaze of glory. He brings home a Cuban sandwich, a quart of Budweiser, and dies in the middle of enjoying them while a Mambo Kings record plays away reminding him of his well-spent youth.

I really loved the novel and that particular passage. But that was nearly 25 years ago when I was 44 years old and fairly blasé when it came to matters of health, aging, and the big D. (That’s death.)

As you will learn as you hit your fifties and sixties, the weight tends to accumulate over the years, largely a function of a slowing metabolism. About 10 years ago I took a blood pressure test at work and learned that it was “slightly elevated”. And then around a year ago my taking naps on a nightly basis for a month got my wife so worried that she pressured me into seeing a doctor. I tried to explain to her that I don’t like going to doctors because I don’t want to get any bad news like I have cancer or something. Apparently medical experts are divided on most questions including the value of yearly checkups.

But the long-sacrosanct recommendation that everyone should have an annual physical was challenged yet again recently by researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen.

The research team, led by Dr. Lasse T. Krogsboll, analyzed the findings of 14 scientifically designed clinical trials of routine checkups that followed participants for up to 22 years. The team found no benefit to the risk of death or serious illness among seemingly healthy people who had general checkups, compared with people who did not. Their findings were published in November in BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal).

NY Times, January 21, 2013

I was not surprised to learn that I still had elevated blood pressure but also too much of what they called “bad cholesterol”. Now my diet was nothing like the Mambo Kings guy but I do confess to enjoying eggs on the weekend and a buttered bagel. The bigger problem for me, however, was finding some healthy food to eat at lunch when I was still working at Columbia University. The only place that was convenient to my outpost in Manhattanville, where the school was colonizing as if it were the West Bank, was a Fairways grocery store that had food to take out at lunch. Yes, I will bare my soul. Many days I brought back sausages and peppers or meat loaf with mashed potatoes back to my desk. Plus I confess to having a half-muffin each morning. The feelings I get over this now are similar I’m sure to what somebody who kicked a $200 per day heroin habit must feel. How can I have been so stupid?

But what makes this all the more disconcerting is the memories I have of my mother’s last 2 or 3 years as she battled congestive heart disease. Yes, she was in her mid-80s when things got bad but who would want to do anything that makes hardening of the arteries more likely? I know I have to go some day but the idea of being a stroke victim or some other circulatory disease scares the pee out of me. When I used to visit my mother at the special nursing unit of the local hospital, I was always shook up when I saw Milt Brizel my high school geometry teacher who was paralyzed from the neck down, the aftermath of a stroke identical to the one depicted in the 2012 movie “Amour”, directed by Michael Haneke.

Haneke’s typical plot involves some deeply painful setback to a comfortable petty-bourgeois family, from home invasions to environmental collapse. The virtue of “Amour” is its willingness to describe exactly what befalls an elderly couple when one becomes incapacitated. At a certain point the wife demands to die but the husband keeps her alive, a challenge to notions about what really defines “love”.

As a sign of how backward American society is, the right of someone to end their own life in dignity is excluded in all but three states: Washington, Oregon and Montana. A truly civilized country would allow someone suffering some painful and terminal disease to take a couple of pills to end their misery. But the grip of organized religion is so great that it was capable of making someone as saintly as Jack Kervorkian to serve 8 years of a 10-25 year second-degree murder conviction sentence.

When I had my physical a year or so ago, I weighed 160 pounds. The doctor told me that he saw no need to put me on the kinds of medications that are advertised relentlessly on the network news each evening. He advised me to change my diet and get more exercise.

Once I retired on August 31, 2012, it became a lot easier to make those life-style changes. To start with, I cook my own food and not the junk they prepared at Fairway. Each morning starts with a bowl of steel cut oatmeal mixed with flax seed. When I first read that steel cut oatmeal was good for reducing bad cholesterol, I decided to get on board even if it reminded me of the Garrison Keillor radio show’s spiel for the fictional Raw Bits cereal: “It gives you the strength to get up in the morning and do the things that need to be done.”

Now, just a bit more than 6 months after retiring, I am down to 145 pounds and wearing size 32 trousers, that are actually a bit baggy on me. In a few months I will make another appointment with the doctor even though the NY Times does not think it is necessary (nor do they think that criticisms of Napoleon Chagnon are valid.) So, you ask, how did I do it? I imagine that most of you except the most morbidly curious have stuck with this post since it would remind you of the typical geezer telling you about his or her latest surgery.

Well, it has been the result of fasting every Monday and Thursday. Back in March 2012, a most remarkable article appeared in Harper’s magazine titled “Starving your way to vigor: the benefits of an empty stomach”. Written by Steve Hendricks, who embarked on a fasting regimen himself, it is an eye-opening account of its history as a medical treatment rather than a guide to spiritual elevation (something that interests me about as much as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” on HBO.)

In the 1960s a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania named Garfield G. Duncan be came troubled by the epidemic of American obesity, which then afflicted a shocking one man in twenty and one woman in nine. (Today it afflicts one in three men and women alike.) Like other researchers, Duncan fasted obese patients and studied how many regained their lost weight. Unlike other researchers, he noticed that the blood pressure of every patient who was hypertensive fell to within normal limits during these fasts. He reported, for illustration, the case of a man of fifty-three years and 325 pounds whose unmedicated blood pressure was 210/130 and whose medicated pressure was 184/106—still menacingly high. The man fasted for fourteen days without drugs, and his blood pressure fell to 136/90. Six months later, it was 130/75. Duncan did not record how many of his patients sustained such improvements after their fasts, but the possibility of a simple cure for some forms of hypertension seemed well worth pursuing.

Not until 2001, however, was there a definitive follow-up to his work. Its au thor, Alan Goldhamer, had fasted thousands of patients at his TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, California, and had seen high blood pressures trill downward like Coast Range streams. He studied 174 hypertensives who fasted for ten days; 154 of them became normotensive by fast’s end. The others also enjoyed substantial drops in pressure, and all who had been taking medication were able to stop. In patients with stage 3 (the most severe) hypertension, the average drop in systolic pressure was 60 mmHg. In all patients, the average drop in systolic/diastolic was 37/13. According to Goldhamer, this was and remains the largest reported drop in blood pressure achieved by any drug or therapy. Like Duncan, Goldhamer did not formally study how long his subjects maintained their newly lowered blood pressures, but he surveyed forty-two subjects six months after their fasts, and their average blood pressure had risen hardly a jot.

For me the best part of fasting is that is really easy. You don’t have count calories. All you need to do is not eat. Can anything be simpler? What I learned almost immediately is that you don’t get any hungrier 12 hours into the fast than you were in the first hour. Plus, you can eat pretty much normally on other days, which for me consists of the sort of food that the Mambo King guy hated. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than some beans and a glass of red wine.

As my readers know, at least those who have stuck around long enough to read this ponderous piece, the issue of food and health has reached a crescendo of late, largely having to do with Michele Obama’s hypocritical campaigning. As a huckster for Walmart’s Healthy Food Initiative, she is just as shameless as her husband who just put a long-time Walmart executive in charge of the White House budget office. That shows where the second coming of Herbert Hoover’s head is really at.

Last Saturday morning Chris Hayes had a special food show on MSNBC. His featured guest was Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef and host of the hit TV show “Top Chef”. He was there to promote “A Place at the Table”, his new documentary on hunger that reflected his deep-felt concerns about poor people getting adequately fed, just like our First Lady. Colicchio told Hayes:

People look at feeding programs whether it’s snack or whether school lunches a handout as a charity program. And we have to look at it as sort of a tool to prepare our children to eat, especially when you look at breakfast programs. There`s a new study that just came out by Deloitte that was done with Share a Strength and No Kid Hungry.

And they`re showing when kids eat breakfast in school, their math scores go up by 17 percent. They have less incidence of being absent. And so, there`s all kinds of benefits. And so, the school lunch program is just — right now, it`s just not funded. And that clip that you showed actually set up the — I actually testified in front of Congress on behalf of the school lunch program.

Colicchio joined a panel in the second half of the show that took up other questions related to food and the poor, in this instance the lowly paid workers who often had to rely on tips. Hayes introduced the segment this way:

In 1960, according to the CDC, Americans spent just 26 percent of their food budget eating away from home. By 2011, that figure had almost doubled to 49 percent.

Food retail and service is one of the healthiest growing industries in the country. For the past decade food industry job growth has far outpaced totally sector job growth.

And yet by almost any measurements, most of these are simply not good jobs. They are some of the worst jobs in the country. In fact, food industry workers use government assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps in much higher than the general workforce does.

Over 27 percent of the food industry workers on Medicaid, compared to 19 percent of the general workforce, and over 13 percent of food service workers receive food stamps compared to just 8 percent of the general workforce.

According to Food Chain Workers Alliance, a workers advocacy group, nearly 80 percent don`t have paid sick days or don`t know if they do. Eighty- three percent of food industry workers do not receive health insurance from their employer, and 58 percent do not have any health insurance at all.

Given his familiarity with the terrain, or at least what his researchers fed to him over the teleprompter, one wonders why Hayes failed to grill Colicchio on this:

NY Times December 13, 2008

Lawsuit Accuses a Top Chef of Wage and Tip Violations

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

Tom Colicchio, the celebrity restaurateur and judge on Bravo’s popular “Top Chef” television show, was sued in federal court on Thursday by a former waitress who accused his company of misappropriating employee tips, withholding some overtime pay and sometimes failing to pay minimum wage. Mr. Colicchio’s restaurants — including Craft, Craftbar and Craftsteak — were also named in the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the waitress, Nessa Rapone, who used to work at the bustling Craftbar restaurant at 900 Broadway, between 19th and 20th Streets, asserted that Mr. Colicchio’s company, Craft Worldwide Holdings, improperly shared employee tips with supervisors, did not keep proper time records and fired her when she protested.

The lawyers for Ms. Rapone, a Brooklyn resident who worked at Craftbar from March to May 2007, are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan. It accused management of federal and state wage law violations, including failing to pay workers time and a half for all hours worked beyond 40 a week. It also asserts that management shared employee tips with other workers who were not eligible under federal and state law to share in the tip pool.

Ms. Rapone’s lawsuit also accused the company of not compensating her for the cleaning and care of the uniform that she was required to wear at Craftbar.

“The Craft restaurants, all upscale establishments designed by well-known architects and catered by award-winning chefs, have earned Mr. Colicchio and his partners great success,” one of Ms. Rapone’s lawyers, Justin M. Swartz, said in a statement on Friday. “This success, however, has come at the expense of the restaurants’ hourly service workers to whom the defendants have denied proper minimum wages, overtime compensation, and tips they earned from customers.”

If you go to Craft’s website, you’ll see a bunch of farms that supply locally grown and organic meat, fish and vegetables with names like Cavendish Game Farm—not a supplier to TGIF’s, you can be sure. Colicchio says, “Please enjoy some of the great ingredients grown, raised and caught by our friends that share our commitment to serving great food. We feature their bounty on this evening’s menu.”

All this “localism” got started, as you probably know, at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley where reservations have to be booked months in advance and where a typical entrée is $85, and where the rhetoric is quite Green:

Alice and Chez Panisse are convinced that the best-tasting food is organically and locally grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound by people who are taking care of the land for future generations.

Chain-smoking and hard drinking celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain, who would have probably sought out the Mambo King’s favorite restaurant, is unimpressed with Waters to say the least:

I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic. I mean I’m not crazy about our obsession with corn or ethanol and all that, but I’m a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits. I’m suspicious of orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy when it comes to what you put in your mouth. I’m a little reluctant to admit that maybe Americans are too stupid to figure out that the food we’re eating is killing us. But I don’t know if it’s time to send out special squads to close all the McDonald’s. My libertarian side is at odds with my revulsion at what we as a country have done to ourselves physically with what we’ve chosen to eat and our fast food culture. I’m really divided on that issue. It’d be great if he [Obama] served better food at the White House than what I suspect the Bushies were serving. It’s gotta be better than Nixon. He liked starting up a roaring fire, turning up the air conditioning, and eating a bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup. Anything above that is a good thing. He’s from Chicago, so he knows what good food is.

I know little about the cable TV comedy Portlandia, except that it pretty obvious from this clip that they are as fed up with “local” and “organic” food pretensions as Bourdain:

Having said that, I of course believe in environmentally sustainable farming, ranching, and fishing. I own Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan books on healthy food and Green practices and swear by them.

But ultimately, like any other intractable social problem like global warming, food and health are ultimately a function of the mode of production. As long as there is profit in industrial farming and the peddling of sugar-laden fast food to the masses, the nation will continue to endure an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and all the rest.

The 90 year old Sidney Mintz, one of my favorite Marxist historians and political theorists, wrote a book in 1996 titled “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom” whose final pages are worth quoting in their entirety as a coda to this post.

What does the American future hold, so far as eating is concerned? In a series of brilliant recent papers, Cornell University scientist David Pimentel and his colleagues have predicted sweeping changes in American agriculture, and hence in American eating patterns over the next half century!’ Indeed, the changes that these scientists forecast, if they do occur, will be more radical in their effects on American eating than even those of the last half century—which is to say a very great deal. Demographic, agricultural, and other factors enter in. Pimentel and his colleagues, working from present trends, predict a doubling of the national population by 2064; a reduction in arable land (through both erosion and urbanization) in the neighborhood of 180,000,000 acres, or 38 percent, in the same period of time; and a total exhaustion of national fossil fuel resources in not more than two decades. The figures on rapidly diminishing water supply are similarly worrisome.

This is an unbelievably grim scenario. If it eventuates, food exports (now calculated at an average of about $155 per person per year, given our present population) would be reduced to zero. For Americans, food costs would increase by a factor of between three and five—at worst, up to more than half of total income. Should these calculations prove correct, however, the composition of the American diet would also have to change substantially. While nearly two-thirds of the national grain product of the United States, grown on over two million acres, is now used as livestock feed, by 2060 all of it would have become food for us, not for our cattle and pigs and poultry. In effect, Pimentel sees North Americans coming to eat as most of the rest of the world eats, with meat representing a much reduced fraction of our total caloric and protein intake. Since India’s nearly one billion people and the People’s Republic of China’s even larger population get 70 to 8o percent of their calories and nearly all of their protein from grains and legumes, such a change in the States would be in the direction of aligning North American consumption with that of the rest of the world. It would also contribute to a vast improvement in American health. Substantial farmland could be returned to agriculture; the number of bypass and cancer operations would certainly decline.

But will it happen? As I write, McDonald’s looks ahead to a rapid expansion of its enterprises in such places as the People’s Republic of China, where it aims to add 600 retail establishments in the next decade; and Japan, where it now boasts more than a thousand. Whatever the scenario for the United States, many companies are working hard to spread our way of eating world-wide. Nor is there evidence that many Americans are much concerned, either about our fossil fuel consumption or our diet. Driving cars and eating meat are highly valued acts; though both involve the expenditure of unimaginably large quantities of water, soil, cereals, and fossil fuel, there is no collective indication that anyone is deeply concerned. Only sudden shortages reveal, as if in lightning flashes, how deeply held such consumption values are; Operation Desert Storm was a case in point. Indeed, one solution” to the Pimentel prophecies is war. Successful aggression could keep meat and gas available and affordable, at least for a good while longer. Its effects on American moral integrity would be utterly disastrous. But the enormity of the decisions involved in such trade-offs would not be clearly grasped until after the decisions were made. There is a real trap in our not separating what we are free to do, but need not do, if it is a bad idea—from what we cannot help doing, even though it is a bad idea, because we think someone is trying to stop us from doing it.

No one can look down the road and predict how the American people will behave, fifty years from now. One sinister prophecy is embodied in the words of Josef Joffe, the editorial page editor of Suddeutsche Zeitung, who writes: “It is profligacy—being hooked on the sweet poison of consumption—that might yet lay low the American economy and thus American might.” But the worry is not that we will let our consumption gluttony destroy our economy; it is, rather, that we might let our obsessive notions of individual freedom destroy our democracy. The long-term lessons of our economic and agricultural policies are there to be learned now. But we have to be willing to learn them.

October 22, 2012

Creeped out by Sandra Steingraber

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Over the past dozen years or so, I have written 620 reviews that appeared on Rotten Tomatoes, an aggregator of film reviews written by those regarded as a “top critic” (adorned by a star) like Anthony Lane of the New Yorker Magazine and the lowliest like me. Most reviewers, like my colleagues in NYFCO—a group by virtue of my membership allows me to post to RT—are appealing to the same reader, namely the man or women trying to figure out which movie to go see on a Saturday night. My reviews target an entirely different readership, those reprobates who are looking for a radical documentary or some neo-neorealist flick from the Third World, the grittier the better.

I would estimate that 80 percent of my reviews were based on a press screening or a DVD sent to my home by a publicist. And of those, about a half were accompanied by an invitation to interview the director or star, something that has never interested me until a couple of weeks ago when a publicist told me that Sandra Steingraber was in town for a tour promoting the new documentary based on her book “Living Downstream”.

Last June I wrote a highly complementary review of the book that started:

Anticipating that “Pink Ribbons Inc.” would deal with the question of the corporate role in making women sick, I read Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream: an ecologist looks at cancer in the environment”, a book that I purchased in 1997 when it first came out. To give you a sense of its provenance, you can read this blurb by Richard Levins on the back cover: “Sandra Steingraber’s ‘upstream’ approach to cancer is imperative. It is about time someone wrote this book.” Levins, as you might know, is one of America’s most respected Marxist biologists.

Born in 1959, Steingraber grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by corn and soybean fields that were drenched by chemical pesticides and herbicides. In her 20s, when studying biology, she developed bladder cancer, a disease that is not usually found among the young but is endemic to the kind of workplaces that The Plastic Focus Group endured. The book is written as a kind of memoir and investigative journalism that revolves around her return to her hometown and the various places that might have led to her disease.

Despite my enthusiasm for her book, I had nagging doubts about the wisdom of doing an interview with a big shot celebrity. This is a distinguished professor from Ithaca College who has probably been interviewed on NPR dozens of times. She has also been the recipient of many awards. In the documentary you can see her receiving one of them before an audience of several thousand adoring people. I worried that she might regard 30 minutes spent with me as a waste of her precious time even though she probably understood that she was obligated to meet with me since the publicist had arranged it.

I went down to the publicist’s office in the West Village for a 2pm meeting last Friday during a driving rain. When I got up to the office, the publicist introduced me to Steingraber and the director Chanda Chevannes who were sitting at a conference table looking at me with an expression on their faces like Charles Manson’s parole board. I almost excused myself to go to the bathroom to see if my forehead had accidentally been smudged on the subway in the shape of a swastika.

Since I had brought my camcorder with me, I broached the subject of recording the interview, explaining that I would not put it up on Vimeo if they preferred not to. But I would like to have it for my own use in writing up the interview later on. The expression on Steingraber’s face changed at this point as she said, “No-no. I don’t want to do that.” This time she looked more like Julia Roberts being asked for her autograph by a stubborn fan following her down the street.

I was also told that the interview must end after 30 minutes. Fine, I replied, since I planned on getting straight to the point. I was starting to get a very bad vibe. I wasn’t sure whether the two were more aggravated by my obscurity or by my politics.

Keep in mind that my questions sought to clarify issues posed by the film and her writings. I didn’t plan to ask her, for example, how she felt during an exam at her oncologist. Let NPR take care of that.

Since we were nearing Election Day and since Steingraber blogs at Huffington Post, an Obama outpost like the Nation or MSNBC, I wanted to hone in on class questions. I asked her that since she credited Rachel Carsons with leading to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, what she made of Lisa Jackson, the current head of the EPA and an Obama appointee. One of the major concerns of “Living Downstream” is the carcinogenic nature of Atrazine, a widely used pesticide. It turns out that Jackson assembled an EPA panel that concluded that there was insufficient evidence to ban the chemical. I was also curious to see how Steingraber would react to Jackson’s statement before a Senate investigation committee that she knows of no instances where fracking led to contaminated water, an issue that Steingraber has taken up in recent years.

Her reply was to talk about the need of the federal government to protect its citizens. That’s about it. Despite her ability to make connections between the environment and our health, she was not able to tie both to the nature of the economic system we are living in. This is something that Chris Hedges does quite well but it does not lead to banquets and awards.

At two twenty-nine sharp, the director informed me that I had one minute left. She reminded me of Columbia University business school dean Glenn Hubbard telling Charles Ferguson in “Inside Job”: “In fact, you’ve got three minutes. So give it your best shot.”

As I was getting ready to put on my jacket and head back uptown, Steingraber asked me when my article would appear. I told her that evening. I planned to write it up when I got home. She then asked me for my email address. What for, I wondered? She told me that it was important to get the science of cancer causality and treatment correct so she wanted a copy of my article before it went up since corrections might be necessary. I didn’t mention it to her at the time—mostly because I was so stunned by the request—but I planned to write a film review not something to be submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine. I suspect that her real concern was politics, not cell mutation. Like most big shots she probably was anxious to control how she was perceived.

That evening I dashed off a brief email to her explaining that I was not going to write a review but simply post a notice about the showing of the documentary over at Lincoln Center the next day with a description from the film’s website. That would save her the trouble of putting my review under a microscope.

I also pointed out that she would have not had the nerve to ask someone like Anthony Lane to submit to such a vetting process, only someone at the bottom of the totem pole like me.

Whenever I am confronted by situations like this, I am always reminded of Michael Yates’s priceless account of going to an after-conference social hosted by Columbia University professors that appeared in his wonderful “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate”:

I had come to Manhattan to give a talk at one of Columbia University’s ongoing seminars. Faculty and outside scholars have organized these on a wide variety of subjects; the same one might run for many years. I was to speak to the Seminar on Full Employment. I walked through the great university’s gate at Broadway and 116th Street with some trepidation. I had never spoken at an Ivy League university, and I wondered if the group’s participants would be as brilliant as I sometimes imagined people at such schools were. We found our way to Faculty House, where we were to have dinner and where the meeting was to be held. We met the person who had invited me, a friendly elderly man of some renown. The first thing he did was inform me that I would have to pay for my wife’s dinner. I was astounded. I should have refused, but I gave him the money. Dinner was a lavish affair, with fine food and table settings. The dining room overlooked the slums of East Harlem. Everyone was white except the servers. The conversation revolved around trips these elite academics had taken and the research they were doing. When the talk turned to children, we silenced the polite chatter when we said that our three sons were cooks. Apparently no one could believe that a college professor had children who did such work. After dinner I gave my talk. It went well, but the questions were abstrusely academic and trivial. Later we were dragooned into going to a professor’s apartment, which overlooked Central Park, to watch a television show about the overboard spending of American consumers. The host served cheap beer; I got a half a glass. When the show ended we had to go around the room in order and make comments. These were so convoluted, egotistic, and laden with academic jargon that Karen and I wondered what we would say. I was glad her turn came first. She stated that the show was shallow and again that pretty much stopped the discussion. Thankfully we left soon after. As we walked out the door, we heard one person remind another that she owed a dollar for the short cab ride from the college to the apartment.

October 19, 2012

Living Downstream, the documentary

Filed under: Ecology,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Film Society of Lincoln Center – Mountainfilm Series
LIVING DOWNSTREAM by Chanda Chevannes
Canada, 2010, HD, color, 55 min.

Screening October 20 at 2pm at the Walter Reade Theater
Followed by a 45-min Q+A moderated by Mountainfilm director David Holbrooke.

Click here for multi-city US tour dates

National broadcast on Outside TV: November 2012

From the film website:

Based on the acclaimed book by ecologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., Living Downstream is an eloquent and cinematic documentary film.

This poetic film follows Sandra during one pivotal year as she travels across North America, working to break the silence about cancer and its environmental links. After a routine cancer screening, Sandra receives some worrying results and is thrust into a period of medical uncertainty. Thus, we begin two journeys with Sandra: her private struggles with cancer and her public quest to bring attention to the urgent human rights issue of cancer prevention.

But Sandra is not the only one who is on a journey—the chemicals against which she is fighting are also on the move. We follow these invisible toxins as they migrate to some of the most beautiful places in North America. We see how these chemicals enter our bodies and how, once inside, scientists believe they may be working to cause cancer.

Several experts in the fields of toxicology and cancer research make important cameo appearances in the film, highlighting their own findings on two pervasive chemicals: atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, and the industrial compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Their work further illuminates the significant connection between a healthy environment and human health.

At once Sandra’s personal journey and her scientific exploration, Living Downstream is a powerful reminder of the intimate connection between the health of our bodies and the health of our air, land, and water.

September 22, 2012

Head Games; They Call it Myanmar

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,Myanmar,sports — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

For those who have seen “Hoop Dreams”, arguably the best documentary about sports ever made, it should be sufficient motivation to see “Head Games”, a documentary about the link between sports-related concussions and permanent brain damage including early Alzheimer’s, simply by pointing out that they are both the work of director Steve James.

Opening yesterday at the AMC Empire 25 in N.Y. and the Laemmle in Los Angeles, as well as through video on-demand, the film is focused on the crusading work of Chris Nowinski, who played football at Harvard. They say that 9/10ths of the success of any documentary is based on the presence of a compelling personality. That being the case, Nowinski’s presence throughout the film should qualify it for an Academy Award. After graduating Harvard, Nowinski landed a spot on a TV reality show where his macho brawn and Ivy League degree served to make him a villain. After the show ended, he parlayed that into a career as a professional wrestler—a bad guy who taunted the crowds about his superiority. Professional wrestling turns out to be a dangerous sport despite the fact that it is fake. Nowinski explains that a headfirst fall to the mat—or worse to the concrete floor below—that is off by an inch can lead to a serious injury. After experiencing one such fall, he suffered a headache and dizziness that lasted for months. A visit to neurologist Robert Cantu revealed that he had suffered a major concussion.

Eventually Cantu and Nowinski teamed up to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine that has been in the forefront of understanding the impact of sports-related concussions and agitating for reforms, particularly in the NFL. As anybody who follows professional football can attest, there have been major changes. For example, the N.Y. Jets’s star defensive back Darrelle Revis was required to sit out at least one game after receiving what was described as a mild concussion. In the past, the only way a player was kept off the field is if he suffered a blow that would have left him unconscious for a minute or so and transported off the field on a stretcher.

What “Head Games” reveals is that a revolution in sports rather than piecemeal meliorist reforms might be required. For one thing, there is a strong possibility that what can be described as “sub-concussions” can lead to brain damage just as easily. These are the dingers that leave a player woozy for a minute or so but not impaired enough to be sent to the bench. Some medical experts estimate that someone having played football from high school into the NFL might have suffered dozens of such blows throughout their playing time.

The other problem is that NFL type standards, including a physician assigned to look for the evidence of concussions at each and every game, do not apply to amateur sports. Most high schools can hardly afford to keep a team on the field nowadays let alone pay for the presence of a doctor. Furthermore, the risk of concussion does not just apply to male sports. Young women playing soccer risk injury simply by “heading” a ball.

I first wrote about Chris Nowinski back in January of 2010 after seeing him on Brian Gumbel’s HBO Real Sports program. It is worth repeating what I said then:

I also recommend that you take a look at Chris Nowinski’s website (http://www.chrisnowinski.com/). With his Harvard degree, he is not the typical jock. As a professional wrestler, he took time to speak out on young people getting involved with politics, particularly through registering to vote. You might also be aware that professional wrestling not only requires immense physical gifts; it also requires the ability to craft a persona for yourself. Initially Nowinski styled himself as a villainous snob from the Ivy League (not that hard to do!) and even used the ring name Chris Harvard. While it is difficult to figure out whether this was meant to shore up his villainous image in professional wrestling, Nowinski also assumed the role of “race traitor” akin to the hero of “Avatar”, as his wiki page indicates:

On the May 26, 2003 edition of Raw, Christopher Nowinski helped Rodney Mack defeat Bubba Ray Dudley in a “White Boy Challenge” and joined Theodore Long’s group “Thuggin’ And Buggin’ Enterprises”, a group of African Americans who worked a race angle in which they portrayed themselves as being victims of racism and being held down by the “White Man”.

A remarkable character, to say the least. Let’s hope that his six concussions do not eventually rob the world of his talents as spokesmen for the gladiator victims of the bread and circuses in today’s version of the Roman Empire.

“They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” opened at Lincoln Center yesterday as well as theaters in Louisville and Santa Fe. Director Robert H. Lieberman’s film is not exactly what I would describe as leading edge politically or cinematically but it is worth seeing since it really does lift the curtain on a country that has been as isolated as North Korea in many ways.

Lieberman’s model seems to be the sort of show that you can see on the Travel Channel, especially Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. The format consists of a bemused visitor from the West visiting the boondocks and asking the natives “How come you like to eat raw rats?” Lieberman’s presence throughout the film revolves around two questions: “What is life like for you in Myanmar?” and “Why are you wearing that funny stuff on your face?” The funny stuff turns out to be thanaka, a powder made of ground bark that has a cooling effect on the face and arms.

That being said, Lieberman is a lot more intelligent and interesting than Anthony Bourdain. He came to Myanmar to train young Burmese how to make films rather than to taste raw rats. From the Cornell University website:

Robert H. Lieberman, a Cornell graduate and member of the physics faculty since 1980, directs the LSC Physics Help Center and its staff of 15 course assistants.

A recipient of the John M. and Emily B. Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching, he holds a joint appointment as a Senior Lecturer with the Physics Department and the Center for Learning & Teaching. Since 1990 he has been a Faculty Fellow at Cornell’s Risley Residential College for the Performing Arts.

In addition to his work in science, he is a novelist and film writer/director. His latest novel “The Last Boy” is a story that deals with the subject of Global Warming. His most recent films include the feature comedy “Green Lights” and the documentary “Last Stop Kew Gardens.”

Prior to joining the Physics Department, he was a professor of Engineering at Cornell. He has held two Fulbright Lectureships in film and creative writing. The most recent was in association with the Mowel Film Fund in the Philippines. Prior to that he was at the Academy of Performing Arts and Film in Bratislava. He presently serves as a Senior Specialist with the Fulbright Program.

Despite the concessions made to the Travel Channel prejudices of his ostensible audience, Lieberman does provide useful information on the country including its long history of despotic rule predating the Generals who ruled and ruined the country in the name of socialism. He points out that when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the Generals initially prevented outside aid for political reasons despite the fact that the storm would cost the lives of 138,000 of its citizens. Given the secrecy and isolation that typified its rule, Lieberman was taking genuine risks by interviewing its people, who for their own safety remained unidentified throughout the film.

Much of “They Call it Myanmar” consists of interviews with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s Nelson Mandela. Filmed before the country’s thaw, it does not foreshadow her liberation from house arrest and return to politics.

U Thein Sein, a reformer who has given approval to her party’s re-entry into the electoral arena, currently leads the country. The N.Y. Times has urged the Obama administration to ease sanctions against the country in light of the progress that has been made.

While I can recommend “They Call it Myanmar”, the best film about the country so far remains “Burma Soldier”, a film I reviewed back in May 2011 that appeared originally on HBO and can be still be watched there on-demand. For those appalled by the crimes of Green “socialism” in Libya or Baathist “socialism” in Syria, it is a reminder of how that word can be so obscenely appropriated by those with nothing but a lust for wealth and power as I pointed out in my review:

General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.

 

August 2, 2012

Retirement miscellany

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Last Monday they had a little going away party for me at work with a gift clock to remind me of my workmates. You can’t see the words with the glare off the bronze but it says “Thanks Louis Proyect, from FINSYS”. Finsys is Financial Systems, the project I have supported for the past 15 years or so.

Although I am a pretty unsentimental bastard, I was genuinely touched by the tributes people paid to me. I was in an unusual position on the team, having functioned more or less as their technical support. Typically I was asked to create a Sybase table that could be used in testing by another programmer. So just as someone, for example, in the accounts payable department was their user, so were they mine. As so often is the case in information technology, the user tends to complain about the technical support they are getting. Accounts payable might complain about the service they were receiving from the rest of the team, and they had the same attitude toward me much of the time no matter how hard I tried to keep up with the requests. That is why I appreciated their thanks to me so much. I was leaving on a positive note. I told them as well that no matter how churlish I could be—and believe me, I can get very churlish—I was always grateful to work with such good people.

I told the group that there were three things that allowed me to work at Columbia University as long as I did. The first was the people I worked with, who like me tended to be at the school for reasons other than money. Because of their relative indifference to big bucks, they were a lot less aggressive and a lot less conniving than the people I used to work with on Wall Street.

The second was my boss who had a better knack for motivating her staff than anybody I’ve worked for in my 44-year career. She could ream you out if your work was not up to snuff but you never held it against her. Usually performance reviews were anxiety-provoking  in previous jobs over the years but that was not my experience working for her for the simple reason that you always knew where you stood. If she didn’t yell at you, you were doing your job. Over the past 10 years or so, I got yelled at very infrequently so I felt pretty secure most of the time.

Lastly there was the advantage of working at a university, which meant being able to take classes for free, the high point of which was the two years of Turkish language courses given by the irrepressible Etem Erol, who is now at Yale. With houseguests from Izmir here since July 25th, I find that I can follow much of the conversation although my speaking is limited to simple questions like “Yemek istiyor musun?” (Do you want something to eat?)

But of even greater importance was access to Jstor, Lexis-Nexis, and Proquest—three scholarly databases that I have used over the years to great advantage, as well as the Columbia University library. I will continue to have access to all of this as a retiree.

As part of my exit process, I spent time talking to a woman in personnel about my insurance options. With my last paycheck on Tuesday, I am no longer insured except for Medicare Part A, which is free and available to everybody over 65. I understood that I had to look into getting Medicare Part B or Part C, or whatever but needed her help in sorting things out. As it turns out, Medicare is not exactly free. Part A entitles you to hospitalization but only 80 percent. Part B is intended to help cover the costs of Part A as well as pay for doctor visits. Furthermore, if you have access to private insurance, as I would as a spouse added to my wife’s GHI plan, you should sign up for that rather than Part B.  As the woman in personnel began explaining all the ins and outs to me, my brain began to fog over. It reminded me of how Peter Camejo used to explain covered options, or butterfly spreads, to me. I could never figure out what he was talking about but trusted him to give me good advice.

When I asked her whether Part B was the way to go if it was cheaper than getting added to my wife’s GHI plan, she said that you get treated better if you have private insurance. Some doctors will not take Medicare patients.

At that point, I told her that she should excuse me for sounding political but it sounded to me like Medicare was not exactly cracked up to be as advertised, namely basically free medical coverage for retirees. The slogan of “Medicare for All” that is counterpoised to the new Affordable Care Act by some on the left might need to be rethought.

At that point, she opened up to me and started off by saying that she remembered me from my remarks to Robert Kasdin, Lee Bollinger’s chief of administration, at a meeting for IT, Personnel and Financial Systems employees held the day after a worker was killed during demolition of the building across the street from ours. I had told Kasdin that Columbia should make every effort to force the companies it was using for the Manhattanville expansion to follow OSHA rules to the letter. It was very bad for a leading liberal arts institution to give the appearance that it put construction costs over the lives and well being of ordinary working people.

Apparently this was the sort of thing others would like to hear at such at a meeting but only I had the brass to say.

I was pleasantly surprised to find her assessment of Medicare’s shortcomings in terms familiar to readers of Alternet or the Nation Magazine. It reminded me that the support for the Occupy Movement did not come out of the blue. Millions and millions of Americans have been profoundly impacted by the financial crisis to the degree that an unrepentant Marxist like me does not so nutty to a solid middle-class citizen.

The times they are a-changin’

Yesterday and today were the first post-retirement days. Today I had breakfast with a member of my wife’s dissertation board who is a lefty like me. The three of us had a pleasant chat, with her talking mostly about the ardors she faced getting tenure and me exchanging ideas about the political situation.

Afterwards, we came home and I sat down to write this article. As much as I liked being at Columbia University, I think I prefer things this way. Years ago, when I fantasized about retiring this was the image that always came to mind, Ferdinand the Bull smelling the flowers rather than dodging the matador’s sword:

I think I can get used to this.

June 30, 2012

Reflections on Obamacare

Filed under: health and fitness,Obama — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

On September 9th 2009 Barack Obama gave a speech to Congress that defined his approach to health care:

There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s, where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everyone. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have. Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch. And that is precisely what those of you in Congress have tried to do over the past several months.

This amounted to the opening salvo in a policy debate that seems to have been concluded with the Supreme Court decision this week. There are a number of points that can be made about these two dubious paragraphs.

When Obama was starting out as an ambitious young politician, he had no problem speaking as one of “those on the left” who backed a single-payer system:

As should be obvious to anybody who has been following his sorry career, he is a master trickster who knows how to adopt popular positions when they are to his advantage and to drop them once they are a liability.

Also, in the first paragraph there is this business about those on the right “who argue that we should end the employer-based system and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.” Does anybody have an idea what the fuck he is talking about? I for one make a point of listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity from time to time just to see what the anti-Christ is up to but have never heard such an argument from those quarters. In fact the rightwing in the U.S. is very happy about employer-based systems and attack Obamacare mostly on the basis that it is a threat to the status quo.

For me the most interesting point was the one made in the second paragraph, namely that health care represents 1/6th of the economy. While most of the discussion about the Supreme Court decision has revolved around rather secondary questions such as what makes John Roberts tick or how the decision impacts the 2012 presidential race, I remembered something I wrote about health care before Obama became president:

Another adviser with a particular interest in health care is David Cutler, a Harvard economist who was also an adviser to Bill Clinton–surprise, surprise. Cutler wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 asserting that “The rising cost … of health care has been the source of a lot of saber rattling in the media and the public square, without anyone seriously analyzing the benefits gained.”

Anxious to show the good side of rising costs, Cutler and a group of other economists defend the idea that a powerful and profitable medical industry can serve as an engine of economic growth in the USA as the wretched Gina Kolata reported in the August 22, 2006 NY Times.

By 2030, predicts Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, about 25 percent of the G.D.P. will be spent on health care, making it ”the driving force in the economy,” just as railroads drove the economy at the start of the 20th century…

Other economists agree.

David Cutler, an economist at Harvard, calculated the value of extra spending on medicine. ”Take a typical person aged 45,” he said. ”They will spend $30,000 more over their lifetime caring for cardiovascular disease than they would have spent in 1950. And they will live maybe three more years because of it.”

It makes sense to think of insurance companies, drug companies and health care providers as part of the same sector of the capitalist economy. Any threat posed to the insurance companies would also be perceived as a threat to the institutions that provide medical care based on profit. If you are for cutting costs by eliminating the insurance companies, naturally you will want to bring health care costs under control.

On June 8th the New York Times reported on Obama’s contacts with lobbyists from this sector. While the newspaper of record does get pilloried from the left for all the correct reasons, it does do some very good investigative reporting from time to time that led one rightwing idiot I used to work with at Met Life back in 1968 to call it the Jew York Times.

The article begins:

After weeks of talks, drug industry lobbyists were growing nervous. To cut a deal with the White House on overhauling health care, they needed to be sure that President Obama would stop a proposal intended to bring down medicine prices.

On June 3, 2009, one of the lobbyists e-mailed Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s health care adviser. Ms. DeParle reassured the lobbyist. Although Mr. Obama was overseas, she wrote, she and other top officials had “made decision, based on how constructive you guys have been, to oppose importation” on a different proposal.

Just like that, Mr. Obama’s staff signaled a willingness to put aside support for the reimportation of prescription medicines at lower prices and by doing so solidified a compact with an industry the president had vilified on the campaign trail. Central to Mr. Obama’s drive to remake the nation’s health care system was an unlikely collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry that forced unappealing trade-offs.

Since there has been so much liberal jubilation over the Great Victory, including in the pages of the Communist Party’s newspaper, there’s a tendency to forget about the resistance to that very piece of legislation when it first surfaced. Even though it fell far short of the single-payer approach that the young Obama backed, the House Bill in early 2010 included a public option that would have signaled the entrance of the government after the fashion of Medicare. Those who could not afford private insurance would be able to go to a provider that did not operate on the profit principle. Since Obama cared much more about the interests of the insurance companies than the poor, the public option was sacrificed at the altar of the Free Market deities.

Of course, when Obama found it convenient to back a public option, he said so. Words are cheap, after all.

As most people know, the Senate is even more undemocratic than the House. States with small, largely white, rural and reactionary populations get the same number of Senators to represent them as much larger, multiracial, urban and liberal-leaning populations. Montana, for example, has less than a million residents, many of whom are typical Rush Limbaugh fans. Meanwhile, New York, a state that has 20 times as many residents, gets the same number.

Keeping this in mind, how does a Montana Senator, a Democrat named Max Baucus who received thousands of dollars in contributions from Jack Abramoff, the arch-reactionary lobbyist infamous for the crooked deals that landed him in prison, end up supervising the drafting of the Senate legislation that became Obamacare?

The always useful Wikipedia describes Baucus’s economic record:

Baucus has a 74 percent pro-business voting record as rated by the United States Chamber of Commerce. He twice voted to make filing bankruptcy more difficult for debtors, once in July 2001 to restrict rules on personal bankruptcy, and a second time in March 2005 to include means-testing and restrictions for bankruptcy filers.

In March 2005, Baucus voted against repealing tax subsidies that benefit companies that outsource U.S. jobs offshore. On January 4, 2007, he wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal calling on Democrats to renew President George W. Bush’s fast-track authority for international trade deals.

A perfect background for someone drafting healthcare legislation. And just to make sure that it came out right, he lined up someone named Liz Fowler to write the 85-page piece of legislation that MSNBC and the Communist Party are throwing confetti over.

As it turns out, Fowler was a former executive at WellPoint, a big insurance company. Imagine that! The Guardian described a perfect match between Baucus and Fowler, something that could have been used in an online dating TV commercial:

Baucus took $1.5m from the health sector for his political fund in the past year. Other members of the committee have received hundreds of thousands of dollars. They include Senator Pat Roberts, who last week tried to stall the bill by arguing that lobbyists needed three days to read it.

Baucus holds dinners for health industry executives at which they pay thousands of dollars each to be at the table, and an annual fly-fishing and golfing weekend in his home state of Montana that lobbyists pay handsomely to attend. They have included John Jonas, who represents healthcare firms for Patton Boggs, widely regarded as the top lobbying firm in Washington. Jonas, who formerly worked on the congressional staff, acknowledges that political contributions are intended to buy influence and says it works.

“It would be very naive to say they’re not influenced. The contributors certainly hope they’re influencing and the recipients probably ultimately are influenced,” he said. “I think it’s a morally suspect practice, and then you have to look at its application to see if it’s morally bankrupt … I think what’s bad about the system is it’s got more and more lax over time.

“When I started in this practice you did not talk issues at a fundraiser. It was impolite. And then with this need for money, the system has got coarser over time so that they go around the room asking what issues you’re interested in, much more of a linkage of dollars to a discussion of the issues now.”

The health industry permeates the process in other ways. At Baucus’s side, drafting much of the wording of the reform, was Liz Fowler, a senate committee counsel whose last position was vice-president of the country’s largest health insurer, Wellpoint, which stands to be a principal beneficiary of the new law.

Health companies and their lobby firms also recruit heavily among congressional staffers as a means of maintaining influence.

So that’s what the Communists and Ed Schultz are giddy with delight over, and what the Nation Magazine’s editor Katrina vanden Heuvel called “a beginning to the end of America’s healthcare crisis”–a crappy piece of legislation that was written by an insurance industry lobbyist under the supervision of a yahoo from Montana who took bribes from Jack Abramoff.

Off with their heads.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,769 other followers