Wednesday, October 26, 2005

"They will always lose"

In college one of my political science professors tossed off an offhand comment in his first lecture to the effect that "over time, the modern state tends to expand." He meant expand both in intensity and scope - government becomes more effective at exerting power, and starts to bring more areas of life under its control - but especially the latter. This is historically obvious, even if you look simplistically at the proliferation of government agencies, not just in the U.S. but in all industrial countries. We started with State, Treasury, Justice, and War, and look where we are now*. I asked him what that meant for people hoping for "smaller government" and he kind of shrugged and basically said it wasn't in the cards.

Tyler Cowen agrees:
I have a simple theory: in any period of time, government grows as large as it can, given available technology and a few cultural constraints. For better or worse, voters support this growth. ... Short of technological retrogression and negative economic growth, we should not expect government to ever get smaller. ...

The complainers are the libertarians. They will always lose, and they will always be intellectually important.
*added cabinet-level agencies are Interior (1849), Agriculture (1889), Labor and Commerce (1903, split into two in 1913), HHS and Education (1953, split in 1979), HUD (1966), Transportation (1967), Energy (1977), VA (1989), Homeland Security (2003).

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks, the woman who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and, more broadly, the civil rights movement, died yesterday.

The Washington Post obituary highlights something I didn't know about her:
[Rosa Parks wrote in her autobiography,] "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
When I was growing up, the "tired feet" explanation was the standard story I heard - she had been shopping and was carrying heavy bags, or she had arthritic feet, etc. She just didn't want to stand up because her feet were sore, said the story - insinuating that she almost didn't even mean to cause any trouble.

The truth is more stirring, I think. It was not the aches and pains of the body that moved her to resist, but the constant insults to her dignity, the institutional insistence that she was less than a full human being. She stayed seated with the full knowledge that she was helping to launch a frontal assault on the injustice of Jim Crow. Would that we all had her courage. She was an American hero; may she rest in peace.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Maggie Gallagher on the "natural life-cycle of marriage"

Maggie Gallagher has been writing at the Volokh Conspiracy in opposition to same-sex marriage. Her arguments are full of unsubstantiated statements and logical holes (earlier today she stated in passing, as if it were common knowledge, that the Roman Empire fell because of "sexual disorganization"), but this one in particular is especially bizarre:
[Trying to rebut the argument that] well, we have some nonprocreating couples in the mix. Why would adding SS couples change anything? Two points: SS couples are being added to the mix precisely in order to assure that society views them as “no different” than other couples. This intrinsically means (if the effort is successful) downgrading if not eliminating the social significance of generativity (procreation and family structure). The second truth is that both older couples and childless couples are part of the natural life-cycle of marriage. Their presence in the mix doesn’t signal anything in particular at all.
Right. Because childless couples who are biologically incapable of having children magically develop fertility through the "natural life-cycle of marriage". And, of course, postmenopausal women can only get married if they previously had children earlier in the "natural life-cycle of marriage."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Marketing America

Filed under "random notes from Britain": In the bookstore today I noticed that "What's the Matter with Kansas?" is marketed here in the UK as "What's the Matter with America?".

Though I can understand this re-titling from a marketing viewpoint, I think this conflation of "America" with "red state America" is pretty pernicious, because it plays right into the hands of conservatives who like to claim that liberals are "un-American," when, of course, (at the risk of being essentialist), it's actually the conservatives who are un-American.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Cervical cancer and the religious right

So there's a new vaccine that prevents cervical cancer by immunizing you against two strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) that cause 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. It's been in the news previously as the companies making it announced encouraging results along the way, but Merck has now announced that it was 100% effective over two years in a trial with 10,000 women and if everything pans out with peer review and so on it could go on the market by the end of next year.

Who could possibly be against a vaccine that prevents a deadly cancer? Oh, that's right, the religious right.
"Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.
This is beyond ridiculous. Sure, maybe abstinence was the best way to prevent HPV, but now we have another way to prevent HPV that works equally well and doesn't suffer from the tiny problem that, well, most people are not abstinent. What's more, Maher is living in a fantasy world if she thinks an 18 year old is going to factor in "Hm, I could get HPV and maybe die of cervical cancer when I'm 65" when considering whether or not to have sex. The New Scientist article gets it right in adding the context that the religious right touts HPV as a trump card for why abstinence is safer than protected sex: they don't want to lose that rhetorical point. There's something very warped about thinking that saving up to 260,000 lives per year worldwide and 3,000 in the U.S. is not worth giving up this rhetorical point or the virginity of that tiny sliver of abstinent people who were so close to having sex that the HPV vaccine would push them over the limit.

One shudders to think of what would happen if we ever develop an HIV vaccine. "Giving the HIV vaccine to people could be potentially harmful, because even though it would prevent a fatal disease, people may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex."

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

1918 influenza was an avian flu virus

Just in case you were wondering if all this talk about avian flu wasn't a bit overblown, we now find out that the virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed 50 million people, "more humans than any other disease in a similar duration in the history of the world," was a mutated form of an avian flu virus.
Two teams of federal and university scientists announced today that they had resurrected the 1918 influenza virus, the cause of one of history's most deadly epidemics, and had found that unlike the viruses that caused more recent flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968, the 1918 virus was actually a bird flu that jumped directly to humans.

The work, being published in the journals Nature and Science, involved getting the complete genetic sequence of the 1918 virus, using techniques of molecular biology to synthesize it, and then using it to infect mice and human lung cells in a specially equipped, secure lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The findings, the scientists say, reveal a small number of genetic changes that may explain why this virus was so lethal. The work also confirms the legitimacy of worries about the bird flu viruses that are now emerging in Asia.

The new research indicates that the 1918 virus, unlike more recent flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968, was actually a bird flu that jumped directly to humans. The new studies find that today's bird flu viruses share a few of the crucial genetic changes that occurred in the 1918 flu. The scientists suspect that with the 1918 flu, changes in just 25 to 30 out of about 4,400 amino acids in the viral proteins turned the virus into a killer. The bird flus, known as H5N1 viruses, have a few, but not all, of those changes.
The studies are not published yet, but I'll post links when they're up.

Update 6 Oct: The Nature article is online now: Characterization of the 1918 influenza virus polymerase genes.
Update 7 Oct: Science article now online as well: Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus.