Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Je Suis Charlie!

This morning, Charlie Hebdo published a new edition with a simple depiction of Mohamed on the cover:

Some Muslims complain that this cover is an insult to their religion, which forbids any depiction of of Mohamed, and they suggest that Charlie Hebdo acted immorally in publishing it.  For example, Egypt's Grand Mufti complained about the publication of the above drawing (see quote below).   Their outrage is completely absurd, and should be completely disregarded.

Muslims have every right to practice their religion as they see fit. If they do not wish to create or view images of Mohamed, that is certainly their prerogative.  No one should force them to do so.

Under no circumstances, however, do they have any right to tell anyone else not to make or view such images, any more than a Jew has the right to tell a Christian not to eat pork or not to drive to the store on Saturday.  If a Jew sees a Christian driving to work on a Saturday, eating a McRib sandwich and gets offended, that is his problem.

Ironically, the Koran and the Hadith contain statements that I find extremely offensive.  For example, they state that homosexuals should be killed, and that women must be subordinate to men.   Muslims assert that these dictates are the word of God.  

I find parts of the Koran and the Hadith to be utterly ridiculous, and I find the claim that these are the words of God to be very offensive.  As a result, I do not read the Koran or other Islamic literature, and I certainly do not practice Islam.  But I do not tell others what to do.

I do not warn Muslims not to publish the Koran or other religious books with material that I find offensive because of my sensitivities.  Quite to the contrary, I know that people will disagree about all sorts of things, and I am happy to live in peace with anyone who will allow me to do so.  I do not seek to force others to live by my views, nor to live the way I live.  But I expect the same respect in return.

So let's compare: Charlie Hebdo publishes the image above, and Muslims (some of them) are outraged.  These same people repeatedly proclaim that a book that says I should be killed as the word of God, and they see no problem with that.  And, even worse, some non-Muslims in the West sympathize with their offense.  But that is for another day.  

Quote from the Grand Mufti of Egypt, copied from Huffington Post:

"This edition will cause a new wave of hatred in French and Western society in general and what the magazine is doing does not serve coexistence or a dialog between civilisations," the office of Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, one of the region's most influential Muslim clerics, said in a statement.

"This is an unwarranted provocation against the feelings of ... Muslims around the world."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why Switch to a New Blood Thinner?

Last time I needed a blood thinner, I received Xarelto.  That was 2013, and Xarelto was new on the market and very expensive.  Previously, I had used Coumadin (generic name warafin) with no significant problems.  The patent on Coumadin has expired, and as a result it was very inexpensive.

Today, Facebook showed me an ad placed by lawyers who are suing the maker of Xarelto in a class action, alleging that the drug causes excessive internal bleeding.  From what I can tell, however, the drug is still on the market.

Two of my friends recently needed blood thinners, and both received Eliquis, yet another new drug.  It is also very expensive.  Their doctors did not discuss alternatives, they just prescribed Eliquis.

So, what was wrong with Coumadin that suggested that I should take Xarelto instead?  There may well be an answer to that question, but if so I cannot find it.  A brief internet search suggested that the most serious side effect of Coumadin is sever bleeding, which is exactly the same problem alleged with Xarelto.   I have no medical training, and I have not done researched the issue extensively.  Nevertheless, I would expect that, if there were a clear reason why Xarelto was better than Coumadin (or why Eliquis is better than both) that it would be easy to find.  

Moreover, all other things being equal, it makes sense to stick with an older drug.  By definition, a new drug has no history and we do not know what other problems may arise with Xarelto after it has been in wide use for a number of years.  

I do not believe that our doctors are part of a conspiracy to sell us expensive medications.  But I am concerned that they do not do enough research, and simply accept the drug companies' claims that the new drugs are better.  And, we patients often respond to advertising by asking for the new drugs.  

The solution is to ask your doctor why he/she is prescribing a particular drug.  Ask for alternatives.  Ask about the risks and benefits of each.  Then make your own decision!    

Saturday, April 19, 2014

In Defense of a Living Wage

When I was a boy, I ran a lemonade stand in front of our house.  I made the lemonade from frozen concentrate that my mother had bought at the market.  I was able to pocket a few bucks, because my mom didn't charge me for using her groceries.  But I'm not sure my business was actually profitable, and it certainly was not as profitable as it seemed to me because my cost of lemonade was zero.  Mom was subsidizing my business.

Similarly, any company that pays less than a living wage is, in effect, on welfare.  Such a company is not really profitable, but rather is being subsidized by tax dollars, just as my lemonade stand was subsidized by my mom.  

A company that employs workers uses labor, in the same way my lemonade stand used concentrated lemonade.  Labor requires people.  If a company does not pay the worker enough to survive at a minimum level, then that company is not really paying for what it is using.  And, it is usually the government that makes up the shortfall by way of welfare, food stamps and subsidized medical care.  

Each of us is capable of certain number of hours of work in our lifetime.  For example, let's say a man starts working full time at 18 years of age, and retires at 68, and lives to 80.  Let's call full time 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year.  That's a total of 100,000 hours of labor.  If he receives $10 per hour, that is $1,000,000 earned over a lifetime, or about $12,500 per year.

A living wage must provide enough to support a person at whatever standard society decides is the minimum acceptable level.  This must include the cost of the person's education, medical expenses and taxes.  Taxes pay for things like police, roads and defense which we all use.  If a wage is not sufficient to allow a person to pay their fair share of these expenses then someone else must pay.

The Federal government collects on the order of $5,000,000,000 in taxes each year from about 300,000,000 people, an average of something like $17,000 per person per year.  Thus, $10 per hour is not enough to pay one's fair share of taxes, let alone to eat, even if one works full time for one's entire life.  

I realize that some of those taxes pay for welfare and social security, and that those amounts must be deducted from the calculation.  But even so, my back of the envelope calculation shows that $10 per hour is clearly insufficient to support a person.   My best estimate is on the order of $20 per hour, although I certainly do not pretend to have conducted a rigorous calculation.

Companies that pay less than a living wage may argue that some people simply are not capable of work that is worth $20 per hour.  And, better to pay such a person $10 per hour than to pay him nothing.  In extreme example, such as a person with Down Syndrome, this may indeed be admirable.  But a company who relies on such a labor force in a substantial way must recognize that it is getting cheap labor as a result of the misfortune of others, and that their worker would not be able to survive but for the generosity of society at large.

In the vast majority of cases, however, there is no excuse for paying less than a living wage.  What work is "worth" is a function of what it costs to create.  The calculation above shows what it costs to create an hour of labor.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Responding to Terror in Boston

How should we respond to the attack on yesterday's Boston Marathon? In very large part, we should not respond at all. Of course, those who know the victims should comfort them, and law enforcement should investigate. Those who felt the emotional sting (as I did) should take this as a reminder that life is short and uncertain, and reach out to their loved ones for comfort. But beyond that, however,we should not respond at all.

The manner in which we respond to adversity defines us. The running community understands that better than most. We should not allow the crazy/hateful people behind the attacks to turn us into fearful/angry people. Instead, we should go on with our wonderful lives. We should start training for next year's Boston Marathon; I'm proud of my friend who announced, with hours of the attack, that he will not alter his plans to run next year if he can qualify.

Some will urge that we implement more security measures, but that would only be counter productive. It is impossible to stop terrorist attacks of this nature. If we place security at the marathon, they will go to the ballpark, the shopping mall, the supermarket, the freeway or any other place where people congregate. We would have to shut down society to prevent such attacks, and even then it probably wouldn't work.  Indeed, by responding to the attacks we encourage the next crazy/hateful group seeking attention.

And for what? Terrorism accounts for a minute portion of injury and death in this country. Far better to shut down the freeways to prevent car accidents than to shut down a marathon to prevent terror attacks.

So, how should we respond? Perhaps by getting in shape, qualifying for Boston next year and then making plans to join in that wonderful celebration of life, health and a free and open society with thousands of like minded friends.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Republicans lost the 2012 presidential election. Yet, they still seem to believe that they are entitled to rule this country with an iron fist. I'm talking about Grover Nordquist and his pledge - signed by the majority of Republicans in Congress- never to raise taxes at all. What a foolish pledge, swearing never to compromise one iota, no matter what. Did it not occur to these people that they might not control the government forever?

These Republicans have pledged themselves into a corner. They now have a choice between violating their oath or making themselves irrelevant. Having lost the White House and the Senate, they cannot expect the Democrats to simply roll over and give up on even one penny of new revenue just because the minority party made a unilateral promise. This pledge will eventually spell disaster for the Republicans who will be shown up as the extremists they have sworn to be.

And for what grand purpose did these Republicans swear never to compromise? To protect the very wealthiest among us from having to pay their fair share. Taxes on the wealthy are lower than they have been in decades, way lower, and our government is deep in debt - in very large part because of wars started by the last Republican administration. We also have a failing infrastructure, declining educational system and inadequate health care. These things cost money to fix.

Yet, the Republicans insist that not raising taxes on the rich is more important than any other priority: balancing the budget, funding education or defense, health care, roads - none of these are as important as making sure robber barons like Jack Welch and Mitt Romney don't have to pay taxes at the same rate as the people who pick up their garbage. It is simply disgusting.

Furthermore, these Republicans are, for the most part, Christians. In other words, they purport to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christ would be sickened by the policies of these Republicans. What hypocrites!

It is time to say "Enough!" to the Republicans!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why All Good Capitalists Should Support a Gasoline Tax

The free market works because it allows people to decide for themselves what they value.   Suppose I buy a loaf of bread from the baker for $2.  I make the decision that the loaf is worth $2 -- or more -- to me.  Otherwise, I wouldn't buy it.  No one tells me what I like, want or need, nor what bread is worth or should cost.  Similarly, the baker decides that it is worth it to him to sell his bread at $2 per loaf.  He probably takes into account his rent, the cost of flour, labor costs and many other factors, but in the end both he and I conclude that the transaction makes sense -- otherwise there is no deal.

The baker decides how much bread to bake, and how much to offer for flour, based on what we are willing to pay for his bread.  The combined effect of everyone's willingness to pay for goods and services sets prices and allocates resources across the entire economy.  It is a bottom-up method, which allows everyone to make their own decisions, but it results in the most efficient allocation of resources and the greatest good for the greatest number.

While this may sound like some new search method instituted by Google, it is in fact old news, famously summarized in 1776 by a Scot named Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations.  Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, about 25 miles from where I studied at St. Andrews.

But, like any theory, the "invisible hand" of the free market only works its magic under certain specified conditions.  This, too, is old news, dating back a couple of centuries and taught without controversy in every Econ 1 class across the nation and indeed around the world.

The most important exception, for the purposes of this post, is something economists call "externalities," i.e., the impact of my buying decisions on other people.  There are few, if any, externalities related to my purchase of bread.  I buy the bread, I make toast, I have breakfast -- end of story.  I pay the $2 price; you pay nothing and my decision to eat bread does not change your life.

But let's say I decide to pay my gardener to remove the leaves from my driveway, using a leaf blower.  I pay $50, and I put up with the infernal racket those leaf blowers make.  It is worth it to me to get the leaves out of my yard.  Unlike my purchase of bread, however, my decision has consequences for ten of my neighbors.  They, too, must put up with the outrageous sound made by that leaf blower, but their concerns are not mine and do not play a role in my buying decision.  This externality blows away more than just leaves, it blows away the entire theory of the free market.  The free market's "invisible hand" no longer works.

As I said, this is not advanced economics, far from it.  It has been known since 1776, if not before, and is not in the least controversial.  You cannot find an economist who would not agree with this analysis, although you could no doubt find many who could explain it more eloquently!

Let's apply the concept of externalities to gasoline.  Burning gasoline dirties the air, air which we all breath.  If you burn a gallon of gas, the impact on you is small.  But, the combined impact on the millions (or billions) of people who breath the air is millions (or billions) of times greater.  You also raise the temperature of the entire planet, however slightly.  This may not matter to you, but multiply your decision by the 6,000,000,000 people who must live with it, and the math changes significantly.  And, your decision to buy gas also drives our foreign policy.  Your decision to buy a gas-guzzler impacts the entire world, not just you.

If it were just you and your one gallon of gas, it wouldn't make any meaningful difference.  But the situation is different when we all buy gasoline.  Billions of us make the same decision to burn a gallon of gas; each of us worries only about the gallon we are burning because, after all, that is all we can control with our buying decision. The result is a market that is massively out of whack.

There is a way to adjust for this imperfection in the free market: impose a tax on the consumption of gasoline.  The tax must be high enough to balance the harm caused to others by your decision to burn a gallon of gasoline.  Ideally, the money would go to eleviate the impact, i.e., to clean the air or to combat global climat change, but even if the money just goes into the general tax fund, it still serves the purpose of keeping the free market in balance.

But our government actually subsidizes oil production.  If you believe in the free market, that decision makes no sense.  Burning oil does not benefit others; it harms others.  The government should not subsidize oil, it should tax it heavily, enough to compensate for the harm done by the consumption of oil.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tragedy Amplified; Lessons Not Learned

The shooting in Aurora, Colorado has dominated the national news for the past week, but why?  Yes, the shooting was a tragedy for those involved, their friends and their families.  I do not mean to minimize that.  But we are a country of 300,000,000 people, while 12 people died in Aurora.  Approximately the same number die ever day in car accidents.  Those deaths are just as painful and tragic.  Even more people die each day from cancer, heart disease and other causes.  So why do we spend so much time focusing on an incident like what occurred in Aurora, while the real dangers to public health are relegated to the bottom of the news?

The simple answer is that the theater shooting was spectacular and unusual.  An unusually disturbed man took action in a very unusual and violent way.  Such incidents get people's attention, sell newspapers, create hits on websites and get eyeballs on TV screens.  That is the obvious reason why the news media pays so much attention to Aurora.  It gets people's attention; it is entertainment that sells.

This perverse form of entertainment is not good for us as a society.  It scares the daylights out of some people, making them unhappy and causing them to do silly things like not got to the movies for fear of being shot.  It makes people believe that we live in an incredibly violent society.  Perhaps our society is violent, but the manner in which the media replays a single violent over and over makes it feel far more violent than it really is.  And, in the end, it may make society more violent; recent news reports reveal that gun sales are up almost 50% in Colorado since the shooting.

The real lessons of Aurora, such as they are, seem to go unnoticed.  The shooting occurred because a highly disturbed individual was able to get his hands on guns and ammunition.  The only ways to prevent future incidents is to limit access to guns and ammunition, and to improve our mental health care system.  But those lessons seem to have gone by the wayside.