Tuesday Reads: The 27 Club, Brain Development, Pot, and Grapefruit

Jim Morrison reading2

Good Morning!!

It will probably be another slow news day today–in fact we’ll most likely have nothing but slow news days until we get past New Years. So I’ve got some non-political and not-all-that-important news to start this post.

If he had lived, Saturday, December 8 would have been Jim Morrison’s 69th birthday. Hard to believe. Of course the way he was going, he probably would have killed himself with alcohol anyway. But I wonder what he would have thought about the world today, if he had lived?

Another rock ‘n’ roll legend who died at age 27–Jimi Hendrix–would have been 70 on November 27. Would he still be “blowing minds” if he were alive today? Maybe.

Instead these two, along with other musical members of the “27 club” are frozen in time, still young and vibrant while the rest of us have aged. Is there something significant about being 27? Is it a year in which a person gets over the hump, so to speak, and begins to move toward adulthood?

According to a study reported by the BBC in 2009, human “mental powers” are greatest at age 22, and the brain begins to decline at age 27.

Professor Timothy Salthouse of the University of Virginia found reasoning, spatial visualisation and speed of thought all decline in our late 20s….His seven-year study of 2,000 healthy people aged 18-60 is published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

To test mental agility, the study participants had to solve puzzles, recall words and story details and spot patterns in letters and symbols….In nine out of 12 tests the average age at which the top performance was achieved was 22.

The first age at which there was any marked decline was at 27 in tests of brain speed, reasoning and visual puzzle-solving ability.
Things like memory stayed intact until the age of 37, on average, while abilities based on accumulated knowledge, such as performance on tests of vocabulary or general information, increased until the age of 60.

It may be true that certain mental abilities peak at age 22, but we now know that the frontal lobes continue to develop well into the 30s, and the brain can form new neurons even in old age. I guess it depends on which mental powers are most important to you. Personally I’m glad I didn’t check out at 27.

Would Morrison and Hendrix be surprised that it has taken so long for states to begin decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana? Or would the be surprised that has happened at all?

Yesterday, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order declaring that recreational pot use is legal in the state.

“Voters were loud and clear on Election Day,” Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a statement, as he signed an executive order to officially legalize the personal use and limited growing of marijuana for those 21 or older. Amendment 64, as it’s called, is now a part of the state’s constitution.

It is still illegal, however, to buy or sell marijuana “in any quantity” in Colorado or to consume it in public.

Hickenlooper, who opposed the amendment in the run-up to Election Day, announced the start of a 24-member task force that would “begin working immediately” to help the state navigate federal laws and establish how citizens can legally purchase and sell cannabis.

Possession and sale of pot are still federal crimes, however. In Washington, where pot became legal last week, at least one bar is now allowing patrons to smoke pot on the premises.

Frankie’s Sports Bar & Grill, owned by one Frank Schnarr, is thought to be the first of its kind anywhere in the U.S.: a bar that lets patrons toke up freely.

“I’m about to lose my business,” the Olympia, Washington-based business owner told Reuters. “So I’ve got to figure out some way to get people in here.”

Just to make sure he’s not chasing off all his customers, Schnarr has set up the second floor of his bar as a private club called “Friends of Frankies.” Interested patrons are charged a $10-a-year fee to access the lounge, where they can smoke marijuana freely. The lounge also serves alcohol, manned by a staff of volunteers paid by tips.

I’m not sure I’d like it if public places in Massachusetts started allowing pot smoking. I guess that would make me into more of a homebody than I already am. I wouldn’t want to smell pot everywhere anymore than I want to smell cigarette smoke. Mary Crescenzo at HuffPo has similar concerns.

I have lots of questions about new state laws regarding weed. With U.S. nonsmoking laws among the most restrictive in the world, I can’t help but wonder if recreational marijuana smokers in Washington and Colorado will regard smoking marijuana as an exception to our nonsmoking rules. In these two states, will smoking marijuana be tolerated in public while smoking cigarettes in public is, for the most part, clearly restricted? A few days ago in Seattle, as people gathered in the streets to celebrate the legalization of the use of marijuana, police asked those smoking pot not to smoke in public. For now, Washington police officers are limited to issuing verbal warnings to smokers but nothing more. Those police requests didn’t seem to dampen the party, though. I can’t be the only one with questions on these new twists and turns in the law.

I have some other worries. I think it’s important for people to understand that pot isn’t completely harmless. A certain percentage of people will become addicted to it. I have seen people in withdrawal from marijuana–it can be problem for people who have addictive tendencies. Smoking a lot of pot may also push vulnerable young people into psychological disorders such as schizophrenia. And a recent study in New Zealand found that smoking pot before age 18 can hinder brain development.

Among a long-range study cohort of more than 1,000 New Zealanders, individuals who started using cannabis in adolescence and used it for years afterward showed an average decline in IQ of 8 points when their age 13 and age 38 IQ tests were compared. Quitting pot did not appear to reverse the loss either, said lead researcher Madeline Meier, a post-doctoral researcher at Duke University. The results appear online Aug. 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The key variable in this is the age of onset for marijuana use and the brain’s development, Meier said. Study subjects who didn’t take up pot until they were adults with fully-formed brains did not show similar mental declines. Before age 18, however, the brain is still being organized and remodeled to become more efficient, she said, and may be more vulnerable to damage from drugs.

“Marijuana is not harmless, particularly for adolescents,” said Meier, who produced this finding from the long term Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. The study has followed a group of 1,037 children born in 1972-73 in Dunedin, New Zealand from birth to age 38 and is led by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychologists who hold dual appointments at Duke and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

About 5 percent of the study group were considered marijuana-dependent, or were using more than once a week before age 18. A dependent user is one who keeps using despite significant health, social or family problems.

I do support legalization, because I think it’s ridiculous that we are putting people in jail for possession of pot. But society needs to be aware of the consequences if more people begin using the drug regularly.

Could Stephen Colbert replace Jim DeMint in the Senate? A new poll shows he would be the popular favorite.

Why not? We already have one comedian in the Senate.

I really liked this piece by Chris Weigant at HuffPo: If We’re Going to Tax the Rich, Then Let’s Tax the Rich.

Due to the political courageousness of President Obama (there is simply no other way to put it), the folks inside the Beltway are finally having a serious discussion about taxing the rich. Obama is not only strongly fighting for higher tax rates on the higher-income earners, but he was the one who put the subject front and center in the election season — when he could easily have punted it to a non-election year.

But the “tax the rich” policies so far being discussed (at least the ones that leak out to the public) are laughably timid and tame, when you really examine the big picture. So far, what is making Republicans howl is President Obama’s plan to end the Bush tax cuts on the top two marginal income tax rates, which would raise them from 33 percent to 36 percent, and from 35 to 39.6 percent. Seen one way, that’s impressive, since tax rates haven’t gone up in such a fashion since President Clinton’s first year in office. But seen another, it’s not all that radical at all.

Consider the fact that nothing Obama is doing is going to “fix” the problem of Warren Buffett paying a lower tax rate than his secretary — a problem Obama has repeatedly said he’d like to tackle. On “entitlements reform,” only a few lonely voices crying in the wilderness are suggesting ending the most regressive federal tax around, by scrapping the cap on income for Social Security payroll taxes. Also seemingly forgotten in this debate is the proposal for a “millionaires’ tax” or a “transactions tax.” The real measure of whether Democrats and Republicans are both selling smoke and mirrors is whether they permanently fix the Alternative Minimum Tax — again, a subject which has barely been mentioned.

Click on the link to read Weigant’s recommendations.

It’s not just the Catholic Church that has a problem with sexual abuse. The New York Times has an article about a Hasidic religious counselor who has been convicted of abusing a young girl.

Sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has long been hidden. Victims who came forward were intimidated into silence; their families were shunned; cases were dropped for a lack of cooperation.

But on Monday, a State Supreme Court jury in Brooklyn delivered a stunning victory to prosecutors and victims’ advocates, convicting a 54-year-old unlicensed therapist who is a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg of repeatedly sexually abusing a young girl who had been sent to him for help.

“The veil of secrecy has been lifted,” said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. “The wall that has existed in parts of these communities has now been broken through. And as far as I’m concerned, it is very clear to me that it is only going to get better for people who are victimized in these various communities.”

The case against the therapist, Nechemya Weberman, was a significant milestone for Mr. Hynes, whose office has been criticized for not acting aggressively enough against sexual abusers in the borough’s large and politically connected ultra-Orthodox community.

These creeps are everywhere.

grapefruit

I’ll end with this. I love grapefruit, so I didn’t appreciate this piece at Slate: Grapefruit is disgusting. I think it was intended to be tongue in cheek, but I didn’t laugh once. Katy Waldman objects to her least favorite fruit being given as a Christmas gift.

It needs to stop. This killjoy has already invaded our breakfast routines. Its baleful pink, white, or red flesh shines from thousands of tables. Its pulp gets stuck in our teeth. Its juice stains our clothes. And now, we are asked to inflict the scourge on our relatives, shipping it off in packages of 12 or more in order to demonstrate our love?

No. Grapefruit is unwieldy, disgusting, and in some cases dangerous to eat. It is indisputably the worst fruit anyone has ever put on a plate.
A pause, now, for its partisans to bellow, “But it’s a superfood!” Grapefruit enjoys an exalted reputation, thanks in part to countless magazine stories and nutrition listicles singing its praises. It figures in fad diets, including its eponymous diet, dreamed up by Hollywood sadists. Even its scientific name, Citrus x paradisi—so called because, in 1750, naturalist Griffith Hughes dubbed grapefruit the “forbidden fruit” of the Barbados—implies that it belongs somewhere in the Garden of Eden. It does not. It belongs in the trashcan.

Read her reasons at the link. Dan Amira agrees with me, and some DC bartenders also objected to the “grapefruit bashing.”

Now what are you reading and blogging about today?


Thursday Reads

Einstein reading

Good Morning!

The New York Times has added more fodder for the Republicans’ Benghazi attacks. James Risen Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt report that: U.S.-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis’ Hands.

The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats.

Of course there’s no evidence that this had anything to do with the Benghazi attacks, but I’m sure that won’t stop Senators McNasty, Huckleberry Closetcase, and their new pal Senator Kelley Ayotte from pretending otherwise.

No evidence has emerged linking the weapons provided by the Qataris during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to the attack that killed four Americans at the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

But in the months before, the Obama administration clearly was worried about the consequences of its hidden hand in helping arm Libyan militants, concerns that have not previously been reported. The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government.

Also at the NYT, Jared Bernstein once again explains why politicians (and the media) in the Village need to stop obsessing on taxes and start focusing in increasing employment and, along with it, consumer demand.

WITH the budget-and-tax showdown dominating headlines, most Americans probably missed an even more ominous story: according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office, America’s underlying growth rate — that is, the best the economy could do, under optimal conditions, without driving up inflation — has slowed from just under 4 percent a year in 2000 to just under 2 percent today.

Why does this matter? For one thing, the combination of a lower underlying growth rate, which you could think of as the economy’s speed limit, and a less equitable distribution of that growth was a reason middle-income households did so badly and poverty went up in the 2000s.

During the 1990s, in contrast, stronger demand for goods and services led to much faster job growth and the last real gains experienced by middle- and lower-income households. Faster growth in those years also spun off a lot more government revenues, which interacted with slightly higher tax rates to take the budget from deficit to surplus.

Read the whole thing and fantasize what we could be doing if we had smarter leadership in DC.

Back in Republican la-la land, Joel Kotkin at Forbes claims that blue states are committing suicide by supporting raising tax rates on the rich.

With their enthusiastic backing of President Obama and the Democratic Party on Election Day, the bluest parts of America may have embraced a program utterly at odds with their economic self-interest. The almost uniform support of blue states’ congressional representatives for the administration’s campaign for tax “fairness” represents a kind of bizarre economic suicide pact.

Any move to raise taxes on the rich — defined as households making over $250,000 annually — strikes directly at the economies of these states, which depend heavily on the earnings of high-income professionals, entrepreneurs and technical workers. In fact, when you examine which states, and metropolitan areas, have the highest concentrations of such people, it turns out they are overwhelmingly located in the bluest states and regions.

Really? Then how come we did so much better under the Clinton tax rates in the ’90s? After all, that’s all that is happening–except that the first $250,000 of these poor rich people’s money will still be taxed at the Bush rates. But that’s not how Kotkin sees it.

The people whose wallets will be drained in the new war on “the rich” are high-earning, but hardly plutocratic professionals like engineers, doctors, lawyers, small business owners and the like. Once seen as the bastion of the middle class, and exemplars of upward mobility, these people are emerging as the modern day “kulaks,” the affluent peasants ruthlessly targeted by Stalin in the early 1930s.

OMB!! “Wallets…drained!” “Stalin!” Let’s all freak out!

The ironic geography of the Democratic drive can be seen most clearly by examining the distribution of the classes now targeted by the coming purge. The top 10 states with the largest percentage of “rich” households under the Obama formula include true blue bastions Washington, D.C., which has the highest concentration of big earners, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, California and Hawaii. The only historic “swing state” in the top six is Virginia, due largely to the presence of the affluent suburbs of the capital. These same states, according to the Tax Foundation, would benefit the most from an extension of the much-lambasted Bush tax cuts.

Hey Joel, maybe it’s not all about taxes, even though that’s all that seems to matter to you. Maybe some blue state folks think the whole economy would benefit if more people got back to work, earned some money and spent it–as suggested by Jared Bernstein in yesterday’s NYT (see above).

As Zandar notes, Kotkin then goes on to show how Republicans can use the home mortgage deduction and other methods to punish the blue state richies for voting for Obama.

– Keep the tax rate on capital gains the same.

– Raise income taxes on the top income bracket for 2013, those making $398,350 and up (single filers, married joint filers, or head of household).

– Means-test, or eliminate entirely, the mortgage interest deduction (which benefits taxpayers in areas with the highest real estate values and mortgages – i.e., Hawaii, D.C., New York, California and Connecticut).

– Means-test or eliminate entirely the federal deduction of state and local taxes, which is disproportionately utilized by those in high-tax blue states: “In 2005, taxpayers in California and New York together made up 20 percent of those claiming the deduction and accounted for 30 percent of its value. Itemizers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California claimed on average over $12,000 per household.”

Talk about a sore loser! Kotkin must be really bitter about Romney’s failure to get those blue state dopes to vote for him.

Meanwhile all those Romney voters in the red states are dreaming about seceding from the union. But if they did, asks The Nation, “Who’d Pay for Their Massive Government Handouts?”

In the wake of Obama’s victory, citizens in several states submitted petitions to secede from the United States. It is something of an irony that the very states seeking secession from “big government”—like Louisiana and Alabama—have been among the top beneficiaries of that selfsame government. Put bluntly, the government would be far smaller without them, and they would seriously struggle far more without it. Indeed, were they to become independent, most would be failed states in need of a bailout. Only this time their benefactor would be not the federal government but the International Monetary Fund, of which the United States is the principal donor. Louisiana and Alabama would go the way of Greece and Spain.

Oh, the irony of it all! And here’s another irony for Republicans to chew on. From TPM: Why Insurers Are Wary Of Raising The Medicare Age

House Republican leaders want to avoid the fiscal cliff with a proposal that would gradually raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67. Democrats are broadly reluctant to cut benefits, but President Obama was willing to accept the policy last year in failed deficit reduction talks with House Speaker John Boehner, and top Democrats have left the door open to including that measure in a grand budget bargain.

It may seem counter-intuitive: why would an industry threatened by government insurance not want it to shrink?

The reason: hiking the Medicare eligibility age would throw seniors aged 65 and 66 off Medicare and into the private market, forcing insurers, who will soon be required to cover all consumers regardless of health status, to care for a sicker, more expensive crop of patients.

“The risk pool issue is important,” the insurance industry source said. “[I]f you add more older and sicker people to the pool, that’s definitely going to have any impact on premiums.”

The policy would save the federal government $113 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But it achieves that by raising the cost of private insurance: the Kaiser Family Foundation projected that a Medicare age of 67 would raise costs for under-65 patients by an average of $141 in 2014. (In practice it would be phased in.)

Duh!

And even more Republican stupidity: Right wing nutcases are all bent out of shape because their favorite crazy propaganda movie didn’t get any Oscar nominations.

Gerald Molan, the director of the extremely anti-Obama movie, 2016: Obama’s America , is mad that his and Dinesh D’Souza’s film [“2016”] wasn’t on the shortlist of documentaries nominated for an Academy Award.

“The action confirms my opinion that the bias against anything from a conservative point of view is dead on arrival in Hollywood circles,” he complained to the Hollywood Reporter.

It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the movie is based on a pack of lies and right wing conspiracy theories, could it?

To cleanse your palate of right wing and DC craziness, try watching this video from NASA that show views of the Earth from space. Here’s a still shot:

new-view-earth-at-night-usa_62009_600x450

So what are you reading and blogging about today? I’ve been a little out of the loop for the past couple of days, so I look forward to clicking on your links!


Friday Reads: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire Edition

Bonjour!

I think the season of the political lie is upon us.  I have never seen so many tired old tropes being trotted out on TV in all my years of fascination with the bloodsport of politics.  I’m going to try to concentrate on  folks out there fighting the memes and lies with facts.  My first selection is from Baseline Scenario.  Simon Johnson explains that unemployment insurance isn’t around to keep lazy people on extended vacations. In the process he takes on the lie that our government is broke.

Fire insurance is mostly sold by the private sector; unemployment insurance is “sold” by the government – because the private sector never performed this role adequately. The original legislative intent, reaffirmed over the years, is clear: Help people to help themselves in the face of shocks beyond their control.

But the severity and depth of our current recession raise an issue on a scale that we have literally not had to confront since the 1930s. What should we do when large numbers of people run out of standard unemployment benefits, much of which are provided at the state level, but still cannot find a job? At the moment, the federal government steps in to provide extended benefits.

In negotiations currently under way, House Republicans propose to cut back dramatically on these benefits, asserting that this will push people back to work and speed the recovery. Does this make sense, or is it bad economics, as well as being mean-spirited?

(For details on the current benefit situation, see this information from California, as well as this on the political background. After a two-month extension of benefits at the end of last year, the terms of continuing it are currently before a House-Senate conference committee.)

The United States has lost more jobs than in any other recession in the last 70 years – and jobs have been slower to return, as this chart shows.

In raw numbers, we lost more than eight million jobs, most of which have not returned. Paul Solman of the PBS NewsHour prefers a measure he calls U-7, which includes “the underemployed and those who want a job but have been out of work so long that the government no longer counts them; this currently stands at 16.9 percent of the workforce (see this story and also, for background, a discussion Paul and I had in the fall on the “shape” of the recovery, in which we rely on the B.L.S. data.)

However you want to count it, the financial crisis of 2008 brought on a jobs disaster — and the scale of this disaster is still with us. We like to say that the recession is “over,” but this just means that the economy is growing again. In no meaningful sense is the jobs crisis over.

Typically in the United States, most people are unemployed for relatively short periods of time, with a lot of movement in and out of unemployment. The fraction of long-term unemployed as a percentage of all unemployed is usually 10 to 15 percent. In the early 1980s, it briefly reached almost 25 percent.

Again, however, our experience since 2008 has been dramatically different – the share of long-term unemployed in total unemployed is close to 45 percent. And it appears to be staying at or near that level for the foreseeable future.

The House Republicans now propose to change many rules under which the federal government provides “extended benefits” to people who have exhausted their state benefits.

In most countries, unemployment insurance is managed primarily by the central government and its agencies – in our federal structure we have preferred, as with other kinds of emergencies (such as natural disasters) to have the states provide the first line of defense, with the federal government providing back-up. It is the federal government that has the strongest ability to borrow at low interest rates; most states are much more strapped for cash.

Do not be deceived by claims that the federal government is “broke,” in the sense that it cannot afford to provide additional support to states and people at this level. This is a myth, pure and simple.

Paul Krugman takes on Charles Murray’s new whine about declining morality in the poor down trodden white folks and how it’s hurting our country.  Krugman shows that one of the traditional measures of social problems is teenage pregnancy and it’s way down.  So, is violent crime.  So what is it that Murray is really complaining about?

Reading Charles Murray and all the commentary about the sources of moral collapse among working-class whites, I’ve had a nagging question: is it really all that bad?

I mean, yes, marriage rates are way down, and labor force participation is down among prime-age men (although not as much as some of the rhetoric might imply), But it’s generally left as an implication that these trends must be causing huge social ills. Are they?

Well, one thing oddly missing in Murray is any discussion of that traditional indicator of social breakdown, teenage pregnancy. You can see why — because it has actually been falling like a stone:

So, is economic stagnation really the result of less church going? I doubt it.

Jonathan Chait takes on another right wing lie.  That’s the one about how the job creators pay so much in taxes they are really down trodden billionaires!  Veronique de Rugy doesn’t stand a chance.

De Rugy wrote a column centered around the claim that the United States has a more progressive tax system than any other advanced country, and as her sole piece of evidence cited the fact that rich people pay a higher share of the tax burden in the U.S. than in other countries. I wrote a response, noting that this reasoning is completely idiotic. Rich Americans pay a bigger share of the tax burden because they earn a bigger share of the income, not because the U.S. tax code is more progressive.

De Rugy’s reply is an incoherent collection of hand-waving that does not come close to addressing this very simple and fatal flaw with her claim. She introduces a series of other fallacies, like conflating the marginal tax rate (the percentage tax you pay on your last dollar) with the total tax rate (the overall percentage of your income paid in tax), using “income tax” as a stand-in for total taxes, and trying to broaden the debate into a bigger philosophical dispute. But it’s not a philosophical dispute. It’s a simple case of her making up false claims based on extremely elementary errors.

And this is why I am forced to be so mean. There are just a lot of people out there exerting significant influence over the political debate who are totally unqualified. The dilemma is especially acute in the political economic field, where wealthy right-wingers have pumped so much money to subsidize the field of pro-rich people polemics that the demand for competent defenders of letting rich people keep as much of their money as possible vastly outstrips the supply. Hence the intellectual marketplace for arguments that we should tax rich people less is glutted with hackery.

No discussion of reprehensible lies would be complete with out Santorum and without the numerous conspiracy theories and untruths told about the concerns of environmentalists.  Don’t you know, science professors just want to get rich so they make up shit about climate change and fracking?

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