Thursday, 5 August 2004

Just for fun

My first thought on seeing the headline

Recreational Use of Viagra on the Increase

was, “What other sort of use is there?”

On second thought, however, there are some people who use it professionally, or so I’ve been told.

Monday, 2 August 2004

Things that should go without saying

The CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases has reported that many Americans are getting sick each summer from diseases spread in public pools.

One of the largest pool-related outbreaks in the country happened last August in Lawrence, Kansas, when as many as 600 people may have been sickened by the parasitic disease cryptosporidium. The CDC found that the parasite was spread through local pools, day care centers and people who lived together.

This summer, the Lawrence-Douglas County health department has been trying to help pool operators and swimmers learn how to keep their pools germ-free. The No. 1 message: Don’t swim if you have diarrhea.


Tuesday, 13 July 2004

Fluoridated bottled water

Tyler Cowen rhetorically asks whether anyone would buy fluoridated water:

But hey, when you buy bottled water isn’t fluoride what you’re trying to avoid?

It may not make sense in urban areas, but if you get water from a well (or even from some rural water utilities), the water isn’t going to be fluoridated. Presumably, this product is aimed at parents in rural areas (or who live in areas with bad drinking water supplies, like Washington, D.C.) who want their kids to have more cavity-resistant teeth. So it makes sense to me, at least, especially when you consider the alternative is trying to make your kids take fluoride tablets every day (something I had to do while growing up).

Monday, 28 June 2004

Irradiated nuts

Apparently the use of cell phones, like everything else it seems (except khat), leads to reduced sperm counts in men.

Meanwhile, I can’t tell if Amber Taylor is upset that these inanimate objects are sexist in their effects or just interested in obtaining an inexpensive form of contraception.

Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Drug war nonsense

I went to the downtown Walgreens today to purchase some Wal-phed (Walgreens’ generic version of Sudafed). I walked back to the aisle where it is normally kept, and there were lots of little yellow signs, telling me that tall products that contain pseudoephedrine are now kept behind the pharmacy counter.

I went back to the pharmacy counter to buy some, and while I was there, asked the salesperson (I don’t know whether he was an actual “pharmacist” or not) about the change. “They make methamphetamine out of it.” Yes, I know. But they can’t make it from the liquid caps that also contain guaifenesin. (Which is what I was purchasing.) Was this a government requirement or was this just a new Walgreens policy? “It’s not a government requirement. We’ve got to do something bout it.” Yeah, I said. Legalize it.

We can’t stop people from making it and selling it, so there’s no reason to make it inconvenient for me to buy decongestants.

Tuesday, 20 April 2004

Political physiology

Tyler Cowen links a New York Times piece on how researchers are using MRIs to look at how voters’ brains react to political ads, and it’s a pretty fascinating piece. Though I must quibble with this graf:

“These new tools could help us someday be less reliant on clichés and unproven adages,” said Tom Freedman, a strategist in the 1996 Clinton campaign, later a White House aide and now a sponsor of the research. “They’ll help put a bit more science in political science.”

Dragging fancy machines into the room has nothing to do with whether or not you’re being scientific. Somehow people have this warped view that you can only do “science” when you’re dressed in a lab coat and goggles and there are a few bunsen burners in the room, which is simply not the case.

Thursday, 18 March 2004

Libertarians versus public policy

Liberals sometimes see libertarians as stingy—and thus in league with conservatives—because of a rather curious phenomenon: libertarians don’t believe in public policy. Sure, there are the cute kids over at Cato and RPPI who try to pretend they believe in public policy, so as to curry favor with the political establishment, but any respectable libertarian won’t start with the premise that “problems” are matters to be solved by public policy. (Politics is classically defined as the science of “who gets what, when, and how”; libertarians inherently reject non-market allocation of resources, and thus don’t believe in politics at all in the “resource allocation” sense of the term.)

But, to the extent libertarians do advocate public policy, they tend to agree with fiscal conservatives, for the simple reason that the practical effect of most conservative initiatives is to minimize the amount of resource allocation done by the government, and they tend to agree with social liberals, because the practical effect of social liberalism is to reduce the amount of stuff the government does. Still, libertarians reject public policy—so “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger are not really any more libertarian than Nancy Pelosi or Rick Santorum; Arnie just agrees with libertarians more often than Pelosi or Santorum do.

Case in point: health care. Matt Yglesias says universal healthcare (presumably a single-payer scheme) would be a good thing. Libertarians, of course, would reject single-payer, and thus side with conservatives. On the other hand, if conservatives proposed some other universal coverage scheme—say employer-mandated coverage—libertarians would probably side with liberals. For a libertarian, the absence of public policy is preferable to the presence of public policy.

Now, the question is: assume we’re going to have a public policy, and that’s a given. Libertarianism stops giving useful answers at that point, except possibly to say “less interference is better.” In 20 years, we are going to have universal health care—like it or not. And, in a lot of ways, society would be better off if the funding mechanism were government single-payer than employer-sponsored: single-payer eliminates perverse incentives for employers to hire as many young people as they can, and it is less likely to be regressive in its effects (if Wal-Mart has to buy health insurance for all its employees, Wal-Mart customers are going to be paying for that—and Wal-Mart customers don’t include folks like John Kerry and George Bush). The downside of single-payer is that ensuring cost-containment without rationing is a lot harder (or, at least, a lot harder to get right—you don’t want patients waiting 6 months for MRIs, but you don’t want people getting 30 doses of Viagra for free each day either).

Of course, the beauty of being a libertarian is that you don’t have to worry about such things; you can just sit back, point, laugh, and say “see, I told you so” while the lines for CT scans circle around the block (which is the most likely outcome regardless). Because you didn’t believe in the public policy in the first place.

Friday, 12 March 2004

Columbus' DNA

Crescateer Beth Plocharczyk wonders how scientists will test whether or not Christopher Columbus’ remains lie in Seville, rather than in the Dominican Republic as previously thought. She asks:

If anyone knows how a confirmed DNA sample from Christopher Columbus is available for reference, please email me. I’m utterly stumped and dying to find out.

I doubt they actually have a DNA sample from Columbus. However, my understanding is that you can use DNA samples from known descendents for this purpose, in much the same way that paternity testing works; this is how, for example, the Sally Hemmings theory was substantiated a few years back (although it didn’t dispositively show that the Thomas Jefferson was the father).

Thursday, 11 March 2004

Virginity pledges not kept; news at 11

James Joyner links this NYT piece with the snarky comment:

I await the study that investigates New Years resolutions.

I tend to agree with commenter “steve,” who writes:

Too bad there are some in this country who want to make so called virginity pledges part of serious public policy. When serious people call for new years resolutions in order to solve serious socail [sic] problems your point will stand.

But I think there’s an interesting question here: why aren’t many of the pledges kept? I suspect it has to do with peer pressure: students who don’t sincerely want to make virginity pledges are pressured into them by religious groups they are affiliated with, parents, or friends. And, in general, people don’t keep pledges when there’s no effective sanctioning mechanism to ensure fealty to them; unless you’re female and get knocked up, nobody’s going to know whether or not you actually kept a virginity pledge.

That said, one other part of the study, as reported in USA Today, seemed a bit puzzling:

The study also found that in communities where at least 20% of adolescents pledged the STD rates for everyone combined was 8.9%. In communities with less than 7% pledgers, the STD rate was 5.5%.

Not only is this a massive ecological inference problem (there’s absolutely no way to show causality here), the causal mechanism doesn’t even function right: adolescents are a relatively small part of the population, dwarfed by the sexually active adult population. Nor is there any test of whether the pledge rate affects STD rates over time—which at least might get at the question of whether pledges have some aggregate effect on STD incidence. Most odd.

Anyway, I tend to agree with critics that government-led efforts to encourage abstinence—a cornerstone of both the Bush and Clinton administrations’ “sex ed” policy*—are likely to be completely ineffective, if not counterproductive, in reducing teen pregnancy and STD transmission. The feds should find something better to waste our money on instead…

Tuesday, 2 March 2004

The newest front in the War on Drugs

Apparently unsatisfied with wasting taxpayer dollars by insulting our intelligence with TV advertising, the Federal Drug Warriors are now planning to annoy the hell out of internet users in their quest for a drug-free America:

[ Drug Enforcement Administrator Karen]Tandy said the DEA plans online educational initiatives including Internet versions of Public Service Announcements and pop-up ads that will appear on the computer screens of individuals searching the Internet for drugs.

All the more reason to use Mozilla Firefox. You can block pop-ups and stick it to the Man!

Thursday, 13 November 2003

Good news, everyone

According to Professor John Folts at the University of Wisconsin, Guinness beer reduces the risk of blood clots that cause heart attacks. Apparently, though, this effect is confined to darker beers. Heineken did not have the same effect.

I for one will have no trouble incoporating this new medical breakthrough into my daily health regimen.

I would, however, like to correct one piece of misinformation in the Independent's article:

Light-coloured beers, such as lagers, lacked the same health-giving punch.

There are many dark lagers, such as the delicious Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager, which I unfortunately cannot seem to find in Memphis anymore.

Tuesday, 21 October 2003

Banning genetic discrimination

Alex Tabarrok notes that the Senate has passed, 95-0, a bill that would make it illegal for employers to use a person’s genetic information in hiring or firing. That’s good.

But the bill would also make it illegal for insurance companies to use genetic testing to deny coverage or set premiums. As Alex points out, that’s bad. (I can’t tell from the story whether this applies only to health insurance, or if it applies to life insurance as well.) This can only exacerbate the problem of adverse selection, leading to higher insurance rates for everyone, and pricing more and more people out of the insurance market.

Like Alex and Tyler’s guest-blogger, Lloyd Cohen, I’m skeptical about Alex’s optimistic suggestion that the problem can be solved through “genetic insurance“, which one would purchase before taking a genetic test, and which would cover one’s raised premiums in case one had, e.g., a genetic predisposition toward heart disease. How could the genetic insurance provider be sure that the purchaser had not already taken the genetic test ahead of time, to determine whether it would be worthwhile to purchase the genetic insurance? Again, we have the problem of adverse selection.

Advances in genetic research hold out a great deal of promise for improved health care in the long run, but in the short run they will inevitably lead to a collapse of the insurance market (both life and health) for diseases that have a genetic component. Ultimately, I believe this will force us into a single-payer government-run health system, which can pool risk by making insurance mandatory. Unlike many other liberals, I’m not sure this is a good thing. But good or bad, it appears inevitable.

Update: corrected the permalink to Lloyd Cohen's post.