Thursday, March 17, 2005

Latest study on Mercury. Bottom line is that when they looked, "....The main finding is that for every thousand pounds of environmentally released mercury, we saw a 17 percent increase in autism rates,"...

The story is at:

This also illustrates the blind spots of the left and the right.

On the Left, there's been a lot of claims being made about mercury in vaccines being linked to autism. (NB: last I know it is phased out of use in vaccines). These claims are contradicted by hard data: the best studies which control for many of the complexities haven't proven a link between vaccines & autism. Meanwhile, no one had looked at the connection between autism and biologically active mercury raining down from the sky.

On the right, data purportedly showing a lack of toxicity is being used to weaken environmental protections. For instance, mercury in tuna has been shown to be unrelated to human mercury pollution, and has not been shown to be very toxic (apparently this mercury has been curculating in the food chain for so long that it is locked up tightly in relatively stable organic compounds). Meanwhile: based on a reasonable interpretation of the scientific data, EPA originally proposed cutting power plant mercury emissions by 90% by 2007 or so. It then became clear that a couple of more years would be needed to work out the technology. At which point the Bush administration pushed through a plan to delay mercury controls by a decade and triple the allowable levels (i.e., only a 70% cut over 10 years, instead of a 90% cut within 2-5 years). Now, the Bush administration has gone a step further with a nominal 50% with exceptions.

While there's no doubt that mercury is toxic (a drop of methyl mercury is a slow & painful death sentance), the level of toxicity is very much related to the chemical compound containing mercury.

Therein lies the flaw with the both the Left and the Right: both assumed that ANY mercury was equally toxic. The Left extrapolated the data on highly toxic forms of mercury to the relatively benign form in vaccines. The Right extrapolated the data on low toxicity forms of mercury to the biologically active forms with which we pollute our air.

While it may or may not be confirmed the link between mercury pollution and autism, it is a matter of common sense to limit the most dangerous forms of mercury pollution. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has demonstrated a profound cluelessness in areas relating to science--inevitably, ideology trumps science.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

This Washington Post article caught my eye. Sounds like reality is starting to bite in Washington D.C.

Tax Cuts Lose Spot On GOP Agenda. By Jim VandeHei

Unfortunately, the party in power is more likely to punish the pragmatists & realists in their ranks for daring to question the dominant ideology, than to start acting out of enlightened self interest.

Fortunately, the balance of power is slim because the ideologues could not get into power without some realists & pragmatists. Indeed, it is a curse of a "bipartisan" system such as ours. The system tends to deteriorate to the basest political game: distribute the goodies--tax cuts & such--to the fewest people possible, while providing enough goodies & intimidation to the folks in the middle to keep enough of them voting often enough in favor of the ideologues.

Some comments on the article:

(1) Notice that one proposed solution is to raise middle class taxes by increasing the amount of income upon which you pay social security taxes. As it is now, you pay 6% and your employer pays 6% on the first $90,000 of your annual pay--effectively a 12% flat tax on anyone earning less than $90k per year. The proposal is to raise the limit to $140,000, effectively & exactly a middle class tax increase (up to $6,000), with no deductions to offset the pain.

(2) Notice that no one is talking about adjusting the federal tax code to keep middle class taxes flat.

(3) Notice that the first round of tax cuts predominantly went to the wealthiest tax payers. This was justified on the grounds that they pay the most taxes. (Never mind that they earn the most income too. What the heck is the problem with the folks who earn 63% of the income paying 73% of the taxes anyway?)

(4) Some tax cuts went to the middle class, but the big middle class tax issue--the 900 lb gorilla-- was deferred until the second round because it affected too few tax payers yet. This looming disaster is the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which was originally intended to ensure that the wealthiest folks would pay some share of income taxes. (Unfortunately, it was not indexed to inflation, hence increasing numbers of middle class taxpayers are ensnared by it). The strategy was not to prevent the problem, but to exploit the problem after enough people were affected by the AMT that there would be widespread demand for fixing the AMT. The fix for the AMT could then be packaged with another round of goodies for the wealthiest taxpayers.

(5) Since the dominant federal expenditures are military & social security/medicare, the tax cuts demanded by the ideologues will disproportionately affect discretionary spending, such as education, enforcement, research, etc. All things that can be cut without any immediate impact on American lives; but where would we be now without government sponsored research into computers, medicine, etc over the last 50 years? (Sure, we would have eventually had the internet, but it still might be in the future). It is like a farmer hitting hard times and eating the seed they were saving for next year.

(6) Tax simplification is always a good idea, as long as it is fair. A "flat tax" of course sounds fair, until you realize most advocates are only talking about flattening the federal income tax, not flattening the total tax burden. It is the progressive structure of the federal taxes (i.e., higher tax rates on higher incomes) that helps to level out the total tax rate over all income levels. (NB: here in Pennsylvania--which has a state sales tax and a flat income tax--the lowest paid 20% of workers pay about 10% in state, local & property taxes, while the top 1% pay about 4%)

(7) User fees are also a good idea, as they provide a limited means to make the users of a service pay some of the greater costs of the service. As to be expected, they are opposed by many ideologues because they look like a tax. And unfortunately, the user fees that will benefit the economy the most are least likely to be implemented. For instance: air pollution kills 100,000's of Americans per year, sickens many times more, and weakens pretty much everyone. Clean air regulations from the 80's are estimated to save our economy some $100billion/yr in avoided costs, at a costs to polluters of $10billion/yr or so. (Note that the true benefits are much larger, because it is difficult to measure & assign a price to many benefits of clean air). In a rational system of government, every source of pollution would be "taxed" according to the most likely cost of the expected pollution. While resulting tax revenue would not directly go to the folks who pay the ultimate costs of pollution, it would be a powerfull incentive to the polluters to implement cleaner technology. The reduced pollution will result in reduced healthcare costs, better quality of life, and increased productivity. (And "increased productivity", not "decreased taxes" is probably the single most important growth factor in our economy over the last 30 years.)