Flawed NYT Article on Inequality

I definitely don’t agree with all of the analysis in this NYT article, but there are some interesting takeaways from it. The article only mentions political democracy and completely avoids any mention of economic democracy. This is an important point, as a strong political democracy requires a strong economic democracy. I know how counter that truth runs to the standard doctrine of the corporate propaganda system, but it needs to be said.

It’s also particularly jarring that the article assumes the U.S. is a democracy — in reality the country has dysfunctional democratic structures (see gerrymandering, the typical top-down structure of corporations, and voter suppression) and is better described as a plutocracy.

Most recently, Thomas Piketty, a French economist who is the author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” has come up with a straightforward answer: Traditional parties of the left no longer represent the working and lower middle classes.

[…]

There are those who would like to accept inequality and focus exclusively on issues like gender equality and anti-racism. I would never minimize the importance of combating gender inequality or racism/nativism, but if that means ignoring the policies that have led to the enormous inequality we now see, that is not a serious progressive agenda.

The Common Drug That Can Prevent Type 1 Diabetes

This should help millions of people since diabetes still doesn’t have a cure. It’s nice to see that people at risk for this disease now have the potential to prevent it with medication.

There’s new hope for stopping Type 1 diabetes in its tracks after researchers discovered an existing drug can prevent the condition from developing – and the same techniques used here could also be applied to other diseases.

The drug in question is methyldopa, currently on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential drugs having been used for more than 50 years to treat high blood pressure in pregnant women and children.

By running an analysis of thousands of drugs through a supercomputer, the team of researchers was able to pinpoint methyldopa as a drug able to block the DQ8 molecule. The antigen is found in a proportion of the population and has been implemented in auto immune responses.

It appears in some 60 percent of people at risk from developing Type 1 diabetes.

“This is the first personalised treatment for Type 1 diabetes prevention,” says one of the team, Aaron Michels from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “This is very significant development.”

Based on the supercomputer calculations, the scientists found that methyldopa not only blocked the binding of DQ8 but didn’t harm the immune functions of other cells, which is often the case with drugs that interfere with the body’s immune system.

Overall, the research covered a period of 10 years – after the supercomputer analysis, the drug was tested in mice and in 20 patients with Type 1 diabetes through a clinical trial. The new drug is taken orally, three times a day.

While it’s not a full cure (work on that continues), methyldopa could help delay, or even limit the onset of Type 1 diabetes – a disease that currently starts mostly in childhood.

“We can now predict with almost 100 percent accuracy who is likely to get Type 1 diabetes,” says Michels. “The goal with this drug is to delay or prevent the onset of the disease among those at risk.”

That 100 percent prediction rate is made possible by looking at a variety of genetic and biological markers, including autoantibodies in the blood. Those at risk could now be put on a course of treatment to ward of the development of diabetes.

With diagnosed cases of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes on the rise in the United States – and the Type 1 condition believed to affect around 1.25 million people in the US alone – such treatments could make a huge difference.

Accounting for about 5-10 percent of people with diabetes, Type 1 involves the body’s own immune system attacking the pancreas, stopping the production of insulin and hampering the absorption of glucose and the production of energy.

In Type 2 diabetes, the body can’t process the insulin it does make properly.

Methyldopa is far from the first drug to show benefits in treating health issues other than the ones it was first designed for, but we now have better ways to spot these extra powers: this idea of identifying certain molecules and then applying modern-day computing power to find drugs that block them could work in other situations too.

“This study has significant implications for treatment of diabetes and also other autoimmune diseases,” says one of the researchers, David Ostrov from the University of Florida.

“This study suggests that the same approach may be adapted to prevent autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus and others.”

The research has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Steady Sea Level Rise Acceleration

A few hundred billion tons of glacial ice is melting every year due to the effects of climate change. This threatens to lead to a sea level rise that may create a future migration crisis far worse than any others in the recent era.

Global sea level rise is not cruising along at a steady 3 mm per year, it’s accelerating a little every year, like a driver merging onto a highway, according to a powerful new assessment led by CIRES Fellow Steve Nerem. He and his colleagues harnessed 25 years of satellite data to calculate that the rate is increasing by about 0.08 mm/year every year — which could mean an annual rate of sea level rise of 10 mm/year, or even more, by 2100.

“This acceleration, driven mainly by accelerated melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise by 2100 as compared to projections that assume a constant rate — to more than 60 cm instead of about 30.” said Nerem, who is also a professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “And this is almost certainly a conservative estimate,” he added. “Our extrapolation assumes that sea level continues to change in the future as it has over the last 25 years. Given the large changes we are seeing in the ice sheets today, that’s not likely.”

If the oceans continue to change at this pace, sea level will rise 65cm (26 inches) by 2100 — enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities, according to the new assessment by Nerem and several colleagues from CU Boulder, the University of South Florida, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Old Dominion University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The team, driven to understand and better predict Earth’s response to a warming world, published their work today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere increase the temperature of air and water, which causes sea level to rise in two ways. First, warmer water expands, and this “thermal expansion” of the oceans has contributed about half of the 7 cm of global mean sea level rise we’ve seen over the last 25 years, Nerem said. Second, melting land ice flows into the ocean, also increasing sea level across the globe.

A Lower Unemployment Rate, Inflationary Pressures, and Central Banks in Policy

How low can the unemployment rate go without causing excessive inflation? It’d be a nice experiment to find out. Usually not mentioned is that big banks – which of course wield pretty significant power – dislike inflation because they’ll typically have a supply of long-term loans on their books. Those loans stand to depreciate in value with higher inflation, and that’s largely the reason why there’s such pressure to keep inflation lower than necessary through central bank interest rate increases.

The loans of banks and other financial corporations typically are set at a fixed rate, so again, the repayments of those loans will be worth less to them if inflation rises. For one example, if a bank offered a 5 percent home loan while expecting that inflation would be 1 percent, the bank would assume that it would receive a real interest rate of 4 percent. If the inflation rate actually becomes 2 percent, the bank will take a considerable profit loss (receiving a 3 percent real interest rate) compared to what it expected, as there’s less loan money for it in real terms because of the higher inflation.

The interest rate increases do of course have the side effect of slowing the economy, and that contributes to a higher unemployment rate that leaves lower-income employees less bargaining power for wage increases. Along with how interest rate raises (beyond a certain point, of course) lead to less job opportunities, the point about worker bargaining potential is important, as a central bank wields a lot of power in society. It’s preferable to see that power used for the common good instead of for the financial conglomerates that have caused too many problems already.

Just four years ago the Congressional Budget Office put the floor of the unemployment rate at 5.5 percent. This estimate implied that if the unemployment rate fell below this level that the inflation rate would begin to spiral upwards.

The unemployment rate has now been well below this level for more than two-and-a-half years, and there is still no evidence of an inflationary spiral. In fact, the inflation rate remains well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target.

If the Fed and Congress had tried to craft monetary and fiscal policy around this 5.5 percent figure, as many economists advocated, millions of workers would have been needlessly denied the opportunity to get jobs. Tens of millions would be looking at lower wages, as the tighter labor market has finally allowing workers at the middle- and bottom-end of the labor market to finally share in the gains of economic growth.

Powerful New Type of Antibiotics Found in Dirt

The antibiotic type has the potential to kill MRSA. In an age where antimicrobial resistance is already at dangerous levels, valuable new approaches — such as what’s described in the article — are needed.

The modern medical era began when an absent-minded British scientist named Alexander Fleming returned from vacation to find that one of the petri dishes he forgot to put away was covered in a bacteria-killing mould. He had discovered penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic.

Ninety years later, the world faces an antibiotic crisis.

Superbugs have evolved resistance to dozens of drugs in doctors’ arsenals, leading to infections that are increasingly difficult to treat. Global deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections are predicted to hit 10 million a year by 2050.

So in labs around the world, scientists are racing against time tocultivatenew microbe-destroying molecules – but most of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

With due respect to Fleming, microbiologist Sean Brady thinks it’s time to shift tactics. Instead of growing antibiotics in a petri dish, he hopes to find them in the ground.

“Every place you step, there’s 10,000 bacteria, most of which we’ve never seen,” said Brady, an associate professor at Rockefeller University in New York.

Many of these bacteria behave in ways that aren’t yet understood and produce molecules that we haven’t been seen before.

That idea is beginning to pay off: in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Microbiology, he and his colleagues report the discovery of a new class of antibiotic extracted from unknown microorganisms living in the soil.

This class, which they call malacidins, kills several superbugs – including the dreaded methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – without engendering resistance.

You won’t find this antibiotic at your pharmacy next week, Brady cautioned. It takes years for a novel molecule to be developed, tested and approved for distribution.

But its discovery is proof of a powerful principle, he said: a world of potentially useful untapped biodiversity is still waiting to be discovered.

Though antibiotics are prized for their ability to combat the microbes that make humans sick, most of the drugs come from bacteria.

For example, streptomycin, which has been used to treat tuberculosis and plague, is produced by the bacterium Streptomyces griseus. (This microbe was originally found in the dirt of a New Jersey farm field, though the antibiotic research was conducted using cell cultures.)

Bacteria have been fighting one another for billions of years – far, far longer than humans have been around – so it’s hardly surprising that they have evolved all the best weapons.

Yet the vast majority of these microbes don’t grow well under controlled laboratory conditions, making them difficult to study.

“Maybe, using that simple culture-based approach, we’ve missed most of the chemistry that are produced by bacteria,” Brady said.

It would be better to derive interesting molecules directly from the environment. And with the advent of metagenomics, techniques that allow all the genetic material in a sample to be sequenced en masse, researchers can do just that.

WHO Warns Society is on a Path Towards a Global Pandemic

If there is a global pandemic, hindsight will really be 20/20 on what could have been done to prevent or mitigate it. Cutting the CDC’s budget is particularly horrible — that’s the exact opposite of what should be done.

We have a problem. A serious one. At any moment, a life-threatening global pandemic could spring up and wipe out a significant amount of human life on this planet.

The death toll would be catastrophic; one disease could see as many as 100 million dead.

It sounds like a horrifying dream. It sounds like something that can’t possibly be true. But it is. The information comes from Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization.

He spoke today at the World Government Summit in Dubai, and according to his assessment, things are not looking good.

“This is not some future nightmare scenario,” said Tedros (as he prefers to be called by Ethiopian tradition).

“This is what happened exactly 100 years ago during the Spanish flu epidemic.” A hush fell across the audience as he noted that we could see such devastation again, perhaps as soon as today.

Tedros was equal parts emphatic and grave as he spoke: “A devastating epidemic could start in any country at any time and kill millions of people because we are still not prepared. The world remains vulnerable.”

What is the cause of this great vulnerability? Is it our inability to stave off Ebola? Rising incidents of rabies in animal populations? An increased number of HIV and AIDS cases?

No. According to Tedros, the threat of a global pandemic comes from our apathy, from our staunch refusal to act to save ourselves – a refusal that finds its heart in our indifference and our greed.

“The absence of universal health coverage is the greatest threat to global health,” Tedros proclaimed.

As the audience shifted in their seats uncomfortably, he noted that, despite the fact that universal health coverage is “within reach” for almost every nation in the world, 3.5 billion people still lack access to essential health services.

Almost 100 million are pushed into extreme poverty because of the cost of paying for care out of their own pockets.

The result? People don’t go to the doctor. They don’t seek treatment. They get sicker. They die. And thus, as Tedros explained, “the earliest signals of an outbreak are missed.”

[…]

And in the United States, which is presently enduring a flu season of record-breaking severity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced they would be cutting their epidemic prevention programs back by 80 percent.

Programs for preventing infectious diseases, such as Ebola, are being scaled back in 39 of the 49 countries they’ve been employed in, according to The Washington Post.

The reason? Quite simply, governments are pulling money from these programs, and it’s not clear whether any more will ever be allocated – at least, not in the US during the current administration.

It might seem a bit obtuse. But, as Tedros pointed out, too often we “see health as a cost to be contained and not an investment to be nurtured.”

Aside from the obvious – avoiding a global pandemic that ravages humanity – healthy societies are advantageous for reasons that are more economic than epidemiological.

“The benefits of universal health coverage go far beyond health,” Tedros said. “Strong health systems are essential to strong economies.”

We know that the quality of pre- and post-natal care a person receives when a child is born has a direct impact on how soon they’re able to return to work (if they choose to).

If we want our children to grow up healthy enough to become functioning, contributing members of society, then the quality of care they receive from birth throughout childhood can’t be underestimated.

The Ozone Layer Isn’t Recovering Enough Over Highly Populated Areas

This warning comes as recent evidence suggests that a thinning ozone layer may have driven Earth’s largest mass extinction 252 million years ago.

The ozone layer that protects people from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation is not recovering over most highly populated regions, scientists warned on Tuesday.

The greatest losses in ozone occurred over Antarctica but the hole there has been closing since the chemicals causing the problem were banned by the Montreal protocol. But the ozone layer wraps the entire Earth and new research has revealed it is thinning in the lower stratosphere over the non-polar areas.

Reduced protection from cancer-causing UV rays is especially concerning towards the equator, where sunlight is stronger and billions of people live. The reason for the falling ozone at lower latitudes is not known, though scientists suspect a chemical used in paint stripper and a change in atmospheric circulation caused by climate change.

[…]

The cause of the decline is unknown but might be the result of global warming. Ozone is produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere over the tropics and then distributed towards the poles world by large air circulation currents. But warming trends could be strengthening these currents, moving more ozone to the poles and leaving less at lower latitudes.

Another suspect is so-called “very short lived substances” (VSLS) – industrial chemicals that destroy ozone. It was thought they broke down too quickly to reach the stratosphere, but that may need to be re-examined.