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Archive for May 10th, 2018

New evidence shows that our anti-poverty programs, especially Social Security, work well

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Full disclosure: I receive Social Security. Michael Hiltzik writes in the LA Times:

Few U.S. government efforts are consistently more vilified than anti-poverty programs. They’re dismissed as ineffective and ridiculed as giveaways to undeserving recipients.
A new paper puts the lie to these assertions by showing that the nation’s most important anti-poverty efforts all succeed in serving their goals — in the case of Social Security, spectacularly. The authors, Bruce D. Meyer and Derek Wu of the University of Chicago, used administrative statistics from six major programs to demonstrate that five of the six “sharply reduce deep poverty” (that is, income below 50% of the federal poverty line) and the sixth has a “pronounced” impact among the working poor.

The programs that reduce deep poverty are Social Security; Supplemental Security Income; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is what commonly is known as “welfare”; housing assistance; and food stamps, or SNAP. The sixth is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps mostly families that earn around 150% of the poverty line. (That line is about $25,100 in annual income for a family of four.)

In each case, Weber and Wu found that the effect of each program has been materially underestimated by traditional measurements. That’s because the earlier estimates are based on Census Bureau surveys that underreport benefits from these programs. As a result, the authors say, the effects of food stamps and TANF are underestimated by one-third to one-half, and the impact of Social Security is underestimated by as much as 44%. Their research covered 2008-13, the period of the Great Recession.

“You don’t want to say that our programs haven’t reduced poverty,” Meyer told me. “They’ve had huge effects in reducing poverty.”

These findings are important because all these programs, with the possible exception of the EITC, come under constant attack by budget-cutters and other conservatives. The claim is that, despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars in public funds, the poverty rate has barely budged in more than a half-century.

Ronald Reagan’s quip on the topic, from his 1988 State of the Union address, has adorned reams of Republican screeds against the safety net: “The federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” Republicans have exploited the notion to support proposals to cut program benefits, turn anti-poverty efforts over to private or philanthropic organizations, or block-grant the funds to states (a back-door means of cutting benefits).

The truth is, however, that poverty has lost. Meyer and Wu find that Social Security alone has reduced poverty among the elderly by 75%; the other programs do more for non-elderly households, though at lower rates.

The paper doesn’t specifically address the programs’ effect on the poverty rate, but Meyer has examined that effect in other research. In a 2012 paper with James X. Sullivan of Notre Dame, for example, he concluded that the official poverty rate failed to count tax credits received by needy households such as the EITC, and overlooked food stamps, housing benefits, and other in-kind transfers that have become an ever more important component of anti-poverty spending.

An inflation index that overstated price increases over time also tended to minimize the success of the war on poverty, as did a focus on household income rather than consumption, which Meyer and Sullivan suggested was a better indicator of a household’s standard of living.

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2018 at 7:25 pm

Evolution never stops: Vaccines Are Pushing Pathogens to Evolve

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I suppose this is the argument of more sophisticated anti-vaxxers. (Anti-vaxxer joke: Why is the four-year-old child of anti-vaxxer parents crying? Because s/he’s having a mid-life crisis.) Melinda Wenner Moyer writes in Quanta:

Andrew Read became a scientist so he could spend more time in nature, but he never imagined that would mean a commercial chicken farm. Read, a disease ecologist who directs the Pennsylvania State University Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, and his research assistant Chris Cairns meandered their way through a hot, humid, pungent-smelling barn teeming with 30,000 young broiler chickens deep in the Pennsylvania countryside. Covered head to toe in white coveralls, the two men periodically stopped and crouched, collecting dust from the ground with gloved hands. Birds squawked and scuttered away. The men transferred the dust into small plastic tubes, which they capped and placed in plastic bags to bring back to the laboratory. “Funny where science leads you,” Read said.

Read and his colleagues are studying how the herpesvirus that causes Marek’s disease — a highly contagious, paralyzing and ultimately deadly ailment that costs the chicken industry more than $2 billion a year — might be evolving in response to its vaccine. Its latest vaccine, that is. Marek’s disease has been sickening chickens globally for over a century; birds catch it by inhaling dust laden with viral particles shed in other birds’ feathers. The first vaccine was introduced in 1970, when the disease was killing entire flocks. It worked well, but within a decade, the vaccine mysteriously began to fail; outbreaks of Marek’s began erupting in flocks of inoculated chickens. A second vaccine was licensed in 1983 in the hopes of solving the problem, yet it, too, gradually stopped working. Today, the poultry industry is on its third vaccine. It still works, but Read and others are concerned it might one day fail, too — and no fourth-line vaccine is waiting. Worse, in recent decades, the virus has become more deadly.

Read and others, including researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, posit that the virus that causes Marek’s has been changing over time in ways that helped it evade its previous vaccines. The big question is whether the vaccines directly incited these changes or the evolution happened, coincidentally, for other reasons, but Read is pretty sure the vaccines have played a role. In a 2015 paper in PLOS Biology, Read and his colleagues vaccinated 100 chickens, leaving 100 others unvaccinated. They then infected all the birds with strains of Marek’s that varied in how virulent — as in how dangerous and infectious — they were. The team found that, over the course of their lives, the unvaccinated birds shed far more of the least virulent strains into the environment, whereas the vaccinated birds shed far more of the most virulent strains. The findings suggest that the Marek’s vaccine encourages more dangerous viruses to proliferate. This increased virulence might then give the viruses the means to overcome birds’ vaccine-primed immune responses and sicken vaccinated flocks.

Most people have heard of antibiotic resistance. Vaccine resistance, not so much. That’s because drug resistance is a huge global problemthat annually kills nearly 25,000 people in the United States and in Europe, and more than twice that many in India. Microbes resistant to vaccines, on the other hand, aren’t a major menace. Perhaps they never will be: Vaccine programs around the globe have been and continue to be immensely successful at preventing infections and saving lives.

Recent research suggests, however, that some pathogen populations are adapting in ways that help them survive in a vaccinated world, and that these changes come about in a variety of ways. Just as the mammal population exploded after dinosaurs went extinct because a big niche opened up for them, some microbes have swept in to take the place of competitors eliminated by vaccines.

Immunization is also making once-rare or nonexistent genetic variants of pathogens more prevalent, presumably because vaccine-primed antibodies can’t as easily recognize and attack shape-shifters that look different from vaccine strains. And vaccines being developed against some of the world’s wilier pathogens — malaria, HIV, anthrax — are based on strategies that could, according to evolutionary models and lab experiments, encourage pathogens to become even more dangerous.

Evolutionary biologists aren’t surprised that this is happening. A vaccine is a novel selection pressure placed on a pathogen, and if the vaccine does not eradicate its target completely, then the remaining pathogens with the greatest fitness — those able to survive, somehow, in an immunized world — will become more common. “If you don’t have these pathogens evolving in response to vaccines,” said Paul Ewald, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville, “then we really don’t understand natural selection.”

Yet don’t mistake these findings as evidence that vaccines are dangerous or that they are bound to fail — because undesirable outcomes can be thwarted by using our knowledge of natural selection, too. Evolution might be inevitable, but it can be coaxed in the right direction.

Quick-Change Artists

Vaccine science is brow-furrowingly complicated, but the underlying mechanism is simple. A vaccine exposes your body to either live but weakened or killed pathogens, or even just to certain bits of them. This exposure incites your immune system to create armies of immune cells, some of which secrete antibody proteins to recognize and fight off the pathogens if they ever invade again.

That said, many vaccines don’t provide lifelong immunity, for a variety of reasons. A new flu vaccine is developed every year because influenza viruses naturally mutate quickly. Vaccine-induced immunity can also wane over time. After being inoculated with the shot for typhoid, for instance, a person’s levels of protective antibodies drop over several years, which is why public health agencies recommend regular boosters for those living in or visiting regions where typhoid is endemic. Research suggests a similar drop in protection over time occurs with the mumps vaccine, too.

Vaccine failures caused by vaccine-induced evolution are different. These drops in vaccine effectiveness are incited by changes in pathogen populations that the vaccines themselves directly cause. Scientists have recently started studying the phenomenon in part because they finally can: Advances in genetic sequencing have made it easier to see how microbes change over time. And many such findings have reinforced just how quickly pathogens mutate and evolve in response to environmental cues.

Viruses and bacteria change quickly in part because they replicate like mad. Three days after a bird is bitten by a mosquito carrying West Nile virus, one milliliter of its blood contains 100 billion viral particles, roughly the number of stars in the Milky Way. And with each replication comes the opportunity for genetic change. When an RNA virus replicates, the copying process generates one new error, or mutation, per 10,000 nucleotides, a mutation rate as much as 100,000 times greater than that found in human DNA. Viruses and bacteria also recombine, or share genetic material, with similar strains, giving them another way to change their genomes rapidly. Just as people — with the exception of identical twins — all have distinctive genomes, pathogen populations tend to be composed of myriad genetic variants, some of which fare better than others during battles with vaccine-trained antibodies. The victors seed the pathogen population of the future.

The bacteria that cause pertussis, better known as whooping cough, illustrate how this can happen. In 1992, recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began promoting a new vaccine to prevent the infection, which is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. The old vaccine was made using whole killed bacteria, which incited an effective immune response but also caused rare side effects, such as seizures. The new version, known as the “acellular” vaccine, contained just two to five outer membrane proteins isolated from the pathogen.

The unwanted side effects disappeared but were replaced by new, unexpected problems. First, for unclear reasons, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2018 at 2:33 pm

The Donald Trump Era in America Is Coming to a Close

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Very interesting and hopeful post by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones:

How bad are things today? And by “things,” I mean Donald Trump.

Pretty bad. Trump is like a kid who finally gets to make his own dinner and decides to have chocolate pizza covered with marshmallows along with a chocolate shake and then some chocolate pudding for dessert. When it’s all over, we’re going to wake up with a bad stomach ache.

However, because I am who I am, I believe that Trump is an aberration, not a harbinger of the future. Liberalism tends to come in short spurts in America, followed by longer periods of conservatism as everyone takes a breather. The Obama presidency was a pretty modest contribution to liberalism, and I suspect that our breather will be fairly modest too.

This is all some throat clearing before I say that I’m happy to see that Ezra Klein is coming around on this too, for a related but distinct reason:

In White Rage, Carol Anderson reflects on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the way the nation has always been transfixed by black rage, by images of “rampaging, burning, and looting.” But not all rage is so visually arresting….When President Franklin D. Roosevelt justified his abandonment of anti-lynching laws because, otherwise, the Southern Democrats who chaired powerful committees would “block every bill I ask Congress to pass,” he was genteelly operating within the customary boundaries of a transactional political system, but he was cooly rationalizing a morally gruesome choice.

….Thinking back on those eras is a reminder that, in America, periods of racial progress have always triggered periods of political instability. The Civil War is the most profound and bloody example but far from the only one. Richard Nixon, the last president to evince so little respect for constitutional norms, was also a “law and order” candidate who promised to represent a silent majority frustrated by rapid racial advancement and unnerved by black anger.

Viewed from this perspective, it is not surprising that the first African-American president was followed by a candidate like Trump, who promised to put the restoration of America’s dominant political majority above the niceties of normal politics, who is visibly enraged by Black Lives Matter protests and kneeling NFL players.

As always, I’d like to add one thing to this: even granting everything Klein says, Trump won only barely, and only thanks to a bizarre confluence of outside circumstances. It’s a huge mistake to ascribe too much historical importance to something that squeaked into existence by less than 1 percent of the vote in three states. Trump may be president, but not because America suddenly underwent a vast change of heart:

I wonder often about how this period in American life will look to future historians. One possibility that has been much discussed is that it will be seen as the dawn of America’s descent into illiberalism. But another possibility — one that’s less often considered — is that it will eventually look like the turbulence that has always accompanied racial progress in this country, and it will eventually be seen as modest compared to the upheavals of our past.

This depends, of course, on what happens next — on the judgment Americans render on Trump in 2020, on whether our political institutions or fundamental freedoms are weakened in the meantime, on the way we navigate the demographic turbulence already disrupting our politics. But America has absorbed worse than this into its story of progress. As Anderson says, we are an aspirational country, and the power of being an aspirational country comes in having something to live up to. Now it is our generation’s work to write the next chapter.

Quite so. Trump tells us far more about the Republican Party than he does about America. One man of Trump’s limited abilities is just not enough to  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2018 at 12:42 pm

Phoenix Artisan Green Ray and Organism 46-b with the Baby Smooth

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I bought this Organism 46-b shaving soap and matching aftershave from Phoenix Artisan partly because I enjoyed the surreal name (of a real creature) but mostly because of the fragrance profile:

burnt sugar – bitter orange – brandy – Hedione – tobacco absolute – benzoin resin – ambergris

In addition, Phoenix Artisan’s shaving soaps always feel very nice on my skin—take a look at the ingredients:

Potassium Stearate, Glycerin, Potassium Cocoate, Aqua, Potassium Kokumate, Sodium Lactate, Potassium Shea Butterate, Potassium Castorate, Sodium Stearate, Potassium Cocoa Butterate, Potassium Avocadoate, Parfum [Fragrance]

Cocoa butter, Kokum butter, Shea butter, Castor oil, Avocado oil: that will leave your skin feeling very nice indeed.

I should probably note that I have no relationship with Phoenix and get no kickbacks, discounts, freebies, or other remuneration. I’m just a regular customer, though perhaps a bit more of a pushover than others.

The fragrance really is good. I generally don’t like orange as a fragrance, but in this combination, it’s very pleasant and even intriguing. The soap produced a fine lather with the help of their Green Ray brush: nice thick consistency.

Three passes with the RazoRock Baby Smooth produce a BBS result with no nicks—the Baby Smooth never nicks, though it is extremely efficient (which I believe results from the extreme curvature of the blade, similar to the blade curve produced by the Dorco PL602, which has much the same feel on the face and performance).

A splash of Organism 46-b finished the job and allowed me to carry the fragrance around with me.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2018 at 8:43 am

Posted in Shaving

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