A Weblog of The Jackson Progressive

John Oliver interviews Edward Snowden in Moscow

At the time this is being written, 3,990,797 persons have already watched an extraordinary YouTube video featuring comedian John Oliver and whistleblower Edward Snowden. In a conversation that is both funny and deadly serious, the two discuss Snowden’s disclosure to journalists of as many as one million secret documents from the Nation Security Agency (NSA) and what that disclosure means to the United States and the rest of the world. This is a show you should not miss.


Recommended: Beware Of Politicians Bearing Household Analogies

We have been hearing from politicians and even economists who ought to know better how federal deficits are dangerous and will lead to recession, depression, or even worse. Even President Obama has used the metaphor, which has no basis in either fact or theory. MMT Economist Steve King demolished this argument in Forbes (to the anger of the right-wingers who expose their ignorance in the comment section). Keen’s argument is based on empirical evidence and simple logic: when the government runs a surplus it takes money out of the private sector. A federal deficit does the opposite. Because of the current account deficit (negative balance of payments) that transfers money from the private sector to foreign sellers the private sector would experience a $500 billion drop in demand unless that money is replaced. That negative balance is now made up by federal deficits and money created by banks in the form of loans. A balanced federal budget or surplus would indeed be an economic and financial disaster.

Read Keen’s article in Forbes.

(MMT = “Modern Monetary Theory”)

Why We Studied Julius Caesar & McBeth in High School

I have always felt that Julius Caesar, McBeth, and possibly King Lear are the least appropriate of Shakespeare’s plays to teach high school students. To adolescents, nothing could be more boring and irrelevant. Gore Vidal enlightened me by pointing out that those particular plays seldom mention sex, which makes perfect sense, considering the idiotic controversy over sex education in the public schools. If we wanted our youth to enjoy the greatest poet of the English language at its height, they would be reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra and Much Ado About Nothing, dramas that would grab their attention and speak to their their most powerful longings.

Observations on Chaos in other countries - and Oil

On the surface it appears that over the past 20 or 30 years the United has been notably unsuccessful in its foreign endeavors. Whenever we have sent troops into another country all we have created is chaos. Consider Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Consider all the places that we have meddled in an effort to make sure the right guys win: Ukraine, Syria, Pakistan, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Columbia, the list is endless. Our intervention has invariably made things worse, at least for ordinary people. Often for everyone.

If the success of our foreign policy is examined in the light of what our government tells us about its benevolent intentions, it is an abysmal failure. We were told that our armed forces were nation-building: the nations failed. When our armed forces invaded Afghanistan to wipe out Al Qaeda and capture its leader, Osama bin Laden, they succeeded in neither. When we were told that the Air Force militarily intervened in Libya to ensure that Khadafy was deposed, out of which a modern republic would grow, the Libyans didn't get a republic, but a tribal war in which none of the warring factions is the slightest bit interested in forming the kind of republic that our leaders supposedly wanted to help them create.

And then in Central America and South America, the results of our interventions are too horrible to contemplate, unless you are member of a few fabulously wealthy families our armed forces enriched and kept in power.


Medicare: A Lawmaker Wasn't Paying Attention

About fifteen years ago, a friend told me about a weight loss program created by a doctor originally from Texas named Dean Ornish. I bought his book, Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease, and in about six months had lost about thirty pounds. Around that time I took on a new job and gradually drifted away from the program. As I drifted away, the weight drifted back and then some.

Recently, another friend told me that St. Dominic in Jackson was offering the program, and it was with a great deal of anticipation that I contacted the hospital to get the details. 

I was diagnosed a few years ago with a narrowing of the aortic heart valve (stenosis), but was told by the doctor that as long as I am asymptomatic, surgery is not called for, which is fine with me.

Dr. Ornish's program has been shown to actually reduce deposits of plaque on the walls of arteries, and thus reverse the course of heart disease. It appeared  as though I would be a prime candidate for such a program.

The nurse that answered my call was enthusiastic about my becoming  a participant, especially when she learned that I had some familiarity with Dr. Ornish and his program, but her enthusiasm turned to disappointment when she learned that I had not already undergone heart surgery. Under Medicare regulations, I wasn't eligible for the program until after heart surgery.

Since the entire purpose of the program is  to avoid heart surgery, this seemed utterly insane, in fact, so insane that I looked on the Medicare website to verify that the nurse knew what she was talking about. Sure enough, she was spot on.. I then proceeded to check the Code of Federal Regulations 42 CFR §410.49, and then the relevant section of the US Code (Search for "eee"). Same story.

One of the main purposes of Dr. Ornish's program is to prevent heart attacks. Requiring surgery prior to eligibility is like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Heart surgery is far more expensive than an effective prevention program that helps you avoid it.

The Medicare Statute is very long and very complicated. Obviously someone was not paying sufficient attention when this section of the bill was being written. Since then, either no one in Congress has been made aware of the problem or no one is concerned  enough to change it. If you share my condition, e.g. heart disease that will almost certainly lead to heart surgery, it wouldn't hurt to write your senators and representative, asking them to amend the statute to fulfill its purpose, and to save the government some serious money, as well.

Forget the Deficit; It's Private Debt That Will Do Us In

Economist Steve Keen predicted the crash of 2008. Now he’s predicting another crash, based not on public debt but the incredible run-up in private debt. Listen to a video on The Guardian website.

Possible Remedies For the Crisis in Law Enforcement vs. Citizens

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City have uncovered a festering antagonism between citizens (especially minorities and the poor) and law enforcement personnel that are charged with protecting them (and us). Moreover, it is increasingly becoming obvious that the police and others in law enforcement work in a culture of impunity in which citizens unlawfully harmed by the cops have no means of redress. The police (which I am using to mean law enforcement in general) have an unspoken code almost as rigid as the Mafia that forbids them to testify against a brother officer. My experience is that the police will perjure themselves shamelessly, hide or destroy evidence unfavorable to officers accused of criminal brutality, and threaten eyewitnesses with arrest and prosecution if they talk.

Even more insidious, the average prosecutor works closely with the police on a daily basis. He cannot afford to alienate law enforcement, as they have ways of retaliation that can make it impossible for him to do his job. It has jokingly been remarked that a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor asks them to. Likewise, the prosecutor, by not introducing strong evidence against the charged officer, can easily sway the grand jury to return a no bill. Keep in mind that only the prosecutor is in the room with the grand jury. The defendant’s lawyer sits outside to advise the defendant if he testifies, but he doesn’t hear the testimony or what the prosecutor tells the jury.

Is it a really a mystery, then, that prosecutors are pressured to present cases against policemen using evidence so incomplete, so unconvincing and so lacking in substance that grand juries have little choice but to not indict? Add to that the prosecutor’s non-verbal messages—facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and dismissive attitude towards witnesses testifying against the officer—all of which subtly encourage the jury to return a no bill. It is amazing indeed when a policeman is indicted.

The latest news from Ferguson, Missouri, is that the prosecutor that presented the the case against police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown has admitted that he used perjured testimony in Wilson’s favor.

There are some things that can be done. The single most effective change would be to require that whenever an officer kills or severely maims a person, no matter the circumstances, a special prosecutor from another district, preferably distant, must be appointed to present the case before a grand jury. Prosecutors could even be from another state. Further, the ideal special prosecutor would be chosen at random from a roster of former state and federal prosecutors. That way, the prosecutor would avoid pressure from even the local police in his home district.

A special prosecutor would be charged with the same duties as the district attorney, except that he would have no discretion in presenting the case to a grand jury, even when the facts are incontrovertibly in favor of the officer.

A mandatory special prosecutor, while not a perfect solution, would serve as a powerful deterrent to police overreaction and criminal brutality.

Drones Can Save Lives.

Drones don’t have to be an indiscriminate angels of death; they can also be the saver of lives.


Click here for a deeply moving video on work being done right now to use drones for emergency medical response. (Scroll down to see the video) Think of what we could accomplish if we diverted just a small part of our military budget to saving rather than destroying lives with technology.


Two Ideas to Help Jackson Public Schools - I

Fitness Training

Almost everyone agrees that JPS in in bad shape. It suffers from inadequate resources, insufficiently trained teachers and a student body drawn from a community mired for the most part in poverty, crime and instability. Students coming from that environment already have two strikes against them. The way we currently organize and run our schools, both public and private, requires healthy, motivated and responsible children, the very characteristics that poor children lack. For education to be successful under those conditions requires a completely different approach. Schools must start attending to environmental factors that improve their students’ mental and physical health, increase their motivation to learn, and foster a sense of responsibility, all of which are not part of the traditional curriculum. It is futile to teach academic subjects to students distracted by what happens elsewhere.

Although the writer has taught mathematics in a major university and legal writing in law school, he does not consider himself an expert on education, especially elementary education. From practical experience, however, he suspects that the breakthroughs in modern linguistics and cognitive science over the last thirty years have not yet influenced the teaching profession, which is a pity, since much could probably be done to improve pedagogy in K-12. The suggestions I am going to make, however, are practices outside the academic curriculum that are very likely to aid students in coping with different kinds of problems. The first article is today; the second will appear in a few days.

The first suggestion comes from John J. Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Ratey’s thesis is that recent scientific studies -- almost conclusive in their findings -- show that the human brain works significantly better when its owner engages in heavy exercise. Chapter one (and this is the chapter I would like to see members of the JPS School Board read) recounts the experience of Central High School in Naperville, Illinois when it started an exercise program, entitled Zero Hour PE, that required all students to run a mile in the hour before classes one day a week. To measure the intensity of the workout each student wore a heart rate monitor on their wrist that could record the heart rate for each lap around the track. Students’ grades were based on effort, measured by heart rate, rather than achievement or ranking. In addition to the 1-mile run, for regular PE classes the staff replaced games in which the students spent most of their time standing around with games that required constant motion. Again, the heart rate monitors insured that the students were engaging in cardiovascular- strengthening activities during their PE class. The emphasis was on fitness, not athletic ability.

The results: Instead of a 30% obesity rate, Naperville had a 3% rate. The students consistently outperformed other schools with greater resources and reputations. The eighth graders (97% of them, in fact) came in first in science on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), competing with some of finest schools in the world, and sixth in math, behind Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. The school had far fewer discipline problems. The students reported that they were more focused on their studies after exercising. Given the evidence from Naperville and other towns mentioned in Ratey’s book, it is hard not to conclude that fitness exercise contributed to the excellence of the school and the lives of its students in many different ways.

Because of the irrational obsessions of politicians with high-stakes testing, many schools have dropped physical education from their curriculums to add more instruction time. This is almost certainly counter-productive. To force students to sit in desks 5 and a half or six hours a day is not only cruel, it likely lowers their test grades and makes them far more prone to obesity. The long-range effects of such inactivity are not so certain, but researchers are discovering that sedentary work shortens the lives of adults to a significant degree.

A serious fitness program for every school in the district would undoubtedly cost money, but it is an improvement that would pay for itself many times over in reduced discipline problems, better student health, higher grades, and, not to be forgotten, better scores on high-stakes tests.

Next: Suggestion II: Mindfulness training


Why We Were So Ill-Prepared For Ebola

Clearly, this nation was not prepared for the probability that, sooner or later, Ebola would make its way here. Previously, the strains of Ebola that appeared in Africa killed off its victims before the disease travelled very far, but this variant has gotten smarter, and, probably because it incubates a little longer before symptoms appear, is able to travel further than its predecessors.

Considering that very few medical personnel throughout the nation had adequate training or equipment to treat and isolate Ebola patients, it is significant that we have had very few identified cases. Texas Health Presbyterian, whose emergency room received the first Ebola patient, sent Thomas Eric Duncan home. He was later brought in by ambulance under suspicion that he had contracted Ebola. Texas Health Presbyterian was not prepared for an Ebola patient, as recounted by the involved nurses in a statement to National Nurses United.

The statement shows staggering incompetence on the part of hospital personnel. Duncan was initially taken to an area where he was in proximity to other patients and left for several hours. No one at the hospital knew how to protect themselves and others from contracting Ebola. There was no training. They did not know what kind of protective clothing had to be used or how it was used. A nurse supervisor eventually arrived and ordered them to place Duncan into isolation, but was resisted by other hospital authorities, presumably management bean-counters.

Lab specimens not specially sealed and decontaminated were sent through the hospital’s tube system, potentially contaminating the entire tube system.

Even worse, hospital officials allowed nurses who had cared for Duncan to interact with regular patients, even though they had not worn the proper protective clothing while caring for him.

In short, it is a wonder that many patients and nurses didn’t contract Ebola, given the ineptness of the hospital, from the bottom to the top.

On the other hand, I will borrow an example from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. Taleb invited us to imagine that in the ‘90s an FAA official concluded that for safety reasons all cockpit doors were to be made of steel and had to be locked during flight and consequently promulgated a regulation requiring steel doors to be installed and locked during flight. Had this happened, there would have been no 9/11, because the hijackers would not have been able to commandeer the aircraft in the air and fly them into large buildings.

Since the alterations to thousands of planes would have been very expensive, costing many millions of dollars, our FAA official would have been reviled by the airlines and undoubtedly used as an example by conservative critics of a bureaucracy gone crazy with regulation. How would our official defend himself? That he averted one of the most traumatic air disasters of modern times? It would be hard to prove that he was responsible for averting a disaster that didn’t happen.

In a similar mode, imagine that ten years ago, the CDC persuaded Congress to appropriate an extra $200 million to develop an Ebola vaccine. Likewise, there would be a hue and cry from the deficit hawks and other assorted cranks that the CDC was wasting money on an “African” problem, and tax cuts were far more needed than a vaccine for a non-existent medical emergency. And guess what would have happened? Assuming that a vaccine was indeed created, which seems reasonable in light of what we have already seen recently, the Ebola plague would have been controlled and the national scare (mainly the product of the media) would have never existed. Again, the CDC couldn’t take credit for a disaster averted because there is hardly any way to prove a negative. Critics would have replied that there was no evidence that the virus would ever even occur in the United States and that the money had been wasted.

And it is true that all contingencies cannot be prepared for; it is impossible to provide for every possible medical emergency that the mind can imagine. The MBA types that typically run our private hospitals must use a cost-benefit analysis that does not spend money to prepare for situations with a very low probability of happening. Or as Taleb would say, for black swans.

There is a good argument, however, that in a nation as populous and rich as ours, somebody should be preparing for medical black swans, because those kinds of events, rare as they are, have the potential to infect and even kill millions of people. Of course, there are an infinite number of black swans, so a heuristic of black swans would have to be developed to chose the ones we should attend to. And we would miss some and hope that they don’t wipe us out.

The advent of Ebola in the United States was not really a black swan, though. Numerous outbreaks in Africa made it almost certain in these days of international air travel that sooner or later the virus would make its way to somewhere in the U.S. It happened to be Texas, and the untrained and unequipped staff of Texas Health Presbyterian had no hot line for Ebola.

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