Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Deadline Poet Is Really Chillin' Or His Name Ain't Calvin Trillin!

Today's offering from this blog's poet laureate is a sestet that reveals the Dumbos/Teabaggers at their best as constitutional experts. However, truth be known, all of the loons are guilty of High Crimes and Misdemeanors and their most significant offense is that they are still breathing. If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration of misosophy, so be it.

[x The Nation]
Another Constructive Tea Party Agenda
By The Deadline Poet (Calvin Trillin)

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“Some Republicans Nurture Dreams of Impeaching Obama”
New York Times headline

The limits of our patience have been reached:
Obama simply has to be impeached.
High crimes and misdemeanors? Yes, this traitor
Must have them. We’ll produce a long list later.
For now, we say he has to get the sack.
You may have noticed, by the way—he’s black. Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

Copyright © 2013 The Nation

Creative Commons LicenseSapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Friday, August 30, 2013

This Just In: Lindy Hopped Onto The Shoulders Of All Dumbos/Teabaggers, Looked Into Their Heads, & Discovered An Inexhaustible Supply Of Misosophy!

Pity this poor blogger, living in the most truth-hating state in the Union, where Texas leads the nation in adults without health insurance. The Dumbos reply, "That's why all of our hospitals have ER (Emergency Room) facilities. Who needs Obamacare when the poor folks can go to an ER? Want some misosophy? Come to Texas! Yee Haw, Y'all! If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration of stupidity, so be it.

[s Salon]
The Right Is Wrong About Rights
By Michael Lind

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President Obama’s insistence that Americans have a right to healthcare has drawn predictable criticism from American conservatives, who insist that good health should be a private luxury reserved for those who can pay, or perhaps something provided by charity, rather than an entitlement to a public utility service that should be provided to all citizens of a modern society. Indeed, one of the major indictments in the conservative case against modern American progressive-liberalism is the charge that center-left Americans believe that new natural rights can be discovered or that new positive rights should be created by legislation.

But the conservative theory of rights does not do justice to the pragmatism and flexibility of the Lockean natural rights theory held by America’s Founders. According to that theory, natural rights are either inalienable, such as the rights to life and liberty (you cannot legitimately sell yourself into slavery), or alienable (individuals may alienate part or all of their natural right to self-defense, by forming a community and pooling the coercive power to enforce laws). In addition to these few, broad natural rights, there are potentially an infinite number of subsidiary rights that can be created by laws or constitutions. While natural rights are universal, the subsidiary or instrumental rights needed to promote them necessarily vary, in different times and places. For example, the right to life is universal, but the right to a free press is a subsidiary right that would be pointless in a preliterate tribal society.

Lockean natural rights theory, then, is quite flexible, particularly when it comes to lesser rights or entitlements that a sovereign people may choose to create to better achieve fundamental natural rights. Conservatives, however, typically fail to make the distinction between timeless natural rights and subsidiary rights that are time-bound and context-bound.

Here are the rights (all of them subsidiary rights, not primary or natural rights) listed in the first 10 amendments to the U.S. constitution:

The right to freedom of religion, press and assembly (First Amendment);

The right to bear arms (Second Amendment);

The right of homeowners to be free from the 18th-century practice of having soldiers quartered in their homes (Third Amendment);

Detailed procedural rights including warrants, bail, punishments, speedy trials and the use of Anglo-American common law (Fourth through Eighth Amendments).

(The ninth and 10th amendments are catch-all provisions, dealing with unenumerated or unlisted rights.)

Here are FDR’s proposed additional subsidiary rights, from his Second Bill of Rights speech in 1944:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return that will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, and similar proposals, are not intended to replace the original bill of rights, but only to supplement it. Progressives believe that we should have both the right to free speech and the right to minimal healthcare at public expense.

FDR made it clear that he viewed all of the rights in both the original bill of rights and the proposed Second Bill of Rights as lesser, subsidiary rights, important because they could enable American citizens better to pursue their basic, human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”:

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however — as our industrial economy expanded — these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.”[Note 3] People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

Many conservatives argue that true rights are “negative rights,” in which the government simply leaves individuals alone, rather than “positive rights,” in which government is obliged to perform some positive service for citizens. But as Cass Sunstein pointed out in his excellent book The Second Bill of Rights (2006), the right to use a public judicial system is a positive right or entitlement, just as much as the right to use a public school system or a public hospital or a public road. The fourth through the eighth amendments to the federal Constitution involve the detailed structure of the positive right to a taxpayer-funded, free and fair police and court system, covering everything from bail to punishments and warrants. In other words, half of the eight substantive amendements in the Bill of Rights (amendments nine and 10 are catch-all categories dealing with unenumerated or unlisted rights) have to do with positive rights, not negative rights.

The essential dispute between progressives and conservatives is whether timeless natural rights must be pursued here and throughout the world forever using only the limited set of subsidiary rights that had been devised by British and American law before 1800.

If there really are universal human rights, they will be the same 200 years from now as they were 200 years ago. But helping to secure them in the world of 2213 may require the creation of lesser, instrumental rights by law or constitutional amendment that differ from the subsidiary rights of the U.S. of 2013 or 1813.

Franklin Roosevelt understood that, even if today’s self-described constitutional conservatives do not. As he observed in 1936:

The true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it. The most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change. Liberalism becomes the protection for the far-sighted conservative.

...Wise and prudent men — intelligent conservatives — have long known that in a changing world worthy institutions can be conserved only by adjusting them to the changing time. In the words of the great essayist, “The voice of great events is proclaiming to us ‘Reform if you would preserve.’” I am that kind of conservative because I am that kind of liberal. Ω

[Michael Lind is Policy Director of the New America Foundation's Economic Growth Program and — most recently — the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (2012). Lind holds a B.A. from The University of Texas-Austin, an M.A. from Yale University, and a J.D. from The University of Texas-Austin.]

Copyright © 2013 Salon Media Group

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Welcome To George Packer's Brain (About Syria)

George Packer reveals his interior monologue about the great foreign policy dilemma du jour. Damned if we do and damned if we don't. If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration of a conundrum, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Two Minds On Syria
By George Packer

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So it looks like we’re going to bomb Assad.


Really? Why good?

Did you see the videos of those kids? I heard that ten thousand people were gassed. Hundreds of them died. This time, we have to do something.

Yes, I saw the videos.

And you don’t want to pound the shit out of him?

I want to pound the shit out of him.

But you think we shouldn’t do anything.

I didn’t say that. But I want you to explain what we’re going to achieve by bombing.

We’re going to let Assad know that chemical weapons are over the line. There’s a reason they’ve been illegal since Verdun or whenever.

Except when Saddam used them against the Kurds—we knew, and we didn’t say a word.

Is that a reason to let Assad use them against his people?

At this point, I don’t think Assad is too worried about the Geneva Conventions.

He should have to think hard before using them again.

He’s a bloody dictator fighting for survival. He’s going to do whatever he has to do.

Not if we really hurt him. Not if we pound his communications centers, his air-force bases, key government installations. He’ll be more likely to survive if he doesn’t use chemical weapons.

Killing civilians while we’re at it.

These would be very specific targets.

The wrong people always get killed.

Maybe. Probably. But if you were a Syrian being bombed by Assad every day, trying to keep your head down and your family alive, wouldn’t you want the world to respond, even if a few more people die? I think so.

Easy for you to say.

Hey, can we not personalize this?

Weren’t you just saying that I don’t care about dying children? (Pause.) So you want us to get involved in their civil war.

I’m not saying that.

But that’s what we’ll be doing. Intervening on the rebel side, tipping the balance in their favor.

Not necessarily. We’ll be drawing a line that says dictators don’t get to use W.M.D.s without consequences.

You can’t bomb targets on one side of a civil war without helping the other side.

It would be very temporary. We’d send Assad a clear message, and then we’d step back and let them go on fighting. We’re not getting involved any deeper than that, because I know what you’re going to say—

The rebels are a bunch of infighting, disorganized, jihadist thugs, and we can’t trust any of them.

I’m not saying we should.

And what do we do if Assad retaliates against Israel or Turkey? Or if he uses nerve gas somewhere else?

We hit him again.

And it escalates.

Not if we restrict it to cruise missiles and air strikes.

Now you’re scaring me. Have you forgotten Iraq?

Not for a single minute.

My point is that you can’t restrict it. You can’t use force for limited goals. You need to know what you’ll do after his next move, and the move after that.

It only escalates if we allow ourselves to get dragged in deeper. Kosovo didn’t escalate.

This isn’t Kosovo. The Syrian rebels aren’t the K.L.A. Assad isn’t Milosevic. Putin isn’t Yeltsin. This is far worse. Kosovo became a U.N. protectorate. That’s not going to happen in Syria.

You think Putin is going to risk a military confrontation with the U.S. and Europe?

I think Russia isn’t going to let Assad go down. Neither is Iran or Hezbollah. So they’ll escalate. This could be the thing that triggers an Israel-Iran war, and how do we stay out of that? My God, it feels like August, 1914.

That was a hundred years ago. Stop with the historical analogies.

You’re the one who brought up Verdun. And Kosovo.

I brought up Kosovo because you brought up Iraq. That’s the problem with these arguments. Iraq! Vietnam! Valley Forge! Agincourt! People resort to analogies so they don’t have to think about the matter at hand.

And because they don’t know anything about the matter at hand.

I know what I saw in those videos.

Thank God Obama doesn’t make foreign policy that way. He knows what he doesn’t know about Syria. He’s always thinking a few steps ahead. He’s not going to get steamrolled by John McCain and Anderson Cooper.

At a certain point, caution is another word for indecisiveness. Obama looks weak! Or worse—indifferent. Anyway, he should have thought ahead when he called chemical weapons a “red line.” He set that trap a year ago, and now we’re in it.

Why does it have to be a trap?

Because our credibility is on the line.

Thank you, Dr. Kissinger.

See, that’s another thing people do in these arguments.


“You sound like so-and-so.” It shouldn’t matter who else is on your side. I mean, you’re in bed with Rand Paul. Anyway, credibility matters even if Kissinger said so. You have to do what you say you’re going to do, especially with bullies.

I don’t think Obama committed himself to any one course of action. But if he does bomb them, we’re involved in that war, and I sure hope his advisers have thought through all the potential consequences better than you have.

Inaction has consequences, too. Assad gases more people, the death toll hits two hundred thousand, the weapons get into Hezbollah’s hands, Iran moves ahead with its nuclear program, the Syrian rebels disintegrate and turn to international terrorism, the whole region goes up in sectarian flames.

And how does firing cruise missiles at Damascus prevent any of this?

It doesn’t. But, look, all of this is already happening with us sitting it out. If we put a gun to Assad’s head, we might be able to have more influence over the outcome. At least we can prevent him from winning.

A violent stalemate. How wonderful for the Syrians. Some people think that’s the best solution for us.

I’m not saying that.

What are you saying?

I don’t know. I had it worked out in my head until we started talking. (Pause.) But we need to do something this time.

Not just to do something.

All right. Not just to do something. But could you do me a favor?

What’s that?

While you’re doing nothing, could you please be unhappy about it?

I am. Ω

[After graduating from Yale, George Packer served in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. Packer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since May 2003. His most recent books include The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq (2005), Betrayed (2009), and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013).]

Copyright © 2013 Condé Nast Digital

Creative Commons LicenseSapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Today, A Tempest In A Dismal Teapot: The Krugerrand Man Fires Back At Yesterday's Critics Of The Dismal Science

What a world! Just when this blogger was going stage this blog's impression of a World Wrestling Entertainment "Death Match" between yesterday's critics of the Dismal Science and The K-man of the NY Fishwrap, the editorial board of the NY Fishwrap ran an editorial supporting air strikes on Syrian targets. Suddenly Syrian black hats (AKA The Syrian Electronic Army) attacked the NY Fishwrap's site and caused its shutdown. The Gray Lady (known in this blog as the NY Fishwrap) has gotten back online with its Global Edition and "All the News That's Fit to Print" is back (after a fashion). The Times needs to hire a battalion of white hat nerds to go after the Syrian Electronic Army and destroy it. If this is (fair & balanced) bloodlust, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Real Trouble With Economics
By Paul Krugman

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I’m a bit behind the curve in commenting on the Rosenberg-Curtain piece on economics as a non-science. What do I think of their thesis?

Well, I’m sorry to say that they’ve gotten it almost all wrong. Only “almost”: they’re entirely right that economics isn’t behaving like a science, and economists – macroeconomists, anyway – definitely aren’t behaving like scientists. But they misunderstand the nature of the failure, and for that matter the nature of such successes as we’re having.

Let’s start with the giveaway passage:

An effective chair of the central bank will be one who understands that economics is not yet a science and may never be. At this point it is a craft, to be executed with wisdom, not algorithms, in the design and management of institutions. What made Ben S. Bernanke, the current chairman, successful was his willingness to use methods — like “quantitative easing,” buying bonds to lower long-term interest rates — that demanded a feeling for the economy, one that mere rational-expectations macroeconomics would have denied him.

Whoa! They apparently imagine that QE was an intuitive reaction by Bernanke, one that academic macroeconomics would never have suggested. Nothing could be further from the truth. By the time 2008 came along, the issue of how to conduct monetary policy at the zero lower bound had been extensively discussed, notably in Krugman 1998 (PDF), Eggertsson and Woodford (2003) (PDF), and, yes, Bernanke-Reinhart-Sack 2004 (PDF). Indeed, the Fed’s QE policies initially followed the latter paper closely; its more recent shift to a greater emphasis on forward guidance is a move in the direction of the Krugman-Eggertsson-Woodford approach.

In other words, far from acting as a free-spirited improviser, Bernanke has been largely implementing recipes developed in the academic literature years before.

So Rosenberg and Curtain completely misunderstand what’s been going on at the Fed. They also misunderstand the nature of economists’ predictive failures. It’s true that few economists predicted the onset of crisis. Once crisis struck, however, basic macroeconomic models did a very good job in key respects — in particular, they did much better than people who relied on their intuitive feelings. The intuitionists — remember, Alan Greenspan was supposed to be famously able to sense the economy’s pulse — insisted that budget deficits would send interest rates soaring, that the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet would be inflationary, that fiscal austerity would strengthen economies through “confidence”. Meanwhile, wonks who relied on suitably interpreted IS-LM confidently declared that all this intuition, based on experiences in a different environment, would prove wrong — and they were right. From my point of view, these past 5 years have been a triumph for and vindication of economic modeling.

Oh, and it would be a real tragedy if the takeaway from recent events becomes that you should listen to impressive-looking guys with good tailors who stroke their chins and sound wise, and ignore the nerds; the nerds have been mostly right, while the Very Serious People have been wrong every step of the way.

Yet obviously something is deeply wrong with economics. While economists using textbook macro models got things mostly and impressively right, many famous economists refused to use those models — in fact, they made it clear in discussion that they didn’t understand points that had been worked out generations ago. Moreover, it’s hard to find any economists who changed their minds when their predictions, say of sharply higher inflation, turned out wrong.

Nor is this a new thing. My take on the history of macro is that the notion of equilibrium business cycles had, by the standards of any normal science, definitively failed by any normal scientific standard by 1990 at the latest. The original idea that money had real effects because people were surprised by monetary shocks fell apart in the face of evidence of business cycle persistence; the real business cycle view that nominal shocks didn’t actually matter after all was refuted by decisive evidence (PDF) that, in fact, it did. Yet there was no backing off on this approach. On the contrary, it actually increased its hold on the profession.

So, let’s grant that economics as practiced doesn’t look like a science. But that’s not because the subject is inherently unsuited to the scientific method. Sure, it’s highly imperfect — it’s a complex area, and our understanding is in its early stages. And sure, the economy itself changes over time, so that what was true 75 years ago may not be true today — although what really impresses you if you study macro, in particular, is the continuity, so that Bagehot and Wicksell and Irving Fisher and, of course, Keynes remain quite relevant today.

No, the problem lies not in the inherent unsuitability of economics for scientific thinking as in the sociology of the economics profession — a profession that somehow, at least in macro, has ceased rewarding research that produces successful predictions and rewards research that fits preconceptions and uses hard math instead.

Why has the sociology of economics gone so wrong? I’m not completely sure — and I’ll reserve my random thoughts for another occasion. Ω

[Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed Page and continues as professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Krugman received his B.A. from Yale University in 1974 and his Ph.D. from MIT in 1977. He has taught at Yale, MIT and Stanford. At MIT he became the Ford International Professor of Economics. Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes. In 1991, the American Economic Association awarded him its John Bates Clark medal, a prize given every two years to "that economist under forty who is adjudged to have made a significant contribution to economic knowledge." On October 12, 2008, Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Krugman's most recent book is End This Depression Now! (2012).]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

We Don't Need A New Fed Chairman, We Need A Good First Violinist!

In 2013, we need a great anti-economics song: "Economics (What Is It Good For?)" And the answer is... Absolutely nothin'! The greatest Motown anti-war anthem needs a remake in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

[x YouTube/Thibault Viaene Channel]
"War (What Is It Good For?)" (1969)
By Edwin Starr

Today's contributors to this blog come back to music as the guiding influence in our affairs. If this is a (fair & balanced) call for a new economic model, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
What Is Economics Good For?
By Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain

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Recent debates over who is most qualified to serve as the next chairman of the Federal Reserve have focused on more than just the candidates’ theory-driven economic expertise. They have touched on matters of personality and character as well. This is as it should be. Given the nature of economies, and our ability to understand them, the task of the Fed’s next leader will be more a matter of craft and wisdom than of science.

When we put a satellite in orbit around Mars, we have the scientific knowledge that guarantees accuracy and precision in the prediction of its orbit. Achieving a comparable level of certainty about the outcomes of an economy is far dicier.

The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and may never be. Still, the misperceptions persist. A student who graduates with a degree in economics leaves college with a bachelor of science, but possesses nothing so firm as the student of the real world processes of chemistry or even agriculture.

Before the 1970s, the discussion of how to make economics a science was left mostly to economists. But like war, which is too important to be left to the generals, economics was too important to be left to the Nobel-winning members of the University of Chicago faculty. Over time, the question of why economics has not (yet) qualified as a science has become an obsession among theorists, including philosophers of science like us.

It’s easy to understand why economics might be mistaken for science. It uses quantitative expression in mathematics and the succinct statement of its theories in axioms and derived “theorems,” so economics looks a lot like the models of science we are familiar with from physics. Its approach to economic outcomes — determined from the choices of a large number of “atomic” individuals — recalls the way atomic theory explains chemical reactions. Economics employs partial differential equations like those in a Black-Scholes account of derivatives markets, equations that look remarkably like ones familiar from physics. The trouble with economics is that it lacks the most important of science’s characteristics — a record of improvement in predictive range and accuracy.

This is what makes economics a subject of special interest among philosophers of science. None of our models of science really fit economics at all.

The irony is that for a long time economists announced a semiofficial allegiance to Karl Popper’s demand for falsifiability as the litmus test for science, and adopted Milton Friedman’s thesis that the only thing that mattered in science was predictive power. Mr. Friedman was reacting to a criticism made by Marxist economists and historical economists that mathematical economics was useless because it made so many idealized assumptions about economic processes: perfect rationality, infinite divisibility of commodities, constant returns to scale, complete information, no price setting.

Mr. Friedman argued that false assumptions didn’t matter any more in economics than they did in physics. Like the “ideal gas,” “frictionless plane” and “center of gravity” in physics, idealizations in economics are both harmless and necessary. They are indispensable calculating devices and approximations that enable the economist to make predictions about markets, industries and economies the way they enable physicists to predict eclipses and tides, or prevent bridge collapses and power failures.

But economics has never been able to show the record of improvement in predictive successes that physical science has shown through its use of harmless idealizations. In fact, when it comes to economic theory’s track record, there isn’t much predictive success to speak of at all.

Moreover, many economists don’t seem troubled when they make predictions that go wrong. Readers of Paul Krugman and other like-minded commentators are familiar with their repeated complaints about the refusal of economists to revise their theories in the face of recalcitrant facts. Philosophers of science are puzzled by the same question. What is economics up to if it isn’t interested enough in predictive success to adjust its theories the way a science does when its predictions go wrong?

Unlike the physical world, the domain of economics includes a wide range of social “constructions” — institutions like markets and objects like currency and stock shares — that even when idealized don’t behave uniformly. They are made up of unrecognized but artificial conventions that people persistently change and even destroy in ways that no social scientist can really anticipate. We can exploit gravity, but we can’t change it or destroy it. No one can say the same for the socially constructed causes and effects of our choices that economics deals with.

Another factor economics has never been able to tame is science itself. These are the drivers of economic growth, the “creative destruction” of capitalism. But no one can predict the direction of scientific discovery and its technological application. That was Popper’s key insight. Philosophers and historians of science like Thomas S. Kuhn have helped us see why scientific paradigm shifts seem to come almost out of nowhere. As the rate of acceleration of innovation increases, the prospects of an economic theory that tames the economy’s most powerful forces must diminish — and with it, any hope of improvements in prediction declines as well.

So if predictive power is not in the cards for economics, what is it good for?

Social and political philosophers have helped us answer this question, and so understand what economics is really all about. Since Hobbes, philosophers have been concerned about the design and management of institutions that will protect us from “the knave” within us all, those parts of our selves tempted to opportunism, free riding and generally avoiding the costs of civil life while securing its benefits. Hobbes and, later, Hume — along with modern philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick — recognized that an economic approach had much to contribute to the design and creative management of such institutions. Fixing bad economic and political institutions (concentrations of power, collusions and monopolies), improving good ones (like the Fed’s open-market operations), designing new ones (like electromagnetic bandwidth auctions), in the private and public sectors, are all attainable tasks of economic theory.

Which brings us back to the Fed. An effective chair of the central bank will be one who understands that economics is not yet a science and may never be. At this point it is a craft, to be executed with wisdom, not algorithms, in the design and management of institutions. What made Ben S. Bernanke, the current chairman, successful was his willingness to use methods — like “quantitative easing,” buying bonds to lower long-term interest rates — that demanded a feeling for the economy, one that mere rational-expectations macroeconomics would have denied him.

For the foreseeable future economic theory should be understood more on the model of music theory than Newtonian theory. The Fed chairman must, like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at that). Like musicians’, economists’ expertise is still a matter of craft. They must avoid the hubris of thinking their theory is perfectly suited to the task, while employing it wisely enough to produce some harmony amid the cacophony. Ω

[Alexander (Alex) Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Duke University. He is the author of Economics — Mathematical Politics or Science of Diminishing Returns, most recently, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Rosenberg received a B.A. from the City College of New York and a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University.

Tyler Curtain is a philosopher of science and an associate professor of English and comparative literature the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was recently named the 2013 recipient of the Robert Frost Distinguished Chair of Literature at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He received a B.S. from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University.]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Today, An Alt History 'Toon

Ah, that Tom Tomorrow is a bleeding edge 'toonist and a great fit for this blog. Musing about Alternative History took this blogger back to his own encounter with Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007). In Chabon's novel, the State of Israel collapsed in 1948 and disappeared and the Holocaust survivors were moved by the U.S. government to "the Federal District of Sitka" in the Alaska Panhandle. In this alternative world, a pair of detectives deal with murder and skulduggery in that alternative to the State of Israel, transplanted to Alaska. If this is a (fair & balanced) invitation to enjoy alt history, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
Parallel Earth [Redux]
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. Earlier this year, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning.]

Copyright © 2013 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Pill Can Be Sold By Any Other Name If That Name Begins With "X" Or "Z"

For the past several weeks, this blogger has been swallowing a daily dose of Xarelto. In the past week, that medication has been supplemented by Metoprolol ER Succinate. So, this blogger's sluggish heart needs help in preventing the formation of clots as well as help in correcting arrhythmia. Should the most recent drug be suspect because its brand begins with an "M" rather than an "X" or "Z"? If this is (fair & balanced) pharmaceutical orthography, so be it.

[x Slate]
With a Name Like Xalkori...
By David Schultz

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What would Don Draper make of Xalkori? Pfizer’s lung cancer drug, released in 2011, has a name that would make an old-school ad wizard scratch his Brylcreemed head.

It begins with one of the least commonly used letters of the alphabet. It’s impossible, at first glance, to know how to pronounce it correctly. It looks like it could be the name of one of the creatures from the "Star Wars" cantina.

In any other industry, calling your product Xalkori would be the business blunder of the century. But this isn’t any other industry; this is pharma.

“Xalkori is not just a crazy name,” says R. John Fidelino, who, as director of creative at the firm InterbrandHealth, helped bring the word into existence.

Interbrand is an international marketing consultancy responsible for some of the most strikingly odd words to enter the lexicon in recent years. In addition to Xalkori, Interbrand created Zelboraf, Yondelis, and Horizant. It also helped invent Prozac and Viagra—words that initially seemed bizarre but are now instantly recognizable.

Fidelino walked me through the thought process that leads him and colleagues to a name like Xalkori. Their objectives are twofold: First, Fidelino needs to come up with a name that can be trademarked. (It also helps if the name doesn’t have a negative connotation in any foreign languages.)

His second goal, both more important and more difficult, is to come up with a name that can win approval from the Food and Drug Administration and its counterpart the European Medicines Agency.

The FDA has veto power over the monikers attached to all brand-name prescription drugs sold in the United States. (Generic drug names, which are often even more bizarre than their brand-name counterparts, go through a different and much more complicated approval process.)

When considering a brand name for approval, FDA reviewers run tests to see how likely it is that a proposed name could be mistaken for an already existing drug with a similar-sounding or similar-looking name. They do handwriting tests to catch names that might look alike when scribbled out on a prescription pad. They also reject any names that could be seen as a boast about the drug’s power or efficacy, which is why you won’t see any drugs named Cholesterol Busters, or Angina-B-Gone. (Too bad. I’d love to see a commercial for that one.)

The development of a brand name can take up to five years, Fidelino says, and the FDA usually doesn’t issue its final ruling until 90 days before a drug is scheduled to go to market. “So if you got it wrong, you better have a backup,” he says. “It can be a very expensive process of throwing things at the wall if you don’t think strategically about it.”

When concocting the name for Xalkori, Fidelino and his team wanted something that conveyed how the drug works. It’s one of the first treatments for a rare form of lung cancer that affects nonsmokers, shrinking tumors by blocking a receptor on the ALK gene, which can cause cancer if it malfunctions.

“With Xalkori, we went straight to the science,” Fidelino says.

His team took the gene’s letters—ALK—and added an X in front to signify that this drug targets that gene. Because Xalkori is a specialty drug designed to treat a very rare, very grave disease—not the kind of drug you’d see an advertisement for on TV—Fidelino says it made sense to give it a science-focused name that probably only doctors and scientists would understand.

“When you start to think of it this way,” he says, Xalkori “is actually a language that is uniquely speaking to the physician community.”

“If a brand name is really good, it can do a lot of heavy lifting up front,” says William Leben, an emeritus professor of linguistics at Stanford. “It can arouse our curiosity, or make a long-awaited promise, or change our minds about things, or just make a spectacle of itself.”

Many of the names of drugs now on the market would seem, at first glance, to be aiming for that last category: Zosyn, Ziac, Qnasl, Xeljanz, Isentress, et al., ad infinitum.

Believe it or not, the recession might have something to do with the proliferation of these head-scratching brand names. During tough financial times, Fidelino says, many drug manufacturers skip human consultants and use computerized algorithmic name generators because they just want something that will get quick approval from the FDA and don’t care how ridiculous the name looks or sounds.

While this might make short-term sense, Leben says the companies using this strategy miss out on crafting a brand name that can retain value for the life of the drug, even after its patent expires. “Like one’s choice of words when introducing a friend, a brand name can communicate so much,” Leben says.

However, spending five years developing a highly communicative, aesthetically pleasing brand name is only going to become more challenging in the years to come. Because the FDA requires all drug names to look and sound unique, any time a new drug comes on the market it reduces the linguistic real estate available for the next drug. In this crowded field, turning to quick and easy computer-generated names becomes more and more tempting.

What worries some doctors and pharmacists is that while drug names are becoming more confusing and less intuitive, more drugs are falling through the FDA’s regulatory cracks.

Yes, that’s right: The FDA’s screening process is not perfect.

Even though the administration can strike fear in the hearts of pharmaceutical companies (and their stockholders), it occasionally lets slip some look-alike and sound-alike names. Think of Zantac and Xanax, Paxil and Plavix, Neulasta and Lunesta. Those three pairs are all on a list of medications that doctors and pharmacists have reported as being confused for one another. The list, compiled by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, is eight pages long.

Medication confusion is nothing to scoff at. If cancer patients think they’re taking Neulasta to boost their immune system after chemotherapy, but they’re unwittingly taking the sleeping pill Lunesta instead, that can have serious consequences. According to my analysis of the FDA’s database of adverse drug events, there have been 174 incidents of drug name confusion since the beginning of 2009. Of these, 16 resulted in death and at least nine more caused life-threatening illnesses.

(The FDA wouldn’t grant me an interview for this story, but it did refer me to these [PDF] white papers [PDF] on its name approval process.)

Medication confusion is an especially acute hazard for physicians in certain drug-heavy fields. One day last year, Marc Garnick, an oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston who specializes in treating prostate cancer, was looking over the treatment options for castration-resistant metastatic prostate cancer, a highly advanced form of the disease. “It became just sort of uncanny to me that the trade names of so many of these drugs were so similar,” he says.

These are the five drugs approved at that time for people suffering from this form of cancer: Jevtana, Xgeva, Zytiga, Xtandi and Zometa.

“There’s this proclivity to begin drugs with either an X or a Z,” Garnick says, “and it’s somewhat confusing.”

Garnick was becoming frustrated with this trend, so he wrote a letter voicing his concerns to the New England Journal of Medicine, which published it earlier this year. The FDA responded several months later with its own letter, stating that all of the new prostate cancer drugs “underwent a thorough safety analysis” and that “a review of recently approved and pending proprietary names did not find a disproportionate number of names commencing with X or Z.”

Garnick was satisfied. After reading the FDA’s response, he was confident that the issue was on its radar and that the administration would take steps to make drug names less confusing.

Then, a few weeks later, Garnick saw that a new, sixth drug had been approved to treat castration-resistant metastatic prostate cancer.

Its name: Xofigo.

“The oncology field is proliferating with very exciting new drugs that need to be named and need to have distinguishing characteristics,” he says. “I don’t understand why five out of six begin with X or Z.”

Garnick is no Don Draper, but he thinks big pharma and the FDA need to up their branding game. Ω

[David Schultz is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Washington, DC whose work has been published in The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and Kaiser Health News, and broadcast on NPR, American Public Media and WAMU. Schultz received a BA (Political Science and Philosophy) from the University of Arizona and an MA (Journalism) from American University.]

Copyright © 2013 The Slate Group/Washington Post Company

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2013 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves