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October 31, 2008

Ripple Effects: Methane, Global Warming and Human Obesity

The last entry called called attention to the early weaning of piglets as a consequence of the industrial scale animal production that has been quietly replacing the traditional family farms that used to supply most of our food. A report from Pew Research details the most obvious problems related to such techniques: contamination of the environment by huge accumulations of animal waste, increased risk to human health from animal pathogens, and the misery of the animals themselves, confined for their entire lives under cruel and inhumane conditions.

Anyone who’s had occasion to drive past the Harris Ranch on Interstate 5 in California’s Central Valley knows exactly what I’m talking about; I did so about 10 days ago and found the odor as overpowering as ever. Two new concerns have recently been added to those noted in the Pew Research report. One, somewhat surprisingly, relates to global warming: it seems the methane produced by all those animals doesn’t just smell bad and blight the local environment; it also traps enough heat to equal the effect of the CO2 from all our SUVs. There are also more subtle hazards related to confining ruminants that had evolved to graze on grass in filthy pens and feeding them barley and corn for their entire lives. It does enhance profits by accelerating their growth and shortening their lives, but iat the expense of producing unhealthy animals requiring antibiotics and hormones right up until the time they are slaughtered and eaten by unwitting human consumers.

Finally, all those calories have been helping make those human consumers increasingly obese at alarming rates each passing year. Among several unhealthy consequences speculatively linked to that extra weight are a real increase in type two diabetes, more prevalent hypertension, and an increase in once-rare esophageal cancers associated with reflux esophagitis (GERD).

Of particular interest to me is an additional possibility: our continued addictive cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and overeating may well be related to the ambient increase in stress and anxiety being generated by a vicious cycle of overpopulation and increasing competition.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 02:57 PM | Comments (0)

October 28, 2008

More on Stress and Overpopulation

This morning, I awakened to an engrossing documentary on the Discovery Channel dealing with the behavior of piglets weaned prematurely in the interests of increased pork production. Such practices are now routine in a Food Industry that has been growing quietly since the end of World War II to feed the Earth’s booming human population.

As has been noted here, other trends, similarly unnoticed, developed over that same interval, only to result in late repercussions now classified under the generic term of blowback.” Two classic examples from the early Fifties, one in Iran, and another in Guatemala, were at first considered “victories;” they didn’t begin to cause trouble for the US for twenty-five or so years, but their, and other sequellae remain major thorns in our side.

What does all this have to do with pot or the drug war? Only that the prematurely weaned piglets' behavior (I have yet to find a URL for that program) is very similar to that of human children labeled with ADD and the ambient stresses of our modern world are clearly exacerbated by overpopulation. Finally, a famous experiment with rats from the Fifties and a less well-known study of mice done by the same investigator in the Eighties, support very similar conclusions.

Oh, yes, “stress” may be the most common and least understood symptom now troubling humans. Ironically, it's also being inflicted by us on record numbers of the animals we are raising to be our food. If we are unwilling to provide them with a humane amount of space in which to await their slaughter, perhaps we could at least add cannabis to the antibiotics and hormones we are now treating them with.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 03:34 AM | Comments (0)

October 25, 2008

Greenspan’s Comeuppance: Not Entirely Fair

In an historic mea culpa, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan schlepped up to Capitol Hill this past Thursday and confessed “shocked disbelief” at the mess affecting American (and world) capital markets. He was then grilled relentlessly for four hours by a once respectful Congressional committee seeking to fix blame for the crisis that began emerging last Summer with the unraveling of the sub-prime mortgage market.

Given that he had been Fed Chairman for over eighteen years and argued persuasively for the deregulation that allowed such “toxic” financial products to be devised and marketed, Greenspan certainly had played a key role, but he’d also had a lot of help, as (partially) revealed in an unsigned Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

Without the eager cooperation of an enormous and highly competitive Financial Services Industry, the grotesque practices revealed in the wake of the sub-prime debacle and the crash we’re now experiencing with its (as-yet) unknown consequences would not be occurring as it is. Thus it’s disingenuous to blame one man for not anticipating how corrupt an entire industry might become when left to its own devices.

On the other hand, Greenspan’s tenure also includes the Savings and Loan bail-out, the creation of modern interest rate futures that precipitated a crash in 1987, and Enron’s disastrous experiment with energy futures towards the end of the Nineties. Greenspan also seemed more willing to cater to the economic needs of the younger President Bush after 9/11 than to the elder after the Gulf War.

That’s just my opinion, of course, but it’s an opinion recently informed by a series of unlikely events that allowed me to seek answers to questions no one else has wanted to ask out loud, such as: why has such an obviously stupid drug policy been so resoundingly endorsed by the entire world for over forty years?

The apparent answer is that whenever something is banned, a potential for illegal profits is created. We humans are so competitive that when there are enough buyers to create an illegal market, the “ripple effect” of the profits generated will corrupt enough social institutions to sustain those markets indefinitely. Ironically, the single major exception to that general rule may have been the Great Depression, which is now conceded by many to have been decisive in ending America’s “Noble Experiment” with Prohibition.

Certainly, not everyone will agree with that analysis, but we may now be on the threshold of a repetition that could confirm it while answering some additional questions: why have the watchdogs of Science given NIDA a pass for both its grotesque distortions of their principles and the disastrous policy it has been defending since 1975?

The clearest message to be derived from the never-acknowledged, failures of every attempt at a national prohibition policy in history may be that opportunities for profit are exploited even more quickly and relentlessly by illegal markets than by legal ones. Recent experience also suggests that neither the business practices, nor the money generated by illegal markets can be isolated from the rest of society. Finally, a close look at history reveals that the complex governments humans have created since (separate) Agricultural Revolutions began evolving have all relied on violence to sustain their growth.

The rock upon which attempted prohibitions, unregulated “legal” markets, and our governing institutions all seem to crash eventually may well be our competitive human instincts.

Thus Walt Kelly may have been right; let’s hope that Legalization will not have a cost comparable to that of Repeal.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 06:58 PM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2008

Continuing Uncertainty

Given the recent decline of the American-led global economy and the undeniable unpopularity of the incumbent, we might be set up for a replay of 1932 were it not for the fact that the candidate challenging the party in power is the product of a biracial marriage and overwhelmingly perceived as “black.”

With the election now less than two weeks away, polling results are still all over the place and obviously being manipulated by spin doctors of both parties, even as the Dow continues its saw-tooth march towards a “bottom” no pundit is willing to forecast publicly, but some concede could last “a long time” (a few are even mentioning the D word).

Even though the Democrats are generally conceded to be ahead, no one is claiming a slam dunk and a tight race is being predicted as their candidate takes time from the campaign to visit his ailing (white) grandmother in Hawaii.

All of which reinforces several points I’ve been pressing in this blog since it started. Historically, American drug policy has been a travesty that began modestly enough with a deceptive intrusion into medical practice in 1914, was expanded through a similar ploy in the late Thirties, and was then radically expanded by an insecure liar thirty-two years later.

The common denominators of our frightening economic plight and the drug war’s long-protected failures are the fears shared by most, (probably all) humans and the denial those fears inspire to a variable degree in everyone.

That some critics, including many pot smokers themselves, have to deny its palliative anxiolytic benefits becomes a bit more understandable in light of the present crisis in which economic pundits shy away from the “D” word, their political brethren minimize the influence of “Race,” and the federal government’s expenditure of billions to convince us that self-medicating our emotions with anything but caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine is both sinful and deserving of imprisonment.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 07:09 PM | Comments (0)

October 22, 2008

The Problem of Knowledge

In the little over three years since this blog was started as an attempt to explain an ongoing clinical study of cannabis use started in the Fall of 2001, it has grown to include more than three hundred individual entries. While most relate to American drug policy, particularly as related to the 1937 ban on cannabis instigated by Harry Anslinger and/or the war on drugs launched in 1969 by Richard Nixon, some deal with the policy’s earlier roots in the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914.

Many individual topics were chosen because an item in the news seemed to illustrate a particular point; others, usually concerning more complex issues, were dealt with piecemeal, with an effort (not always successful) to link newer entries to the earlier ones they expanded on.

The result has been that, over time, I have been forced to literally acquire new information in public while investigating certain common themes, many of which turn out to relate directly or indirectly with what might be called the “knowledge problem” and summarized as, “how do we know what we know?” I hasten to add that to the extent possible, I have tried to focus on observations, as opposed to beliefs, while realizing that those two categories are easily confused. The most succinct generalization of what seems the study’s most controversial finding to date is not that pot use can be medical, or even the unexpected revelations that its huge popularity is related to its potency as an anxiolytic, but that the continued global endorsement of an irrational and unscientific ban on all use is evidence of a peculiar evolutionary quirk in our cognitive machinery; one that didn’t become an urgent threat until relatively recently when critical Western knowledge, preserved and further enhanced by Middle Eastern scholars during the Middle Ages, was rediscovered during the Renaissance and ultimately led to the emergence of empirical Science between the mid Sixteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.

The developments currently threatening modern humans are generally related to global overpopulation; itself made possible only because Science has been used so uncritically by humans to pursue the wealth it made possible.

Because we may now be close to the limits of change our planetary environment will tolerate and (dangerously) resistant to their recognition, the American Presidential Election scheduled to take place in less than two weeks is clearly the most important ever.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 04:23 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2008

Important Questions

Are we in the dire economic straits claimed by a majority of financial experts or is the problem simply being oversold? Is the ambitious bail-out now unfolding incrementally just another scam intended to enrich Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, or is it an essential last minute global rescue we delay at our peril? How can these questions remain unanswered with the most unusual and important Presidential Election in history less than three weeks away?

In essence, there is a welter of conflicting opinion being voiced against a backdrop of deepening uncertainty. To the extent those humans with the biggest stake in the complex global economy are even able to focus on current events, they must be asking themselves: can this really be happening? If so, how did we get into this mess? What can be done about it?

Addressing these problems as succinctly as possible, it has now become clear to this observer that human behavior is the culprit. While the details remain to be worked out, the mechanism responsible is clearly the intrinsic conflict created by desires originating within our highly evolved, but developmentally older, emotional centers for the cascade of technology produced within the last few centuries by our more recently evolved rational centers.

In retrospect, that mismatch has been present throughout human history; the dimensions and acuity of the present problem are primarily functions of the enormous increase in wealth generated by unchecked exploitation of scientific technology in the service of the same decision making organizations that have controlled a majority of humans ever since the Industrial Evolution began.

So much for the diagnosis. The most difficult part will be therapy, which is, of necessity, uncertain and can’t even begin until the denial mechanisms now in place have been recognized and eliminated to the extent possible.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 04:49 PM | Comments (0)

October 16, 2008

Population and Policy

Estimates of global population generally agree that the turn of the Nineteenth Century was the first time Earth’s human population reached a billion. The interval covered is but a tiny fraction of what most authorities now consider the age of the universe. Where there is serious disagreement is in projections for future population growth. A further implication is that as time from the present increases, the accuracy of such estimates diminishes.

imprecision in making such estimates is inevitable; and applies similarly to current estimates that 6.7 billion humans are now dependent on goods and services produced and distributed by an abstraction known as the Global Economy. That economy just entered a state of flux not seen since the Great Depression and is being manifested in the US by increasing job losses and eviction notices, both of which are expected to rise and could easily lead to an increase in ambient levels of anxiety and anxiety disorders; to say nothing of crime and social disorder.

We are the only species with sufficient capacity for that degree of abstraction, the ability to fret about such numbers, and the desire to choose “Public Policies” intended to restrain our worst behaviors. Unfortunately, that capacity may be based on two separate, but related abilities: one for rational thought and the other for emotional expression.

Ironically, they seem to conflict: although our rational thought eventually led to Science with its enhanced “control” of the environment, our emotions have clearly encouraged our use of that power to a degree that now threatens our existence.

Equally clearly, what we desperately need as the US gets ready to choose its 44th President, are some new insights into the behaviors that got us into this mess.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 10:49 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2008

Another Great Depression?

The last time financial markets were as shaken as they are now was October 1929, when three tumultuous days signaled trouble to an oversold stock market that had been encouraging small investors to buy stocks on margin in the hope that then-record prices would continue to rise. Several hasty moves by large banks delayed the ultimate market descent to an early 1932 nadir from which recovery would not be complete until after World War Two. Needless to say, the Great Depression played a key role in Twentieth Century history; but we were reassured by most economists after the War that because the mistake made by Herbert Hoover’s conservative administration— not promptly supplying credit markets with the necessary liquidity— would never be repeated, we shouldn’t see another financial calamity of similar magnitude.

Indeed, although there have been several market “bubbles” over the years, (16 is a number I heard recently), none came close to a  full fledged depression in either the depth of the sell-off or its duration. The economists seemed to be right. 

But they may not have taken full account of a modern world that’s not only more  populated  with humans than in 1929, but moves at far greater speed, and is even more dependent on credit. Nor do they seem to have factored in the number and complexity of products sold by a variety of financial institutions, which had also been growing alarmingly; even as the regulations intended to control such sales were being discarded or ignored. What now appears to be happening (to my economically untrained eye) is the beginning of another severe depression with the potential for inflicting even greater damage than the last one.

What concerns me even more is that, based on the study of drug users I’m engaged in, it’s our behavior as a species that is most to blame. Although our religious beliefs imply otherwise, a substantial percentage of humans are motivated strongly enough by their emotions to steal and cheat for goals they regard as critical if conditions permit.

The behaviors of which I speak are now on display 24/7 on the world’s TV sets, even as experts try, oh so reluctantly, to decide if we're headed into a major depression from which recovery will be difficult. 

There’s obviously a lot more to this complex story, but I’ll stop here before considering the evidence for my dire assessment of human nature in another installment.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 07:21 PM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2008

Toxic Products

In an interesting juxtaposition, accounts of “toxic products” sold by two highly competitive economies are very much in the news. One refers to the sub-prime mortgages that were sold by American lenders to home owners and other borrowers during an interval of rapidly rising real estate prices. They were then subdivided, spread among complicated derivatives, and sold to large investors, including overseas banks. The current global financial crisis was triggered when individual borrowers around the US began defaulting on their mortgages, ultimately producing a generalized loss of confidence in global financial markets similar to the one that led to the Great Depression of the Thirties.

The other toxic product is melamine, a complex synthetic chemical, once thought to have potential use as a fertilizer because of its high nitrogen content, but subsequently found unsuitable for consumption for a variety of reasons, most of which were related to its toxicity. Nevertheless, because it had proven very useful in a number of commercial processes, it had become a fungible commodity and was produced in large amounts. 

Starting in 2007, China, which had accumulated large surpluses, was identified as the source of melamine introduced into pet food products, apparently to increase their nitrogen content (and thus their commercial  value) on standard tests for protein that rely on nitrogen content. The problem has since been compounded by the discovery of melamine in food products intended for human consumption and being sold both overseas and in China.

The attendant publicity has produced a panic among all consumers of Asian food products. It will apparently require newer, more complex tests for nitrogen content in food to identify and exclude those products adulterated with melamine. In the meantime, confidence in any processed foods from China will be affected, and no one knows how long it will take to be restored.

What the two examples clearly have in common is a pervasive tendency of humans to cheat in order to gain commercial advantage, a tendency that, once acknowledged as a species characteristic, can be readily identified throughout recorded history.

The problem thus really boils down to a straightforward question: how do we protect ourselves against our own dishonesty?

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 05:28 PM | Comments (0)

October 09, 2008

The Iraq-Credit Crunch Connection

It’s somewhat surprising that so many pundits commenting on the financial melt down seem to be at a loss as to how it all came about. They even seem surprised that it has pushed the Iraq war off the front burner as an election issue.

Have they forgotten so quickly about guns and butter? We tried to fight an expensive war in Viet Nam without cutting civilian consumption and paid a high price for that classic error. One feature is that Viet Nam's cost was ultimately worsened because Nixon’s policy of prolonging the war intersected with an important economic turning point: in 1973 the US became a net oil importer for the first time. An additional factor, clearly more important with respect to Iraq, is that when tax dollars are spent on armaments, they at least stay in the economy; when they are stolen by theives, they are rarely invested in wothwhile projects.

The current war in Iraq, eminently avoidable and never amenable to traditional “victory,” has proven even more expensive than Viet Nam because so many military support functions were privatized by the Bush Administration; to say nothing of the futility of continually rebuilding an infrastructure that's being destroyed in a war in which the outcome is still uncertain.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 05:25 AM | Comments (0)

October 02, 2008

Pernicious NIDA  “Science”

One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand why Science is supposed to be unbiased. It's also easier to preserve the required objectivity in some areas than in others, which is one reason federal meteorologists are better at predicting hurricanes than the DEA is at shutting down illegal markets. That’s also why, after learning more about drug policy, I’d been increasingly distressed by the craven deference routinely exhibited towards the drug war by scientists and other members of Academia.  For those not in policy-related disciplines,support could be passive;  however, those in the Behavioral  Sciences are expected to display a politically correct response to any suggestion that a “drug of abuse” might be useful. All are considered “bad” for the health of the user, as well as immoral. Also, any use at all is thought to risk addiction, for which the only acceptable treatment is abstinence, coerced when necessary. 

In other words, based only on what I already knew about drug policy failures from 45 years of surgical practical, I knew most drug war propaganda was nonsense; but was unprepared for just how egregiously mistaken our cannabis policy had been. At first I was hopeful that its huge logical flaws would place the policy in an indefensible position.

Then I discovered the extent to which reformers nominally opposed to the drug war harbor several different opinions on the key issue of “medical” use; with some almost as strict as the feds. in fact that reformer penchant for disagreement may be one reason the punitive thinking of the generally more cohesive Republican minority continues to dominate drug policy issues despite its obvious intellectual shortcomings. In essence, somewhere between Nixon and Reagan, reform seems to have unwittingly conceded the moral high ground to the completely illogical policy of their political opponents.

That's very similar to the recent response of Congress in voting down what they saw  as a feckless bail out of Wall Street. What they still may not understand is that no one knows for sure what would happen if the  global economy grinds to a halt in today’s world of nearly seven billion. It definitely won’t be pretty; there could be enormous pain, and the duration would be anyone’s guess.

I’d rather not find out.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 08:40 PM | Comments (0)

October 01, 2008

Is There a Lesser Evil? (Personal)

For me, one of the more intriguing aspects of the current charade is the difficulty would-be commentators have in admitting the massive global economy we humans have evolved to nourish and enrich us is so riddled with dishonesty as to be functionally beyond the “control” of any one entity. 

That such dishonesty has always been characteristic of human behavior is a matter of record; written history can be reduced to a chronicle of the wars of conquest waged by stronger political entities against those perceived as weaker. 

Thanks to Science and the Industrial Revolution, the human population has increased spectacularly in the last two-plus centuries. It's now so large that the size and complexity of the economy needed to sustain it encourages a degree of corruption capable of destroying the confidence all markets require to function. Historically, the first market collapse with that potential was the Great Depression, a phenomenon that wasn't over until World War Two supplied the industrial stimulus needed to put everyone back to work. In a real sense, our modern world was critically shaped by two overlapping phenomena: the first began in October 1929, and the second ended in August 1945.

Most economists now agree the failure of the Hoover Administration to supply enough liquidity to the banking system triggered a credit freeze that critically exacerbated and prolonged the misery of the Great Depression. That several other factors such as the get-rich-quick mentality of the Twenties, the staggering lawlessness of Prohibition, and the environmental ignorance that produced the Dust Bowl also contributed to that misery doesn’t alter their belief that allowing credit markets to die was both a critical error of that debacle and one we are now in danger of repeating. 

Time is critical: businesses require that deadlines for payment be honored; once it has failed, a business can’t be resuscitated. Those dependent on its salaries are out of work and a pernicious domino effect has been set in motion. It was that simple principle those voting against the “bail out” didn't understand. There are encouraging signs that enough may now recognize their error and pass an economic stimulus in time; but their ignorance was forever recorded on Monday.

The end of World War Two triggered a global economic boom that began in America and quickly spread around the world, even as former European colonies were fighting wars of national liberation that became entangled in the politics of a forty year Cold War that narrowly averted nuclear catastrophe by only competing economically after the Cuban Missile crisis. 

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the substrate for global conflict has remained the glaring economic disparity between rich and poor; however boundaries are less national and more likely to be subdivided by religious and ethnic conflicts with even deeper roots. Quite apart from the difficulty of resolving religious issues through political negotiation, even more difficult problems confront world leaders: the internet has greatly facilitated both the propaganda efforts and the command and control functions of loosely affiliated terrorist networks. It has also made technology-dependent Western economies more vulnerable to inexpensive attacks.

Beyond that, widespread use of suicide bombing as weapon of choice has unsettling implications. Neither side in the Cold War saw suicide as either a weapon or a solution to earthly problems, thus the conflict could end when the destruction of the Berlin Wall symbolized the political break-up of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, beliefs uniting Islam have, if anything, been strengthened by the warlike response to 9/11 adopted by the Bush Administration. Compounding the political cost of an unnecessary war has been the economic cost of the corruption with which it has been fought.

The American President to be chosen on November 4th is likely to be the most important in our history. The candidate who participated in the Viet Nam War and still thinks it should have been “won” clearly doesn’t understand either history or the issues. 

That he might actually win is almost as frightening as the possibility Congress may fail to rescue the economy before Election Day.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 05:21 PM | Comments (0)