Sunday, 31 March 2013

Here’s to reverse irredentism

I am a reverse irredentalist, although I’m not certain that’s a word. Irredentism is the idea that borders should be adjusted based on ethnic, linguistic, or religious groupings, when the borders don’t reflect natural divisions of the populace. Actually, this is generally only used to refer to the annexation of such territories, and as such has a rather bad reputation. For example, Hitler’s demands at M√ľnchen to annex the Sudetenland (German-speaking Bohemia, Moravia, and parts of Silesia) which had ended up in Czechoslovakia. I am opposed to grabbing territory and using such similarities as an excuse.

On the other hand, I’m definitely in favor of the reverse. My idea of government by consent of the governed means that not only should you have the right to elect your legislators, you should also have the right to choose which legislature. Specifically, I support the idea that a part of a state might decide it was better off on its own (i.e., the Confederacy, which Lincoln should have let go) or as part of another state. For example, what’s with Kashmir? It certainly doesn’t work as parts of India and Pakistan. The greatest collection of bad boundaries in history had to come at the end of the first world war, particularly when the Ottoman Empire was carved up by a committee of the winners. A case in point: Kurdistan. Looking at dumping parts of this Ottoman province into Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq leaves you shaking your head and muttering, “What great moron thought this was a good idea?”.

Another way to put that: I am convinced that there are situations in which ethnic nationalism should trump civic nationalism, even at the risk of creating enclaves and exclaves, and that the state giving up part of its previous territory and populace should be expected to make this process go smoothly.

I was moved to comment on this subject by an article in this week’s Economist, The good of small things, regarding Telangana, an area in India with some 35 million residents. India currently has 35 states, but just two of them (Maharashtra and Upper Pradesh) have almost 28% of the population, the Economist thinks India would be better off with twenty or thirty more states. Maybe Telangana gets the short end of the stick, maybe not, but as long as it feels that way to the residents, good governance and civic harmony will suffer. I’m in favor of both.

There are a number of examples of bad behavior under the flag of irredentism, my favorite being Argentina’s bogus claim to the Falkland Islands, which never were a part of Argentina (other than 75 days in 1982) although Spain had claimed that Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) gave the territory to Spain, along with most of the rest of the Americas. (Spain abandoned the islands in 1811.) Further, that claim is completely divorced from considerations of the ethnic makeup of the populace, it’s nothing other than a grab for resources. That’s no more legitimate than the US’ Articles of Confederation (Article XI) which provided for admission of Canada as a state.

But I think the reverse makes a lot of sense in some stormy places. It may make some sense in Catalonia, although exactly how it would work for part of a Euro-zone member to secede isn’t at all clear. Some breakaways would certainly lead to enclaves, all or part of one state entirely surrounded by another state, but there are hundreds of those already, mostly without problem. (There are 106 Indian exclaves inside Bangladesh, and 92 Bangladeshi exclaves inside India, for example.)

The key point is that, If I Were King, I would work to make it a great deal easier for communities to work these things out. Self determination is far more important than the permanence of borders. And yes, I was intrigued by the concept of Cascadia, I would rather be in the same republic with Victoria, British Columbia than with Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Build Keystone XL

Phase 4 of the Keystone XL pipeline is currently awaiting federal approval. Despite the fact that I tend to think of myself as an environmentalist, I think approval should be granted.

There are two grounds to oppose the pipeline: First, that the pipeline itself represents an environmental threat to the land that it crosses and the communities along the path. Second, that the bitumen extracted from the Alberta’s Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin is, by nature of the energy needed to extract it and dilute it so it can be pumped, the nastiest possible petroleum fuel in terms of carbon dioxide emission.

To the first category, while every industrial activity has some environmental impact, there are over 200,000 miles of gas and oil pipelines in the US. Overall, while there are some concerns about aging pipelines and substandard pipe used in the past, the proposal for Keystone XL represents a higher standard of construction than the vast majority of current pipelines, and the current system is operating with a very high level of safety. The risks of pipelines are pretty well understood.

Specific concerns related to crossing important wetlands and the Ogalalla Aquifer in Nebraska were raised and the route of the pipeline has been adjusted to avoid those concerns. There is the possibility of encountering Native American heritage sites along the way, I’m sure the tribes and their attorneys have arranged for sufficient monitoring of construction that this will be dealt with appropriately, it’s a sensitive issue and there really isn’t any way to avoid dealing with it.

On top of that, it seems inappropriate to deny permits to a responsible pipeline operator for an additional 850 miles of pipeline, given that we continue to allow the existing 200,000 miles of pipe to carry fuels.

Conclusion: No compelling grounds to refuse approval.

To the second concern, it’s not up to us. Canada is a sovereign state and our largest trading partner. Their economy needs the benefits of extracting this resource and it’s their decision. In a perfect world, renewable energy sources would be providing enough energy that they could walk away from this, but in the world we live in they are going to pump that bitumen out and it will get to market. Environmentalists in the US don’t have much impact on this, and the government should not so ill-treat a good neighbor as to stand in their way. We wouldn’t welcome foreigners interfering with our sovereignty, this is not a case where we should interfere with theirs.

Conclusion: No grounds at all.

Is there a bias in my reasoning? Of course there is, and it happens that I have already identified mine. (That’s not always easy to do.) I strongly prefer pipelines to rail cars, the environmental track record of which is not what we might wish for. I also have a reflexive interest in protecting the Pacific coast, and if they can’t pump the product south for marketing from our Gulf coast petroleum industry, they’re most likely to pump it west, and both of the proposed port facilities are in pristine areas where the channels are narrow, just about the least desirable places to put a major oil-transfer facility. If there is going to be a spill, I’d rather it be on land where it can easily be cleaned up than in the ocean. I’d rather it were in Nebraska than in British Columbia, and given the terrain it’s much less likely there would be a spill in Nebraska, but I’ll admit to bias on that point.

If I Were King, as reasonable provisions have been made to minimize problems, I’d dip my quill and sign this.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Multiple sclerosis breakthrough!

Or not. Over the period when Congress was debating “health care reform” I had a lot I wanted to say about it but always got too wound up to actually say it. Suffice it to say that, in my judgment, there has not actually been one whit of discussion in Congress about health care reform and altogether too much regarding who to stick with the bill. Perchance I will address some of these issues soon. But a story in today’s New York Times, 3rd Oral Drug to Treat MS Is Approved by the F.D.A. by Andrew Pollack, was too much for me.

It seems that a Massachusetts company called Biogen Idec has just won approval for Tecfidera as an oral treatment for multiple sclerosis, the chemical name is dimethyl fumarate. It seems that analysts are predicting that the price of this will be $51,000 per year. Pollack doesn’t mention an actual dosage but says it will be twice daily, the illustration shows a jar of 240mg capsules. So let’s assume that this capsule size is the adult dose.

Now, based on the cost of aspirin, of which I can buy 500 tablets for about $7.50 or a penny and a half each, let’s assume that if I walk into a modern compounding pharmacy with a drug in hand I can have it made into pills and put in bottles for two cents a pill. So what does this new wonderdrug cost?

Assuming I buy it the most uneconomical way possible, which means buying it in small quantities as a reagent from a chemical company that supplies laboratories, I can buy dimethyl fumarate from Sigma-Aldrich for $56.20 for 100 grams. At 365.25 days per year, 2 pills per day, and 240mg of compound per pill, that’s 175.32 grams per year or $98.53 for the drug and $14.61 for making into pills. Total cost per patient comes to $114.14. Even if they hire exotic dancers to personally deliver each month’s pills to the patient, there’s way too much profit in this at $51,000 per year.

But somehow I don’t think they’re going to be buying the compound in small quantities from Sigma-Aldrich, I think they’re going to buy it in China, from whence so many of our drugs originate. So I went to Alibaba, the great Chinese business-to-business portal where I found lots of sources capable of providing 15 to 2,000 metric tons per month. Most don’t quote prices online, but one source expected it would cost about $5 per kilogram delivered to a west coast port. That’s 87.5 cents for the medication, make it into pills and we’re looking at $15.49.

And what is this marvelous drug, this dimethyl fumarate? It’s a failed biocide. It was originally used in furniture and shoes to prevent the growth of mold when stored in tropical climates. It was packaged in little sachets, like silica gel, until it was noticed that it caused skin rashes. The European Union banned it in consumer products in 1998.

I’ve long felt that many drug patents allowed big pharma to exploit patients, but in this case Biogen Idec doesn’t even hold a patent on the material, merely a patent for a “novel use” of a material which has been mentioned in patents since at least 1978. The very idea of a patent for a novel use is as offensive as a patent for a business process, but then the patent office seems to exist to benefit the rent seekers these days.

The discovery that dimethyl fumarate appears to be efficacious in treatment of MS is a great and wonderful thing. Somebody should make a stunning amount of money by marketing it, a very suitable reward for the effort and expense of identifying the use and testing. In fact, they should charge a buck a pill, $730 per year. If I Were King, I might let them charge even twice that. But not $51,000 for pills that cost $15 to make.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The nature of human rights

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144. Some of what I’ve read is reasonably hopeful, starting with the interest on the court in declining to rule at all, which restores the right to marry to all couples in California, based on the ruling of the federal district court and the federal ninth circuit appeals court. I’ve read that many fear that a ruling that all Americans have this right would set up too much conflict in our more backward states, as many claim Roe v. Wade did, and if such a path scares SCOTUS, I can live with that. (It does concern me that we are headed toward a division in this country between states where people think rationally and states where Republicans constantly restating utter nonsense win public office, but that’s for another day.)

I was glad to hear several justices challenging the procreative argument, that the purpose of marriage is to shelter and nurture wholesome procreation by the marital partners. This is obviously rubbish, given that women with hysterectomies, not to mention a wide range of other medical issues, would then need to be barred from marriage. If such a procedure or diagnosis weren’t to become grounds for annulment, it certainly should be grounds to disallow any new marriages. That argument may fly with the Tea Party loyalists outside the court but it isn’t going anywhere as a matter of law.

The one element that truly rocked me was Justice Antonin Scalia asking, “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?” He then proposed a couple of dates. Theodore B. Olson responded with a pair of rhetorical questions, “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools.” I think Scalia’s question suggests he doesn’t understand the nature of rights. Rights do not have effective dates, at most there are dates when rights are recognized. If we have a right to enter into a marriage, that right existed at the time of the Big Bang. It didn’t depend on our constitution, our founding documents made it clear that rights issue from the Creator and are shared by all humans. Our laws recognize some rights, ignore others, and limit quite a few. Each nation has a different interpretation of what those human rights are, and over time the situation tends to improve. But the rights themselves are eternal, existing from the beginning of time.

To Justice Alito I need to add that same-sex marriage is not “newer than cell phones or the internet”, it was common millennia past. What is new is the concept that marriage is limited to exactly two persons, and that they must be of opposite sexes. But if you go back in history you’ll find countless cases in which there were wives into the hundreds and concubines too. Don’t try to tell me that such an array of women, dependent on one man for sexual gratification, did not enter into both casual and long-lasting same-sex relationships.

If I Were King, I would respect the legal process, although I probably would make clear that Hollingsworth et al did not have standing to represent my government. Besides, I like to think that those who were unable to comprehend that these rights ought to be recognized would have already decided to “self deport” to a state more inclined with their bigotry.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

More weapons?

Despite the fact that the US has more weapons than anyone on earth, possibly more weapons than the rest of the world combined, we’re faced with a situation that suggests we need some that we don’t already have.

We’ve handled issues rising from the Arab Spring with various degrees of skill. I wish Obama had done a better job, but the job was hard due to the environment created by the bellicose Bush administration. Now we have a real need to influence the events playing out in Syria but we’re leery of expanding our military adventures. We’d love to arm the insurgents but are terrified at the prospect of thus arming jihadis among them. We have to be very careful of how our involvement plays out, both in terms of our relations with various governments and with the populace.

One issue we have is that Iran is flying weapons for Assad through Iraqi airspace, and Iraq is refusing to inspect those flights to limit cargo to the humanitarian aid that Iran claims is on board. These flights need to stop, but we can’t very well scramble fighters and shoot them out of the sky, although I’m sure there are those that would approve of such a plan. I see two possible approaches.

First would be to modify an existing anti-aircraft weapon so that targeting and firing was dependent on remote supervision. Given that such systems are heavily computerized, this shouldn’t be a huge problem. We could modify a system so it confirmed that the operator of the weapon was one of the insurgents that we actually want to work with and that the target was actually one that needed to be removed. With that in place, the insurgents could take out the Republican Guard’s air freight capability without running the risk that the weapons would be stolen and later and used to shoot down El Al passenger flights.

My second thought is to create a miniature version of Project Thor, a concept put together by Jerry Pournelle almost sixty years ago, before he became a science fiction writer. In the original, we would put solid tungsten objects the shape and size of telephone poles into orbit, equipped with a guidance system. Dropping one of them on a terrestrial target would result in explosions greater than the Hiroshima atomic blast with no radioactivity. But we wouldn’t need that, we’d need something along the lines of a crowbar. Drop a couple of these at transsonic speed on a freighter unloading at a Syrian military base and that plane would probably never fly again. Do it a second time and the weapons airlift would lose its appeal to the mullahs, because we obviously could fly a lot of crowbars into orbit.

Yes, in both cases we’re still exerting our military force in someone else’s civil war, and there would be consequences. The second option probably violates space treaties we’ve signed. (If you’re working on a job in orbit and you happen to drop a tool, is that a military use of space?) But we wouldn’t be risking troops and the difficulty of disentangling from a ground war, and we wouldn’t be risking that powerful weapons would fall into the wrong hands.

If I Were King, these would be very tempting.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Officious foolishness

Yamileth came to the United States in 2005 and was soon married. She had a son, became a “lawful permanent resident” (i.e., she got a Green Card), continued her education at Palm Beach State College at Boca Raton, Florida, and applied for citizenship. Along the way she received a voter registration application in the mail, which she dutifully filled out and returned. She received a voter registration card, but apparently has never actually voted.

Today she is facing deportation because, inherent in filling out the application for voter registration, she is considered to have claimed to be a US citizen.

An analogy: Someone goes to an unfamiliar grocery, puts fifteen items in her cart, gets in the express checkout lane, goes back to shopping, and then takes her twenty items to another register. In a sane world, nobody says a word. In a reasonable store, even if she had gone back to the express lane, the checker would have simply checked her through but pointed out that she was over the limit and should please use the regular lanes next time. In the world of US immigration policy, she would have been seized before getting to the check stand, forever banned from shopping in the store, and physically ejected.

Yes, Yamileth Hoffman, the wife of an American citizen, mother of an American citizen, and generally a productive member of society that should be encouraged to take up the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, is going to be sent back to Colombia, a country she left eight years ago and doesn’t consider home.

I believe that the government should take steps to prevent criminals and undesirable persons from becoming citizens, or even living here. But what Yamileth did is not a crime. I’ve registered to vote every place I’ve lived since 1971 and I have never once canceled a previous registration. I may have been registered to vote in five precincts in three counties, although they do cull the records eventually. I never tried to vote based on any of those obsolete registrations, but then Yamileth never tried to vote based on her improper registration.

It is not the job of the cop on the beat to apply the most draconian penalty to every infraction, a simple admonition to straighten up is sufficient. If you’re going 36 in a 30 mile per hour zone with a taillight out, you’re probably going to get a warning rather than get arrested and tried.

If I Were King I would arrange additional training for whoever is responsible for this foolishness. But I’m not, so I signed a petition on to stop Yamileth Hoffman’s deportation, and I might just make a couple of phone calls.