Friday, August 31, 2018

Southern States Welcome Immigrant Labor While Pretending to be Against It

E-Verify is a website provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  It is intended to be used by employers to verify the eligibility to work of a new employee.  On it information provided by the employee is compared with government data to determine eligibility.  Since 2007, DHS has required all federal contractors and vendors to use it.  Use by the states is uneven.  Thirteen states require only that some public employers and contractors use it.  However, some deeply red states have demonstrated their contempt for those who look the other way when illegal immigration is mentioned by passing laws requiring all employers to use the system and mandating severe penalties for businesses that are not in compliance.

The Wikipedia entry on E-Verify refers to a 2016 paper by Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny titled Do state work eligibility verification laws reduce unauthorized immigration?  The authors provided this summary of their findings.

 “This study uses data from the 2005–2014 American Community Survey to examine how such laws affect unauthorized immigrants’ locational choices. The results indicate that having an E-Verify law reduces the number of less-educated prime-age immigrants from Mexico and Central America—immigrants who are likely to be unauthorized—living in a state. We find evidence that some new migrants are diverted to other states, but also suggestive evidence that some already-present migrants leave the country entirely.”

This claim suggests that the system seems to be working somewhat as planned.  However, there is other evidence that the system is purposely being ignored—and not by the people one might expect.

Margaret Newkirk provided a look at how these aggressive anti-immigrant states have performed over the years in a Bloomberg Businessweek article titled The South’s Pretend War on Immigration in the paper version, and online as E-Verify Laws Across Southern Red States Are Barely Enforced.  She provides this perspective.

“In 2011 states across the Southeast passed laws that threatened private employers with dire consequences—including losing their license to do business—if they didn’t enroll with a federal data service called E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires. Modeled after 2008 measures in Arizona and Mississippi and billed as a rebuke to a do-nothing Obama administration, the laws went further than those in the 13 states that required checks for new hires only by state agencies or their contractors.”

“Seven years later, those laws appear to have been more political bark than bite. None of the Southern states that extended E-Verify to the private sector have canceled a single business license, and only one, Tennessee, has assessed any fines. Most businesses caught violating the laws have gotten a pass.”

It should not be surprising that business would be unhappy if companies began losing licenses over a few illegal employees, but students of dysfunctional government should be impressed at the way that occurrence was ruled impossible.

“In Georgia the department charged with auditing compliance with the E-Verify law has never been given money to do so.”

“In Mississippi no one seems to know who enforces the E-Verify law. The mandate appears to give that job to its Department of Employment Security, which knows nothing about it and referred questions to the attorney general’s office, which says it doesn’t know who’s responsible.”

“….in Alabama, where the state labor department points to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which neither enforces the law nor knows who does. District attorneys, who field complaints under the mandate, say enforcement falls to the state attorney general’s office, which hadn’t heard that. ‘What is it we’re supposed to be doing?’ spokeswoman Joy Patterson asks. ‘I’m not aware of anything like that’.”

“In Louisiana, where the law against hiring unverified employees can lead to cancellation of public contracts or loss of business licenses, no contract has been canceled, no licenses have been suspended, and the state reports zero ‘actionable’ complaints since the mandate went into effect in 2012.”

Noncompliance has long been practiced and has been raised to an art form.

“It’s been against federal law since 1986 to knowingly hire undocumented workers. The “knowingly” language spawned a cottage industry of fake documents, layered hiring—subcontractors who hire subcontractors who hire subcontractors—and the use of temp agencies and independent contractors, all shielding employers from knowledge of a worker’s status.”

Some states have made it clear that noncompliance is intended.

“Many states with E-Verify laws built in loopholes from the start, including exemptions for seasonal workers (North Carolina) and farmworkers, fishermen, maids, and nannies (South Carolina). Business groups fought hard for those loopholes.”

Newkirk points to the recent Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary as an example of the hypocrisy.

“Almost as evidence of their own futility, the E-Verify laws were absent from Georgia’s recent GOP gubernatorial primary. Despite campaigning on how tough they would be on immigrants, neither candidate referred to the laws. The winner, Brian Kemp, ran ads saying he’d haul illegals away in his pickup.”

Immigrants come because they believe there will be jobs.  The South shouts “Stay away,” but whispers “Keep coming.”

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What if Ancient Humans Designed Themselves to Be Lovers—Not Warriors?

The species branch that would become homo sapiens is thought to have departed from the chimpanzee line 6-9 million years ago.  After separation, humans had much time to evolve physical and social characteristics quite different from our chimp ancestors.  However, little is known about how or why this evolution occurred over those millions of years.  Those who study why humans are as they are have as their data this ancient tie to chimps of at least 6 million years ago, and data on recent history that extends back perhaps a few tens of thousands of years from the present.  Two things corrupt these data.  The first is that chimpanzees have also evolved over the millions of years and properties they now possess could be quite different from those they once shared with humans.  The second issue involves the change in human history when humans began the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to the organization of larger and more complex social structures based on the development of agricultural practices.  This variation occurred gradually over a period from 5,000 to 15,000 years ago.  The result was a change from a group structure where the accumulation of wealth was unusual to one where an accumulation of wealth was the goal of society.  With wealth came conflict and war.

Anthropologists have tried to tie the recent history of violent human conflict with observations of violent behavior of chimpanzees today in order to claim that murder and mayhem are innate characteristics of humans.  Edward O. Wilson is a recent proponent of this hypothesis (which is particularly popular with male anthropologists).  In his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, he makes these claims.

“Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principle driving force that made us what we are.  In prehistory, group selection lifted the hominids that became territorial carnivores to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise.  And to fear.  Each tribe knew with justification that if it was not armed and ready, its very existence was imperiled.  Throughout history, the escalation of a large part of technology has had combat as its central purpose.”

“It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies.  Nor has it been an aberration of history, a result of the growing pains of our species’ maturation.  Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no particular time or culture.”

Making claims about which attributes are “universal and eternal” might seem a bit risky since so much of human history is unknown.  But are those millions of years completely unknowable to us?  Human male and female bodies evolved in different ways over years than did the bodies of our ape relatives.  Perhaps we can derive some information about how humans lived from those evolutionary differences.

Richard O. Prum has produced a fascinating look at the role of evolution in species development in his book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us.  He reminds us that Darwin eventually wrote two books discussing the topic of evolution.  The first, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, proposed the view that most describe as “survival of the fittest.”   This firmly established the notion that species evolved via natural selection as individual characteristics best adaptive to species survival in a given environment would propagate via sexual transmission and eventually become dominant in successive generations.  This established the notion that all evolutionary changes should be determined by improved adaption to the environment.  But Darwin clearly recognized that not all evolutionary developments could be explained by this hypothesis, leading him to develop the concept of mate selection as an additional factor in species evolution in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Darwin was particularly troubled by the physical development of the peacock, leading him to conclude that the outrageous and functionally useless tailfeathers are not a result of environmental adaptation, but of aesthetic choices made by female peahens.  They preferred to mate with males they found attractive.  One way or another the female of the species gained control over the mate-selection process and determined which characteristics would propagate.  The notion of female dominance in an evolutionary process was not popular with the male scientists of Darwin’s era.  Consequently, this latter process was greatly ignored and the “adaptionist” approach dominated evolutionary theorizing.  Prum’s book is aimed at resurrecting mate selection and elevating it to a more dominant place in evolutionary research.

In each species, there is a “war between the sexes” to control the process of mate selection.  Generally, males are less selective and are willing to mate with any female who is available.  Females, generally, prefer a choice as to who they mate with.  Given that the females bear the brunt of the effort and responsibility for producing offspring, it is not surprising that they would desire some choice in the matter.

Where males dominate the process, and particularly where they can force sex upon a female if they choose, dominant male characteristics will propagate.  Access to females is often a result of male-male competition.  Chimpanzees and gorillas are examples of species where males dominate.  In fact, male domination often leads to the practice of infanticide.  As a new male becomes the dominant male, he wishes to celebrate his status by impregnating females.  If none or few are available because they are lactating as they raise their offspring, the newly dominant male will often kill the young apes in order to bring the females back into estrus.

When females control the mating selection process, individual characteristics preferred by them will propagate.  In Prum’s specialty, birds, mate selection by females is the dominant process.  Consequently, it is the male who must present the physical attributes that will prove attractive to females.  Females then have the power to reconstruct males in a manner more to their liking, presumably eliminating male means of forcing sex and making males more aesthetically pleasing.  Curiously, Prum points out that the ancestor of our bird species possessed a penis.  Somehow, evolution took away the penis of most bird species, making it almost impossible to inseminate a female without her cooperation.

Much of Prum’s book involves illustrating to the reader the power of mate selection in determining male characteristics within various bird species.  It becomes clear that this process has little to do with making the species more survivable.

Prum spends the final sections of his book speculating on the role of mate selection in human development.  From this perspective, humans are rather unique in the sense that both males and females have developed differing degrees of selectivity in choosing a mate.  Prum concludes that many of the characteristics developed over the ages in both male and female humans can be explained as results of humans seeking increased sexual satisfaction.

Can evaluating human evolution in terms of mate selection provide us a different picture of what was important to humans as they evolved?  Or are we stuck with the notion that constant physical conflict determined that characteristics necessary for warfare must dominate human evolution?  Let us see if Prum might be correct.

One of the major differences between humans and our ape relatives is that we developed larger brains.  This fact is often viewed as demonstrative of human exceptionalism.  However, Suzana Herculano-Houzel, after developing a method of counting brain cells, concluded that the human brain has the same number of brain cells as expected from scaling neuron numbers of other primates as a function of body mass.  Human brains are, in that sense, not exceptional.  The brains of gorillas and chimpanzees are exceptional because they fall below the scaling line; their brains are smaller than expected.  The explanation for this follows from the fact that brains consume an inordinate amount of energy for their size.  The other apes had difficulty consuming enough food to provide sufficient energy for both their large body and a larger brain.  Their evolutionary response was to develop a larger digestive system to extract more nourishment from their food supply.  Humans learned to control fire and use it to cook food.  Cooked food is more easily digestible and can provide up to three times the nutrients of raw food.  Humans thus provided themselves the luxury of a brain appropriate to their body mass.  It is hard to see where either mate choice or the need to fight played a direct role in this.

Pound for pound, chimps are stronger than humans.  If war and conflict are “universal and eternal” occupations of humans, then how is diminished strength to be viewed as a boon to survivability.  It can be argued that humans traded brute strength for better control of their muscular capabilities.  This would likely be helpful in fabricating and using weapons.  But both sexes probably appreciated the availability of slow and steady hands in caressing.  Call it a slight advantage to the adaptionists.

Male chimpanzees and gorillas have large and sharp canine teeth that are effective in fighting and useful for intimidating females.  Humans evolved away those canines.  How is that adaptive to an environment in which violent conflict is common? 

Which of these specimens do you expect to females to be more comfortable with encountering on a blind date?

Chalk this one up for mate selection.

The difference in size between human males and females also diminished over time.  A relative increase in female size would be consistent with a lesser threat that males could force sex on a female against her will.  Females would obviously be more comfortable with less threatening males. 

“….there is consistent evidence that females do not prefer the most ‘masculine’ facial features, which have been characterized as prominent square jaws, wide prominent brows, thick eyebrows, and thin cheeks and lips.  Numerous studies have shown that women instead prefer intermediate or even what some researchers call ‘feminine’ facial features in men, and one study has shown that females prefer a light stubble over a more masculine full beard.  According to a handful of disparate studies cited by Gangestad and Scheyd, these facial preferences seem consistent with the evidence on what women like to see in male bodies.  They tend to like lean but somewhat muscular male bodies with broad shoulders and v-shaped torsos the most, and men with larger, more muscle-bound bodies the least.”

Chalk another one up for mate selection.

An obvious characteristic of humans is that they lost most of their body hair.  It has been suggested that this would allow humans to dispose of excess body heat more easily while running.  That could be an advantage in survivability in hunting or fighting.  For females however, the lack of body hair had significant ramifications.  Chimp infants instinctively know to grasp their mothers’ hair and hold on.  This allows a mother chimp to be with her child essentially all the time, even when foraging for food.  Human infants still have that grasping instinct, at least for a while, but the mother lost an important means of caring for her infant while she foraged—or fought for that matter.  Human females—and males—would have to agree to collaborate with the mother in caring for her infant while a mother went about her business.  This would require a dramatic revolution in social behavior compared to that of other apes. 

Humans currently view body hair as something unsightly except in designated ornamental configurations.  And there are plenty of hairy animals that are quite survivable in Africa.  It is difficult to view loss of body hair as other than a product of mate selection.

Actually, humans then proceeded to add other patches of hair in their underarms and pubic regions.  The fact that these displays only emerge at puberty is highly suggestive that they are involved with sexual signaling of some sort.  More points for mate selection.

“Regardless of whether the reduction of body hair is an aesthetic trait or not, it is clear that another unique trait—the retention of specialized patches of hair in the armpits, pubic region, scalp and eyebrows—is ornamental.  The fact that the retention of these patches of hair is the same in both sexes….strongly implies that it evolved through mutual mate choice, like the bright beaks and plumage of male and female puffins, parrots, and toucans.  The hypothesis that underarm and pubic hair are evolved sexual signals is further supported by the observation that these patches of hair do not develop until puberty.  These unusual patches of hair likely evolved for the purpose of pheromonal, sexual communication between mates, which is very common in mammals.”

One of the most unique characteristics developed by humans is the existence of permanent breasts on females.

“Among the more than five thousand species of mammals on earth, permanent breast tissue is unique to humans.  The mammaries of all other mammals increase in size only during ovulation and lactation, and they are not enlarged at other points in the life cycle.  Human females, however, develop enlarged breasts with the onset of sexual maturity, and they retain enlarged breast tissue throughout their lives.”

It would really be a stretch to see permanent breasts as a survivability feature.  They would get in the way when foraging or fighting, and be a hindrance if women had to move fast.  It would be a long time before the sports bra would be invented.  Permanent breasts could only develop with the support of males who signaled their enthusiasm via mate selection.

Human males have also developed rather unique sexual features.  A chimpanzee female copulates with many males in order to suggest to as many as possible that they may be the father of her coming infant.  This is in hope that a male will not kill one of its own offspring.  This means the chimp with the most sperm has the greatest chance of fertilizing the ovum.  Chimps therefore have evolved large testes relative to their body size.  Humans face no such condition and have developed modest sized testes.  However, for some reason, humans have developed a larger scrotum that the chimp even though its testes are smaller.

The human penis has also developed some unique features that appear to be driven by effectiveness in sexual intercourse and/or attractiveness to females.

“By any measure, the human penis requires a lot of explanation.  It is substantially larger—both in absolute and relative size—than that of any of the other apes, even though humans are intermediate in body size between gorillas and chimpanzees.  The erect gorilla penis is only an inch and a half long.  The chimpanzee penis is three inches long when erect, very thin, smooth, and finely pointed at the tip.  The human penis is both longer—averaging about six inches when erect—and wider than the penis of other apes.  The human penis is also characterized by a distinctly bulbous glans and coronal ridge at its tip.  Similar structures have evolved in other primates, but they are not present in African apes.”

There is another puzzling feature to the human penis.  Humans are one of only two primates that have evolved away their penis bone, the baculum.

“The existence of a baculum in the other primates means that an erection is guaranteed by the presence of an ossified bone within the penis….we do know that aside from producing erections, the baculum functions in retracting the penis between erections.  What its other functions might be is still not clear.”

It seems that male animals who do spend their days attacking or being attacked have mechanisms whereby their genitals are tucked away in a safe place, but the supposedly superior human male leaves his permanently exposed—and oh how vulnerable they are!  And now consider the extent of the sexual display when humans became bipedal and began standing upright and the females’ breasts became more clearly visible to the males, and the males’ large penis and large scrotum readily available for evaluation by females.  Do naked men and women look in any way ready to do battle?  Chalk one up for mate selection!

Mating is driven by the pleasure involved in the act.  For most species it is a one-off event.  Mating season comes or a female signals that it is in estrus and male and female both go into action.  And then it is over.  It seems a really clever animal would notice that sex was pleasurable and devise a way to have sex whenever possible without the added concern of creating offspring.  With modern contraceptives humans have reached that state.  But the first step in the process was taken long ago when women lost any signaling of when they were in estrus.  It is not clear how this happened, but mate selection would be a prime suspect.  This meant that mating generally required multiple sexual encounters in order to generate offspring.  As a result, both sexes could evaluate potential mates for both aesthetic characteristics and for their effectiveness as a sexual partner.  This extended mating process is probably responsible for selecting males who could copulate much longer than chimps or gorillas before ejaculation, and females who could experience an orgasm when sufficiently excited—something not observed in brief ape sex.  It is amazing how much of human evolution seemed devoted to maximizing sexual pleasure.

This extended period of sexual activity before pregnancy also gave both males and females time to evaluate partners on other than sexual performance.  Human males are variable in their levels of support for their offspring, but they are much more engaged than chimps or gorillas—another probable result of mate selection.

This discussion should convince most that mate selection has played a significant role in human evolution, and that this role did not result in making humans better warriors.

There is another conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion.  It appears that females of the past had greater sexual autonomy than females of today.  Prum provides this perspective.

 “….I think that the advances in female sexual autonomy that occurred over millions of years since our common ancestry with the chimpanzees….have been challenged by two relatively recent cultural innovations—agriculture and the market economy that developed along with agriculture….These twin inventions came into being a scant six hundred human generations ago and created the first opportunity for wealth and the differential distribution of wealth.  When males gained cultural control over these material resources, new opportunities were created for the cultural consolidation of male social power.  The independent and parallel invention of patriarchy in many of the world’s cultures has functioned to impose male control over nearly all aspects of female life, indeed human life.  Thus the cultural evolution of patriarchy has prevented modern women from fully consolidating the previous evolutionary gains in sexual autonomy.”

In other words, women are now struggling to get back to where they were a thousand generations ago, before men began convincing them they were the weaker sex, and that sex itself was a male preoccupation—not one women should expect to enjoy.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum

Are Humans Inherently Warlike?

Humanity and Violence

Of Chimps and Men: Mothers and Others

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Private-Equity Scam

Robert Kuttner examines the factors that led to a healthy economy and a relatively egalitarian distribution of income in the postwar years.  He then details the changes that occurred from the 1970s to the present that altered the nature of the economy to the extremely unegalitarian one we have today.  He presents his thoughts in his book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? 

“The story of the lost social contract of the postwar era has two essential elements.  One was the liberation of finance; the other was the undermining of labor.  Globalization was an instrument of both.”

Numerous examples are highlighted to support that claim.  Here we will focus on one that is particularly noxious; one that illustrates the poisonous relationship between the excesses of finance and workers’ welfare: the private-equity industry.

“The private-equity industry now owns about 4.3 trillion dollars’ worth of operating companies that employ about 12 million workers.”

The practice at issue is what was once referred to as the “leveraged buyout.”  The maneuver involves borrowing money to buy out the owners of a company (often shareholders) and use the assets of the purchased company as collateral for the extended credit.  The private-equity investors put up a small fraction of the required capital for the deal and load the acquired company with the majority of the debt.  The claim is that the new owners will make the business more efficient and ultimately increase its value so it can be resold at a profit at a later date.  However, making this process work leads immediately to the need to cut expenses in order to service the newly acquired debt.  The first cuts are inevitably in the number of employees and their benefits.

“Private-equity companies have even found legal ways of looting employee pension funds.” 

The private equity investors protect their investment by extracting assets up front to limit any risk.

“The truly nefarious aspect of the private-equity business model is that windfall profits are extracted in advance, so that when the actually operating company falters, the equity partners experience very little loss, if any.  This model turns on its head the usual incentives to operate a business prudently and to view workers as long-term assets.”

“Private-equity partners accomplish this trick by borrowing heavily against a newly acquired company, paying themselves an exorbitant ‘special dividend,’ as well as management fees, that together typically far exceed the actual equity they have invested in the company.  They then move to aggressively cut costs.  If they succeed, they often sell the stripped-down company to someone else.  If they cut too deeply, they’ve already made their fortune up front, and they can use bankruptcy either to shut down the operation or to shed its debts and restructure it.”

Bryce Covert produced an article for The Atlantic addressing the effect private equity is having on the retail industry, with a focus on the recent Toys “R” Us bankruptcy.  His piece was titled You Buy It, You Break It: How private equity is killing retail in the paper version of the magazine.  Online, it ran as The Demise of Toys‘R’ Us Is a Warning: The private-equity companies swooping in to buy floundering retailers may ultimately be hastening their demise.

Toys “R” Us was taken over by the private-equity outfits Bain Capital and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and the real-estate firm Vornado Realty Trust in 2005.  A worker immediately noticed a difference in working conditions.

“’It changed the dynamic of how the store ran,’ she said. The company eliminated positions, loading responsibilities onto other workers. Schedules became unpredictable. Employees had to pay more for fewer benefits….”

When the company announced it would liquidating assets as part of a bankruptcy process, all sorts of reasons were discussed by analysts for why it was no longer able to compete in the current marketplace.  One that was little mentioned was the burden the private-equity takeover placed on the operation of the company.

“Less attention was paid to the albatross that Bain, KKR, and Vornado had placed around the company’s neck. Toys “R” Us had a debt load of $1.86 billion before it was bought out. Immediately after the deal, it shouldered more than $5 billion in debt. And though sales had slumped before the deal, they held relatively steady after it, even when the Great Recession hit. The company generated $11.2 billion in sales in the 12 months before the deal; in the 12 months before November 2017, it generated $11.1 billion.”

“Saddled with its new debt, however, Toys “R” Us had less flexibility to innovate. By 2007, according to Bloomberg, interest expense consumed 97 percent of the company’s operating profit. It had few resources left to upgrade its stores in order to compete with Target, or to spiff up its website in order to contend with Amazon.”

Servicing the debt imposed on it by the private-equity takeover left it with no funds to address changes required to keep up in an evolving marketplace.  Covert suggests that as the reason for the demise of Toys “R” Us.  And, of course, there were no funds left to provide severance pay for the more than 30,000 employees who lost jobs.

Covert’s take on private equity is even harsher than Kuttner’s.

“Given private equity’s poor track record in retail, it can be difficult to see what companies like Toys “R” Us hope to get from a buyout. For private equity, however, the appeal is clear: The deals are virtually all upside, and carry minimal risk. Many private-equity firms chip in only about 1 to 2 percent of the equity needed for a leveraged buyout, and skim fees and interest throughout the deal. If things go well, the firms take a huge cut of the profit when they exit. If everything blows up, they usually still escape with nary a burn. Toys “R” Us was still paying interest on loans it got from KKR and Bain up until 2016, as well as millions a year in ‘advisory fees’ for unspecified services rendered. According to one estimate, the money KKR and Bain partners earned from those fees more than covered the firms’ losses in the deal.”

Covert provides some data to illustrate private equity’s impact on the retail industry as a whole.

“Toys “R” Us is hardly the only retail operation to learn this lesson the hard way. The so-called retail apocalypse felled roughly 7,000 stores and eliminated more than 50,000 jobs in 2017. For the spate of brands that have recently declared bankruptcy, their demise is as much a story about private equity’s avarice as it is about Amazon’s acumen.”

“In April 2017, an analysis by Newsday found that of the 43 large retail or supermarket companies that had filed for bankruptcy since the start of 2015, more than 40 percent were owned by private-equity firms. Since that analysis, a number of others have joined the list, including Nine West, Claire’s, and Gymboree. An analysis by the firm FTI Consulting found that two-thirds of the retailers that filed for Chapter 11 in 2016 and 2017 were backed by private equity.”

This behavior has aroused some pushback by activists, but enormous profits provide enormous political influence.

“A conglomeration of workers’-rights and financial-reform organizations is seeking to outlaw leveraged buyouts altogether. ‘They weren’t always legal,’ Charles Khan of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, which is part of the group, points out. Before the 1980s, companies couldn’t finance deals with such high levels of debt. One aim of Khan and his allies is to once again force buyouts to rely on a smaller portion of debt. ‘The economy has existed long before private equity,’ he says. ‘I think it can exist without private equity’.”

Robert Kuttner provides an appropriate comment with which to close.

“The losers in these maneuvers are invariably the workers.  They lose wages, benefits, pensions, or their jobs.  Private equity is just one more strand in a complex tapestry of degraded work.  Ordinary workers may not grasp the complex strategies, but they surely understand the results.  Why is this legal?  How can private-equity companies get away with these moves?  They invest heavily in political influence.  The result, as someone said, is that ‘the rules are rigged’ against working people.”

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Mass Extinction and the Dinosaur Wars: Scientists Risk Their Credibility

Our planet has suffered at least five mass extinctions in its past where 60% to over 90% of all known species became extinct.  In addition, there were numerous lesser events in which the Earth became a rather inhospitable place for life.  We humans should take note of this as we slash and burn our way through our environment since scientists are already designating our era as that of the sixth mass extinction.

The most recent occurrence dates back about 66 million years.  It carries the official name of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.  It is more popularly known as the event that rendered the dinosaurs extinct, although about 75% of all species were thought to have died off as well.  It is not easy to determine the causes of such events, but variants on a few themes have become popular.  Changes in temperature can disrupt life cycles in the oceans effecting sea life directly and land life indirectly.  Volcanic eruptions are known to disrupt climate and the environment by spewing dust and chemicals into the air where they are spread around the globe.  If the amount of material is sufficient, it can also disrupt both sea and land lifecycles.  To ascertain the timing of extinction events scientists have little more to go on than fossil histories extracted from sediments.

The Cretaceous-Paleogene event was subject to the usual analysis tools by the usual geologists, geochemists, paleontologists and such.  In 1978 the focus was on a series of immense volcanic eruptions that occurred in a region of India known as the Deccan Traps (the word “traps” in geology is derived from the Scandinavian word “trappa” for stairs, and it refers to the stair-like hills that define certain regions).  Then in 1980 a renowned physicist, Luis Alvarez, entered the party by claiming that iridium, a rare element, was found deposited around the globe at about the right time to explain the extinction.  He postulated that a meteor impact was then the most likely explanation for large amounts of material lifted into the air causing the disruption of life.  His theory was supported ten years later when the Chicxulub impact crater was found off the coast of Mexico.  The contentious back and forth between supporters of the meteor impact theory and the more conventional volcanic theory has been referred to as the “dinosaur wars.”

Bianca Bosker provides an interesting narrative of the history of this scientific conflict in an article in The Atlantic: The Nastiest Feud in Science.  Wars, whether political or scientific, bring out the worst in people, and, occasionally, the best in people.  She details how the superstar physicist’s theory became too popular to resist and was taken as “scientifically proven” by most experts.

“Their hypothesis quickly gained traction, as visions of killer space rocks sparked even the dullest imaginations.  NASA initiated Project Spacewatch to track—and possibly bomb—any asteroid that might dare to approach. Carl Sagan warned world leaders that hydrogen bombs could trigger a catastrophic ‘nuclear winter’ like the one caused by the asteroid’s dust cloud. Science reporters cheered having a story that united dinosaurs and extraterrestrials and Cold War fever dreams—it needed only ‘some sex and the involvement of the Royal Family and the whole world would be paying attention,’ one journalist wrote. News articles described scientists rallying around Alvarez’s theory in record time, especially after the so-called impacter camp delivered, in 1991, the geologic equivalent of DNA evidence: the ‘Crater of Doom,’ a 111-mile-wide cavity near the Mexican town of Chicxulub, on the Yucat√°n Peninsula. Researchers identified it as the spot where the fatal asteroid had punched the Earth. Textbooks and natural-history museums raced to add updates identifying the asteroid as the killer.”

If dinosaur extinction generated a war, it seemed to be soon over.  However, Bosker tells us of a hero, or in this case a heroine, who arose and fought back against nearly insurmountable odds to at least bring the conflict to a stalemate.  Bosker’s heroine is Gerta Keller, a Princeton paleontologist, whose specialty is studying fossils of small marine life forms.  Her interpretation of the fossil data suggested that the extinction proceeded much too slow to have been generated by a meteor impact, and that it was consistent with volcanic emissions that took place on a time scale of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years and was suggestive of the Deccan Traps as the source.  Keller fought a lonely battle for a number of years in advancing the volcanic theory, gradually gaining collaborators and adherents and finally seems to have lifted the hypothesis to the point where both views are getting equal billing as an explanation for the extinction event.

It may be that we will never know who is right and who is wrong.  The fossil data may be too inaccurate to determine the answer. 

“Yet even specialists from complementary disciplines like geology and paleontology butted heads over crucial interpretations: They consistently reached opposing conclusions as to whether the disappearance of the species was fast (consistent with an asteroid’s sudden devastation) or slow (reflecting a more gradual cause). In 1997, hoping to reconcile disagreement over the speed of extinction, scientists organized a blind test in which they distributed fossil samples from the same site to six researchers. The researchers came back exactly split.”

The science behind the dispute is interesting and knowing the cause of the extinctions is certainly of value, but the most striking aspect of Bosker’s narrative is the behavior of the scientists involved.  They like to think of themselves as superior to others as they project an image of being unbiased interpreters of data whose only goal is the advancement of knowledge.  In reality, as Bosker indicates, they have their biases, their ambitions, their lust for fame and glory, and they will occasionally stoop to dishonesty to achieve their goals.  In other words, they are people with the same failings as other human beings.

Consider the arrogance of Alvarez in pushing his theory.

“Ad hominem attacks had by then long characterized the mass-extinction controversy, which came to be known as the ‘dinosaur wars.’ Alvarez had set the tone. His numerous scientific exploits—winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, flying alongside the crew that bombed Hiroshima, ‘X-raying’ Egypt’s pyramids in search of secret chambers—had earned him renown far beyond academia, and he had wielded his star power to mock, malign, and discredit opponents who dared to contradict him. In The New York Times, Alvarez branded one skeptic ‘not a very good scientist,’ chided dissenters for ‘publishing scientific nonsense,’ suggested ignoring another scientist’s work because of his ‘general incompetence,’ and wrote off the entire discipline of paleontology when specialists protested that the fossil record contradicted his theory. ‘I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re really not very good scientists,’ Alvarez told The Times. ‘They’re more like stamp collectors’.”

And then there was the “unbiased search for knowledge.”

“Scientists who dissented from the asteroid hypothesis feared for their careers. Dewey McLean, a geologist at Virginia Tech credited with first proposing the theory of Deccan volcanism, accused Alvarez of trying to block his promotion to full professor by bad-mouthing him to university officials. Alvarez denied doing so—while effectively bad-mouthing McLean to university officials. ‘If the president of the college had asked me what I thought about Dewey McLean, I’d say he’s a weak sister,’ Alvarez told The Times. ‘I thought he’d been knocked out of the ball game and had just disappeared, because nobody invites him to conferences anymore.’ Chuck Officer, another volcanism proponent, whom Alvarez dismissed as a laughingstock, charged that Science, a top academic journal, had become biased. The journal reportedly published 45 pieces favorable to the impact theory during a 12-year period—but only four on other hypotheses. (The editor denied any favoritism.)”

“Ground down by acrimony, many critics of the asteroid hypothesis withdrew—including Officer and McLean, two of the most outspoken opponents. Lamenting the rancor as ‘embarrassing to geology,’ Officer announced in 1994 that he would quit mass-extinction research. Though he did ultimately get promoted, McLean later wrote on his faculty website that Alvarez’s ‘vicious politics’ had caused him to develop serious health problems and that, for fear of a relapse, he couldn’t research Deccan volcanism without ‘the greatest of difficulty.’ ‘I never recovered physically or psychologically from that ordeal,’ he added. Younger scientists avoided the topic, fearing that they might jeopardize their careers. The impact theory solidified, and volcanism was largely abandoned.”

Bosker then describes the environment within which Gerta Keller had to work as she continued to push the volcanic theory in the face of the conventional wisdom.

“As Keller has steadily accumulated evidence to undermine the asteroid hypothesis, the animosity between her and the impacters has only intensified. Her critics have no qualms about attacking her in the press: Various scientists told me, on the record, that they consider her ‘fringe,’ ‘unethical,’ ‘particularly dishonest,’ and ‘a gadfly.’ Keller, not to be outdone, called one impacter a ‘crybaby,’ another a ‘bully,’ and a third ‘the Trump of science.’ Put them in a room together, and ‘it may be World War III,’ Andrew Kerr says.”

“Keller aired a long list of grievances. She said impacters had warned some of her collaborators not to work with her, even contacting their supervisors in order to pressure them to sever ties. (Thierry Adatte and Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, who have worked with Keller for years, confirmed this.) Keller listed numerous research papers whose early drafts had been rejected, she felt, because pro-impact peer reviewers ‘just come out and regurgitate their hatred.’ She suspected repeated attempts to deny her access to valuable samples extracted from the Chicxulub crater, such as in 2002, when the journal Nature reported on accusations that Jan Smit had seized control of a crucial piece of rock—drilled at great expense—and purposefully delayed its distribution to other scientists, a claim Smit called ‘ridiculous.’ (Keller told me the sample went missing and was eventually found in Smit’s duffel bag; Smit says this is ‘pure fantasy.’)”

Some might find a little back stabbing and deceit related to an arcane subject entertaining.  But what if the topic was of great significance such as a current health issue?  Would you want a similar set of “experts” weighing in on what could be a matter of life or death?  As a practical matter, in such an event there would be public servants driving the discourse and keeping the participants honest.  But for the monitored group of scientists to be effective in driving public discourse, they must have credibility with the general public.  The “dinosaur wars” nonsense does nothing to buttress the credibility of science.  There is nothing entertaining about it.

On a slightly lighter note, the personal bias of scientists for their pet theories, as demonstrated here, is not a new phenomenon.  Max Planck, one of the fathers of modern physics, recognized this long ago and came up with a relevant comment.  When translated from the German it reads like this.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

There seems to be a lot of truth in that statement.  It has been quoted many times, usually in snappier versions.  Should one wish to whip it out in a discussion, the following examples are probably more effective.

“Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out.”

“Science advances one funeral at a time.”

 The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Cellular Conflicts and Fertility: Nature Is Pro-Choice

Barbara Ehrenreich has authored a long list of books on a variety of topics.  Perhaps her best-known work is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.  She has occasionally chosen topics that involve healthcare, but the focus was not such as to allow one to suspect that her formal education resulted in a doctorate in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University.  Apparently, her range of interests were too broad to be constrained by a career in such a narrow discipline.  It would be awareness of a growing revolution in knowledge of how the human immune system actually worked that would lead her back to her original field for the production of her recent effort: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.  As the title suggests, Ehrenreich is dubious about the prospects of extending life indefinitely, and she is not at all optimistic about our prospects for making significant changes in our longevity by changing our personal lifestyles. 

“The body….is not a smooth-running machine in which each part obediently performs its tasks for the benefit of the common good.  It is at best a confederation of parts—cells, tissues, even thought patterns—that may seek to advance their own agendas, whether or not they are destructive of the whole.  What, after all, is cancer, other than a cellular rebellion against the entire organism.”

“I know that in an era where both conventional medicine and the wooliest ‘alternatives’ hold out the goal of self-mastery, or at least the promise that we can prolong our lives and improve our health by carefully monitoring our lifestyles, many people will find this perspective disappointing, even defeatist.  What is the point of minutely calibrating one’s diet and time spent on the treadmill when you could be vanquished entirely by a few rogue cells within your own body?”

It was recent knowledge gained about the role of our immune systems in determining our health that prompted her to write the book.  To perform its function of protecting us from things like microbes and parasites that are foreign to our bodies, the immune system consists of an impressive array of structures and processes designed to disable or destroy these things.  However, the power to destroy can be dangerous if malfunctions can occur.  And they do.  There are at least 80 types of autoimmune diseases where the immune system, for whatever reason, turns on specific body parts.  Examples include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease and Graves’ disease.  Her coverage of issues related to the immune system was discussed in Cellular Conflicts: Is Extending Life Possible—or Even Worth the Trouble? 

The topic here involves another instance of cellular conflict within our bodies: the human female reproductive cycle.  It has been recognized for over twenty years that pregnancy involved a competition between the host mother and the fetus she was carrying.

“In 1993….[David] Haig put forth the surprising view that pregnancy was shaped by ‘maternal-fetal competition.’  The fetus and the placenta that attaches it to the maternal bloodstream strive to extract more nutrients from the mother, while maternal tissue fights to hold on to its nutrients—often to the detriment of the mother.  For example, the fetus may interfere with maternal insulin production, leading to elevated blood sugar levels that are injurious to the mother but deliciously nourishing to the fetus.  Or the fetus and the placenta may release chemicals that raise the mother’s blood pressure—apparently to guarantee a steady flow of nutrients to the fetus—although at some risk to the mother and ultimately to the fetus as well.”

What is less well known is that cellular conflict begins much earlier in the process.  In preparation for encountering a recently created embryo, the uterus generates a relatively thick layer of cells referred to as the endometrium.  It was thought that this layer was produced in order to provide an efficient harbor in which an embryo can dock and set up shop.  However, it seems that a woman’s uterus is very particular about which embryos it is willing to allow to attach to it.  The role of the endometrium is, counterintuitively, to make it difficult for an embryo to attach and access the mother’s blood stream.

“Today the emerging scientific consensus about menstruation hinges on the conflict within our species—a possibility that would until recently have been deeply disturbing to biologists.  In this view, the buildup of the uterine lining does not serve to entice embryos to implant, but to prevent all but the most robust and agile embryos from ever having a chance.”

To support this view, Ehrenreich references an article by the evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin: Why do women have periods? What is the evolutionary benefit or purpose of having periods? Why can’t women just get pregnant without the menstrual cycle?  From it, this quote was extracted.

 “Far from offering a nurturing embrace, the endometrium is a lethal testing-ground which only the toughest embryos survive. The longer the female can delay that placenta reaching her bloodstream, the longer she has to decide if she wants to dispose of this embryo without significant cost. The embryo, in contrast, wants to implant its placenta as quickly as possible, both to obtain access to its mother's rich blood, and to increase her stake in its survival. For this reason, the endometrium got thicker and tougher – and the fetal placenta got correspondingly more aggressive.”

Sadedin included a reference to a more detailed scientific paper that provides even greater enlightenment: Natural Selection of Human Embryos: Decidualizing Endometrial Stromal Cells Serve as Sensors of Embryo Quality upon Implantation.  This paper was authored by 18 individuals with mostly unpronounceable and, certainly, untypable names.  A critical insight provided by these authors is that a significant fraction of human embryos are defective at a chromosomal level.

“Monthly fecundity rates in fertile couples average around 20%, which is disappointingly low compared to many species.  While this lack of intrinsic reproductive efficacy may reflect a multitude of complex social and biological factors, for example the loss of estrous behaviour and concealed ovulation, it is foremost attributable to the high prevalence of chromosomal abnormalities in human embryos, which limits their developmental potential and accounts for the age-dependent decline in fertility.”

Unless humans evolved some mechanism for dealing with this, a woman’s pregnancy would often be unproductive, wasteful in terms of maternal resources, and dangerous for the woman.  Consequently, endometrial cells, driven by hormonal surges produced during the menstrual cycle, undergo a transformation referred to as decidualization.  It is these decidualized cells that query the integrity of the embryo and attempt to destroy those deemed unacceptable.

“Pregnancy is widely viewed as dependent upon an intimate dialogue, mediated by locally secreted factors between a developmentally competent embryo and a receptive endometrium. Reproductive success in humans is however limited, largely because of the high prevalence of chromosomally abnormal preimplantation embryos. Moreover, the transient period of endometrial receptivity in humans uniquely coincides with differentiation of endometrial stromal cells (ESCs) into highly specialized decidual cells, which in the absence of pregnancy invariably triggers menstruation.”

“….rather than being passively invaded, these observations suggest that decidualizing ESCs actively encapsulate the early human conceptus. If so, the phenomenal response of decidual cells to a developmentally impaired embryo could represent a mechanism for controlled embryo disposal, mediated by induction of menstruation-like tissue breakdown and shedding.”

“….once the endometrium undergoes a decidual response, the integrity of the tissue becomes inextricably dependent upon continuous progesterone signalling. In the absence of pregnancy, declining progesterone levels triggers a switch in the secretory repertoire of decidual stromal cells….which activates a sequence of events leading to tissue breakdown and menstrual shedding.”

So, there you have a concise description of the process of uterine attachment by an embryo.  The endometrial layer captures and “encapsulates” as many of the defective embryos as it can and destroys them by flooding them with menstrual blood filled with cells capable of consuming the decidual layer and flushing the debris away.  Within the debris are the remnants of what were once embryos.

What we are encountering here is a process akin to contraception or abortion.  This evolutionarily developed process decides which embryos are desirable and destroys the rest.  Nature has devised a scheme by which abnormal or otherwise unwanted embryos can be forbidden to make a permanent attachment to the uterus and continue into pregnancy.  Contraception and abortion, by this rendering, are not “unnatural” processes as often claimed.  They are, in fact, perfectly natural—and critical to the health of our species.

It would seem that nature is pro-choice, and, if one wishes to believe that humans were designed by God, then God is pro-choice as well.  People who would determine during pregnancy that a fetus is damaged in some way have the technology to safely terminate that pregnancy.  In doing this, it would seem that they are assisting in the plan laid out by nature—and God.  Those who would legislate rules that require a woman to carry a damaged fetus to term are certainly following an unnatural—and un-Godly—path.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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