Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Immigration, schmimmigration

I now know why "illegal immigration" has never resonated with me as a political issue. It's because it is solely a political issue, with very little bearing on what happens outside of some state houses and Washington DC. In the abstract, I suppose, one could claim that illegal immigrants are costing "real" Americans jobs or somehow using up resources (say, ER time, um, or public school monies, er--heck, I can't even think of any others!) that would otherwise go to "legal" Americans.
The age-old argument against punishing illegal immigrants for the former is that they are "doing the jobs that we don't want to do." In many ways that is true, but doesn't that have more to do with 1) the employer who is escaping paying his/her due payroll taxes; and 2) the employer paying so little that no one other than some poor desperate soul would do the job?
As far as the latter, I would say that if we had universal health care and fully funded school systems, there wouldn't be any scarcity of resources to complain about in the first place!
So what is this really about, then? The fact that the Republican Party found another issue to stir up antagonism against "Them" as a means of creating the false sense of unity among their quite disparate factions. Hatred and fear of non-whites and foreign-looking/sounding people has a long and ugly history in this country, and slavery was merely the first instance of it. Whole political parties have arisen to service this whites only mentality, most obviously the "Nativists" (originally comprising the American Republican Party, then renamed the American party, finally to be absorbed by the Know Nothing Party) of the mid-1800s. And even though the Democratic Party was the home to the vast majority of slaveholders, the Nativists found their permanent political home in the Republican Party, albeit one that was far different than the one we have today.
Apparently, the modern Republican Party wants to recreate the halcyon days of the 1850s, since their arguments against immigration are really coded arguments against immigrants. Subtle (and not-so-subtle--a freaking concrete wall built on our southern border? Shades of the Soviet Union in Berlin!) appeals to nativism, I believe, are simply calls to institutionalize the racism in which some of our citizens still hold dear. That the racists have convinced a large portion of the populace, and possibly a majority of the Republican party, that this kind of racism is just fine, is sick, but the frustrating part of this is that the coding of their public appeals and legislation are such that many good people are drawn into the discussion even though they themselves are neither racists nor nativists!
The non-issue of "illegal immigration", if stated straightforwardly by those seeking to convince others that there is a problem--we either don't like or fear brown, black, or yellow people, and we want them to leave--would be laughed out of the public fora, and those who proposed the discussion would be voted out of office posthaste. (Remember what happened to George "Macaca" Allen?) Republicans have seized on "illegal immigration" as a wedge issue designed to split the base of political opponents who attempt to address the issue on Republican terms while simultaneously help forestall the inevitable disintegration of their own base. That it also helps diffuse efforts to end the occupation of Iraq, ferret out corruption in government, and sidetrack or derail the legislative process by which the Democrats hope to restore our country's political sanity, are all big bonus side effects.
It's simply not that big a deal, in the scheme of things, that we have people coming to our country illegally. Think about it this way: if the Republican Party got its way, and our country's economy were destroyed (further), nobody would want to come here in the first place. Helping them do so by keeping "illegal immigration" on the agenda is seriously perverse, isn't it?

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Book review: Natural Causes

This book scared the bejebus out of me. Natural Causes is an exposé of the politics and practices of the herbal supplement and vitamin industry. That doesn't sound so dramatic, but what author Dan Hurley is really doing is revealing the fundamental lack of sound science that lies behind the use of any "natural" supplements and vitamins. Every chapter begins with a true and tragic story of the grisly results of using the products Hurley covers, even those that are advertised as supposedly benign. Hurley goes on to detail the utter lack of proven effectiveness of any of these items, leaving little doubt that there is absolutely no reason to be taking any of this stuff. (He does allow for the possible positive use of folic acid--with a caveat--for women trying to become pregnant, and notes that Americans, at least, are actually deficient in vitamin D, but almost nothing else comes through his analysis unscathed.)
The most surprising discussion, of course, is that of vitamin supplements, and while he does not have a vignette of someone being horribly disfigured or permanently messed up from taking too many vitamins, he quotes from a whole bunch of studies revealing that vitamins don't do much good at all. (I've included some of these as an "appendix" below.)
How can this whole industry escape the notice of the FDA? Hurley explains that successful lobbying by the leaders of the supplement industry, as well as the support of our old friendly psycho arch-Republican Orrin Hatch (whose native Utah is the headquarters for the vast majority of the supplement companies)--in addition to a PR campaign designed to scare the populace (gee, where have we heard that before?), made mincemeat of any opposition to a bill gutting the FDA's oversight of the supplement industry in the mid-1990s. Supplements, it seems, are legally considered to be neither foods nor drugs (even though in most cases they are derived from the exact same plants as the prescription drugs they are designed to emulate/replace), and therefore are now empowered by definition to fall between the jurisdictional cracks in our regulatory net. Even in the most extreme cases (like ephedra), the FDA is so hamstrung by this legislatory restriction that even the multiple deaths directly caused by the substance weren't enough to allow them to instantly pull ephedra off the shelves without a legal tussle.
Natural Causes is a scary, necessary analysis that deserves a wide audience.

" . . . guidelines, jointly prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture . . . recommend B12 for adults over fifty and folic acid for women of childbearing age who may become pregnant[;] nowhere do they recommend a multivitamin for anyone." (pg. 166)
Although "a 2004 study found tentative signs of a slightly increased risk of death, and of breast cancer, in women years after they took it during pregnancy." Folic acid can also worsen a B12 deficiency, leading to anemia and even brain damage.

On antioxidants:
From New England Journal of Medicine 4/14/94: A study "[c]arried out by the National Cancer Institute in partnership with Finland's National Public Health Institute . . . involved 29,000 Finnish men, all long-term smokers over the age of fifty. Smokers had been picked specifically because of their increased risk of getting cancer and heart disease sooner. They were each given either vitamin E, beta carotene, a pill that contained both, or one that contained neither. . . . [T]hose taking the vitamins saw no benefit over those getting the placebo. Instead, the men taking beta carotene were actually slightly more likely to die of lung cancer or heart disease."
A later study similar to this one (funded by the NCI) involving vitamin A and beta carotene showed that "the death rate from lung cancer was actually 28 percent higher among people taking the vitamins than those taking the placebo, and the death rate from heart disease was 17 percent higher." (pg. 170)

Lancet reviewed 14 studies on antioxidants, reporting in 10/04 that there was no "evidence that antioxidant supplements can prevent gastrointestinal cancers; on the contrary, they seem to increase overall mortality." (pg. 171)

On colds:
From JAMA 8/02: "Those given a multivitamin did no better on any measure of colds than those given a placebo, whether on the number of colds per year, their severity or duration, the number of symptoms, or the need for bed rest or medication--and those given vitamin E actually did worse." pg. 172)

On calcium:
NEJM 2/16/06: " . . .calcium with vitamin D supplementation is not an effective means of preventing fractures in this population [postmenopausal women]." (pg. 174)

On children and multivitamins:
From Pediatrics 7/04: National Maternal-Infant Health Survey of 8285 preschool children. " . . . all those who had received vitamin supplementation by the age of three had a 63 percent increased risk of food allergies if they had been breast-fed, or a 39 percent increase if they had been exclusively formula-fed." (pg. 175)

On Vitamin A:
JAMA 1/02: Nurses Health Study on more than 72,337 postmenopausal women. "Those who took at least 2000 micrograms of retinol (a primary component of vitamin A), whether through food or supplements, were 89 percent more likely to have suffered a hip fracture than those who took less than 500 micrograms." The FDA Recommended Value is 1500 micrograms, and "most multivitamins contain at least that much." (pp. 175-6)

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