CyberSym Science and Society Blog
Health Care Reform: A Data Management Problem Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland   
Wednesday, 09 September 2009 15:15

Tonight President Obama will address Congress (and the nation) about health care reform.

I support health care reform. However I have reservations about the current health care reform package slated for vote in the Senate (as well as other health care reform proposals on Capital Hill from both parties). It's not that I believe the bald-faced lies which reactionary conservative are leveling. Rather my lack of enthusiasm stems from the fact that none of these packages really address the critical underlying problems in our health care system—overly high costs and comparatively poor outcomes. I think many other Americans have the same reservations. So, what is missing?

Our health care problems are fundamentally data management problems. The first problem is that we do not have sufficiently comprehensive data on health conditions and costs. The second problem is that we have not had any MEANINGFUL actuarial oversight of health insurance companies for 25 years. These are data collection and analysis failures, and we MUST fix them if we are to fix our health care system.
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High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Villain or Scapegoat? Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland and Gayle Knapp   
Thursday, 27 August 2009 13:18

Recently a friend posed the question: "Could a change in carbohydrate source affect protein formation?" The context for this question was a discussion about whether the shift to corn carbohydrate (principally high-fructose corn syrup) over the last 30 years could have somehow produced the apparent rise in autism? [This latter question might just as easily involve any of several other health conditions besides autism that have also shown a steep rise over the past 30 years.] In principle, the answer to both questions is YES, but not in the way you might expect. Both of these questions really center around the effects of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in our diet. Many people have recently become quite concerned about possible adverse effects from fructose consumption. The effects of fructose and glucose consumption are complicated and not completely understood. In the end, however, HFCS is probably more of concern because of its contribution to our overall increased consumption of simple sugars rather than because of any specific fructose effect.

caloric_sweeteners

Carbohydrate is an essential part of the human diet. Carbohydrates range from simple sugars (glucose, fructose, galactose) to complex chains of those sugars. The more complex the carbohydrate, the slower its rate of digestion. In fact, some complex carbohydrates are effectively indigestible (fiber). Because carbohydrate is so important, our bodies have highly complicated and regulated mechansims for storage and use of carbohydrate (see e.g. [1, 2]). The best known of these mechanisms is the insulin system that reacts to and controls blood sugar (blood glucose). Depending on circumstances (exercise, stress, etc), several other hormones (glucagon, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol) also help regulate carbohydrate storage and levels. All these hormones (including insulin) affect and respond to varied sugar/carbohydrate levels and also affect other aspects of physiology, including protein synthesis and fat metabolism. Though metabolized by many of the same pathways, glucose and fructose differ in some key respects. Insulin levels are highly influenced by glucose, but are only very indirectly sensitive to fructose. Fructose can be used in many (but not all) of the same ways as glucose, and fructose is generally considered to be more easily converted to fat than glucose.
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Mortgage Crisis, Recession, and Bailout: Reconciling the Numbers Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland   
Tuesday, 20 January 2009 19:36

Four months into a recession spawned by the mortgage investment banking crisis, it is worth doing some basic math on the real costs.

First some background: I supported the original treasury bailout, albeit with two important qualifications. First, I wanted the proposed $750 billion bailout to be authorized by Congress in three chunks of $250 billion instead of two chunks of $375 billion. Second, I noted that the projected actual losses from home foreclosure (at that time ~$200 billion) were a fraction of the total $750 billion requested by Dept. of Treasury for bailout. I suggested it would be safest in the long run to use the bulk of the bailout to buy up troubled mortgages or their underlying properties.

With an intensifying recession, I regret not pushing harder on these two points, or at least I regret that my congressional representatives and their colleagues didn't listen better. The incoming Obama administration has proposed that as much as $800 billion of stimulus may be necessary to deal with the recession (on top of the $400 billion of TARP that the Bush administration has spent). Other estimates of recessionary losses are as much as $1400 billion (10% of GDP) for a severe recession. Conversely, estimated losses from failed mortgages are still only $250 billion. So how did $250 billion morph into $1200 billion? What went wrong? Well, several things. First, many of the original TARP recipients simply failed to deliver on their promises to increase lending. Second, the rest of us pretty much panicked.

As individuals we don't make financial decisions based upon the Federal Reserve's macroeconomic plan for an optimal economy. We make decisions based upon what we perceive to be our immediate risks. When we hear about employers laying off people because they cannot get a short term loan to make payroll or we hear that retail sales and small business contracts are drying up, we assume we may be next. Naturally we start looking for every possible way to save money—cheaper groceries, fewer DVDs, less travel, etc. The trouble is that this behavior is only productive when most other people ARE NOT doing it. When everybody tries to do this, it causes a downward spiral into severe recession or depression.

So what can we do now?

1) Get with the program or bust. This is what we need to tell the recipients of TARP I funds. They have three choices: demonstrate that the bulk of TARP funds they received are going towards qualified credit (small business loans, sound mortgages, good entrepreneurship...), return the funds, or be taken over by the federal banking system. Allow banks which pass this step to participate in 3). Carrot and stick, carrot and stick...

2) Buy up the bad mortgages. Use stimulus money to refinance failing mortgages at 12% above current market value for the property. If the current mortgage holder refuses, threaten either eminent domain or a blight tax on empty or run-down property. Negotiate hard and don't accept no as an answer. Make it too expensive for either party to walk away from the deal. Encourage the mortgage holder to recover some of their remaining loss from the brokers and appraisers who set up the original sale. Provide some resources to achieve this. There are entire mortgage divisions of some national banks which I hear the banks would love to divest. Carrot and stick, carrot and stick...

3) Get good banks to compete for the next round of TARP funds. It may surprise you, but there are quite a number of sizeable, healthy regional and state banks that weren't involved in the mortgage meltdown and have a good track record for fiscal responsibility. The U.S. Government needs to contract with these banks ASAP to make small business payroll loans, import/export loans, etc. to get our economy back on track. Allow these banks to make a reasonable return on loans. If some of the national banks got past item 1), have them compete too! Forget the other big national banks that spawned this crisis and are still too paralyzed by fear to make rational decisions. Carrot and stick, carrot and stick...

4) Take a deep breath and start living again. Most of us haven't lost our jobs or our businesses. We need to stop acting like we have! I don't mean spend money frivolously, but spend normally. If you know someone who really is struggling, consider hiring them to clean out that garage or attic you've been meaning to deal with. Offer to share a garden. Go fishing or camping together. Find worthwhile projects or charities to support in your community. There are lots of great deals on the stock market—invest in sound companies that weren't involved in the mortgage meltdown.

In short we need to get hard-nosed about fixing the real problems, and we need to start behaving normally about everything else. Oh, and those people in Washington (both parties) need to begin thinking seriously about basic math involving real costs!

 
The Economic Reality of the Laws of Thermodynamics Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland   
Tuesday, 14 October 2008 21:51

In previous articles, I've written about the importance of the fundamental laws of nature. Paramount among these are the Laws of Thermodynamics. The Laws of Thermodynamics apply to everything, including economic activity!

Early statements of the Laws of Thermodynamics were framed in terms of heat and heat engines. Even today most engineering and science students are introduced to thermodynamics through heat principles. The 1st Law of Thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy) states that total energy (work done by/on a system plus heat transferred to/from a system) is conserved in a closed system. The 2nd Law says that heat is converted incompletely into work (dissipated) or that efficiency is never complete. The 3rd Law says that absolute zero temperature is unattainable.

More popular modern statements of the 2nd Law state that entropy (a measure of disorder) is constantly increasing for any closed system. While the 2nd Law is sometimes difficult for humans to accept, it is interesting that there are well known colloquialisms which incorporate the underlying meaning of the 2nd Law. Good examples are Murphy's Law ("Anything that can go wrong will go wrong") and the nursery rhyme, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again."
humptydumpty_econ_600_75
Reprinted and modified with permission from Scott J. Wakefield (http://www.scottjwakefield.com)
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Economic Crisis—We Have an Ego Problem Here Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland   
Tuesday, 30 September 2008 11:01

There is more than enough blame to go around for the current U.S. economic crisis, and we won't solve the crisis until we face our ego problem.

We have an ego problem in a President of the United States who can't/won't go to the American People with a giant Mea Culpa, acknowledging that his administration took its eye off the ball for a long time.

We have an ego problem in a Treasury Secretary who can spend hours and days trying to broker a deal with Congress, but can't take the time to explain directly to the American People EXACTLY and THOROUGHLY what the problem is with our financial markets.

We have an ego problem in corporate leaders on Wall Street who would rather allow their companies to go bust than resign or take a major pay cut to demonstrate solidarity with the American People who might ultimately keep them solvent.
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Critical Thinking: Sooner or Later, Your Assumptions Will Kill You Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland   
Wednesday, 03 September 2008 21:12

This is literally true.

An assumption is something we think is true, but which we have not thoroughly tested or proven. Often it is based on an extrapolation or a parallel. Careful handling of assumptions is essential to critical thinking.

Everyone makes assumptions. It's pretty much the only way to get anything done, given that it is impossible to have complete knowledge about everything (a law of nature called the Uncertainty Principle).

Scientists are no exception. In science there is a structure for using assumptions.
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It's the Law! Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland   
Monday, 01 September 2008 14:42

Many of you have heard the humorous expression or seen the bumper sticker "Gravity: It's not just a good idea. It's the Law!" No one really seems to doubt the Law of Gravity, though more than a few of us occasionally fail to take full account of it. But obscured by the politicization of science and the rancorous public debates over evolution (The Law of Natural Selection, etc.) and climate change is the fact that science recognizes and codifies a number of important laws of nature. Like the Law of Gravity, most of these laws are not even remotely in question. Yet whether from indifference or lack of science education, many people seem to be either unaware of the importance of these laws or else have come to believe that they somehow don't apply. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Among the important laws of nature are Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation (gravity), Conservation of Momentum, Conservation of Energy (1st Law of Thermodynamics), Bernoulli's Principle, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics, and the Uncertainty Principle.
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