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The jobless recovery, or interpreting the fossil record of our future

Posted on November 18th, 2009 in Economy,General by Robert Miller

Earlier this week Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to the Economic Club of New York and described how we are likely to face years of high unemployment in what can only be described as a chronic jobless recovery. The signs of a jobless recovery are all around us. The unemployment rate has declined, but not by any means disappeared and companies are finding ways to do what they did in response to the recession of 2001–get by with fewer employees, ask those employed to work more hours and ship jobs overseas where employment costs are significantly reduced. While some firms are beginning to hire back American employees, others are implementing these alternative strategies to insure a jobless recovery, despite the fact that productivity is now soaring and hiring would normally follow this development. As Bernanke described it “other firms, facing difficult financial conditions and intense pressure to cut costs, seem to have found longer-lasting, efficiency-enhancing changes that allowed them to reduce their workforces. … ” The huge debt that we now face as a country, thanks to two costly wars and excessive tax cuts to the wealthy by the Bush administration have left Congress in a mood of uncertainty, even though the rational thing to do is pass a jobs bill, a second stimulus bill that will help recreate an economy that works for the middle class. Those who argue that we would be putting an additional debt burden onto our children and their children don’t understand what we went through after WW II, when our debt was high and yet we created jobs and a booming economy. Isn’t it better to have your children enjoy good employment opportunities, even if a higher rate of taxation will be required of them? Is it truly better to have a chronically unemployed work force? And, oh yes, what would the job prospects be if we adopted a single payer health care plan and shifted the costs of health care away from employment to a national system, best described as “Medicare for all?”

House passes healthcare reform bill

Posted on November 8th, 2009 in Health by Robert Miller

Last night was a historic moment for the House of Representatives! They passed their version of the healthcare reform bill with a public option. There are some hurdles to clear in the Senate, particularly with Lieberman, but I expect those issues will be resolved and that a bill with a public option will go to the Senate floor for a vote. When this will happen isn’t clear, but momentum is gaining and all the scare tactics used by Republicans have gone for naught. A significant majority of American voters in virtually every poll taken in the past few weeks, endorse healthcare reform with a public option, though the nature of the public option is critical, and we don’t yet know what it will look like.  Will it give serious competition to private health insurance companies and will both houses ban anti-trust protection from the health insurance industry? The Washington Post has published a voting table which shows how every Representative voted, the amount of money they have received from the healthcare industry and the percentage of voters in their district that do not have health insurance. Take Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri for example. He, along with every other Republican but one, voted against the healthcare bill. He has received more than $2 million in financial support from the healthcare industry and has nearly 20% of the citizens in his district that do not have health insurance. Contrast that with Xavier Bacerra, a Democrat from California. He received more than a $ million from the healthcare industry, has more than 42% of his constituents without health insurance in his district and voted “yes” on the healthcare reform bill. Bacerra seems to have gotten his cake and ate it too.

The dawning of molecular medicine: replacing a single defective gene

Posted on November 6th, 2009 in Health,Medicine,Science by Robert Miller

When I began my training in medical school in the 1960s, many of the drugs that would become the mainstay, front-line agents in the fight against cancer and other diseases, were just coming into play and some of them, such as methotrexate, which was initially used to treat leukemia, have remained viable drugs for treatment of cancer, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. For the past 50 years or so, we have been living in what I refer to as the chemical age of medicine–in which we search for magic chemical compounds that selectively attack only one type of diseased cell or source of viral/bacterial infection, while leaving all others untouched.  In truth, this phase of medicine began during WW II, when large scale fermentation plants in the United States began producing huge quantities of penicillin from the fungus Penicillium chrysogenum, which proved, for many, to be one of the first miracle drugs available. Yet, decades later, we are still searching for the perfect miracle drug, one whose target of action is so selective that it has no side-effects or harmful untoward reactions.  The “better living through chemistry” mentality still grips contemporary  medicine, as it drives the pharmaceutical industry to search for better magic bullets in the form of improved drug design. And, over the decades, we have gotten much better at drug design because we are increasingly able to construct and visualize the three-dimensional structure of a targeted receptor or enzyme we want to modify and design a drug that will fit neatly into the critical key and lock combination leading to a desired pharmacological effect (blocking or enhancing its action). Through very special efforts, we are beginning to target specific cells with drugs by pre-selecting the cell, say a cancerous cell,  for targeted destruction using manufactured minicells that can deliver specific toxins to the wayward cells which can be identified through immunolabeling methods (It’s pretty cool and the link above goes to an article I wrote earlier on the topic).

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