Rats May Not Be Responsible for Plague

Pet RatAs you may know, I am a big fan of rats. And now, the long maligned animal may finally get justice. The Guardian just reported, Black Death Was Not Spread By Rat Fleas, Say Researchers. According to a number of different studies, it seems that the “rat flea” theory is wrong. The plague moved much too fast to be transmitted via bites.

I was interested to find out that “bubonic” refers to the location that the disease manifests. The actual bacteria is Yersinia pestis. Bubonic refers to “bubo,” which is “an inflammatory swelling of a lymph gland especially in the groin.” The scientists claim that what killed all those people in the late 14th century was actually pneumonic plague, meaning it attacked and was transmitted through the lungs. You know: the normal way.

There are many other unusual things about the Black Death. According to research on wills, fully 60% of the residents of London died due to it. They say that so many people died largely because they were already very unhealthy. “The skeletons at Charterhouse Square reveal that the population of London was also in generally poor health when the disease struck. Crossrail’s archaeology contractor, Don Walker, and Jelena Bekvalacs of the Museum of London found evidence of rickets, anemia, bad teeth and childhood malnutrition.” Without the poor health, the plague would not have been nearly as bad.

Another amazing thing is that there was a recent outbreak of the disease in Madagascar that killed 60 people. When they compared the disease with that of the 14th century strain, they found no difference in terms of its virulence. That is a critical element. It seems before it was thought that the 14th century strain of Yersinia pestis was so virulent that rat fleas explained it.

In the end, I suspect that rats will not be exonerated regardless. Even the “rat flea” theory includes the potential for air transmission. And let’s face it: people love to hate rats. I think it is that they are too much like us: too successful. If we looked at humans from the outside, we would hate them too. Some of us on the inside aren’t too keen as well.

Brendan Gleeson

Brendan GleesonToday, Brendan Gleeson turns 59 years old. He is a great Irish character actor. He has the distinction of being the only living Irish character actor to never appear in an episode of Ballykissangel. I really like him because he’s so amazingly likable up there on the screen. And that’s even true when he’s playing hard characters. Some kind of humanity always comes through.

Most recently, I saw him in In Bruges, where he played the thoroughly decent assassin Ken. As I wrote earlier, “I felt very connected with him: an older man who has lived a mixed life and who now just wants to enjoy the little things that are left.” Gleeson also puts in layered performances, although he usually doesn’t have such rich material to work as Martin McDonagh’s script. Here’s a nice bit:

Gleeson is probably best known for playing Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody in that worker’s project for English-ish character actors known as the Harry Potter films. I think there are 29 of them now, but Gleeson is only in three of them, and he dies at the beginning of the third. Here he is in the only one I’ve managed to get all the way through, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, although all is not as it appears:

Happy birthday Brendan Gleeson!

Why We Hate Cheney More Than Bush

Martin LongmanMartin Longman got me thinking in his article, An Actually Weak President. It’s about how Dick Cheney goes around calling President Obama “weak,” while no one does the same to Bush the Younger, even though everyone knew that Cheney was the person actually in charge. He said, “You’ll know that the current president is as weak as Bush when students line up to protest former vice-president Joe Biden and completely ignore Obama.” That’s a good point. But I’m most interested in his question, “[W]hy do people have such an easy time condemning Cheney [of war crimes], or even Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Rice, and such a hard time condemning George W Bush?”

His answer to that is represented in the “weak president” hypothesis. I don’t really go along with that. The problem is that most people are pretty forgiving. As long as people’s war crimes are in the past, they’re willing to let them slide. But Cheney is so vocal about it—so in your face. Just this last week, Cheney told students at American University, “If I would have to do it all over again, I would. The results speak for themselves.” If Cheney were in prison (where he ought to be), that kind of statement would never fly with the parole board.

This is why all along, I thought we should have a truth and reconciliation commission. Obama’s idea of looking forward was a joke. I am not a vindictive person. I am extremely forgiving. But people do not grow when they don’t admit error. And the same goes for governments and countries. It was and still is important for America to publicly admit that its government did torture. Instead, we pretend that it never did happen. And that means we not only have to listen to Cheney go around telling us that we are only safe because he used “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), but we will do the same thing again in a moment of crisis.

I also disagree with Longman in that many of us have no problem whatsoever blaming Bush. The truth is that I’ve never believed Bush’s “aw-shucks” routine. While I don’t believe he is especially smart, he is wily. And ultimately, he was in charge. We saw in the last two years of his presidency, when he pushed Cheney aside. If Bush were out there once a month explaining how it was necessary to “get tough” on the bad guys, I’d talk more about him. But he’s made the smart decision to paint and shut up.

I’m sure that I’m pretty much in agreement with Longman. I’d really like to shut up all of the neoconservatives. And I don’t just mean those in the administration. If America had at least admitted wrong, these people wouldn’t be allowed to walk around as conquering heroes. They would at least have to admit that they represent a minority viewpoint that had been repudiated. But that was not to be. And it is especially galling given that if the political parties had been reversed, I feel certain that administration officials would have gone to prison. So the kind treatment of the present administration will not be reciprocated. In fact, we already see this with the House Republicans just itching for any chance to impeach.

Inflation Chicken Littles

Dean BakerIf there is one thing that binds all the rich together it is their obsession with inflation. The situation is very simple. If you work for a living, you need a job. Modest inflation is good for the job market. But if you own for a living, then inflation is bad. That’s because the stuff you own loses value. A reasonable society would balance those two interests. Indeed, the Federal Reserve is explicitly supposed to keep both inflation and unemployment low. This is its “dual mandate.” But in practice, as long as unemployment isn’t ridiculously high, the Fed doesn’t seem to care. Effectively, they have a single mandate and that is to keep inflation at 2%.

Given that the power elites want low inflation, there is a whole pundit industry that is constantly searching for any signs that inflation is on the rise. What’s especially awful about this is that the Fed has almost magical powers to stop inflation. So there is no real need to stop inflation before it starts. But to listen to these people, we will go from 2% inflation to Zimbabwe overnight and all the bonds of the rich people will be worthless.

This actually demonstrates what’s going on. If inflation is allowed to tick up one percentage point for a couple of months, it will cost bond holders a bit of money. But that doesn’t even begin to offset the huge damage done to workers when the Federal Reserve slams the breaks on the economy to head off the rich losing a few pennies. I think it is really important to remember this the next time you hear someone ranting about inflation being just around the corner.

Recently, Dean Baker has been highlighting a new set of arguments, most recently, The Quit Rate, the Fed, and Braindead Employers. It’s about the fact that the rate at which people quit their jobs has gone up slightly. Generally, people rarely quit jobs when the economy is bad because it’s hard to find another. So these people argue that an uptick in the quit rate means that inflation is just around the corner. But as Baker points out, even with the uptick, the quit rate is still below its level during the worst of the 2001 recession.

More important, Baker made an interesting observation. Maybe people are quitting just because employers are being particularly awful during these bad times. After all, high unemployment is great for employers: they get to choose the very best workers and they get to pay them less. Baker goes on to provide a fanciful mechanism by which this might happen: employees feeling mistreated by wage stagnation.

I’m sure you have seen one or more stories about this or that company or industry that just can’t find skilled employees. But the truth is that these complaints are all nonsense. If companies really were desperate for skilled employees, wages would be rising. And we aren’t seeing it, except in a few rarefied areas like sewing machine use. So Baker concluded:

Maybe employers really don’t understand that if they offered higher wages they would get more workers applying for jobs. After all, no one gives you a test in basic economics to become a boss. If that is the case, we would expect the failure to raise wages would lead to more unhappy workers and more quits. This would be true even if the labor market is weak.

So maybe the answer to the riddle of a higher than expected quit rate is a change in behavior among employers rather than a change in the labor force. It’s at least as good as the other theories out there.

Most likely the uptick in the quit rate means nothing at all. If you sniff around employment and financial data enough, you are bound to find some random bit of information to make your case that the Fed must raise interest rates to slow the economy. That’s what these people do. But they should never be listened to. We should start fighting inflation when the inflation rate really does start to rise. Personally, I think the Fed’s inflation target should be 4%, not 2%. So I think the Fed ought to allow inflation to get quite high before pulling back. But the inflation Chicken Littles really want deflation. They are looking out for their “clients” and not at all for the economy as a whole. And they should be treated accordingly.

Joe Biden Gets a Dwarf Planet

Joe BidenAs you probably know, I’m a fan of Joe Biden. But this isn’t because of his policy ideas. He’s quite all right in that area, but there are a number of things I don’t like. For example, he has always been a “tough on crime” guy, and that has led to our extreme prison problems and the racial inequality that has gone along with them. But Biden is probably the best retail politician in America. No one seems as genuine as he does.

It’s always strange to me that conservatives paint him as a joke—like the Democratic version of Dan Quayle. But in Biden’s “gaffes,” I see authenticity. It may be part of his political brilliance, but all these unscripted moments just highlight that he is basically a decent guy. We don’t get comments about how God wanted a woman to be raped. Just the same, if you actually look at Bidens “gaffes,” there isn’t much there. Just as with Quayle, the media are always circling, looking for something they can grab to further their ultimately thin narrative.

Biden does demonstrate a certain friendly ethnocentrism. In the 2008 campaign, he said of Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” That definitely boarders on racism and it is the worst thing I’ve ever heard him say. But generally, what are called gaffes are just kind of odd and often charming. That’s certainly the case with most of those on Time‘s Top 10 Joe Biden Gaffes. For example:

Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be Vice President of the United States of America. Let’s get that straight. She’s a truly close personal friend. She is qualified to be President of the United States of America. She’s easily qualified to be Vice President of the United States of America. Quite frankly, it might have been a better pick than me. But she’s first rate.

All this is to say that when it comes to politicians, Joe Biden is one of the better ones. So it was with much delight that I learned that scientists are calling the detached trans-Neptunian object 2012 VP113 “Biden.” Clearly, they have nicknamed the object because of the “VP.” But it rather fits because the object is unusual. It orbits at a huge distance from the sun: never closer than 80 AUs (distance from the earth to the sun). That’s the largest of any object known. For contrast, Pluto gets within 30 AUs from the sun. It is assumed to be an ice planetoid with a diameter of roughly 300 miles—about a quarter the size of Pluto. And given that it is probably spherical, it would be considered a dwarf planet.

VP113 and Sedna
The paths of 2012 VP113 (red) and Sedna (orange), with the Kuiper Belt (blue) and the planets (purple)

I think it would be totally awesome if the name Biden sticks. It just makes sense. We have a planetoid zipping around the solar system, doing its own thing without much of a care what other people think. I’m fond of saying we should build statues to great people like Richard Stallman and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Well, Biden needs his own dwarf planet!