On Ohio and oregano

From a reportorial standpoint, I'm completely in awe of Matt Taibbi and his fearlessness. He writes for the typically liberal Rolling Stone, but he personally never comes off as left or right-- he's just fiercely anti-corruption. His beat at RS for the past few years has been Wall Street, which has obviously led to lots of interesting articles. Whether you agree with him or not, the man has cajones and he's exhilarating to read.

For a primer on Taibbi's style and outlook, you should watch Amy Goodman's recent video interview with him. In it, he compares Ohio's current governor to the kind of drug dealer who swaps in oregano for weed. He says this intelligently, calmly, on television, wearing a suit, not blinking an eye-- and it totally makes sense in the context he's presented. I'm telling you, the guy has a gift.

I've transcribed some of the best of it below, but you should watch the video yourself, if only for the rare opportunity to see an on-air reporter like Amy Goodman: A beautiful, smart woman who is apparently aging naturally, gray hair and all.

MATT TAIBBI: Just to back up, you know, provide some context for this Wisconsin thing, and especially for the Ohio thing, given, you know, what their governor [John Kasich] used to do for a living.


TAIBBI: Well, he was an employee for Lehman Brothers, and he was—

GOODMAN: This is Governor Kasich.

TAIBBI: Governor Kasich. And he was intimately involved with getting the state of Ohio's pension fund to invest in Lehman Brothers and buy mortgage-backed securities. And of course they lost all that money [after Lehman went bankrupt in September 2008 and the subsequent collapse of the housing market].

...But what they're doing now is they're blaming the people who are collecting the pensions. They're blaming the workers, they're blaming the firemen, they're blaming the policemen. In reality, they were actually the victims of this fraud scheme.

The only reason people aren't angrier about this, I think, is because they don't really understand what happened. If these were car companies that had sold a trillion dollars worth of defective cars to citizens of the United States, there would be riots right now. But these were mortgage backed securities, it's complicated, people don't understand it, and they're only now I think beginning to realize they've been defrauded.

The broad crime in all of this was just fraud. These banks... took this stuff that they knew was very, very risky and very, very likely to default, and they were going to the State of Wisconsin, the State of Ohio, the State of New York, and saying, 'Hey, this is as safe as United States treasury bonds. You should buy this, and you'll earn a little bit more than you'll earn with t-bills.' The reality is, they were taking absolutely worthless stuff and sticking it with these people and then fleeing the scene.

This is no different than drug dealers who take a bag of oregano and sell it to you as, you know, a pound of weed. That's exactly the same scam.

"Ask yourself why nobody is agreeing with you."

I recently came across the May 2010 issue of Esquire and was really impressed at the overall quality of writing-- it was far beyond the "lad mag" fare I was expecting from having thumbed through friends' issues of Maxim back in the day.  Lesson: Don't judge a men's magazine by its (very racy) cover!

Whatever your politics, I think it'd be difficult to dislike reading Tom Junod's nuanced and fantastically well-written profile of Hillary Clinton. I especially liked the part where, during a routine State Department meeting, Hillary takes an unexpected (by me, anyway, given Hillary's reputation as a die-hard feminist) stance on an African-American female employee's claims of discrimination:

Most of those involved in the meeting, however, are those who make up the vast majority of the State Department: career foreign-service and civil-service employees. ...A middle-aged woman in a green jacket stands up and says into the microphone, "I'm concerned that I've been here for eleven years and I've never had a good supervisor."

There's some laughter, and there's even more when the Secretary [of State, Hillary Clinton] says, "Well, shall we give equal time to your supervisors?"

But then the woman says, "I've been discriminated against," and the Secretary says, "Well, I think we have procedures inside State you can follow," and the woman says, "Which I have done," and the Secretary says, Well, just because you've spoken to someone, "that doesn't mean they're going to always side with you... ." It's almost as if the Secretary has decided to guest-star in an episode of The Office until suddenly she becomes Hillary Clinton again and says, "I mean, I've had more criticism in my life than probably whole countries have had." Now, that garners some applause, and yet the woman in the green jacket is not going anywhere. She asks, "So what can I do if the union didn't help me and the Office of Civil Rights didn't help me?"

And the Secretary — no, Hillary — says, "Well, I think you need to ask yourself why nobody is agreeing with you."

And you know what? It's beautiful... She was kind to this woman, almost tender. She was diplomatic. And she cut her off at the knees!

A bug's eye view on African aid

This past weekend's WSJ had a great piece written by an African woman, Dambisa Moyo, with a unique view on foreign aid to Africa. 

I really have no strong, well-formed personal opinion on the matter. Well, that's not exactly true-- I was happy to see the WSJ somewhat affirm my gut feeling that Project Red is sketchy at best and ineffective at worst.  Even I, a faithful Goop subscriber, can't pretend that this wasn't one of the most misguided ad campaigns ever.

Anyway, the WSJ article is long and somewhat complicated. Though it's worth reading the whole thing, I've pasted what I think is the 'nut graf' (journo speak for the part that tells you in a nutshell what you need to know) here:

Even what may appear as a benign intervention on the surface can have damning consequences. Say there is a mosquito-net maker in small-town Africa. Say he employs 10 people who together manufacture 500 nets a week. Typically, these 10 employees support upward of 15 relatives each. A Western government-inspired program generously supplies the affected region with 100,000 free mosquito nets. This promptly puts the mosquito net manufacturer out of business, and now his 10 employees can no longer support their 150 dependents. In a couple of years, most of the donated nets will be torn and useless, but now there is no mosquito net maker to go to. They'll have to get more aid. And African governments once again get to abdicate their responsibilities.

Ladies' Choice

Today, while reading my aforementioned issue of Elle Magazine, I saw this ad for Gardasil, Merck's vaccine against cervical cancer.

Turns out, I have less than two more years to receive the Gardasil vaccine-- it's officially recommended only for women and girls aged 9 to 26. Once you hit 27, it's next to impossible to get insurance to cover the three shots, which aren't cheap: Gardasil has a list price of $360, plus you have to pay the price your doctor charges for administering it.  In fact, it's the most expensive vaccine ever to receive the FDA's recommendation.

Since my time is kind of starting to run out, I decided to do some homework today about cervical cancer and what Gardasil does. You guys: I was pretty surprised by what I found. 

The first thing I looked for was the actual figures about cervical cancer itself. According to the most recent estimates from the National Cancer Institute, there were 11,070 women diagnosed with cervical cancer in the US in 2008, and 3,870 deaths attributed to the disease. Some perspective: 182,460 US women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, with 40,480 deaths. In fact, cases of cervical cancer make up just 1.5% of all cancer diagnoses in American women every year, and 0.7% of cancer diagnoses in the US overall.

I was shocked that the incidence of cervical cancer is so relatively low, especially given the number of ads for Gardasil I've seen over the past two years and the number of friends I know who have gotten the vaccine. That said, I do realize that 11,070 cases is 11,070 cases too many, especially if it can be prevented. It's still a no-brainer to take a vaccine that could completely eliminate that risk, no matter how small, right?

But then I realized that many of us already take proven precautions against cervical cancer with yearly Pap tests. And, it seems if more women did the same, that already-small 11,070 figure could drop dramatically: According to the American Cancer Society,
between 60% and 80% of American women with newly diagnosed cervical cancer hadn't had a Pap test in the past 5 years-- and many of them had never had a Pap test.

In light of all this, Gardasil's adoption in its short time on the market seems almost irrational. The CDC reported in October that a whopping 25% of all teenage girls in the US have received the Gardasil vaccine. Virginia now requires by law that girls complete a three-shot vaccination against HPV before they enter the sixth grade, and nearly every other state has had similar bills under discussion since Gardasil's debut.

It seems to me that Gardasil has had a disproportionately large adoption rate for a vaccine that seems poised to benefit such a relatively small potential audience. For me, the jury is still out on whether or not I'm going to take the vaccine-- but after the research I did today I feel more confused than ever.

Seriously-- am I missing something here?  What's up with Gardasil?