Saturday, March 13, 2010

Corporate entity becomes ‘candidate’ for congress

Pretty sure this is just a very clever attempt to portray corporations in the proper light politically. If not, then wow...

Corporate entity becomes ‘candidate’, kicks off bid for Congress

By Stephen C. Webster
Saturday, March 13th, 2010 -- 12:14 pm

When the Supreme Court decided the case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, henceforth allowing corporate soft money to influence U.S. elections, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) cynically opined that it would lead to the election of the "congressman from Wal-Mart."

Turns out, he may be right.

Meet Murray Hill, Inc., the first corporation to run for Congress in the United States.

"Until now, corporations only influenced politics with high-paid lobbyists and backroom deals," the company's YouTube account declares. "But today, thanks to an enlightened supreme court, corporations now have all the rights the founding fathers meant for us. That's why Murray Hill Incorporated is taking democracy's next step-- running for Congress."

Murray Hill, Inc. even has a fan page on Facebook, and a campaign ad. Watch:

Hill says it plans to file as a Republican for the GOP primary in Maryland's eighth congressional district, currently represented by Democrat Chris Van Hollen.

Van Hollen, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), introduced legislation in February they hope will help blunt the effect of the court's decision by restoring some of the restrictions on corporate campaign spending. Hill reportedly has "no beef" with Van Hollen, though the position seems more part of the campaign's schtick than anything.

The company, a self-titled "progressive" messaging firm, was launched in 2005 by one Eric Hensal, who used to work with Group360, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

Hill said in a statement that its campaign would put people "second, or even third," according to The Washington Post.

"It's a new day," Hill's ad says. "Until now, corporations influenced politics with high paid lobbyists and backroom deals. However, as much as corporate interests gave to politicians, we could never be absolutely sure they would do our bidding. But today, thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, corporations now have all the rights the founding fathers meant for us. It's our democracy: we bought it, we paid for it and we're going to keep it."

Hill "wanted to run as a Republican because we feel the Republican Party is more receptive to our basic message that corporations are people, too," campaign manager William Klein told the Post.

When the Supreme Court first decided Citizens United, 41 industry leaders signed a letter to Congress urging the end of what they called corporate "bribery."

"Is there a difference between campaign contributions and bribery?" said Alan Hassenfeld, chairman of Hasbro, Inc, who co-signed the letter. "It is long past the time to stop requiring that our elected officials moonlight as telemarketers raising money for their re-election campaigns rather then devoting all their time to solving the problems before this nation."

A blogger with watchdog group The Sunlight Foundation called the decision the "corporate globalization" of U.S. elections, cautioning that allowing corporate funds in elections would also make way for undue foreign influence on U.S. politics.

"It allows corporations to spend all the money they want to buy and sell elected officials through the campaign process," Rep. Grayson said of the Citizens United case. "It allows them to reward political sellouts, and it allows them to punish elected officials who actually try to do what's right for the people."

The Post adds:

Whether or not a corporation ultimately replaces Van Hollen in Congress, Murray Hill's interest has sparked other speculation among the political chattering class in Maryland.
Why not have an accounting firm run for comptroller, the state's chief tax collector? Why not a law firm for attorney general? The winning firm could arrive in office with a full cadre of associates and save taxpayers money.
It remains to be seen whether the attention generated by Murray Hill's bid will be good for its bottom line.

Quigley Says "Revolt!"

He makes some good points...hello G-men and women of the NSA now watching my blog!

Why We Need a Revolt in This Country
By Bill Quigley, AlterNet
March 13, 2010

It is time for a revolution. Government does not work for regular people. It appears to work quite well for big corporations, banks, insurance companies, military contractors, lobbyists, and for the rich and powerful. But it does not work for people.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence stated that when a long train of abuses by those in power evidence a design to reduce the rights of people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is the peoples right, in fact their duty to engage in a revolution.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said forty three years ago next month that it was time for a radical revolution of values in the United States. He preached “a true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” It is clearer than ever that now is the time for radical change.

Look at what our current system has brought us and ask if it is time for a revolution?

Over 2.8 million people lost their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8000 each day – higher numbers than the last two years when millions of others also lost their homes.

At the same time, the government bailed out Bank of America, Citigroup, AIG, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the auto industry and enacted the troubled asset (TARP) program with $1.7 trillion of our money.

Wall Street then awarded itself over $20 billion in bonuses in 2009 alone, an average bonus on top of pay of $123,000.

At the same time, over 17 million people are jobless right now. Millions more are working part-time when they want and need to be working full-time.

Yet the current system allows one single U.S. Senator to stop unemployment and Medicare benefits being paid to millions.

There are now 35 registered lobbyists in Washington DC for every single member of the Senate and House of Representatives, at last count 13,739 in 2009. There are eight lobbyists for every member of Congress working on the health care fiasco alone.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that corporations now have a constitutional right to interfere with elections by pouring money into races.

The Department of Justice gave a get out of jail free card to its own lawyers who authorized illegal torture.

At the same time another department of government, the Pentagon, is prosecuting Navy SEALS for punching an Iraqi suspect.

The US is not only involved in senseless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. now maintains 700 military bases world-wide and another 6000 in the US and our territories. Young men and women join the military to protect the U.S. and to get college tuition and healthcare coverage and killed and maimed in elective wars and being the world’s police. Wonder whose assets they are protecting and serving?

In fact, the U.S. spends $700 billion directly on military per year, half the military spending of the entire world – much more than Europe, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Venezuela - combined.

The government and private companies have dramatically increased surveillance of people through cameras on public streets and private places, airport searches, phone intercepts, access to personal computers, and compilation of records from credit card purchases, computer views of sites, and travel.

The number of people in jails and prisons in the U.S. has risen sevenfold since 1970 to over 2.3 million. The US puts a higher percentage of our people in jail than any other country in the world.

The tea party people are mad at the Republicans, who they accuse of selling them out to big businesses.

Democrats are working their way past depression to anger because their party, despite majorities in the House and Senate, has not made significant advances for women, or African Americans, or gays and lesbians, or civil libertarians, or people dedicated to health care, or human rights, or jobs or housing or economic justice, or the environment. Democrats also think their party is selling out to big business.

Forty three years ago next month, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in Riverside Church in New York City that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” He went on to condemn the Vietnam War and the system which created it and the other injustices clearly apparent. “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing oriented” society to a “person oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Robert Rubin, Ponzi Master

Robert Rubin Should Be Doing Hard Labor:
Instead He's Trying to Resurrect Himself
By Dean Baker,
March 13, 2010

As Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin put in place all the pieces that set up the economy for the disaster that we are now living through. He pushed legislation that weakened regulation of the financial sector; he cheered on a stock bubble that eventually grew to $10 trillion and he established an over-valued dollar as a matter of official policy.

He then left to take a top job at Citigroup where he was able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He earned well over $100 million in the decade after he left the Clinton administration. In the fall of 2008, when Citigroup was saved from bankruptcy with a taxpayer bailout, Rubin quietly slipped out the back door (with his money), resigning from his position at Citigroup.

It may not seem just that someone like Rubin would be allowed to live out his life in luxury after the policies that he promoted and personally profited from led to so much suffering for so many people. But that is the way things work in the United States these days. However, what is even more infuriating is that he doesn't seem to have any intention of going away. He is still pontificating on the economy and desperately trying to rewrite history to exonerate himself.

In a recent public talk, Rubin told his audience that "virtually nobody" saw the financial meltdown. Therefore, he excused himself for missing it along with everyone else. While it may be true that the top people in policy circles and among the Wall Street crew with whom Rubin associates really are clueless about the economy, it was, in fact, very easy for a competent economist to see the crisis coming.

House prices diverged from a 100-year long trend in the mid-90s, just as the stock bubble began to pick up steam. By 2002, nationwide house prices had risen by more than 30 percent after adjusting for inflation. This followed a 100-year period in which they had just kept even with the overall rate of inflation.

There was no plausible explanation for this run-up in house prices based on the fundamentals of either the demand or supply side of the housing market. Income and population growth were relatively slow by historical standards. In addition, we were building homes at a near record pace, so there clearly were no major obstacles on the supply side. Furthermore, there was no remotely comparable increase in rents, so there was no evidence of an undersupply of housing; a fact that was also borne out by the record vacancy rate of this era.

So, it should have been clear to Robert Rubin and every other economic analyst that the housing market was in a bubble. When I first began writing about the bubble in 2002, it had already created more than $2 trillion in housing-bubble wealth. By its peak in 2006, the bubble had grown to more than $8 trillion. Could anyone believe that $8 trillion in housing wealth could disappear without serious consequences for the economy? This was the most predictable disaster imaginable. There was no excuse for the people in policy positions having missed it.

This is why it is infuriating to see Rubin still running around with his stories about "virtually nobody." The response is that anyone who had a clue could not miss the housing bubble and they should have done everything in their power to try to deflate it before it reached ever more dangerous proportions. Rubin did the opposite - he put in place bubble friendly policies as Treasury secretary, then profited enormously from these policies after his return to Wall Street.

Reading Rubin's comments, it is hard not to think of George Wallace. The former governor of Alabama made his name on the national stage as an ardent supporter of segregation, famously blocking the schoolhouse in front of young black children trying to attend a previously segregated school.

Later in his life, Wallace had a change of heart and regretted his earlier actions. He went around to commemorations of major events in the civil rights era and begged for forgiveness. Wallace's presence at these events was no doubt painful for many of those who had to confront the brutality of the racist system in which Wallace had played such a key role. He could have served the world much better with more private expressions of contrition.

Having inflicted enormous damage on tens of millions of families who have lost their jobs, their homes and/or their life's savings, it would be nice if Rubin could have the decency to fade from the public scene. At least Wallace had the integrity to acknowledge that he was wrong.

'Life Had To Have Been Designed' doesn't justify the existence of a benevolent creator

Why 'Life Had To Have Been Designed' Is a Terrible Justification for God's Existence
By Greta Christina, AlterNet
March 13, 2010

"Just look around you. Look at life, and the universe, and everything. Doesn't it seem like it had to have been designed?"

A lot of arguments for religion are very bad indeed. A lot of arguments for religion aren't even arguments: they're deflections, excuses for why the believer isn't making an argument, bigoted insults, expressions of wishful thinking, complaints that atheists are mean bad people to even ask for an argument, heartfelt wishes that atheists would just shut up.

But some believers do take the question "Why do you believe in God?" seriously. Some believers don't want to believe just out of blind faith or wishful thinking; they care about whether the things they believe are true, and they think the question "What evidence do you have to support this belief?" is a valid one. They think they have good answers for it. They think they have positive evidence for their spiritual beliefs, and they're happy to explain that evidence and defend it.

The argument from design -- that life had to have been designed, because it just looks so much like it was designed -- leads the list of these answers. According to Michael Shermer's How We Believe, the argument from design is the single most common reason religious believers give for why they believe.

Since these people are taking atheists' questions about their religion seriously, I want to return the favor, and take their religious answer seriously.

And I want to talk about why this is really, really not a good answer. At all. Even a little bit.

Have You Heard of This Darwin Fellow?

The argument for design argues that the evidence for God lies in the seemingly inexplicable complexity and functionality and balance of life: of individual life forms, of specific biological organs and systems, of the ecosystem itself.

"Look at the eye!" the argument goes. "Look at an ant colony! Look at a bat's sonar! Look at symbiotic relationships between species! Look at the human brain! They work so well! They do such astonishing things! Are you trying to tell me that these things just...happened? How can you possibly explain all that without a designer?"

Not to be snarky, but: Have you heard of this Darwin fellow?

I'm assuming that I'm not talking to creationists here. Creationists definitely do not count as people who care about reason and evidence and whether what they believe is consistent with reality. I'm assuming that I'm talking here to reasonably educated people, people who accept the basic reality of the theory of evolution...but who still think that God had to have been involved in it somehow. I'm assuming that I'm talking to people who understand that the theory of evolution is supported by a massive body of evidence from every relevant field of science (and from some that you might not think of as relevant)...but who still think that evolution, while a jolly clever idea, is still not quite sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life.

To those people, I say: You really need to study evolution a little more carefully.

The theory of evolution is completely sufficient to explain the complexity and diversity and exquisite high functioning of biological life. That's exactly what it does. The whole point of evolutionary theory is that it explains exactly how life came to be the complex and amazingly balanced web of interconnections that it is, with species beautifully adapted to their environments -- not through design, but through natural selection and descent with modification. It explains it beautifully, and elegantly, and with no need for any supernatural designer to explain anything.

Descent with modification; the survival and reproduction of life forms that are best able to survive and reproduce; great heaping gobs of time. That's all it takes. (Here's a good primer on what evolution is and how it works; for a more detailed explanation, you can check out Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne, or The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, or Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero, or... oh, you get the idea.) The more familiar you become with evolution, the more you understand that it is more than sufficient to explain what seems at first glance to be design in biological life.

And in fact, biological life is an excellent argument against God or a designer.

Why? Because so much of this supposed "design" of life is so ridiculously piss-poor.

The Three Stooges School of Design

Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, "fixed that for you" jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (Here's a very entertaining short list.) I mean...sinuses? Blind spots? External testicles? Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals? (She said bitterly, getting up to do her physical therapy on her bad knee.) Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby's skull pass...and human babies born essentially premature because if they stayed in utero any longer they'd kill their mothers coming out? (Which sometimes they do anyway.) A vagus nerve that travels from the neck down through the chest only to land back up in the neck...traveling 10 to 15 feet in the case of giraffes? Digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars...and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps' larvae with their living bodies? The process of evolution itself...which has brutal, painful, violent death woven into its every fiber?

You're really saying that all of this was designed, on purpose, by an all-powerful God who loves us?

Evolution looks at all this epic fail, and explains it neatly and thoroughly. In the theory of evolution, living things don't have to be perfectly or elegantly "designed" to flourish. All that matters is that they be functional enough to survive and reproduce, and to do so more effectively than their competitors. In fact, in the theory of evolution, not only is there no expectation that the "designs" be perfect or elegant -- there is every expectation that they wouldn't be, since every new generation has to be a minor adaptation on the previous one, and there's no way to wipe the slate clean and start over. And the comfort or happiness of living things matters not in the slightest bit to the process of evolution...unless it somehow enhances the ability of that living thing to survive and reproduce.

The argument from design looks at all this epic fail, and answers, "Ummm... mysterious ways?"

Before and After Science

If we didn't know about evolution, the argument from design might have some validity. Even Richard Dawkins, hard-assed atheist that he is, has acknowledged that atheism, while still logically tenable before Darwin, became a lot more intellectually fulfilling afterward.

But once you know about evolution -- not just about Darwin, but about the rich and thorough, broad-ranging and finely detailed understanding of life that evolution has blossomed into in the 150 years since On The Origin of Species -- the argument from design collapses like a house of cards in a hurricane.

The theory of evolution provides a powerful, beautiful, consistent explanation for the appearance of design in biological life, one that can not only explain the past but predict the future. And it's supported by an overwhelming body of evidence from every relevant field of science, from paleontology to microbiology to epidemiology to anatomy to genetics to geology to physics get the point. The argument from design explains nothing that evolution can't explain better. It has massive, gaping holes. It has no predictive power whatsoever. And it has not a single scrap of positive evidence supporting it: not one piece of evidence suggesting the intervention of a designer at any point in the process. All it has to support it is the human brain's tendency to see intention and design even where none exist, leading to the vague feeling on the part of believers that life had to have been designed because...well...because it just looks that way.

And if "it just looks that way" is the only argument you can make for why life was designed, you're going to have to find a better argument.

"If there's no God, then where did all this come from?"

I've written a fair amount about some of the more painfully bad arguments for religion and against atheism. I've written about the argument that religion is just a story, not meant to be taken literally...a story that still somehow makes people get very bent out of shape when atheists point out that it isn't true.

I've written about an assortment of arguments from wishful thinking, from the insulting (and irrelevant) argument that atheists don't stay atheists when faced with death, to the baffling (and irrelevant) argument that religion gives us a needed feeling of mystery.

I've written about the arguments that essentially tell atheists to just shut up. And I've written about the ways that, when asked what evidence they have for their religious beliefs, many believers simply deflect the question. Instead of saying, "This is why I believe what I do," they offer a list of excuses for why they don't have to show us any stinking evidence.

But that's not true for all believers. When asked why they believe what they do, some believers take the question seriously and sincerely -- and they try to answer it.

I want to return the favor. I want to look at some of these more earnest answers to the question, "Why do you believe in God?" I want to take them seriously, and assume the people presenting them mean them sincerely. And I want to point out, in as much detail as I can, that they still don't hold water. They're less bad than a lot of arguments for God -- at least these people are trying to actually answer the question about the evidence for God, instead of treating the question as stupid or meaningless or patently offensive. But in my years as an atheist writer, not one of them has made me stop and think, "Hm, that's a poser."

Today's argument: But All of This Had to Come From Somewhere! Otherwise known as the "First Cause" argument. "Things don't just come out of nowhere," the argument goes. "Everything that exists has a cause. Therefore, the entirety of physical existence itself had to have had a cause. Therefore, God exists."

Yeah. See, there are some big problems with that argument.

For starters: If everything has to have a cause...then what caused God?

And if God can somehow have always existed or come into being out of nothing...then why can't that be true of the universe?

I agree that the question "Where did the universe come from?" is baffling and intriguing. To say that physical existence either has been there forever or somehow popped into being from does seem to call into question our basic understanding of cause and effect. It's a legitimately tough question.

But the God hypothesis doesn't answer this question. The God hypothesis simply begs the question. It simply moves the question back a notch. It gives an answer to the question of where the universe came from ("God"), but then we have to ask the exact same set of questions about God. "Where did he come from... and if he just always existed, how is that possible?" "Where did the universe come from" is a legitimately tough question... but "God” is a terrible answer. No, it's worse than that. It's no answer at all.

What's more, the "God did it" answer cuts off further inquiry into the question.

Many astronomers and astrophysicists think the question "Where did the universe come from?" might someday be answerable. In fact, many of them strongly suspect the answer may indeed call into question our basic understanding of cause and much the same way Einstein's theories called into question our basic understanding of matter and energy and space, and Galileo's theories called into question our basic understanding of the structure of the universe. (For instance: One idea that's being tossed around is that the beginning of the universe was the beginning, not only of matter and energy, but of space-time itself...and that it therefore makes no sense to talk about what happened "before" time itself began.) They think "Where did physical existence come from?" may be an answerable question... and they're busily researching possible answers.

The "God did it" answer doesn't do this. It doesn't pose possible ways of investigating whether the God hypothesis might be the right answer to this question. It basically just says, "Everything has to have a cause... except God, who by definition can do anything." It's a non-answer. It insists that every question have a valid, comprehensible, cause-and-effect answer...except questions about God. It's like a parent answering every question with, "Because I say so." It's what atheists call the "God of the gaps": it takes any question about the physical world that's currently unanswered by science, and says, "Oh, we don't know the answer to that, therefore it must be God." It's like taking every empty space in the coloring book, and reflexively filling it in with a blue crayon.

There have been countless times throughout history when we thought that Phenomenon (X) had a supernatural cause. Must have had a supernatural cause. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural. Why the sun rises and sets; why people get sick; what causes the weather and the seasons; why children look like their parents; how the complex variety of life came into being; etc., etc., etc. We didn't have a clue what caused it, or even the shadow of a we assumed it was God. (Or spirits, or demons, or whatever.)

And every single time that we eventually got a conclusive answer to the cause of Phenomenon (X), that answer has been entirely natural.

So why on earth would we assume that any currently unanswered question about physical existence -- even a massive and baffling question like how it all came to exist in the first place -- would eventually turn out to be caused by God? It's never been the right answer before. Not even once. Why would we assume it's the right answer this time?

Finally, and most importantly:

There is not a single scrap of evidence that the God hypothesis is true.

There is not a single scrap of evidence suggesting that the universe had a supernatural cause, or that there are any supernatural beings or forces affecting it in any way.

As my wife Ingrid likes to point out: The universe does not look like one in which an independent outside agent is intervening. The universe does not look like one in which miracles happen and physical laws are violated by someone who's above these laws. The universe looks remarkably like a system of physical cause and effect: an unimaginably massive, intensely complex system of physical cause and effect, but physical cause and effect nonetheless. And every single attempt to demonstrate the existence of any supernatural force or entity affecting the universe -- at least, every attempt using careful, rigorous, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, etc. scientific methods -- has fallen flat on its face.

When it comes to the question of how the universe came into being, the only reason for thinking that "God" is the answer to this question is the assumption that "God" has to be the answer to this question -- the assumption that no other answer to this question is possible. And again, throughout history, whenever this assumption has been made in the past, it's been shown to be bullpucky. Countless phenomena once considered not only to have a supernatural cause, but to have no possible cause other than a supernatural one, have been shown to be entirely explainable by natural forces.

We have no reason to think the universe's existence is any different.

If you have evidence showing that the universe was caused by a supernatural creator, I'd be interested in hearing it. But if your only reason for believing in a God who created the universe is, "There had to be a creator because... well, because there just has to be, because everything has to have been caused by something, because I can't imagine a universe without something making it happen"... you're going to have to find a better argument.

Why Are We Afraid to Tax the Super-Rich?

Why Are We Afraid to Tax the Super-Rich?
We are told that we’re already living well beyond our means we’ve got to cut back on government programs at all levels. Meanwhile, the super-rich are still having a ball.
By Les Leopold, AlterNet
March 13, 2010

Our nation is already deeply in debt. How can we possibly afford to invest in our infrastructure, renewable energy, health care, our schools — and create the millions of jobs that our unemployed desperately need?

Meanwhile, the super-rich are still having a ball. In his annual shareholder letter, mega-investor Warren Buffett wrote, “We’ve put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. When it’s raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble.” And Forbes Magazine adds, “Many plutocrats did just that. Indeed, last year’s wealth wasteland has become a billionaire bonanza. Most of the richest people on the planet have seen their fortunes soar in the past year.”

Which brings us back to the federal budget. There are two sides to every ledger: the expenses…and the income. We need to start looking at the income side. With a fairer tax system, we could retrieve some of that money downpour that the elite has been siphoning away from us for decades.

In the 1950s the marginal tax rate on those earning more than $3 million a year (in today’s dollars) was 91 percent. By 1990 it was 28 percent. The IRS says that the top 400 richest tax filers actually paid a rate of just 16 percent in 2007 (the latest numbers we have). Yep, the richest earners — people who took in an average of $343 million each — probably paid a lower rate than you did. Something to consider as you sign your 2009 return.

By the way, those 400 people who do so well on tax day have a combined net worth of nearly $1.37 trillion. (According to Forbes Magazine their wealth has gone up on average by more than 16 percent over the past year — the worst economic year since the Great Depression during which 29 million Americans are without work or forced into part-time jobs. )

How do we even wrap our minds around a number so large? Here’s the example that brings it down to earth for me. If we had progressive taxes that reduced their wealth to a trifling $100 million each, we’d have enough money to set up a trust fund whose interest could provide tuition-free higher education for students at every public college and university in perpetuity. Imagine that. Our kids could actually leave college without carrying tens of thousands of dollars of debt on their backs.

Could those 400 special people be able to get by on just $100 million a year? I think they might.

So why are we so fearful of taxing the super-rich? Here are the arguments I’ve heard.

1. They’ve earned it.
Really? The concept of “earning” is murky when you consider the array of corporate welfare programs we provide. Oil companies have their depletion allowances. Big sugar farmers have their sweet subsidies. The health insurance industry is exempt from anti-trust laws.

One way corporations spend their welfare checks is by providing top management with mind-boggling compensation packages. For instance, in 2009, our financial wizards netted about $150 billion in bonuses – as if in reward for crashing the economy. Were it not for our $10 trillion (not billion) in bailout funds, they would have earned nothing at all. In fact, the financial sector’s reckless gambling has lost us over $6 trillion in wealth. But the execs did quite well, thanks to taxpayer largesse.

You’d think we’d be crying out for a windfall profits tax to reclaim our money. But no.

2. Redistribution of Income is Un-American.
During the 2008 campaign, Joe the Plumber got his 15 minutes of fame when he slammed Obama for daring to utter the phrase “redistribution of income.” Of course, we redistribute income primarily through progressive taxation – having the rich pay a higher rate.

Joe didn’t mention that we already live in a world of massive redistribution. Only it’s from the bottom to the top. We still hear about how poor folks game the system and mooch off our hard earned tax dollars. They go to emergency rooms and don’t pay. They get Medicaid for free. And many don’t pay any taxes at all (mostly because their incomes are so impossibly low). But all of that is chump change compared to the gaming going on at the other end of the economic scale.

Just think of all the scams corporations and the rich are running: ever-rising credit card fees, predatory mortgages, usurious interest rates, check cashing ripoffs, monopoly pricing. They turn income into lower taxed capital gains, find offshore tax shelters, collect subsidies for their runaway shops. And then they netted the big one: Wall Street bailouts. Post-baillout, these too-big-to fail companies are getting even bigger. It all adds up to a major redistribution plan — from the many to the few.

During the post-WWII boom we had one of the fairest income distributions in the world. Not anymore. Today the gap between rich and poor is wider than at any time in U.S. history. Here’s a telling statistic: In 1970 the compensation ratio of the top 100 CEOs compared to the average worker was 45 to one. By 2008 it was 1,071 to one. You think they got that much smarter?

3. If we tax the wealthy, we’ll hinder investment and kill jobs.
This was the justification politicians and pundits used when they started cutting taxes and eliminating regulations in the late 1970s. Tax cuts were supposed to create a robust investment class whose dollars would fuel the new service economy. Since only the wealthy can make such investments, the argument went, we have to make sure they have the money they need to invest. Otherwise, where will all the new jobs come from?

In theory this sounds good. But we tried this experiment, and it didn’t work. When we cut taxes on the super-rich, we got a different kind of investment boom than the politicians and economists had promised. The wealthy literally ran out of investments in factories, equipment and even services. So they flocked to financial investments — which were supposedly safer and more profitable anyway. The super-rich laid their money down in the Wall Street casino, and helped puff up bubble after bubble. Profits in the financial sector soared. In 1960, the sector accounted for about 15 per cent of all corporate profits. By 2008 (before the crash, that is), it was almost 40 percent. The financial sector crased as the direct result of tax cuts for the super-rich and Wall Street deregulation.

4. Government’s too big already. We should be cutting the public sector, not raising taxes to expand it.
Many people (like those in and around the Tea Party) dislike tax scams by the wealthy, but dislike government even more. They’re outraged that public sector workers often have better wages and pensions than people in the private sector. They’ve made attacking public employees the new national blood sport.

With unemployment so high, public sector workers are an easy target. Why should taxpayers, many of whom have no pensions, finance the pensions of public sector workers? Why should we protect public sector jobs when we ourselves are unemployed?

Here’s one reason: Because cutting state and local payrolls would actually add to our economic woes. If we fire public sector workers, they’ll stop paying taxes — which will only add to the tax burden on those people who still have jobs.

Laid off public sector workers — and even those whose wages and benefits have been cut — don’t buy as many goods and services. This drop in demand triggers layoffs in the private sector — and a further slide in tax revenues. In short, public sector cutbacks contribute to an economic death spiral: plummeting tax revenues and ever more cutbacks.

By failing to tax the super-rich, we’re burrowing even deeper into a billionaire bailout society in which the rich keep on gambling away our money, knowing that we will bail them out if they lose. Yes, we need to regulate Wall Street. But we also need to recognize that these gambling addicts have too much money in their pockets. And society needs that money for constructive investments, not for more gambling.

In the end the real fiscal crisis is in our minds. We don’t have to keep fighting over the scraps the wealthy have left us. We can build a new kind of economy, but only if can summon up some courage. Do we have the nerve to tax the super-rich?

The Myths of Financial Innovation

What is It Good For?


Brookings economist Robert Litan picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Paul Volcker and others and put out a lengthy paper defending the major financial innovations of the last four decades. Litan surveys the field and pronounces most of what he sees to be good.

While there is certainly some merit to many of the points that Litan makes, he presents a very incomplete picture. A fuller discussion is likely to be more critical of recent innovations.

Credit cards are a good place to start. Litan notes the explosion of credit card use over the last three decades and sees this as a great advance. He notes the enormous convenience of credit card use over cash or checks. Litan dismisses the idea that credit cards increased consumer indebtedness, noting that the ratio of credit card debt to mortgage debt did not rise over this period. He even claims that credit cards have helped foster growth by providing financing to many small businesses in their start-up phase.

There is a lot here to chew on.

Certainly credit cards do facilitate payments. However, it used to be verycommon for businesses to accept personal checks. Don't try that one today. For the vast majority of people who do have credit cards, they certainly are easier to use than checks; however those with mixed credit histories, who can't get credit cards, don't stand to gain from their convenience.

Of course almost anyone with a bank account can now get a debit card, so this should leave them as well off as when they could pay with a check (unless they hoped to use a bad one). But in the post-credit card, pre-debit card era, credit cards did not unambiguously increase access and convenience for everyone.

There is also the obvious point that banks have found ways to slip fees into credit and debit card bills that many people would probably not pay if they were fully aware of them. The most notorious of these fees is the overdraft fee attached to debit cards, which can often be several times the size of the purchase being made. While new legislation is limiting the ability of banks to impose such fees and requiring greater transparency, any assessment of the merits of credit cards should acknowledge these costs.

This raises another important issue with credit cards - their cost structure. The industry imposes a fee that averages close to 2.0 percent per transaction on credit card purchases. (It's worth noting that these fees are about half as large in most other countries.) Since the credit card companies generally prohibit retailers from offering cash discounts, this means that cash-paying customers must subsidize those who pay with credit cards. (Fees are somewhat lower on debit card purchases.) If lower-income customers are more likely to pay with cash or debit cards, then the banking industry has effectively created a sales tax, the proceeds of which go to subsidize the purchases of higher-income consumers.

The issue of cross-subsidies also comes up in reference to the fees that the industry charges. In the debate over increased regulation, the industry claimed that if they could not charge high late payment fees and were limited in their ability to jack up interest rates, then they would have to curtail the frequent flyer miles and other bonuses that they offer to their customers. It remains to be seen whether the industry will follow through with this threat, but if they do, it implies that another way in which their credit card innovation might have been used to subsidize higher-income households at the expense of lower-income households.

In examining whether credit card debt has led to lower savings, Litan picks a very low bar. Mortgage borrowing exploded, as homeowners were eager to borrow against bubble-inflated house prices. They got a further push from lenders anxious to have mortgages to sell in the secondary market. The fact that the growth rate in credit card debt didn't exceed the growth in mortgage debt over this period can hardly be seen as a compelling argument that credit cards did not negatively affect savings.

In fact, the ratio of credit card debt to disposable income nearly tripled from 1980 to 2008, rising from 2.7 percent of income in 1980 to 8.9 percent by the end of 2008. Of course, this doesn't prove that access to credit card borrowing led to a lower savings rate, but we may not want to cross it off the list of suspects as quickly as Litan. Credit card borrowing is no doubt a mixed picture. In some cases it gives households an opportunity to sustain their standard of living through bad economic times. However, many families do have problems managing their money and easy access to credit cards could make their situation worse.

This brings up one final issue with credit cards. Litan gives credit cards an unambiguous plus for their impact on growth because many small businesses have been financed through credit cards. This one requires a bit more reflection.

More than half of small businesses fail in their first four years. A small business that is only open for a year or two is probably not benefiting the economy. The resources that are diverted into this business could likely have been better used elsewhere in the economy. Instead of making capital and labor available for a viable business, the failed small business owner has diverted it to some hare-brained scheme - just as a pointed headed government bureaucrat might do.

Obviously, all small business start-ups do not provide a benefit to the economy. Now, let's take the subset of small businesses that are turned down for bank loans by our highly innovative financial sector and which therefore must rely on high cost credit card borrowing. Presumably a much higher share of these businesses fail than small businesses in general.

If credit cards make it easier for people with harebrained schemes to start small businesses can we say that they have helped foster economic growth? That seems a bit of a leap. I don't have the data on this and neither does Litan, but until one of us does, we better take away the plus that he gives credit cards for their impact on economic growth.

In sum, the story of one financial innovation, credit cards, is much more mixed than Litan claims in his assessment. They certainly have increased convenience but at a considerable cost. It is noteworthy that the credit card transaction fees are much lower in Old Europe than in the United States. Also, East Asia is far more advanced in allowing the use of electric money transfers from cell phones. So, we may want to hold off on the celebration for the U.S. financial industry's development and promotion of credit cards.

Stop Calling It a Financial Crisis

The Rise and Demise of the Housing Bubble

The politicians and the media continue to refer to the economic downturn as being the result of a financial crisis. This is wrong. We have 15 million people out of work because the housing bubble that drove the economy since the last recession finally burst. The financial crisis may have been good entertainment for those who like to see huge banks collapse, but it was a sidebar. The real story was the rise and demise of the housing bubble.

Those who claim that the real problem was the financial system and its faulty regulation can be disproved with a single word: “Spain.” Spain is noteworthy because it now has an unemployment rate of more than 19 percent, the highest rate in any of the wealthy countries. Spain did not have a financial crisis. In fact, its well-regulated financial system is often held up as model for the United States.

Spain did have a horrific housing bubble. As a result, the share of construction in the economy rose from less than 8.0 percent of GDP at the end of the 90s to 12.3 percent in 2007. By comparison, it is typically less than 6.0 percent of GDP in non-bubble years in the United States. This rapid rate of construction led to enormous overbuilding, which meant that a collapse was inevitable with construction falling to far below normal levels.

The run-up in house prices also had the predictable effect on consumption.

Because people believe that the run-up in house prices is based onfundamentals, homeowners assume that their newly created housing wealth is real and they spend accordingly. Spain’s saving rate fell from just under 6.0 percent in 2000 to 3.0 percent in 2007. When the housing wealth created by the bubble disappeared people naturally cut back their consumption.

This is Spain’s crisis. According to the IMF, housing starts in Spain fell by 80 percent from the peak of the boom. While total construction has not fallen as much (repairs and non-residential construction did not decline nearly as much), if construction in Spain fell by 50 percent, this would imply a loss in annual demand of more than 6 percent of GDP. That would translate into a drop in demand of more than $800 billion in the United States.

Similarly the loss of housing wealth reverses the housing wealth effect. If consumption fell enough to return the savings rate to its pre-bubble level, then this would imply a loss in annual consumption demand of more than 3 percentage points of disposable income. In the U.S. this would amount to more than $300 billion in lost annual consumption.

There is no easy mechanism to replace more than $1 trillion in lost demand. This is why Spain’s economy is in a severe slump right now. Note that just about all analysts agree, Spain’s financial system was well regulated and it had none of the loony loans and outright corruption that pervades Wall Street and the U.S. financial system. Yet, it is suffering from this economic downturn even more than the United States.

The moral of this story is that the problem is not first and foremost a financial crisis. It might be fun to watch the Wall Street and government boys sweat as they stay up late trying to keep the big banks from drowning in the cesspools they created. But this is all a sideshow. No one saved us from a “second Great Depression,” they just saved the jobs and wealth of the Wall Street crew.

The economy’s real problem is simply the loss of demand created by collapse of the bubble.
Throwing even more money at the banks is a way to ensure that they don’t suffer from the consequence of their own greed and stupidity. It is not a way to restore the economy to health.

Restoring the economy to health is about finding a replacement for the demand lost as a result of the collapse of the bubble. In the short-term, this means increased government spending and tax cuts. Deficits put money in the economy, and using the old-fashioned view that people work for money, we can determine how much money we need to spend for the government to get the economy back towards full employment levels of output.

In the longer term, we need to move towards more balanced trade, with higher exports and fewer imports making up for the demand lost due to collapse of the housing bubble. This will require a lower-valued dollar – everything else in the trade picture is just for show.

We do need financial reform. We have an incredibly wasteful and reckless financial industry. But bad financial regulation by itself did not give us 10 percent unemployment, nor would good regulation have been sufficient to prevent it. Just ask the workers in Spain.

Congress of Corruption

Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word ... Like "Bribery"

I really did not know that I could still be so surprised, even shocked, by corruption in the Congress of the United States. I thought my coating of cynicism was already more than thick enough to be impervious to any new revelations. I was wrong. Consider the following.

Seven members of the House of Representatives steered hundreds of millions of dollars in largely no-bid contracts to clients of a lobbying firm, PMA Group. In fiscal year 2008 alone, the seven lawmakers sponsored $112 million worth of "earmarks" (construction and other projects paid for by the government) for PMA clients while accepting more than $350,000 in contributions from the firm's clients and lobbyists.

Such behavior should be investigated by the House ethics committee, should it not? And it was. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct issued a report stating unanimously that the Congressmembers had not violated any rules or laws. "Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributions."

Ethics watchdogs issued sharp denunciations, citing portions of the report that showed that the private companies themselves thought that their donations helped them win earmarks.

One of the seven Congressmembers investigated was Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a government agency not composed of members of Congress, which conducts preliminary reviews, found probable cause that Visclosky sought contributions in exchange for steering federal contracts to contributors. The OCE was in possession of e-mails suggesting that Visclosky's fundraisers were specifically targeted toward PMA's clients who were seeking earmarks. Even though the OCE recommended that the more powerful House ethics committee subpoena Visclosky and his staff to answer questions under oath about his earmarking practice, the members of the House committee chose not to subpoena Visclosky or any of the pertinent records.

Wait, it gets better — The FBI actually raided the PMA offices as part of an investigation into whether the company had directed illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers who helped clients obtain earmarks, and in 2009 a federal grand jury issued subpoenas to Visclosky, one of his former aides, and his political committees.2 But nothing — apparently nothing — could move the members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct of the United States House of Representatives to condemn their comrades.

This is the kind of Congressional corruption that drives so many Americans - on the right and on the left — to think of forming a new party. At times, the thought hits me as well. But two factors interfere. One, the overwhelming role played by money in American electoral campaigns can trump the best of intentions. Wealthy elites have no need for any other party. The Democrats and Republicans serve their needs just fine, thank you.

And two, ideology. Gathering together a lot of people who are turned off by Congressional venality and amorality sounds good until the ideological shit hits the fan. There will undoubtedly be a wide range of ideological leanings in any such group because people who are serious about third parties like to be "non-sectarian" or "non-exclusionary", but this typically leads to serious friction, disputes and splits. Even if you specify something like "the United States should get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible", that can still take various conflicting forms; people's politics are complicated, not to mention confused. To those who like to tell themselves and others that they don't have any particular ideology I say this: If you have thoughts about why the world is the way it is, why society is the way it is, why people are the way they are, what a better way would look like, and if your thoughts are at all organized, that's your ideology, even if it's not wholly conscious as such. Better to organize those thoughts as best you can, become very conscious of them, and consciously avoid getting involved with a political party that is incompatible. It's like a bad marriage.

Things are indeed polarizing in America. There's The Tea Party on the right and The Coffee Party on the left. On the face of it, The Tea Party scarcely makes any sense. A seemingly burgeoning new movement semi-hysterically marching and screaming that their beloved free enterprise is threatened by the "socialist" Barack Obama. (What next, that he's a committed "Marxist" or "communist"? They've probably already said that; if you're going to be dumb you may as well go all the way and be retarded.)

A group of more mainstream conservatives gathered February 17 at a Virginia estate once owned by George Washington and called for a return to the principles of Washington's time to fight the political battles that lie ahead. They produced a declaration, "The Mount Vernon Statement: Constitutional Conservatism: A Statement for the 21st Century". It is a short statement, a mere 546 words, yet the idea of "limited government" or "self-government" is referred to seven times. These people, no less than the Teapartyers, are obsessed with the idea that government intrusion into society of virtually any kind is harmful, or at least much inferior to what could be derived from "free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions", as they put it. This is standard and familiar conservative doctrine to be sure, but now feeding and powering a whole new generation of right-wing activists.

To counter the arguments of these activists, progressives need to present their own doctrine about the role and value of government in people's lives, a concise summary of which I just happen to have prepared in my essay: "The US invades, bombs and kills for it ... but do Americans really believe in free enterprise?" It was written several years ago, as the examples I use make clear, but this matters not for the ideological principles have not changed. The essay concludes: "Activists have to remind the American people of what they've already learned but seem to have forgotten: that they don't want more government, or less government; they don't want big government, or small government; they want government on their side."

Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

First of all, I don't know which side in this debate is correct. I have argued both sides in the past--sometimes just to be devil's advocate. But even with the recent discrediting of the de facto "leading investigator" for the "vaccines cause autism" side, there still are many studies out there that link vaccines and autism.

I will say, though, that those who are "pro-vaccine" seem very condescending in their assumptions that anyone who questions the safety of vaccines is someone who wants to go back to a time before "indoor plumbing" or prefers the "dark ages." Or that someone who questions vaccine safety thinks vaccines are evil. Those I've heard or read who question vaccine safety typically do not denounce vaccines as a whole. They question the compounds used as "adjuvants" which are put in vaccines to overstimulate the immune system to react more quickly to the vaccine so less vaccine can be used--a cost cutting method, mostly. These adjuvants have included themerosol (which contains mercury), animal and insect DNA, a compound called "squalene" in Anthrax vaccines given to soldiers in the first Gulf War that is suspected to cause Gulf War Syndrome, dead viruses and other sinister sounding compounds.

So again, I would like to know exactly where I stand on this issue, but I don't. Here are some articles that I find compelling as far as the debate goes:


The Poisoning of a Generation

This is the time of year when classroom responsibilities overwhelm my journalistic passions, and my writing tends to be more reflection than exposition. And let me tell you, nothing spurs reflexive contemplation like finding yourself in polar opposition to someone whose life work has profoundly influenced your own.

In my case, that someone is Dr. Philip J. Landrigan from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, whose research at the Children's Environmental Health Center there first caught my attention in the late 1990s when I was a senior environmental writer at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). When I began exploring the links between toxic pollution and autism 17 months ago, a 2006 study Landrigan co-wrote titled "Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals" was the first link that Google produced when I searched for "autism and environment."

Nearly a year and a half later, I am persuaded that mercury and/or other chemicals in vaccines are among the industrial chemicals that caused the autism epidemic of the past two decades. I do not believe that vaccines caused the epidemic, but my work has convinced me that neurotoxins in them contributed to it. And in some children, they did cause autism. The question for them isn't whether, it's how, and it demands an answer.

After having followed Phil Landrigan's work in this field for more than a decade, it's inconceivable to me that anyone familiar with it would deny that proposition.

So, when I read, "There is no credible evidence that vaccines cause autism." in the abstract of Landrigan's new paper "What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution," I was inspired to reflection.

I initially felt he was parsing words for the publisher, the journal Current Opinion in Pediatrics. Given the politics and history of vaccines in America, it's reasonable to assume that any pediatric researcher who deviates from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) mantra -- The case against vaccines is closed, never to be opened again. -- could suffer serious consequences.

Regardless, as more than one source I have interviewed or read since October 2008 has observed, science is only as good as the hypotheses it pursues. The American experience with mercury-containing vaccines and autism is unique. And, as the studies Landrigan cites in his paper show, those used to "debunk" the notion that vaccines may have contributed to autism have not explored the right hypotheses.


The American experience with mercury-containing vaccines parallels the autism epidemic to the letter.

In 1930, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly & Co. patented a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal for use in childhood vaccines. According to a 2003 congressional report, despite repeated requests through the years, Lilly never tested thimerosal for its human health impacts. For 70 years, Lilly relied on a "woefully inadequate" and "uncontrolled study" from the 1920s as proof thimerosal was safe, the report said.

In 1943, autism was first identified by Austrian psychiatrist Leo Kanner, whose study "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact" said he had noticed such children since 1938.

Starting in the 1940s, American children were vaccinated for diptheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP). A polio shot was added in 1955, and measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) joined the list in 1971.

In 1989, a fully vaccinated child of 5 had received a total of 11 injections of these three vaccines. In 1990 and 1991, two more were added to the schedule with seven more shots, including hepatitis B at birth. And in 1995 and 1998, an additional two vaccines with five more shots were added, bringing the total number of injections to 23.

Four more vaccines were added in 2000, 2004 and 2006. The CDC and AAP's recommended vaccination schedule today says American children should receive 36 shots before they enter first grade, the most aggressive vaccination schedule in the world.

Canada is a distant second with 28, according to a 2009 study published by Generation Rescue titled "Autism and vaccines around the world." The average number of vaccinations among 30 industrialized countries is 18.

Meanwhile, between 1980 and 1994, the incidence of California children with autism jumped 373 percent, from 1 in every 2,272 live births to 1 in 480, according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Three Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studies of children born in 1992, 1994 and 1996 -- after physicians began immunizing children at birth with vaccines containing mercury and aluminum -- showed continued, alarming increases at multiple sites nationwide. The first two, published in 2007, showed the autism rate had jumped to 1 in 150. The second, published in December 2009, put the figure at 1 in 110.

A CDC survey of parents released in October 2009 said 1 in 90 has a child on the autism spectrum.


In a move that some have called an example of the "precautionary principle," the AAP and U.S. Public Health Service issued a joint statement in 1999 that said "thimerosal-containing vaccines should be removed as soon as possible." The precautionary principle actually says chemicals should be considered guilty until proven innocent, not innocent until proven guilty, as happened here.

A letter from a U.S. Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner to U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., dated June 18, 2003, said drug companies had reported that the last of the thimerosal vaccines in circulation had expiration dates in 2002. Anecdotal evidence from parents, however, suggests that children still received thimerosal-containing vaccines in 2003.

Some vaccines in use today, annual flu shots and the H1N1, for example, still contain mercury.


Not every vaccine used during the thimerosal era contained mercury. But most did, along with aluminum, another potent neurotoxin. And millions of American children were exposed to ominously large doses of both of these industrial chemicals.

The post-1991 AAP schedule called for children to receive one vaccine at birth, five at two months, five more at four months and an additional four at six months.

And that, according to the 2003 congressional report, authored by Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, R-Indianapolis, was tantamount to poisoning a generation of children. "In July 2000, it was estimated that 8,000 children a day were being exposed to mercury in excess of federal guidelines through their mandatory vaccines," the report said.

In some cases, when parents would miss one of their "well-baby visits," doctors would double up the shots. Some American children received 125 times the amount of mercury that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says is safe in a single visit.

And in tens of thousands of cases, like Generation Rescue co-founder J.B. Handley's son Jamie in Portland, Ore., their parents carried them into their pediatricians' offices normal and healthy and watched them "systematically decline" over the course of their "well-baby" visits where they "received multiple shots," Handley said in an e-mail.

And Handley has spoken to hundreds of parents who shared the experience of Congressman Burton, who watched his grandson immediately and permanently regress into autism. In a speech on the House floor in 2002, Burton described the experience: "He actually got nine shots in one day, seven of which had mercury.

Two days later he was banging his head against the wall, flapping his arms, had chronic diarrhea and constipation at the same time, and we lost him. He wouldn't talk to us. He became incommunicado."


Before addressing specifics in Landrigan's section on "Vaccines and autism," I should note that I have corresponded with him over the past 18 months and quoted him often in my stories, columns and blogs on children's environmental health. Just last week I featured the rest of his autism study in a piece called "Landrigan calls for more research into autism-environment link." In my experience, he has been a man of few words who preferred to let his published work speak for him.

So I wasn't surprised that, after I e-mailed him about the no-credible-evidence line in his autism paper, he sent me the full study and referred me to the vaccines portion. When I questioned the relevance of the studies he cites to my proposition that mercury-containing vaccines caused some of the autism epidemic in the United States, he responded that no study is definitive, but a 2005 Japanese one was close.

"In Yokohama, Japan, the MMR vaccination rate declined significantly between 1988 and 1992, and no MMR vaccine was administered in 1993 or thereafter," Landrigan wrote in his autism study. "Despite declining immunizations, cumulative incidence of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) increased significantly each year from 1988 through 1996 and rose especially dramatically beginning in 1993. Overall incidence of autism nearly doubled in those years."

Autism spectrum disorders include Autism Disorder, sometimes called full-blown autism; Asperger's Disorder, sometimes called high-functioning autism; and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified.

The counterarguments to the Yokohama study reject its application to the American experience.

First, it's a study of but one vaccine out of the 11 that American children received over the decade and a half when thimerosal was heavily used. And, as the study itself says, under Japanese law children received only three vaccinations during the study period -- measles, rubella and MMR -- and in nowhere near the same doses as in the United States. Japanese children today receive 11 shots over the course of their childhoods. American kids receive 36. And the MMR has never contained thimerosal.

The Yokohama study's "Conclusion" states: "The significance of this finding is that MMR vaccination is most unlikely to be a main cause of ASD, that it cannot explain the rise over time in the incidence of ASD."

No credible source I've encountered has argued that the MMR, thimerosal or any other single vaccine or ingredient in vaccines are solely responsible for the autism epidemic. To argue that would be as foolhardy as denying the possibility that mercury in vaccines may have caused or helped cause some kids' regression into autism, or that this particular hypothesis isn't worth pursuing.


Landrigan cites seven studies from the United States, United Kingdom and Japan as support for his no-credible-evidence assertion. One, a Danish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, is often cited as the last word on the matter.

The Danish study compared autism rates in immunized and unimmunized children between 1991 and 1998, Landrigan wrote in his study. It found "no association between age at immunization or season at immunization and rate of autism."

Handley, however, said in an e-mail that the study used the term unimmunized to mean children who did not receive the MMR. All of the children had been inoculated against other diseases. And, he and others point out, the Danes removed thimerosal from their vaccines in 1992.

Citing the Danish study is, as many in the autism community have argued, comparing apples to pears.


One California study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 that did look at American children from the thimerosal era analyzed "neuropsychological function" in 1,047 children, Landrigan wrote, but it "found no consistent correlation between neuropsychological functioning at age 7-10 years and early exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines."

The study, however, intentionally did not include autism. "Since the CDC is conducting a separate case-control study of autism in relation to mercury exposure, a measure of autism was not included in the test battery," it explained.

And while the study did reach the conclusions Landrigan outlines, some of them provide fodder for contemplation.

The study, titled "Early Thimerosal Exposure and Neuropsychological Outcomes at 7 to 10 Years," found that exposure to mercury between birth and 28 days was related to significantly poorer "speech articulation." It also found a "significant negative association with verbal IQ" among girls.

"Although the effect sizes were very small, the speech-articulation findings among all children and the lower verbal IQ findings among girls suggest a possible adverse association between neonatal exposure to mercury and language development," the study concludes.

Communication deficits are signature symptoms of autism. Children on the "full-blown autism" end of the spectrum frequently stop talking altogether.

While the study "found no association between neonatal exposure to mercury from thimerosal and total IQ," among boys it found "a significant positive association with performance IQ." Boys are four times more likely to develop autism than girls, and exceptional intelligence is common with Asperger's disorder.


I've spent most of the past 28 years journalistically investigating conflicts between environmental victims and experts in the relevant fields. And, I can say without qualification, the victims have been right and the experts wrong in every significant story I've covered. I can't think of a single exception.

And with respect to vaccines and autism, I say again, without reservation, parents like J.B. Handley and grandparents like Dan Burton are right about vaccines and autism. The experts are wrong, and their behaviors -- their vitriolic attacks upon those who disagree, their underhanded political tactics -- suggest they know they were wrong.

For noble reasons, the most common argument against unfettered scientific analysis of the thimerosal era is that talking about vaccines and autism will scare parents away from vaccination, which could lead to outbreaks of dangerous illnesses, perhaps of epidemic proportions.

The most obvious counterargument is that we are in the middle (probably the beginning) of epidemics of horrific proportions -- of autism, of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, of cognitive disabilities, of learning delays. One in six American children in public schools today receive special education for those and other conditions. I've identified school districts in Southern Indiana where it is more than one in four.

Americans need to know what caused these epidemics. And open, honest, rigorous debate and study is the only path to that end.


Where to start that process also seems obvious. Every area of environmental contamination I've ever explored, from PCBs in the early 1980s to thimerosal today, began with studies of populations that were subjected to extreme exposures.
The earliest PCB studies involved Japanese and Taiwanese who accidentally ate food cooked in PCB-contaminated rice oil in 1968 and 1979, respectively. Early studies of mercury poisoning analyzed victims contaminated by industrial discharges into Japanese waterways in the 1950s and bread cooked with mercury-contaminated grain in Iraq in 1971 and '72.

Well, we have a generation of American children today, who range in age from roughly 7 to 19, who were acutely exposed to high levels of two known neurotoxins through their vaccinations, and whose medical histories are comprehensively documented.

How difficult or costly could it be to identify a statistically significant population of children who received 125 times the recommended EPA level of mercury exposure and study their health histories? Or of kids who received 50 times the recommended exposure? Or 25 times?

Many parents refused to have their children vaccinated for hepatitis B at birth. How hard would it be to compare their children to those who were vaccinated? There are millions of both.


Most of the reasons why the politically powerful, pro-vaccine forces virulently oppose research of any kind into America's thimerosal experience are obvious and predictable, such as money and liability.

The political and legal history of the autism-and-vaccine debate is replete with dire warnings that parents recovering jury awards for damages caused by vaccines would wreak economic havoc on the industry and impede its ability to protect public health.

Corporations, after all, manufactured and sold the toxins, and doctors injected them into the children's developing bodies. In trial lawyer parlance, both have deep pockets.

Indeed, laws passed by Congress starting in the mid-1980s have made it virtually impossible for parents to be compensated for vaccine-induced injuries to their children.

Why public health officials abdicated their responsibilities to protect citizens from environmental toxins like mercury and aluminum is likewise clear. The agencies were run by Bush-Clinton-Bush appointees, whose jobs were to not do their jobs.

And their bosses came from the pharmaceutical industries. President George H.W. Bush was a Lilly board member before he was elected president. President George W. Bush's first budget director in 2000 was then-Lilly Vice President and now-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who has opened the door to a 2012 bid for president.


Beyond their personal liability, the docs add a new twist to an old tale.
Every person I have told the mercury-in-vaccine facts to has been dumfounded. Unless they have a special-needs child in their families, educated, curious, engaged citizens have no clue that one in six American children has a developmental disability, or that they had dangerously high levels of known neurotoxins injected into their developing, infant bodies, by their doctors. They're appalled when they hear it.

But all the guys I knew who became doctors, and all the docs I've ever spoken to as a reporter or a patient, have been the smartest people in the room. Yet, I wrote about mercury's neurotoxic properties when I worked at IDEM in 1996. And their fellow doctors in other countries, like Denmark, stopped using mercury in vaccines a decade before they finally did.

Another question that demands an answer is: Why did the AAP perpetuate for so long what can arguably be called the poisoning of a generation? Isn't one of a doctor's sacred credos, "First, do no harm"?


Deadly Immunity
June 16, 2005

Download RFK's original research paper:
Tobacco Science and the Thimerosal Scandal.pdf

In June 2000, a group of top government scientists and health officials gathered for a meeting at the isolated Simpsonwood conference center in Norcross, Ga. Convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the meeting was held at this Methodist retreat center, nestled in wooded farmland next to the Chattahoochee River, to ensure complete secrecy. The agency had issued no public announcement of the session -- only private invitations to 52 attendees. There were high-level officials from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, the top vaccine specialist from the World Health Organization in Geneva, and representatives of every major vaccine manufacturer, including GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Wyeth and Aventis Pasteur. All of the scientific data under discussion, CDC officials repeatedly reminded the participants, was strictly "embargoed." There would be no making photocopies of documents, no taking papers with them when they left.

The federal officials and industry representatives had assembled to discuss a disturbing new study that raised alarming questions about the safety of a host of common childhood vaccines administered to infants and young children. According to a CDC epidemiologist named Tom Verstraeten, who had analyzed the agency's massive database containing the medical records of 100,000 children, a mercury-based preservative in the vaccines -- thimerosal -- appeared to be responsible for a dramatic increase in autism and a host of other neurological disorders among children. "I was actually stunned by what I saw," Verstraeten told those assembled at Simpsonwood, citing the staggering number of earlier studies that indicate a link between thimerosal and speech delays, attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity and autism. Since 1991, when the CDC and the FDA had recommended that three additional vaccines laced with the preservative be given to extremely young infants -- in one case, within hours of birth -- the estimated number of cases of autism had increased fifteenfold, from one in every 2,500 children to one in 166 children.

Even for scientists and doctors accustomed to confronting issues of life and death, the findings were frightening. "You can play with this all you want," Dr. Bill Weil, a consultant for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the group. The results "are statistically significant." Dr. Richard Johnston, an immunologist and pediatrician from the University of Colorado whose grandson had been born early on the morning of the meeting's first day, was even more alarmed. "My gut feeling?" he said. "Forgive this personal comment -- I do not want my grandson to get a thimerosal-containing vaccine until we know better what is going on."

But instead of taking immediate steps to alert the public and rid the vaccine supply of thimerosal, the officials and executives at Simpsonwood spent most of the next two days discussing how to cover up the damaging data. According to transcripts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, many at the meeting were concerned about how the damaging revelations about thimerosal would affect the vaccine industry's bottom line.

"We are in a bad position from the standpoint of defending any lawsuits," said Dr. Robert Brent, a pediatrician at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware. "This will be a resource to our very busy plaintiff attorneys in this country." Dr. Bob Chen, head of vaccine safety for the CDC, expressed relief that "given the sensitivity of the information, we have been able to keep it out of the hands of, let's say, less responsible hands." Dr. John Clements, vaccines advisor at the World Health Organization, declared that "perhaps this study should not have been done at all." He added that "the research results have to be handled," warning that the study "will be taken by others and will be used in other ways beyond the control of this group."

In fact, the government has proved to be far more adept at handling the damage than at protecting children's health. The CDC paid the Institute of Medicine to conduct a new study to whitewash the risks of thimerosal, ordering researchers to "rule out" the chemical's link to autism. It withheld Verstraeten's findings, even though they had been slated for immediate publication, and told other scientists that his original data had been "lost" and could not be replicated. And to thwart the Freedom of Information Act, it handed its giant database of vaccine records over to a private company, declaring it off-limits to researchers. By the time Verstraeten finally published his study in 2003, he had gone to work for GlaxoSmithKline and reworked his data to bury the link between thimerosal and autism.

Vaccine manufacturers had already begun to phase thimerosal out of injections given to American infants -- but they continued to sell off their mercury-based supplies of vaccines until last year. The CDC and FDA gave them a hand, buying up the tainted vaccines for export to developing countries and allowing drug companies to continue using the preservative in some American vaccines -- including several pediatric flu shots as well as tetanus boosters routinely given to 11-year-olds.

The drug companies are also getting help from powerful lawmakers in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has received $873,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, has been working to immunize vaccine makers from liability in 4,200 lawsuits that have been filed by the parents of injured children. On five separate occasions, Frist has tried to seal all of the government's vaccine-related documents -- including the Simpsonwood transcripts -- and shield Eli Lilly, the developer of thimerosal, from subpoenas. In 2002, the day after Frist quietly slipped a rider known as the "Eli Lilly Protection Act" into a homeland security bill, the company contributed $10,000 to his campaign and bought 5,000 copies of his book on bioterrorism. Congress repealed the measure in 2003 -- but earlier this year, Frist slipped another provision into an anti-terrorism bill that would deny compensation to children suffering from vaccine-related brain disorders. "The lawsuits are of such magnitude that they could put vaccine producers out of business and limit our capacity to deal with a biological attack by terrorists," says Andy Olsen, a legislative assistant to Frist.

Even many conservatives are shocked by the government's effort to cover up the dangers of thimerosal. Rep. Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, oversaw a three-year investigation of thimerosal after his grandson was diagnosed with autism. "Thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines is directly related to the autism epidemic," his House Government Reform Committee concluded in its final report. "This epidemic in all probability may have been prevented or curtailed had the FDA not been asleep at the switch regarding a lack of safety data regarding injected thimerosal, a known neurotoxin." The FDA and other public-health agencies failed to act, the committee added, out of "institutional malfeasance for self protection" and "misplaced protectionism of the pharmaceutical industry."

The story of how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of thimerosal from the public is a chilling case study of institutional arrogance, power and greed. I was drawn into the controversy only reluctantly. As an attorney and environmentalist who has spent years working on issues of mercury toxicity, I frequently met mothers of autistic children who were absolutely convinced that their kids had been injured by vaccines. Privately, I was skeptical. I doubted that autism could be blamed on a single source, and I certainly understood the government's need to reassure parents that vaccinations are safe; the eradication of deadly childhood diseases depends on it. I tended to agree with skeptics like Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, who criticized his colleagues on the House Government Reform Committee for leaping to conclusions about autism and vaccinations. "Why should we scare people about immunization," Waxman pointed out at one hearing, "until we know the facts?"

It was only after reading the Simpsonwood transcripts, studying the leading scientific research and talking with many of the nation's preeminent authorities on mercury that I became convinced that the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real. Five of my own children are members of the Thimerosal Generation -- those born between 1989 and 2003 -- who received heavy doses of mercury from vaccines. "The elementary grades are overwhelmed with children who have symptoms of neurological or immune-system damage," Patti White, a school nurse, told the House Government Reform Committee in 1999. "Vaccines are supposed to be making us healthier; however, in 25 years of nursing I have never seen so many damaged, sick kids. Something very, very wrong is happening to our children." More than 500,000 kids currently suffer from autism, and pediatricians diagnose more than 40,000 new cases every year. The disease was unknown until 1943, when it was identified and diagnosed among 11 children born in the months after thimerosal was first added to baby vaccines in 1931.

Some skeptics dispute that the rise in autism is caused by thimerosal-tainted vaccinations. They argue that the increase is a result of better diagnosis -- a theory that seems questionable at best, given that most of the new cases of autism are clustered within a single generation of children. "If the epidemic is truly an artifact of poor diagnosis," scoffs Dr. Boyd Haley, one of the world's authorities on mercury toxicity, "then where are all the 20-year-old autistics?" Other researchers point out that Americans are exposed to a greater cumulative "load" of mercury than ever before, from contaminated fish to dental fillings, and suggest that thimerosal in vaccines may be only part of a much larger problem. It's a concern that certainly deserves far more attention than it has received -- but it overlooks the fact that the mercury concentrations in vaccines dwarf other sources of exposure to our children.

What is most striking is the lengths to which many of the leading detectives have gone to ignore -- and cover up -- the evidence against thimerosal. From the very beginning, the scientific case against the mercury additive has been overwhelming. The preservative, which is used to stem fungi and bacterial growth in vaccines, contains ethylmercury, a potent neurotoxin. Truckloads of studies have shown that mercury tends to accumulate in the brains of primates and other animals after they are injected with vaccines -- and that the developing brains of infants are particularly susceptible. In 1977, a Russian study found that adults exposed to much lower concentrations of ethylmercury than those given to American children still suffered brain damage years later. Russia banned thimerosal from children's vaccines 20 years ago, and Denmark, Austria, Japan, Great Britain and all the Scandinavian countries have since followed suit.

"You couldn't even construct a study that shows thimerosal is safe," says Haley, who heads the chemistry department at the University of Kentucky. "It's just too darn toxic. If you inject thimerosal into an animal, its brain will sicken. If you apply it to living tissue, the cells die. If you put it in a petri dish, the culture dies. Knowing these things, it would be shocking if one could inject it into an infant without causing damage."

Internal documents reveal that Eli Lilly, which first developed thimerosal, knew from the start that its product could cause damage -- and even death -- in both animals and humans. In 1930, the company tested thimerosal by administering it to 22 patients with terminal meningitis, all of whom died within weeks of being injected -- a fact Lilly didn't bother to report in its study declaring thimerosal safe. In 1935, researchers at another vaccine manufacturer, Pittman-Moore, warned Lilly that its claims about thimerosal's safety "did not check with ours." Half the dogs Pittman injected with thimerosal-based vaccines became sick, leading researchers there to declare the preservative "unsatisfactory as a serum intended for use on dogs."

In the decades that followed, the evidence against thimerosal continued to mount. During the Second World War, when the Department of Defense used the preservative in vaccines on soldiers, it required Lilly to label it "poison." In 1967, a study in Applied Microbiology found that thimerosal killed mice when added to injected vaccines. Four years later, Lilly's own studies discerned that thimerosal was "toxic to tissue cells" in concentrations as low as one part per million -- 100 times weaker than the concentration in a typical vaccine. Even so, the company continued to promote thimerosal as "nontoxic" and also incorporated it into topical disinfectants. In 1977, 10 babies at a Toronto hospital died when an antiseptic preserved with thimerosal was dabbed onto their umbilical cords.

In 1982, the FDA proposed a ban on over-the-counter products that contained thimerosal, and in 1991 the agency considered banning it from animal vaccines. But tragically, that same year, the CDC recommended that infants be injected with a series of mercury-laced vaccines. Newborns would be vaccinated for hepatitis B within 24 hours of birth, and 2-month-old infants would be immunized for haemophilus influenzae B and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis.

The drug industry knew the additional vaccines posed a danger. The same year that the CDC approved the new vaccines, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, one of the fathers of Merck's vaccine programs, warned the company that 6-month-olds who were administered the shots would suffer dangerous exposure to mercury. He recommended that thimerosal be discontinued, "especially when used on infants and children," noting that the industry knew of nontoxic alternatives. "The best way to go," he added, "is to switch to dispensing the actual vaccines without adding preservatives."

For Merck and other drug companies, however, the obstacle was money. Thimerosal enables the pharmaceutical industry to package vaccines in vials that contain multiple doses, which require additional protection because they are more easily contaminated by multiple needle entries. The larger vials cost half as much to produce as smaller, single-dose vials, making it cheaper for international agencies to distribute them to impoverished regions at risk of epidemics. Faced with this "cost consideration," Merck ignored Hilleman's warnings, and government officials continued to push more and more thimerosal-based vaccines for children. Before 1989, American preschoolers received 11 vaccinations -- for polio, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis and measles-mumps-rubella. A decade later, thanks to federal recommendations, children were receiving a total of 22 immunizations by the time they reached first grade.

As the number of vaccines increased, the rate of autism among children exploded. During the 1990s, 40 million children were injected with thimerosal-based vaccines, receiving unprecedented levels of mercury during a period critical for brain development. Despite the well-documented dangers of thimerosal, it appears that no one bothered to add up the cumulative dose of mercury that children would receive from the mandated vaccines. "What took the FDA so long to do the calculations?" Peter Patriarca, director of viral products for the agency, asked in an e-mail to the CDC in 1999. "Why didn't CDC and the advisory bodies do these calculations when they rapidly expanded the childhood immunization schedule?"

But by that time, the damage was done. Infants who received all their vaccines, plus boosters, by the age of six months were being injected with a total of 187 micrograms of ethylmercury -- a level 40 percent greater than the EPA's limit for daily exposure to methylmercury, a related neurotoxin. Although the vaccine industry insists that ethylmercury poses little danger because it breaks down rapidly and is removed by the body, several studies -- including one published in April by the National Institutes of Health -- suggest that ethylmercury is actually more toxic to developing brains and stays in the brain longer than methylmercury. Under the expanded schedule of vaccinations, multiple shots were often administered on a single day: At two months, when the infant brain is still at a critical stage of development, children routinely received three innoculations that delivered 99 times the approved limit of mercury.

Officials responsible for childhood immunizations insist that the additional vaccines were necessary to protect infants from disease and that thimerosal is still essential in developing nations, which, they often claim, cannot afford the single-dose vials that don't require a preservative. Dr. Paul Offit, one of CDC's top vaccine advisors, told me, "I think if we really have an influenza pandemic -- and certainly we will in the next 20 years, because we always do -- there's no way on God's earth that we immunize 280 million people with single-dose vials. There has to be multidose vials."

But while public-health officials may have been well-intentioned, many of those on the CDC advisory committee who backed the additional vaccines had close ties to the industry. Dr. Sam Katz, the committee's chair, was a paid consultant for most of the major vaccine makers and was part of a team that developed the measles vaccine and brought it to licensure in 1963. Dr. Neal Halsey, another committee member, worked as a researcher for the vaccine companies and received honoraria from Abbott Labs for his research on the hepatitis B vaccine.

Indeed, in the tight circle of scientists who work on vaccines, such conflicts of interest are common. Rep. Burton says that the CDC "routinely allows scientists with blatant conflicts of interest to serve on intellectual advisory committees that make recommendations on new vaccines," even though they have "interests in the products and companies for which they are supposed to be providing unbiased oversight." The House Government Reform Committee discovered that four of the eight CDC advisors who approved guidelines for a rotavirus vaccine "had financial ties to the pharmaceutical companies that were developing different versions of the vaccine."

Offit, who shares a patent on one of the vaccines, acknowledged to me that he "would make money" if his vote eventually leads to a marketable product. But he dismissed my suggestion that a scientist's direct financial stake in CDC approval might bias his judgment. "It provides no conflict for me," he insists. "I have simply been informed by the process, not corrupted by it. When I sat around that table, my sole intent was trying to make recommendations that best benefited the children in this country. It's offensive to say that physicians and public-health people are in the pocket of industry and thus are making decisions that they know are unsafe for children. It's just not the way it works."

Other vaccine scientists and regulators gave me similar assurances. Like Offit, they view themselves as enlightened guardians of children's health, proud of their "partnerships" with pharmaceutical companies, immune to the seductions of personal profit, besieged by irrational activists whose anti-vaccine campaigns are endangering children's health. They are often resentful of questioning. "Science," says Offit, "is best left to scientists."

Still, some government officials were alarmed by the apparent conflicts of interest. In his e-mail to CDC administrators in 1999, Paul Patriarca of the FDA blasted federal regulators for failing to adequately scrutinize the danger posed by the added baby vaccines. "I'm not sure there will be an easy way out of the potential perception that the FDA, CDC and immunization-policy bodies may have been asleep at the switch re: thimerosal until now," Patriarca wrote. The close ties between regulatory officials and the pharmaceutical industry, he added, "will also raise questions about various advisory bodies regarding aggressive recommendations for use" of thimerosal in child vaccines.

If federal regulators and government scientists failed to grasp the potential risks of thimerosal over the years, no one could claim ignorance after the secret meeting at Simpsonwood. But rather than conduct more studies to test the link to autism and other forms of brain damage, the CDC placed politics over science. The agency turned its database on childhood vaccines -- which had been developed largely at taxpayer expense -- over to a private agency, America's Health Insurance Plans, ensuring that it could not be used for additional research. It also instructed the Institute of Medicine, an advisory organization that is part of the National Academy of Sciences, to produce a study debunking the link between thimerosal and brain disorders. The CDC "wants us to declare, well, that these things are pretty safe," Dr. Marie McCormick, who chaired the IOM's Immunization Safety Review Committee, told her fellow researchers when they first met in January 2001. "We are not ever going to come down that [autism] is a true side effect" of thimerosal exposure. According to transcripts of the meeting, the committee's chief staffer, Kathleen Stratton, predicted that the IOM would conclude that the evidence was "inadequate to accept or reject a causal relation" between thimerosal and autism. That, she added, was the result "Walt wants" -- a reference to Dr. Walter Orenstein, director of the National Immunization Program for the CDC.

For those who had devoted their lives to promoting vaccination, the revelations about thimerosal threatened to undermine everything they had worked for. "We've got a dragon by the tail here," said Dr. Michael Kaback, another committee member. "The more negative that [our] presentation is, the less likely people are to use vaccination, immunization -- and we know what the results of that will be. We are kind of caught in a trap. How we work our way out of the trap, I think is the charge."

Even in public, federal officials made it clear that their primary goal in studying thimerosal was to dispel doubts about vaccines. "Four current studies are taking place to rule out the proposed link between autism and thimerosal," Dr. Gordon Douglas, then-director of strategic planning for vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health, assured a Princeton University gathering in May 2001. "In order to undo the harmful effects of research claiming to link the [measles] vaccine to an elevated risk of autism, we need to conduct and publicize additional studies to assure parents of safety." Douglas formerly served as president of vaccinations for Merck, where he ignored warnings about thimerosal's risks.

In May of last year, the Institute of Medicine issued its final report. Its conclusion: There is no proven link between autism and thimerosal in vaccines. Rather than reviewing the large body of literature describing the toxicity of thimerosal, the report relied on four disastrously flawed epidemiological studies examining European countries, where children received much smaller doses of thimerosal than American kids. It also cited a new version of the Verstraeten study, published in the journal Pediatrics, that had been reworked to reduce the link between thimerosal and autism. The new study included children too young to have been diagnosed with autism and overlooked others who showed signs of the disease. The IOM declared the case closed and -- in a startling position for a scientific body -- recommended that no further research be conducted.

The report may have satisfied the CDC, but it convinced no one. Rep. David Weldon, a Republican physician from Florida who serves on the House Government Reform Committee, attacked the Institute of Medicine, saying it relied on a handful of studies that were "fatally flawed" by "poor design" and failed to represent "all the available scientific and medical research." CDC officials are not interested in an honest search for the truth, Weldon told me, because "an association between vaccines and autism would force them to admit that their policies irreparably damaged thousands of children. Who would want to make that conclusion about themselves?"

Under pressure from Congress and parents, the Institute of Medicine convened another panel to address continuing concerns about the Vaccine Safety Datalink data-sharing program. In February, the new panel, composed of different scientists, criticized the way the VSD had been used to study vaccine safety, and urged the CDC to make its vaccine database available to the public.

So far, though, only two scientists have managed to gain access. Dr. Mark Geier, president of the Genetics Center of America, and his son, David, spent a year battling to obtain the medical records from the CDC. Since August 2002, when members of Congress pressured the agency to turn over the data, the Geiers have completed six studies that demonstrate a powerful correlation between thimerosal and neurological damage in children. One study, which compares the cumulative dose of mercury received by children born between 1981 and 1985 with those born between 1990 and 1996, found a "very significant relationship" between autism and vaccines. Another study of educational performance found that kids who received higher doses of thimerosal in vaccines were nearly three times as likely to be diagnosed with autism and more than three times as likely to suffer from speech disorders and mental retardation. Another soon-to-be-published study shows that autism rates are in decline following the recent elimination of thimerosal from most vaccines.

As the federal government worked to prevent scientists from studying vaccines, others have stepped in to study the link to autism. In April, reporter Dan Olmsted of UPI undertook one of the more interesting studies himself. Searching for children who had not been exposed to mercury in vaccines -- the kind of population that scientists typically use as a "control" in experiments -- Olmsted scoured the Amish of Lancaster County, Penn., who refuse to immunize their infants. Given the national rate of autism, Olmsted calculated that there should be 130 autistics among the Amish. He found only four. One had been exposed to high levels of mercury from a power plant. The other three -- including one child adopted from outside the Amish community -- had received their vaccines.

At the state level, many officials have also conducted in-depth reviews of thimerosal. While the Institute of Medicine was busy whitewashing the risks, the Iowa Legislature was carefully combing through all of the available scientific and biological data. "After three years of review, I became convinced there was sufficient credible research to show a link between mercury and the increased incidences in autism," state Sen. Ken Veenstra, a Republican who oversaw the investigation, told the magazine Byronchild earlier this year. "The fact that Iowa's 700 percent increase in autism began in the 1990s, right after more and more vaccines were added to the children's vaccine schedules, is solid evidence alone." Last year, Iowa became the first state to ban mercury in vaccines, followed by California. Similar bans are now under consideration in 32 other states.

But instead of following suit, the FDA continues to allow manufacturers to include thimerosal in scores of over-the-counter medications as well as steroids and injected collagen. Even more alarming, the government continues to ship vaccines preserved with thimerosal to developing countries -- some of which are now experiencing a sudden explosion in autism rates. In China, where the disease was virtually unknown prior to the introduction of thimerosal by U.S. drug manufacturers in 1999, news reports indicate that there are now more than 1.8 million autistics. Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, autistic disorders also appear to be soaring in India, Argentina, Nicaragua and other developing countries that are now using thimerosal-laced vaccines. The World Health Organization continues to insist thimerosal is safe, but it promises to keep the possibility that it is linked to neurological disorders "under review."

I devoted time to study this issue because I believe that this is a moral crisis that must be addressed. If, as the evidence suggests, our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children, their actions arguably constitute one of the biggest scandals in the annals of American medicine. "The CDC is guilty of incompetence and gross negligence," says Mark Blaxill, vice president of Safe Minds, a nonprofit organization concerned about the role of mercury in medicines. "The damage caused by vaccine exposure is massive. It's bigger than asbestos, bigger than tobacco, bigger than anything you've ever seen." It's hard to calculate the damage to our country -- and to the international efforts to eradicate epidemic diseases -- if Third World nations come to believe that America's most heralded foreign-aid initiative is poisoning their children. It's not difficult to predict how this scenario will be interpreted by America's enemies abroad. The scientists and researchers -- many of them sincere, even idealistic -- who are participating in efforts to hide the science on thimerosal claim that they are trying to advance the lofty goal of protecting children in developing nations from disease pandemics. They are badly misguided. Their failure to come clean on thimerosal will come back horribly to haunt our country and the world's poorest populations.


Now for the other side...

U.S. Court Finds No Link Between Vaccines, Autism
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009

A special federal court ruled yesterday that vaccines do not cause autism and that thousands of families with autistic children are not entitled to compensation, delivering a major blow to an international movement that has tried for years to link childhood immunizations with the devastating disorder.

The ruling closes one chapter in a long feud that has pitted families with autistic children against the bulk of the scientific establishment. Those who believe passionately that routine childhood shots are to blame for the rising toll of autism feel they are locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle against vaccine manufacturers, corrupt scientists, federal agencies and the mainstream media. It remains to be seen whether yesterday's ruling will end the controversy -- or be seen as just more evidence of what some call a conspiracy.

The vast majority of credible scientific studies have shown -- and all federal health agencies have strenuously argued -- that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. And public health officials have repeatedly warned that fewer immunizations will endanger children's lives.

Nevertheless, concerns about vaccines such as the "MMR" shot, which protects children against measles, mumps and rubella, have grown so widespread that some parents are choosing to forgo vaccinations. About one in 12 children does not receive the MMR vaccine in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Yesterday's ruling involved three separate cases, each of which explored a different mechanism by which vaccines might cause autism. Working independently, three special masters acting as judges in the federal "vaccine court" issued separate but similar rulings that found no evidence that the vaccines had caused the children's disorders.

The decisions are especially telling because the rules of the vaccine court did not require the plaintiffs to prove their cases with scientific certainty -- all the families needed to show was a preponderance of the evidence, or "50 percent and a hair." To the extent that these cases are representative of the claims made by some 4,800 other families seeking compensation, those cases would appear to be on shaky ground.

Ruling on a case brought by Theresa and Michael Cedillo of Yuma, Ariz., special master George L. Hastings used italicized words for emphasis and wrote that his extensive analysis of the evidence showed that the Cedillos' vaccine-autism theory was "very wrong."

"Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment," Hastings wrote.

The Cedillos contend that their daughter Michelle abruptly fell sick a week after she received an MMR shot when she was about 16 months old. Today, at age 14, she requires round-the-clock care, suffers from seizures, has lost nearly all her vision and has constant abdominal pain.

"We are terribly disappointed by the decision," Theresa Cedillo said in an interview. Referring to Michelle, she said, "I feel she was vaccine-injured and should be entitled to compensation."

The rulings are subject to appeal, and Kevin Conway, a lawyer representing the Cedillos, said there was no question of throwing in the towel.

In another test case, special master Denise K. Vowell heard charges brought by Kathryn and Joseph Snyder of Port Orange, Fla., who argued that the MMR vaccine, or a mercury-based preservative in it called thimerosal, had triggered in their son Colten pervasive developmental disorder -- part of the "autism spectrum."

"The evidence presented was both voluminous and extraordinarily complex," Vowell wrote in her ruling. But she added that there was little doubt about the right answer: The experts contending there is no link between autism and vaccines "were far more qualified, better supported by the weight of scientific research and authority, and simply more persuasive on nearly every point in contention."

In the third test case, special master Patricia Campbell-Smith heard a claim by Rolf and Angela Hazlehurst of Jackson, Tenn., parents of William Yates Hazlehurst. They charged that the MMR vaccine or a component of it had caused "regressive autism" in their son. Agreeing with the other special masters, Campbell-Smith said that she was "moved as a person and as a parent by the Hazlehursts' account," but that their evidence fell short.

The three cases involved some 5,000 pages of transcripts, 939 medical articles and 50 expert reports, and the three decisions ran to more than 650 pages altogether.

The ruling was welcomed in statements by the Department of Health and Human Services and the American Medical Association.

"This is a real victory for children and a great day for science," said Philadelphia pediatrician and vaccine expert Paul Offit, in a statement issued by the vaccine advocacy group Every Child by Two. "I hope that this decision will finally put parents' fears to rest and that we can once again concentrate on protecting children from the resurgence of deadly vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough."

The vaccine court was set up by Congress in 1986 as part of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program to compensate people who suffer the occasional side effects of vaccines. Rather than have victims sue vaccine-makers in civil court -- potentially putting them out of business and jeopardizing a major component of the country's public health infrastructure -- the court has a "no-fault" system that requires victims to prove to a special master only that vaccines harmed them, and not that anyone intentionally caused the harm.

It is unclear what effect the ruling will have on the determined grass-roots effort that insists there is a connection between vaccines and autism, a movement that has been embraced by several celebrities and politicians. In June 2005, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote an article in Rolling Stone charging a "government cover-up of a mercury/autism scandal."

Two years later, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) told fellow members of Congress: "I believe, as do many credible scientists and researchers, that the clear correlation between the dramatic rise in the number of autism cases, and the rapid expansion of the childhood vaccination schedule during that 20-year period, points to the mercury-based preservative thimerosal -- routinely used in pediatric vaccines during the period -- as a contributing factor to our country's literal epidemic of autism. In fact, I firmly believe my own grandson became autistic after receiving nine shots."

James Moody, a lawyer advising the plaintiffs and director of SafeMinds, a research and advocacy think tank that endorses a vaccine-autism link, predicted that the autism cases would be appealed and eventually wind up in civil court, where plaintiffs could make their cases to a jury and get access to government documents.

"The government does not fund the science to show a connection between vaccines and autism, and the courts say there isn't enough evidence to show a connection," Moody said. "When the vaccine court says you haven't met the standard of evidence, that is a call for more science, not that this controversy is at an end."


Vaccines do not cause autism!
by Phil Plait

I just can’t make this any clearer. Vaccines do not cause autism. Study after study has shown this, in multiple ways. The removal of the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine in Japan did not lead to a decline in the number of cases of autisms diagnosed; instead the number of children falling in the autism spectrum increased.

A study in Denmark (link goes to Science Magazine; subscription required) showed the same thing: long after thimerosal-based vaccines were discontinued, autism-related diagnoses continued to rise:

Now the first big epidemiological studies weigh in. One comes from Denmark, which eliminated thimerosal from childhood vaccines in 1992. A team led by Kreesten Madsen of the Danish Epidemiology Science Centre in Aarhus reasoned that if thimerosal were a major cause of autism, incidence of new cases should drop once it was removed. In the September issue of the journal Pediatrics, they report that, instead of declining, the incidence continued to skyrocket after 1992.

They supply a graph:

This graph is a clincher. If they were related in any way, you'd see a decline. Instead it continues to rise. Note that the little dip we see at the end is many many years after thimerosal was stopped; if it were related to autism then the dip would have started years earlier.

The obvious conclusion is that vaccines containing thimerosal have nothing or at best extremely little to do with autism (and note that the MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal!). An obvious hypothesis explaining the continuing rise of cases diagnosed is that we are getting better at identifying it, and/or that the use of the term autism spectrum includes more symptoms that were previously not considered to be related.

This has not stopped the antivaccination people from marching on, however. The Washington Post is reporting that two cases trying to establish a link are being brought to court today. The article says

To win, the attorneys for the two boys, William Mead and Jordan King, will have to show that it’s more likely than not that the vaccine actually caused the injury.

This makes me very unhappy. A judge is not necessarily suited to decide medical science! If it were a case of medical ethics or negligence, or something along those lines, then certainly the judiciary system should be involved, but this is a clear-cut case of scientifically established reality. Vaccines do not cause autism.

As always in situations as delicate as these, let me say that I am a parent, and I love my daughter very much. If she had been diagnosed with some sort of issue like autism, I know I would have been devastated. I also know it is human nature to try to find a cause, some place to lay blame. But sometimes there is no blame.

I also know it’s human nature to take anything that happens after a given event and blame that event for it. I gave my daughter a vaccine, then she turned up with autistic symptoms. Therefore…
But life isn’t always like that. And I very much hope that the judges in this case are familiar with the term post hoc, ergo propter hoc: after this, therefore because of this. It’s a classic logical fallacy, and the antivax contingent is riding it right into the judicial system.
And there is a chilling side to this. Vaccines are among the greatest achievements in human history. This is not hyperbole. Millions upon millions of lives have been saved by vaccines. Smallpox is gone. Polio is gone. A vaccine has been developed to prevent HPV, saving millions of women from the horrors of cervical cancer.
If vaccinations decline, then we will see an increase in mumps, measles, rubella, whooping cough (pertussis), and many more terrible afflictions… problems that are ultimately completely curable. This is stone, cold fact. Worse, these problems are far more severe in children.

Measles kills.

Pertussis kills.

Rubella kills.

So let me make this as clear as I possibly can:

The antivaccination movement purports to try to save children. Instead, if it is successful it may be condemning millions of them to terrible ailments, and a significant fraction of them to death.