A Fascinating Possibility

A lot of Republicans are talking about how the 2012 election may be one of the most important elections in a generation. In full fairness to them, I’d say that the party that doesn’t have possession of the White House says that after just about every election. So I’ll pay them lip service to that particular point. I take it as neither true nor false. It just is.

What makes the 2012 election truly interesting is the direction of certain trends in recent presidential elections. Whatever else you might think of the outcomes of any or all of the past five presidential elections, the candidate who had less military service, was the one who emerged victorious. To illustrate this point, here are the results:

1992: Bill Clinton (no formal military service. His number wasn’t picked in the draft lottery) defeated George H. W. Bush (WWII combat veteran).

1996: Bill Clinton (same as above) defeated Bob Dole (WWII combat veteran)

2000: George W. Bush (reached Lieutenant in the National Guard; never saw combat) defeated Al Gore (Vietnam veteran; photographer alongside Army combat battallioin)

2004: George W. Bush (same as above) defeated John Kerry (Vietnam combat veteran)

2008: Barack Obama (no formal military service; never enrolled in military; too young even to be drafted) defeated John McCain (Vietnam combat veteran and POW)

Once or twice is a curiosity. Three times is an anomaly. Five times in a row, that’s a trend, pure and simple.

Barack Obama is likely going to be unchallenged for the Democratic nomination, so let’s look at the Republicans. There’s been a flurry of activity of late among potential candidates who are probably going to seek the nomination of their party to challenge President Obama. Factoring out those people who have specifically said they’re not running, I see eight otherwise plausible candidates for the Republican nomination. In alphabetical order by last name, they are:

  • Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minnesota)
  • Ex-Rep. Newt Gingrich (Georgia)
  • Ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr (Utah)
  • Ex-Gov. Sarah Palin (Alaska)
  • Rep. Ron Paul (Texas)
  • Ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota)
  • Ex-Gov. Mitt Romney (Massachusetts)
  • Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania)

(Note that, of the above, the only candidates who have formally announced their candidacies as of May 23, 2011, are Gingrich, Paul, and Pawlenty; the others have either taken actions that indicate at least an interest in seeking the presidency and/or are talked about often enough and haven’t formally ruled out running.)

What is interesting about the entire list of eight candidates above, not a single one of them has any formal military service.

It, therefore, is almost a given that the 2012 election will give voters a choice between two candidates with no military service, so a trend of five straight elections is going to turn into six almost by default.

This is, of course, a sign of nothing other than where we stand in our nation’s history. World War II ended 66 years ago. Since then, we’ve had a significant number of extended military incursions (Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, The Second Gulf War, Afghanistan, and smaller-scale skirmishes in Cambodia, Laos, Beirut, Granada, and Somalia, to name a few). So there’s no shortage of chances for military veterans to seek the presidency. Since the end of Vietnam 36 years ago, though, all of our military exploits have been done with an entirely volunteer army. And that might make a tremendous difference.

Within the past generation or so, the military has, for lack of a better term, become less visible within American life. That’s not to say it hasn’t been active, but a reduced visibility (which can be a direct consequence of not having a draft) has resulted in the trend within which we now stand. And this is a first in American history. We have had elections where the candidate with less military service emerged victorious, but, notwithstanding the re-election of that candidate, it wasn’t really a trend. Not like what we have now.

And I think that trend will likely continue until we have a larger-scale war that requires the re-initiation of a draft. I’m not favoring that kind of thing, but it is likely the only thing that would completely reverse the trend.

Big Pharma

Blogger PZ Myers occasionally makes reference to his disdain for comedian Bill Maher. This disdain stems largely from Maher’s cynicism aimed at western medicine.

The Rationally Speaking Podcast jumped on a similar topic with this past week’s episode, when they discussed some of the dangers that can come about when a celebrity who is otherwise not qualified to speak on certain topics maintains an opinion about which he or she has no expertise. Among the celebrities they mentioned in this capacity are:

— Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy playmate who famously blamed vaccines for her son’s autism, basing her entire campaign on an extremely flawed study. There is a website that literally does a “body count” attributable to this campaign.

Steven Hawking, who dismisses philosophy for how little it has had to offer to science in recent decades

— Bill Maher, for his statements on medicine.

I like Bill Maher. From what I have seen of his statements on medicine, I see three general trends in his statements:

    1. A general belief that the government bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration aren’t doing their job properly
    2. A sense that certain diseases are diagnosed too frequently
    3. The marketing tactics of pharmaceutical companies

Let’s talk about point number 2 first. Maybe we are diagnosing diseases more often than we might have once done. I’m not convinced that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Especially among childhood diseases and disorders, it’s certainly possible that an increase in diagnosis is tied in with a better understanding of the disease and disorder. If we had current knowledge and/or technology a hundred years ago, I’m guessing that current rates of diagnosis probably would have roughly compared with what we see today.

Point 1 is interesting. During the years of the Bush administration, I readily concede that I would have believed that line of thought. Bush was known for nominating cronies into positions of power, most of whom had the interests of the industries from which they came in mind, rather than the interests of the public as a whole. With that kind of leadership, the thought that, say, a lobbyist for pharmaceutical interests would have wielded too much clout in terms of influencing public policy coming from the FDA. A quick google search of “Bush adminstration FDA” reveals countless examples of articles, from multiple independent sources, corroborating this perception. (Not that Google, in and of itself, is sufficient justification for anything).

I’m not so sure how true that still is, and, not coincidentally, Maher has eased off on this particular piece of rhetoric in the past couple of years.

The third point is the one that intrigues me the most. I’m not trying to make an argument with regard to the efficacy of any drug sold by any pharmaceutical company; I’m simply not qualified to make that judgment. I will say, however, that, if I ever see a commercial that informs me that I should “ask [my] doctor about” whatever medicine being hawked in that 30-second spot, I can pretty much guarantee you that I won’t.

And that’s not because I’m not interested in improving my health or otherwise helping the world to live longer or anything like that. It’s because of the advertisement itself. Without putting too fine a point on things, if I can’t walk into a store and buy a medicine from my pharmacist without a prescription, I don’t think I’m the correct target audience for the marketing campaign associated with that medicine.

That’s not to say that medicines shouldn’t be marketed. But if it’s only available by prescription, then the marketing should be aimed at the doctors who would prescribe it, the pharmacists who would dispense it, and the nurses who would hand it out. Let them know what the drug is supposed to do, what the side-effects are, and what the potential hazardous interactions are. That’s their job: to understand it. I don’t want or need to understand it.

When I see those ads, the only thing I see is unnecessary costs. Costs that could go into researching new drugs. Or even better yet, costs that, if eliminated, could lower the price of the drug itself.

Bill Maher has, on more than one occasion, illustrated the inanity of medical marketing by poking fun at Restless Legs Syndrome. It’s my understanding that the first drugs aimed at combatting RLS were actually originally intended to be a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and, well, the drug didn’t work as well as had been hoped or expected. It makes good business sense that if you spend all of that money towards R&D for a product that doesn’t work, that you try to cut your losses and find something that it will do successfully. (Post-It Note Pads are a great example of this; turns out that the glue they use on the back of those sticky-notes wasn’t as strong as 3M had originally intended so they sought another use for it.)

But there’s something about the ads for RLS that almost seems counterintuitive. RLS is a legitimate condition tat was turned almost into its own punch line thanks to the way we’ve been marketed to.

So, yeah, I’m a bit cynical when it comes to the way drugs are marketed. That doesn’t make them unnecessary but the marketing itself creates more problems than solutions.

And that doesn’t do the medical industry any justice.

So when a comedian makes a statement against the way western medicine is run, is that really a bad thing?

Taking Out Osama Bin Laden

This past Sunday night, on the orders from President Obama, a Navy SEAL team landed at the perimeter of a safe house that happened to be housing noted terrorist and leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. When the dust cleared, Osama bin Laden and four others with him, were dead.

Wikipedia has a very well-compiled article with the details as they have been known.

Bin Laden, of course, was the mastermind of numerous terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the USS Cole, the simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and, of course, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And every politician from Obama on down, has said that the raid “brought bin Laden to justice.”

That’s an interesting phrase. Bringing someone to justice. There is almost no question as to his involvement in all of the attacks I mentioned above, as well as certain others I haven’t mentioned. It just feels strange to say that someone was “brought to justice” when, in fact, that someone was killed in the process.

And that’s not even a statement about the death penalty. You often hear that “justice is served” when a convicted criminal is executed. They were brought to justice when they were arrested, not when they were found guilty or executed.

So at the end of the day, the question bears asking: was justice served when bin Laden was killed?

The way I see it, there were three potential outcomes from any raid that actually reached the terrorist leader:

    1. His being killed on the spot
    2. His being arrested and brought to a location where he would take his own life.
    3. His being arrested, going through a trial that is a media circus and which ultimately results in his execution.

I suppose, in full fairness, a trial that’s not a media circus would be somewhat possible. But if recent history is any indication — and there are three terrorist trials I have in mind (Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, and Zacarias Moussaoui) — there will be a surfeit of media personalities trying to put their own spin on the proceedings. And only Tim McVeigh comes anywhere close to the notoriety that bin Laden would have had. Media circus or not, it would not have been a surprise to see the government seek the death penalty in the trial, and I’d be hard pressed to imagine a jury not recommending the death penalty, which would ultimately have been carried out.

So if the net result of all possibilities would have been bin Laden’s death, was the choice of killing him on the spot the right choice?

I think we can immediately rule out option number 2 above. Whatever else is true, we wouldn’t want to give him the opportunity — or his supporters the resulting satisfaction — to kill himself. It could almost be thought of as an expression of unity with his followers who carry out his suicide missions.

So the choices are killing him there, or bringing him to trial and ultimately executing him. There’s no question that killing him then and there would be less costly, and swifter. And is the media circus that would go with a trial just an added cost that we probably didn’t need or deserve? How many times have the news outlets already aired footage from the destruction of the World Trade Center? How many more times would we see it in a trial?

Even without the cost, there’s a reason why Zacarias Moussaoui got life imprisonment as opposed to death: he wanted to be a martyr. Something needed to be done to prevent that martyrdom complex.

Then there’s the intangible about how he might try to get messages to his followers during the trial. Allowing him to live long enough to go on trial could have created additional dangers.

I’m not trying to make an argument either in favor of or against the death penalty. That’s not the purpose of this essay. I’m not going to shed any tears over the death of bin Laden, that much is for sure. Considering the options, though, it seems as though killing him in the raid itself was the right, wise, and prudent thing to do.