Messing Around With Genes

Since 2015, Congress has included language in its funding bills to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from approving any application to create in vitro fertilization children from embryos that have been genetically modified.  Because the prohibitory language has been included in funding bills that have expiration dates, it needs to be renewed every year.  The House of Representatives just passed legislation that includes the renewal language, as part of an effort to fund certain governmental activities like food stamps and drug approvals.

Khan1The issue of genetic modification of embryos has some special urgency these days, with the recent news that Chinese scientists have announced the birth of the first genetically modified children — twin girls whose genes allegedly have been altered to supposedly make them specially resistant to HIV.  The Chinese scientists used a protein to edit the genes on a “CRISPR” — a stretch of DNA.  Some people question the validity of the Chinese claim about these so-called “CRISPR babies,” but there is no doubt that genetic manipulation of human beings is moving from the realm of science fiction to the reality of science fact.

The bar to such activities created by Congress ensures that efforts to genetically modify humans are not going to be happening in America — at least for now.  Is that a good thing?  The FDA Commissioner has said:  “Certain uses of science should be judged intolerable, and cause scientists to be cast out. The use of CRISPR to edit human embryos or germ line cells should fall into that bucket. Anything less puts the science and the entire scientific enterprise at risk.”  Others argue that Congress has taken a “meat axe” approach when it should be crafting a more nuanced policy that recognizes that some genetic manipulation could be beneficial.

It’s hard to know what’s right.  Scientists have been involved in the reproductive process for years, and their work, through processes like in vitro fertilization, has allowed people who are struggling to conceive to realize their dream of having children.  But I think the notion of scientists tinkering with genes to create “better” human beings crosses a line in several ways.  First, I’m not entirely confident that scientists know what they are doing and that there won’t be unintended, negative consequences from the removal of the genes the scientists snip out.  Anyone who has read about the history of science knows that scientists have been wrong before, and its reasonable to think they might be wrong again — only this time, their errors wouldn’t just be about the impact of certain foods or the properties of atoms, but would directly affect specific human beings.  Second, where do you draw the line in genetic manipulation?  Modifying DNA sequences to try to avoid diseases or debilitating health conditions is one thing, but what if scientists want to edit genes to create humans who are smarter, or more athletic, or taller?  Do we really want to permit the creation of “designer people” — like Khan Noonien Singh, that memorable Star Trek character who was genetically modified to be a kind of superhuman?  And finally, as this article points out, the whole issue brings up uncomfortable memories of the eugenics arguments of the early 20th century, where certain ethnic groups and traits were considered superior and others inferior.  If “improved” humans are created, where does that leave the rest of us?

In my view, this is an area where a sweeping rule makes sense — at least initially.  I think we need a lot more evidence, and a lot more thinking, before we should allow scientists to go messing around with human genetic material.

Holding Congressional Harassers Accountable

We frequently criticize the Congress in this country, and for good reason.  So when Congress does something right — and on a bipartisan basis, to boot — it’s only fair that it should be recognized.

Sexual-Harassment-in-the-Workplace-722x406Yesterday Congress passed legislation that would end taxpayer financing of settlements of claims of congressional harassment of staffers.  Under the current system, if a Senator or Representative is accused of sexual misconduct and decides to settle the claim, the settlement is funded by our tax dollars.  And, because settlements typically involve strong confidentiality protections, we may not even learn of the existence or nature of the harassment claim or the amount of the settlement payment.

And get this:  more than a thousand former congressional staff members wrote to Congress in support of the bill.  One of the bill’s sponsors, Democrat Jackie Speier, said that their letter “made the case all too clear, that sexual harassment in Congress was a huge problem.” Speier added:  “Time is finally up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. … They will pay back the U.S. Treasury.”

The legislation reflects a compromise, as congressional legislation typically does; it also caps lawmaker liability at $300,000 if there is actually a court finding of harassment and assessment of damages.  But at least court cases and decisions are matters of public record, so the misbehavior of the Senator or Representative will become known to all and they can be held accountable by voters for their misconduct.  In my view, that cap on damages is more than outweighed by the elimination of taxpayer funding of settlements, a requirement that Congress report on and publish such settlements, and changes to other rules to strengthen protections for congressional staffers.

I don’t like the special treatment that members of Congress routinely receive, and my tax dollars obviously shouldn’t go toward enabling congressional misbehavior and funding secret settlements to cover it up.  I’m glad Congress finally agrees with that common sense conclusion.  The bill now goes to President Trump for his consideration.  Let’s hope he also sees the light and signs it into law.

Rethinking Prison

It hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention — at least, not compared to Twitter wars and Russian collusion claims — but Congress and the Trump Administration appear to be working hard, and making progress, on a tough topic:  prison reform.

The House of Representatives passed a prison reform bill in the spring, and the Senate is now working on its version of the legislation.  President Trump has weighed in by hosting meetings of governors and federal officials and pointing to the issue in some of his tweets.  And, in an era where it seems like Republicans and Democrats never agree on anything, the prison reform bill seems to be attracting bipartisan support.

prisonerjaildeathpenalty2The House legislation, called the First Step Act, seeks to reduce recidivism by funding education, drug treatment, and job training programs, and allowing inmates who complete programs to earn credits that would permit them to leave prison early and complete their sentences through home confinement or a stay at a halfway house.  The Senate bill would add to the House legislation by tacking mandatory minimum sentence measures.  Among the topics being addressed are changing the “three-strikes-and-you’re out” mandatory sentence for drug offenses from life in prison to 25 years, reducing the disparity in sentences given for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, and reducing the mandatory sentences imposed when a firearm is used in an offense.  Still other provisions would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory penalties when sentencing offenders for less serious offenses.

I’m glad Congress and the President are focused on prison reform.  Studies indicate that there are significant racial disparities in sentencing, and although the gap is closing, black men are still much more likely than white men to be imprisoned.  It seems that prison often makes inmates more violent and irredeemable.  And if you speak to a federal judge about their job, one topic they’re likely to mention is their frustration at the mandatory sentencing guidelines and the lack of discretion they currently have in recognizing special circumstances that would allow them to shape more appropriate sentences that are tailored to the individual defendant and his or her specific conduct.  All of these are important, substantive topics that need to be addressed.

One other thing:  prison and sentencing reform is politically thankless.  It’s easy for politicians to rail about crime and boast about tossing people into prison and throwing away the key; it’s a lot harder to look thoughtfully at a broken system and try to figure out how to fix it in a sensible way.  A vote for prison reform today might produce campaign ads about a Senator or Representative being “soft on crime” when the next election rolls around.  We’ll have to see whether these kinds of political considerations derail the prison and sentencing reform effort.

For now, though, I’ll give President Trump and Congress credit for stopping the name-calling, rolling up their sleeves, and actually working on a challenging issue.  If only other important issues could be addressed that way!

Why A “Windfall”?

If you’ve been following the aftermath of the tax reduction legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, you’ve seen stories about how some corporations have reacted to the new law by giving their employees bonuses or cutting their charges to consumers, and other, more critical stories noting that many of the companies are giving their employees one-off bonuses, rather than more permanent raises.

windfall-money-manBut while different articles about the tax cut legislation may make different points about how the tax cut legislation is affecting companies, workers, and the country at large, the coverage does seem to have one curious common theme and descriptive element:  the tax relief provided by the new law is typically said to have produced a “windfall” for companies and individuals alike.

It’s a very interesting choice of words — and one that conveys a deeper message, too.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “windfall” as “something (such as a tree or fruit) blown down by the wind” or as “an unexpected, unearned, or sudden gain or advantage.” The key underlying concept is that the “windfall” is a lucky gift and an unearned surprise — like an inheritance from your mother’s rich second cousin whom you’d never met.

“Windfall” is a telltale choice of words in this context because tax payments necessarily have been earned by whoever is making them; companies and individuals wouldn’t be paying taxes if they hadn’t sold the products or done the work or made the investments that generated the revenue in the first place.  By calling the proceeds of a tax cut in which individuals and companies pay less a “windfall” for them, you’re really suggesting that the taxpayers aren’t entitled to their own money, the government is — and taxpayers should consider themselves lucky that, for a time at least, they get to keep more of it.

Income earned as the fruit of labor or investment isn’t like fruit blown down from a stranger’s apple tree.  You can argue about whether the tax cut was good economic or social policy, but when taxpayers get to hold on to more of the money they’ve already earned it can’t reasonably be characterized a “windfall” for them.  The fact that so many news articles nevertheless present the issue in that way says a lot about how the news media, at least, views the respective entitlements of taxpayers, and government, to the money taxpayers earn.

Shutdown Fatigue

The federal government shut down at midnight, when Congress proved to be unable to agree on a another stopgap spending bill.  As is usually the case, the Democrats and the Republicans used the looming shutdown to try to increase their leverage to obtain their political goals — whether those goals are immigration reform, or health care funding, or something else — and when neither side blinked, the shutdown occurred.  Of course, each side then blamed the other.

maxresdefaultWe’ve been through this scenario multiple times before, most recently in 2013.  We somehow made it through each of those prior cataclysms, and I’m pretty sure that the sun will come up today as well.

I may be wrong about this, but out here in the heartland I’m sensing a lot less angst, generally, about this shutdown than seemed to be the case with prior shutdowns.  Maybe it’s because we’ve been through this same, pointless charade multiple times before, and the country just has a lingering case of shutdown fatigue.  Maybe it’s because, with the flood of scandals and tweetstorms and investigations and unseemly behavior that has been washing over the nation in recent months, we’ve already used up our storehouses of outrage and have just been psychologically bludgeoned until we’re functionally insensate.  Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve come to recognize that all of this shutdown stuff is just more callous political maneuvering by both parties, and we’re heartily sick and tired of being viewed as mere pawns to be manipulated in the stupid power games that are always being played in Washington, D.C.

Whatever the cause, we’ll just go on living our lives, without paying too much attention to the yammering politicos and their efforts to pin all of the blame for this unnecessary disruption and unending dysfunctionality and irresponsibility somewhere else.  Who knows?  Maybe if we just ignore this latest shutdown, the politicians might realize that their shutdown gambit isn’t working anymore and actually go back to doing their jobs.

Where Have All The Deficit-Cutters Gone?

From time to time, both Republicans and Democrats express concern about the out-of-control accumulation of federal debt and the annual federal budget deficit.  Republicans raise the issue when they want to get elected.  Democrats raise the issue when they want to stop the GOP from cutting taxes.

But in reality, and for years now, no one in either party has done anything meaningful about the ever-growing national debt.

debt-limit-history-data-for-web-2013-updated-rjr-chart120largeConsider what’s going on now.  Republicans have been laboring over a tax bill for months, and are supposed to get it through Congress and to President Trump this week.  Of course, tax relief is an easier political sell, as rates paid by various constituencies, and backroom deals, get cut.  But where are we on spending?  Well, the House Republicans apparently want to “temporarily” extend spending for most agencies at current levels, with a $650 million increase in defense spending.  In the Senate, where Democrats hold the balance of power because of the filibuster, Democratic leaders say that we need to have equivalent increases in defense and non-defense spending.  Oh, and there’s this, too:  we’re facing another one of those stupid self-inflicted shutdown points, where some government activity will stop unless a spending bill is signed into law by Friday.

So let’s take stock here.  The House Republicans want to hold spending steady, except for an increase in defense spending — i.e., increase spending.  The Senate Democrats want to increase defense and non-defense spending — i.e., increase spending.  And our elected representatives have conveniently maneuvered themselves into a position where they can say that they need to cut a deal that will no doubt increase spending in order to avoid a partial government shutdown.  And by the way, there is absolutely no sign of the kind of thoughtful review of the thousands of ongoing government programs and subsidies and agencies to determine whether they are truly needed and should be modified or eliminated outright — which is what truly committed and rational deficit-cutters would be trying to accomplish.

Gee . . . I wonder why Congress’ credibility with American voters is so low?

Hang On To Your Wallets

Here’s some news that should cause all taxpaying Americans to feel a cold, hard lump in the pit of their stomachs:  Congress has decided to focus on “tax reform.”

ap17306662049220Congress’ decision to pivot to tax reform has produced all kinds of news stories, most of which have headlines that can only stoke the angst.  What does the proposed tax reform bill means for the value of your home?  What kind of hidden tax brackets might be found deep in the dense language of the proposed bill?  How will small business owners be affected?  What company’s stock price took a dive because the bill proposes repealing a crucial tax break?  All of these stories, and more, can be found simply by running a google search on “republican tax bill.”

The stories are indirectly reflective of the key problem with the federal tax code, because the many different areas of potential concern they address shows just how wide and deep is the reach and impact of our federal tax structure.  Virtually every company, industry, form of property, job, trade, college, technology, and concept is affected by some form of federal tax or federal tax break.  At the founding of the republic, Alexander Hamilton may have devised a simple approach to raising revenue to fund the federal government, but those days are long gone.  Now, the tax code is a complicated morass far beyond the ken of the average citizen, with special rates and breaks and benefits and exclusions and surcharges that only experts and lobbyists understand.

So, given that reality, why should the average citizen be concerned that Congress has decided it’s time to mess around with the tax code?  Because our political class, Republicans and Democrats alike, have shown they are primarily interested in raising lots of money so they can be reelected . . . which means the risk that some special provision written specifically to help a large donor will be inserted in the dead of night simply can’t be ignored.  And with the Dealmaker-In-Chief in the White House, who’s going to really dive into the details of whatever gets passed, trying to make sure that the average citizen doesn’t get gored while the special interests get their perks and sweetheart deals?

Maybe it all will work out, and the tax code will be made more fair and equitable and easy to understand, and we’ll be able to file our tax returns on postcards like the photo op pictures are indicating.  Maybe — but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then, I’m hanging on to my wallet.