P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

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Friday, February 07, 2003
Researchers May have Found A Genetic Link to Autism

Yahoo News reports that researchers at Duke University (the alma mater of Mr. & Mrs. P.L.A.) and the University of South Carolina may have identified a genetic link to the cause of autism.

The researchers divided autistic kids into groups sorted by type of behavior. Some groups of children and teenagers who exhibited severe compulsive behaviors had similar genetic mutations appearing on the fifteenth chromosome.
The gene on chromosome 15 that seems to be affected in the autism patients controls a neurotransmitter called GABA. That message-carrying chemical acts to turn off brain cells. As the behavior seen in these children seems to be an extreme version of what every child does at one time or another, it could be that these particular symptoms are caused by the brain's failure to turn off a signal. In other words, it does not know when to stop -- thus the obsessive behavior.

The researchers also supported the belief expressed here that autism is more than one condition:
It's like any complex disease -- there are a number of underlying causes for it and they manifest similarly," she said. "The next thing is to look at possible interactions between the genes in this region. This region seems to be involved in a lot of different disorders."

While much more research is needed, the hope is that the discovery may help in developing therapies for autistic kids:
The study may help scientists find a way to treat autism, which is now incurable. If a precise genetic cause of one behavior is found, it might be possible to design a drug that will correct it. That would not be a cure -- autism is too complex for that -- but it may be possible to moderate some of the symptoms, Cuccaro said.

That is very good news indeed.

Video Tape All In-Custody Interrogations

Talk Left points us to this Chicago Sun Times story.

A Chicago Alderman has proposed an ordinance that would require police to videotape all interrogations of murder suspects. Both Mayor Daley and Fraternal Order of Police President Mark Donahue oppose the measure.

We think that the idea of video taping all in-custody interrogations is so good that it should be required for all felony cases and not just murders.

We propose a new rule of evidence that simply says that no evidence gathered or derived from an in-custody interrogation is admissible at trial unless the entire interrogation is available on videotape.

There are many beneficial effects of such a policy:

1) Police misconduct will be deterred as the police are likely to walk the straight and narrow when they know that all of their actions may later be scrutinized by a judge and jury;

2) As Talk Left has pointed out, false charges of police misconduct will be deterred;

3) Police interrogation procedures will be improved as the tendency to cut corners is reduced by the knowledge that the interrogation is being recorded;

4) Litigation over whether confessions are voluntarily given will be greatly reduced;

5) Litigation over whether or not a suspect was informed of his or her rights will be greatly reduced;

6) Some believe that the jury never sees the suspect in a true light because defense lawyers clean up suspects before trial. A menacing thug at the time of the incident may look like an altar boy by the time of trial. The videotape of the interrogation will permit the jury to see the suspect as he appeared at the time of the crime;

7) A videotape of the interrogation will be powerful evidence for the prosecution at trial of a guilty suspect as the jury will be able to see the suspect’s initial reaction to hard questions; and

8) The public’s faith in the workings of the justice system will be increased as the system gains transparency.

As Talk Left has written:
Police and prosecutors have little to fear from a requirement to videotape all interrogations and traffic stops. It's a win-win situation. Videotaping can protect the innocent, help convict the guilty and uphold the public's faith in our criminal justice system.

We think that is exactly right.

Thursday, February 06, 2003
Record Deficit?

The Office of Management and Budget has released the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2004.

That proposed budget includes a deficit of $307 billion dollars. That would be an all time record, eclipsing the $290 billion deficit of the President’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush.

As a percentage of GDP, however, the 2004 deficit estimate comes in at 2.7%, while the 1992 deficit was 4.7%. The largest deficit as a percentage of GDP in the last fifty years was in 1983. That budget generated a deficit of equal to 6% of GDP.

Of those three, 1983, 1992 or 2004, which is actually the worst deficit?

All of our data comes from the OMB Historical Tables here. First, the basic data:

In 1983, we had a GDP of about $3.4 trillion dollars. The budget deficit that year was $208 billion. The deficit represented about 6% of GDP.

In 1992, we had a GDP of about $5.9 trillion, a deficit of $290 billion or about 4.7% of GDP.

OMB projects that in fiscal year 2004, we will have GDP of about 11.3 trillion, a budget deficit of $307 billion or 2.7% of GDP.

By that measure, although the projected deficit for 2004 is the greatest number of dollars, it is less than half the portion of GDP of the 1983 deficit and only about 60% as large as the 1992 deficit.

Those figures are not the entire story. The impending retirement of the baby boomers threatens the long-term solvency of the Social Security system as well as overall fiscal health of the government. In the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans agreed to do something to prepare for the impending demographic calamity. They agreed to increase the payroll tax that funds Social Security so that Social Security would run large surpluses. Those surpluses would provide a cushion for the costs of benefits for baby boomers in retirement.

Social Security did begin to run large surpluses. The deficit figures cited above, however, include those surpluses.

In both the 2000 campaign as well as in his first year in office, Mr. Bush promised to balance the budget without using the surplus generated from the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

OMB projects that in 2004, the trust funds will generate a surplus of approximately $240 billion. Thus, OMB estimates that the actual 2004 deficit for government operations other than Medicare and Social Security will be $547 billion. Yes, Virginia, your government plans to spend half a trillion dollars more than it takes in next year for government services other than Social Security and Medicare next year.

That is still not the whole story. Apparently, when you pay $380 billion per year for a Defense Department, you cannot expect them to fight a War on Terrorism. Donald Rumsfeld testified before Congress yesterday. He said that the War on Terrorism is costing $1.5 billion per month and that he will be asking for additional money for that expense. As the War on Terrorism is not likely to be completed before the end of FY 2004, we can add another $18 billion to the deficit projections for that year.

If the War on Terror is not included in budget, it should be obvious that a War in Iraq is also not included. We do not know the cost of a war in Iraq and estimates vary from $75 billion to $200 billion. Lets call it a round $100 billion.

It may be unfair to count the cost of the Iraq war in the FY 2004 budget in that the war may be fought in FY 2003. As it is not included in the FY 2003 budget and as we are already more than 1/3 of the way through FY 2003, we shall assume that the expense is actually incurred in FY 2004.

With the addition of $18 billion for the War on Terrorism and $100 billion for the War on Iraq, the total 2004 deficit (ex of Social Security and Medicare) is projected to be $665 billion. When Virginia wakes up from our last report, be sure to tell her that we were wrong. Its not ½ a trillion, it is 2/3 of a trillion dollars of your children’s money that the government plans to spend in FY2004.

When we adjust for the trust funds and the additional 2004 costs, we find that the 1983 deficit was 6.8% of GDP, the 1992 deficit was 6.5% of GDP and the projected 2004 deficit is 5.9% of GDP.

The whole story is still not yet told. The figures for 1983 and 1992 are actual numbers that can be verified. The 2004 figures are estimates by OMB. This administration’s OMB has not yet come close to accurately forecasting the deficit. It has always erred on the optimistic side. Have a look at this chart from Brad Delong to see just how different OMB forecasts can be from one year to the next.

DeLong also links to Morgan Stanley’s Stephen Roach who contends that the current budget is based on overly optimistic assumptions.

If the actual deficit is $100 billion or so worse than OMB now predicts, then 2004 may be the worst deficit the country has run at least since World War II both in terms of actual dollars and in terms of a percentage of GDP.

The real problem is that the current administration seems to have no plans to turn that trend around. As Brad DeLong's chart shows, the fiscal situation just gets worse and worse. Eventually, the deficit rises to 17% of GDP. That should put Virginia into a permanent coma.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003
Investigation Costs

Jane Galt of Asymetrical Information is one of our favorite conservative writers. Her analysis is usually is very sharp and her writing is always quite lively.

In a recent post, Jane discussed the contention that that the administration’s proposed $3 million budget for an investigation into the 9/11 tragedy is insufficient. Jane wrote as follows:
The budget isn't, or oughten't be, the place where we show our love for various projects the way middle-aged men show their love for their second wives, by lavishing extravagent sums of money on them. We should be allocating money by how much it costs to accomplish each goal…

Is $3 million what we should be spending on the investigation? I have no idea. I don't know what investigations cost, although it seems likely to me that they don't cost as much as cruise missiles or construction, because there are many fewer people and raw materials involved. But I haven't seen anyone draw up a budget for what the commission should be spending -- they just seem to point to other programs and say that if Bush is willing to spend so much less on this critical investigation, it's clearly a whitewash.

We agree that the cost of developing and building a cruise missile is irrelevant to the issue of adequate funding for an investigation into 9/11. Jane is correct that the important issue is not the cost of other government functions but the costs of investigations.

Like Jane, we did not know how much investigations cost and therefore had no basis on which to judge whether $3 million was sufficient. We decided to find out the cost of other investigations in order to have a basis for comparison.

One place we looked for such information was in the costs of Independent Counsel Investigations. Because we did not wish to start a partisan brawl, we ignored the costs of Whitewater and Iran/Contra investigations. This is what we found:

It cost the government $1.5 million to investigate whether or not Michael Deaver had engaged in improper lobbying.

The investigation into HUD scandals under Samuel Pierce cost $28 million.

The investigation into whether or not Bush I officials improperly looked at Bill Clinton’s passport records cost $2.8 million.

The failed investigation into whether Mike Espy took illegal gifts cost $17 million.

The investigation into whether or not Henry Cisneros’s statement to the FBI in which he acknowledged paying money to a former mistress misstated the amount of money he paid cost $7.3 million.

We also looked into the investigation of other terrorist acts. With regard to the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI spent in excess of $60 million in its investigation. The defense spent $2 million on investigators. The government funded the total defense in an amount in excess of $13 million up through sentencing.

The investigation of Eric Rudolph, the alleged Olympic and abortion clinic bomber has cost over $20 million.

Other investigative costs:

One source suggests that the cost of the investigation into the crash of TWA flight 800 was about $35 million.

The cost of recovery and investigation into the Challenger disaster was at least $43 million.

The budget for John Danforth’s investigation into the Waco matter was $11 million.

Each of those investigations had particular facts and circumstances that required different costs. None of them are a perfect analogy for a 9/11 investigation. The Independent Counsel investigations were pointed at criminal prosecutions. The TWA and Challenger investigations had the costs of recovering debris from the bottom of the ocean. The Eric Rudolph investigation had the cost of searching a large area of heavily wooded, mountainous terrain.

John Danforth’s investigation into Waco is perhaps the most similar to the proposed 9/11 investigation. Danforth’s investigation was limited to interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents. That is likely to also be true of a 9/11 investigation.

The purpose of the Danforth investigation was to determine the appropriateness of governmental actions. The same is likely to be true of a 9/11 investigation.

We think that an investigation of 9/11 would be substantially more expensive than the investigation of Waco. The witnesses are spread all over the globe. There are many more governmental decisions to investigate. The number of witnesses and documents is likely to be far greater.

We do not recall anyone suggesting that the Danforth investigation was overly zealous or overly expensive. It is difficult to see how 9/11 could be adequately investigated for $3 million if it took almost four times that amount to investigate Waco.

Now that we have a frame of reference for the costs of investigations, do you think that $3 million is an adequate budget for a September 11 investigation?

We do not.


In the comment section Andy X reports that he has calcuated the cost in present day dollars of each of the investigations listed above:
For all investigations, I took the annual averge CPI value for the first year of each investigation and turned them into December 2002 dollars (in millions).

1986 Deaver 2.6
1990 Pierce 38.9
1992 Passport 3.7
1994 Espy 21.3
1995 Cisneros 8.7
1995 OKC 86.7
1996 Eric Rudolph 23.1
1996 Flight 800 40.4
1986 Challenger 71.0
2000 Waco 11.6

Apparently, the administration thinks that the 9/11 investigation will be of a complexity to fall somewhere between the determination of whether Michael Deaver improperly lobbied and whether the Bush I administration looked at Clinton's passport file.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003
Limbaugh and Bettelheim: The Blame the Parents Brigade

Matthew Yglesias points us to this New Republic article about the use of drugs such as Ritalin to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (ADHD).

The article by Michael Fumento concludes that the conservative spin on Ritalin use and attention deficit disorder is just wrong. ADD and ADHD result from a neurological condition and not from some liberal conspiracy. Fumento also concludes that Ritalin is effective in treating the conditions. As Fumento says:
Many conservative writers, myself included, have criticized the growing tendency to pathologize every undesirable behavior--especially where children are concerned. But, when it comes to ADHD, this skepticism is misplaced. As even a cursory examination of the existing literature or, for that matter, simply talking to the parents and teachers of children with ADHD reveals, the condition is real, and it is treatable. And, if you don't believe me, you can ask conservatives who've come face to face with it themselves.

One of the conservatives who speaks forcefully on the ADD issue without having taken “even a cursory examination of the existing literature” is Rush Limbaugh. That is not surprising as Limbaugh is often wrong but never in doubt.

According to Fumento:
Limbaugh calls ADHD "the perfect way to explain the inattention, incompetence, and inability of adults to control their kids." Addressing parents directly, he lectures, "It helped you mask your own failings by doping up your children to calm them down."

In other words, Limbaugh blames the parents for their kid's disability. Science suggests that ADD and ADHD result from a neurological defect. Limbaugh rejects the science in favor of blaming parents.

Limbaugh’s position is very similar to the prevailing view of autism in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

A University of Chicago professor named Bruno Bettelheim was the world’s most recognized authority on the cause of autism. Bettelheim taught (incorrectly) that autism was a psychological condition caused by bad parenting.

In a previous post, we wrote about Bettelheim:
Bettelheim’s theory of causation was that the mothers of autistic children failed to bond with their children at an early age. They were the “Refrigerator Moms.” The failure to bond with the child caused a huge psychological trauma to the child, who, in response, retreated from the world. That retreat could only be halted or reversed if the mothers ceased all further contact with the children they had damaged.

As Bettelheim himself wrote:
I would stress that the figure of the destructive mother (the devouring witch) is the creation of the child’s imagination, though an imagining that has its source in reality, namely the destructive intents of the mothering person… Throughout this book I state my belief that the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent’s wish that his child should not exist.

Both Limbaugh and Bettleheim argue that children’s neurological disability is the result of bad parenting. Science has demonstrated that both are wrong. Bettelheim at least did not have the benefit of the science readily available when he proposed his theories. Limbaugh has no such excuse.

What are the effects of assigning blame to the parents?

We cannot speak to the issue of the effect of Limbaugh's baseless accusation against parents of ADD and ADHD kids. We have not done the research and are not part of the ADD community. Fumento suggests that parents of ADD kids are outraged.

In the area of autism, we know that Bettelheim devastated many families. Please see this script from the PBS documentary, Refrigerator Moms, for a flavor of the impact of Bettleheim’s “Blame the Mother” theory on actual mothers of autistic kids.

In our previous post we described the harm of Bettelheim’s theory as follows:
For two generations, mothers took their children to doctors, psychologists, educators and other seeking help for their children and answers as to why their children were autistic. And for two generations, those professionals, based on the unproven and completely incorrect theories of Bruno Bettelheim, told the mothers that they were the cause of their child’s autism…

For two generations, mothers of autistic children were told that their children were locked away from the world because the mothers hated their children, because the mothers did not want the children to exist, because the mothers did not bond with their children, because the mothers were psychotic. All of that was untrue.

Catherine Maurice, in her book Let Me Hear Your Voice describes a conversation with one mother whose autistic child was diagnosed during the heyday of the Bettelheim myth:
Everyone, she told me, believed him. The parents believed what the professionals told them, and the professionals believed Bettelheim. No one questioned his authority. The psychiatrist had ordered her to bring her child in for ‘analysis’ five days a week. The mother was not allowed to sit in the waiting room, so incensed with her was the doctor’s staff. The nurses and receptionists informed her that she could drop the child at the door and wait outside. They never looked at the mother and refused to say hello or good-bye. She had caused this terrible condition in her child, and she merited no human courtesy. She told me that many a day she had stood there — whether in sunshine, in rain, or in sleet — weeping. ‘How did you survive?’ I asked her. “I survived,’ she said softly. ‘Some others I know didn’t.

Mr. Limbaugh should read the medical literature before he blames parents for their kid’s ADD or ADHD. He should then take care that his rhetoric does not hurt completely innocent parents. Finally, he should simply keep his mouth shut on topics he knows nothing about.

Of course, if he did that, his show would only last about 15 minutes per week.

Monday, February 03, 2003
Powers of Ten

We originally came across the wonderful Powers of Ten site when helping with a third grade science project. We meant to link to it then but promptly lost the link.

Our friend and on-line bridge partner Songbird recently sent us the link.

The Powers of Ten site permits you to:
View the Milky Way at 10 million light years from the Earth. Then move through space towards the Earth in successive orders of magnitude until you reach a tall oak tree just outside the buildings of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. After that, begin to move from the actual size of a leaf into a microscopic world that reveals leaf cell walls, the cell nucleus, chromatin, DNA and finally, into the subatomic universe of electrons and protons.

Have a look for yourself. As our third grader said, it is “way cool.”

No Sense of Decency

CNN reports that some twisted people have listed debris from the crash of the space shuttle Columbia for sale on EBay.

EBay, to its credit, has pulled those items noting that the sale of such items could lead to prosecution.

CNN says that some of the listings were likely to be pranks.

That poses a dilemma. What is the worst aspect of that story?

(a) People trying to profit from the tragedy;

(b) people thinking that it would be a really funny prank to act like they were trying to profit from the disaster; or

(c) the possibility that such items would likely have drawn substantial bids?

We vote for C.

Sunday, February 02, 2003
A Measuring Stick

With regard to domestic policy, President Bush’s State of the Union address set out four goals.

The listing of those goals provides a standard by which the success or failure of the administration may be measured. If the policies of the administration achieve its stated goals, then it must be accounted a success, at least on its own terms. If the stated goals of the administration are met, the only reason for denying the President’s reelection would be a rejection of those goals by the voters.

Given that the goals would have nearly unanimous support, it seems fair to judge the administration on its progress towards its stated goals.

The goals, as articulated by Mr. Bush are as follows:

Our first goal is clear: We must have an economy that grows fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job.

Our second goal is high quality, affordable health for all Americans.

Our third goal is to promote energy independence for our country, while dramatically improving the environment.

Our fourth goal is to apply the compassion of America to the deepest problems of America. For so many in our country--the homeless, and the fatherless, the addicted--the need is great.

We think those are admirable goals. We do not, however, think that Mr. Bush’s policies are well designed to accomplish them.

We suggest that the DNC take video clips of those statements and prepare to run ads in the 2004 election that compares Mr. Bush’s performance to the measuring stick he has himself established.