Monday, May 30, 2011

Amendment #28 - The Rational Basis Amendment

The rational basis test is "a judicial standard of review that examines whether a legislature had a reasonable and not an arbitrary basis for enacting a particular statute." According to the Wikipedia article, this level of scrutiny is the lowest level of scrutiny that can be applied by the courts when engaging in judicial review, and in the case law it specifically applies to cases related to due process and equal protection issues relating to the 5th and 14th amendments respectively.

Sophomore year of college, I took my second favorite class of my entire college career (first being ELE 491, high tech entrepreneurship, where among other things, I was exposed to Tim Ferriss for the first time). It was a constitutional law class taught by Professor Ken Kersch (he was still at Princeton through my senior year). Admittedly, I slept through many of the lectures, but the precepts were incredibly engaging. Mine was run by Professor Kersch himself, and it was one of the first times I had to give any serious thought to the ideas of natural rights of man and the role of government.

During that class, I undoubtedly said some batshit things. I had yet to face my own mortality, I had yet to fully form my ideas about right and wrong, and I was still a few years from being exposed to the true level of incompetence and corruption in government. But I did say one thing that I'll remember to this day. One thing that looking back was a stroke of brilliance. I forget what case we were discussing in particular, but at some point I basically said that there was no rational basis for the law in question, and so the court should strike it down as unconstitutional. When Professor Kersch pointed out that nowhere in the constitution or case law does it require that there to be a rational basis to pass laws, I tried to create an ad-hoc justification from the Declaration of Independence and general sentiment of the Constitution taken in its entirety. I then went on to proclaim that we need to amend the Constitution with a rational basis amendment.

Today we take the first step toward that end, creating a first draft of the language of what an amendment like that might look like:

Section 1: No law shall be passed by Congress nor by any state that inhibits individual freedom or appropriates governmental funds without, at minimum, a rational basis for doing so.
Section 2: Existing laws are at all times subject to a rational basis scrutiny, and should be struck down in the face of new evidence.

How can anyone vote down an amendment like that? Last I checked, no one wants to be called "irrational" since it's pejorative. And because of the way the amendment is phrased, anyone voting it down will be automatically construed as irrational, since as rational human beings they support rational scrutiny of any law.

In discussing this with people, the primary objection to this that I always get is that the phrase "rational basis" could mean anything, but as we saw with the earlier definition, that's not really true. The rational basis test is well defined in case law, so it can't really mean "anything." The phrase "at minimum" is in there to prevent this amendment from being used as a loophole around employing a higher level of scrutiny where appropriate. Let's take a look at a couple of the policies that become unconstitutional as a result of this amendment:

  1. Farm and Subsidies - Grains and legumes, in particular corn, wheat and soy, make us sick. We feed them to our cattle and they make them sick, while at the same time decreasing the healthfulness of the meat produced making us sicker still (admittedly by a small margin). They create negative externalities. There is a better argument to be made for taxing their production than for subsidizing it. 
  2. Energy Subsidies - Energy subsidies are always billed as being there to encourage the exploration and market viability of alternative energy sources. Still, if you have an appropriate level of skepticism for everything that the American government does, it shouldn't surprise you to know that these subsidies actually hurt green energy companies. Subsidies are disproportionately allocated to (quick, opposite of alternative) traditional energy producers, actually making it MORE difficult for green companies to compete rather than less. Removing all subsidies across the board would make green technologies more price competitive as a result.
  3. Drug Laws - The war on drugs costs the US an inordinate amount of money, and does an atrocious job of preventing drug use or the drug trade. Addictive substances are not something you can take-on from the supply side, they must be dealt with on the demand side. To the extent which they create a negative externality, they should be taxed to cover the cost of that negative externality. 
  4. Prostitution Laws - The regulate and tax method applies here in the same way that it applies to drugs. Regulate the industry to the extent that it is safe for all participants, and tax the product to cover these costs.
  5. Gambling Laws - I'm particularly sour on this one since all of the major online poker sites were just shut down in the US not too long ago, but come on people. Legalize gambling, regulate it, tax to pay for the regulation, everyone wins.
  6. The Death Penalty - It costs more money to execute someone than it does to keep that same person in jail for life. Enough said.
  7. Obscenity/Pornography - The logical corollary to the right to free speech is that you lose the right to not be offended. That should be obvious, but I suppose it's not. A rational basis amendment means that restrictions would have to be subject to the rational basis test, and because of the offended corollary to the right to free speech, these items of legislation fail.

What do you think? Could this amendment be passed? If it were passed, how would America be different?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Into the Depths of Nutrition Science

It all started in my senior year of college. It can be questioned how much I learned in my four years as an ORFE major at Princeton, but what is indisputable is that on April 30, 2008, my world changed forever. On that particular Wednesday, Tim Ferriss of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body fame was the guest lecturer in my entrepreneurship class. As I walked out of that lecture hall, I could think about nothing more important at that moment than for me to get back to my dorm room and order 4HWW on my original kindle. It wasn't long before I realized that Tim had my dream life. Funny thing is, I didn't even know what my dream life was until I heard him describe it in his lecture.

Fast forward a year, Tim posts this article by Dr. Mike Eades on his blog about saturated fat. Hrm, interesting. A couple months later, Tim posts this article by Gary Taubes. In it, Tim calls Gary's book Good Calories, Bad Calories the "definitive" work on nutrition. From someone like Tim, that is VERY high praise, praise that I take extremely seriously. A couple of weeks later, a video I saw of Anthony Johnson touches on similar points about carbs and fat, and also talks about exercise science, and in particular the book Body by Science. I buy it on my kindle and start going through it. In the book, Doug McGuff talks about nutrition, and references these similar "animal fats are fine, carbs are problematic, humans evolved as hunter-gatherer" sentiments. On Sunday, November 1, 2009, the day after Halloween, I decided that I was going to get freaking jacked while losing bodyfat on a Body by Science routine and a low carb diet. I also purchased GCBC on the kindle and read it.

The theory that Gary put forth in his book is that insulin is the primary hormone responsible for fat storage, and that insulin is secreted by the pancreas in response to carbohydrates in the diet, so it would make sense that carbohydrates make us fat. It explains the effectiveness of low carb diets, and it creates a good story about how we as a society got fat over the last 30 years despite being lean for the most part prior to that. It explains why diabetics cannot store fat without insulin injections, and why most people who are extremely overweight have muscular insulin resistance. There are some unexplained phenomena, but I was in denial about those at the time.

Did the low carb thing for a while, lost a lot of body fat, saw some small muscle gains, but not the Geek-to-Freak gains I was hoping for. Oh well, I'm still a work in progress on the muscle gaining front, tweaking routines and supplementation as I see fit, although I have about 20 extra lbs of lean mass now as compared to then. Still, the takeaways from this period of my nutrition education are clear: saturated fat and dietary cholesterol don't cause heart disease, all diseases of civilization are preventable through lifestyle changes, my illness, systemic scleroderma, was caused by my taste for pasta, and people don't get fat because they eat too much and don't exercise enough, they get fat because of the quality of the food that they eat. All you diet agnostics (I'm talking to you Brad Pilon) are wrong about the quantity vs. quality debate.

At some point, my low carb world-view came crashing down. Bloggers in the "paleo" community started talking about the Kitavans and their high carb life, Stephan Guyenet and Mark Sisson endorsed potato consumption for lean individuals, Robb Wolf had already been preaching about the virtues of sweet potatoes forever, and Paul Jaminet was writing about zero carb dangers and calling white rice a "safe starch," Maybe the carbs aren't the problem? Maybe it's specific elements in the food, in particular Kurt Harris' "neolithic agents of disease,"  wheat, excess fructose and excess omega-6 fats. I was in this camp for a while before I really understood the mechanisms, so I was straddling the low carb and paleo worlds unable to reconcile to two. Enter leptin.

Leptin is produced by adipose tissue roughly in proportion to the fat mass on the body. This signal gets interpreted in the hypothalamus, and when it reaches a certain threshold, eating more becomes very difficult. Like body temperature, fat mass is regulated within a very tight range in the hypothalamus, and when overeating and undereating, the body will defend against changes to this fat mass, even in overweight individuals. Your metabolism doesn't "break," it is still working properly, it's just not regulating body fat mass at a healthy level or at least at the level you want it to. In obese individuals, this level or "setpoint" that the hypothalamus aims for is either changing or remaining the same while the leptin signal that is interpreted by the brain is weakening for the same amount of leptin, known as leptin resistance.

This negative feedback loop between the adipose tissue and hypothalamus via leptin signaling makes sense. It's validated by the data. If inflammation is disrupting the signaling, this would explain why paleo diets work. My world makes sense again. Anti-predation proteins in plant seeds (grains and legumes) inflame the body, this inflammation inhibits leptin signaling, and this inhibited leptin signaling causes us to eat more. This is pretty much were I stood when Dr. Harris put out his series about how there's no such thing as a macronutrient, Part I here and Part II here, as well as when he published his post entitled Paleo 2.0, A Diet Manifesto.

This theory was put into practice by my dad when he set out to lower his cholesterol and get off of Lipitor toward the end of last year. My dad, who was already pretty lean, went grain, legume, and dairy free between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2011. In the intervening four weeks, he lost 15lbs, or nearly four pounds per week (a number which the Calories-In/Calories-Outers would call impossible for a lean individual). After Christmas, he lost another 5+lbs before his weight stabilized. It's proof of concept, at least in that n=1 experiment. Still, this wasn't the end of my learning. Thursday, April 28th, 2011, my world-view with respect to nutrition and adiposity would be shaken again.

On his blog, Stephan posted this article, which talks about a study in which rats get fat eating chocolate Ensure but not vanilla or strawberry Ensure. W-T-F? How can chocolate Ensure be more inflammatory than the other flavors? Well, it can't. But Stephan is proposing a new mechanism, one involving food reward changing the setpoint. How? In Stephan's words in response to a question of mine about food reward being short term vs long term:

Food reward is heavily intertwined with the dopamine-secreting regions of the brain, the VTA and substantia nigra. These regions project to the hypothalamus, the region that seems to encode the setpoint, and we know that dopamine modulates the activity of that region. Reward is not inherently short term, although it has a short term component. Reward-related behaviors change over time as an animal becomes habituated to highly palatable food, and they end up resembling a drug addiction state in some ways.

Another piece of the puzzle. So now we have two mechanisms by which leptin signalling fails: inflammation, which is caused in large part by diet, and food reward, which is primarily caused by food manufacturers creating the processed foods to specifically be hyperstimulating to the food reward system. Inflammation interferes with the leptin signalling, and food reward upregulates the setpoint (Stephan defines food reward more specifically in the comments here).

In this model, fast food/processed food is the perfect storm of obesity creation because it is both highly rewarding and inflammatory. Part of the blame needs to lie on us as the consumer. Every time we buy these super satiating foods, we are voting with our dollars for their production. Still, we can't place all of the blame there. These foods are artificially cheap because of government agricultural subsidies to the tune of $0.62 for every $1 or a total of $180 billion in 2009. We have a government that is pushing a high grain, low saturated fat diet AND subsidizing it with our tax dollars/national debt. Big Agro certainly got their moneys worth on those lobbyists. Of course it wouldn't be a good conspiracy theory without the Oil Lobby or Pharma Lobby being involved. These crops are grown with fertilizers created from fossil fuels, which represent the the overwhelming majority of governmental energy subsidies as compared to sustainable energy. And of course, as we've stated earlier, these subsidized foods are the ones that are making us sick, so it's definitely in the interest of pharma and health insurance companies to support these policies, whether they do so overtly or not.

Still think the government has your best interest at heart? The American government is sold to the highest bidder. My generation, those of us in our early to mid 20s, is going to take it back.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Stephen Hawking on God, Heaven and the Meaning of Life

My sister graduated from college over the weekend, and on Saturday night after much drinking with the parents, I ended up having a very deep conversation with my father about everything from the meaning of life to relationships to morality to government. As I was waxing poetic, I came to the realization that while my views on all of these things are totally derivative and fully fleshed out, I have yet to find anything written anywhere that fully encapsulates my viewpoint. To me, this is pretty bizarre, because it all seems so obvious, but this is why I felt the need to start this blog. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will flesh out my philosophy in detail, and hopefully some of you will find it interesting.

When I logged into twitter today to change my picture, I saw Stephen Hawking listed as one of the trending topics. My first instinct was to assume that he had died, which would be a very sad day indeed. As luck would have it though, it turns out that he is still definitely alive and kicking, and the reason for his trending was this article in The Guardian. Now, anyone who knows Hawking's work knows that he is firmly entrenched in the atheist camp, but in this article he expressly calls heaven a "fairy story" and everyone seems to be flipping their shit. In any case, the timing was extremely fortuitous, as I had already begun the process of registering and building out this blog. 

Some background: I was baptized Greek Orthodox, which is how my mother self identifies, though my father self identifies as an agnostic. At some point in my early years, I spent some time going to Sunday school on Sundays while my mom attended mass. I remember very little of what we actually talked about in Sunday school, but I do remember reading an illustrated children's bible with my mom, specifically the story of Noah's ark. Yet even then, despite being five or so years old, I never thought of the story of Noah's ark as being history in the way that we look at the story of Julius Caesar or the revolutionary war. To me, Noah's ark always represented a fairy tale, or maybe a fable, not unlike The Tortoise and the Hare. It wasn't until years later that I realized that other people actually believe in this nonsense as fact, and within the last year that I had the realization that these irrational people are largely in charge of our world today.

Now that probably came off as harsh, labeling people who believe in god as irrational, a clearly pejorative word. Truth is, I don't know how else to describe them. Faith is inherently irrational, as it goes beyond the realm of reason into the realm of superstition. In fact, it would seem to me that if you believe in god, being called "irrational" should not be an insult, just as it's not an insult for you to call me an animal killer since I eat meat. I would like to make it clear that I don't necessarily think that people who are religious are bad people, in fact many of them are quite virtuous. I am just saying that something is different about the way they view the world as compared to the way I do, and that viewpoint scares me when it exists in someone who has influence, because it totally misaligns incentives. I will definitely discuss this more in a future post, but I'm getting a little sidetracked here.

I told that story about Sunday school to illustrate that I never chose to not believe in god. From a very young age, it didn't make sense to me. While I am skeptical that any thinking man actually does believe in god since it is so inherently irrational, I am willing to concede that IF someone does believe in god, there is a very good chance that they didn't choose to believe in the same way that I didn't choose to not believe. Beliefs are extremely difficult to change, and I would never ask someone to change theirs. However, a belief in god is no excuse for invoking god in any kind of decisions that can effect change in my life.

Back to Stephen Hawking for a second. In his interview with the Guardian, he states that "we should seek the greatest value for our action" with our short time on earth between birth and death. This idea of seeking value for our action, which is relatively synonymous with "achievement," is an important one, because as you will learn as I continue to flesh out my ideas, it is my belief that for humans, the species that conquered the world through reason, virtue lies in achievement and attempting to achieve (even if you never actually get there). Look for me building this idea out in the future. Also, regardless of whether you share this view of morality/virtue, I think that we can all agree that the United States of America was founded on this definition of virtue, which is why this conception of morality lines up so well with the "American dream." 

Now, I am a cocky bastard. I am open minded enough to change my opinion in the face of new evidence, or even reexamine my opinions in the face of a disagreeing opinion from someone who I respect. At the end of the day though, I value my own mind over that of anyone else, no matter how high his IQ is. Still, it's nice to know that the guy who is at the forefront of theoretical physics is in agreement with regard to heaven and virtue.