The Columbia Critic

A place to debate anything we want to. We'll talk Columbia campus issues. We'll talk up the homosexual problem. We'll talk China. And we'll talk without resorting to partisan rhetoric. We may be left. We may be right. But we aren't going to be quoting any party line. We're leading the discussion. But feel free to chime in. Hannity and Colmes this is not.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Who Pays America's Tax Burden, and Who Gets the Most Government Spending?

See: Special Report No. 151

While many studies answer the ques­tion of who pays taxes in America, the question of who gets the most government spending is often overlooked. Just as some Americans bear a larger portion of the nation's tax burden than others, some Americans also receive a larger share of the nation's government spending.

This report summarizes the key findings of a comprehensive 2007 Tax Foundation study of federal, state and local taxes and government spending. The results show that when we consider the distribution of government spending as well as taxes, it provides a dramatically altered view of how U.S. fiscal policy affects Americans at different income levels than is apparent from the distribution of tax burdens alone.

Overall, we find that America's lowest-earning one-fifth of households received roughly $8.21 in government spending for each dollar of taxes paid in 2004. Households with middle-incomes received $1.30 per tax dollar, and America's highest-earning households received $0.41. Government spending targeted at the lowest-earning 60 percent of U.S. households is larger than what they paid in federal, state and local taxes. In 2004, between $1.03 trillion and $1.53 trillion was redistributed downward from the two highest income quintiles to the three lowest income quintiles through government taxes and spending policy.

These findings suggest tax distributions alone do not tell Americans how much the nation's fiscal system is helping or hurting low-income households. To answer that, we must look beyond tax burdens to government spending as well. Lawmakers who ignore the distribution of govern­ment spending risk making policy judgments based on an incorrect set of facts about the United States fiscal system.

Special Report No. 151, PDF, 366.7 KB


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On the question of life

The question of life, in my view, is not one that can be evaluated merely through cold logic. Giving human life an arbitrary value above all other life, such that the taking of that life is viewed wrong in nearly any circumstance, does not make logical sense. Rather, the absolute value that many place on all human life is one that is intuited through spiritual and emotional conceptualizations. It is a "gut feeling" for lack of a better word. Unfortunately such spiritual and emotional attributions do not match well with a legal system that is based largely on logic. A pre-fetus clump of cells known as an embryo cannot contribute to society. It cannot feel pain. It cannot survive on its own. Nor does it think or contain any semblance of self awareness. Indeed the latter three attributes may be applied to a even late stage fetus. Even at 10 months a child is not yet self aware, lacking the frontal lobe capacity necessary to pass the "mirror test."

Such have been the legal and scientific mechanisms used to determine a legal equivalence to the religious concept of "The Sanctity of Human Life." But they are imperfect at best, as shown by their inapplicability to the unborn.

Indeed a legal determination, based upon reason or logic alone, likely cannot be made to satisfy the requirements for the protection and sanctification of life "from womb to tomb."

For such a decision to be reached requires that a universal assumption be made that human life is "sacred" (in a legal sense, wholly protected) by simple virtue of the fact that it is human life. As a result of the limits of logic and reason to provable notions, such a statement would need to be deemed true a priori, simply because it is, without explanation.

One may argue that such unilateral pronouncements lie more appropriately in the realm of papal or rabbinical rule, and that our system of government does not take part in the practice of religious proclamation. But recall the original universal proclamation that granted to this nation its original moral compass - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

One would be hard-pressed to pare down this sentence to a logical argument with an outcome of relative certitude that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights, whether endowed by the Creator or not. But such a declarative statements remains a central pillar of our legal system, and lies at the center of the application of ethics and morals to legal determinations.

For the issue of life prior to birth to be finally settled in the legal system, it is my opinion that, first, a similar universal declaration of self-evident truth would need to be made on life. That is, that human life, (in the form of the sum whole of an individual organism, whether 5 cells or 5 billion) is sacred and protected.

Such a constitutional amendment is unlikely, however, and thus the question of abortion rights is likely never to be settled.

From "On Science"

When does human life begin?

The story of when human life begins has a checkered past. Centuries before people knew of sperm and eggs, Aristotle argued that the fusion creating a new person did not exist until "quickening," the first noticeable movements in a woman's womb. He reckoned quickening occurred 40 days into pregnancy (18-20 weeks is the actual time). The 40-day rule was picked up by Jewish and Muslim religions. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV supported this view of delayed animation and ensoulment.

The Catholic Church did not reach its current conclusion that life begins at fertilization until 1896, when Pope Pius IX condemned abortion at any age after the moment of conception. Many Jewish theologians now argue that life begins seven days into pregnancy, with implantation of the embryo.

Gene transcription of male-contributed genes starts even later (well after stem cells are harvested), and many scientists feel human individuality cannot be said to begin until then, when the embryo starts to actually use the genes contributed by fertilization.

The United States Supreme Court takes the position that human life begins much later, when the fetus becomes capable of independent life if separated from the mother—roughly the third trimester.

Early this month researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported suprising findings that could profoundly alter our views of when human life begins. Indeed, if these results, obtained in cultures of mouse cells, can be repeated in human cells, theologians may have to reconsider their ideas about the very nature of life.

The researchers were raising dense cultures of mouse embryonic stem cells for research. Scientists are particularly interested in embryonic stem cells because each one of them has the potential to develop into any cell of an adult individual. In a routine screening, the researchers treated the mouse cells with a fluorescent "marker" protein they had developed to test for early-stage eggs and sperm. The marker protein sticks specifically to the surfaces of eggs and sperm, but not to any other kind of cell. Because these stem cell cultures were not eggs or sperm, the screening should have had negative results.

Surprisingly, in a culture of stem cells that had been maintained 8 days, the marker protein did stick. Over 40% of the cells glowed green, showing the fluorescent protein marker had stuck to them.

Were these egg cells? Studying them more closely, the researchers learned that groups of the cells had begun to produce estradiol, a hormone that converts to the female hormone estrogen. After 16 days, the oocyte-like cells began producing tell-tail proteins typical of meiosis, the special form of cell division that sperm and egg cells undergo. The observations were tantalizing: many of the embryonic stem cells seem to have spontaneously developed over a few weeks many of the characteristics of egg cells (oocytes).

Are they really egg cells? To be sure, the researchers will need to demonstrate that the "oocyte-like" cells can be fertilized and produce viable offspring. Until those experiments are completed, the case that they are eggs is incomplete, although strong.

The researchers continued to observe the aging cell culture, and their perseverance was rewarded with a result that may fundamentally alter how we look at stem cell research. After 40 days, the groups of oocyte-like cells in the aging culture formed what appear to be early embryos!

Examining these early embryos, the researchers found that their cells were manufacturing the sorts of proteins one would expect of normal 16-cell embryos. A few of the embryos in the culture went on to form complex balls of cells resembling blastocysts, the early-stage embryos from which embryonic stem cells are harvested.

What is going on here? These egg cells were never fertilized -- how could they develop into embryos?

Biologists have long recognized that in insects, many fish and some reptiles, adults develop from unfertilized eggs, a process called parthogenesis. That seems to be what is going on here. Normal mouse egg cells can be induced to form embryos parthenogenetically, but despite many attempts to implant them in a womb, none have ever survived to birth.

While there is no guarantee that what happens in mice will happen in humans, there seems a very good chance that similar results will be obtained in human embryonic stem cell cultures, which leads to a very interesting question. What is the ethical status of human embryos created from embryonic stem cells without fertilization?

The very possibility of human embryos produced without fertilization must have some theologians reconsidering their ideas about the nature of life as something that starts at conception with the union of egg and sperm. One thing seems sure. The controversies raised by stem cell research will continue.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Inner Life of the Cell

This set of animations from Harvard's Biovisions Initiative "makes you want to go back and take biology," commented Charles Gibson, anchor of the ABC World News, after the national news show aired a story about The Inner Life of the Cell. This is science animation as it has never been seen before.

Click here to view:


Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Retreat From Big Cities Hurts ROTC Recruiting: Though Army Seeks More Ethnic Officers, It Shuns Northeast

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Greg Jaffe titled "A Retreat From Big Cities Hurts ROTC Recruiting: Though Army Seeks More Ethnic Officers, It Shuns Northeast" highlights a serious problem of inequity in military service. In essence, despite having a population comparable to that of entire states, New York City and its citizens are not granted the same opportunities for service as military officers as many other regions of the United States.

With over 8 million residents, New York City has a greater population than either the state of Virginia or North Carolina. 594,000 students attend universities in New York City, the greatest number of students in any city in the United States. However, while both Virginia and North Carolina maintain twelve Army ROTC programs each, New York City hosts only two. Student access to ROTC is severely limited as well, as all of the programs in New York City are located either in the Bronx or Queens, a significant distance from the areas of the city with the highest concentrations of colleges and universities.

The shortage of ROTC in New York City is particularly poignant given that the Department of Defense is consistently faced with a lack of diversity in the military's Officer Corps. Former Secretary of State and General Colin Powell is a CCNY ROTC graduate, and The City University of New York system boasts more than 450,000 students and confers nearly 3 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans in the United States. Yet today, there is no ROTC presence to be found anywhere in the CUNY system.

Neither is there an ROTC presence in Brooklyn, home to a diverse population about the size of Mississippi, which has five Army ROTC units despite a much lower per capita college attendance. In 2005, two of the top five ZIP codes for Army enlistments were in Brooklyn, yet there are no commissioning opportunities in the borough. Could one imagine no ROTC programs for the population of Mississippi?

New York City is also home to an array of private universities, including the exceedingly well endowed Columbia University and New York University, the largest private, non-profit university in the United States. Both universities are highly regarded as doorways to privilege, yet they fail to graduate more than a handful of military officers per year. The absence of military options at these institutions is an obvious example of upper-class elites being systematically discouraged from sharing the civic burden of military service.

The scarcity of commissioning opportunities in New York City hurts our community and the military. Moreover, in light of September 11th, we have a distinctly personal stake in the Global War on Terror. New Yorkers should be afforded every opportunity to serve as military leaders, and to be granted the responsibility for defending our city and our nation. For this to happen, access to ROTC and commissioning sources in New York City must improve, and the resources allotted to programs in the city must increase to match the population they serve.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Illegal Immigrant Becomes World-Renowned Brain Surgeon


Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa

7:38 p.m. EST March 5, 2007

BALTIMORE - Currently, a wall is being built between Mexico and the United States because many Americans remain concerned illegal immigrants are draining our nation's resources without giving enough back. But one illegal immigrant shared his remarkable journey with WBAL TV 11 News reporter John Sherman -- a journey proving that potential can be hard to judge from across the border.

"I just take off, just like a sprint -- all this adrenaline going through my body. I just go over the fence, jump about 16 feet to the floor and run towards the United States," Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa said, remembering the day he fled to the U.S.

He was one of many Mexicans who flee to the U.S. out of desperation. He said poverty and the hope of a better life drove him to make the leap.

"We had no food. We had no place to live," he said. "I went from pulling weeds to pulling tomatoes, to picking cotton loops to picking grapes."

Quinones-Hinojosa said at first, he wasn't sure why he did it.

"(I thought) 'What am I doing here. Why did I do this.' I didn't have much in Mexico, but at least I had my family, my friends," he said.

But Quinones-Hinojosa doesn't work on a farm anymore. Nineteen years after he jumped a fence into San Diego with a few dollars and no English skills, he is now one of the best brain surgeons at the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

"Every day, everything I do -- it doesn't matter if when I was a welder or when I was a tomato picker -- I gave it my best," he said. "I have been so lucky and I often wonder what set me apart from the rest. The same year that I came, there were thousands of other illegal aliens who also crossed the border."

Quinones-Hinojosa, known as Dr. Q at work, now uses his hands on patients where the slightest movement can separate life from death -- the same hands that separating weeds from dirt not long ago.

"I do look at them sometimes, and I realize these are the same hands who now touch people's lives and brains. Nothing has really changed," he said.

Dr. Q's story bends the definition of possible. It's one that took him from the fence to the fields, from community college to the University of California at Berkeley and from Harvard medical school to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"I had hopes. I had dreams," he said.

As a child in Mexico, cruel poverty was his family's reward for hard work. As a teenager, he said he found his father in tears.

"I found him crying because he just couldn't provide. And I promised myself that I would do everything within my power to make sure that I provided for not just my parents and my siblings, but for my future family," he said.

That commitment led Dr. Q to the fields of California's San Joachin Valley.

"I just knew that if you keep working hard, things are going to turn around. I just had no doubt in myself," he said.

Dr. Q said he slept in a trailer at night, but by day he kept pushing at every opportunity.

"Someone gave me an opportunity to drive a tractor. It just took me minutes to pick it up. Then (there was) an opportunity to drive the cotton picker and it took me minutes to pick it up," he said.

Now, Dr. Q splits his time between surgery and his research lab. He said he believes he can find the cure for brain cancer -- a challenge the medical establishment has all but given up on.

"My heart just palpitates, and I wonder, 'How did I change this person's life today? How did I affect his or her memories? How did I change how this person will interact with his or her loved ones?'" he said.

One patient Dr. Q helped save was Rodney Banks, a 45-year-old construction worker with five grandchildren. Dr. Q successfully removed a benign tumor from Banks' brain.

"That's the thing about Alfredo. You take away his entire background and he's still a superstar in neurosurgery," said Dr. Matt McGirt, who works side by side in the operating room with Dr. Q for dozens of hours every week.

"That's truly amazing. And to do what he does now -- he's been blessed," Banks said after finding out about Dr. Q's background.

"One thing that this country absolutely values is hard work," Dr. Q often says when he tells his story to student groups at least once a month. "If you don't have high dreams, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

If Dr. Q has a secret to success, it may be his unshakeable confidence that you don't always have to know exactly where you're going in life. You just take a leap of faith, knowing there's no safer bet than one on yourself.

"I may never find a cure for brain cancer. But I don't care about that right now. I care about trying," he said. "The potential is in everybody. The question is, 'How do we harvest that potential?'"

Dr. Q became an American citizen in 1997. He lives in Bel Air with his wife and three children.