Watching Medical Ads on TV

CNN seems to make most of its money selling this stuff to older people, its evening news audience. They know their viewers, yes they do, and the old ones are far more gullible and needy. Nobody else watches the evening news anyway, and elders buy more prescription drugs than any other group. Rather than consult with their doctors, they will believe what they see acted out on their 1080p screens. And so pharma is delighted to rake in billions each year.

News and medical ads don’t mix well, and so the mute button often comes into play. (I’m stuck with CNN on cable here in Mexico; see CNN Is Tottering and my further complaints about it). The other night I watched prime time news on CNN for two hours, holding off on the mute button so I could encounter the following medical ads with their cacophonous, mindless names.

      • Cosentyx: for arthritis and, yes, psoriasis
      • Instaflex: in which plastic surgery victim Marie Osmond talked anti-aging immature blah-blah about her joint problems
      • Veozah: for hot flashes
      • Sotyktu: for psoriasis, and spelled out phonetically for you
      • Caplyta: for depression, etc.
      • Fasenra: for asthma @ $5,511.41 per dose
      • Rinvoq: for eczema, arthritis
      • Ozempic: for diabetes
      • Skyrizi: for psoriasis

Would you ever mention any of these consumer drugs to friends at a party? Civilized people should avoid such pharmaceutical discussions. Why are the actors in these commercials invariably happy and smiling. enjoying things like camping, entertaining, biking, eating, climbing mountains? Nobody is ever sick in bed and recovering. Black and white, fat and skinny, homely or handsome, these counterfeit people might as well be selling Russian laxatives.

Anyhow, your doctor will surely know if Skyrizi is better than Cosentyx or Sotyktu for your psoriasis. “If you experience any of these side effects, call your doctor,” says the rapid-talking (tachyphemic) voiceover—and see how long it takes to get an appointment. How come all those trivial or deadly side effects end with “call your doctor”? Maybe your doctor has never heard of this drug and thinks you are pushy and offensive for trying to question his competence. More likely, he too is beholden to Big Pharma whose lovely gals visit him regularly to dispense tons of free samples that make his patients happy.

Doctor Aaron Kesselheim of the Harvard Med School says: “Actually, the amount of money that pharmaceutical companies spend on advertising to physicians is far higher than the amount spent on direct-to-consumer advertising because physicians are the ones writing the prescriptions.” So everyone is in on the take.

The take is a lot less for CNN these days, so we can expect to see more medical ads, which pay well. Reports are rife that the network will slash what it pays its star anchors and make some big changes. We’ve heard that before. Long-time anchor Poppy Harlow is quitting. What I wish they would do is stop their constant, sickening pro-Israel bias. If that could happen I’d put up with the medical sludge.

The Clown Prince of Money

What’s with that bomber jacket? Everything about this man (well, almost everything) is appalling. The most recent example is the now-infamous interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Since the internet is now full of foul language, who can be shocked? What’s shocking is the childish way Elon thinks. When his advertisers fled from “X” he responded like they were bullying him (shades of his youth), blackmailing him. Sounds to me like a schoolyard incident with a schoolyard response.

Jonathan Chait called him out on this:

In general, blackmail is a crime where the criminal demands payment from the victim. It does not involve the criminal refusing to give money to the victim for a service they don’t want. . . . Specifically, declining to spend advertising money on a platform because the owner not only permits crazy and offensive comments to proliferate on it but also personally contributes his own crazy and offensive comments to the site, is not only not blackmail, it’s not even in the same universe as blackmail.

We put up with Elon’s conspiracies and Asperger-ish behavior for two reasons. One, he’s the world’s richest man, reason enough for some to ratify his charisma; and two, the U.S. government has sold out to him with its total dependence on contracts with his firms Space-X and Starlink. So we are all now in bed with a madman.

Tesla Cybertruck

The truck’s many flaws are recounted here, and they may be sufficient to kill it. But the competition isn’t really from Ford or GM or Ram. Its aim is to attract the people who bought Hummers, the truck of poseurs and polluters. Will there be enough of these to buy something that looks like it was “assembled in a dude’s basement”? Others think it looks “very sexy.”

Elon, as we know, is a risk-taker. And maybe the Intelligencer had it right: “Making expensive niche products for people with too much money tends to be a really great business, and Musk has made himself the richest person in the world by being exceptionally good at that.”

Well, the problem is that he’s got to find new buyers in a market that’s declining. EV trucks are getting more expensive and fewer people seem to want them. We hope this trend will change, but the costly and flamboyant Cybertruck isn’t likely to do it.

Real Work and Pseudo-Work

I asked Google how many hours a typical Congressman works and couldn’t get a straight answer. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tn) said on CNN last night that it was about four hours a day. In the face of his disintegrating speakership and a looming government shutdown, Speaker McCarthy sent his members home for the weekend.

It’s common knowledge that Representatives spend much of their time fundraising and electioneering. What kind of work is that? There are no work requirements for Congress, just as there are no term limits. Senators and Representatives make $174,000 per year for working four hours a day with lots of time off.

This is but one of many kinds of pseudo-work. Another kind is what David Graeber has called Bullshit Jobs. Millions of people work in pointless jobs like “corporate lawyers, public relations consultants, telemarketers, brand managers, and countless administrative specialists who are paid to sit around, answer phones, and pretend to be useful.” Such people “are being handed a lot of money to do nothing,” and most of them know it’s a canard.

Let me talk for a moment about how I experience another kind of pseudo-work. I came to Mexico fifteen years ago with the intent to finish my book on Mingus, which I did. I followed up with a memoir, a kind of weird journal, and the present blog. Solid enough work for a writer, but I find I need more of it.

So I put in a lot of time at the computer in pseudo-work—hunting up new blog ideas, reading the political news, doing emails, trying to generate another book, wondering if I have shot my wad as a writer. Some hours each day are devoted to this sort of random online probing, looking for a new project. This feels like work, but of course it isn’t.

So I wonder what my “retirement” is about. I read that many current retirees want to return to work, either for financial or social/emotional reasons. I’m a little too old for that but the idea of “work,” which I used to belittle when younger, has come to mean a real involvement in something meaningful. As someone once said, “when you work from home, you’re never off the clock.” And certainly your concept of work changes as you age.

I think about my father who made the grave error of retiring from work at age fifty-five. He and my mother moved to Florida, and he thought he could live a life of leisure. After he spent most of his money buying a yacht, they led a reduced existence and he turned sour on life. He filled up time by going to the Publix market and bugging my mother to turn down the air conditioning.

Now, with an outbreak of strikes, the work from home movement, and pressure on Biden to retire, the old concepts of work are clearly threatened. Today the New York Times published an interesting exchange of views titled “When It Comes to Work, ‘the Current Situation Is Unsustainable.’” The profusion of strikes has gotten people thinking about the nature of work. Lydia Polgreen, one of the Times participants, finally had this to say:

I think that people need to spend their time doing things that are meaningful. Sometimes those things are paid work, sometimes it’s caring for the people that you love, but I think that we’re also seeing that people do want to work. What they don’t want is for such a huge swath of the fruits of their labor to be accruing to the very top 10 percent. And that seems to me to be like a reasonable thing to be really, really mad about.

New Lessons in Hubris

The submersible Titan’s loss was no Greek tragedy. We had no hero with a tragic flaw; there was no grand discovery or revelation; we had, however, plenty of reversal of fortune (peripeteia). What we saw in the last week was a tragedy of spectacle, which humans always enjoy and which the media willingly provide.

At the same time, we and the media are guilty of giving short shrift to the thousands of desperate migrants now being lost at sea. A boat off Greece capsizes and hundreds die in the water. Viewers happily cut back to the more uncertain fortunes of the Titan. Its ending, predicted by some, was the anticlimax of a week-long deathwatch that drew millions of viewers. Few, I’m sure, wanted to think that the human drama was already over. Fewer still wanted to contemplate those hundreds dead in the Greek waters.

The four lost Titan passengers each paid $250,000 to die a quick, unsolicited death. An enormous air-sea search costing millions—as we will no doubt learn—was really a wasted effort since the sub imploded near the Titanic just an hour and 45 minutes after launch. Where was the effort to rescue the Greek immigrants?

Stockton Rush, the idiot savant who led OceanGate and piloted the dive, pitched the unimportance of safety and preferred innovation over proper testing and certification. The company will now be facing perhaps years of lawsuits. Rush already had a couple before his last and fatal dive.

I was immediately struck by the happy hubris of this guy in interviews. Well, how could sane people believe in someone who used off-the-shelf video controllers and RadioShack parts in vessels like this? An uncertified carbon fiber hull? Is the urge for perilous adventures so strong as to confound rational thinking? Two of the five passengers on board were experienced, smart, capable Titanic divers. They still bought in to this ride.

James Cameron, the seasoned ocean explorer (and “Titanic” filmmaker) was one of the few who spoke out about the disaster. He has made more than thirty successful dives to the Titanic. “OceanGate,” he said, “didn’t go through certification. It wasn’t peer-reviewed by other engineering entities, by any of these what they call classing bureaus that do certification for vessels and submersibles and things like that. That was a critical failure.”

I watched his interview on CNN. Toward the end he remarked on the supreme irony that both the Titanic and the Titan disaster were caused by hubris, that arrogant pursuit of power that goes against nature, the gods and human reason. So far, he’s the only commenter I’ve heard to use that word with regard to what happened in 1912 and what happened last week.

Titanic fascinates us because it seems like such a colossal failure of some kind of system back then, and 1,500 people paid the price for it. . . . The warnings were not heeded. They were warned about the ice, they had radio, Marconigrams, the Titanic captain was handed multiple warnings of ice ahead [yet] he steamed full ahead into a known ice field on a pitch dark night with no moon. If that isn’t a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is.

It took just over a hundred years to prove once again that when the fates align, humans are their mindless victims.

Good Places Gone Bad

Condos next door, Puerto Escondido

In my life I’ve been very lucky to spend time and live in some desirable places: venues like Greenwich Village, Martha’s Vineyard, Little Compton Rhode Island, Chesapeake Bay, the coast of Maine. I took vacations to rare places like Tortola, the Leeward Islands and, years ago, Cozumel.

Now we learn that Cozumel, home to great scuba diving and laid-back Mexican charm, has been totally taken over by giant cruise ships. They disgorged some “1.2 million cruise ship passengers aboard 390 ocean liners in the first three months of 2023.” The place is now like St. Thomas and much of the Caribbean, host to hordes of vacationers seeking a charm that has vanished.

New York, the Vineyard—where we owned a small house—and even the fisherman’s backwater of Little Compton have been taken over by the rich and infamous who have transformed what was charming and unique into vacation spots for the masses with condos, hotels, Airbnbs, and freaks on mopeds.

You’re probably aware of how the process works. The word gets out from savvy travelers who tell their friends and cohorts about their wonderful discoveries. As in politics, word of mouth is a powerful change agent. Then come the speculators, sensing big profits, and the developers who build on models of what they know will sell.

The glowing reviews in respected travel publications just fan the flames and bring more vacationers who want a piece of the action. I wrote a blog last year about how some of us in Oaxaca respond to this.

Every new Travel+Leisure piece or New York Times article just brings in more of these vagrant deadbeats. They descend on us like the locusts. So we, or some of us, find a perverse joy in taking their money and making fun of them.

In smaller communities like Puerto Escondido, where I spend a good deal of time, demand can outrun supply, so prices go up and services go down. The infrastructure (water, health services, electric, internet, etc.) cannot keep pace. When my partner built a house here twelve years ago on a quiet street away from downtown there now loom five-story condos that are often in violation of the building codes. Trucks and construction noise abound. Real estate values skyrocket. Some old-timers want to move out.

One likely reason people are constantly searching for the perfect getaway is to escape from American culture. This is part of what drove me to Mexico some fourteen years ago. Today it’s the advent of Trump, the continuing tolerance of gun violence, the collapse of a working polity, the coarseness of American life, climate change—any or all can drive one to search for a better land.

And yet we know the transformation of good places into tourist havens has been going on for many years. It might be that laissez-faire economics also has something to do with this. People are encouraged to do whatever they want in the name of freedom, and desirable communities enforce few regulations. And many such places seem happy to sell out charm and uniqueness for the tourist dollar.

American Food, Part II

Holiday promotions are part of the food and beverage industry too. Miller Lite knows how much you love to drink beer under the Christmas tree, and their Keg Stand will cost you $50, beer not included. They tell us supplies won’t last long.

The apparatus holds the tree on top with “room for a quarter-barrel keg (which holds the equivalent of about 83 bottled beers) and ice bucket underneath. Finally, a hole in the top of the box allows the tap’s spout to fit through so revelers can pour a beer right next to the tree.” Miller also sells beer-infused ice cream bars. Well, who knew?

The wizards of the food industry are constantly bombarded by the food police and the advocates of organic food. I think the only thing wrong with organic food is the folks who promote it and their high-handed convictions in the cause. They feed on many platitudes and attitudes about food.

I’ve maintained that people with some degree of education generally know what foods to eat and what’s good for them. (Is that true, I wonder?) Still, food science marches on. Researchers claim that fat (not obese) people live longer. So, how much weight is too much, guys? Another elaborate study on fruit flies tells us that human taste buds operate like those in the bugs to make up for diet deficiencies.

You want science like this to control your diet and your life? I mean, what’s wrong with sandwiches? Stuff ‘em with lettuce if you want your greens. Did you know that pizza is the best-liked food in the world? How frightening is that? I live around the corner from a great farmers market so I’m fortunate not to be subject to the onslaught of the packaged, processed, fatty foods that outrage the food police.

We all seem to be captive to our childhood preferences in food. For many years I had a thing for French toast and bacon in the morning. Those associations with breakfast die hard. You know about Proust and the madeleine dipped in tea? Taste, memory and associations together make us into creatures of the past.

So sometimes, as I said here, we simply have to give way to our built-in historic preferences. The alternative is food guilt, and who needs that?

How to Beat the Inflation

“Buy less” is the most obvious answer. Yet often this isn’t possible. In Mexico, one quart of Haagen-Dazs vanilla at my supermarket now costs $15.00 US, almost what it costs in the USA. That outrageous price certainly won’t keep me from buying it. Only if the price goes to $20 would I perhaps reconsider.

I’ll bet most of you are like this with items you lust after. You cut back on things like socks and underwear, making do with holey old stuff. Beer, for some, is another non-negotiable. What do people do in rural red states, forced to buy gas to commute to their uninspiring jobs? Hard to figure that one, when there ain’t much budget left to cut.

Maybe that’s why the hard right is making such headway. If Biden does manage to get through Congress his billions to help these folks, they will piss it away on gasoline or beer, and then what? You bite the hand that feeds you.

I am just as bad. The pickup cartridge on my lovely vinyl-playing setup is going south after many years of usage. It is of course an essential link in getting the music to my ear, and a new one of equal quality will cost about $500, plus shipping here (maybe another $100). Not buying it renders my whole collection mere wall decoration. Buying a cheaper one is cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. How many quarts of Haagen-Dazs is that worth?

These kinds of quandaries are of little concern to people with real money. Instead they complain about the stock market dropping and worry about what they should do—as if there were any choice but to just hang on. Suzie Orman was interviewed on CNN the other night. Actually she looked pretty good for a 70-year-old dispensing commonplace advice. Her counsel on the stock market? Just do nothing and hang on; the market will come back; it always does (like it did in the 1930s?).

For the rest of us, my uncalled-for advice is like Suzie’s: just hang on. Or you could try one of the four tips from a popular Google site: “ask for a raise.”

Politics Visits the Dismal Science

A lot of people, myself included, avoid serious dealing with economics. You hear their gurus make pronouncements clouded with jargon, impenetrable concepts, and fixed ideas. They frequently disagree and like to argue. Many disdain the world of politics, though that is a living part of economics.

Now Larry Summers, the king of controversy, has joined with Ezra Klein on his show in a long but surprisingly enlightening discussion about the present inflation, how it developed, and what to do about it. This may be intimidating to some of you, yet very illuminating if you choose to get into it.

The problem both of them confront is the heavy downside of the strong U.S. economy. Both seem to agree that Biden’s American Rescue Plan was needed and welcome. But “it ran the economy hot.” Notwithstanding obvious benefits to the labor market, Summers believes, our virulent inflation resulted. Planners seemingly ignored the long-term consequences of runaway demand.

And the doctor who prescribes you painkillers that make you feel good to which you become addicted is generous and compassionate, but ultimately is very damaging to you. And while the example is a bit melodramatic, the pursuit of excessively expansionary policies that ultimately lead to inflation, which reduces people’s purchasing power, and the need for sharply contractionary policies, which hurt the biggest victims, the most disadvantaged in the society, that’s not doing the people we care most about any favor. It’s, in fact, hurting them.

For Summers this echoes and replays what happened in 1982, when Paul Volcker came in and instituted draconian reforms that finally tamed record inflation, though at the cost of a recession. There was outrage among many of the lefties, but the medicine worked. Now, once again, demand is out of whack, meaning too much money chasing too few goods. Ezra Klein seemingly accepts this but asserts that supply disruptions have played a role too: Ukraine and China and Covid have had their effects.

I think they both agree that the Fed must act soon and strongly. There is really no other instrument to control what seems likely—a long-term inflation of some 6% a year. The politics of all this become pretty obvious. Politico tells us:

Democrats worry about growth-killing [Fed] rate hikes in the middle of a midterm election year. But inflation is even worse for them politically. Recent polls show that price spikes are by far the top concern among voters. An NPR/Ipsos survey showed that 40 percent of Americans are worried about higher prices and 94 percent are aware of rising costs for food, energy, housing and other items.

One aspect of all this struck me. Left-leaning Democrats typically look for immediate relief to help the beleaguered victims (and counter the upcoming threat of the midterms). Bernie Sanders and others have proposed windfall excess profits taxes on Big Oil. Others want to rescind the federal gas tax.

More conservative Democrats like Larry Summers look for longer-term, painful fixes. I’m reminded of the blowback President Biden received for speaking his mind about Putin. He took a lot of undeserved flak for that, much of it from his own administration, which “overreacted and undercut him.” The State Department and the Kremlin both signaled unhappy long-term consequences from his remark.

Not everyone is on the same page regarding Putin, and unfortunately not everyone is on the same page regarding inflation. Summers and Klein did try to bridge that gap in a good, reasoned exchange.

Things We Find Beyond Our Control

Here are a few: Covid, the climate, Putin, the Congress, guns, cockroaches, Mark Zuckerberg. This man is a disease, worse than Covid. I want to focus on him because Facebook (now renamed “Meta”) seems maybe, at last, to be losing its sway over our mindless populace.

The latest evidence came last Tuesday when,

with a single earnings report and a disastrous conference call, Mark Zuckerberg wiped out $240 billion in value from his company. Meta’s was the largest one-day loss by a U.S. company ever, and the ripple effects were closer to tsunamis throughout Silicon Valley. . . . Meta’s market value of $900 billion at 3:59 p.m., was suddenly worth about $720 billion just 30 minutes later—reflecting a spectacular 22 percent fall in after-hours trading for one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.

The numbers here are amazing. “If the drop holds, . . . the company’s overall value, known as its market capitalization, is on track to drop by a figure greater than the size of the entire Greek economy, based on data from the World Bank.”

There are many reasons behind Facebook’s rout, the most likely being the company’s reliance on a business model that uses your personal data to fuel its targeted online ad sales. But most people (at least the older ones) don’t use FB because of its business model. They want to see the latest pix of their grandkids or exchange recipes. Who cares if they reveal their personal data?

The government, for one, is beginning to care about big tech dominance. For some months now, “both parties want to regulate Facebook.” There is even talk of international regulation. Investors finally came to realize that the Zuck has likely overreached himself with a concept that promotes virtual reality over reality.

Some of you know that I have two sizeable Facebook sites: one to promote my book on Charles Mingus, the other in my own name. Unless I were to set up an email newsletter or recast my blog on something like Medium, I don’t know how I could easily reach you all. I deeply wish I could ditch Facebook and find other ways to communicate.

Considering the other megamonsters—Google, Apple, and Microsoft—why can’t we finally find ways to curb their immense power? Are we so absorbed in the virtual world that we cannot conceive, much less institute, ways to deal with the challenges of authoritarianism and climate change? The whole move to replace the reality of our natural world with virtual reality seems to me a clear instance of escapism, a dodge to avoid commitment to the only life we have.

The Nutmeg’s Curse

The reviews of Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, have not always been positive. Some have declared it to be anti-science. Yet others, like Roy Scranton, found that it “elegantly and audaciously reconceives modernity as a centuries-long campaign of omnicide, against the spirits of the earth, the rivers, the trees, and even the humble nutmeg, then makes an impassioned argument for the keen necessity of vitalist thought and non-human narrative.” I’m with Roy, with a few reservations.

The overall best review I found with a contemporary context is here, in The New Yorker.

Ghosh begins with a narrative of how the 17th century Dutch arrived at the Banda Islands in the Pacific to capture, enslave and kill the islanders in order to insure a monopoly on, of all things, the nutmeg, that highly treasured spice. He finds these events a paradigm for how colonialism and the “free” market have come to dominate trade by subjugation. The result is also tied inextricably to climate change and the rebellion of nature it embodies.

The U.S. has led this robust decadence through military and economic dominance. These are Ghosh’s carefully chosen words:

The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.

And our New Yorker reviewer Olufemi O. Taiwo finds that

Ghosh sees potential in what it calls a “vitalist” politics, and in an associated ethic of protection that would extend to “rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.” Ghosh identifies this ethos, in contrast to the world-as-resource view, with peasants and farmworkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—places and people long seen as peripheral to history.

So in one way the book is a history of vitalism, culminating in the Gaia concept: “that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”

In Ghosh’s terms:

The awareness of a Gaia-like earth did not wither away of itself because of literacy; it was systematically exterminated, through orgies of bloodletting that did not spare Europe, although its violence was directed most powerfully at the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet, not only has that awareness survived among the Indigenous people of the Americas; many of them also credit their perceptions of the Earth with having made their own survival possible, in the face of exterminatory violence. Never have these perceptions of the Earth mattered more than at this moment when the mechanistically ordered world of modernity is disintegrating before our very eyes.

As I said earlier, I have a few reservations about this really wonderful book. One is that vitalism can be undercut (and often is) by superstition and turgid magical thinking. Ghosh documents this but not sufficiently so.

Also, it’s hard for an old rationalist like me to accept this total spiritualizing of nature. Yet the alternatives seem to have led the world deeply astray. If you accept Ghosh’s arguments about our awful colonialist appropriation of nature, his approach to vitalism, or something like it, must follow.

The book makes you think of the many varieties of human wretchedness and, maybe, of human possibilities for redemption. More than a critique, this is an indictment of much Western thinking. In its way it is finally a religious statement.