Sunday, August 17, 2014

Witchcraft, wicked witchcraft

Look into my eyes. You can trust me

To the surprise of no one, the entrepreneurs have rushed forth with worthless Ebola fever cures and prophylactics. The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have issued a warning against them.

The  New York Times report is unfortunately reticent about who these evil capitalists are. The FDA is restricted in what it can say by idiot congresscritters who have made the supplement business a libertarian paradise -- anything goes. But the Times is not restricted.

The Verge does a better job, at least with one particular fraud, garcinia -- and also uses the Internet in useful ways that the Times has not caught up with:

There's nothing new about companies capitalizing on fear. For every health scare, there's a bogus cure, and for every existing illness there are a ton of supplements and sham products purported to treat or prevent it. Yet there’s something particularly sinister about promoting products that can "prevent" or "treat" Ebola
(Witch cures are not exclusive to capitalism; they are universal. But capitalism is unique in having generated a political philosophy that glorifies this kind of wickedness.)

Of course, nutritional supplements are not just worthless against Ebola. They are worthless period.  Irony piles on irony here.

The US government (and news outlets of a more respectable kind) tell us we can be confident Ebola will not break loose in a country with an advanced public health system, so the damage -- other than in lightening wallets -- to Americans from taking, say, colloidal silver, is small. Yet tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars are siphoned off to crooks each year without any significant warning campaign from the overseers of public health; in fact, with the active encouragement of some crooked elected officials.

The situation is different in West Africa. There the supplement sellers, some based in America, are active participants in what should be called what it is -- cold-blooded murder for money.

This episode also has a lesson for anyone concerned about controlling health care costs. To the extent that schemes to do this rely on a better-informed citizenry, that battle has already been lost. We have known this for a long time.

In the late '70s and early '80s there was a lot of talk about transferring responsibility to the potential patient. The company I worked for went so far as to give employees a $500 health care account we could use however we chose; for example, to pay for precautionary tests not  covered by our (not especially generous) company medical insurance.

Supposedly, we would cleverly direct resources to where they would do ourselves and our families the most good. But the money was just as readily spent on quacks and worthless nostrums as on real medical care, and the experiment was quickly given up.

(An amusing, but unanticipated result arose from the fact that the company, which had a lot of family members working for it,  decreed that the $500 was per family, not per employee; so that a husband-wife pair did not get $1,000. There were enough husband-wife pairs, and there was a particular husband who was so aggrieved by the supposed unfairness of this that his bitching became a serious morale problem. But, it was soon discovered, his wife was screwing one of the men she was reporting on, so he shut up and left the paper. But by then the "medical savings accounts" were dropped anyway.)

The notion that a better-informed citizenry will use medical resources more wisely still lingers, but it is obviously fatuous. And it is not a matter of better general education. My observation is that consumption of worthless supplements goes up, not down, with greater formal education, if only because better educated people have more income, and that stuff ain't cheap.

No doubt, too, fear of Ebola will goose ammunition sales. Everything does.


  1. Harry wrote: "But capitalism is unique in having generated a political philosophy that glorifies this kind of wickedness."

    It looks to me that the only places it's "glorified" are in the fevered imaginations of liberals.

  2. Are you kidding me? Or as Wonkette boils it down today, on the subject of free trade in kidneys:

    "Turns out there’s a thriving international black market in organs, much as that sounds like the premise for a cyberpunk movie, and “Israelis have played a disproportionate role” in the trade, partly due to a low rate of voluntary donations because of “religious strictures regarding death and desecration.” Sleazy Israeli and Ukranian brokers arrange deals, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to get kidneys for Israelis and Europeans, and the occasional American, outside the normal transplantation networks. And you will never guess who the donors are! People from developing countries like Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Costa Rica, who are usually “poor and ill-informed about the medical risks.” Yet another side effect of an international wealth gap, although we’re sure it wouldn’t take much effort to find a libertarian explaining that this story isn’t about exploitation, but is instead about how inventive and life-affirming the free market is, insuring a life-saving surgery and a nice payoff for the third-world donor, who might have gotten infected with something anyway."

  3. I don't see the word glorified there and Wonkette has the fevered imagination of a liberal anyway.

  4. Doesn't take much to get fevered about a free market in kidneys, at least for people with hearts.

    I was thinking in particular of libertarianism; although Smithism, despite its veneer of respectability, leads to the same conclusion: whatever is, is right -- if it turns a profit.

    It was only by collective action that the Grand Canyon was not dammed up. somebody would have turned a small profit on that one.