Tax Cut Fantasies

Talking Points Memo flags a headline today that captures some of what’s wrong with American politics. The headline, from George Stephanopoulos’ blog on ABC, reads, “Sen. Conrad: Extend All Tax Cuts; Time to Get ‘Serious’ About Deficit.”


Stephanopoulos reports—without comment—that Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), who is the Chair of the Senate Budget Committee and serves on the Deficit Reduction Commission, favors extending all the Bush tax cuts as part of his plan to reduce the deficit. On this score, Conrad echoes the Republican “Pledge for America.” One problem: cutting taxes makes the deficit go up.

In theory, of course, there is a point at which lowering the tax rate actually should increase tax revenues, by encouraging people to work and earn more. But there is little reason to believe we are at that point. In fact, as Ruth Marcus points out, tax revenue fell from 21% of GDP in 2000, the year before the Bush tax cuts were enacted, to 17.5% of GDP in 2008. Tax revenues were substantially lower as a percentage of GDP throughout the 2000s than they were in the 1990s. That wasn’t entirely the result of the Bush tax cuts, which didn’t cause the dot-com bubble burst or the recession that followed. But it's hard to believe the tax cuts did that much to stimulate growth—they certainly didn’t prevent the economy from having its worst decade since the Great Depression. Brian Riedl at the Heritage Foundation argues that entitlement programs and not tax cuts are the main source of the deficit, but he still calculates that the Bush tax cuts cost us $1.7 trillion and will account for 14% in the increase of the deficit between 2002 and 2011. And the non-partisan Congressional Research Service estimates that extending the Bush tax cuts would lower tax revenues $1.1 trillion over the next 5 years.

So far from helping eliminate the deficit, extending the Bush tax cuts would make it much worse. The idea that tax cuts will reduce the deficit—shared by politicians on both sides of the aisle—is pure have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too fantasy. The same can be said of the idea that we can reduce the deficit by cutting non-defense discretionary spending or reducing earmarks. Even eliminating non-defense discretionary spending entirely—essentially shutting the entire government except for the Defense Department down—wouldn’t be enough to balance next years budget as it is. In fact, we’d need to cut non-defense discretionary spending 25% just to make up for extending the Bush tax cuts.

Politicians get elected by selling the idea that we can avoid hard choices, and that we can get government for free. The hard truth they want to avoid is that if we want to have the best military in the world and keep entitlements programs like Medicare, we’re going to have to pay for them.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.