Mayor Bloomberg and the Quest of Immortality
Published on: July 25, 2012
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  • Kris

    As others have theorized, perhaps there is a law of Conservation of Virtuousness. As we have gotten rid of some of the old virtues, we need to find some new ones, which will enable us to feel virtuous (self-virtuous) compared to the heathens. And to tie this in to your contribution, surely being virtuous will grant us Life Eternal!

  • John Barker

    Eat kale and spinach, no cakes or cookies or white bread.Cigars? God forbid. Walk one hour a day with weighted legs. One small glass of wine every other day. Will I live forever or will it just seem that way.

  • Anthony

    Obsession with health (eating, exercising, non smoking, regulated imbibing, herbal medicines, etc.) and being forever young (quest for imagined immortality) are ideas/sentiments enthusiastically ascribed to by many boomers – wonder how many are cognizant of quasi-religious aspects (that may perhaps vicariously serve modern religious function) as highlighted by Peter Berger’s essay.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I have been following the now institutionalized crusade to eradicate perchlorate from drinking water for years. Perchlorate is a molecule of oxygen (4 parts) and chlorine (1 part) that has been industrially used as a fuel booster because it is high in oxygen. It is also been used in fireworks and munitions. It does not cause cancer, is not poisonous, and is not a neurotoxin. It has contaminated groundwater supplies mainly in California from industrial spillage from WWII munitions industries, rocket fuel testing grounds, fireworks manufacturing plants, etc.

    Perchlorate is theoretically believed to block absorption of iodine in the thyroid gland needed for normal development by (you guessed it) unborns, infants, and pregnant mothers. The concern is not merely birth defects but intellectual defects such as mild retardation, slow learners, etc. (that are of concern to the upper middle class).

    Perchlorate is also a natural salt found in nature and has been discovered on the planet Mars. The entire nation of Chile has it in drinking water at levels that would be considered “toxic” in California. But the largest scientific study of perchlorate ever conducted in Chile found no higher incidence of birth or educational defects than the normal unexposed population.

    Decades ago those who were concerned about perchlorate causing birth deficits put iodine into table salt – iodized salt – that was a cheap solution to the problem. That way the lower and working classes got their daily dose of iodine. The upper classes could afford to eat fish that is a natural source of iodine.

    Along comes the perchlorate movement mainly in California where perchlorate occurs at 6 parts per billion in imported drinking water from the Colorado River.

    Entrepreneurial engineering companies “triangulated” with environmental advocates and devised a plan to clean infinitesimal doses of perchlorate from drinking water by industrial methods using treatment plants. Once the Business Class and the Knowledge Class had a common monetary and ideological interest this expensive method of water treatment became irresistible. And it took on the semblance of being “scientific” and treatable by “engineering” methods. The public could feel safer that science and technology would save children from ending up as slow learners or educational under achievers.

    Women’s advocates, usually composed of women doctors, nurses, tort lawyers, and so-called regulatory scientists in academia who would financially benefit from perchlorate regulation, became a political lobby that politicians of either party could not fight except at their own political peril. What politician could risk being accused of inflicting the unborn and infants with educational learning deficits? Perchlorate regulation took on a bureaucratic and political life of its own immune from any real scientific proof that miniscule doses of perchlorate harmed children; or that cheap dietary supplementation of iodine was all that was needed.

    The target group was the poor and working class who presumably smoked and drank beer both of which had no iodine and may have interfered with the glandular endocrine system. Mostly lower income families had slower learners in school. But no study has ever been done to show that communities where there is no perchlorate have any lower levels of mental retardation or slow learners than those with perchlorate in their drinking water. And it is highly unlikely that any such study would ever be funded by government. Curiously, no one ever proposed adding iodine to beer – the more preferred drink of the working class.

    Perchlorate has been found to be an inadvertent byproduct of water treatment by chlorination (and chloramines) in municipal water tanks. But curiously the study that found this has been removed from its online source. It is only BIG PRIVATE INDUSTRY WITH DEEP POCKETS that has been found liable under tort laws and health regulations for perchlorate cleanups. Municipal water departments and governmental wholesale water suppliers have been mostly immune from shakedowns by environmentalists to cleanup water supplies.

    The number of perchlorate “experts” in academia, medicine, and engineering, and environmental science all of whom now depend on such regulation for their livelihoods and professional identities, grew so large that it was impossible to deter. Perchlorate regulate and tort lawsuits have bred many swomen’s occupations and professions.

    Perchlorate regulation has now grown into a multi-billion dollar industry for which there are no demonstrably clear health benefits other than symbolic. Meanwhile Obamacare proposes to eliminate expensive cancer chemotherapy treatments because there is so small a number of patients that it has been shown to benefit. But there is no plan to curtail expensive industrialized perchlorate treatment methods.

    A noted chemist wrote in my local newspaper that the danger to infants of perchlorate in milk or in mother’s milk was chemically nullified by carbohydrates – lactose – that also occurs in milk. Lactose binds with the perchlorate molecule rendering it harmless.

    The religious community has mainly been silent about the moral ambiguities of spending so many financial resources on something that is of no demonstrable health benefit. Those who have spoken up about the ambiguities of perchlorate regulation have often been men who have been viewed as having no moral standing on the issue.

  • C Philips

    Although I did not think of it at the time, I think San Francisco is trying to prove the point about antismoking being a class issue. See “SF Considers Strict Outdoor Smoking Ban – Except For Medical Pot”, at:

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Peter, on your main point I agree completely. As you know, one of my hobbies is finding functionally religious behavior in domains most people would never think of in those terms. Indeed, in my presidential platform, which I rewrite every four years, I make the point concerning healthcare that the obsession this society seems to have with extreme and mostly futile (and very expensive) technologically driven care at the very end of life is directly related to the erosion of traditional religious belief in the afterlife, which, whether literally true or not, has had a profound sociological impact on death and dying in its inevitable social context for millennia. This too, in my view, is related to the allure of immortality in the absence of genuine religious conviction concerning it. We have this-worlded the old desire.

    Of course, one is not allowed to say in public that our healthcare crisis has anything to do with factors residing in a deep cultural strata. If you say things like this at professional meetings people think you have recently fallen from a tree and hit your head. It is, nevertheless, true. In my opinion.

    On the ancillary point, about whether what Mayor Bloomberg is up to represents a slippery slope toward the ultimate sovereignty of the nanny state, I used to share your more or less libertarian sensibilities. I am no longer so sure, because the capacity of large retailing- dependent corporations to employ extremely sophisticated marketing techniques, which increasingly make use of the very best that social science has to offer, calls into question the capacity of not just some but of a great many peoples’ ability to form a rational judgment about whether to buy a product or not. When our stock of knowledge, imperfect though it may be, about the health effects of various substances is systematically distorted by the power of money, it is possible to conceive of a consumer protection role for government that does not smack of the secular evangelical meliorism that I hate so much. I have not reached a conclusion about where the balance is or ought to be here, but I no longer believe that government has no legitimate role in this domain.

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  • Kevin Edwards

    Adam Garfinkle, I think you are essentially referring to opposing fraud in your final paragraph, which libertarian sensibilities admit is a valid role of government.

    So, government can require producers to inform consumers about their product, but government cannot prevent purchase by an informed consumer. e.g. occupational licenses would therefore not be required to practice, but you can be required to inform consumers that you do not have a license.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to Adam Garfinkle:
    While I share some of your concerns, as noted in my comment about the vacuous over-regulation of perchlorate in drinking water, government has a tendency to regulate substances and behaviors for mostly symbolic purposes rather than true health benefits. As Dr. Berger points out, as soon as an economic interest is wedded to any health movement it ends up in something almost the opposite of what was intended and gobbles up valuable financial resources that could be applied to really effective health care interventions.

    As I understand it, Obamacare wants to de-fund cancer chemotherapy for anyone 75 years of age or older. This is mainly on the grounds of efficacy – it doesn’t work in many cases and doesn’t extend life that much longer. This is especially true of the monoclonal antibodies such as Avastin and Erbitux that are mostly used as a last resort at the very end of the regimen of chemotherapy.

    A problem with this is which politician is going to tell the adult children of elderly parents they are now deprived of chemotherapy? It seems to me that Obamacare’s command and control — rather than market — approach to rationing health care will just go full circle. Adult children of elderly cancer patients will form advocacy organizations that will lobby for continued chemo and other high tech treatments. So a politicized approach is unlikely to work in the long run in my view.

    As to the issue of cost-effective cancer treatment there is the proposition by Dr. Jules J. Berman, M.D., PhD, in his book “Precancer: The Beginning and the End of Cancer” that the treatment paradigm should shift from prevention (difficult to really know what causes many cancers other than lung cancer from smoking) as well as heroic treatment of metastacized cancers and instead identify and treat precancers (e.g., abdominal polyps, skin tag growths, lesions, and other symptoms of precancer.

    There could be a whole market niche opened up for either precancer treatments or even continuation of conventional chemotherapy — IF — Obamacare does not ban medical caregivers from rendering competitive treatments as they do now when they ban oncologists from administering experimental chemos outside the “preferred standard of care.”

    As Dr. Berger has pointed out in many of his books, most notably in “Sociology Reinterpreted: An Essay on Method and Vocation” and in his “The Homeless Mind,” modernized people tend to have faith that “science or technology will save us.” Even worse is the promise that there is some future treatment or chemical cocktail out there that will make it all go away. There may never be. But such a faith makes us feel good and not give up hope.

    I don’t like monistic systems of anything – from religion to healthcare. Obamacare is monistic and totalitarian-like. What made the old system of health care good was pluralism: the Veteran’s Administration system, non-profit insurance plans, for-profit medical centers, medical co-operatives, etc.

    As Berger has continuously pointed out, modernity is choice not fate. Not having choice – which presumes a voluntary market – is perhaps countermodern, which I don’t believe is the right step to take despite the false promises of modern technology and scientism.

  • David Taylor, MD

    Much of what Prof. Berger offers here strikes me as insightful and is certainly a novel perspective on various health obsessions that afflict Americans.

    However, as a physician who deals with this issue daily, I have a slightly different impression of one facet of this phenomenon. My observation is that my patients want to live a full life span, not to be immortal, and they want to do so without illness or disease. They often report the fantasy of living a healthy, active life well into their 80s, and dying a quick and quiet death in their sleep. Obviously there are a few people who fantasize about something closer to immortality, but the vast majority of the people under my care arrive at, say 75, with chronic illness, arthritis, hips needing replacement, a cancer scare or two (if not an actual diagnosis), declining strength, and just as distressing, friends and family passing away at an increasing rate. Most of the middle-aged men I treat (I’m a cardiologist) are taking 5, 6 or more prescription drugs. Living forever is almost never their dream: living an active life without pain, without the fear of a long, lingering terminal disease, and a quick and painless end, is what they hope for.

    I am reminded, in the midst of this depressing reflection on our painful final years, that a survey of nurses conducted a couple of years ago revealed that the vast majority of them would opt to die of cancer rather than quickly and unexpectedly of heart disease. Their rationale was that advances in pain management and cancer treatment are good enough now that knowing that one has a year more to live or even 6 months, would allow you to wrap up your life, make appropriate good-byes, arrange for matters after your death, etc. Dying unexpectedly leaves unresolved business, issues hanging, conversations unfinished. Made sense to me.

    Major Blumberg’s proposed ban on large soft drinks is part of a complicated set of beliefs about how our health is shaped by the substances we eat and drink, many of those beliefs lacking scientific validity. It’s reached the point that some of my patients are literally afraid to eat a fast-food meal, imagining that a hamburger is a deadly poison – sure I say, if that’s all you eat, for a month. At the other extreme, I remember years ago as medical student seeing a young child that nearly died of malnutrition because it’s parents only fed it fresh fruit – they assumed that fruit was the quintessential healthy food, and were shocked to find that human beings, especially young children, need a lot more than that to be healthy.

    Apologies for the ramble! Thanks for a very interesting column.

  • Steve

    Like Liberalism, Feminism, Environmentalism and all the rest, it is an -ism. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a secular religion: one of the many man-made religions of our eclectic ruling elite. Is there an escape for the common people? Other than the inevitable collapse from within, there is no escape. We gave them permission to rule over us when we gave up on the Man from Galilee.

  • jsmith9999

    “The magistrates of police have very wisely ordered that meat should be a little dearer at Paris during this time, and that the profit should be given to the hospitals. It is an almost insensible tribute paid by luxury and gluttony to indigence; for it is the rich who are not able to keep Lent—the poor fast all the year.”

    ~ the rest is worth reading…

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  • Eric Gisin

    I’ve been a vegetarian for over 40 years, and over those years I’ve seen the rise of Food religion that I want nothing to do with. Veganism is Buddhism, organic food is vitalism, raw food is paleolithic mythology.

    Fear of pesticides (we used to use arsenic and nicotine) and GM plants is anti-technology paranoia.

    Suggesting the sugar in pop is bad while the same levels in fruit juice is absurd. The main people reason more people are obese is because food is so much cheaper today, and you can live on food that simply needs heating to serve.

  • Mark in Texas

    Part of what makes the war against obesity a particularly interesting moral crusade is the Gary Taubes argument that carbohydrates rather than fat are responsible. By the Taubes analysis, the type of diet advocated by the ruling class i.e. low fat, little or no meat, is exactly the type of diet that encourages calories to be stored as fat even at the cost of depriving muscles and brain of nutrients.

    This sets the stage for a religious war between the low fat and the low carb advocates with both of them promising life to their adherents and degradation and death to the heretics on the other side.

  • Tom Holsinger

    I strongly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s _The Righteous Mind_ here. He explores the “sanctity/degradation” psychological issues underlying this “moral crusade” in some detail.

  • Tom K

    Fundamentalism of any kind will tend to run into conflict with facts. That we need beliefs to make the complexity of life manageable is part of our nature. That is why it is helpful to become self-reflective about the beliefs we rely on and, when they are found wanting, to replace them.

    On the economic argument for food regulation, it hardly seems surprising that there are interests involved which would benefit from a reduction in unhealthy food business practices. It strikes me as a market corrective to food industry interests in selling products designed to maximize profits by externalizing health and social costs. In free markets, one-sided strategies invite compensating feedback. It looks like the fast-food industry has just hit the scale and level of influence at which its business model is facing diminishing returns. It will need to adjust or be legitimately steam-rolled by rising competing interests.

    Nevertheless, the playing field is not level. Interests that promise us longer, healthier lives should in the long run be at an advantage in the reality stakes, as few people actually want the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles and will be attracted by offers that help them to avoid them. Competition in the marketplace of ideas (in which politics and religion participate no less than business), should eventually let the healthiest solutions win.

    In the process, we have no alternative to stop-gapping our ignorance with our beliefs as better solutions emerge, and to the sometimes painful process of undergoing reality checks.

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