The Blob Goes After Ben Carson

Of all the federal agencies that ought to have their budgets zeroed out, HUD should be the first.  There is no bureaucracy in the "anti-poverty" business that does more than HUD to take people perfectly capable of self-sufficiency and intentionally turn them into lifelong government dependents.  And, in the "bang for the buck" category, no other bureaucracy could possibly outdo HUD for futility.  No housing grant, subsidy or other initiative counts for as much as a penny in the income of any recipient.  Therefore, if somebody was poor before receiving an HUD grant or subsidy, it is one hundred percent assured that that person will still be poor after climbing on to the gravy train.  There is no known metric under which HUD's "bang for the buck" could ever get above zero.  If you count trapping millions of able-bodied people into dependency, HUD is hugely destructive.

At the same time, running HUD "programs" is the perfect bureaucratic sinecure.  Virtually nobody ever escapes HUD's web.  Once you are into subsidized housing, why would you ever go back to paying full price for your home?  So the bureaucrats have a permanent lifelong clientele ready to advocate at the drop of a hat for continuation and increase in budgets.  And if the bureaucrats fail in their job of maintaining the buildings properly (as of course they will), they have a ready-made source of self-inflicted heart-rending stories to use to get their budget increased.  The whole thing is a cancer.

Into this disaster has now stepped new HUD Secretary Ben Carson.  He has expressed many times his desire to reduce the dependency that it is HUD's core mission to increase.  But can he actually accomplish anything?  The preliminary Trump budget outline has proposed cutting HUD funding by about $6 billion -- about 12% of the total.  Not nearly enough, but a start.  In the couple of months since his confirmation, Carson has gone out around the country on some kind of a "listening tour," visiting places like Dallas, Miami, Detroit and Ohio.  Reading articles about the tour, it seems that it has turned mostly into an opportunity for recipients of HUD handouts to make their pitches for increased -- or at least, continued -- funding.  Or, to put it another way, Carson is getting swarmed by the Blob.

As Exhibit A of the Blob pushing back, here is a website called CarsonWatch, set up to advocate for keeping and/or increasing all HUD funding.  As Carson started his tour back in March, these guys put up a post oh-so-subtly titled "The Trump-Carson housing budget will push more Americans out on the street."  Excerpt:

At a time when millions of families are caught in a historic housing affordability crisis, the Trump-Carson budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposes $6.2 billion in cuts to vital programs that help everyday families have a place to call home. It also eliminates all grants to urban and rural communities that help spur job creation and economic development. These immoral cuts will exacerbate homelessness, racial and economic inequality, and fall hardest on our most vulnerable neighbors.

It's a good thing these guys don't ever trouble themselves to look up any numbers.  If they did, they might discover this:  New York City has a population of about 8.5 million, and is said to have over 60,000 "homeless," about one "homeless" person per 142 of population.  To pick another city that takes a different approach to public housing, Houston has a population of about 2.3 million, and is said to have a "homeless" population of about 5400.  But that's only about one "homeless" person per 425 of population, only about one-third of New York City's "homeless" rate.  Surely, then, to drive its numbers of "homeless" people down, Houston must have far more HUD-subsidized public housing per capita?  Wrong!  According to this  "cross-city" comparison from the NYU Furman Center, in New York City some 5.3% of all housing units are "public housing" (in this case, NYCHA), while in Houston the comparable percent is 0.4%.  Admittedly, the study is from 2008, but I doubt that those numbers have changed much since.  Could it really be that for all its extraordinary efforts to solve a "housing shortage" by building more and yet more HUD-subsidized housing, New York City only makes negative progress at getting people "off the street" and into housing?  Absolutely.  This is socialism, folks.  Look around at more of such easily-available statistics, and you will find that there is a strong positive correlation between amount of public housing and increased homelessness.  A cynic might conclude that extensive availability of subsidized housing incentivizes people to declare themselves "homeless" to jump the line to get in.

At various places along Carson's tour, it seems that the strategy has been to trot out one or another sympathetic or heart-rending case to try to stave off budget cuts.  For example, here is a New York Times article from Wednesday reporting on Carson's stop in Columbus, Ohio.  Excerpt:

On his second day in Columbus, Mr. Carson stopped by the apartment of Alzene Munnerlyn, an 87-year-old living in senior housing and using a voucher to pay part of her rent after she was priced out of her last apartment.

The Times doesn't choose to tell us if Ms. Munnerlyn has any children or grandchildren who might have helped.  In Dallas, the mayor chose to make a plea for relief from all the nitpicking regulations that HUD attaches to its grants.  But the reporter from the Dallas Observer was on to the diversion:  Dallas had just finished going through an HUD audit where hundreds of millions of dollars somehow turned up missing, only to be promptly forgiven by the Obama HUD:

You have to pause here and recognize that [Dallas Mayor] Rawlings is a Democrat who went to Washington and cut a deal with a democratic HUD secretary, Julian Castro, to get HUD to eat, kill, trash and deep-six its own four-year investigation showing that Dallas was sucking hundreds of millions of dollars out of HUD, lying about what it was doing with the money and then spending it in ways that violated federal law.

Yet, needless to say, the onslaught from the advocates has seemed to get Carson at least partially on the defensive.  From the Washington Post, April 3:

HUD Secretary Ben Carson said Monday that the Trump administration will seek to include housing funding in a yet-to-be unveiled infrastructure spending bill.  “The part that people are not hearing even though I’ve said it several times is that this administration considers housing a significant part of infrastructure in our country. And as such, the infrastructure bill that’s being worked on has a significant inclusion of housing in it,” Carson said at the National Low Income Housing Coalition conference in Washington.

So they are only talking about a budget cut of about $6 billion (out of about $50 billion), and then much or all of it is going to come back in through the back door in an "infrastructure" bill?  The Blob just never lets up.  Will Carson actually succeed in accomplishing anything in reining in HUD over the next several years?  The jury is out.  In the past, you could never go wrong by betting on the Blob.  I'm hoping it's at least a little different this time, but only because I'm a hopeless optimist.

Connecticut Discovers The Laffer Curve The Hard Way

Somewhere way back in the 70s, legend has it that economist Arthur Laffer got into a discussion over dinner with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld about the reason for America's then-slow economic growth.  Laffer thought the reason for the slow growth was unduly high marginal tax rates, which then included a federal top rate of 70%.  To illustrate the problem, Laffer supposedly drew on a napkin a curve showing tax collections increasing with rates, but only as long as rates are low; then at some point, as rates get higher, collections start to decrease, and then continue to drop until the rate reaches 100%, at which point collections fall to zero because nobody bothers to earn or report any income.  This very simple concept has since gone by the name of the "Laffer Curve."  Here is a version from The Intelligent Economist:

Note, though, that the curve is unspecific as to exactly where to find that point "c," where higher tax rates stop bringing in increased revenue and become counter-productive.  And thus a few years ago we saw the likes of Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, and Bill de Blasio all proposing at the same time to add just a few more points to the income tax rates of the same group of highest-income taxpayers, all in the name of "fairness"; and the likes of Paul Krugman always finding a way to claim that higher tax rates are a good idea.

But can we get an idea of where the point of inflection might be found?  Fortunately, the great state of Connecticut has decided to oblige our need to know by conducting a real live ongoing experiment.  

The experiment started way back in the 70s and 80s, when the combined top marginal rate in New York State and City reached 19% (approximately 15% for the State and 4% for the City), and Connecticut had no income tax at all.  The Connecticut towns closest to New York City -- Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, Westport -- experienced an enormous boom, and became some of the wealthiest places in the country.  Then, in 1992, Connecticut -- experiencing normal budget problems common to all states -- decided to take the plunge and impose its own income tax.  Hey, it was only going to be 3%.  Who would even notice?

And it has continued from there.  In the 80s, New York State recognized that it had become uncompetitive, and started cutting its top tax rate significantly; and that process continued during the 90s.  By the mid-90s the top New York State rate was under 7% (add about 4% additional for New York City -- a figure that hasn't changed much during the period under discussion).  Connecticut?  Per a chart from the Tax Foundation here, by 2000 Connecticut's top rate had reached 4.5% (New York State's top rate that year was 6.85%); by 2005 Connecticut's was 5% (and New York State's had snuck up to 7.7% on a "temporary" basis); and in 2011 Connecticut pushed its top rate all the way to 6.5% (on income over $1 million for a couple filing jointly).  Then in 2012 New York pulled a sneaky trick, raising its top rate to 8.82%, but only on income over $2 million (couple filing jointly), while lowering the rate for income between $300,000 and $2 million back to 6.85%.  And finally, in 2015, Connecticut pushed its top rate to 6.99% on income over $1 million, and 6.90% on income over $500,000 (both couple filing jointly).  Suddenly, Connecticut found itself with income tax rates higher even than New York for people making between $500,000 and $2 million per year and not residing in New York City.  A $1 million per year earner could now actually live in Rye (just on the NY side of the border) and work in New York City, and pay less income tax than if he lived and worked in Connecticut.  (Only New York City residents pay New York City income tax.)

Well, how has that been going?  The early rumblings were stories of some of the major hedge funds picking up and moving to Florida, home of zero income tax.  In July 2016, it was Paul Tudor Jones, reported in this article from the Yankee Institute to have had a personal income of about $600 million per year.  That one move cost Connecticut about $30 - 40 million per year in income tax revenue just from the one guy.  (Total annual income tax collections for the entire state of Connecticut run around $9 billion.  This one guy paid almost half a percent of the total for the whole state.)  A couple of months later came the report that Barry Sternlicht (of Starwood Capital) had also moved to Florida.  

That's the anecdotal evidence; how about the overall numbers?  With this year's April 18 tax deadline having passed, Connecticut now knows its tax collections for 2016.  On Monday May 1, a guy named Ben Barnes (Connecticut's Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management) gave a presentation to the legislature.  As reported in the CT Mirror here, Barnes described a "precipitous drop in revenue [that] we experienced in late April."  And which of the various taxes is the main source of that precipitous drop?

The income tax, the state’s largest revenue engine, saw the most erosion by far.  According to analysts, income tax receipts this fiscal year now are expected to total just under $9 billion. Not only is that well below the $9.44 billion analysts were anticipating just four months ago, but it falls short of the $9.2 billion collected last fiscal year. . . .  Income tax receipts are experiencing their first major decline since 2009 — just as Connecticut fell into The Great Recession.  And the bulk of the latest income tax erosion was tied not to paycheck withholding but to quarterly filings, most of which involves capital gains, dividends and other investment-related earnings.  According to the governor’s budget office, the state’s 100 largest-income taxpayers paid 45 percent less this year than last.

It looks like Connecticut has gone over to the back side of the Laffer curve.  What to do?  You won't be surprised to learn that a coalition of progressive groups, including unions representing state employees, is calling for raising the top income tax rate yet again, to 7.49%, and also imposing a special 20% rate on income from hedge funds:

For example, labor advocates and other progressives have suggested that Connecticut respond to the “carried interest” loophole within the federal income tax system by imposing a surcharge close to 20 percent on the earnings of hedge fund managers.     

But Governor Malloy -- a Democrat who was the driving force behind the 2011 and 2015 tax increases that were supposed to fix the state's revenue problems once and for all -- is not going along this time.  He has told his Democrat and union allies that such tax increases are off the table and shouldn't even be discussed publicly for fear of driving additional big taxpayers out of the state.

Meanwhile, Connecticut has dug itself into a really deep hole, with no easy way out.  It's not just that they can't increase taxes further; it's that even the current level of taxes has gotten them into a death spiral.

Readers familiar with Connecticut will know that it is a state without any dominant or particularly large city.  (The largest currently is Bridgeport, at a little under 150,000.).  But it has a dozen or so cities in the 35,000 to 150,000 range.  In the past few years, I have had occasion to visit or pass through more than half of them:  Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, New London, Waterbury, Torrington, Bristol.  Without exception, they are dreary and run-down.  In a recent East-West drive through Torrington on state Route 4, there were three large factory complexes, all appearing to be vacant, with prominent signs reading "Factory Space For Rent."  The only formerly-industrial Connecticut town I know of that has experienced a significant revival is South Norwalk.  Of course, it is directly between the fancy New York suburbs of Darien and Westport.  Does any reader know of another formerly-industrial Connecticut town that is on its way back?

If Connecticut continues to follow the strategy of higher and higher taxes -- or even leaving taxes at the current uncompetitive levels -- there is not much hope for any of these small cities to revive any time soon.  What they need is new investors, people willing to take a big risk in the hope of having a big success.  But the message that Connecticut sends out is, if you have any meaningful success, we will treat you like a goose to be plucked.  Nobody wants anything to do with them.  Too bad.

My Descent Into Abject Poverty; Or, How To Have Enough Money To Be "Poor"

If you read some of the usual propaganda about the plight of the elderly poor in New York City, it will bring a tear to your eye.  Or, at least, that's the intent.  For example, City Comptroller Scott Stringer is just out (March 21) with a big report titled "Aging With Dignity: A Blueprint for Serving NYC's Growing Senior Population."   We learn that some 20.0% of New York City seniors (over 65 years old) lived "below 100 percent of poverty" in 2015; and another 10.3% lived "between 100 and 149 percent of poverty."  In the housing category, things get even worse.  Some 38.8% of seniors who own their homes in New York City are said to be "rent-burdened" (funny term for homeowners) in the sense of spending more than 30% of their income on housing cost.  Among renters, a whopping 59.7% are said to be "rent-burdened."  The source for these numbers is given as the American Community Survey, i.e., the U.S. Census Bureau data that are the source for the usual reports about the "poverty rate," as well as other things like claims about "income inequality."

For something even more heart-rending, try this 2015 piece from CityLimits.org, titled "Aging in New York City: City Wrestles with Poverty Among Seniors."  Excerpts:

“The percentage of seniors living in poverty is staggering, ” says NYC Department for the Aging Commissioner Donna Corrado. “Too many older New Yorkers make difficult choices about purchasing food, medicine and paying their rent.” . . . .  How seniors can make ends meet is a question the whole country is grappling with. . . .  Although national poverty rates for seniors declined from 12.8 percent to 9.5 percent from 1990 to 2012, in New York City, the poverty rate among older adults increased by 15 percent during that period, rising from 16.5 percent to 19.1 percent, according to DFTA. 

Of course, all this talk about "poverty" and lack of "income" derives from the Census Bureau data.  Regular readers of this site will recognize that these Census statistics on "poverty" are completely arbitrary and fake.  For a few useful prior posts, try here and here.  The best way of looking at them is that they are just a big scam to gin up hugely inflated numbers of people claimed to be in "poverty," in order to play on the sympathies of the taxpayers and get support for increased funding for "anti-poverty" programs, none of which ever raise a single person out of "poverty" as defined.  The key sleight-of-hand is defining "poverty" solely in terms of current-year "cash income" -- a category that in many instances has little or no relationship to the amount of resources a person or family may have available to spend.  Since most people live mostly off their income most of the time, you can easily come to think of "income" as a good proxy for living standards; and thus, you become easy to deceive.  The fact is that, while "income" may be a useful proxy for living standard in many cases, there are many other cases where "income" is not a good proxy at all for living standard.  For an obvious large category, think college students.  Retirees are another large category, but the reasons may not be so obvious to you.

Anyway, over the past weekend I got a draft of my 2016 tax returns from my accountant (don't worry, we got an extension).  Of course, it was a big, fat pile of paper, some 96 pages of draft returns -- 78 for the IRS and another 18 for New York State/City.  (What, you thought this "poverty" thing was simple?)  The shocking news was right near the front, on the second page of the 1040:  based on our "income" as reported, by Census Bureau definitions, Mrs. MC and I lived "in poverty" during 2016.

How could this possibly be?  Wasn't the Manhattan Contrarian a high-income partner of a big law firm just a few short years ago?  How is it possible to fall so far, so fast?

First, disabuse yourself of the idea that this has anything whatsoever to do with living standard.  In fact, our living standard has not changed one bit.  We live in the same place.  We eat the same food.  (Manhattan restaurants!)  Sometimes we travel.  We pay all the bills.  We give substantial amounts to charity.  One of our daughters had a wedding -- in Manhattan -- during 2016.

So what's the secret?  In our case, the overall picture is a little complex, but one big thing stands out:  We have enough money that we can afford to be "poor"! 

Does that somehow seem not to make sense?  Then you haven't been paying attention.  Poverty, or non-poverty, by official definitions, turns on one and only one thing, which is current-year "cash income."  If you consider how this works for retired people, you will quickly realize that the people who saved more, who have more available to spend, and who in any real sense are better off, are actually more likely to turn up as "in poverty" than the people who saved less.  Think it through.  Suppose you have retired and you didn't save much, or maybe you did save some, but only in the form of tax-advantaged retirement savings, like 401(k) or IRA plans.  You are basically out of money, except for the retirement plans (if any).  You need something to live on.  The first thing you will do is start collecting your Social Security.  That counts as "income"!  If you worked most of your life regularly at a middle class or better job, that income alone could well be sufficient to raise you out of "poverty."  Or, if you have 401(k)s or IRAs, you can start drawing on them.  In most cases, that's "income" too!  Again, if you are trying to maintain your prior standard of living without other savings, you will need to withdraw sufficient funds from these plans that you will probably get lifted out of "poverty."

But suppose instead that you saved some substantial amount of money not in the form of tax-advantaged 401(k) or IRA plans.  Spending this money is one hundred percent not "income."  It just doesn't count, period.  Meanwhile, there are very good reasons not to collect Social Security until you reach the age of 70, and not to withdraw from 401(k)s and IRAs until you reach the age of 70.  First of all, those things count as "income," and you have to pay taxes on income.  Duh!  Why would you volunteer to pay income tax when you don't have to pay any tax?  Second, both Social Security and tax-advantaged retirement assets continue to grow through age 70 as long as you don't use them.  If you can hold off on collecting your Social Security benefit for the five years from age 65 to 70, the monthly amount will grow by some 40%.  This is not a difficult decision.  You just need to have enough money set aside to avoid drawing on the sources that count as "income."  Or, to put it another way, you need to be rich enough to be poor!

Now that you have absorbed this information, go back and re-read those heart-rending tales from the beginning of this post.  For example, did you feel sorry for those "rent-burdened" elderly New Yorkers who spend "more than 30% of their income" on housing cost.  Well, Mrs. MC and I spent more like 500% of our (completely arbitrary) 2016 "income" on housing cost.  Please, don't feel sorry for us.  And then there's that sham about the "poor" elderly New Yorkers "mak[ing] difficult choices about purchasing food, medicine, and paying their rent."  There are undoubtedly elderly New Yorkers in this situation, but the idea that the supposed 20% "poverty" rate is a real measure of their numbers is ridiculous and insulting.  

Without doubt, somewhere in the 20.0% of elderly New Yorkers who are counted as "in poverty" in the official statistics, there are numerous instances of real hardship.  But how many?  Is it most of the 20%, or half, or maybe only a tenth or less?  Unfortunately, there is no way to tell from the official numbers.  That failing is completely intentional, and gives advocates infinite room for fraudulent use of the statistics, as illustrated in the examples at the beginning of this post.  

Finally, consider that subset of "poor" elderly New Yorkers who live in Manhattan.  In a post back in 2013, I asked whether it was even possible to live in Manhattan and be in real "poverty."  After all, there is literally no place to live in Manhattan where the market rent alone does not exceed the official poverty level for the number of people living there.  Therefore, if you live in Manhattan, by definition, the resources -- whether your own, or handouts from the government, or from someone else -- that are spent in a year to support you, exceed the so-called "federal poverty level."  In at least tens of thousands of cases of people deemed "in poverty" by the Census statistics, those spent resources are large multiples of the federal poverty level.  Many "poor" families in Manhattan receive government benefits that cost the taxpayers well into the six figures.  This is particularly true of families that live in public or "affordable" housing, which by itself, in prime areas of Manhattan, is worth $50,000 and up in annual taxpayer subsidy.  So the following statement is assuredly true:  to the extent that there are elderly "poor" people in Manhattan who suffer real hardship -- in the sense of having to "make difficult choices about purchasing food, medicine, and paying their rent" or struggling to "make ends meet" -- that is one hundred percent a consequence of the poor design and implementation of the existing government handout programs.  How our government can spend $50,000 in a year to support a family in subsidized housing in Manhattan, and another $40,000 per year to provide Medicaid for that family, and still more for free phones and EITC and other assistance, and still leave that family in "poverty" and without enough cash to "purchase medicine" or "make ends meet," is completely beyond me.        

OK, enough of this for now -- I have to go apply for food stamps!

Have A Good Laugh At The Expense Of New York Progressives

Probably, you got a good laugh when Barack Obama said, back in 2010, "I do think at a certain point you've made enough money."  Of course you knew that when he said "you," he meant you, and definitely not him.  Or maybe you didn't realize it was a joke until just a couple of months ago in February, when the bidding for his next book went up above $60 million.  Or possibly, you still didn't realize it was a joke until it was revealed that he is going to be paid $400,000 by Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald for giving one speech.  Or, maybe it's just that he forgot to put a figure on how much money is "enough."  Maybe it's now up to around $100 million?  Something tells me that it will always be a little more than whatever he has at the moment.

Anyway, if you enjoy the humor of progressives having one rule for you and another for themselves, then you will get an even better laugh from the lead article from the Metropolitan Section of today's New York Times, headline "Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens."   

This is the story of the schools in Manhattan's Community School District 3, the district that covers what we here call the Upper West Side.  District 3 stretches from West 59th Street all the way up to West 122nd Street.  This is the home turf for the smuggest of smug gentry progressivism.  It's where the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan trace their roots.  In the recent presidential election, it gave well upwards of 90% of its votes to the losing candidate.  This neighborhood is ground zero for the belief that enough government spending and regulations and coercion, if only given a chance, can achieve perfect justice and fairness in human affairs.

The territory of Community School District 3 is ethnically diverse, but the races are not distributed uniformly.  The southern part of the district is heavily white -- and very wealthy.  Once you get past about 96th Street, it becomes more ethnically mixed.  Beyond 110th Street (excepting Morningside Heights, home of Columbia University) is Harlem, mostly black and Hispanic, although now rapidly gentrifying.  Census data are not reported for the exact same boundaries as the school district, but demographic data at Wikipedia here have the portion of the school district from 59th Street to 110th Street as over two-thirds (67.4%) white, 7.6% Asian, 15% Hispanic, and only 7.6% African American.

Even though the northern part of this district is gentrifying, it still turns out that the schools in the district are heavily segregated, with those in the northern part heavily black and Hispanic, and the whites concentrated in the schools in the southern part.  As you will not be surprised to learn, these gentry progressive whites, with very few exceptions, will play every trick in the book to keep their kids from having to go to school with the blacks and Hispanics.  First, there is the attrition that comes from the wealthiest whites sending their kids to private schools.  The Times article gives the percentage of white kids in the district schools as "over a third" -- way less than their percentage of the population.  But even that is not the crux of the matter.  The crux, to which most of the article is devoted, is the games the white parents of public school children play to keep their kids out of the heavily black and Hispanic schools at the northern end of the district.

Thus we meet Elana Shneyer and Adam Kaufman, who live on West 109th Street, just "a few hundred feet" from P.S. 165, one of those heavily black and Hispanic places.  That's where their kid will go if they don't pull some other maneuvers.  Next thing you know they are entering their kid into a lottery to get into the "Manhattan School for Children," on West 93rd Street. And of course, that's where he ends up.  Here's how Ms. Shneyer justifies her decision to herself:

“There’s a coherent vision for the school,” Mr. Kaufman said. “You can see that articulated through small and large decisions that are enacted through the school, and that really appealed to me.” 

Or take the case of Scott Seamon:

Scott Seamon, a lawyer who works in finance, lives in the area served by P.S. 145 and has twin boys who will start kindergarten in 2018. Given the school’s test scores, he said, “I feel like it would almost be malpractice to send my kids to school there, while the schools in the 70s and 80s have like a 70 percent passage rate.”

Multiply these anecdotes by a few thousand, and this is how you end up with close to 100% segregated schools.  This in a neighborhood where literally everyone talks, talks, talks endlessly about their "commitment to diversity."

I don't have much comment, other than that it's fun to watch how progressivism actually works on the ground.

Another Subject Where The "Science" Just Doesn't Stand Up

If you've read some of my posts lately on the subject of climate "science," you may have come to the conclusion that there is some kind of highly unusual mass hysteria going on there.  It seems that people have convinced themselves that the subject of anthropogenic climate change is really important, even existential.  We must "save the planet"!  This is something way too important to let the sideline quibbles of some congenital deniers get in the way of the moral crusade to rescue earth and humanity.  Along the way, the multitudes have managed to lose track of the question of whether the available empirical evidence supports or refutes the hypothesis at hand -- in other words, they have lost track of the "science."

But is this situation really unique, or even unusual?  Or are there other prominent examples in "science" of groupthink getting up such a huge momentum, and of so many livelihoods and careers becoming dependent on a prevailing paradigm, that it becomes impossible for any amount of adverse evidence to stop the train?

Our friends at Maggie's Farm remind us of another big example, with a post yesterday titled "Dietary fat and settled science."    The main subject is what is known as the diet-heart hypothesis, that is, the idea that a high fat diet causes heart disease.  Excerpt:

The low saturated fat craze was triggered by a 1950 study by Ancel Keys, a study which is now generally accepted as fraudulent. It spurred many further studies over the years but, as yet, there is no proven causal relationship between dietary fat and cardiovascular disease.  In fact, there are very high saturated fat cultures (Eskimos, Masai) with very low cardiovascular disease rates. 

Does your cholesterol level matter? Other than in familial hypercholesterolemia, probably not. So why check them on your every-3 year physical exams?  Medical advice is conservative, slow to change, and fearful of being wrong so too-often adopts the precautionary principle. Thus when articles like this one comes out: Popular belief that saturated fat clogs up arteries is a myth, experts say, there is always pushback like "Don't tell people that, they'll get confused."

All the links there are eminently worth following.  But, as the text indicates, the third of them raises an additional question -- one perhaps even more important than that of a link between diet and heart disease -- which is the question of whether cholesterol in the blood is an important causative factor in heart disease.  Even if a high fat diet is ruled out as a causative factor in heart disease, it could still be possible that high cholesterol in the blood -- brought on by factors other than a high fat diet -- could be the driving factor in heart disease.  And remember, it is cholesterol in the blood, measured at your periodic check-up at your doctor's office, that is going to end you up with a prescription for one of those "statin" pills, once a day for life, if your "numbers" are not in some officially-determined appropriate range.  This article at PRWeb puts the annual U.S./Europe/Japan statin market at $12+ billion.  And about 15 million Americans take the daily dose. 

Following that third Maggie's Farm link, via an intermediate step, will take you to an editorial just a couple of days ago in something called the British Sports Medicine Journal, by Aveem Malhotra and other authors, titled "Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions."  This article directly discusses the state of the evidence as to whether high cholesterol in the blood is really a causative factor for heart disease.  Excerpt:

Decades of emphasis on the primacy of lowering plasma cholesterol, as if this was an end in itself and driving a market of ‘proven to lower cholesterol’ and ‘low-fat’ foods and medications, has been misguided. Selective reporting may partly explain this misconception. Reanalysis of unpublished data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and the Minnesota coronary experiment reveal replacing saturated fat with linoleic acid containing vegetable oils increased mortality risk despite significant reductions in LDL and total cholesterol (TC).

And then there's this, of particular interest to those, like yours truly, who find themselves over the age of 60:

And in those over 60 years, a recent systematic review concluded that LDL cholesterol is not associated with cardiovascular disease and is inversely associated with all-cause mortality.8

LDL cholesterol is "not associated with cardiovascular disease"?  It "is inversely associated with all-cause mortality"?  What??????  Following that footnote 8 will take you to a 2016 article by Uve Ravnskov and others in the British Medical Journal titled "Lack of an association or an inverse association between low-density-lipoprotein cholesterol and mortality in the elderly: a systematic review."  To be fair, Ravnskov has long been known as a doubter of the cholesterol/heart disease hypothesis.  The study is a review of substantial amounts of literature.  Here is the conclusion:

Our review provides the first comprehensive analysis of the literature about the association between LDL-C and mortality in the elderly. [Wait -- Am I "elderly"?]  Since the main goal of prevention of disease is prolongation of life, all-cause mortality is the most important outcome, and is also the most easily defined outcome and least subject to bias. The cholesterol hypothesis predicts that LDL-C will be associated with increased all-cause and CV mortality. Our review has shown either a lack of an association or an inverse association between LDL-C and both all-cause and CV mortality. The cholesterol hypothesis seems to be in conflict with most of Bradford Hill’s criteria for causation, because of its lack of consistency, biological gradient and coherence.    

Needless to say, the Malhotra editorial has produced some push back from the usual establishment figures (what Dr. Joy Bliss at MF characterizes as "Don't tell people that, they'll get confused.")  If you are interested in reading a sampling, here is a roundup from The Guardian.  Here's my comment:  If cholesterol in the blood really were the key causative factor in heart disease, you would see a strong positive relationship between the two in every study, and a strong beneficial effect from anything that succeeded in lowering the cholesterol.  These relationships are not there.  But way too many people have their lives invested in this theory for the train to be stopped any time soon.