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Mark's Market Blog

4-30-09: Swine Flu & Chrysler

By Mark Lawrence

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Chrysler has filed for bankruptcy. Who could have predicted it? (oh wait, I did. . .) Obama's plan, which will more or less be implemented, has the UAW winding up owning 55% of Chrysler and 40% of GM. This is extremely interesting: imagine you're a GM worker, and the UAW tells you they're going to negotiate your next pay package with management. The UAW is management. Suppose you're a VP at Ford, told to negotiate the next labor contract. The UAW rep shows up at your office, "Hi! I represent your workers!" You respond, "No, you represent the competition." This thing where the union owns the company has been tried at United Airlines. So long as the stock price keeps going up, all is rosy. However, inevitably the stock price goes down at some time, then the finger pointing begins in earnest. UAL wound up in bankruptcy again, substantially for this reason. My enthusiasm for these companies and their futures is severely deflated.

Chrysler has signed a deal with Fiat, who will start by owning 20% of Chrysler, and wind up owning 51% after the government loans are paid off, sometime in 2085. Fiat has their own problems and was nearly bankrupt less than two years ago. The idea that Fiat is the savior here is, IMHO, laughable. The bankruptcy is projected to last about 60 days. This projection, it's important to note, has been made by Treasury and Chrysler officials, not by the judge. The purpose of the bankruptcy is to cut off dealers who would otherwise be expensive and troublesome, and to shove the deal down the throats of the roughly 30% of Chrysler's creditors who have not taken TARP money and are not beholden to the government. These creditors actually stood up for their own interests in the negotiations; can you imagine? Their position is that they are being asked to take a loss of some 75% of their money, while the UAW is only being asked to take a loss of about 40% and is being given a huge stock position in compensation. The problem here is that the creditors are hedge funds, whom no one loves; and the UAW pensions are protected by the government's Pension Guarantee Fund, which will take a huge hit if Chrysler can't pay up.

The big news this week is an outbreak of swine flu and the fear that this may become a pandemic. Pandemic is a calm sounding word that means billions might die. This time the swine flu apparently originated in Mexico; the president of Mexico announced on Thursday that most Mexicans should leave their jobs and go home for a week. There's talk in various countries of closing the borders, but it's 'way too late for that: over 100 cases have already been found in the US, and other cases have been found all over Europe. Most of these cases can be traced back to people who had traveled to Mexico recently.

The flu is a virus, which means it's a little packet of genetic material wrapped in a protein box that floats around in the air. Today the religious belief in the west is that your genetic code defines who you are. Curiously, all organisms have a mechanism where if you find a little Christmas box with unknown genes in it, your cells will grab the box, pull it into the cell and push it into the nucleus. There the box will be opened and the foreign DNA will be added to your DNA if possible and turned on, "What is it?!?! Is it for me?!?!" If the virus DNA can't be added or turned on, then we are immune to the virus. If it can be turned on, then generally your cells will immediately start duplicating it and sending out identical little presents all over your body and the rest of the world. Your cells don't care if the new DNA helps out or if it kills them, the response is the same.

Generally, DNA from other species won't match up with ours and we're therefore typically immune to viruses from other species. However, pigs are genetically very close to people: we both are hairless, have hooded nostrils, controlled breathing, and an inability to make vitamin C in our bodies, four very unusual traits among animals. It's generally thought that we are both evolved to live in or near tropical tide pools where there's lots of high vitamin C fruit and where hairlessness, hooded nostrils, and controlled breathing are important for ducking our heads under water to find fish and seaweed to eat. Related to this, the pig immune system is very close to the human immune system, so we can sometimes catch viruses from each other. For this reason it's particularly dangerous to eat undercooked pork. In many third world countries, especially in south east Asia and the Asian Pacific, pigs and humans live together. Pigs can catch viruses from chickens and then mutate them so that humans can catch them - avian flu comes from south China where peasants share their houses with pigs and chickens. Asian and Avian flu, which have killed billions of people throughout history, come about because poor Chinese can't get clear that it's unhealthy to sleep in a mud-floored hut with pigs and chickens.

You don't catch swine flu from swine, you catch it from people who already have it. The original couple of people caught it from some pigs that no doubt lived in their houses, but those people are already either over it or dead. Meanwhile, all over the world people are refusing to eat pork and the Egyptian government just announced that they were rounding up pigs to kill them. Especially pigs that have recently returned from a vacation in Mexico. Check your pig's passport.

There are no cures for any viruses. Plants make chemicals to kill bacteria, and we have stolen those chemicals to make things like penicillin, vancomycin, and other antibiotics, but those things kill bacteria and fungus. Modern medicine, in spite of hundreds of billions of research dollars spent on AIDS and the flu, has yet to kill its first virus. All we can do is make immunization shots. Typically this means we get some of the virus and destroy the DNA, leaving only the protein shell. We then shoot the protein shell into your body. This gives your immune system some time to learn to recognize the protein and learn to kill it. Unfortunately this entire idea is worthless if you have already caught the virus, and it's also worthless if the virus changes its protein shell a bit, which is more and more common. AIDS and most flus routinely mutate their shell, which is why there are no vaccines.

At this point, you might wonder why your cells are in such a hurry to unpack these little letter bombs. It seems like a pretty stupid idea. Most viruses come from another member of your own species. When we're under stress we make and shed viruses. It's thought that this is an asexual form of reproduction: if you're worried about dying, this is a way to spread your genes quickly. Also it allows immune system genes to be mixed up quickly, perhaps giving us an advantage over germs. It's sometimes thought that this virus mechanism of sharing genes is why people married for 40+ years start to look like each other.

Viruses have also been found deep inside of meteoroids, leading some to speculate that life itself on earth was seeded from outer space - a theory called Panspermia, originally championed by the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. Personally, I think the evidence for Panspermia both as a mechanism for seeding the earth with life and as a mechanism for delivering genes to drive evolution is rather compelling; far more compelling than the mainstream theory about lightening bolts hitting soup bowls, or random mutations suddenly producing Mozart (although the idea that Britney Spears was generated by a random mutation is perhaps less far-fetched.)

Evolution writ large is the belief that a cloud of hydrogen will spontaneously invent extreme-ultraviolet lithography, perform Swan Lake, and write all the books in the British Museum. -- Fred Reed

A recent Dutch study followed 1,373 randomly selected men whose cardiovascular health and life expectancy at age 50 were repeatedly monitored between 1960 and 2000. During the 40 years of monitoring, 1,130 of the men died. Over half the deaths were caused by cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that men who drank wine, about half a glass of it a day, lived around 2.5 years longer than those who drank beer and spirits, and almost five years longer than those who drank no alcohol at all. Time to stock up on your favorite vin ordinaire

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