Bill Gleason

Bill Gleason is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. He's also a fellow at the U's Supercomputer Institute. Read more about Gleason.

Posts about Politics

What will an increased tax on alcohol really cost?

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: May 10, 2013 - 3:14 PM

 Many years ago I was lucky enough to have summer jobs working as a busboy in the Park Schenley restaurant in Pittsburgh. This summer job allowed me to earn the $600 necessary - with generous financial aid - to attend Northwestern University for my undergraduate degree. It was a tough job. On Satudays we started set-up at 10 am and were not finished until clean-up at 2 am Sunday morning. There was a break from 3pm-5pm when I took a nap in the Carnegie public library. 

Good times. And I was very fortunate because at that time the unemployment rate in Pittsburgh was about 25%.

Fast forward to the present. I've been going to Zipp's liquors for many years and have been very impressed by the hard work put in by Andrew and Jennifer Schoenzeit, a brother and sister team who are the owners of Zipp's, a liquor store on Franklin Avenue in the Seward neighborhood. Zipp's is an excellent example of a locally owned community business. Their prices are reasonable, they have a decent selection of wines, and trustworthy people to help you in selecting the right wine. 

I have been rather confused lately in trying to figure out what would be the actual effect of the proposed increase in alcohol tax being discussed at the state capitol. Some say that it will only be seven cents per glass of beer, but others claim that it will be a lot more.  When I asked about this Ms. Schoenzeit provided me with some information that is quite striking concerning current alcohol taxes in Minnesota and in other US locations.



(Used with permission)


The striking thing about this illustration is the high penalty that alcohol vendors  in Minneapolis pay compared to the rest of the state. But even the tax outside of Minneapolis is quite high compared to our neighbors and places in the rest of the country.

For example:



(used with permission)


So my point is: the taxes paid on alcohol are ALREADY higher in Minnesota than in other locations.  Any further increase should be very small and that does not appear to be the case.

Some other things to consider include whether a tax is progressive or not. If you can afford Veauve Clicquot the additional cost of the tax is probably not going to affect your decision to purchase it. However, if you are a beer drinker of modest means an increase in cost of, say, two dollars for a twelve pack may change your choice of beer brand. That is why in graduate school, I drank Buckhorn, the absolutely cheapest beer available at the time. Nowadays, my favorite is Summit. 

The great increase in quality of craft beers like Summit has been a boon to new businesses including breweries in the state. Even local restaurants like the Birchwood now serve beer and wine. And I have yet to see anyone in the Birchwood who had too much to drink. 

So I hope that our state legislators and the Governor will keep these points in mind while trying to decide what taxes they raise. Unintended consequences of this action may have a devastating effect on businesses that depend on alcoholic beverages as part or all of their revenue. 

Tuition power grab by Legislature? Circular logic in Star Tribune editorial

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: April 27, 2013 - 9:18 AM




Author of the higher education bill, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona


A recent editorial in the Star Tribune accused the state legislature of a power grab in attempting to set tuition rates for both the University of Minnesota system and MNSCU.

They opined that politicians were not the best option for balancing price (tuition) and quality for our higher education systems.

There were a large number of questionable arguments and statements made in that editorial, but today I would like to address only one, briefly.


"The Senate amendment tacitly acknowledges that the Legislature has limited ability to tread on the Board of Regents' constitutionally protected turf. But the House seeks to coerce the regents to do the Legislature's bidding by directing state officials to refuse to release funds to the university if a tuition freeze is not adopted."

First, it should be noted that it was the University that asked the legislature to provide funds specifically for keeping tuition frozen. This was a pre-emptive strike since the general public is furious because of the level of tuition and consequent student debt load. 

And second, after bringing the question of constitutional autonomy up, we find later in the same editorial this:

The Senate's omnibus high-education bill is on the right track in making five percent of the state's 2014-15 appropriations to the two systems contingent on meeting at least three of five performance goals.

So, how does this work?  A little coercion is acceptable to the Star Tribune but a lot is not?  Where exactly is this line to be drawn?

One of the reasons why the U is in such bad odour with the public is the perception of arrogance in the matter of constituional autonomy. You can't tell us what to do, please hand over the money.  In thinking about why the Legislature has not been generous to the U in the last ten years, is it possible that this perceived arrogance had anything to do with funding levels?

There are of course ways to fix the constitutional autonomy problem, but hopefully President Kaler is more sensitive to the matter than was his predecessor. The current General Counsel is about to leave town for a new job. One of his claims to fame has been as a fierce defender of the University's constitutional autonomy. Hopefully his successor will be a little more sensitive in this matter.

 [Added later]

Although the issue of constitutional autonomy was not intended to be a major focus of these brief remarks, some gentle readers may wish more information on the topic.

"The study shows that Michigan, California, and Minnesota continue as the states with the most substantial legal recognition of constitutional autonomy."

"In these states, independent constitutional authority for public colleges and universities is meant to limit exessive political inteference from other parts of the state government." 

Source: A comparative Legal Analysis of State Constitutional Autonomy Provisions for Public Colleges and Universities







Skewed U

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: April 14, 2013 - 8:46 AM



 Photo Credit: Star-Tribune


Skewed U 


[Note: There has been considerable controversy over former Governor Arne Carlson's suggestion that the University of Minnesota suffers from a bloated administration. He has made this charge on his own blog as well as on the Star-Tribune commentary section. This piece was answered by the Chairman of the Board of Regents, Ms. Linda Cohen. Some further information about this dispute is offered below by my friend and fellow U of M alum, Mr. Michael McNabb. I hope readers will find it informative.]


In a guest column in the April 10 Star Tribune the chair of the Board of Regents responds to the criticism of excessive costs of administration at the U of M by Governor Carlson in his April 7 Star Tribune guest column.

Here is "the rest of the story" to the response of the Regents.

(1) "The university has realized millions of dollars of savings . . . . "

In January 2013 the U of M chief financial officer told state legislators that the administration has cut $228 million since 2006. See the January 31 Star Tribune report. From fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2012 the total operating expenses for the University were just under $17 billion. See the U of M financial reports. So the cuts amount to 1.3% of the total operating expenses. Does the administration view this as making tough choices? Or making a serious effort to control costs and tuition?

(2) "As part of our legislative request this year we have pledged to freeze Minnesota resident undergraduate tuition for two years . . . ."

The administration proposes to freeze tuition on the condition that the legislature increases state appropriations by $91.6 million for the next two years. See the September 14, 2012 Pioneer Press report.

The freeze would be limited to undergraduate tuition only (and to Minnesota residents only). The tuition for students (both resident and non-resident) in graduate and professional programs is what really compounds the crushing debt on young persons. See Whose Fault--Crushing Student Debt.

(3) "The Twin Cities campus has a lower net price (tuition, fees, room and board minus financial aid) than any other four year college in the state--public or private."

Net price does not provide any relief to the students because the administration classifies student loans as "financial aid." The Minnesota Daily describes this argument of the administration as cynical and deceptive. See Driven To Deception.

(4) "The board and the Kaler administration undertook an aggressive internal review to study . . . its administrative costs."

The Regents fail to mention that the internal study showed that the total cost of administration for fiscal year 2012 exceeded $852 million (or 28% of the total expenditures of the University). See On The Cost of Administration Part III.  So their proposed $28 million reduction in administrative costs over the next two years does not make much of a dent in administrative overhead.

(5) "The column suggests that the university can operate outside the marketplace for faculty and staff salaries. . . ."

Governor Carlson limited his criticism to the compensation of administrators. He noted that universities "compare their rising costs with those of other spiraling systems and proclaim this to be the market."

The Regents should know that the law restricts the pursuit of personal wealth by the leaders of tax exempt organizations. See the Postscript to $tate of the University--A Parent's Perspective.

Society grants tax exemptions to non-profit institutions of higher education in order to promote the common good and not to enrich administrators. If the motivation of the administrators is to accumulate personal wealth, then they should seek those riches in for-profit organizations. See The Cost of "Top Talent" and The Cost of "Top Talent" Part III.

(6) "This argument ignores a reality that was unmentioned: a $140 million reduction in annual state support to the university since 2008."

Over the past decade the U of M administration has increased spending by $1 billion--despite a reduction in state appropriations. In fiscal year 2002 the total operating expenses for the University were $2,005,138,000. In fiscal year 2012 the total operating expenses were $2,948,366,000.

The fuel for this billion dollar explosion was skyrocketing tuition. In fiscal year 2002 the administration collected a net amount (after scholarships and grants) of $293,127,000 in tuition and fees. In fiscal year 2012 the net amount of tuition and fees collected was $696,278,000.

The senior administrators and the Regents have shown no mercy to the students (and their parents). This skyrocketing tuition far exceeded the reduction in state appropriations. In fiscal year 2002 the University received $643,088,000 in state appropriations. In fiscal year 2012 the amount was $572,075,000.

See pp. 17-18 of the 2002 U of M annual financial report and pp. 14-15 of the 2012 U of M annual financial report.

If the Regents are unwilling or unable to make substantial reductions in the cost of administration, then the legislature will do so for them.

Michael W. McNabb
University of Minnesota B.A. 1971; J.D.1974
University of Minnesota Alumni Association life member


"I'll have a Greek salad, a beer, and a side of science"

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: November 8, 2011 - 10:38 AM


Photo Credit: Pizza Luce - Seward



Whenever I go to local restaurants, I always try to strike up a conversation with the server.  Here in Minneapolis, many servers are students at our numerous colleges and universities. Having worked at a restaurant while in college, I have a lot of empathy for these folks.

Sometimes I get a big surprise. This happened recently with a server who attended MCAD—the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. When he learned that I did some polymer chemistry, he asked if I knew about the male contraceptive system, being developed in India, that was polymer based. Never heard of it.  One of my colleagues, the medicinal chemist Gunda Georg, has been working in this area for some time, so I try to follow the topic.  Of course, it is a very important one.

So what’s this about?  A quick check revealed a very interesting story. A maverick Indian scientist, S.K. Guha is finally getting attention.  He even scored a $100,00 grant from the Gates Foundation.  This injectable polymeric system—styrene/maleic anhydride—is referred to by the acronym RISUG, short for Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance. The polymer coats the interior of the vas deferens and inactivates sperm as they pass by. The method seems to work for ten years and a reversal procedure is available.  According to “Our research has convinced us that RISUG is the most promising of the potential male contraceptives.”

So what’s the problem here?  Do the clinical trials, make sure the method is safe and Bob’s your uncle?  Not so fast there, pardner.

“We had no support from industry,” said Guha. As Elaine Lisser, a San Francisco activist for male contraception put it: “To men, an ideal method would be cheap and long-lasting. To company shareholders, an ideal method would be expensive and temporary.”

Now I’m not trying to push some great conspiracy theory about Big Pharm. We’ve heard it all before. They HAVE a cure for x, or y, or z, but they are not revealing it because they can make more money from selling drugs to treat the disease.

But in some public health matters there is no economic incentive for pharma to step in because they cannot make the kind of money they need to operate from something like RISUG.  Another recent example of a rather simple approach to a serious problem that will probably not be too popular with pharma is the diagnosis of pre-cancerous cervical lesions with vinegar.  See the New York Times article: Fighting Cervical Cancer with Vinegar and Ingenuity.

When vinegar is applied to the cervix, white spots may become visible. These resemble warts and may be removed by cryotherapy—freezing—using a metal probe cooled by a tank of carbon dioxide. Where there’s Coke, there’s CO2.  This method has the potential to do for underdeveloped countries what the PAP smear has done for countries like the U.S. The death rate for cervical cancer worldwide is about 250,000.  The vast majority occurring where PAP smears are not readily available to a poor population.

Intelligent use of foreign aid, Gates money, and public health research may yield more benefit than higher-tech approaches that pharma necessarily pursues.

I thank Guy Wagner, server at Pizza Luce, for calling this topic to my attention.


A modified version of this piece was originally posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education Brainstorm Blog.

HPV Vaccination: More to It Than Soundbites

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: October 17, 2011 - 6:48 PM


Capsid Protein L1 of Human Papilloma Virus type 16 - using UCSF Chimera

What Have We Learned From Bachmann’s Recent  Gardasil/HPV Eruption?

Being a scientist makes spontaneous blogging on some topics problematic. A couple of weeks ago, Michele Bachmann made the unsupported claim that HPV vaccination led to “mental retardation.”

At the time two bioethicists— professors Steve Miles at the University of Minnesota and Art Caplan at the University of Pennsylvania—called out Bachmann and challenged her to provide evidence in support of her claim. Miles was first and offered to contribute $1,000 to a charity of her choice. Caplan upped the ante by $10,000. The offer expired with no response from Bachmann. Some right-wing luminaries, including Rush Limbaugh and Ed Morrissey, also came down hard on Bachmann for this claim.

Lesson 1

1. Bachmann is not fit to be president.

Since I am interested in biological structure, I wanted to look a little more into the science of the HPV vaccines. Fascinating. Proteins from a  variety of human papilloma viruses are produced by genetic engineering. The menu includes viruses that lead to cervical cancer as well as genital warts and other baddies. Such vaccines are a scientific tour de force. I also learned that the adjuvant used to make the vaccine contains aluminum. An adjuvant makes a vaccine more effective for reasons that are not crystal clear. It is possible that this adjuvant is responsible for the pain of injection experienced by those vaccinated.

Lesson 2

2.  A lot of good and nontrivial science has gone into this vaccine. Producing it is expensive.

Which leads into the final lesson.  Or at least into a discussion of what makes the HPV/Gardasil controversy not simply a soundbite matter.

I need to give all credit to Alison Bass for calling this fact to my attention in her excellent essay “Coverage of Rick Perry’s vaccine misadventure misses the point.”

The problem is that the public health benefits of providing HPV vaccines to relatively affluent children may not make a lot of financial sense. Merrill Goozner has explored this idea in his post: “The Gardasil Hustle.”

To put things in perspective, the mortality for cervical cancer is approximately 4,000, for breast cancer 40,000, and for cigarette smoking 500,000.

As Bass points out: “Merck itself estimated it would cost $1.4- to $1.6-billion to immunize young girls from the disease, which can be picked up fairly easily (and much more cheaply) with regular pap smears.”

The distribution of cervical cancer is loaded heavily against the poor. The highest incidences may be found in African-American women and in white women living in Appalachia (see Cancer Health Disparities).

The poor are either uninsured or cannot afford Pap smears.

Lesson 3

It may make more sense to use the money spent on HPV vaccinations for Pap smears for poor women who cannot afford them.

There is a lot of money on the table here. The Web is a nightmare for a truth seeker. You can find people claiming that HPV is more cancer causing than cigarettes or that the HPV vaccine is contaminated with HPV DNA. And it is sometimes difficult to know what to make of some of these Web sites. They look plausible. Some are even written by medical doctors, and some doctors put links to them in their tweets. What is the average parent in search of information to do? I’ll post some thoughts on this in the future.

Endnote: Thanks to Alison Bass for her always thought-provoking work.


This piece was first published on the Chronicle of Higher Education Brainstorm blog.



News From Lake Wobegon's Birchwood Cafe: Iowa Straw Poll Breaks Pawlenty’s Back

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: August 21, 2011 - 1:41 PM



 Picture Credit: Tracy Singleton


(This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on  the day after the Ames straw poll.)

Dombey and Son
“As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back”

Mr. Keillor frequents the Side Track Tap, but there is another place in town, the Birchwood Cafe.  It is inhabited by a bunch of lefties, elderly hippies like me, vegans, people with nose-rings and purple hair.  You know, that type.  They buy food locally and hate Monsanto.

So this morning there was much discussion at the ‘Birch over Mrs. Bachmann’s disembowelment of Mr. Pawlenty, our beloved former governor.  Some even felt sorry for TeaPaw but there was a great deal of Schadenfreude. It was the coffee special of the morning.

Yuh see, TeaPaw was the victim of really bad timing.  He had cultivated his garden in Iowa for the last two years much to the annoyance of people who wanted him to show some leadership in fixing our budgetary problems in Minnesota.  He left us about six billion dollars in the hole.  Mrs. Bachmann pointed out some of his other shortcomings in the swordfight, er debate, prior to the so-called straw poll.

Another mistake that Pawlenty made – hindsight being 20/20 – was making such a fuss about Iowa. The Ames straw poll is basically a farce.  It costs thirty bucks to vote.  Talk about a poll tax.  The Ron Paul web site generously offered a free ride from anywhere in Iowa as well as a free ticket.  Of course someone had to pay for the ticket, didn’t they?

Intelligent folks—like Romney—didn’t participate.  Except Romney was smart enough to show up for the debate and the nation-wide publicity. He didn’t do very well in the straw poll, but no one is asking him to step aside. And of course Rick Perry waited for the day of the straw poll to toss in his Stetson.

The timing thing with Bachmann was remarkable. Pawlenty and Bachmann have never been friends.  She did a quick conversion to Iowaism.  Everything I need to know I learned in Iowa. Probably kindergarten. That sort of stuff. Pawlenty was also in a bad spot because of his previous encounter with Romney where he wussed out. So when Bachmann put the pin in his balloon, he unwisely struck back. Bachmann is absolutely a master at making critics look bad.

So we’ve basically been spared of both Pawlenty and Bachmann in Minnesota politics for the foreseeable future.  Wow, does that feel good.

So now it is on to Perry vs. Romney.  Can’t wait.  The ‘Birchers think that  Perry will do to Bachmann what she did to Pawlenty.  Wouldn’t doubt it.

Could I have another cuppa that Schadenfreude, please? (The ‘Birch has wifi.)

PS: I see that Paul Krugman is unhappy that he is losing his whipping boy. He had previously described our beloved governor as an “embarrassing ignoramus.”  Krugman had this to say earlier today: “What made Pawlenty fun was that he was supposed to be the smart, capable candidate, someone who actually knew stuff; and yet every time he opened his mouth on policy issues, he revealed that he didn’t know a blessed thing.”


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