Archive

January 16th, 2016

I despise lotteries, but I bought four Powerball tickets anyway

    The Powerball - all $1.3 billion of this week's jackpot - is evil.

    Lotteries prey on the poor and the elderly. They're rigged, hyped and glorified. The winners almost always end up as losers.

    But I bought four tickets over the weekend. I'm weak. So let the dreaming begin:

    The Lego Death Star? Done, boys. I'll even throw in the Millennium Falcon.

    A Ford F-150 crew cab truck with a hardtop bed cover? Done, husband. How about we lift that baby and throw some 42-inchers on it, too?

    See, our household's Powerball fantasies are pretty modest.

    We'd keep our jobs, pay off the mortgage and the minivan, and be conservative about the next steps, such as establishing a foundation to cure childhood cancer or creating the most comprehensive shelter and job-training program for homeless residents any city has ever seen.

    So we should totally win.

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A fair world doesn't have to be an inefficient one

    One common criticism of economics is that it focuses too much on efficiency, and not enough on things like equality, fairness and the welfare of future generations. In the extreme version of the criticism, the focus on efficiency is a deliberate plot to keep resources in the hands of the wealthy.

    The economic definition of efficiency -- also called Pareto efficiency, after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto -- is easy to understand. Basically, it's just the same thing as gross domestic product. The more things we produce -- including goods like TVs and cars, but also services like insurance and back massages -- the fewer resources we are wasting. Perfect efficiency -- called Pareto optimality -- is a situation in which the economy is so efficient that it's impossible to give one person more without taking something away from someone else. In other words, perfect efficiency is a world where there really is no free lunch.

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The Obama Boom

    Do you remember the “Bush boom”? Probably not. Anyway, the administration of George W. Bush began its tenure with a recession, followed by an extended “jobless recovery.” By the summer of 2003, however, the economy began adding jobs again. The pace of job creation wasn’t anything special by historical standards, but conservatives insisted that the job gains after that trough represented a huge triumph, a vindication of the Bush tax cuts.

    So what should we say about the Obama job record? Private-sector employment — the relevant number, as I’ll explain in a minute — hit its low point in February 2010. Since then we’ve gained 14 million jobs, a figure that startled even me, roughly double the number of jobs added during the supposed Bush boom before it turned into the Great Recession. If that was a boom, this expansion, capped by last month’s really good report, outbooms it by a wide margin.

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January 13th

We have the tools to end the HIV/AIDS pandemic

    In the summer of 1981, the world became aware of a mysterious new disease that was seen initially among a relatively small group of gay men in the United States and was soon shown to be caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. Fast-forward more than 30 years, and the entire world is struggling with one of the most devastating pandemics in history. More than 70 million infections have occurred, predominantly among heterosexuals in the developing world, resulting in more than 30 million deaths. Despite these horrendous statistics, advances in HIV treatment and prevention have transformed the lives of those HIV-infected people who have access to health care, and have provided us with highly effective methods of preventing HIV infection.

    So why does this global pandemic continue to rage? It is not that we lack the medical advances and interventions to end the pandemic. It is that our proven tools have not been implemented adequately or uniformly.

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Focus on Illegal Guns

    Late Thursday a madman approached a police cruiser in Philadelphia and fired at least 11 times at the officer in the vehicle, striking him three times in the left arm.

    Even with those wounds, the officer was able to get out, chase the shooter and return fire, striking him in the buttocks.

    The shooter would later tell the police, according to Capt. James Clark, commander of the Police Department’s homicide division: “I follow Allah and I pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. That is the reason why I did what I did.”

    This is a disturbing reminder of the influence of the Islamic State on individuals disposed to acts of terror, and how hard it is to identify all of them before they commit a violent act.

    But the episode also highlighted something else that does not get enough discussion: the use of stolen guns in crimes.

    You see, the gun used in the Philadelphia attack had been stolen, from a police officer no less, in 2013.

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Obnoxiousness Is the New Charisma

    In a typical presidential campaign, the most successful candidates lay claim to leadership with their high-mindedness. They reach for poetry. They focus on lifting people up, not tearing them down. They beseech voters to be their biggest, best selves.

    Not the two front-runners in this freaky Republican primary. They’re unreservedly smug. They’re unabashedly mean. 

    If you’re not with them, you’re a loser (Donald Trump’s declaration) or you’re godless (Ted Cruz’s decree, more or less). They market name-calling as truth-telling, pettiness as boldness, vanity as conviction. And their tandem success suggests a dynamic peculiar to the 2016 election, a special rule for this road:

    Obnoxiousness is the new charisma.

    Sure, we’ve had contenders like them before. But two on top at the same time? And two with this degree of stridency, this deficit of dignity?

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The Peace Prize Winner and Crimes Against Humanity

    Soon the world will witness a remarkable sight: a beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner presiding over 21st-century concentration camps.

    Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world’s genuine heroes, won democracy for her country, culminating in historic elections in November that her party won in a landslide. As winner, Suu Kyi is also inheriting the worst ethnic cleansing you’ve never heard of, Myanmar’s destruction of a Muslim minority called the Rohingya.

    A recent Yale study suggested that the abuse of the more than 1 million Rohingya may amount to genocide; at the least, a confidential U.N. report to the Security Council says it may constitute “crimes against humanity under international criminal law.”

    Yet Suu Kyi seems to plan to continue this Myanmar version of apartheid. She is now a politician, and oppressing a minority like the Rohingya is popular with mostly Buddhist voters.

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Leo, Hillary, and Their Bears

    It’s hard to say which of the three monomaniacal, monumentally grueling quests is the most riveting.

    There’s the torturous trek portrayed in “The Revenant” of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century trapper who, inflamed by revenge, dragged his bloody body 200 miles through the Western wilderness after being gnawed by a grizzly and deserted by fellow trappers.

    Then there’s the hunt by Leonardo DiCaprio for his first Oscar, for portraying Glass. He has been on the press circuit dramatizing the agonizing shoot, bragging about his verisimilitude in eating raw bison liver. The director, Alejandro Iñárritu, told Variety he had to fly ants twice, first class, to Calgary, Alberta, so they could crawl over Leo’s fractured frontiersman.

    Some wags suggested Leo was so eager to inhabit the solitary Glass’ misery that he broke up with Kelly Rohrbach, his latest supermodel girlfriend, because she was bringing a frivolity to the saturnine mood of the promotional effort by taking the bouncy Pamela Anderson role in the new “Baywatch” movie.

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Wanted: Straight Shooters

    We have come a long way in the debate on gun safety. Well, actually we haven’t come anywhere at all. But we’ve certainly talked a lot.

    And the lines have just hardened. Last week President Barack Obama announced a teeny, weeny executive action to close a few loopholes in the background check laws. Republicans acted as if he’d introduced an Act for the Poisoning of School Lunch.

    Ted Cruz posted a picture of the president, wearing a military helmet and practically snarling, with the headline “Obama Wants Your Guns.” Marco Rubio said it was just “one more way to make it harder for law-abiding people ... to be able to protect their families.”

    The presidential campaign, as you may have noticed, is all about fear and terror. The gun lobby has been stupendously successful in arguing that the best way to protect ourselves from violence is to have the entire population packing heat.

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Blathering in Front of TV Cameras

    Several TV networks covered the Rose Parade. ABC, NBC, RFD, the Hallmark network, and Univision had frequent interruptions to unleash commercials on us. The Home and Garden network ran the two hour parade uninterrupted—except for endless on-air self-promotion about HGTV and its programs.

    Both had commentators who chatted with each other and seemed to spend more time enjoying being on air than in reporting the parade.

    They aren’t unusual.

    TV news—including parade coverage—has become more of a personality-based medium than a news medium. The Happy News TV anchors chat with each other. A few seconds here. A few seconds there.

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