Archive

January 22nd, 2016

What If?

    Just get me talking about the world today and I can pretty well ruin any dinner party. I don’t mean to, but I find it hard not to look around and wonder whether the recent turmoil in international markets isn’t just the product of tremors but rather of seismic shifts in the foundational pillars of the global system, with highly unpredictable consequences.

    What if a bunch of eras are ending all at once?

    What if we’re at the end of the 30-plus-year era of high growth in China — and therefore China’s ability to fuel global growth through its imports, exports and purchases of commodities will be much less frothy and reliable in the future?

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Too cautious about food? That can be dangerous

    Last year, eggs were declared safe. After demonizing the cholesterol in them for a generation, nutritionists finally acknowledged that there was overwhelming scientific evidence that eggs were not artery-clogging killers after all.

    But wait. What's this? The government's latest nutrition guidelines came out this month and they're not egg-friendly. They say people should consume as little cholesterol as possible. That's even stricter than the 2010 standard allowing 300 milligrams a day, about the amount in one egg.

    Scientists are supposed to change their minds when confronted with new evidence - whether it's reclassifying Pluto as not quite a planet or admitting that Neanderthals contributed to the modern human gene pool.

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Sanders' Single-Payer Plan Is a Distraction

    If you've successfully landed on the beaches, but your forces are still taking heavy fire, what do you do? Do you concentrate on trying to hold the line and make further advances or do you sit in a circle and design a better landing craft?

    The problem with Bernie Sanders' health care vision isn't the vision. His raw outline for a greatly simplified and less expensive health-care system is excellent in theory. The problem is the politics -- the reality of which battle-scarred Hillary Clinton clearly has the better grasp.

    This was the message Clinton tried to convey in the Sunday Democratic debate. Her most potent point on health-care reform centered on recalling the "public option" fiasco during the fight for the Affordable Care Act.

    The public option was to be a government-run health plan competing with the private offerings in the health-care exchanges. It was a no-brainer to keep the insurance companies on a shorter leash. But, as Clinton noted, "even when the Democrats were in charge of the Congress, we couldn't get the votes for that."

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Rethinking College Admissions

    Over recent years there’s been a steady escalation of concern about the admissions process at the most revered, selective American colleges. And little by little, those colleges have made tweaks.

    But I get the thrilling sense that something bigger is about to give.

    The best evidence is a report to be released on Wednesday. I received an advance copy. Titled “Turning the Tide,” it’s the work primarily of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, though scores of educators — including the presidents and deans of admission at many of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — contributed to or endorsed it. Top administrators from Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. and the University of Michigan are scheduled to participate in a news conference at which it’s unveiled.

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R.I.P. Bitcoin

    Not long ago, venture capitalists were talking about how Bitcoin was going to transform the global currency system and render governments powerless to police monetary transactions. Now the cryptocurrency is fighting for survival. The reality came to light on January 14, when its influential developer, Mike Hearn, declared Bitcoin a failure and disclosed that he had sold all of his Bitcoins. The price of Bitcoin fell 10 percent in a single day on the news, a sad result for those who are losing money on it.

    Bitcoin did have great potential, but it is damaged beyond repair. A replacement is badly needed.

    Most currency and transaction systems today are opaque, inefficient, and expensive. Take the North American Stock Exchange, the NASDAQ, as an example. It is amongst the most technologically advanced in the world. Yet if I buy or sell a share of Facebook on the NASDAQ, I have to wait several days for the trade to finalize and clear. This is unacceptable; it should take milliseconds.

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'Natural born citizen' and other idiocies

    Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, is pushing nine constitutional amendments, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R, wants one setting term limits for the Supreme Court and Congress, so I figured I'd roll out my own wish list.

    1. The right to vote: It doesn't appear in the Constitution. It should.

 

    2. Statehood for the District of Columbia. There's no legitimate justification for disenfranchising citizens in the U.S. capital. This can be fixed without an amendment, but the best way would be through the Constitution.

 

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In Europe, Sanders would be center-right

    One of the more important arguments between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during Sunday's Democratic debate occurred over whether to push for "Medicare for all," as Sanders insisted, or to build more slowly on the limited success of President Obama's health care law.

    Clinton said: "I do not to want see the Republicans repeal it, and I don't to want see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it."

    Sanders retorted: "I voted for it, but right now, what we have to deal with is the fact that 29 million people still have no health insurance."

    For Europeans, that staggering fact is impossible to understand. There are debates there about national health care systems, but not this one. All the big economies there have universal health-care systems under which everyone is insured. Even the most conservative politicians support them.

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Economists can tell you what you should want

    At its best, economics is the study of what makes people better off, and how they can have more of it. To be effective, though, economists may have to tackle a tougher question: what "better off"' really means.

    For much of the past several decades, mainstream economics operated on the ambitious assumption that humans as a whole were perfectly rational, and would hence always do what was in their aggregate best interest. More recently, behavioral economists have made a lot of progress in disabusing their colleagues of that notion, as Richard Thaler describes in his book "Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics." The result has been a lot of useful policies that take into account people's irrational biases. The Obama administration, for example, has employed timely text and e-mail reminders to boost college enrollment and student loan repayment rates.

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Deportation case yet another to ratchet up drama at the high court

    We now have our major Supreme Court story of the year: The justices will review the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's plan to defer deportations, stalled by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The court's decision to take the case, United States v. Texas, ensures major drama around the oral argument in April, and fevered anticipation in the run-up to the announcement of the court's decision sometime in late June.

    The dramatic pattern produced by the hearing of a hugely significant case is starting to seem normal for the court. The Affordable Care Act, the Voting Rights Act, gay marriage and now immigration have each guaranteed -- and merited -- tremendous public attention.

    As a professor of constitutional law who also writes about the court in this column, I can hardly complain. It's all good for business. But it's worth pausing with a moment's nostalgia for the days when many Supreme Court terms were in fact very boring, with almost no cases decided that would interest the public. (I clerked in one such term, October Term 1998. You could look it up.)

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Why no food, not even kale, is 'healthy'

    Recently I watched a woman set a carton of Land O' Lakes Fat-Free Half-and-Half on the conveyor belt at a supermarket.

    "Can I ask you why you're buying fat-free half-and-half?" I said. Half-and-half is defined by its fat content: about 10 percent, more than milk, less than cream.

    "Because it's fat-free?" she responded.

    "Do you know what they replace the fat with?" I asked.

    "Hmm," she said, then lifted the carton and read the second ingredient on the label after skim milk: "Corn syrup." She frowned at me. Then she set the carton back on the conveyor belt to be scanned along with the rest of her groceries.

    The woman apparently hadn't even thought to ask herself that question but instead accepted the common belief that fat, an essential part of our diet, should be avoided whenever possible.

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