Archive

August 25th, 2016

It's up to China to save Asia's depleted oceans

    Overfishing and pollution have so depleted China's own fishery resources that in some places -- including the East China Sea -- there are virtually "no fish" left, according to reports in Chinese state media last week.

    That's a frightening prospect for an increasingly hungry country: China accounted for 35 percent of the world's seafood consumption in 2015. Seeking catches further afield -- including in Indonesian waters -- isn't really a solution; fish stocks in the disputed South China Sea have themselves fallen by as much as 95 percent from 1950s levels. If China doesn't want the rest of Asia's fisheries to suffer the same fate as its own, it's going to have to think much more ambitiously about how to create a sustainable food supply for the region.

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How to rescue Obamacare

    According to an old bit of folk wisdom, if one person says you are drunk, you can wave him off. If two people tell you, go home.

    When UnitedHealth Group announced a few months back that it was going to stop selling individual health insurance in most Obamacare exchanges, informed observers were not alarmed. They noted that nearly all exchange customers still had at least two, and most had three or more, insurers competing for their business.

    Now with Aetna's announcement that it will stop selling insurance in 11 of the 15 states where it has been active and will abandon previously announced expansions in five others, Obamacare supporters are worried. And with good reason. If too many insurers jump the Obamacare ship, customers will be left adrift.

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Executing the getaway driver is a bad precedent

    Texas is poised to execute Jeffery Lee Wood next week, even though he was sitting in the car 20 years ago when his friend went into a convenience store and fatally shot the clerk. Under existing precedent, sentencing an accomplice to the death penalty is sometimes constitutional. But it shouldn't be -- at least when the accomplice doesn't intend for the crime to occur, as was almost certainly the case for Wood.

    The U.S. Supreme Court made its two crucial decisions on the execution of accomplices some 30 years ago -- and they are now ripe for being revisited. The first, Enmund v. Florida, came in 1982. It was a close, 5-4 decision, with centrist Justice Byron White writing for a coalition of liberal justices.

    The court struck down the death penalty for Earl Enmund, a getaway driver who had been in the car when his colleagues committed two murders in the course of a robbery. Under Florida law, he had been an accomplice, which subjected him to the same penalty as the murderers themselves.

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Clinton could have cut her tax bill in half under Trump's plan

    Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton could have cut her 2015 federal tax bill roughly in half -- lopping about $1.7 million from what she owed -- under the plan offered by Republican rival Donald Trump.

    Trump has pledged the biggest overhaul of the U.S. tax code since the 1980s, proposing cuts for individuals and businesses. His plan to slash tax rates on individuals' business income to 15 percent -- from a current top rate of 39.6 percent -- would have benefited Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, according to accountants and tax specialists who reviewed the couple's 2015 return.

    By contrast, the Clintons would have paid at least $224,000 more in taxes under Hillary Clinton's proposals, which include a 4 percent surtax for the highest earners and a cap on the tax benefit they derive from such deductions as home-mortgage interest.

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Clinton and Trump should be debating taxation

    Imagine what could happen if Donald Trump hadn't turned the presidential campaign into an argument over who founded Islamic State or whether there should be ideological entrance tests for foreign visitors and immigrants. Then he and Hillary Clinton could have a rational debate over taxes, a serious topic on which they have clear differences.

    Trump wants to cut taxes massively, especially for the wealthy, which he claims will stimulate unprecedented growth. Clinton wants to boost taxes on corporations and the rich and use the revenue to create jobs and help the middle class.

    Both evade some specifics but there's enough for a substantive debate.

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Clinton and Trump are both wrong on corporate taxes

    Hillary Clinton thinks corporate taxes are too low. Donald Trump thinks corporate taxes are way too high. They're both wrong, and the economic consequences could be huge if either nominee's tax proposal becomes law.

    Trump would slash the rate to 15 percent and allow millions of partnerships and single-owner firms set up by hedge fund managers, lawyers and other well-heeled taxpayers to also pay the 15 percent rate once they pass earnings through to their personal income taxes. Clinton would hold the existing corporate tax rate steady at 35 percent but would close a variety of loopholes, which amounts to a tax increase.

    The problem is that corporations don't really pay taxes. They just pass them along to employees, shareholders and customers. Raising corporate taxes takes money out of people's pockets and encourages companies to send operations overseas, where corporate tax rates are lower. Corporations don't suffer but the economy does.

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Can the Grand Old Party survive?

    Donald Trump's decision to put his presidential campaign into the hands of the most destructive right-wing elements of the Republican Party is a clarion call to the old GOP establishment to wake up and shake off the lethargy into which it has sunk in the shocking Trump party takeover.

    As yet, there is not the slightest evidence that the old champions of orthodox Republicanism -- what George W. Bush called "compassionate conservatism" with little intent of embracing it himself -- are ready or know how to begin bringing it about against the Trump onslaught on common decency.

    The would-be Bush dynasty, including both presidents and the woefully ineffective Jeb Bush, has stood by tsk-tsking while Trump has made a shambles of the old order.

    The 2012 Republican standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, has sounded the alarm while pointedly declining to put himself at the head of the resistance. Meanwhile, the fawning and inept Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus not only has thrown in the towel but also has signed up as a willing Trump puppet.

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A useless word in higher ed: 'Tuition'

    If Congress wanted to make an actual difference regarding the rising cost of college, and to give universities and colleges a fighting chance to solve this problem, it would strip from the Higher Education Act the requirement that colleges publish a "tuition" number. The figure is as good as useless now.

    Colleges should instead publish five numbers: how much they spend each year on educating each student; the range a family is expected to contribute to that expense, from zero to a maximum; how much a family contributes on average; the range of what a college itself will contribute for each student; and how much the college contributes on average to the total expense for each student.

    Why is the concept of tuition as good as useless? Let me count the ways.

 

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The inventions that changed our genetic code

    Of all living things, why do humans alone create advanced technology? Not long ago, scientists thought it was because we are the only intelligent life form on this planet. That explanation alone no longer suffices. Over the last decade, scientists have discovered that crows can use tools, hyenas can cooperate to solve complex problems, jays can plan for the future, rats and voles can demonstrate empathy, and ducklings are capable of abstract thought.

    Yet our technology is extraordinary. Why were we the ones to transform the planet? A clue comes from a recent paper on a genetic change that helped our ancient ancestors tolerate smoke after fire was invented. It's the latest finding to bolster the increasingly compelling notion that natural selection acts on our species in a unique way. While evolution forces all living things to adapt to changing natural environments, this emerging school of thought holds, it also forces humans to adapt to our own inventions. And indeed, there's evidence we have been physically reshaped by agriculture, dairy farming, stone tools, spears and the taming of fire.

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The conflict at the heart of U.S. retirement plans

    This month, yet another slew of private retirement plan managers became the target of class-action lawsuits. This time it was a bunch of universities: Yale University, New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other schools have been sued for failing to properly oversee their employees' retirement plans.

    The lawyer behind the suits, Jerome Schlichter, has already hit companies for failing to administer their 401(k) plans responsibly; this latest wave of suits targets the so-called 403(b), a form of defined contribution plan used by non-profits like universities that closely resembles the 401(k).

    These suits are sending shock waves through the world of private retirement plans. And with good reason: They betray the nation's unresolved confusion over the historic change that's occurred in how most people save for retirement. Once upon a time, in the bygone age of defined-benefit pension plans, it was assumed that employers would bear all the responsibility of ensuring that the money they set aside to finance these pensions was invested responsibly and efficiently.

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