Archive

January 10th, 2017

Drunken monkeys and the evolution of boozing

    Nothing rings in the new year like a solution of bubbling, neurotoxic ethanol. Humanity's longstanding relationship with alcohol poses an evolutionary puzzle: Surely natural selection would weed out those of our ancestors with a taste for something that clouds judgment, slows reflexes, dulls the senses and impairs balance. Animals in such a state would likely be the first picked off by predators, if they hadn't already fallen out of a tree.

    And yet humans all over the world drink ethanol in various concoctions, or they enforce strict rules against it -- rules that surely wouldn't exist if there weren't a desire. We've been at it a long time: Archaeologists have found wine and beer stains on 10,000-year-old stone age pottery.

    Scientists are solving the paradox by studying the enzymes our bodies use to digest alcohol. Lots of animals make these enzymes, called alcohol dehydrogenases, and the way these vary from one species to another tells an evolutionary story. Then there's the related question of whether other species imbibe. Preliminary investigations suggest the answer is yes.

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Biggest winners of an Obamacare repeal: The young, healthy and rich

    In one of the latest rounds of government-by-tweet, Donald Trump has once again revealed that he doesn't have a clue about the markets for health care and health insurance.

    "Also, deductibles are so high that it is practically useless," wrote the president-elect on Wednesday about health insurance policies sold on the Obamacare exchanges. He also complained about "poor coverage" and "massive premium increases."

    Let's start with those high deductibles. Apparently Trump is unaware that the man he has tapped to dismantle Obamacare, Rep. Tom Price of George, wants to steer us all into such "high deductible" insurance plans, with routine care paid for by patients from individual tax-free health savings accounts.

    The reason Price and others like high-deductible policies is simple enough: They lower insurance premiums and give patients a strong financial incentive to consume only the routine care they need and shop around for the best value. But, as Price surely knows, it's not possible to lower deductibles and lower premiums at the same time.

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What's the deal with Trump and Russia?

    Coming from a presidential candidate, Donald Trump's misty-eyed admiration of Russia and its autocratic leader was weird. Coming from a president-elect, it's nothing short of alarming.

    I repeat the questions I asked back in September: What's the deal with Trump and Russia? Does he have financial entanglements with Russian banks, businesses or billionaires that color his views? If not, as he claims, then why won't he release the personal and business tax returns that could put the matter to rest?

    The latest sign of Trump's infatuation is his refusal to accept the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russian state-sponsored hackers meddled in our election -- a risky and provocative operation that could only have been authorized by Vladimir Putin.

    "It could be somebody else," Trump told reporters on New Year's Eve. "And I also know things that other people don't know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation." The president-elect added that "I know a lot about hacking, and hacking is a very hard thing to prove."

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Ethics Are Not Questionable

    What is so difficult to understand about ethics? True, sometimes a greater good may outweigh another; nevertheless it is still within the realm of doing what is right, as in correct, not political!

    Confirming our worst fears about the Republican Congress, the first action initiated was the elimination of the supposedly independent Office of Congressional Ethics. It was such a bad move that the President-Elect - in a tweet - stepped in to push that one aside. Needless to say if the folks we elected were imbued with more morals such an agency would not be needed; however, there is ample evidence that it is necessary. Let us hope that it will be allowed to function as needed.

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We know Sessions is overstating his record

    Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions is trying to mislead his Senate colleagues, and the country, into believing he is a champion for civil rights. We are former Justice Department civil rights lawyers who worked on the civil rights cases that Sessions cites as evidence for this claim, so we know: The record isn't Sessions's to burnish. We won't let the nominee misstate his civil rights history to get the job of the nation's chief law enforcement officer.

    In the questionnaire he filed recently with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions (R-Ala.) listed four civil rights cases among the 10 most significant that he litigated "personally" as the U.S. attorney for Alabama during the 1980s. Three involved voting rights, while the fourth was a school desegregation case. Following criticism for exaggerating his role, he then claimed that he provided "assistance and guidance" on these cases.

Will Trump let Obama go quietly?

    Will Donald Trump deprive President Obama of what we have come to think of as a normal post-presidency, the relatively serene life of reflection, writing, philanthropy and high-minded speeches to friendly audiences?

    In recent decades, we have become accustomed to the idea of ex-presidents who leave political combat behind. They might occasionally speak out on behalf of their party: Bill Clinton was an effective "explainer in chief" for Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. But with some exceptions (Jimmy Carter on the Middle East comes to mind), they usually avoided trying to influence policy. In their above-the-fray roles, former commanders in chief sometimes improved their standing in the polls. George W. Bush is a prominent example of the less controversy/more affection dynamic.

    But former presidents have not always pulled back from politics. John Quincy Adams had the most unusual post-White House career. Two years after leaving the presidency, he embarked on a nearly 17-year stint in the House of Representatives where he was one of the country's most eloquent agitators against slavery and for Indian rights.

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Virginia's 'Minister of Private Parts' deserves scorn for dreadful transgender bathroom bill

    Apparently, Virginia has its very own Minister of Private Parts.

    His name is Del. Robert G. Marshall, a Republican who represents Prince William County, and the residents of his district keep electing him to keep talking about other people's nether-regions.

    I'm not exaggerating here.

    Marshall's legislative record reads like a conversation between my 10-year-old son and his friends. It's all potty this and p---y that. (Okay, my 10-year-old doesn't say p---y, but the president-elect does.)

    It's hard to believe Marshall is a 72-year-old man. He has devoted much of his public life to people's sexual and reproductive behavior, questioning the intelligence of women who use long-term contraception, arguing that some incest is voluntary, pushing for women to be legally required to have trans-vaginal ultrasounds before abortions, worrying that U.S. troops would catch sexually transmitted diseases if they had to serve alongside gay colleagues, calling porn a public health hazard.

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The reverse 'Atlas Shrugged' scenario

    Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is a very long novel that is beloved by many 18- to 24-year-olds and a few elected officials. It does not contain the most believable dialogue in the world (I actually laughed out loud when I first read the morning-after conversation between Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden). But the book remains extremely popular, and it is worth remembering why. In June I wrote:

    "Railing against the establishment will always work for the same reason that Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' will always resonate with a fraction of the population. Rand has one and only one gift as a writer. She is able to divide the world into two categories of human beings: creators and moochers. And no one in history reads Rand and thinks, 'I want to be a moocher!' It is easy for even government officials to self-identify as creators of pyramids of greatness rather than as looters of the system."

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The herding of US businesses

    John Maynard Keynes wrote that gut feelings - or "animal spirits," as he called them - were often more important to investment decisions than a "mathematical expectation."

    President-elect Donald Trump, too, understands animal spirits. It's just that the animal he has in mind is a sheep.

    Or so it seems from the way he is forcefully herding American automakers back across the U.S.-Mexico border, like so many wayward ovines - with Twitter as his digital crook.

    And if the companies' response to this blatant political strong-arming of their supposedly free enterprises is any indication, Trump has read Detroit right.

    Ford announced Monday that it will not be building a planned $1.6 billion small-car plant in Mexico, which Trump had condemned as a betrayal of U.S. workers. Explaining the capitulation on CNBC, Ford chief executive Mark Fields acknowledged his duty to shareholders, but added, "We have to make sure, at the same time, that we have good relations with the various governments that are in power."

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The Age of Fake Policy

    On Thursday, at a rough estimate, 75,000 Americans were laid off or fired by their employers. Some of those workers will find good new jobs, but many will end up earning less, and some will remain unemployed for months or years.

    If that sounds terrible to you, and you’re asking what economic catastrophe just happened, the answer is, none. In fact, I’m just assuming that Thursday was a normal day in the job market.

    The U.S. economy is, after all, huge, employing 145 million people. It’s also ever-changing: Industries and companies rise and fall, and there are always losers as well as winners. The result is constant “churn,” with many jobs disappearing even as still more new jobs are created. In an average month, there are 1.5 million “involuntary” job separations (as opposed to voluntary quits), or 75,000 per working day. Hence my number.

    But why am I telling you this? To highlight the difference between real economic policy and the fake policy that has lately been taking up far too much attention in the news media.

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