Archive

January 22nd, 2016

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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The Choice for Democrats: Evolution or Revolution

    Hillary Clinton wrapped herself so tightly in President Obama's mantle at Sunday night's debate that it was a wonder she could walk off the stage.

    She lauded the Affordable Care Act to the heavens, rejecting the notion that it left too many Americans still without health insurance. She defended Obama's initiatives to rein in Wall Street, dismissing contentions that they did not go far enough. She highlighted his success in seizing Syria's chemical weapons. She praised the way he "led us out of the Great Recession."

    And she attacked her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for allegedly being insufficiently loyal to the president. "Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing," she said. "He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama."

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Bill O'Reilly will flee to Ireland if Sanders is elected. He's in for a shock.

    Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor," is threatening to flee the country if Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- the self-described democratic socialist who is running for the Democratic Party nomination -- is elected president.

    As quoted in the Huffington Post, O'Reilly said: "If Bernie Sanders gets elected president, I'm fleeing . . . I'm going to Ireland. And they already know it. . . . I shouldn't say it publicly because that will get Sanders more votes," he said. "But I'm not going to pay 90 percent of my income to that guy. I'm sorry. I'm not doing it."

    O'Reilly is proud of his Irish ancestry (as a recent emigrant from Ireland and current U.S. citizen, I heartily approve of these sentiments). But he probably doesn't know very much about what Ireland is like these days. From the perspective of its Western European neighbors, Ireland is a small, market-friendly, right-of-center country. But from the perspective of American conservatism, Ireland looks like a hellhole of socialism.

    - Can O'Reilly easily flee to Ireland?

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A Healthy Way to Build Communities

    Mark Winne, an author and anti-hunger activist, often says that the most important word in “community garden” isn’t “garden.” I saw this firsthand not long ago.

    Standing in the sun between several small garden plots all morning, it may not have looked like much was going on. A few people stood in a circle, chatting. Occasionally, one would leave, or another would arrive. Several others were nearby, working in their garden plots.

    Some of the people were black. Some were white. And two — a mother and child — appeared Southeast Asian.

    The garden plots were equally varied. One was filled entirely with sugarcane. Another grew luffa gourds. Still another grew banana trees. That’s one of the perks of gardening in San Diego — you can grow your own bananas if you wish.

    The focal point of the group was Diane, a woman who identifies first and foremost as a community organizer. She isn’t a gardener, but when she found that her community wanted a place to grow healthy, affordable food, she got to work.

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Another election, more phony promises on taxes

    Two certainties, as Benjamin Franklin wrote, are death and taxes. Add a third: On taxes, U.S. presidential candidates will promise more than they can deliver. And, if elected, they pay a price.

    The overpromising may be more egregious than ever in the 2016 presidential race. Yet taxes were glossed over in the debate of Republican candidates last week.

    Donald Trump says that his tax plan, which has huge reductions in rates and on the amount paid on investment income, focuses on working folks and sticking it to billionaires such as himself. A recent analysis by the Tax Policy Center showed just the opposite. The Trump plan would cost the Treasury $9.5 trillion over the first decade, and almost $25 trillion over 20 years. The tax cuts would principally benefit the wealthy, almost 40 percent would be for the top 1 percent. The superrich -- the top one-tenth of 1 percent -- would get an average annual tax cut of $1.3 million.

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