Poorly educated voters hold the keys to the White House

A new paper suggests that voters without degrees are uniquely placed to pick the next president.

It was in the 1970s that American politics began to polarize around voters’ levels of educational attainment. The Republican Party, until then a party of tweedy north-easterners, began recruiting less-educated southern whites, alienated by the civil-rights movement. Over time, the partisan gap between college-educated voters and less-educated ones widened. In 2016 it exploded. The Pew Research Center, a think-tank, found that overall, college graduates favored Hillary Clinton by 21 percentage points, while those without a degree backed Donald Trump by a seven-point margin. Among whites, the difference is greater: those without a college degree backed Mr Trump over Mrs Clinton by a margin of more than two to one.

How far did this educational divide determine the outcome of the 2016 election? To answer this question, Michael Sances of Temple University collected data on presidential-election results and education levels in each of America’s 3,000-plus counties from 1972 to 2016. Mr Sances finds that the gap in support for Democratic candidates between the highest- and the lowest-educated counties grew significantly between 2012 and 2016, from about 16 percentage points to 28 percentage points (see chart). This disparity has grown especially quickly in midwestern swing states. In Iowa, for example, Hillary Clinton won 66% of the vote in better-educated counties, up from Barack Obama’s 61% share in 2012, but only 27% in less-educated ones, down from 46%.

Source: The Economist magazine.



To Understand Facebook, Study Capgras Syndrome

We start with the case of a woman who experienced unbearable tragedy. In 1899, this Parisian bride, Madame M., had her first child. Shockingly, the child was abducted and substituted with a different infant, who soon died. She then had twin girls. One grew into healthy adulthood, while the other, again, was abducted, once more replaced with a different, dying infant. She then had twin boys. One was abducted, while the other was fatally poisoned.

Madame M. searched for her abducted babies; apparently, she was not the only victim of this nightmarish trauma, as she often heard the cries of large groups of abducted children rising from the cellars of Paris.

As if all this pain was not enough, Madame M.’s sole surviving child was abducted and replaced with an imposter of identical appearance. And soon the same fate befell Madame M.’s husband. The poor woman spent days searching for her abducted loved ones, attempting to free groups of other abducted children from hiding places, and starting the paperwork to divorce the man who had replaced her husband.

In 1918, Madame M. summoned the police to aid her in rescuing a group of children locked in her basement. Soon she was speaking with a psychiatrist. She told him she was the direct descendant of Louis XVIII, the queen of the Indies, and of the Duke of Salandra. She had a fortune of somewhere between 200 million and 125 billion francs, and had been substituted as a toddler in a conspiracy to deny her this money. She was constantly under surveillance, and most, if not all, of the people she encountered were substituted doubles, or even doubles of the doubles.

The psychiatrist, Joseph Capgras, listened patiently. It’s delusional psychosis—disordered thought, grandiosity, paranoia—he thought. Pretty standard fare. But then again, no one had ever described the particular delusion of a loved one being replaced by an identical double. What could that be about?

The ways in which Capgras delusions are the product of such materialism tells us much about the differences between the thoughts that give rise to recognition and the feelings that give rise to familiarity. As we’ll see, these functional fault lines in the social brain, when coupled with advances in the online world, have given rise to the contemporary Facebook generation. They have made Capgras syndrome a window on our culture and minds today, where nothing is quite recognizable but everything seems familiar.

By any logic, this should induce all of us to have Capgras delusions, to find it plausible that everyone we encounter is an imposter. After all, how can one’s faith in the veracity of people not be shaken when you sent all that money to the guy who claimed he was from the IRS?

This withering of primate familiarity in the face of technology prompts us to mistake an acquaintance for a friend, just because the two of you have a Snapchat streak for the last umpteen days, or because you both like all the same Facebook pages. It allows us to become intimate with people whose familiarity then proves false. After all, we can now fall in love with people online whose hair we have never smelled.

Through history, Capgras syndrome has been a cultural mirror of a dissociative mind, where thoughts of recognition and feelings of intimacy have been sundered. It is still that mirror. Today we think that what is false and artificial in the world around us is substantive and meaningful. It’s not that loved ones and friends are mistaken for simulations, but that simulations are mistaken for them.

Source: Nautilus.


Rob the unappealing albatross finally finds a mate

Rob the unappealing albatross, left, with his mate at a breeding colony in New Zealand. Photograph: Royal Albatross Centre

He appeared doomed to be forever unlucky in love. But in an apparent reversal of fortunes, a royal albatross named Rob has delighted New Zealand conservation workers by settling down with a new mate after 10 years on his own.

Rob, 35 and named after the red, orange and blue bands around his leg, is part of the world’s only mainland breeding colony of royal albatross – majestic birds with wingspans of about three metres – at Taiaroa Heads on the Otago peninsula, near the bottom of the South Island.

The fact that he had failed to find a partner “has amused us for some years”, said Hoani Langsbury, an ecologist and operations manager for the Otago Peninsula Trust. Local conservation workers have “almost run a book” on Rob’s chances of finding love each time he returned to the colony. One had suggested a profile for the lonely albatross on the dating app Tinder.

Four of Rob’s previous partners have died, while others have not stuck – and no one knows why. Langsbury noted that the dating pool was small, with about 200 adults in the colony.

“To look at him, he’s not much different than any other bird, but we’re not looking at it through a bird’s eyes,” he said. “Maybe his song isn’t quite right and nobody likes it.”

Rob’s single status wasn’t for want of effort; he had been the first bird to return to the colony for mating season in several previous years. But relationships in the albatross world take time.

After chicks first leave the colony, the birds, who spend most of their lives at sea, return as five- or six-year-olds, Langsbury said.

“They start hanging out like at a disco with all the other teenagers, looking for a partner. If they’re lucky they might find one that first year,” he said. “If they don’t, they leave and return the next year to try again.”

Langsbury hoped Rob, who has raised three chicks so far, would breed with his new partner, who also had a chequered relationship history. “She’s a successful breeder,” he said. “She’ll know what to do.”


Boeing Shaped a Law to Its Liking. Weeks Later, a 737 Max Crashed.

President Trump signed the F.A.A. Reauthorization Act of 2018 into law last October.

With a few short paragraphs tucked into 463 pages of legislation last year, Boeing scored one of its biggest lobbying wins: a law that undercuts the government’s role in approving the design of new airplanes.

For years, the government had been handing over more responsibility to manufacturers as a way to reduce bureaucracy. But those paragraphs cemented the industry’s power, allowing manufacturers to challenge regulators over safety disputes and making it difficult for the government to usurp companies’ authority.

Although the law applies broadly to the industry, Boeing, the nation’s dominant aerospace manufacturer, is the biggest beneficiary. An examination by The New York Times, based on interviews with more than 50 regulators, industry executives, congressional staff members and lobbyists, as well as drafts of the bill and federal documents, found that Boeing and its allies helped craft the legislation to their liking, shaping the language of the law and overcoming criticism from regulators.

In a stark warning as the bill was being written, the Federal Aviation Administration said that it would “not be in the best interest of safety.”

A labor group representing agency inspectors raised concerns that the rules would turn the F.A.A. into a “rubber stamp” that would only be able to intervene after a plane crashed “and people are killed,” according to internal union documents reviewed by The Times.

Weeks after the law was passed, a Boeing 737 Max jet crashed off the coast of Indonesia, killing everyone on board. A second Max crashed in Ethiopia less than five months later, and the plane was grounded.

On both doomed flights, a new automated system on the Max, designed to help avoid stalls, triggered erroneously, sending them into fatal nose-dives. Mired in crisis, Boeing is still trying to fix the plane and get it flying again.

In the aftermath, lawmakers have seized on flaws in a regulatory system that cedes control to industry — an issue that is likely to put Boeing on the defensive this week when the company’s chief executive, Dennis A. Muilenburg, testifies before Congress for the first time since the two crashes.

The F.A.A. never fully analyzed the automated system known as MCAS, while Boeing played down its risks. Late in the plane’s development, Boeing made the system more aggressive, changes that were not submitted in a safety assessment to the agency.

If F.A.A. officials decide a system may compromise safety, the new rules dictate that they will need to conduct an investigation or an inspection to make their case before taking back control. If the officials raise concerns, ask for changes or otherwise miss certification deadlines, any disputes are automatically elevated by law to managers at the agency and the company.

The law also creates a committee of mostly aerospace executives to ensure that the regulator is meeting metrics set by the industry, and the law allows companies to make recommendations about the compensation of F.A.A. employees.

“The reauthorization act mandated regulatory capture,” said Doug Anderson, a former attorney in the agency’s office of chief counsel who reviewed the legislation. “It set the F.A.A. up for being totally deferential to the industry.”

Source: New York Times.


TVs sold by Amazon and Best Buy ‘contain chemicals banned in Europe’

Popular brands of televisions sold by Amazon and Best Buy in the US contain potentially hazardous flame retardants linked to health problems including cancers and learning difficulties, according to a new report.

Six Toshiba and Insignia brand TVs, made in partnership with Amazon and Best Buy respectively, sampled by public health campaign groups contained organohalogens, which are flame retardant chemicals recently banned by the European commission over safety concerns.

Organohalogens are considered toxic and have been linked to certain cancers, harm to the nervous system and learning difficulties. The European ban, which encompasses other display-based appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines – will come into force in 2021.

There is no such wide ban in the US, although deca-BDE, a type of organohalogen flame retardant, is banned in five states. The TVs tested by a coalition of public health advocates found that the Insignia TVs contained deca-BDE.

In a statement, Best Buy defended its “long track record as a steward of the environment” and said it “fully supported the responsible use of chemicals above what is legally required”. It said the units in this report included recycled materials which it said regulators recognize as “important” and “allow for trace amounts of some chemicals in electronics housings”. It added that the units tested were not from its newer lines.

Amazon did not respond to a request to comment.

Best Buy said it had “a restricted substances list that our suppliers must adhere to”. It added: “For organizations to assert otherwise is both inaccurate and irresponsible.

“Regulatory bodies recognize the importance of recycling and allow for trace amounts of some chemicals in electronics housings made from recycled material. The units in this report – which haven’t been part of our new product assortment for some time – do include recycled material.”

Chemicals from the casings of TVs can leak into the air or into dust that accumulates around the home, causing a gradual buildup in people’s bodies. While it is difficult to blame the flame retardants on any specific case of illness, campaigners say that enough concern has been raised in studies over potential links that a ban is justified.



Freewheeling Trump Ambassador Undermines U.S. Diplomats

Paul Anka serenaded Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary

This year, the ambassador, David B. Cornstein, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a blowout gala for 800 guests. He flew in the singer Paul Anka from California. The guest of honor was Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has curtailed the very freedoms the event was meant to highlight.

For many in the room, it was a bewildering spectacle: an American ambassador lavishing praise on a far-right leader whose party has methodically eroded Hungarian democracy and pushed anti-Semitic tropes. But it was just another demonstration of Mr. Cornstein’s pattern of emboldening Mr. Orban.

Since becoming ambassador in June 2018, Mr. Cornstein has assiduously courted Mr. Orban, giving the Hungarian leader unexpected influence in the Trump administration. Mr. Cornstein used his decades-long friendship with President Trump to help broker a coveted Oval Office meeting for Mr. Orban last May — a meeting now under scrutiny by impeachment investigators in Washington.

As yet, Mr. Cornstein’s role in that meeting does not appear to be part of the impeachment inquiry. But his freewheeling diplomacy and courtship of Mr. Orban have alarmed career civil servants and contributed to broader criticism, even among Republicans, that some members of the president’s foreign policy team are dangerously unprepared for the job.

Mr. Trump seems pleased. Although the Obama administration sought to isolate Mr. Orban as punishment for his authoritarian tendencies, the Trump administration has engaged him uncritically, a strategy intended to keep the Hungarian leader from drifting toward China and Russia.

But Thomas Carothers, who studies democracies for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr. Cornstein’s public praise for Mr. Orban had gone too far. “The ambassador has crossed the line, both in openly endorsing bad things and mocking serious issues,” he said.

You may read the complete article here.


UK to use £1bn meant for green energy to support fracking in Argentina

Fracking has already caused irreversible damage to the ancestral homeland of indigenous Mapuche. Photograph: Uki Goni/The Guardian

The UK is planning to invest in Argentina’s controversial oil shale industry using a £1bn export finance deal intended to support green energy, according to government documents seen by the Guardian.

UK Export Finance, the government’s foreign credit agency, promised in 2017 to offer loans totalling £1bn to help UK companies export their expertise in “infrastructure, green energy and healthcare” to invest in Argentina’s economy.

Instead official records, released through a freedom of information request, have revealed the government’s plan to prioritise support for major oil companies, including Shell and BP, which are fracking in Argentina’s vast Vaca Muerta shale heartlands.

One government memo, uncovered by Friends of the Earth, said that while Argentina’s clean energy sector was growing, it was “Argentina’s huge shale resources that offer the greatest potential” for the UK.

Argentina has become a magnet for major oil companies after discovering the world’s third largest shale reserves in the world. It hopes to replicate the US energy revolution by encouraging oil companies to exploit the reserves within the Vaca Muerta region despite strong opposition from local communities.

Argentina delivered its first-ever export of light crude and liquified natural gas from Vaca Muerta earlier this summer, five years after local community protest was quashed by authorities using teargas and rubber bullets.

The government’s plan to support Argentina’s shale industry comes after an investigation revealed an eleven-fold increase in support for fossil fuels over the past year to almost £2bn.

The plans are strongly opposed by MPs on the environmental audit committee, which branded the UK’s foreign fossil fuel investments as the “elephant in the room” undermining the UK’s climate leadership.

Source: The Guardian newspaper.


Traffic lights worldwide set to change after Swedish engineer saw red over getting a ticket

Great story of determination and science to overcome poorly time traffic lights and set a new standard around the world.

Have you ever been charged with running a red light when you knew you were innocent? It’s pretty crappy isn’t it. Well that’s all about to change.

A Swedish engineer’s umbrage at a traffic ticket given to his wife has led to a six-year legal fight and now a global change in the speed with which traffic light signals are timed.

After Mats Järlström lost an initial legal challenge in 2014, a federal judge in January this year ruled Oregon’s rules prohibiting people from representing themselves as engineers without a professional license from the state are unconstitutional.

And now Järlström’s calculations and advocacy have led the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) to revisit its guidelines for the timing of traffic signals. As a result, yellow lights around the globe could burn for longer – ITE is an international advisory group with members in 90 countries.

Järlström, who studied electrical engineering in Sweden, challenged the ticket, arguing the timing interval for yellow lights fails to account for scenarios like a driver entering an intersection and slowing to make a turn. A slightly longer interval, he argued, would allow drivers making turns on a yellow light to exit intersections before the light turned red. Even a small timing increase would help – the automatically generated ticket in this case was issued 0.12 seconds after the light turned red.

Järlström said if the ITE accepts his solution, the duration of a yellow light in the right-turn scenario he described in 2015 would be extended from 3.2 seconds to 4.5 seconds using current input values – driver-vehicle perception-reaction time and maximum safe, comfortable deceleration. Such timing may vary depending on other considerations, but in general the adoption of Järlström’s formula should result in slightly longer yellow lights.

The ITE staff will develop and formalize the proposed changes to produce a final document called the Recommended Practice that will be submitted to the ITE Board of Directors for final approval in early 2020.

Source: 2muchcrap.com


Florida busts 2 Fort Myers men in turtle trafficking ring

Photo courtesy of FWC/Flickr

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced the arrest of two Fort Myers men suspected of involvement in a turtle trafficking ring.

The FWC announced the arrests of Michael Boesenberg, 39, and Michael Clemons, 23, in a news conference Friday.

Boesenberg allegedly directed turtle trappers to collect the animals “in large numbers,” the FWC said, then sold them to a buyer connected to Asian markets. He was charged with dealing in stolen property as an organizer.

Evidence from an investigation showed that turtles were sold for up to $300 each and retailed as much as $10,000 in Asia. Occasionally, sellers traded turtles for marijuana instead of cash.

The undercover investigation began when the FWC received a tip in February 2018. It determined that more than 4,000 turtles were illegally poached and sold on the black market over a six-month period.

The variety of turtles poached included Florida box turtles, Eastern box turtles, striped mud turtles, Florida mud turtles, chicken turtles, Florida softshell turtles, Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtles, spotted turtles and diamondback terrapins, the FWC said.

Together, the suspects allegedly contributed to the illegal wildlife trade in the United States, which the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates is worth $19 billion annually.

Source: UPI


Trump’s 1,001st day of his tenure

After 1,000 days in office, Mr. Trump has redefined what it means to be presidential. On the 1,001st day of his tenure, which was Thursday, all pretense of normalcy went out the window. It was a day when he boasted of saving “millions of lives” by temporarily stopping a Middle East war that he effectively allowed to start in the first place, then compared the combatants to children who had to be allowed to slug each other to get it out of their system.

It was a day when he announced without any evident embarrassment that officials of the federal government that answers to him had scoured the country for a site for next year’s Group of 7 summit meeting and determined that the perfect location, the very best site in all the United States, just happened to be a property he owned in Florida.

It was a day when he sent out his top aide, an adviser who has served as “acting” White House chief of staff for nearly 10 months without ever being granted the respect of earning the title outright, to try to quell the whole impeachment furor, only to have him essentially admit the quid pro quo that the president had so adamantly denied.

It was a day that ended with a rally where one of the warm-up acts, the Texas lieutenant governor, declared that liberals “are not our opponents, they are our enemy,” and the president called the speaker of the House “crazy,” a rival candidate “very dumb,” a House committee chairman a “fraud” and the governor of another state a “crackpot.”

“We were a little bit unconventional,” Mr. Trump explained, offering his foreign policy doctrine in a setting that was itself a little bit unconventional, a Louis Vuitton workshop near Keene, Texas, where they make Parisian bags while cattle graze outside. The president had stopped by in between a Fort Worth fund-raiser and his Dallas rally to cut the ribbon on the new factory as a favor to Bernard Arnault, the luxury industry giant, bringing French sensibility to the Lone Star State.

“Louis Vuitton — a name I know very well,” Mr. Trump said to laughter, even as he mispronounced the name he knows well. “It cost me a lot of money over the years.”

By now, the notions of what is presidential and what is unconventional have taken on new meaning, long since divorced from anything that came before. On the 1,001st day of the Trump presidency, he charged forward, writing new rules for himself and the country.

Read the complete article in the New York Times here.


New blog: 2MuchCrap.com


There is so much crap on the Internet I decided to start a blog titled 2muchcrap. It’s about digital crap in this digital world.

I’ve posted about “Meat the Family: a new reality TV show which challenges carnivores to eat their ‘pets’”. Also a post on “Jennifer Aniston’s Instagram debut” and more crap from Trump “Trump claims Kurds are ‘much safer’ as US troops leave Syria”.

Please stop by and leave a Comment if you wish, or Subscribe to receive updates of new posts.


2 Giuliani Associates Tied to Ukraine Scandal Arrested on Campaign Finance Charges

The two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, believed to be important witnesses in the House’s impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump, were arrested on campaign finance charges. The arrests and charges were first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Two other men, David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin, were also indicted.

Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman aided Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to gin up investigations in Ukraine into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, among other potentially politically beneficial investigations for Mr. Trump. Mr. Parnas had been scheduled to participate in a deposition with House impeachment investigators on Capitol Hill on Thursday, and Mr. Fruman on Friday. Neither had been expected to show up voluntarily. House Democrats were preparing to issue subpoenas to force them to do so.

Read  the complete article on the New York Times here.


In the Pancreas, Common Fungi May Drive Cancer


By now, you’ve probably heard that your body is teeming with bacteria. Some 100 trillion of them live on your skin, in your mouth and in the coils of your intestines. Some protect against infections and help you digest food, while others can make you seriously ill.

Fungi, viruses and protozoa call your body their home, too. Your fungal residents are less numerous than your bacteria by orders of magnitude, but as researchers are learning, these overlooked organisms play an important physiological role — and when their numbers get out of whack, they can modify your immune system and even influence the development of cancer.

A new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, found that fungi can make their way deep into the pancreas, which sits behind your stomach and secretes digestive enzymes into your small intestine. In mice and human patients with pancreatic cancer, the fungi proliferate 3,000-fold compared to healthy tissue — and one fungus in particular may make pancreatic tumors grow bigger.

One particular fungus was the most abundant in the pancreas: a genus of Basidiomycota called Malassezia, which is typically found on the skin and scalp of animals and humans, and can cause skin irritation and dandruff. A few studies have also linked the yeast to inflammatory bowel diseases, but the new finding is the first to link it to cancer.

The results show that Malassezia was not only abundant in mice that got pancreatic tumors, it was also present in extremely high numbers in samples from pancreatic cancer patients, said Dr. Berk Aykut, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Miller’s lab.

Nearly 57,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States this year, but their prognosis will be poor. Three-fourths die within a year of diagnosis, and only about 1 in 10 live longer than five years. 

Read the complete article in the New York Times here.


The rise of the financial machines

The job of capital markets is to process information so that savings flow to the best projects and firms. That makes high finance sound simple; in reality it is dynamic and intoxicating. It reflects a changing world. Today’s markets, for instance, are grappling with a trade war and low interest rates. But it also reflects changes within finance, which constantly reinvents itself in a perpetual struggle to gain a competitive edge. As our Briefing reports, the latest revolution is in full swing. Machines are taking control of investing—not just the humdrum buying and selling of securities, but also the commanding heights of monitoring the economy and allocating capital.

Funds run by computers that follow rules set by humans account for 35% of America’s stockmarket, 60% of institutional equity assets and 60% of trading activity. New artificial-intelligence programs are also writing their own investing rules, in ways their human masters only partly understand. Industries from pizza-delivery to Hollywood are being changed by technology, but finance is unique because it can exert voting power over firms, redistribute wealth and cause mayhem in the economy.

In the past decade computers have graduated to running portfolios. Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds automatically track indices of shares and bonds. Last month these vehicles had $4.3trn invested in American equities, exceeding the sums actively run by humans for the first time. A strategy known as smart-beta isolates a statistical characteristic—volatility, say—and loads up on securities that exhibit it. An elite of quantitative hedge funds, most of them on America’s east coast, uses complex black-box mathematics to invest some $1trn. As machines prove themselves in equities and derivatives, they are growing in debt markets, too.

All the while, computers are gaining autonomy. Software programs using AI devise their own strategies without needing human guidance. Some hedge-funders are skeptical about AI but, as processing power grows, so do its abilities. And consider the flow of information, the lifeblood of markets. Human fund managers read reports and meet firms under strict insider-trading and disclosure laws. These are designed to control what is in the public domain and ensure everyone has equal access to it. Now an almost infinite supply of new data and processing power is creating novel ways to assess investments. For example, some funds try to use satellites to track retailers’ car parks, and scrape inflation data from e-commerce sites. Eventually they could have fresher information about firms than even their boards do.

Hey Siri, can you invest my life savings?

The greatest innovations in finance are unstoppable, but often lead to crises as they find their feet. In the 18th century the joint-stock company created bubbles, before going on to make large-scale business possible in the 19th century. Securitisation caused the subprime debacle, but is today an important tool for laying off risk. The broad principles of market regulation are eternal: equal treatment of all customers, equal access to information and the promotion of competition. However, the computing revolution looks as if it will make today’s rules look horribly out of date. Human investors are about to discover that they are no longer the smartest guys in the room.

Source: The Economist magazine article here.


Trump is unfit for Presidency

Besides his demolishing America’s political reputation throughout the world Trump still hasn’t learned he can’t run the U.S. government as he did his business. Bullying and threatening other politicians does not belong in the White House (Trump was involved in over 4,000 litigation matters in business – many with his subcontractors.)

A 2017 post titled “Trump presidency is in a hole” explains more.


2019 Big Mac Index

The Big Mac index is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity (PPP), which states that currencies should adjust until the price of an identical basket of goods—or in this case, a Big Mac—costs the same everywhere. By this metric most exchange rates are well off the mark. In Russia, for example, a Big Mac costs 110 roubles ($1.65), compared with $5.58 in America. That suggests the rouble is undervalued by 70% against the greenback. In Switzerland McDonald’s customers have to fork out SFr6.50 ($6.62), which implies that the Swiss franc is overvalued by 19%.

Such deviations from burger parity may persist in 2019. Exchange rates can depart from fundamentals owing to monetary policy or changes in investors’ appetite for risk. In 2018 higher interest rates and tax cuts made American assets more attractive, boosting the greenback’s value. That was bad news for emerging-market economies with dollar-denominated debts. Their currencies weakened as investors grew jittery. At the end of the year American yields began to fall as the global economy decelerated and investors anticipated a more doveish Federal Reserve. But the dollar has so far remained strong.

To see how your country rates this year view an interactive 2019 Big Mac Index here.


NRA acted as ‘foreign asset’ to Russia before 2016 election, says Senate report

NRA and Russia

The report also alleges that the NRA may have broken tax laws by using donated funds to further its officers’ business interests. Photograph: Julie Dermansky/The Guardian

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has acted as a “foreign asset” in providing Russian officials access to US political organizations, according to an investigation by Senate Democrats.

The results of the investigation were published by the Oregon senator Ron Wyden on Friday. The report also alleges that the NRA may have broken tax laws by using donated funds to further its officers’ business interests.

Wyden and other Democrats on the Senate finance committee found that a delegation of NRA officials traveled to Moscow in December 2015.

The trip was coordinated with Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, who are both Russian. Butina is currently serving an 18-month prison sentence after she tried to infiltrate US conservative groups and the NRA to promote Russian political interests around the 2016 election.

While in Russia the NRA met with “a host of senior level Kremlin officials”, Wyden said. Those officials included Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who oversaw defense and munitions industries.

After the trip to Russia, the NRA allowed Butina to bring a delegation from Russia to its influential annual meeting. Wyden said the NRA also “provided access” to other conservative political organizations, including the National Prayer Breakfast and the Council for National Policy.

The investigation also found that the then vice-president of the NRA, Pete Brownell, had agreed to go on the trip in exchange for business opportunities in Russia. At least part of the trip was paid for by the NRA, according to the report. Brownell was the vice-president of the organization, which has tax-exempt status, from May 2017 to May 2018.

The NRA is being investigated by the attorney general in New York, Letitia James, where the organization is chartered, over its tax-exempt status, and by the Washington DC attorney general, Karl Racine. Washington authorities are questioning whether its operations are in violation of its not-for-profit status.

“NRA officers’ apparent use of the NRA for personal gain fits a larger pattern of reported self-dealing and raises serious questions about whether the NRA broke US tax laws,” Wyden said.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper website here.


Health Insurance That Doesn’t Cover the Bills Has Flooded the Market Under Trump

Early one Friday morning two years ago, David Diaz woke up his wife, Marisia, and told her he didn’t feel right. He asked her to pray with him. Their son called 911, and within minutes, Marisia was tailing an ambulance down the dirt road away from the couple’s house on the outskirts of Phoenix to a hospital in the city. David had had a massive heart attack.

Before being wheeled into surgery, he whispered the PIN for his bank card to Marisia, just in case. But the double-bypass operation was successful, and two weeks later he was discharged.

On her way out, Marisia gave the billing clerk David’s health insurance card. It looked like any other, listing a copay of $30 for doctor visits and $50 for “wellness.” She’d bought the plan a year earlier from a company called Health Insurance Innovations Inc., with the understanding that it would be comprehensive. She hadn’t noticed a phrase near the top of the card, though: “Short-Term Medical Insurance.”

The Diazes’ plan was nothing like the ones consumers have come to expect under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which bars insurers from capping coverage, canceling it retroactively, or turning away people with preexisting conditions. But the law includes an exemption for short-term plans that serve as a stopgap for people between jobs. The Trump administration, thwarted in its attempts to overturn the ACA, has widened that loophole by stretching the definition of “short-term” from three months to a year, with the option of renewing for as long as three years.

Fewer than 100,000 people had such plans at the end of last year, according to state insurance regulators, but the Trump administration says that number will jump by 600,000 in 2019 as a result of the changes. Some brokers are taking advantage, selling plans so skimpy that they offer no meaningful coverage. And Health Insurance Innovations is at the center of the market. In interviews, lawsuits, and complaints to regulators, dozens of its customers say they were tricked into buying plans they didn’t realize were substandard until they were stuck with surprise bills. The company denies responsibility for any such incidents, saying it’s a technology platform that helps people find affordable policies through reputable agents.

Six months after David’s surgery, the Diaz family got a particularly big surprise bill—an error, Marisia thought when she saw the invoice. But when she called her insurer, she was told she’d have to pay the full amount: $244,447.91.

The ACA was designed around a fundamental economic bargain: Insurance companies would no longer be allowed to deny coverage to people who were already sick, and policies would have to cover a broad set of benefits, including prescription drugs, maternity care, and hospitalization. In return insurers were guaranteed that consumers would buy coverage or face tax penalties, and that subsidies would be available for people who needed them. The approach spread the financial risk of getting sick and aimed to guarantee that no one with insurance would have to worry about being bankrupted by necessary care. Preserving the bargain was essential, though; too many exceptions, and the edifice would crumble.

When the Republican-controlled Senate failed in 2017 to pass Trump-backed legislation that would have gutted the ACA, the administration instead seized on the loophole allowing consumers to buy certain noncompliant plans. Trump used an executive order to extend the time limit for temporary plans, which he and other Republicans talked up as a potential solution for cash-strapped consumers. Healthy people, they argued, could save money by buying policies that didn’t cover perceived nonessentials. “These plans aren’t for everyone, but they can provide a much more affordable option for millions of the forgotten men and women left out by the current system,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in August 2018.

By then, the ACA system was already wobbling. Aetna Inc. and some other big insurers had been dropping off the state exchanges created for consumers to buy compliant plans, leaving a void that “junk insurers,” as critics tagged them, rushed to fill. A recent study by Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, showed that ads for such plans often appeared at the top of internet searches for the government-run marketplaces. Health insurance also became the most common product pitched in robocalls—responsible, according to call-blocking service YouMail, for 387 million calls this April alone.

One company that moved nimbly to capitalize on the uncertainty was Health Insurance Innovations, known by its stock ticker, HIIQ. Founded in Tampa in 2008 by Michael Kosloske, whose father and grandfather both ran health insurance brokerages, the company sought to provide a clearinghouse for brokers who sold cheap insurance to individuals. It worked with insurers to devise a menu of plans, designed software for the brokers, and ran a call center to handle customer service.

After the ACA passed in March 2010, HIIQ continued promoting short-term plans and other limited forms of insurance that didn’t have to comply with the new rules for comprehensive plans. In an interview with Fox News a few years later, Kosloske argued that these policies offered the same benefits at half the cost. “There’s challenges with the Affordable Care Act, and we think our products provide a solution,” he said.

Read the complete article on Bloomberg here.