Archive

April 12th, 2016

Doctors paved the road to hell with pain pills

    Now that deaths from opioid overdose exceed those from car crashes, the medical community has come to recognize an error of historic proportions. In 2014, U.S. doctors wrote 245 million prescriptions for Vicodin, OxyContin, and other painkillers in the highly addictive family of opium derivatives known as opioids. That practice spares many patients from pain following accidents or surgery, but the cost is more than 20,000 deaths a year.

    In the past, drug addiction was viewed more as criminal behavior than as a medical condition, said Nora Volkow, who heads the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "But what we are facing now is the responsibility of the health care system," she said. "We created this epidemic and we have to be responsible to overturn it."

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for doctors last month, and President Barack Obama has promised better access to addiction treatment. Those measures could help, but to get to the root of the problem, doctors need to learn more about the science of addiction.

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Clinton-Sanders turns testy

    The Democratic nominee for president will be running against a political novice who is widely despised, or a senator so unpopular that only two of his colleagues support him, or a governor far too moderate for his party's hard-line base, or someone else chosen at a bitterly contested convention. For Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, what could possibly go wrong?

    Plenty. Begin with the fact that the Clinton-Sanders race has devolved into gratuitous and self-destructive nastiness.

    The rhetorical hissing and spitting escalated Wednesday when Sanders charged that Clinton -- a former senator, secretary of state and first lady -- is not "qualified" to be president. It was a ridiculous thing to say. One thing it's impossible to claim about Clinton is that she lacks an adequate resume.

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Bright lights, big savings

    Remember the hue and cry about how the federal government was going to force consumers to switch from the incandescent lightbulbs we've used since the days of Thomas Edison to those curlicue compact fluorescent ones?

    Now, just a few years later, there has been almost no political sniping as the Energy Department has proposed a lighting standard that would move the United States to a record achievement in energy efficiency.

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A Mason-Dixon Line of Progress

    Inside the ancient town hall of Siena, Italy, the walls hold a series of magnificent 14th-century frescoes showing the effects of good government and bad. One side depicts a prosperous city-state, where justice and tolerance prevail in the Tuscan countryside. The other is ruled by a horned, fanged figure, the streets deserted and scary.

    We saw our own version of this allegory with the two Americas this week — one going backward, the other stepping into tomorrow. We saw a retreat to bigotry in states dooming themselves to decline. And in other states, we saw a way for people to get around a do-nothing Congress controlled by Know-Nothing throwbacks.

    First, the good. On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill that will eventually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, lifting the earnings of 2.3 million New Yorkers, and he authorized one of the strongest paid parental leave laws in the nation. On the same day, Gov. Jerry Brown of California put his signature to a $15 minimum wage plan in the most populous state. And San Francisco became the first place in the country to require businesses to provide paid leave for new parents.

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April 11th

New reasons to question health of Europe's banks

    European banks have lost their mojo. A toxic combination of negative interest rates, comatose economies and a regulatory backdrop that might euphemistically be described as challenging is wreaking havoc with bank business models. Their collective market value has dropped by a quarter so far this year.

    The smoke signals emanating from the European Central Bank in recent weeks suggest regulators aren't blind to this. Daniele Nouy, who chairs the ECB's bank supervisory board, said earlier this week that the central bank "is aware that the low-interest-rate environment is putting pressure on the profitability of European banks." Regulators may respond by going easier when drafting new rules.

    Bank-failure rules to prescribe how banks design their balance sheets to absorb potential losses may be eased, according to a European Commission discussion paper prepared last month. Meanwhile, a global panel of regulators will hold a meeting in London this month to let banks give additional feedback on proposed rules about how much capital they must set aside to back their trading activities.

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A better model for regulating prostitution

    In recent days, two major European countries, France and Germany, have moved to amend their prostitution laws to make it riskier to pay for sex. The French and German approaches, however, are fundamentally different.

    France decided this week, after almost three years of deliberations, to switch to the so-called Swedish or Nordic model, which exists in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Northern Ireland: Sex work is legal, but paying for it isn't. Johns will be fined 1,500 euros ($1,700) for the first offense and 3,700 euros for the second.

    It doesn't just sound absurd to the uninitiated. French prostitutes marched against the law, carrying typically irreverent signs such as "Whores Are Angry: Don't Touch Our Clients." In real life, of course, France's 30,000 to 40,000 prostitutes still won't be paid in flowers and champagne. They will simply have fewer clients, and those they still get won't care too much whether the sex worker is involved in a legal business or some exploitative underground scheme.

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Why tax avoidance is a lousy business strategy

    Earlier this week, the Obama administration put in place new rules - ones with pretty sharp teeth - to block tax inversions, where companies move their "tax residence" to a low-tax country.

    I know, what does that mean and where do you sign up? It means that a U.S. company merges with a foreign company and declares itself, for tax purposes, a U.S. subsidiary of the new foreign parent. The new rules out of the Treasury Department don't outlaw this process, but by blocking some of the most lucrative tax-avoidance tactics that motivate inverters - "earnings stripping" (the parent loads up the subsidiary with debt, who then deducts interest payments from its tax bill), "hopscotch loans" (tax free access to foreign profits), and more - they seriously dampen major incentives.

    So much so, in fact, that the pharmaceutical firm Pfizer decided not to go ahead with their planned merger with the "Irish" firm Allergan, a firm that, according to Bloomberg, "is run from New Jersey but has a legal domicile in Dublin."

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When the 'kindness of strangers' is no longer enough

    One of the biggest unanswered questions of Britain's looming referendum is how much capital might flee the nation if it decides to go it alone.

    As it stands, foreign investors do better in Britain than British investors abroad, and that investment has been a big driver in the U.K. economy. It also helps explain why there's so much concern about the nation's growing deficit in its current account -- the gap between what Britain pays foreigners and what it receives.

    Britain's economy is one of Europe's strongest in terms of growth. But in 2015 the country's current account deficit hit a record, meaning more money was flowing out of the U.K. than into it. After widening for four consecutive years, the deficit reached 32.7 billion pounds ($46.47 billion) in the fourth quarter -- that's 7 percent of GDP, the highest of any developed nation's economy.

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The Clinton Broadway revival

    It will not be the first time that a Clinton relies on the tough-minded voters of New York to salvage a front-running presidential candidacy.

      On March 24, 1992, an insurgent candidate named Jerry Brown (yes, California's current governor) upended Bill Clinton, the Democrats' nominee-in-waiting, in the Connecticut primary. To re-establish his primacy, Clinton went to work in New York.

     A few days after his Connecticut defeat, Clinton spoke to reporters about "all this crap I've put up with" and how he had to deal with "attacks, attacks, attacks on me."

     Of Brown, Clinton said: "I think he gives them easier answers to problems than I do. And a lot of people who are frustrated and angry want simple solutions."

     Sound familiar?

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Sanders, like Clinton, has 'what it takes'

    Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are trading swipes about each other's qualifications (or lack thereof) to be U.S. president. Both may be misinterpreting the credentials required.

    Clinton fired the opening salvo when she assailed Sanders for fumbling an answer about his plan to break up the big banks:

    "I think he hadn't done his homework and he'd been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn't really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions."

    Reacting less to the content of her comments than to a headline in The Washington Post -- "Clinton Questions Whether Sanders Is Qualified to Be President" -- Sanders issued a harsh response. He said that Clinton was the unqualified one because she has accepted campaign contributions from Wall Street, voted for the war in Iraq and supported "disastrous" trade deals.

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