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Shots in the dark

the economistVie, 22/01/2016 - 16:26

THE WAR against cancer, launched by Richard Nixon in 1971, is increasingly regarded as a failure. Although the risk of dying from cancer has declined by 23% since 1991, deaths from cancer have risen relentlessly—even as medicine has made great progress in averting heart attacks and strokes. About 1.7m new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2016, and almost 600,000 will die. One of the reasons for this failure is that the “war” was based on a misconceived notion that cancer is one disease amenable to a single cure.

Today the fundamental science is better understood and cancer is seen to be many diseases, more closely connected by the molecular faults that drive them than the location in the body they are found. Can the science be advanced further? A better idea than lobbing billions at government research agencies in another broad-based onslaught might be something more focused, an attempt to answer some key questions on a set timeline. This approach is more like a moon shot.

It came as some surprise, then, that not one but two cancer moon shots were announced recently. On January 11th, a group calling itself the...Continue reading

Does the constitution fix everything?

the economistJue, 21/01/2016 - 21:15

THE TALE of Jeffrey Heffernan, a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey, lends support to the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

In 2006, Mr Heffernan’s bedridden mother asked him to pick her up another yard sign (the first had been pinched) supporting her preferred candidate in the town’s mayoral race. In carrying out his mum’s wishes, Mr Heffernan was spotted with the sign and word quickly spread through the police department. The chief of police, James Wittig, was supporting the incumbent, as was his boss, and did not look kindly on Mr Heffernan’s apparent activism in favour of the challenger. Mr Wittig quickly took action against Mr Heffernan, then a 20-year veteran in the department who had been promoted to detective just a year earlier. The dutiful son would pay for his political sin by giving up the keys to his cruiser and assuming the duties of patrol cop with a walking beat.

Nobody involved in Heffernan v City of Paterson seems to think Mr Wittig’s retribution was in the least bit noble. The lawyer...Continue reading

Sarah Palin endorses the Republican front-runner

the economistJue, 21/01/2016 - 04:10

SARAH PALIN been absent from the spotlight for many months and is derided by many in her party. But her endorsement of Donald Trump, announced at a raucous rally at Iowa State University on January 19th, less than a fortnight before the state holds its curtain-raising caucuses on February 1st, could prove handy for the Republican

“Are you ready for the leader to make America great again?” asked the former governor of Alaska and 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate, with Mr Trump by her side. “Are you ready to stump for Trump?”

The big loser from her endorsement is Ted Cruz, whom Mrs Palin had backed in his 2010 senate race, and who is now running neck-and with Mr Trump in Iowa. Earlier in the day, he had posted a tweet in homage to Mrs Palin: “Without her support, I wouldn't be in the Senate. Regardless of what she does in 2016, I will always be a big fan.” Perhaps not if Mrs Palin has just swung Iowa for Mr Trump, however. And in a close race—in 2012 the Iowa contest was won by Rick Santorum by a mere 34 votes—she just might...Continue reading

Is health insurance a fundamental right?

the economistMié, 20/01/2016 - 20:51

HEALTH-care policy has become one of the most glaring areas of disagreement between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In last week’s debate, the two leading contenders laid out starkly different visions, with Mr Sanders taking a pie-in-the-sky approach while Mrs Clinton cemented herself as a pragmatic incrementalist. After a Republican debate a few days earlier in which the discourse over health-care amounted to the rather empty mantra of “repealing and replacing” Obamacare—without a single detail from any of the contenders on what a replacement might entail—the Sanders-Clinton exchange was refreshingly substantive.

The first mention of health-care came in the candidates’ opening statements, when moderator Lester Holt of NBC News asked which “top three priorities” the candidates would pursue in their “first...Continue reading

Obama’s immigration orders to be scrutinised by the Supreme Court

the economistMar, 19/01/2016 - 20:41

FOR THE third straight year, the Supreme Court will ask whether Barack Obama overstepped his executive authority under the constitution. In 2014, the justices slapped Mr Obama on the wrist for taking liberties in making unilateral appointments to federal agencies while the Senate (which is supposed to give its “advice and consent”) was in session. Last year, they evened the score, siding with the White House in a tussle with Congress over who gets to recognise foreign governments. This spring, Mr Obama’s controversial moves with regard to immigration face a major challenge at the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court agreed on January 19th to review lower-court decisions blocking the president’s actions to make life easier for nearly 5m illegal immigrants. A year away from his departure from the Oval...Continue reading

Could a Hollywood film about Benghazi damage Clinton?

the economistLun, 18/01/2016 - 17:57

HORDES of terrorists overrun the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, shoot holes in the American flag and set fire to diesel poured outside a safe room where the ambassador is hiding. Only a mile away, a group of tough and heavily armed American operatives is preparing to launch a rescue mission. But in "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" they are prevented from doing so by an effete and clueless CIA station chief. “Stand down!” he yells, to their incomprehension and fury. “Stand down!”

The first American blockbuster of the year, directed by Michael Bay and released on January 15th, tells the “true story” (as the opening credits have it) of the six American security contractors who were on duty when terrorists attacked the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the assault. But the film peddles a politically potent fiction. The order to “stand down” was never made, according to multiple investigations: seven of them congressional and one independent. Those investigations, most of them led by Republicans, multiplied as...Continue reading

Hillary Clinton harangues the Bern at the fourth Democratic debate

the economistLun, 18/01/2016 - 09:31

TWO weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the three surviving Democratic candidates had their first televised quarrel, in a debate held in South Carolina on January 17th. It was mostly started by Hillary Clinton at the expense of Bernie Sanders, whom she castigated for his history of flip-flopping over gun control—as an independent senator for huntin’-fishin’ Vermont, he once had little appetite for it—and for the uncertainty surrounding his health-care proposals.

“He voted to let guns go onto the Amtrak, guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives. Let’s not forget what this is about: 90 people a day die from gun violence in our country,” said Mrs Clinton, speaking less than a block from the church where nine black worshippers were massacred by a racist madman last June. Of the sketchy proposals Mr Sanders released, shortly before the debate, to replace President Barack Obama’s hard-won health-care reform with a new and expensive single-payer model, she said: “I have to say I’m not sure whether...Continue reading

A wasted vote for Jeb Bush

the economistVie, 15/01/2016 - 18:41

FAILING, disappointed, humiliated by six months of well-aimed taunts from Donald Trump, Jeb Bush has had a horrible six months. Once the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, he probably, it turns out, never stood a chance of getting it. He is measured, thoughtful, wonkish; Republican voters want rage. He could scarcely be more of the GOP establishment that they decry.

In the televised Republican debate held on January 14th Mr Bush argued against starting the trade war with China and levying the ban on Muslims that Mr Trump advocates. But the Republican front-runner’s response, lambasting Mr Bush for being “weak”, and the glum, bullied expression this elicited in President George W Bush’s brother, President George H. Bush’s son, were, sadly, more memorable. In a crowded field, Mr Bush is currently polling less than 5%; his main rival for the support of mainstream conservatives, Marco Rubio, is on 12%. Mr Trump has over a third of the Republican vote.

So the endorsement of Mr Bush by Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina and early drop-out from the Republican contest, on January 15th was a rare splash of sunlight...Continue reading

Wikipedia celebrates its first 15 years

the economistVie, 15/01/2016 - 15:09

FIFTEEN years ago today, on January 15th, 2001, Wikipedia was founded by two internet pioneers, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, although neither had any idea how ambitious their online encyclopedia would become. Today Wikipedia is the tenth most popular website in the world, with versions available in some 280 languages containing around 35m articles. Like the ancient library of Alexandria and Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia published during the Enlightenment, Wikipedia is an ever-evolving manifestation of its creators’ desire to preserve and compile knowledge.

Wikipedia was early to anticipate three important digital trends. First, people are willing to participate in global forums for nothing. Wikipedia, which is written and edited by volunteers, was an early social network. Second, Wikipedia saw that the knowledge economy was heading online. In 2012 the “Encyclopedia Britannica” stopped printing and is now only available in digital form. Third, Wikipedia showed the importance of network effects to online ventures: the more people use Wikipedia and write entries, the more helpful it has become. Younger digital firms, like Facebook and...Continue reading

Candidates Cruz and Trump butt heads

the economistVie, 15/01/2016 - 08:53

THE gloves came off in the sixth Republican primary debate, held in North Charleston, South Carolina, on January 14th, especially during exchanges between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two front-runners, who until recently had enjoyed an unofficial alliance. “I recognise that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa,” said Mr Cruz, in answer to a question about whether he might not qualify for the presidency because he was born in Canada, which, he said, was first raised by Mr Trump. An angry-looking Mr Trump retorted that Mr Cruz was “misrepresenting” how well he was doing. “I was all for you until you started that,” he said.

The exchange escalated when Mr Cruz suggested that, by Mr Trump’s standards, he himself might not be eligible to run for the presidency; his mother was born in Scotland. (“But I was born here—big difference,” was Mr Trump’s reply). It then turned almost comedic when the pair (sort of) offered each other the vice-presidency: Mr Trump said he would choose Mr Cruz as vice-president…but that the cloud of contestable nationality hanging over his head was a problem. Mr Cruz said...Continue reading

America's most famous jailer hangs up his keys

the economistJue, 14/01/2016 - 22:34

BURL CAIN, America's most famous jailer, has hung up his keys after nearly 21 years as the warden of Louisiana’s maximum-security Angola prison. Mr Cain, who has a strong belief in redemption and a way with words, has been a rockstar of the correctional world and the subject of documentaries, books, and countless newspaper and magazine articles.

He also ran the largest prison in the state that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any other—in the nation that leads the world in imprisonment. His stint as warden of the plantation-like prison located on 18,000 bucolic acres in a deep bend of the Mississippi River is the longest by far in Angola’s history.

Though Mr Cain is 73, his decision to call it quits wasn't because of old age. A few months ago, Mr Cain—who flirted with a bid to become Louisiana governor early last year—said he hoped to stay on regardless of who won the state’s recent election. His decision to quit came just as the new governor, John Bel Edwards, was deciding on key positions, and there had been speculation that Mr Cain may have been given some encouragement.

It seems more...Continue reading

Why Florida will have to rethink its approach to executions

the economistMié, 13/01/2016 - 20:24

LAST year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a 31-page dissent to a 5-to-4 decision upholding Oklahoma’s controversial method of executing criminals. To rely on a drug cocktail with a track record of torturing prisoners to death, she wrote in Glossip v Gross, is “barbarous” and violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments. This week, Justice Sotomayor wrote her first majority opinion in a death-penalty case, taking just ten pages to explain why Florida’s death-sentencing procedures are out of whack with the jury-trial guarantee in the Sixth Amendment. The vote was 8-to-1, with only Justice Samuel Alito in dissent.  

In nearly every state that executes criminals, the decision to sentence a convicted murderer to death lies with the jury. But in Florida, a hybrid sentencing scheme has given judges the final word. While juries are asked to issue an “advisory sentence” by a majority vote, and their recommendations must be given “great weight”, presiding judges are empowered to adjust the sentence based on their own assessments...Continue reading

Trump’s attack on Cruz gets a boost from law professors

the economistMar, 12/01/2016 - 19:57

WHEN you’re behind in the polls, attack your opponent in some new and creative way. It’s a well-worn and occasionally effective strategy, and Donald Trump is employing it with aplomb against Ted Cruz in the last stretch of the run-up to the Iowa caucuses on February 1st. Last week, echoing old questions about the birthplace of Barack Obama, Mr Trump renewed his scepticism about Mr Cruz's very eligibility to be president. The billionaire White House aspirant noted that Mr Cruz was born in Canada to parents of mixed heritage: while his mother was an American citizen, his father was born in Cuba. “Republicans are going to have to ask themselves the question”, Mr Trump said, “do we want a candidate who could be tied up in court for two years? That’d be a big problem”.

Article II of the Constitution mandates that a president must be at least 35 years old and “a natural born citizen”. Mr Trump is not certain that Mr...Continue reading


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