Economist 1/30/14

  1. FIRST umami. Then kokumi. For many Japanese the classical gustatory quartet of sour, sweet, salty and bitter seems insufficient. Umami, imparted by glutamic acid, a type of amino acid, and most commonly associated with a derivative of that chemical called monosodium glutamate (MSG), was identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at what was then Tokyo Imperial University (now called the University of Tokyo).Kokumi, similarly compounded from “rich” and “taste”, has been the subject of scientific inquiry. It is as much a feeling as a taste, and is described variously as “mouthfulness”, “thickness” and “heartiness”. Garlic, onions and scallops are all said to possess it. But, though the source of kokumi is suspected to be a group of chemicals called gamma-glutamyl peptides, the search continues for special receptor-cells on the tongue, or anywhere else, that are tailored to detect these and thus create the sensation of kokumi.
  2.   In 1963  there were around 400,000 cases of measles in America. In the decade to 2013 the average number of annual cases dropped below 100. The disease is no longer endemic in America.An ongoing outbreak of measles traced back to a tourist at California’s Disneyland in December illustrates the risk posed by those who shun vaccines. Dozens of people have since caught the disease; most were unvaccinated. The sick have now spread measles to seven other states. The measles vaccination rate for young children in America was 92% in 2013. Although that is lower than in most rich countries, it is about the rate needed for herd immunity. But it conceals big differences across states—from 82% in Colorado to nearly 100% in Mississippi—and within them. This variation is in part explained by different laws. Although all 50 states require vaccines for students, 19 allow them to opt out without a doctor’s approval or religious justification.One such state is California, where many schools have vaccination rates lower than are needed for herd immunity. After rising for 12 years, the number of parents seeking a waiver on philosophical grounds declined in 2014, when a law went into effect requiring them to see a health-care professional first.
  3. Under the common-law system that America inherited from England, a person performing a prohibited act (actus reus) must also possess a guilty mind (mens rea) in order to be convicted of a crime. In other words, intent matters. In keeping with this tradition, many states differentiate between criminal behaviour that is purposeful, negligent or something in between. But things have got fuzzy lately. New criminal laws often lack intent requirements—sometimes on purpose, often by mistake. Most states, though, are ignoring the problem, even as a flood of new laws means more will be unwittingly broken. Federal statutes contain some 4,500 crimes, and there are thousands more in the federal regulatory code. In 2009 the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank, and the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers (NACDL) found that two-thirds of the non-violent criminal offences enacted by the 109th Congress lacked an adequate intent requirement. 
  4. Official data released this week from China confirm that the economy grew by 7.4% last year, the slowest rate in 24 years. A crackdown on official corruption has made it impossible to win friends in government. And antitrust authorities have taken a tough line with foreign carmakers, drugmakers and other firms that had hoped their guanxi (connections) offered them protection. Over the past two decades, China has maintained a highly restrictive, complex set of rules on how foreigners can invest on the mainland. In the many industries deemed “strategic”, for example, they must invest only through a joint venture and must transfer technology to the local partner. Flows of funds in and out of the country are also tightly controlled. The government unveiled a dramatic proposal to ease its restrictions on foreign investment.Foreign firms would supposedly be treated the same way as national ones. The clunky system of case-by-case approvals will be replaced by a simpler “negative list”: if your industry is not on it, you do not need permission to invest.
  5. THE International Monetary Fund is meant to be the firefighter of the world economy. Recently, though, it is China that has responded to the ringing of alarms. First, it lent Argentina cash to replenish its dwindling foreign-exchange reserves. Next, with the rouble crashing, China offered credit to Russia. Then Venezuela begged for funds to stave off a default. The World Bank and the IMF have been criticised for attaching too many conditions to loans. China, by contrast, is undemanding, worryingly so. The fear is that, as international use of the yuan grows, China will start to provide pariah states with a means to evade Western financial sanctions but China is not seeking to displace established multilateral institutions, but to gain the power befitting an economy of its size.
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