Economist 5/13/15

  1. PITY the poor pineal gland, tucked behind the thalamus in a gap between the brain’s hemispheres. It has a simple task—to make melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. In days gone by, it would start doing so after sunset, ramp up to a maximum in the middle of the night, and then taper off toward the morning. Modern life, though, is confusing for the pineal because its signal to start work is the absence of light—specifically, of blue light. This part of the spectrum radiates by the bucketful from light-emitting diodes in the screens of phones, tablets and laptop computers. As far as the gland is concerned, that turns night into day. Study after study has suggested night-time use of screen-based gadgets has a bad effect on peoples’ sleep.
  2. Dutch kids are among the happiest in the world, according to Unicef. Some attribute their high quality of life and general good nature to a rather laid-back approach to work: more than half of the Dutch working population works part time, a far greater share than in any other rich-world country. On average only a fifth of the working-age population in EU member states holds a part-time job (8.7% of men and 32.2% of women); in the Netherlands 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week. Part of the reason is that Dutch women were relative latecomers to the labour market. Compared with other countries, few men had to leave to fight in the world wars of the 20th century, with the result that women did not labour in factories as they did in America and Britain. Thanks to the country’s wealth, a dual income was often not a necessity for a comfortable life.But the cultural conviction that families still needed mothers home for tea-time prevailed, and thus the state worked closely with employers to ensure that the new part-time jobs would enjoy similar legal positions to their full-time equivalents. This has, to an extent, been continued: in 2000 the right for women and men to ask for a job to be part-time was written into law. Today, perhaps because part-time work is the norm, women in the Netherlands have a relatively high labour-force participation rate. However, the Netherlands’ record for getting women into top management roles is dire.
  3. GREECE is perilously close to running out of cash. Even Yanis Varoufakis, the defiantly optimistic finance minister, has acknowledged the dire state of the country’s public finances.Mr Varoufakis resorted to raiding Greece’s holding account at the International Monetary Fund to repay a €750m ($844m) loan instalment owed to the Fund itself. The unusual move was permitted under the Fund’s regulations as an emergency measure. Greece says it intends to put the money back in the account at an unspecified future date.The finance ministry has struggled since February to raise enough cash to pay pensions and public-sector salaries and at the same time meet this year’s especially tight schedule for repaying its bail-out loan. Ministry officials admitted that without the extra €650m from the holding account, public-sector workers would miss a salary payment due on Wednesday. Now they are hunting for another €650m to make sure both pensions and salaries can be paid at the end of the month. It looks increasingly hard for Greece to meet the conditions for unlocking €7.2bn of bail-out aid by the end of May. It is not just a matter of striking a deal: reforms must be legislated and implemented before the EU will release any cash. The stand-off with the EU and the IMF over new reforms has now gone on so long that Athens has been unable to access any bail-out funding for almost a year.Another reason for the squeeze is that tax revenues have shrunk dramatically. The radical left-wing Syriza-led government that took office in January pushed through legislation allowing delinquent taxpayers to pay their debts in as many as 100 instalments, while slashing fines for anyone willing to pay up the full amount owed.
  4. A new survey by the Pew Research Centre shows a sharp drop in the number of Americans who identify with Christianity and a corresponding rise in the number who are religiously unaffiliated. The trend can be seen in all generations, races and income groups but it is particularly dramatic among the young.The share of Americans over 18 who describe themselves as Christian fell from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014 while those who were either atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” rose from 16.1% to 22.8%. Among the “young millennials” born since 1990, only 56% called themselves Christian, and 36% had no affiliation. Within the population as a whole, moderate or “mainline” Protestants fell quite steeply from 18.1% to 14.7% but some decline was also seen among the evangelicals, seen hitherto as a robust minority: their share declined from 26.3% to 25.4%.  Muslims and Hindus rose from a low base (0.4% to 0.9% and 0.4% to 0.7%, respectively) while the Jewish proportion inched up from 1.7% to 1.9%.
  5. Mr Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had been in a stand-off with Mr Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) since the election in 2013. A parliamentary boycott and a series of street protests followed, as well as a violent government crackdown on dissidents. An uneasy truce was negotiated last July.How long the amity will last is unclear, but for now it is a marked change. Several opposition politicians have been released from jail. The CNRP will be allowed its own television station as an antidote to the state-run media. And the party will have more chairmanships of parliamentary committees as well as seats on the National Election Committee, whose apparent bias in favour of the CPP was a chief grievance at the last election. The next election must be held by 2018, and on the face of it the opposition should fancy its chances.  After all, despite voting irregularities and the state’s apparatus put to the service of the ruling party, the CNRP fared remarkably well in 2013, winning 44.5% of the vote and 55 seats versus the CPP’s 48.8% and 68 seats—down from 90 seats in the previous election.

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