Economist 5/17/16

  1. LAST week America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it would reconsider its definition of “healthy”.Few agree, thanks to nutrition research that is as extensive as it is imperfect. The gold standard of medical evidence is the randomized, controlled clinical trial.In nutrition, researchers like tracking the effect of diets over long periods of time, so many studies are observational. Often, they use questionnaires to discern what their subjects eat. Such data are imprecise.Some people can’t remember exactly what they ate; others feign asceticism.Fat may be nutritionists’ biggest fiasco. In 1980 the American government published its first “dietary guidelines”, recommending that Americans eat less steak and butter.And for more than two decades the FDA allowed “healthy” to describe only foods that were low in fat.
  2. Last week, Pfizer, one of America’s largest drug companies, announced that it would no longer supply prisons with seven drugs used to impose the death penalty. Pfizer’s move will rankle a devoted but diminished swath of America. Though 31 states still have death-penalty laws on their books, only a handful actually follow through. In 2015, a total of six states—Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia—hosted executions. And of the 27 men and one woman put to death last year (the lowest number since 1984), all but four were in the execution-leading troika of Georgia, Missouri and Texas.Oklahoma and a few other states had turned to one of the drugs on Pfizer’s list, midazolam, in 2013 when European drug companies opposed to the death penalty stopped supplying prisons with sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, barbiturates which induce a coma-like state.The Supreme Court gave Oklahoma and its sister death-penalty states the go-ahead to use midazolam in execution cocktails. But with Pfizer’s announcement, it becomes unclear where the states will procure midazolam or a similar drug designed to sedate a prisoner before other drugs stop his breathing and heart.
  3. Zimbabwe’s government claimed to have overturned the laws of economics during its own bout of hyperinflation nearly a decade ago.By some estimates it peaked at 500 billion per cent, as the government printed ever-larger denominations. Notes such as one with a face value of 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars are worth much more now as a novelty on eBay than they ever were in shops in Harare.Zimbabwe finally tamed inflation in 2009, when it abandoned the Zim dollar and started using American dollars and other foreign currencies instead. (It converted bank balances to US dollars at a rate of $1 for every 35 quadrillion Zim dollars.)But the government of Robert Mugabe, a 92-year-old who has held power since the end of white rule in 1980, has again been spending more than it collects in taxes, and importing more than it exports. Without money to pay civil servants—in particular the soldiers and policemen who keep Mr Mugabe in power—the government intends to start printing it again. This time it insists it is not bringing back the reviled “new” Zim dollar, but is printing notes that are “backed” by some $200m that Zimbabwe has borrowed from the African Export-Import Bank.
  4. AMERICA’S House of Representatives is considering a bill, HR5090, that aims to block further expansion by Norwegian Air Shuttle, the only low-cost carrier flying direct between Europe and America. Four lawmakers introduced the bill last month after the Department of Transportation (DoT) tentatively agreed to let Norwegian scale up its transatlantic route. They accuse it of unfair commercial advantages, echoing concerns voiced by several airlines and trade unions.Low-cost carriers like Norwegian place operational efficiency and cost-competitiveness at the heart of their business models. This includes low labour costs—at least, when compared with the generous collective-bargaining agreements that keep salaries high at most full-service airlines.Three of its full-service rivals—Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines—command a jaw-dropping 79% share, when including their joint-venture partners in Europe.The 2007 US-EU open-skies agreement was intended to weaken this oligopoly by injecting private-sector competition. Its impact, though significant, was dampened by the airline consolidation that followed the global financial crisis.It took more than two years for the DoT to provisionally grant Norwegian’s request for a new foreign-carrier permit.

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