Economist 5/19/16

  1. Facebook has recently been accused of suppressing conservative news on a feature of its desktop version, called “Trending Topics”, which shows the current top stories. Anxiety about Facebook’s liberal bias in this instance is probably overblown, because that section is such a small part of the news Facebook serves up.Facebook undoubtedly has tremendous power in the lives of its users. Around 1.6 billion people use the social network each month, including some 200m Americans. They spend around 30% of their internet time on mobile devices on Facebook and its properties.One study, published in 2014, concluded that people’s level of happiness could be influenced by whether the posts they saw on Facebook were upbeat or sad.Part of what makes critics uneasy is Facebook’s eerie ability to predict what people want to see, paired with its penchant for keeping its algorithms secret.Where Facebook will hold most sway this election is as an important advertising platform. In 2016 candidates in all elections are likely to spend more than $1 billion on digital ads.
  2. Drug-resistance is not only one of the clearest examples of evolution in action, it is also the one with the biggest immediate human cost.Stretching today’s trends out to 2050, the 700,000 deaths could reach 10m. People have fretted about resistance since antibiotics began being used in large quantities during the late 1940s.The lack of an incentive to do the right thing is hard to correct. In some health-care systems, doctors are rewarded for writing prescriptions. Patients suffer no immediate harm when they neglect to complete drug courses after their symptoms have cleared up, leaving the most drug-resistant bugs alive.Reserving new drugs for emergencies is sensible public policy. But it keeps sales low, and therefore discourages drug firms from research and development. Artemisinin, a malaria treatment which has replaced earlier therapies to which the parasite became resistant—and which now faces resistance problems itself.
  3. Because antimicrobial resistance has no single solution, it must be fought on many fronts.Start with consumption. The use of antibiotics to accelerate growth in farm animals can be banned by agriculture ministries, as it has in the European Union.In both people and animals, policy should be to vaccinate more so as to stop infections before they start.Hospitals and other breeding grounds for resistant bugs should prevent infections by practising better hygiene. Governments should educate the public about how antibiotics work and how they can help halt the spread of resistance.Policy can also sharpen the incentives to innovate. In a declaration in January, 85 pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies pledged to act against drug resistance.If doctors could tell instantaneously whether an infection was viral or bacterial, they would no longer be tempted to administer antibiotics just in case. If they knew which antibiotics would eradicate an infection, they could avoid prescribing a drug that suffers from partial resistance, and thereby limit the further selection of resistant strains.
  4. QUEUES have been growing longer at America’s airports, and things will get worse before they get better.Two senators think they have a solution. In a letter to 12 American airlines last week, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, asked the carriers to stop charging fees for checked bags this summer.According to the letter, baggage fees increase the number of carry-on bags by 27%. If the charge disappeared, the senators argue, people would check their bags instead.Suspending bag fees would certainly be politically popular, so it is not surprising to see politicians calling for the move. But it is probably not the best approach to speeding up security lines. The main reason for the current problems has nothing to do with carry-on bags, and everything to do with staffing. There are nearly 5,000 fewer TSA screeners now than there were three years ago, even though there are more people flying. That is because the TSA was counting on many more flyers joining its PreCheck programme. PreCheck allows pre-screened members, who pay $80 to join, to skip the long lines and move through an expedited security channel. The programme has struggled to meet its membership targets, but the TSA has still slashed staff in anticipation of a reduced need.
  5. As global demand for quinoa galloped ahead, supply could not keep pace. So between 2000 and its peak in 2014, the average price of quinoa exports from Peru and Bolivia more than tripled, to $6-7 a kilogram.Although average quinoa consumption in Peru fell as quinoa prices rose, it did so steadily, and much less abruptly, than the movement in the price. This suggests that the switch was as much to do with changing preferences as prices.In any case, only a tiny portion of Peruvian household spending is devoted to quinoa.But a study by Andrew Stevens at the University of California found that quinoa accounted for a mere 0.5% of household spending, on average.For farmers, meanwhile, higher prices meant higher incomes. Peruvian and Bolivian quinoa-growers need all the money they can get.Surging prices helped lift quinoa farmers’ household expenditure by 46% between 2004 and 2013 (compared with an increase of around 30% for non-producing households.It seems that by spending their newfound income, flush quinoa producers benefited the local economy more broadly. For every 25% increase in the price, household consumption increased by 1.75%.

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