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  • Tunisia needs help if it is to remain a model for the Arab world

    “BREAD, freedom, dignity.” These were the demands of Tunisian protesters who threw off autocracy and sparked the Arab spring seven years ago this month. Tunisians now have more freedom and some dignity. But bread is scarcer than ever. GDP per person has barely budged since the revolution. That is why Tunisia has once again been mired in protests, this time over higher taxes, lower subsidies and the lack of jobs.

    Nine governments in seven years have failed to revive the economy (see article). Tunisians are losing faith in democracy. Some even yearn for the return of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the despot whom they tossed out in 2011. According to today’s rose-tinted nostalgia, he at least ensured that Tunisians had work. In fact, Mr Ben Ali left Tunisians feeling much as they do today: as if they have no future. He also tortured...

  • The new space race

    LATER this month, if all has gone according to plan, a rocket called the Falcon Heavy will take off from Cape Canaveral, in Florida (see article). Its mission is to put a sports car in orbit around the sun. The Falcon Heavy is the latest product of SpaceX, a firm founded by Elon Musk, an American billionaire. The car is Mr Musk’s own, made by Tesla, another of his businesses. SpaceX has the explicit aim, besides making money, of enabling people to travel to and colonise Mars. Before then, the Falcon Heavy may earn its keep lifting satellites and carrying tourists on “slingshot” trips around the moon.

    Mr Musk’s ambition is to propel humanity beyond its home planet. But what is going on in space today also reflects the shifting balance of power on Earth. In the days of the space race between America and the Soviet Union, the heavens were a front...

  • Value matters again in currency markets

    IN DECEMBER a new dollar bill came into circulation adorned with the signature of Steve Mnuchin. Instead of his usual scrawl, the treasury secretary opted to print his name. If he hoped that his best handwriting would give the greenback a fillip, he may well be disappointed. The dollar reached a peak against a basket of other currencies a year ago and has not threatened to regain it. Gurus of the foreign-exchange markets agree that 2018 is likely to be another year of modest decline. That is because of three sources of downward pressure.

    The first relates to the world economy. The dollar’s descent is not so much a judgment on America’s fitness as a sign of the burgeoning health of other places. So long as America was one of the only places that could be relied upon for economic growth, there was a powerful logic to the dollar’s strength. A broad-based global upswing—evident in everything from booming stockmarkets to a surging oil price (see...

  • Carillion’s collapse raises awkward questions about contracting out

    WHAT do high-speed railways, school lunches and army bases have in common? Perhaps not much, which may be one reason for the dramatic collapse of Carillion, a jack-of-all-trades contractor that did a bewildering array of work for Britain’s public sector. On January 15th the firm went into liquidation, casting doubt on the prospects of its 43,000 employees, 30,000 subcontractors and the fulfilment of government contracts stretching three decades into the future.

    The company’s fall is a story of commercial overreach and miscalculation (see article). But it is also the story of a political philosophy. Carillion exemplified a way of running the state that was pioneered under Margaret Thatcher and which went on to conquer the world. Where once governments provided public services, they now commission them from private companies. The idea is to...

  • How to tame the tech titans

    NOT long ago, being the boss of a big Western tech firm was a dream job. As the billions rolled in, so did the plaudits: Google, Facebook, Amazon and others were making the world a better place. Today these companies are accused of being BAADD—big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy. Regulators fine them, politicians grill them and one-time backers warn of their power to cause harm.

    Much of this techlash is misguided. The presumption that big businesses must necessarily be wicked is plain wrong. Apple is to be admired as the world’s most valuable listed company for the simple reason that it makes things people want to buy, even while facing fierce competition. Many online services would be worse if their providers were smaller. Evidence for the link between smartphones and unhappiness is weak. Fake news is not only an online phenomenon.

    But big tech platforms, particularly Facebook, Google and Amazon, do indeed raise a worry about fair competition. That is...

  • Let the Salvadoreans stay

    ELENA AGUILAR came to America illegally from El Salvador in 1996 to escape her children’s violent father. Earthquakes in her home country in 2001 brought her good fortune of a sort: she was among 290,000 Salvadoreans who received “temporary protected status” (TPS) from the American government. That allowed her to live and work in America—in York, Pennsylvania, renovating and renting out houses—while El Salvador recovered. The American government has renewed Salvadoreans’ protected status periodically ever since. Ms Aguilar’s children have grown up in the country.

    On January 8th the Trump administration said enough was enough. From September 2019 the 200,000 or so Salvadoreans who still have TPS will have to leave if they cannot find a legal way to remain (see article). The Salvadoreans share their plight with 46,000 Haitians, who got TPS...

  • The next super-collider should be built in China

    ON JULY 4th 2012 news of the discovery of the Higgs boson by researchers at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, electrified science and the wider public. This particle, generated inside the lab’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), was the last missing piece of the Standard Model, one of the most successful theories physicists have devised.

    Since its inception in the 1970s, the Standard Model has correctly predicted the existence of a range of particles—including the Higgs itself. Yet it cannot explain everything. It cannot say why the Higgs has the mass it does. Nor does it have anything to say about dark matter, the mysterious stuff thought to make up almost 85% of the mass of the universe (see article).

    Physicists have wrestled with these and other problems for years. Many of their ideas for explaining them, such as Grand...

  • India has a hole where its middle class should be

    AFTER China, where next? Over the past two decades, the world’s most populous country has become the market qua non of just about every global company seeking growth. As its economy slows, businesses are looking for the next set of consumers to keep the tills ringing.

    To many, India feels like the heir apparent. Its population will soon overtake its Asian rival’s. It occasionally grows at the kind of pace that propelled China to the status of economic superpower. And its middle class is thought by many to be in the early stages of the journey to prosperity that created hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers. Exuberant management consultants speak of a 300m-400m horde of potential frapuccino-sippers, Fiesta-drivers and globe-trotters. Rare is the chief executive who, upon visiting India, does not proclaim it as central to his or her plans. Some of that may be a diplomatic dose of flattery; much of it, from firms such as IKEA, SoftBank, Amazon and Starbucks, is...

  • Cutting adolescents’ use of social media will not solve their problems

    FIRST they went for tobacco, coal and sugar. Now they are targeting smartphones and social media. On January 6th two large investors in Apple demanded that the technology company must help parents curtail their children’s iPhone use, citing research into the links between adolescent social-media habits and risk factors for suicide, such as depression. Old and new media abound with reports about phones’ addictive, mind-warping properties. On the school run, parents compare tactics for limiting screen time.

    Something has made today’s teenagers different from teenagers in the past. As well as being far more temperate and better-behaved, they seem more anxious and unhappy (see article). School surveys by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, suggest that 15-year-olds find it harder to make friends. In America—though, phone-bashers should...

  • The one-year-old Trump presidency

    ALMOST one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, you have to pinch yourself to make sense of it all. In “Fire and Fury”, Michael Wolff’s gossipy tale of the White House, which did not welcome Mr Trump’s anniversary so much as punch it in the face, the leader of the free world is portrayed as a monstrously selfish toddler-emperor seen by his own staff as unfit for office (see article). America is caught up in a debate about the president’s sanity. Seemingly unable to contain himself, Mr Trump fans the flames by taking to Twitter to crow about his “very stable genius” and, in a threat to North Korea, to boast about the impressive size of his nuclear button.

    Trump-watching is compulsive—who hasn’t waited guiltily for the next tweet with horrified anticipation? Given how much rests on the man’s shoulders, and how ill-suited he is to the...

  • The troubling pardon of Alberto Fujimori

    ON THE evening of December 24th, as Peru was preparing for its Christmas dinner, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the country’s president, bestowed an unexpected present on a jailed predecessor, Alberto Fujimori: a pardon. This came just three days after Mr Kuczynski hung on to his job thanks to ten fujimorista legislators led by Alberto’s son, Kenji, who abstained in a vote on an attempt to impeach him for links to Odebrecht, a tainted Brazilian construction firm. Mr Kuczynski insisted that the pardon was for “humanitarian reasons”. Few Peruvians believe him. More likely, it was a grubby political deal that bodes ill for his country (see article). Many of his allies feel as conned by this pardon as people who bought fake relics from Chaucer’s pardoner in “The Canterbury Tales”.

    More than 15 years after the collapse of...

  • In praise of state-ism

    CALIFORNIA’S new laws liberalising cannabis are a good idea, but some of their provisions read like a parody of 21st-century liberalism. To right an injustice—that brown people were more likely than white ones to be charged when the police found marijuana on them—Los Angeles plans to help those with marijuana convictions set up pot shops. This experiment may turn out to be a foolish mistake (see article). But that, in a way, is the point. Congress finds it notoriously hard to pass meaningful laws and finds it almost as hard to undo legislation that has been on the books for a long time. Statehouses, governors and mayors are more nimble.

    Sure enough, the Golden State is greeting 2018 with a host of innovations. Firms with at least 20 employees will have to offer them 12 weeks’ unpaid parental leave. Schools in poor areas will have...

  • Iranians demand—and deserve—a less oppressive regime

    BIG things often have small beginnings. In the case of the protests engulfing Iran, it was a steep rise in the price of eggs. That was why hundreds of people first took to the streets in Mashhad, Iran’s second city, on December 28th. They demanded the resignation of Hassan Rouhani, the reformist president, for failing to bring prosperity to most Iranians.

    The protests quickly spread to more than 70 towns and cities, attracting a broader swathe of malcontents, mostly young (see article). Over 20 people have been killed; hundreds more have been arrested. The authorities have shut down messaging apps and social-media websites. They have blamed foreigners, absurdly, for the unrest and they are threatening a violent clampdown. Protesters are now calling not only for Mr Rouhani to go, but for Iran’s clerical leaders, who hold far more real power...

  • Pakistan’s lessons in school reform

    WHEN Pakistan’s schools attract global attention, it is often as a backdrop to violence. In October 2012 a masked gunman from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan boarded a school bus and shot Malala Yousafzai in the head, neck and shoulder. Two years later, and six days after Ms Yousafzai received the Nobel peace prize, terrorists from the same umbrella group killed 141 people, nearly all pupils, at an army-run school in Peshawar, one of the deadliest attacks on a school in any country. According to the Global Terrorism Database kept by the University of Maryland, 867 educational institutions were attacked by Islamists between 2007 and 2015, often because these places had the temerity to teach science—or worse, educate girls.

    Such attacks have added to problems that schools in Pakistan, the world’s sixth-most-populous country, share with those in other poor states—irrelevant curriculums, high rates of dropout as children (especially girls) get older, and woeful teaching. Yet the spectre of violence may...

  • Using thought to control machines

    TECHNOLOGIES are often billed as transformative. For William Kochevar, the term is justified. Mr Kochevar is paralysed below the shoulders after a cycling accident, yet has managed to feed himself by his own hand. This remarkable feat is partly thanks to electrodes, implanted in his right arm, which stimulate muscles. But the real magic lies higher up. Mr Kochevar can control his arm using the power of thought. His intention to move is reflected in neural activity in his motor cortex; these signals are detected by implants in his brain and processed into commands to activate the electrodes in his arms.

    An ability to decode thought in this way may sound like science fiction. But brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) like the BrainGate system used by Mr Kochevar provide evidence that mind-control can work. Researchers are able to tell what words and images people have heard and seen from neural activity alone. Information can also be encoded and used to stimulate the brain. Over 300,000 people have...

  • The trouble with Trump’s new national security strategy

    CRITICS of Donald Trump often charge that he is a man without principles. That is unfair. When it comes to one terrible idea—his conviction that America is stupid to want to lead a rules-based global order—the president is strikingly consistent. Back in 1987, weeks after Ronald Reagan startled the world by calling on Soviet leaders to tear down the Berlin Wall, Mr Trump placed full-page advertisements in major newspapers expressing a bleaker worldview. In an open letter to the American people, Mr Trump, then a property developer with a flair for publicity, called for his country to show more “backbone” abroad. He accused Japan and other American allies of “brilliantly” manipulating trade and currency flows to grow rich, while enjoying military security foolishly provided by America at no charge. Mr Trump concluded: “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at any more.”

    On December 18th President Donald Trump launched his National Security Strategy (NSS)—a high-level plan for keeping...

  • The Economist reveals its country of the year

    EVERY Christmas since 2013 The Economist has picked a “country of the year”. Rogue nations are not eligible, no matter how much they frighten people. (Sorry, North Korea.) Nor do we plump for the places that exert the most influence through sheer size or economic muscle—otherwise China and America would be hard to beat. Rather, we look for a country, of any size, that has changed notably for the better in the past 12 months, or made the world brighter.

    We make mistakes. In 2015 we picked Myanmar, for moving from “larcenous dictatorship” to “something resembling democracy”. We acknowledged that its treatment of the Rohingya minority was disgraceful, but failed to predict how much worse it would soon get. This year, after more than 600,000 Rohingyas fled their smouldering villages to avoid being raped and slaughtered by the Burmese army, we are tempted to name next-door Bangladesh as the country of the year for...

  • How to regulate lower-risk smoking products

    SMOKING is a scourge. It is the leading preventable cause of cancer and kills over 7m people annually, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. In America, where it is linked to one death in five, it is estimated to cost more than $300bn a year in medical bills and lost productivity.

    Big Tobacco is doing nothing illegal by producing and marketing cigarettes. But the industry has an inglorious history of lying about the effects of cigarettes on human health. Although rates of smoking in much of the rich world are declining, tobacco firms fight measures, such as restrictions on advertising, that are designed to clamp down on cigarette use in emerging markets. No wonder people are cynical when they hear tobacco bosses evangelise about the benefits of new, lower-risk products such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products (see article...

  • Accusations of harassment have felled some powerful men

    FOR those who care about a woman’s right to lead her life unmolested, 2017 began badly. A man accused of groping several women took office in the White House. (Donald Trump dismissed the allegations—as well as a tape of him boasting about his behaviour, which he called mere “locker-room talk”.)

    The year is ending somewhat better. In October Harvey Weinstein, a film producer, was accused of having spent decades harassing and assaulting actresses, and using his exalted position in Hollywood to intimidate and silence anyone who got in his way. He was forced out of the firm he co-founded and is being investigated by police. Further accusations against other powerful men followed, spreading beyond Hollywood into politics, journalism and the tech industry. Dozens were sacked or stepped down. Millions of women were inspired to share their own experience of harassment, using the hashtags #MeToo, #YoTambien, #BalanceTonPorc and so on. In a fitting end to a year of comeuppances, Roy Moore, who is...

  • South Africa’s ruling party rejects the Zuma family

    ON DECEMBER 18th South Africa’s ruling party picked a leader. The new head of the African National Congress (ANC) is Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the handful of heroes who negotiated the peaceful dismantling of apartheid in the 1990s. In 2019 he will probably be elected president of South Africa. It is absurd—and a sign of how poisonous ANC politics have become—that his rivals within his own party dismiss him as a tool of “white monopoly capital”. That he won the party’s top job anyway shows that there is still hope for South Africa.

    The choice should have been simple. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the candidate backed by Jacob Zuma, the country’s current president, promised more of the same. Under Mr Zuma’s administration, corruption thrives, state resources have been looted and democratic institutions have been undermined. By one estimate, as much as 150bn-200bn rand ($11bn-15bn), or 5% of GDP, has been misappropriated. Ms Dlamini-Zuma (who is Mr Zuma’s ex-wife) has remained almost entirely silent about what South Africans call “state capture”. In a 4,200-word speech kicking off her campaign, she did not mention corruption once. Many took this to mean that, if elected, she would shield Mr Zuma from prosecution on the 783 counts of corruption that he faces. She also vowed to curtail the independence of the central bank, put more people on the...

 

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