The Best of the Economist, August 2012

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America and the politics of recovery: The big promiseWhat did Barack Obama’s stimulus package really achieve? The word “boondoggle”, Michael Grunwald points out, was coined back in the days of the original New Deal, to describe “make-work” bits of arts and craft paid for by the government at a price that was out of all proportion to their actual value.

The human microbiome: Me, myself, usLooking at human beings as ecosystems that contain many collaborating and competing species could change the practice of medicine. A human being is an individual who has grown from a fertilised egg which contained genes from both father and mother. A growing band of biologists, however, think this definition incomplete. They see people not just as individuals, but also as ecosystems.

Bath salts: The synthetic scarePublic health and law authorities are sounding an alarm about new drugs. Few things command attention like a random act of cannibalism. In May, after police in Florida shot a man who was eating the face of an unconscious victim, people took notice. Much of the speculation centred on “bath salts”, a previously obscure synthetic drug that is thought to induce euphoria, excitement and, occasionally, psychotic episodes.

Business and religion: Speak low if you speak GodHow to cope with divine intrusions on Mammon’s turf. A plaque at Chick-fil-A’s headquarters in Atlanta says the company’s mission is to “glorify God”, which it does by serving chickenburgers and closing its 1,600 outlets on Sundays. The founder, Truett Cathy, once said that while “you don’t have to be a Christian to work at Chick-fil-A…we ask you to base your business on Biblical principles because they work.”

Facebook: Work in progressThe stockmarket has lost no time in unfriending the social network It is still gaining members—there were 955m by the end of June—but Facebook has been losing friends ever since it became a public company on May 18th. Delays in trading on the frenzied opening day were scarcely the social-networking company’s fault. But not since that first day has the share price closed above its bloated debut mark of $38; and recently it has lurched lower. It dropped by 8% after hours on July 25th when Zynga, a games company that uses Facebook as a base, reported poor quarterly results, and by another 10% after Facebook’s own figures came out the next day. It has fallen further since. On August 1st Facebook’s shares closed at $20.88, the lowest yet (see chart).

Quebec’s election: None of the above, please. Dogged by student protests and allegations of corruption, the centrist Liberals are trying to keep the separatists at bay one more time. Politicians aren’t supposed to want summer elections. Voters are distracted and campaign workers are on holiday. Moreover, this year the Olympics are dominating the news. But for Jean Charest, the unpopular Liberal premier of Quebec (pictured in effigy above), an under-the-radar campaign represents his best chance of winning a fourth term. It was thus no surprise that on August 1st he called an election to be held on September 4th—long before it is required by December 2013.

Extra-terrestrial life: Closer to encounterAs the latest rover arrives on Mars to assess its hospitality, astronomers are learning more about possibly habitable worlds beyond the solar system. If Martians exist, then any in the vicinity of Gale Crater on the Martian equator are in for a treat. On August 6th, assuming its complex landing system works, a plutonium-powered rover the size of a car will be set down on the surface. This is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the biggest and most sophisticated rover sent anywhere in the solar system. It is going to Mars for several reasons, but the most publicised part of its mission is to continue the hunt for signs of extra-terrestrial life.


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