Category: Economics

Shop like a pharmacist — don’t buy brand names!

If you’re looking to save a few dollars — who isn’t, really? — here is some fail-safe advice: stop buying Advil.

Stop buying Tylenol, Aleve, Motrin or any other brand-name painkiller while you’re at it. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t buy any painkillers at all — just that you should pick up the generic version — the acetaminophen and ibuprofen and naproxen that your local drugstore chain markets for about one third of the price.

This is something that Tylenol sales data suggests a lot of us aren’t doing. Fewer than half of painkiller sales in the United States are for the generic, private label brands that pharmacy chains manufacture

CVS sells 100 Advil tablets for $9.99. It sells a bottle of 100 generic ibuprofen tablets for $4. They are, aside from their shape and color, the exact same pill. Each has 200 milligrams of ibuprofen, a compound discovered by a British scientist in 1961 and first used to treat arthritis.

Pharmacists, whose whole job it is to know about drugs and how they work, have caught onto this. While regular shoppers choose brand-name painkillers 26 percent of the time, according to research published last year by Dutch economist Bart Bronnenberg, pharmacists pick brand-name products in 9 percent of their purchases.

Learn what is the active ingredient in the OTC medication you need. Look for that – not the brand name.

Save yourself a few bucks, folks.

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How much of the world’s arable land is used to grow food?

food vs fuel&feed
Crops grown for food (green) versus for animal feed and fuel (purple)

Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people. Another 36 percent is used for animal feed. And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses…

The proportions are even more striking in the United States, where just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California. By contrast, more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.

Some of that animal feed eventually becomes food, obviously — but it’s a much, much more indirect process. It takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef, for instance.

The map itself comes from Jonathan Foley’s fascinating, visually rich exploration in National Geographic of how we can possibly feed everyone as the world’s population grows from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century…

There are lots of possible strategies here. Farmers could increase agricultural productivity by boosting crop yields — either through new farming techniques or through improved crop genetics. But even if the rapid rate of improvement in crop yields over the 20th century continued, that still wouldn’t produce enough food for everyone…

One implication of that is that, as countries like China and India grow and consume more milk and meat, the pressure on global farmland will grow. But, alternatively, if the world shifted even a small portion of its diet away from resource-intensive meats or grew fewer biofuels, we could wring more food calories out of existing farmland.

There are many more strategies – which almost always fall under the category of tweaks. Poisonally, I’d rather see the production of flavorful vegetable-based protein continue to move forward, become practical and affordable. Yes, flavorful means “tastes like meat, tastes like chicken, tastes like fish”.

I think philosophical discussions about the life and death of animals that evolved along omnivore humans won’t change public opinion anymore in the next couple of centuries than was achieved in the last couple. Make veggie-based stuff that consumes fewer calories of potential energy and tastes like the stuff we grew up consuming, furry, finned or feathered – and costs less – and you have a winner.

Fortunately, there are a number of folks working on that. That’s the side I’m on.

In Honduras, gangs control the schools

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Graffiti representing MS-13 and 18 neighborhood gangs are shown painted on the wall of the
Jose Ramon Montoya school in the Travesia neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — In primary and secondary schools of this Central American capital, “hallway” is not just another word for corridor but slang for a gantlet of gangsters who hit up instructors for money on the way to the classroom.

Teachers who don’t pay, don’t teach.

Gang prevention police distribute US-funded pamphlets on manners and anger management in about two thirds of the 130 public schools of Tegucigalpa. Gang members, meanwhile, circulate catalogues of their girls offering sexual services for sale.

It can’t exactly be said that street gangs are recruiting in Honduran schools because gangs in Honduras don’t need to recruit. In a country of limited opportunities, more schoolchildren want to join the violent Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street and other newly formed gangs than the illegal bands can absorb.

What can be said is that, just as they control most of the neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa, street gangs rule over most public schools in the capital. Gangsters are students and students are gangsters, as are some of their parents. The gangs lay claim to buildings with graffiti, and monitor the movements of police who are trying to monitor them. When the government sends in the military to retake a neighborhood and its schools, the ruling gang may lay low for a time, but they can’t stay quiet for long or competitors will move in, setting off a wave of violence…

While most gang violence takes place outside of school, there have been rapes and kidnappings inside, and extortion is rampant. In addition to setting up the occasional gantlet, where a teacher has to cough up pocket money on the spot, gangs demand that educators pay 1,000 lempiras or about $50 a month, more than 10 percent of their salary.

“The extortion takes place through the school director, ” said Liliana Ruiz, the Ministry of Education’s director for Tegucigalpa. “They make an appointment with the director at the mall and he has to arrive with the money. In Honduras, the extortion has to be paid.”

In many schools, the power of the gangs is omnipresent and once a gang takes control of a school, Ruiz said, the teacher has no choice but to get along with the gangsters, or ask to be moved. If a gang grabs a child from a classroom, most teachers know to keep quiet, even if the student is never heard from again.

RTFA for all the depressing details about most aspects of life in Honduras. Girls brought into prostitution in grade school earn up to $500 a month. What’s also important is that is more than the police earn.

Oh yeah, Republicans and other idjits don’t believe this kind of life has anything to do with why moms are trying to get their kids into the United States.

Researchers set new record in solar energy efficiency

UNSW’s solar researchers have converted over 40% of the sunlight hitting a solar system into electricity, the highest efficiency ever reported.

The world-beating efficiency was achieved in outdoor tests in Sydney, before being independently confirmed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at their outdoor test facility in the United States…

“We used commercial solar cells, but in a new way, so these efficiency improvements are readily accessible to the solar industry,” said Dr Mark Keevers, the UNSW solar scientist who managed the project.

The 40% efficiency milestone is the latest in a long line of achievements by UNSW solar researchers spanning four decades. These include the first photovoltaic system to convert sunlight to electricity with over 20% efficiency in 1989, with the new result doubling this performance.

“The new results are based on the use of focused sunlight, and are particularly relevant to photovoltaic power towers being developed in Australia,” Professor Martin Green said…

A key part of the prototype’s design is the use of a custom optical bandpass filter to capture sunlight that is normally wasted by commercial solar cells on towers and convert it to electricity at a higher efficiency than the solar cells themselves ever could.

Such filters reflect particular wavelengths of light while transmitting others.

When the whole paper is published we will see and hear a lot more about the process. Proof-of-concept is already established. Prototype and pilot plant demonstrations are next.

And, then, if all continues apace, we start to be able to acquire greater output with fewer dollars invested in solar power. Hopefully, at the individual home level as well as commercial solar farms.

Thanks, Mike

First Chevy Volt to hit 200,000 miles

One year ago, InsideEVs reported on Erick Belmer, proud owner of a Chevy Volt. Back then, the focus was on how Belmer’s Volt had at least 20,000 miles more than the highest mileage LEAF in the U.S.

Four months later, we updated the Belmer story with a post on how his Volt was celebrating its second birthday with over 146,000 miles on the odometer.

Belmer is once again featured here for a world’s first: 200,000 miles on a Chevy Volt…

As Belmer tells InsideEVs, the Volt was purchased on March 28, 2012. Since then, it’s seen a daily commute of 220 miles there and back, with a single longest trip of 430 miles in a day.

Oil changes come every 38,000 miles and tire rotations every 10,000 miles. That’s basically all the maintenance that’s been required on Belmer’s Volt…

“Volt is holding up flawlessly! No noticeable battery capacity loss. Used 9.7 kw because it’s a 2012. I am so pleased with this vehicle!”

The Volt was always my dream car! To get to drive it everyday is a dream come true! This car is Wonderfully engineered!”

Keep on Rocking in the Free World, Erick.

I can sympathize with the driving. When the first Acuras came out I was still living on the road. Miles weren’t quite as bad as yours; I was averaging ab’t 75,000 miles per year – enough to get me finally changing jobs and getting off the road after 20 years.

Out here in the Southern Rockies ain’t nothin’ next to nothin’.

Do we need more public service from Wall Street bankers?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren kicked off a firestorm last month when she said that she would not support Antonio Weiss, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be undersecretary of the treasury. Her reason was that Weiss had made his career at Lazard, an asset management company that has taken the lead in structuring corporate inversions, the practice of relocating a corporation’s headquarters to escape U.S. taxes.

In addition, Lazard planned to give Weiss $20 million in deferred compensation, that he was not actually owed, as a parting gift. This practice of promoting public service with large payments of deferred compensation to those taking on government positions is apparently common among Wall Street banks. But Warren, the AFL-CIO and others have criticized it: Being awarded large amounts of money before becoming public servants could make these bankers more positively disposed towards their former employers in the same way as an outright bribe…

Is there any question that we have a very serious problem of financial regulators who serve Wall Street and not the general public? Our financial regulators sat on their hands as a housing bubble grew ever more out of line with the fundamentals of the market, as anyone with open eyes could see.

And the bad loans that were driving this explosion in house prices were also not a secret. The National Association of Realtors reported that 43 percent of first-time homebuyers in 2005 had down payments of zero or less. The term NINJA loan — meaning no income, no job or assets — became common in the real estate and banking industry.

The warning signs were everywhere, but where were the regulators? Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed from 2003 until he became treasury secretary in 2009, told the Senate Banking Committee during his confirmation hearings that he had never been a regulator. This is in spite of the fact that one of the main responsibilities of the New York Fed is to regulate the Wall Street banks.

Unfortunately Geithner’s attitude is typical among the regulators in Treasury and elsewhere. They appear to hold the view that their job is serving the big banks and that in doing so they are somehow serving the larger public.

RTFA for a bit more depth and detail. That control of our economy is dependent upon Wall Street Wizards is almost unavoidable given how the American version of capitalism is skewed and screwed-up. That certainly shouldn’t diminish the role of watchdogs – and where their loyalties should lie.

Green jobs employ more Canadians than oil sands jobs

Canada’s green energy sector has grown so quickly and has become such an important part of the economy that it now employs more people than the oil sands.

About $25-billion has been invested in Canada’s clean-energy sector in the past five years, and employment is up 37 per cent, according to a new report from climate think tank Clean Energy Canada to be released Tuesday. That means the 23,700 people who work in green energy organizations outnumber the 22,340 whose work relates to the oil sands, the report says.

“Clean energy has moved from being a small niche or boutique industry to really big business in Canada,” said Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada. The investment it has gleaned since 2009 is roughly the same as has been pumped into agriculture, fishing and forestry combined, she said. The industry will continue to show huge growth potential, beyond most other business sectors, she added.

While investment has boomed, the energy-generating capacity of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and biomass plants has expanded by 93 per cent since 2009, the report says…

Not a priority, however, for the Conservatives running the Federal government. Big Oil still rules.

Not only does the oil industry still get more substantial subsidies, she said, it also eats up a good deal of the country’s diplomatic relations efforts – through the lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline, for example…

As for the provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular should follow Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in getting into the renewable-energy game, Ms. Smith said. Still, the necessity for this shift is beginning to gain some traction, she said, noting that Alberta Finance Minister Robin Campbell said last week that the province has to “get off the oil train…”

The Clean Energy Canada report notes that much of the investment for Canada’s clean-tech expansion currently comes outside the country. Of the five largest investors since 2009, just one, Manulife Financial Corp., is Canadian. Two Japanese companies are in that top-five list, along with two German banking groups.

“The fact that foreign investors are coming to Canada to invest in our clean energy, tells us that we have a fantastic resource,” Ms. Smith said. “We need Bay Street to wake up and recognize this is where the puck is going.”

Gotta love Canadian sports metaphors. In a nation where hockey rules, the puck stops here is a legit phrase.

Free Market capitalists in conservative Utah show how it really works

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Utah insurance regulators are taking action against Zenefits, a technology startup that helps small businesses manage their human resource needs.

Zenefits offers a free website that helps companies manage payroll, vacation time, health insurance, and so forth.

Zenefits makes money if companies choose to purchase services such as health insurance through the website.

But a Utah regulator says offering free access to its website violates state insurance laws, which make it illegal to offer companies “inducements” to purchase insurance.

Regulators say Zenefits giving away access to its website is unfair to other insurance brokers…

“The Utah Insurance Department has an important responsibility to maintain a fair, competitive insurance business environment for all licensees” — e.g. insurance brokers, wrote commissioner Todd Kiser. “Some of the main purposes of the Utah Insurance Code are to ensure not only that insurance consumers are protected and treated fairly, but that licensees are treated fairly within a financially healthy and adequate insurance market that is not only characterized by innovation, but also by fair conditions of competition for all insurance licensees.”

Kiser says the regulations are also intended to ensure that companies choose insurance for their employees based on the objective merits of the insurance products being offered, instead of taking whatever insurance happens to be available on the Zenefits platform…

Kiser says he could charge Zenefits $97,000 based on the company’s actions. However, he is offering Zenefits the opportunity to settle the charges for a mere $50,000.

Zenefits would also be required to start charging a “fair market value fee” to Utah employers using the Zenefits website.

Kind of warms the cockles of your heart – watching the legislative and regulatory flunkies of Free Enterprise behave like the street corner pimps they really are in practice. And the conservatives and libertarians who prattle about the virtues of the Free Market know damned well the “villains” who compromise their puritan ideology faster than anyone else — are capitalists.

China to introduce deposit insurance — and more!

China is to adopt a deposit insurance scheme to better protect savers and free up interest rates.

The Legislative Affairs Office of China’s State Council published a set of draft regulations containing 23 articles on its website on Sunday to solicit public opinion…

Financial institutions will be required to pay insurance premiums to a special fund and an agency will be set up to manage the money. Domestic banks’ overseas branches and foreign banks’ China branches are exempt.

The fund will pay maximum compensation of 500,000 yuan ($81,500) per depositor if a bank suffers insolvency or bankruptcy.

This covers 99.6% of China’s depositers.

Banks will cover losses more than 500,000 yuan with their own assets, according to the regulations.

The scheme will significantly improve the competitiveness of medium and small-sized banks as the insurance will assure depositors of the safety of their savings, according to the central bank…

Deposit insurance is implemented in 112 economies to protect depositors, in full or in part, from losses caused by a bank’s inability to pay its debts when due…

“With the scheme in place, the government will retreat and leave banks to bear their own risks,” said Guo Tianyong, a banking researcher with the Central University of Finance and Economics.

The deposit insurance scheme is considered a precondition for China to free up deposit rates — the last and most important step of interest rate liberalization, according to Lian Ping, chief economist with the Bank of Communications.

The important paragraph in this post is next-to-last above. The way this proposal is being promulgated – there will not be any possibility of banks treated as Too Big To Fail.

Hmmm. Didn’t we used to have a similar style of management in the United States? Before George W. Bush’s second term, anyway.