A Little Perspective: Interesting news and notes from around the world

Updated January 12

Forget baby showers. There’s a proposal to give every newborn in the United States a "Baby Bond" account with somewhere between $500 to $50,000 in cash. Neither the kids nor their parents would be able to touch the money until the child turned 18. Then the young adult could spend the trust fund on attending college, buying a home or starting a business.

The whole point of Baby Bonds would be to dramatically lessen wealth inequality in the United States, according to the economists who came up with the idea, Darrick Hamilton of the New School and William Darity of Duke University.

"The key ingredient of how successful you will be in America is how wealthy your family is," Hamilton says. Baby Bonds are one way to change that, he argues. He presented the idea at the American Economic Association conference in Philadelphia this month.

Under the proposal, kids of incredibly rich parents such as Bill and Melinda Gates or Beyoncé and Jay-Z would get the lowest amount, $500, while babies born into extremely poor families would get the highest amount, $50,000. There would be a sliding scale to determine how much each baby would received based on the parents’ wealth. A typical middle-class baby would receive around $20,000.

While there are a number of criticisms about Baby Bonds, especially how to pay for them, presidents and prime ministers around the world are trying to figure out ways to reduce inequality. According to Deutsche Bank, nearly a third of American households now have $0 in wealth, the worst situation since the U.S. government began keeping track of that statistic (wealth outside a home) in the early 1960s. Families of color have struggled especially hard to try to move up the socioeconomic ladder. The median net worth of white households is 10 times that of African American households’.

"People like to argue if only poor black and Latino families were more responsible and made better decisions, then inequality could be dramatically reduced," Hamilton says. But years of data and real-life evidence don’t support that. Hamilton points to the fact that most college-educated African Americans have less net wealth than whites who dropped out of high school.

To some, Baby Bonds sound too radical for the United States. But Britain tried a similar plan in which every child born between 2002 and 2010 received a modest "Child Trust Fund" of 250 to 1,000 pounds. The plan was axed during the Great Recession because of funding concerns.

Hamilton estimates Baby Bonds would cost $80 billion a year, or about 2 percent of the United States’ $4 trillion in annual federal government spending. If implemented, the first payments wouldn’t go out for 18 years, so there could be time to build up a budget for it. When asked where the money would come from, Hamilton points to all the incentives in the tax code, such as the mortgage interest deduction, that mainly go to wealthy families who don’t need the money.

Deutsche Bank put out an 80-page report this month full of charts illustrating how life for the 1 percent is great, life for the top 10 percent is pretty good and life for just about everyone else isn’t much better financially than it was in the 1970s. By many measures, it’s gotten worse for the bottom 90 percent.

"Inequality is likely a key source of populism in many countries," says Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank’s chief international economist. "Many of our clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia are asking us: What is the next populist step if these inequality trends are not reversed? What kinds of candidates are we going to see?"

Improving the lives and finances of the bottom 90 percent is likely to take some dramatic changes, which is why Slok was interested in hearing more about the Baby Bond idea.

Heather Long, Washington Post

People can judge whether someone is sick by looking at a photo for just a few seconds. That may not sound remarkable — until you consider that the sick people in the photos were in the very early stages of illnesses. The 16 were participants in a scientific experiment and had agreed to be infected with a bacterium that would cause an inflammatory response. Their portraits were taken just two hours after infection.

Those pictures, along with portraits of the same people taken when they were healthy, were flashed in front of dozens of study volunteers in random order. The volunteers had no more than 5 seconds to guess whether the person in the picture was sick or healthy.

The volunteers’ guesses on who was sick were correct 64 percent of the time and incorrect 36 percent of the time, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Apparently, three of the 16 participants were particularly inscrutable; when they were removed from the analysis, the volunteers guessed right 81 percent of the time, the study authors found.

In the second series of ratings, 60 people looked at the same 32 photos and were asked whether the person in each picture looked sick and if they looked tired. The volunteers also rated eight specific "sickness cues" on a scale from 1 (no symptoms) to 7 (very high symptoms).

The raters thought people had paler skin, paler lips, more swollen faces, redder eyes, more hanging eyelids and droopier mouths after they got the real injection than after they got the fake one.

It may seem surprising that regular people could recognize sickness in others so soon after infection, but the study authors said this capability has a clear evolutionary purpose.

"It would arguably be particularly beneficial to identify sick individuals at an early stage of sickness when risk for contagion is high," wrote the team led by John Axelsson of Stockholm University and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

In fact, they noted, the experiments with photos probably understate the extent of this skill: "In real-life circumstances, we would expect humans to have a higher sensitivity due to the possibility of integrating other cues (e.g. gait, body odor and speech)."

With all this in mind, take a look at these photos. If they look a little funny, that’s because each is a composite of the eight men and eight women who agreed to get sick for the sake of science. One side is made up of 16 portraits of people who were healthy, and the other is made up of 16 portraits of people who were just starting to get sick. Which side is which? If you guessed that the sick faces are on the left, you are correct.

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times

The mighty force of consumerism has taken hold in China. In 2018, retail sales in China are expected to equal or surpass sales in the United States for the first time, another definitive marker in China’s rise to economic superpower status. The growth of China’s domestic retail market is luring everyone from automakers to make up companies that want to cash in on the country’s growing middle class, but it also serves as another complication in President Donald Trump’s quest to transform U.S.-China trade.

Retail sales in China are on track to hit just over $5.8 trillion this year, according to Mizuho, a Japanese bank. It’s a stunning rise from a decade ago, when retail sales in China were a quarter of those in the United States. China’s rapidly growing middle class has been eager to buy brand-name clothes, cars and cellphones, among other products. Shanghai is now referred to in fashion circles as "Paris of the East." Their spending habits have been supported by fatter paychecks, with China’s income per capita jumping from about $2,000 a year a decade ago to over $8,000 a year now.

"China’s best bargaining chip is its massive and fast-growing domestic market," says Jianguang Shen, chief China economist for Mizuho, who pointed out the retail trend in a recent presentation in Washington, D.C. "This will change the balance (of power) tremendously, as it is first time when the U.S. is dealing with a market of equal size in a potential trade war."

Heather Long, Washington Post

FoldiMate, an $850 robot that folds, dewrinkles, and perfumes your clean clothes — an early concept version of which was a surprise hit at CES 2017 — returned to the world’s largest tech show this year. And now it actually works, right? Well, no. It’s still just a concept. Also, the price has gone up to $980, and it no longer even attempts to dewrinkle or perfume. Oh, and the projected released date has been pushed back to "late 2019." In other words, it sounds like pretty much everything that people mock about the consumer electronics show, in one very unwieldy package. So, um: What happened, FoldiMate?

"From last year, we got a lot of feedback, and even internally in our company, we were not satisfied with the folding experience," the California-based startup’s CEO, Gal Rozov, told me. (The original concept took 10 seconds to fold each garment and had a maximum capacity of 20; the new one works faster and continuously, though you still have to clip the garments onto the machine one by one.) "So we took an extra year, developed an improved technology, and now we believe we got it right."

That’s … better than shipping vaporware, I suppose. But if it still hasn’t hammered out the basics of robotic laundry folding a year later, why is FoldiMate back at CES — or even still in business, for that matter?

The answer, it seems, is that the consumer interest in a device that promises to "put an end to laundry-folding as we know it" is legitimate.

Either lots of people really hate folding clothes (and have money to burn), or they just like the idea of delegating mindless chores to a home robot (and have money to burn). When I asked Rozov why he thinks the world needs a laundry-folding robot, he said, "First, you want to save marriages. Second, if you’re bad as me in folding and you want to help out at home, FoldiMate is your rescue."

Will Oremus, Slate

Paleontologists have found entombed in amber a 99-million-year-old tick grasping the feather of a dinosaur, providing the first direct evidence that the tiny pests drank dinosaur blood. Immortalized in the golden gemstone, the bloodsucker’s last supper is remarkable because it is rare to find parasites with their hosts in the fossil record. The finding gives researchers tantalizing insight into the prehistoric diet of one of today’s most prevalent pests. "This study provides the most compelling evidence to date for ticks feeding on feathered animals in the Cretaceous," said Ryan C. McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada who was not involved in the study. David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History and an author of the paper published in the journal Nature Communications, was inspecting a private collection of amber from northern Myanmar when he and his colleagues spotted the eight-legged stowaway. Upon further inspection, he and his colleagues concluded that the tick was a nymph, similar in size to a deer tick nymph, and that its host was most likely some sort of fledgling dinosaur no bigger than a hummingbird, which Grimaldi referred to as a "nanoraptor." The parasites were most likely unwanted roommates living in the dinosaurs’ nests and sucking their blood.

Nicholas St. Fleur, New York Times

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