Could America be set for a VAT?

Many countries use a VATBarack Obama won the November presidential election with questions still lingering for many about whether his tax proposals would actually benefit the average American – particularly as the economy sinks into a recession.

Now, an article in Fortune has suggested that the U.S. may be forced to impose a value-added tax (VAT) in order to raise needed funds.

In a VAT system, tax is applied to a product at each stage of its production, with suppliers and sellers sharing the tax burden with consumers.

Many countries around the world already employ a VAT. According to the publication, nearly half of the revenue raised by the French government is derived from the tax.

Some say that America could soon be facing the same problems that other nations saw in the past.

"The bottom line is that the income tax cannot support the level of spending that’s projected, something other countries faced years ago," Robertson Williams of the Tax Policy Center told the news provider.

However, others point out that when the government increases a VAT, it can slow down a country’s economic growth. Meanwhile, the middle class may end up paying more on staples such as food and energy, which also may stand in the way of growth.

Does pollution contribute to obesity?

Scientists draw link between pollution and obesityThere’s no doubt that obesity is an American health epidemic that is connected to a rise in diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions.

Now, scientists are suggesting that commonly found environmental pollutants could actually be helping fuel obesity.

Tributyltin – an industrial chemical employed as a pesticide, among other uses – may be contributing to obesity by influencing receptors that cause fat cells to grow.

These retinoid X receptors (RXRs) move into cell nuclei and activate genes that grow fat storage cells and affect metabolism.

According to a study published in BioScience, tributylin and other similar chemicals may have biological effects on RXRs.

Researchers Taisen Iguchi and Yoshinao Katsu suggest that it is "plausible" to look at the rise in pollution as connected to the increase in obesity over the past 40 years, citing other substances such as bisphenol A that have already been linked to cellular changes in the human body.

Previous research has suggested that childhood obesity may be influenced by certain chemicals the child’s mother is exposed to while pregnant.

Protecting your privacy and laptop is important this holiday season

Laptops can be easily lost or stolenEvery 53 seconds a laptop is stolen, according to technology research and advisory firm Gartner, while up to 12,000 laptops are lost in U.S. airports each week.

But following these simple tips from Absolute Software can help to keep your computer out of the Grinch’s hands this Christmas traveling season.

Backing up valuable data will minimize the loss if a laptop is stolen, and since the information on the laptop is often more valuable than the machine itself it’s important to treat it with care.

Recovery and data protection software may be able to track down your computer if it is lost or stolen.

When traveling it’s also a good idea to keep your laptop with you at all times rather than checking it – which risks having it broken or stolen while in transit.

It’s a safe bet that your laptop will have to go through the metal detector with a number of others, so labeling it and making sure it stands out will help make sure it doesn’t get lost or mixed up, the software firm advises.

And remember your laptop isn’t just in danger while traveling – it can also be stolen while in a hotel room, so it’s a good idea to place it in the room’s safe if possible.

Remember also that information can be stolen even when you are in possession of your machine. Using an unsecured wireless network is a two way street.

Although you can access the network easily, it might be just as easy for someone to access the information on your computer.

Gold tipped for sharp rise

Gold is widely seen as a safe haven for concerned investorsThe price of gold could rise as high as $2,000 per ounce in 2009.

That’s according to Citigroup, which last week said continued uncertainty on the international markets may bump up the price of the precious metal to more than double its current value.

Tom Fitzpatrick, the bank’s chief technical strategist, said world markets would not return to normal following the magnitude of the actions taken to tackle the financial crisis, the UK’s Telegraph reported.

"When the dust settles this will either work, and the money [central banks] have pushed into the system will feed [through] into an inflation shock."

"Or it will not work because too much damage has already been done, and we will see continued financial deterioration, causing further economic deterioration, with the risk of a feedback loop," he was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

Almost two thirds of the 35 experts surveyed by Bloomberg last week believed gold – widely viewed as a safe investment in times of economic turmoil – to be a good buy, according to the news provider.

Despite such predictions, gold had fallen 5.5 percent to $774 per ounce at midday EST in Monday trading.

Study raises questions about bias of published drug trials

Some drug trials may be reported with biasDrug trials submitted to the Food and Drug Administration may differ from the versions that are published, suggesting that healthcare professionals may be reading biased data, new research has found.

Findings published in the journal PLoS Medicine reveal that discrepancies between FDA-submitted results and published results were discovered among several trials analyzed by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco.

The differences included the addition or omission of outcomes, adjustments in statistical significance of outcomes and amendments to the overall conclusion of drug trials.

Medical journals and literature tended to feature more favorable presentations of these medications, the researchers concluded.

"The information that is readily available in the scientific literature to health care professionals is incomplete and potentially biased," the study authors wrote.

To reach their conclusions, the team analyzed 164 trials relating to 33 new drug applications. A total of nine were found to differ, in favor of the drug in question.

The FDA requires that pharmaceutical companies submit a new drug application before they can begin selling a medication.

Melamine-tainted baby formula found in U.S.

Melamine has made it into American formulaTraces of the toxic chemical melamine have been discovered in samples of U.S. baby formula, the Food and Drug Administration has admitted.

However, in an interview with the Associated Press, the FDA said that the low levels detected are considered by the department to be "perfectly fine" and not dangerous to public health.

In China, melamine has been linked to the death of at least three babies, as well as the illness of tens of thousands of other children. The FDA previously said that it would not set a limit on "acceptable" levels of the chemical in U.S. formula.

Documents obtained by the AP reveal that out of 77 samples of infant formula, one product contained trace amounts of the chemical. Additionally, cyanuric acid – a byproduct of melamine – was discovered in a different product.

The FDA said that the melamine had likely contaminated the formula during the manufacturing process and had not been added deliberately. Trace amounts are defined as under 250 parts per billion.

"There’s no cause for concern or no risk from these levels," agency spokesperson Judy Leon told the New York Times.

Poll: Americans oppose auto bailout

Most Americans do not support a lifeline to Detroit carmakersThe majority of Americans believe that automakers do not deserve to receive government funds, according to the results of a new survey.

Los Angeles Business’ most recent Business Pulse survey reveals that nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of respondents are not in favor of a rescue package to help the auto industry.

Meanwhile, 22 percent said they would support such a measure and 6 percent were undecided.

Comments left by readers of the website further reveal that many people feel fed up with Washington’s approach to solving the country’s economic woes.

One reader claimed that the government refuses to take a complex view of the economy, instead opting for simple solutions.

Someone else expressed frustration with the number of groups who seem to be stepping forward to request federal money.

And another respondent suggested that "the only serious cure for what’s wrong with the U.S. auto industry includes restructuring the legacy of debt, pensions and overpriced (by world market standards) labor agreements."

Carmakers’ request for $25 billion has also been met with skepticism by Congressional lawmakers, who said that industry leaders would need to submit a viable plan for the future before they receive a lifeline.

Do some breast cancers go away on their own?

Are mammograms necessary?As a regular precaution against breast cancer, women are advised to undergo regular mammograms – but what if some tumors naturally disappeared on their own?

The findings of a controversial new study suggest that some breast cancers may disappear without intervention.

Norwegian and U.S. researchers examined the incidence of breast cancer among 50 to 64-year-old women who had mammograms every two years, comparing the results with those who were screened only once over the entire period of the study.

They found that the participants who were screened more frequently had a 22 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who had less frequent mammograms.

Study co-author Dr Jan Maehlen told WebMD that some detected tumors are in fact "pseudo-cancers" that "will stop growing and shrink and disappear over a course of perhaps two years."

However, some experts – including the American Cancer Society – have warned people not to jump to conclusions based on the preliminary findings of a single study.

They recommended that women continue to get mammograms on a regular basis to help protect their health.

Housing industry to join the bailout line

Industries fight for government fundsFirst, it was the financial industry requesting federal funds. Next, automakers said they needed a bailout, too. And now, the housing sector is apparently gearing up to ask the government for a $250 billion rescue package.

House-builders are lobbying for a Fix Housing First stimulus, including a 10 percent tax credit for homebuyers and a federal subsidy to lower mortgage rates, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The sector claims that action is needed to prevent the country from falling into a cycle in which declining home prices negatively affect banks that hold mortgage-backed securities, which in turn depresses the economy further.

However, some critics argue that the plan favors encouraging new home purchase, instead of modifying existing loans held by homeowners.

They raise concerns about the danger of artificially inflating the housing market, creating demand that does not exist.

"The government does not have the tools to rewrite the laws of supply and demand. By artificially increasing prices, we are encouraging more building," Harvard economist Edward Glaeser told the news provider.

It is still uncertain how Capitol Hill would respond to the homebuilder’s request. Congress recently denied funds to automakers, saying that companies needed to present a viable plan before they could receive taxpayers’ money.

House prices continue to drop

Is your house still a worthwhile investment?Those who hoped that the rising value of their property would help see them through their golden years may have already started re-evaluating – now, new figures show the slide in house prices is continuing.

Figures from the S&P/Case-Shiller indexes revealed a double-digit decline nationwide, compared with the same period last year.

Prices fell by an annual rate of 16.6 percent during the third quarter, while its separate index of 10 major U.S. cities showed a decline of 18.6 percent.

"The turmoil in the financial markets is placing further downward pressure on a housing market already weakened by its own fundamentals," commented Case-Shiller index committee chairman David Blitzer.

He said that current house prices in many areas are comparable to what they were in early 2004.

Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Francisco were the three metropolitan areas that showed the steepest drop compared with 2007. In all three locations, average house prices are around 30 percent less than they were last year.

At the same time, a separate report from the National Association of Realtors revealed that existing home sales were down 3.1 percent month-on-month in October.

Privacy worries surround ID-scanning machines

Travellers may have their IDs scanned when they cross bordersNew radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that is able to read information about travelers who are crossing borders has raised concerns among privacy advocates.

The Department of Homeland Security has already installed machines that read data contained on government-issued ID cards at five border crossings, USA Today reports.

These devices work by scanning the computer chips embedded in travellers’ passports, passcards and driver’s licenses, then displaying the data on a screen for border patrol agents.

However, privacy advocates have warned that people’s personal information is at risk of being accessed by others – including terrorists – at distances of up to 50 feet.

"There’s this strange rush to a fancy of shiny new technology," Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the news provider, adding that the ID cards are actually "quite vulnerable" to misuse or a data breach.

Homeland Security has suggested that the new process will be more efficient and safer than the previous system of manually checking IDs. It has also emphasized that the data on the chips are encoded.

In August, privacy concerns were raised when the government announced that it would be retaining records of Americans’ border crossings by land for a period 15 years.

Obama aide says he may postpone repeal of tax cuts

Tax cut repeal in questionDuring the recent hard-fought presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised that he would put an end to tax cuts for wealthy Americans that had been put in place by President Bush.

Now, according to one of his aides, he is considering letting those tax cuts expire in 2011 as scheduled, instead of rolling them back on an earlier schedule.

The move would be intended to stimulate economic recovery in the U.S., alongside additional tax cuts for lower-income and middle-income Americans, David Axelrod said on Fox News Sunday.

"The main thing right now is to get this economic recovery package on the road, to get money in the pockets of the middle class, to get these projects going, to get America working again, and that’s where we’re going to be focused in January," Axelrod said, according to Reuters.

Obama is currently charged with balancing the need to plug an enormous federal deficit with the potentially dangerous effects that raising taxes could wreak on the economic situation.

The president-elect has also hinted that he will call for a larger-than-expected stimulus package for the country in the coming months.

Citigroup receives government bailout

Another bailout for CitigroupAn additional $20 billion of taxpayer money is set to be given to Citigroup in an effort to prevent the banking giant from collapsing.

Just a few weeks ago, the financial institution received $25 billion under the government’s bailout plan.

However, shares of Citigroup plummeted by 60 percent last week. The prospect of the bank’s failure and the subsequent chaos that it could cause in the financial markets prompted the Treasury to act again.

The government also said that the Treasury, FDIC and Federal Reserve would back up the majority of losses from around $306 billion in troubled assets held by the bank.

Under this arrangement, Citigroup is responsible for absorbing an initial $29 billion, as well as 10 percent of additional losses.

Responding to news of the latest bailout, some investors were critical of the decision.

William Smith of Smith Asset Management told Reuters that the rescue amounted to "seeing an inept management team being rewarded by the U.S. government."

Citigroup serves more than 200 million customers in over 100 countries worldwide.

Pharmaceutical firms sued for fraudulent pricing

Is big pharma gouging prices?Kansas attorney general Steve Six has said that 17 pharmaceutical companies will be added to an existing lawsuit that claims firms illegally inflated drug costs at the expense of the state’s Medicaid program.

Last month, Six sued 13 drug companies for allegedly misreporting the cost of drugs to the Kansas Medicaid program, in order to boost their reimbursement.

By listing higher costs on a variety of medications when reporting to the state, the firms increased their market share significantly, the suit alleges.

For example, according to Legal Newsline, Amgen/Immunex said that the average wholesale price of the drug Leucovorin Calcium was $137.94. However, the price paid by pharmacists was actually $14.58.

"We believe Kansas has lost millions of dollars as a result of these drug companies’ fraudulent pricing schemes," Six said.

He called the firms’ actions "a disturbing abuse" of the method by which Medicaid reimburses pharmaceutical companies.

Among the 17 defendants listed in the newest suit are Bayer, Eli Lilly and Novartis. The previous filing named Takeda, Schering Plough and GlaxoSmithKline – among others.


More people register for unemployment

Americans face joblessnessThe number of people newly registering for unemployment benefits reached its highest level in the past 16 years last week, according to figures from the Labor Department.

New applications increased to a seasonally adjusted 542,000, much greater than the figure of 505,000 that had been forecast by economists.

That means that a total of 4.012 million Americans are receiving jobless benefits – the highest number seen since 1982.

Experts say these numbers do not bode well for the job market and for the economy in general. In October, unemployment reached 6.5 percent and the Federal Reserve predicts the rate could rise to 7.6 percent in 2009.

"With retail sales collapsing, industrial production plunging, export orders off a cliff and commercial property just starting what will be a very steep downturn, there is nowhere to hide," economist Ian Shepherdson told the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, President Bush has indicated that he would support extending unemployment benefits to help offset the challenges posed by the current job climate.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure – which would lengthen the benefits period by at least seven weeks – today.

Govt mulls change in retirement account withdrawals

The rules governing withdrawals may changeAs the economic downturn continues to challenge the savings plans of millions of retirees, the government is considering changing the rules governing retirement account withdrawals.

The Treasury has been mulling a temporary adjustment to the requirement that people aged 70 ½ and older withdraw a minimum amount from their account on an annual basis, the Wall Street Journal reports.

This requirement is currently problematic because the distribution amounts are calculated in line with the market value of the account as of the last day of the previous year.

In the current climate in which retirees have already seen the value of their accounts plunge, using December 2007 as a guide to withdrawal amounts does not seem to make sense, the publications states.

Potential changes include permitting people to delay their withdrawals, reducing the amount of required withdrawals and providing tax relief for people who have already been forced to withdraw this year.

Commenting on the losses faced by many retirees, AARP’s Bill Novelli told the publication that "older individuals have disproportionately experienced these losses – and many do not have the luxury to wait for a market rebound."

Recent research has suggested that some baby boomers are postponing retirement due to financial uncertainty.

Watchdog: Mandatory health insurance idea is flawed

Mandatory health insurance may not empower the patientThe concept of obligating every American to purchase health insurance coverage is unsound and is likely to lead to abuse by the insurance industry, a consumer group has said.

According to Consumer Watchdog, the insurance industry’s agreement to support national healthcare reform is "self-serving" because it would profit from a situation in which everyone was required to purchase coverage.

Insurance companies would effectively be left on their own to decide on premium prices and details of coverage, removing power from the hands of the consumer, the group explains.

"That’s like GM agreeing to a bailout plan that requires every American to buy a new Suburban each year, as long as GM gets to set the price and decide whether or not to include the transmission," commented Consumer Watchdog’s Jerry Flanagan.

The findings of a Consumer Watchdog poll reveal that 63 percent of people are against mandatory health insurance when there is no limit set on charges.

Last year, Massachusetts became the first state to make health insurance mandatory for all residents in an attempt to make coverage more affordable.

However, according to a recent poll by the Boston Globe and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, cost is still the number one health concern of those living in Massachusetts.

Mitt Romney: Auto bailout would be a disaster

Mitt Romney opposes an auto industry bailoutFormer Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has warned against bailing out Detroit automakers, recommending that the government let them go bankrupt instead.

In a New York Times editorial, Romney said he believes that a check from Washington would not solve the sector’s problems.

Instead, he proposes that a "managed bankruptcy" could help "propel newly competitive and viable automakers, rather than seal their fate."

Carmakers have been asking for $25 billion in funds which they say is necessary for their survival. The issue has proved divisive on Capitol Hill, with some lawmakers suggesting the money should be used for different purposes.

For example, Romney says that more money should be directed toward new technologies to keep the industry competitive. He also calls for an end to executive perks and a restructuring of labor and benefit agreements that would put Detroit more closely in line with foreign automakers.

Taxpayer watchdog Consumers Against Government Waste has also spoken out against a rescue package, criticizing industry leaders and unions for their "sense of entitlement."

"It is time to apply the brakes to the bailout bonanza," the group added.

State rules may push health insurance costs higher

State laws on health coverage varyCertain rules on health insurance enforced on a state level may lead to people paying more for coverage, the results of a new study suggest.

Mark Showalter, an economist at Brigham Young University, analyzed the rules that govern health insurance in different states in the country and found that varying regulations affect pricing for individuals who purchase directly from insurers.

For example, in states that adjust pricing based on factors such as age and health status, households paid between 21 percent and 33 percent more. Showalter suggested that the measure – which is intended to promote equity – may actually penalize healthy people.

He also found that people living in states that require insurers to accept all doctors, hospitals and pharmacies – instead of choosing from a list – paid around 10 percent more.

Showalter explained that the findings help "present a picture of what would happen if consumers were allowed to buy insurance from other states."

The research was undertaken to gather information on how to potentially make health coverage less costly by permitting people to shop across state lines for health insurance.

President-elect Barack Obama has identified healthcare reform as one of his top five priorities once he enters the White House.

Expert warns of new drug-resistant bacteria in hospitals

A new drug-resistant bacteria is causing illnessesYou may have already heard of the MRSA superbug, a drug-resistant bacteria that can lead to infection and even death.

Now, an expert is warning that hospitals and healthcare settings may harbor an even more dangerous bacterium known as acinetobacter baumannii (A baumannii).

According to Matthew Falagas, director of the Alfa Institute of Biomedical Sciences in Greece, the bacteria causes around 30 percent of drug-resistant hospital infections worldwide.

The bacteria can survive on surfaces and are resistant to disinfectants, which make it difficult to fully eliminate their existence in healthcare facilities.

"There is a growing frequency of A baumannii infections in various hospitals around the world," Falagas told Reuters. "The infections are difficult to treat because the bugs are resistant to most agents."

In a study published in The Lancet, experts called for further measures to address the risk posed by drug-resistant bacteria in hospitals. Hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of these infections.

The warning about A baumannii follows the findings of a study reported last week, which discovered that hospital infections from the bacteria clostridium difficile were more common than previously thought.

Retirees ‘less confident’ about their nest egg

Retirement savings are uncertain for many peopleThe proportion of middle aged and older people who admit they are not confident they have enough money for retirement has risen, a new survey reveals.

A poll commissioned by the Hartford indicates that nearly eight out of 10 Americans are at least somewhat worried about having sufficient funds for their golden years.

And those who question their own financial adequacy has increased, with 40 percent saying they are not confident their savings and investments will be enough, compared with 28 percent who held this fear in 2006.

Perhaps connected with this loss in confidence, around half of respondents said they plan to continue working in their older age – whether it is by staying in their current job, slowing down or starting a new career.

The international survey found that financial concerns about retirement exist in many different parts of the globe.

"Around the world, adults who’ve worked their entire lives have differing visions of what they want their retirement to look like, yet unfortunately they struggle to make that vision a reality," commented Liz Zlatkus of the Hartford.

Fears about the economy are not exclusive to those on the brink of retirement. Recent polls of American adults have found that many people’s confidence in their financial standing has been shaken by recent events.

Despite bailout, many brokers likely to get bonuses

Brokers profit despite the bailoutWith the average person footing the bill for the $700 billion bailout, taxpayers may be forgiven for feeling that bonuses for the heads of the largest financial services companies are not quite fair.

Recently, executives at Goldman Sachs announced that they would not be taking bonuses this year, a high-profile decision that may impact other firms in the industry.

However, although big bosses could refuse compensation, the Associated Press reports that thousands of midlevel brokers are still likely to receive large bonuses because companies are afraid of losing them.

The money that is given to workers at a lower level is not required to be disclosed in public filings, so it is likely to receive less scrutiny than the highly publicized compensation of CEOs.

Alan Johnson of Johnson Associates told the news provider that even if executives forgo bonuses, "thousands of other people will get paid millions."

"There won’t be a lot eight-figure bonuses, but there’s going to be lots of sevens," he remarked.

Meanwhile, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke has testified in front of Congress about the effects of the bailout on the U.S. economy.

He suggested that although the credit markets are still not in good health, there are signs that they are improving.

Preemie drugs linked to cognitive damage

Premature babies risk brain injury from certain drugsTwo drugs that are given to premature infants who are being treated for lung damage may injure the brain, according to a new study.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine say that glucocorticoid medications lead to brain cell death in young mice – and may have the same effect on human babies.

Glucocorticoid drugs are typically given to women who are at risk of pre-term birth.

Even a single exposure to this type of drug was found to reduce the number of neurons in the cerebellum – the part of the brain that is in charge of movement and related functions.

"The cells that are damaged are called neural progenitor cells, which are responsible for producing new neurons," lead author Kevin K. Noguchi explained. "So you can imagine that if you kill the cells responsible for producing new neurons, you can cause severe neurodevelopmental effects."

The researchers said that previous research has shown that glucocorticoids can decrease a child’s IQ.

Their findings were reported at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Scientists are still investigating the possible reasons why premature babies’ brains may develop differently than other infants’.