I put Middle Earth Journal in hiatus in May of 2008 and moved to Newshoggers.
I temporarily reopened Middle Earth Journal when Newshoggers shut it's doors but I was invited to Participate at The Moderate Voice so Middle Earth Journal is once again in hiatus.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Weekend Reads -- Long & Short

I may be attracted to metaphors involving food and cooking because I was in the food business. So my thought just now is that blogging is like planning a menu. Sometimes it's a one-dish meal. Other times there is a table with a variety of choices. Today's offering is the latter.

►  At Davos, bankers close in on Africa
I bet that any mention Davos to twenty-five random Americans will get a blank stare. I have no intention of explaining what that means in a paragraph or two, but for those who already know, this is an interesting link.
My first though as I read this was a question.
What commodity is important to every country in the world, from the most backward to the most well-developed?  Is it natural resources? Manufactured products? Strategic geographic location? Military strength? Historical importance?
No. All of these are important, but none is universal. The one universal common denominator everywhere is money. Currency. Cash. Credit.  So is it any surprise that the banking sector leads the way into every corner of the world?
Asian companies such as Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei have been in Africa for years, building infrastructure such as telecoms towers in countries from Libya to Kenya.
"We've invested in companies that are doing a lot of work in Africa," said John Zhao, chief executive of Hony Capital, a private equity firm with some $7 billion in assets under management.
"We see the weak infrastructure in some African countries as an opportunity. If everything was already perfect, they wouldn't need us any more, would they?"
Acquisitions and other such attempts to grow in Africa have often proved difficult to pull off successfully. In 2011, HSBC walked away from a bid for South Africa's Nedbank, saying it failed to meet its acquisition requirements.
The revenue pie for banks in Africa is also far smaller than in other regions, with total investment banking fees in Africa and the Middle East about $1 billion last year compared with Asian fees which clocked in at almost 10 times that.
"There are always risks, but if we go in only when it's big and everything is grown up, that makes things a lot more difficult," said Zhao at Hony Capital.

►   Capital Insiders Help Amgen
Speaking of money, hold your nose and read about this most recent exercise in political prestidigitation on the part of another big drug company and its army of influence peddlers.
Amgen is the world’s largest biotechnology firm, a drug maker that sells a variety of medications. The little clause secretly sneaked into the fiscal cliff bill gives the company two more years of relief from Medicare cost controls for certain drugs used by patients who are on kidney dialysis, including a pill called Sensipar, manufactured by Amgen.
The provision didn’t mention Amgen by name, but according to reporters Lipton and Sack, the news that it had been tucked into the fiscal cliff deal “was so welcome, that the company’s chief executive quickly relayed it to investment analysts.” Tipping them off, it would seem, to a jackpot in the making.
Amgen has 74 lobbyists on its team in Washington and lobbied hard for that loophole, currying favor with friends at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The Times reporters traced its “deep financial and political ties” to Baucus, McConnell and Hatch, “who hold heavy sway over Medicare payment policy.”
All three have received hefty campaign donations from the company whose bottom line mysteriously just got padded at taxpayer expense. Since 2007, Amgen employees and its political action committee have contributed nearly $68,000 to Senator Baucus, $73,000 to Senator McConnell’s campaigns, and $59,000 to Senator Hatch.
And lo and behold, among those 74 Amgen lobbyists are the former chief of staff to Senator Baucus and the former chief of staff to Senator McConnell. You get the picture: Two guys nurtured at public expense, paid as public servants, disappear through the gold-plated revolving door of Congress and presto, return as money changers in the temple of crony capitalism.
Inside to welcome them is a current top aide to Senator Hatch, one who helped weave this lucrative loophole. He used to work as a health policy analyst for — you guessed it — Amgen.
Even now, years after ACA was crafted, most Americans have no idea that the biggest customer of the drug industry, the US government, doesn't get the best price for our tax money. Lower prices are negotiated for the VA and Medicaid, but not for Medicare -- which covers end-stage renal disease (ESRD), the condition for which this particular very expensive drug is most widely used.
It's bad enough that most of the heavy lifting for research is done by tax-supported NIH, and that the results are not available to the greatest number of citizens until the latest discoveries are first auctioned to the pharmaceutical manufacturers which in turn patent them to sell at hefty profits. Only when those patents expire do the results of that tax-sponsored research finally get to the public in generic form.
What Congress did in the case of Amgen was extend the expiration of that patent another two years.
Thanks, Hurricane Sandy and the Fiscal Cliff panic, for all your help.
The NY Times link in the article has a few more details.
A top aide to Mr. Hatch, who was involved in negotiating the dialysis delay, previously worked as a health policy analyst for Amgen. The current lobbyists for Amgen include former chiefs of staff for both Mr. Baucus and Mr. McConnell. And the three senators have received substantial contributions from Amgen’s employees and its political action committee since 2007 — almost $68,000 to Senator Baucus, $59,000 to Senator Hatch, and $73,000 to Senator McConnell.

►Of all the problems facing the world at the moment, the most dangerous and combustible is the Syrian civil war. The complexities are too numerous even to summarize in a paragraph or two.  Of the many sources of information one of the most comprehensive is the summaries of Josh Landis, a long-time observer and recognized expert. Readers who don't know of Landis have homework to do.
Meantime, without comment from me, here are his most recent blog posts, both of which are filled with enough links and comments from his many readers to keep anyone busy for the rest of the weekend.
==>    Syrian Agriculture Collapses; Al-Qaida Thrives; Refugee Numbers Spike
==>   Readers Letters; News Round Up (January 22, 2013

►  An old lawyer's saying is When the facts are on your side argue the facts, but when the law is on your side, argue the law. 
Many in the GOP, having lost the election, are resorting to the second part of that axiom. They are looking at ways to circumvent a democratic majority by manipulating the rules of the game. These links are but two of what could be many if all the state-level initiatives are included.

==>   Virginia Advances ‘Gangbanger Bill of Rights’ To Withhold Gun Crime Evidence From Federal Government

The first link is old news for most readers but I'm listing it because it reminds me of the old county-unit system selecting legislators in Georgia which was used for decades to circumvent a democratic majority in selecting candidates in primary elections.
There were 410 county unit votes. The 8 most populous counties had 6 unit votes each (a total of 48), the next 30 most populous counties had 4 votes each (a total of 120) and the remaining 121 counties had 2 votes each (a total of 242). The counties with 2 votes therefore had a majority of the votes, despite only making up one-third of the population in 1963, when the system was abolished by the courts.
The system flew under the radar for a long time since it involved party primaries, not the general elections. That was significant because in Georgia whoever won the Democratic primary could expect to be the winner of the general election.  Republicans, to the extent that there were any, never won  until Nixon's Southern Strategy inverted the balance of party power to favor the Republican Party.
In the case of the Southern Strategy the animating issue was segregation, of course, which was why in the governors race of 1966 Lester Maddox, the famous segregationist, became governor of the state. 
The story is short but not sweet, and illustrates yet another way that democratic principles can be eluded by manipulative tactics.
Under the election rules then in effect, the state legislature was required to elect one of the two candidates with the highest number of votes, which meant that the lawmakers could not consider [write-in candidate] Arnall. With the legislature overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, all of whom had been required to sign a Democratic loyalty oath, Maddox became governor.
The Republican candidate, Bo Callaway, had received a plurality of the popular votes, more than either Maddox or Arnall, but the rules threw the decision into the state legislature. My guess is that even without having signed any loyalty oath Maddox would have prevailed. That bunch of Democrats would not likely have decided in favor of a Republican no matter how popular he was.
Bo Callaway was a Goldwater Republican and the first Republican elected to Congress from Georgia since  Reconstruction. His bid to become governor followed a single term in Congress during which he voted nay so often he got the nickname "No" Callaway.
I was away in the Army at the time of that election but a friend of mine who had voted for the write-in candidate accurately summed up the election when he said "the choice was between a sophisticated bigot and and unsophisticated bigot." The unsophisticated bigot got the job and many years later he and Miss Virginia would be regular customers at my cafeteria where he was still loved and admired by a large population of folks in and around Smyrna, Georgia.