Economist 4/29/14

  1. FROM modest beginnings as the local mafia of Calabria, at the toe of the Italian boot, the ’Ndrangheta has spread far and wide. It has penetrated Italy’s financial and industrial heartlands, Lombardy and Piedmont, more than any other organised-crime group. It has a dominant position in the transatlantic cocaine trade, building on alliances with Colombian and then Mexican mobsters. One study put its turnover in 2013 at over €50 billion ($69 billion).But who controls the ’Ndrangheta? The question is central to one of Italy’s longest-running mafia trials, which is expected to end shortly after almost three years.As the judges who convicted Mr Altomonte and others noted, his remarks open up “an entirely new scenario” in which there exists a separate (and perhaps higher) level of ’Ndrangheta leadership previously unknown to investigators.
  2. A TRADITIONAL English breakfast features bacon, sausages and eggs—in other words, a whole lot of salt.The more salt we eat, the more water our body retains. This increases blood pressure, at least until our kidneys flush out the salt and water.A much-cited study carried out by America’s National Institutes of Health in 2001, called the DASH-sodium study, found that participants put on diets that were lower in sodium than the control group ended up with significantly lower blood pressure. This study forms the basis for many of the public-health pronouncements that demonise salt.The body of evidence, though, is rather weaker than the American government lets on. The DASH study is one of many that have looked at the effects of salt intake on health. Others have failed to produce similar results. The English study mentioned above finds a correlation, but other factors—such as a simultaneous decline in smoking—seem more likely to account for the improved health outcomes.
  3. The London Underground strike has been called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT). It is perhaps the most successful labour organisation in the country. Under Bob Crowe, its recently-deceased leader, the RMT’s willingness to down tools led its members to become among the best paid public workers in the country. In a deal struck last year, tube drivers’ salaries will rise to £52,000 ($87,000) in 2015. Not surprisingly, the RMT is one of the few unions whose membership is growing. Some suspect the current strike has much to do with the posturing of the candidates who hanker after the vacant position at the top of the union, keen as they are to prove that militancy is safe in their hands. 
  4. America’s General Electric wants to buy Alstom, maker of France’s totemic high-speed trains (pictured) and of turbine generators.Take Alstom first. It emerged from the 1920s marriage of an Alsatian engineering company with the French subsidiary of Thomson Houston, an American firm which merged with Edison’s business to form GE (hence the confected name—originally Alsthom—to reflect its origins. This became a sprawling conglomerate Compagnie Generale d’Electricite (CGE), which started to be broken up once it was privatised after a spell in state hands in the Mitterrand 1980s. Ironically, one of its constituents, Alcatel, grew briefly fat in telecoms equipment by swallowing the European end of America’s  ITT conglomerate, one of the first of those giants to fall apart. The other big part of CGE was Alsthom, which merged with the train and power generation bits of Britain’s General Electric Company (GEC), formed (you’ve guessed it) originally from the British end of Thomson Houston. So if the GE deal goes through that will have all gone full circle.
  5.  Thanks to a civil-activist outfit, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), much is made public about them. It won two Supreme Court rulings just over a decade ago, forcing would-be parliamentarians to give details of their education, wealth and criminal past.For example, of 6,672 aspiring MPs whose details have so far been assessed by ADR, 90 declared themselves illiterate. It is also revealing how much money entwines with politics. Over a quarter of all candidates say they are crorepatis, with 10,000,000 rupees to their name or more ($164,000), quite a lot in a country still mostly poor. The richest of the lot is Nandan Nilekani, with assets of $1.5 billion,An analysis in Mint newspaper finds that as a group “artists”, meaning actors, musicians and writers, have the poorest attendance record in parliament. In Phulpur, the constituency of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a lawyer and hero of the independence movement, Congress now puts forward a former batsman of the national cricket team, Mohammad Kaif. The president, Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, and the agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, all have children contesting parliamentary seats. Bloodlines in democracy may be no worse than celebrity, criminality or ill-explained wealth.
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