Economist 3/24/16

  1. Using America’s five-yearly economic census, The Economist has divided up the American corporate landscape into 893 individual industries: from coffins to credit cards. Between 1997 and 2012 the weighted-average share of the top four firms’ revenues has risen from 26% to 32% of the total. Concentrated industries, in which the top four firms control between a third and two-thirds of the market, have seen their share of revenues rise from 24% to 33% between 1997 and 2012. And just under a tenth of the activity takes place in industries in which the top four firms control two-thirds or more of sales. While concentration does not of itself indicate collusion—America’s regulatory environment acts as a barrier, too—it does suggest that America needs a heavy dose of competition.
  2. According to a report by the UN’s Human Rights Council, at least 966 executions are said to have been carried out in 2015 in Iran, one of the highest rates in the world, up from 750 in 2014. Some sources, according to the report, put the figure above 1,000. It notes that 25 people were executed in one day last year in a prison close to Tehran, the capital. It particularly laments the execution of juveniles; at least 16 have been hanged in the past two years for crimes committed when they were under 18.The authorities point out that most of the executions were for drug-related crimes, including armed drug-smuggling. But the council’s report notes that the death penalty can be imposed for minor drug-related offenses, such as possession of only 30 grams of amphetamines. Moreover, a large number of those executed are foreigners, who sometimes have little chance to defend themselves in court, for instance because they lack proper facilities for translation.
  3. At least five instances of amputations were cited and three of blinding; in one instance, a left eye and a right ear were surgically removed under the law of qisas, whereby a person can insist that a tit-for-tat punishment be imposed on a wrongdoer to match the original crime.At least 47 political journalists and social-media activists are said to be behind bars, as of January 2016.Among those discriminated against for holding heterodox religious views, the Bahai community continues particularly to suffer.At the end of last year, 80 Bahais were reported to be in prison “solely for their religious beliefs”, including seven leaders arrested in 2008 who are serving ten-year sentences on such charges as espionage, “propaganda against the regime” and “spreading corruption on earth”.The UN report also bemoans restrictions on women. It cites the head of Tehran’s traffic police saying in December last year that in the previous eight months there had been 40,000 cases of women being stopped for “bad hijab”—driving without the required covering of hair. Offenders’ vehicles are often seized and their owners taken to court.
  4. COFFEE was once Kenya’s biggest foreign-exchange earner, but these days the industry looks less perky. The country’s record, 127,000-tonne crop was all the way back in the 1987-88 season. Output plunged by 40% the following year.It has been falling ever since: last year it was less than 45,000 tonnes, a mere 0.5% of coffee production worldwide.That is not for lack of quality. Kenya’s arabica coffee, grown in the highlands around Mount Kenya, is world-renowned.For many smallholders, who account for 60% of the country’s coffee production, there just isn’t enough money in beans anymore. Some small farmers have abandoned the crop altogether for vegetables or other, more lucrative export crops, such as macadamia nuts.Coffee production in neighbouring Uganda has more than doubled since 1990, to 285,000 tonnes.In 2010, Kenyan coffee farmers received 20% of the export price of their crop, compared with more than 80% in Uganda.
  5. Regulation has left the industry with a Byzantine structure that presents many opportunities for skimming off money. Only 10% of beans are bought directly from farmers. Most smallholders belong to a co-operative, which skins, ferments and dries the coffee beans before passing them on to a miller that finishes the processing and grading. The bags then go to one of eight licensed marketing agents, which sell the coffee to 60 local and international dealers at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange.In Uganda, in contrast, the industry has been completely liberalised since 1992. There are no auctions: middlemen compete vigorously to buy directly from farmers and sell on to exporters.
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