Economist 3/29/15

  1. By April, when the new trans-Kazakh railroad opens fully, Iranian executives hope to have cut the journey time to China, currently its biggest trade partner, to just eight days—a month less than the sea route takes. Should Turkey get on board, the route might even replace the Suez Canal as a primary Chinese and Iranian route to Europe. Within six months, Abbas Akhoundi, Iran’s British-trained transport minister, will open a track to Afghanistan’s mines, and ship minerals to India via a revamped south-eastern port, Chabahar, bypassing Pakistan.Iran also plans to more than double its internal 10,000km rail network over the next decade and replace the rolling stock that trundles at 90kph with high-speed trains on electrified lines.Comfortingly, railways seem to be one sector where reformists and hardliners suspend their infighting. Billboards in Tehran proclaim the Supreme Leader’s passion for trains.
  2. The hitch, of course, is finance. In Iran’s sixth five-year plan, now awaiting parliamentary approval, Mr Akhoundi wants to spend $28 billion on railways, $20 billion on roads, $50 billion on upgrading the country’s Shah-era air fleet and $7 billion on airports (including an extension to Tehran’s main airport, Imam Khomeini, so that the largest modern airliners can land there). Yet given the low oil price, his government can barely pay public-sector salaries, let alone fund infrastructure development. So it has been wooing foreign investors instead. It seems to be working.Russia suspects Iran will become a challenger to its dominance of regional markets. And the United Arab Emirates, which backs Saudi Arabia in the region’s sectarian showdown, fears that Iran—with its many tourist attractions—might challenge its role as a global hub.
  3. The most recent survey by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean polling firm, found that 65% of respondents (Latin Americans) had a good or very good opinion of the United States. And the countries that seem to have the most cause for grievance feel least aggrieved: the two most pro-American nations in the region are the Dominican Republic (which the United States occupied from 1916 to 1924 and invaded again in 1965) and Guatemala (whose president was toppled in a coup organised by the CIA in 1954).The region-wide view of the United States has oscillated considerably, from a low of 38% approval in 1996 to a high of 74% in 2009. Virtually all of these ups and downs seem to reflect changes in foreign direct investment (FDI) from the United States and changes in Latin American GDP per person. The more that American firms invest in Latin America, and the wealthier its inhabitants grow, the fonder respondents become of the gringos. The next most important factor, unsurprisingly, is remittances, which make up more than 15% of the GDP of El Salvador and Honduras, for example.
  4. Airports’ publicly accessible spaces have become a more common target in recent years. In 2007, a jeep packed with explosives was driven into the main entrance to Glasgow airport. In 2011, a suicide bomber killed 37 people in the arrivals hall of Domodedovo Airport in Moscow.After Brussels, some experts have called for greater security at the entrance to airports.But there are problems with that approach. First, it might simply push back the point at which terrorists can strike without being screened.The second problem is cost.There is also a more fundamental problem: nowadays, any large gathering place is a potential terrorist target. It made sense to secure aeroplanes, since they themselves have been used as weapons of mass destruction. But if we start locking down airport entrance halls, we would logically have to move on to train terminals, and bus stations, and concert halls, and public squares, and churches, and schools.
  5. Ms McClendon,a curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, argues, persuasively, that much of what Americans think they know about denim draws on a set of “origin myths”, crafted and disseminated by manufacturers over many years, both individually and in campaigns run by the Denim Council, an industry group of clothing-makers and textile mills that was active from 1955-75.Quite a lot of this marketing was hokum, or close to it. There is no evidence that Columbus crossed oceans under billowing denim sails, while the latest research is that the term “denim” may have been invented in England. Perhaps most strikingly, relatively few cowboys wore blue jeans at the height of the Wild West, Ms McClendon says: canvas and leather trousers were also common. Denim was mostly worn by small farmers, field-hands, labourers and miners—some of the oldest pieces in the archives of Levi Strauss & Co. were found in disused mines in California and Nevada.
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