Economist 4/22/16

  1. THE dangers of drinking too much are well known. But how much is too much? To find out, Agnieszka Kalinowski and Keith Humphreys of Stanford University in California scoured the globe for countries whose governments have defined the size of a “standard drink” or set guidelines for low-risk consumption. They found there isn’t a whole lot of agreement. Among the 37 nations polled, the size of a standard drink varies by 250%, the team reports in the scientific journal Addiction. Britain and Iceland, for instance, have a typical tipple defined as just 8 grams of alcohol, while for Austrians the standard is set at a dizzying 20 grams.Only a few countries think that safe alcohol intakes are the same for males and females, but even among them there is no consensus on what they are.But confusion over a country’s safe quota is only part of the problem. Who drinks alcohol by the gram? Americans don’t even use metric measures and the British insist on keeping alive the imperial pint.
  2. America’s once-close relationship with Saudi Arabia, dating to the end of the second world war, is now deeply strained, thanks in large part to Mr Obama, who once dubbed the kingdom a “so-called ally” and more recently referred to it as a “free rider”. The Saudis have responded in kind. When the president arrived in Riyadh on April 20th for an almost insultingly brief visit he was greeted by the local governor, not by King Salman himself, which some saw as a snub.In truth, the relationship between the two countries—one a vibrant, liberal democracy, the other a closed-off, puritanical autocracy—has always been awkward.There were more questions after 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 turned out to be Saudis. Those questions still linger: a bill now under debate in Congress would allow victims of the attacks to sue the Saudi government and claim damages if it were found by the American courts to be complicit.
  3. The alliance endured because America prioritised its other interests—in oil, counter-terrorism and stability in the region. It didn’t hurt that American arms manufacturers spread their profits from sales to the kingdom around congressional districts. The weapons still flow—America looks set to improve the region’s ballistic missile defence system—but an abundance of shale gas at home has given Mr Obama a lot more freedom to reconsider the relationship.The Sunni Saudis fear it will allow Iran to stoke (more) regional instability. But the president has all but told the Saudis to grow up.Not long after approving the deal with Iran, Mr Obama tried to reassure the Saudis and America’s other allies in the Gulf by holding a summit at Camp David, the presidential retreat. King Salman did not show up. The deal was merely the latest instance in which Mr Obama disappointed the Saudis. The president had alarmed them in Egypt, when he did not support the tottering regime of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and infuriated them in Syria, when he did not follow through on his threat to bomb Bashar al-Assad.
  4. IT WAS billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Iran is the “biggest new market to re-enter the global economy in decades”, British trade officials said in January, predicting more than $1 trillion of investment over ten years.Airbus said it would sell Iran 118 jets, with bigger orders possibly to follow. PSA Peugeot Citroën and Renault-Nissan said they would assemble and sell cars to Iran’s 80m people.Yet getting started is proving harder than many expected. The biggest problem is a lack of finance. On April 13th a Treasury official denied that America is continuing to freeze Iranian overseas assets. Yet such funds, worth perhaps $100 billion, which had been expected to help pay for an investment boom, do not seem to be flowing. More importantly, America continues to deny firms that operate in Iran access to its financial system. That spooks foreign banks, which are wary of the long arm of American law.The US Treasury seems unable to define the benchmarks Iran has to meet to regain access to the American financial system
  5. In Tehran, businessmen and officials say everything is stymied from afar. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s religious leader, says Americans lifted sanctions only “on paper”.Much excitement, for example, rested on the prospect of oil funds being splurged on infrastructure. But despite rising output, revenues will disappoint. In 2010 oil generated $125 billion for Iran; this year, given low prices, it will be lucky to get $25 billion.Much of Iran’s industry, oil included, is run-down. Once flourishing industrial parks are ghost towns. Though luxury-goods firms see an opportunity, many consumers are short of cash and opt for the cheapest goods.Getting a work visa, however, still involves tiresome wrestling with red tape.Iran has a modest ranking, 118th, on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index (see chart). Things might improve if parliament, newly elected, were to pass laws to tidy up customs rules, or to make it easier to hire and fire workers.

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