Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fryer Grease Has Become Gold

The bandit pulled his truck to the back of a Burger King in Northern California one afternoon last month armed with a hose and a tank. After rummaging around assorted restaurant rubbish, he dunked a tube into a smelly storage bin and, the police said, vacuumed out about 300 gallons of grease.

The man was caught before he could slip away. In his truck, the police found 2,500 gallons of used fryer grease, indicating that the Burger King had not been his first fast-food craving of the day.

Outside Seattle, cooking oil rustling has become such a problem that the owners of the Olympia Pizza and Pasta Restaurant in Arlington, Wash., are considering using a surveillance camera to keep watch on its 50-gallon grease barrel. Nick Damianidis, an owner, said the barrel had been hit seven or eight times since last summer by siphoners who strike in the night.

“Fryer grease has become gold,” Mr. Damianidis said. “And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away.”

Much to the surprise of Mr. Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon. (That would make the 2,500-gallon haul in the Burger King case worth more than $6,000.)

Biodiesel is derived by processing vegetable oil or animal fat with alcohol. It is increasingly available around the country, but it is expensive. With the right kind of conversion kit (easily found on the Internet) anyone can turn discarded cooking oil into a usable engine fuel that can burn on its own, or as a cheap additive to regular diesel.

“The last time kids broke in here they went for the alcohol,” said Mr. Damianidis, who fries chicken wings and cheese sticks. “Obviously they’re stealing oil because it’s worth something.”

While there have been reports of thefts in multiple states, law enforcement officials do not compile national statistics and it remains unclear whether this is part of a passing trend or something more serious.

The suspects in a growing number of grease infractions fall into a range of categories, people interviewed on the matter said, as grease theft is a crime of opportunity. They include do-it-yourself environmentalists worried about their carbon footprints, warring waste management firms trying to beat each other on the sly, and petty thieves who are profiting from the oil’s rising value on the black market.

“It’s a new oddity,” said Officer Seth Hanson of the Federal Way Police Department, near Tacoma, Wash. He said thefts occur outside at least a couple of restaurants there each week. “We’re trying to get an eyeball on how well-organized it is, if at all. To date, we haven’t been very successful in finding anybody.”

Thefts have been reported in at least 20 states, said Christopher A. Griffin, whose family owns Griffin Industries, one of the largest grease collection and rendering companies in the country. The problem has gotten so bad, Mr. Griffin has hired two detectives to investigate thefts around the country.

“Theft is theft,” said Mr. Griffin, who is based in Cold Spring, Ky. “I don’t care if you’re stealing grease or if you’re stealing diamonds.”

Fryer oil from a restaurant that does a high volume of frying one kind of food — for example, a fried-chicken chain — is at a premium because of its relative purity. The large-scale producers of grease, restaurants mostly, own their old oil and in recent months have even made a small profit by selling it to collectors.

Because of the grease’s rancid odor, most restaurants usually store it out back with the trash.

“Once you put something in the trash, it’s abandoned property,” said Jon A. Jaworski, a lawyer in Houston who represents accused grease thieves. “A lot of times, it’s not theft.”

Even so, most restaurant owners and grease collectors say that grease is not free for the taking.

“There’s a new fight for the product, definitely a whole new demand sector,” said Bill Smith, a market reporter for Urner Barry’s Yellow Sheet, an industry newsletter that tracks yellow grease. “Grease theft is becoming a bigger and bigger issue.”

In the case of the Burger King theft, in Morgan Hill, Calif., the police were alerted to suspicious activity by a neighbor who runs his own grease collection and recycling business and is on the lookout for rustlers.

Driving through town, the neighbor, Mark Rosenzweig, said he spotted the suspect’s truck because “it stuck out.” He said he followed it for blocks before it pulled into the Burger King. Mr. Rosenzweig said he knew the man who holds the Burger King grease account, so he called him.

“I had to give everybody a roadside tutorial on grease theft,” Mr. Rosenzweig said of his next call — to the police. “Ten years ago we couldn’t give this stuff away. Now everybody’s fighting over it.”

The suspect in the case, a 49-year-old man who said he was from Las Vegas, has yet to enter a plea, and is due in court next in July.

A typical fast-food restaurant produces 150 to 250 pounds of grease a week. Many do not even know when a theft occurs because it usually happens overnight. Most security cameras and night watchmen are focused on cash registers, not the trash.

“Who do you go after?” said Jason Christensen, a trader of fats and oils for the AgriTrading Corporation, in Minnesota. “I sense you’ll start seeing more surveillance equipment put in to monitor these storage facilities at the restaurant. As the price goes up, you can afford to spend a little more to protect your interest.”

And there is so much interest in grease these days.

The City of San Francisco has its own grease recycling program run through the Public Utilities Commission called SFGreasecycle, which collects discarded vegetable oil from city restaurants at no charge and recycles it into biodiesel for use in the city fleet.

Healy Biodiesel, a company in Sedgwick, Kan., says it offers a top-quality fuel made from local cooking oils.

Ben Healy, the owner, has contracts to collect the raw grease from several franchises around town.

“One particular night not too long ago, 9 out of 15 were stolen,” he said of the grease bins. “That’s a majority of the oil and it was a big kick in the stomach.”

At Olympia Pizza and Pasta, Mr. Damianidis, who now sells his grease for a small monthly fee, finds the problem of stolen fryer oil quite annoying and distracting. And he wants to stop the thefts. He is leaning toward a security camera and hoping for the best.

“I cook food,” Mr. Damianidis said. “I’m not going to stay up until 2 in the morning trying to catch someone stealing a barrel of grease.”

[Via NY Times]

Man Cleans Town for Free - for 14 Years

A public-spirited road-sweeper is cleaning his home town for free - 14 years after retiring.

Former council worker Phillip Winfield, 74, has collected an estimated 200 tonnes of rubbish since he retired at 60.

He loved the job he did for 21 years so much he continued his rounds, often rising at 5am and working until 10pm.

Bachelor Phillip fills an average of five bin bags with rubbish every day.

His efforts have now been recognised with a prestigious community award in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

He said: "I didn't want to get bored and lonely. It made sense and keeps me out of mischief.

"I haven't been to a doctor for six years. Now I've started, I can't stop. It makes me mad to see my streets dirty."

[Via Ananova]

Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?

The diamond invention—the creation of the idea that diamonds are rare and valuable, and are essential signs of esteem—is a relatively recent development in the history of the diamond trade. Until the late nineteenth century, diamonds were found only in a few riverbeds in India and in the jungles of Brazil, and the entire world production of gem diamonds amounted to a few pounds a year. In 1870, however, huge diamond mines were discovered near the Orange River, in South Africa, where diamonds were soon being scooped out by the ton. Suddenly, the market was deluged with diamonds. The British financiers who had organized the South African mines quickly realized that their investment was endangered; diamonds had little intrinsic value—and their price depended almost entirely on their scarcity. The financiers feared that when new mines were developed in South Africa, diamonds would become at best only semiprecious gems.

The major investors in the diamond mines realized that they had no alternative but to merge their interests into a single entity that would be powerful enough to control production and perpetuate the illusion of scarcity of diamonds. The instrument they created, in 1888, was called De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd., incorporated in South Africa. As De Beers took control of all aspects of the world diamond trade, it assumed many forms. In London, it operated under the innocuous name of the Diamond Trading Company. In Israel, it was known as "The Syndicate." In Europe, it was called the "C.S.O." -- initials referring to the Central Selling Organization, which was an arm of the Diamond Trading Company. And in black Africa, it disguised its South African origins under subsidiaries with names like Diamond Development Corporation and Mining Services, Inc. At its height -- for most of this century -- it not only either directly owned or controlled all the diamond mines in southern Africa but also owned diamond trading companies in England, Portugal, Israel, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland.

De Beers proved to be the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce. While other commodities, such as gold, silver, copper, rubber, and grains, fluctuated wildly in response to economic conditions, diamonds have continued, with few exceptions, to advance upward in price every year since the Depression. Indeed, the cartel seemed so superbly in control of prices -- and unassailable -- that, in the late 1970s, even speculators began buying diamonds as a guard against the vagaries of inflation and recession.

The diamond invention is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond prices; it is a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into universally recognized tokens of wealth, power, and romance. To achieve this goal, De Beers had to control demand as well as supply. Both women and men had to be made to perceive diamonds not as marketable precious stones but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life. To stabilize the market, De Beers had to endow these stones with a sentiment that would inhibit the public from ever reselling them. The illusion had to be created that diamonds were forever -- "forever" in the sense that they should never be resold.

In September of 1938, Harry Oppenheimer, son of the founder of De Beers and then twenty-nine, traveled from Johannesburg to New York City, to meet with Gerold M. Lauck, the president of N. W. Ayer, a leading advertising agency in the United States. Lauck and N. W. Ayer had been recommended to Oppenheimer by the Morgan Bank, which had helped his father consolidate the De Beers financial empire. His bankers were concerned about the price of diamonds, which had declined worldwide.

In Europe, where diamond prices had collapsed during the Depression, there seemed little possibility of restoring public confidence in diamonds. In Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain, the notion of giving a diamond ring to commemorate an engagement had never taken hold. In England and France, diamonds were still presumed to be jewels for aristocrats rather than the masses. Furthermore, Europe was on the verge of war, and there seemed little possibility of expanding diamond sales. This left the United States as the only real market for De Beers's diamonds. In fact, in 1938 some three quarters of all the cartel's diamonds were sold for engagement rings in the United States. Most of these stones, however, were smaller and of poorer quality than those bought in Europe, and had an average price of $80 apiece. Oppenheimer and the bankers believed that an advertising campaign could persuade Americans to buy more expensive diamonds.

Oppenheimer suggested to Lauck that his agency prepare a plan for creating a new image for diamonds among Americans. He assured Lauck that De Beers had not called on any other American advertising agency with this proposal, and that if the plan met with his father's approval, N. W. Ayer would be the exclusive agents for the placement of newspaper and radio advertisements in the United States. Oppenheimer agreed to underwrite the costs of the research necessary for developing the campaign. Lauck instantly accepted the offer.

In their subsequent investigation of the American diamond market, the staff of N. W. Ayer found that since the end of World War I, in 1919, the total amount of diamonds sold in America, measured in carats, had declined by 50 percent; at the same time, the quality of the diamonds, measured in dollar value, had declined by nearly 100 percent. An Ayer memo concluded that the depressed state of the market for diamonds was "the result of the economy, changes in social attitudes and the promotion of competitive luxuries."

Although it could do little about the state of the economy, N. W. Ayer suggested that through a well-orchestrated advertising and public-relations campaign it could have a significant impact on the "social attitudes of the public at large and thereby channel American spending toward larger and more expensive diamonds instead of "competitive luxuries." Specifically, the Ayer study stressed the need to strengthen the association in the public's mind of diamonds with romance. Since "young men buy over 90% of all engagement rings" it would be crucial to inculcate in them the idea that diamonds were a gift of love: the larger and finer the diamond, the greater the expression of love. Similarly, young women had to be encouraged to view diamonds as an integral part of any romantic courtship.

Since the Ayer plan to romanticize diamonds required subtly altering the public's picture of the way a man courts -- and wins -- a woman, the advertising agency strongly suggested exploiting the relatively new medium of motion pictures. Movie idols, the paragons of romance for the mass audience, would be given diamonds to use as their symbols of indestructible love. In addition, the agency suggested offering stories and society photographs to selected magazines and newspapers which would reinforce the link between diamonds and romance. Stories would stress the size of diamonds that celebrities presented to their loved ones, and photographs would conspicuously show the glittering stone on the hand of a well-known woman. Fashion designers would talk on radio programs about the "trend towards diamonds" that Ayer planned to start. The Ayer plan also envisioned using the British royal family to help foster the romantic allure of diamonds. An Ayer memo said, "Since Great Britain has such an important interest in the diamond industry, the royal couple could be of tremendous assistance to this British industry by wearing diamonds rather than other jewels." Queen Elizabeth later went on a well-publicized trip to several South African diamond mines, and she accepted a diamond from Oppenheimer.

In addition to putting these plans into action, N. W. Ayer placed a series of lush four-color advertisements in magazines that were presumed to mold elite opinion, featuring reproductions of famous paintings by such artists as Picasso, Derain, Dali, and Dufy. The advertisements were intended to convey the idea that diamonds, like paintings, were unique works of art.

By 1941, The advertising agency reported to its client that it had already achieved impressive results in its campaign. The sale of diamonds had increased by 55 percent in the United States since 1938, reversing the previous downward trend in retail sales. N. W. Ayer noted also that its campaign had required "the conception of a new form of advertising which has been widely imitated ever since. There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea -- the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond." It further claimed that "a new type of art was devised ... and a new color, diamond blue, was created and used in these campaigns.... "

In its 1947 strategy plan, the advertising agency strongly emphasized a psychological approach. "We are dealing with a problem in mass psychology. We seek to ... strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring -- to make it a psychological necessity capable of competing successfully at the retail level with utility goods and services...." It defined as its target audience "some 70 million people 15 years and over whose opinion we hope to influence in support of our objectives." N. W. Ayer outlined a subtle program that included arranging for lecturers to visit high schools across the country. "All of these lectures revolve around the diamond engagement ring, and are reaching thousands of girls in their assemblies, classes and informal meetings in our leading educational institutions," the agency explained in a memorandum to De Beers. The agency had organized, in 1946, a weekly service called "Hollywood Personalities," which provided 125 leading newspapers with descriptions of the diamonds worn by movie stars. And it continued its efforts to encourage news coverage of celebrities displaying diamond rings as symbols of romantic involvement. In 1947, the agency commissioned a series of portraits of "engaged socialites." The idea was to create prestigious "role models" for the poorer middle-class wage-earners. The advertising agency explained, in its 1948 strategy paper, "We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer's wife and the mechanic's sweetheart say 'I wish I had what she has.'"

De Beers needed a slogan for diamonds that expressed both the theme of romance and legitimacy. An N. W. Ayer copywriter came up with the caption "A Diamond Is Forever," which was scrawled on the bottom of a picture of two young lovers on a honeymoon. Even though diamonds can in fact be shattered, chipped, discolored, or incinerated to ash, the concept of eternity perfectly captured the magical qualities that the advertising agency wanted to attribute to diamonds. Within a year, "A Diamond Is Forever" became the official motto of De Beers.

In 1951, N. W. Ayer found some resistance to its million-dollar publicity blitz. It noted in its annual strategy review:

The millions of brides and brides-to-be are subjected to at least two important pressures that work against the diamond engagement ring. Among the more prosperous, there is the sophisticated urge to be different as a means of being smart.... the lower-income groups would like to show more for the money than they can find in the diamond they can afford...

To remedy these problems, the advertising agency argued, "It is essential that these pressures be met by the constant publicity to show that only the diamond is everywhere accepted and recognized as the symbol of betrothal."

N. W. Ayer was always searching for new ways to influence American public opinion. Not only did it organize a service to "release to the women's pages the engagement ring" but it set about exploiting the relatively new medium of television by arranging for actresses and other celebrities to wear diamonds when they appeared before the camera. It also established a "Diamond Information Center" that placed a stamp of quasi-authority on the flood of "historical" data and "news" it released. "We work hard to keep ourselves known throughout the publishing world as the source of information on diamonds," N. W. Ayer commented in a memorandum to De Beers, and added: "Because we have done it successfully, we have opportunities to help with articles originated by others."

N. W. Ayer proposed to apply to the diamond market Thorstein Veblen's idea, stated in The Theory of the Leisure Class, that Americans were motivated in their purchases not by utility but by "conspicuous consumption." "The substantial diamond gift can be made a more widely sought symbol of personal and family success -- an expression of socio-economic achievement," N. W. Ayer said in a report. To exploit this desire for conspicuous display, the agency specifically recommended, "Promote the diamond as one material object which can reflect, in a very personal way, a man's ... success in life." Since this campaign would be addressed to upwardly mobile men, the advertisements ideally "should have the aroma of tweed, old leather and polished wood which is characteristic of a good club."

Toward the end of the 1950s, N. W. Ayer reported to De Beers that twenty years of advertisements and publicity had had a pronounced effect on the American psyche. "Since 1939 an entirely new generation of young people has grown to marriageable age," it said. "To this new generation a diamond ring is considered a necessity to engagements by virtually everyone." The message had been so successfully impressed on the minds of this generation that those who could not afford to buy a diamond at the time of their marriage would "defer the purchase" rather than forgo it.

The campaign to internationalize the diamond invention began in earnest in the mid-1960s. The prime targets were Japan, Germany, and Brazil. Since N. W. Ayer was primarily an American advertising agency, De Beers brought in the J. Walter Thompson agency, which had especially strong advertising subsidiaries in the target countries, to place most of its international advertising. Within ten years, De Beers succeeded beyond even its most optimistic expectations, creating a billion-dollar-a-year diamond market in Japan, where matrimonial custom had survived feudal revolutions, world wars, industrialization, and even the American occupation.

Until the mid-1960s, Japanese parents arranged marriages for their children through trusted intermediaries. The ceremony was consummated, according to Shinto law, by the bride and groom drinking rice wine from the same wooden bowl. There was no tradition of romance, courtship, seduction, or prenuptial love in Japan; and none that required the gift of a diamond engagement ring. Even the fact that millions of American soldiers had been assigned to military duty in Japan for a decade had not created any substantial Japanese interest in giving diamonds as a token of love.

J. Walter Thompson began its campaign by suggesting that diamonds were a visible sign of modern Western values. It created a series of color advertisements in Japanese magazines showing beautiful women displaying their diamond rings. All the women had Western facial features and wore European clothes. Moreover, the women in most of the advertisements were involved in some activity -- such as bicycling, camping, yachting, ocean swimming, or mountain climbing -- that defied Japanese traditions. In the background, there usually stood a Japanese man, also attired in fashionable European clothes. In addition, almost all of the automobiles, sporting equipment, and other artifacts in the picture were conspicuous foreign imports. The message was clear: diamonds represent a sharp break with the Oriental past and a sign of entry into modern life.

The campaign was remarkably successful. Until1959, the importation of diamonds had not even been permitted by the postwar Japanese government. When the campaign began, in 1967, not quite 5 percent of engaged Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond; by 1981, some 60 percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere fourteen years, the 1,500-year Japanese tradition had been radically revised. Diamonds became a staple of the Japanese marriage. Japan became the second largest market, after the United States, for the sale of diamond engagement rings.

In America, which remained the most important market for most of De Beer's diamonds, N. W. Ayer recognized the need to create a new demand for diamonds among long-married couples. "Candies come, flowers come, furs come," but such ephemeral gifts fail to satisfy a woman's psychological craving for "a renewal of the romance," N. W. Ayer said in a report. An advertising campaign could instill the idea that the gift of a second diamond, in the later years of marriage, would be accepted as a sign of "ever-growing love." In 1962, N. W. Ayer asked for authorization to "begin the long-term process of setting the diamond aside as the only appropriate gift for those later-in-life occasions where sentiment is to be expressed." De Beers immediately approved the campaign.

The diamond market had to be further restructured in the mid-1960s to accomodate a surfeit of minute diamonds, which De Beers undertook to market for the Soviets. They had discovered diamond mines in Siberia, after intensive exploration, in the late 1950s: De Beers and its allies no longer controlled the diamond supply, and realized that open competition with the Soviets would inevitably lead, as Harry Oppenheimer gingerly put it, to "price fluctuations,"which would weaken the carefully cultivated confidence of the public in the value of diamonds. Oppenheimer, assuming that neither party could afford risking the destruction of the diamond invention, offered the Soviets a straightforward deal—"a single channel" for controlling the world supply of diamonds. In accepting this arrangement, the Soviets became partners in the cartel, and co-protectors of the diamond invention.

Almost all of the Soviet diamonds were under half a carat in their uncut form, and there was no ready retail outlet for millions of such tiny diamonds. When it made its secret deal with the Soviet Union, De Beers had expected production from the Siberian mines to decrease gradually. Instead, production accelerated at an incredible pace, and De Beers was forced to reconsider its sales strategy. De Beers ordered N. W. Ayer to reverse one of its themes: women were no longer to be led to equate the status and emotional commitment to an engagement with the sheer size of the diamond. A "strategy for small diamond sales" was outlined, stressing the "importance of quality, color and cut" over size. Pictures of "one quarter carat" rings would replace pictures of "up to 2 carat" rings. Moreover, the advertising agency began in its international campaign to "illustrate gems as small as one-tenth of a carat and give them the same emotional importance as larger stones." The news releases also made clear that women should think of diamonds, regardless of size, as objects of perfection: a small diamond could be as perfect as a large diamond.

DeBeers devised the "eternity ring," made up of as many as twenty-five tiny Soviet diamonds, which could be sold to an entirely new market of older married women. The advertising campaign was based on the theme of recaptured love. Again, sentiments were born out of necessity: older American women received a ring of miniature diamonds because of the needs of a South African corporation to accommodate the Soviet Union.

The new campaign met with considerable success. The average size of diamonds sold fell from one carat in 1939 to .28 of a carat in 1976, which coincided almost exactly with the average size of the Siberian diamonds De Beers was distributing. However, as American consumers became accustomed to the idea of buying smaller diamonds, they began to perceive larger diamonds as ostentatious. By the mid-1970s, the advertising campaign for smaller diamonds was beginning to seem too successful. In its 1978 strategy report, N. W. Ayer said, "a supply problem has developed ... that has had a significant effect on diamond pricing"—a problem caused by the long-term campaign to stimulate the sale of small diamonds. "Owing to successful pricing, distribution and advertising policies over the last 16 years, demand for small diamonds now appears to have significantly exceeded supply even though supply, in absolute terms, has been increasing steadily." Whereas there was not a sufficient supply of small diamonds to meet the demands of consumers, N. W. Ayer reported that "large stone sales (1 carat and up) ... have maintained the sluggish pace of the last three years." Because of this, the memorandum continued, "large stones are being .. discounted by as much as 20%."

The shortage of small diamonds proved temporary. As Soviet diamonds continued to flow into London at an ever-increasing rate, De Beers's strategists came to the conclusion that this production could not be entirely absorbed by "eternity rings" or other new concepts in jewelry, and began looking for markets for miniature diamonds outside the United States. Even though De Beers had met with enormous success in creating an instant diamond "tradition" in Japan, it was unable to create a similar tradition in Brazil, Germany, Austria, or Italy. By paying the high cost involved in absorbing this flood of Soviet diamonds each year, De Beers prevented — at least temporarily — the Soviet Union from taking any precipitous actions that might cause diamonds to start glutting the market. N. W. Ayer argued that "small stone jewelry advertising" could not be totally abandoned: "Serious trade relationship problems would ensue if, after fifteen years of stressing 'affordable' small stone jewelry, we were to drop all of these programs."

Instead, the agency suggested a change in emphasis in presenting diamonds to the American public. In the advertisements to appear in 1978, it planned to substitute photographs of one-carat-and-over stones for photographs of smaller diamonds, and to resume both an "informative advertising campaign" and an "emotive program" that would serve to "reorient consumer tastes and price perspectives towards acceptance of solitaire [single-stone] jewelry rather than multi-stone pieces." Other "strategic refinements" it recommended were designed to restore the status of the large diamond. "In fact, this [campaign] will be the exact opposite of the small stone informative program that ran from 1965 to 1970 that popularized the 'beauty in miniature' concept...." With an advertising budget of some $9.69 million, N. W. Ayer appeared confident that it could bring about this "reorientation."

N. W. Ayer learned from an opinion poll it commissioned from the firm of Daniel Yankelovich, Inc. that the gift of a diamond contained an important element of surprise. "Approximately half of all diamond jewelry that the men have given and the women have received were given with zero participation or knowledge on the part of the woman recipient," the study pointed out. N. W Ayer analyzed this "surprise factor":

Women are in unanimous agreement that they want to be surprised with gifts.... They want, of course, to be surprised for the thrill of it. However, a deeper, more important reason lies behind this desire.... "freedom from guilt." Some of the women pointed out that if their husbands enlisted their help in purchasing a gift (like diamond jewelry), their practical nature would come to the fore and they would be compelled to object to the purchase.

Women were not totally surprised by diamond gifts: some 84 percent of the men in the study "knew somehow" that the women wanted diamond jewelry. The study suggested a two-step "gift-process continuum": first, "the man 'learns' diamonds are o.k." fom the woman; then, "at some later point in time, he makes the diamond purchase decision" to surprise the woman.

Through a series of "projective" psychological questions, meant "to draw out a respondent's innermost feelings about diamond jewelry," the study attempted to examine further the semi-passive role played by women in receiving diamonds. The male-female roles seemed to resemble closely the sex relations in a Victorian novel. "Man plays the dominant, active role in the gift process. Woman's role is more subtle, more oblique, more enigmatic...." The woman seemed to believe there was something improper about receiving a diamond gift. Women spoke in interviews about large diamonds as "flashy, gaudy, overdone" and otherwise inappropriate. Yet the study found that "Buried in the negative attitudes ... lies what is probably the primary driving force for acquiring them. Diamonds are a traditional and conspicuous signal of achievement, status and success." It noted, for example, "A woman can easily feel that diamonds are 'vulgar' and still be highly enthusiastic about receiving diamond jewelry." The element of surprise, even if it is feigned, plays the same role of accommodating dissonance in accepting a diamond gift as it does in prime sexual seductions: it permits the woman to pretend that she has not actively participated in the decision. She thus retains both her innocence—and the diamond.

For advertising diamonds in the late 1970s, the implications of this research were clear. To induce men to buy diamonds for women, advertising should focus on the emotional impact of the "surprise" gift transaction. In the final analysis, a man was moved to part with earnings not by the value, aesthetics, or tradition of diamonds but by the expectation that a "gift of love" would enhance his standing in the eyes of a woman. On the other hand, a woman accepted the gift as a tangible symbol of her status and achievements.

By 1979, N. W. Ayer had helped De Beers expand its sales of diamonds in the United States to more than $2.1 billion, at the wholesale level, compared with a mere $23 million in 1939. In forty years, the value of its sales had increased nearly a hundredfold. The expenditure on advertisements, which began at a level of only $200,000 a year and gradually increased to $10 million, seemed a brilliant investment.

Except for those few stones that have been destroyed, every diamond that has been found and cut into a jewel still exists today and is literally in the public's hands. Some hundred million women wear diamonds, while millions of others keep them in safe-deposit boxes or strongboxes as family heirlooms. It is conservatively estimated that the public holds more than 500 million carats of gem diamonds, which is more than fifty times the number of gem diamonds produced by the diamond cartel in any given year. Since the quantity of diamonds needed for engagement rings and other jewelry each year is satisfied by the production from the world's mines, this half-billion-carat supply of diamonds must be prevented from ever being put on the market. The moment a significant portion of the public begins selling diamonds from this inventory, the price of diamonds cannot be sustained. For the diamond invention to survive, the public must be inhibited from ever parting with its diamonds.

In developing a strategy for De Beers in 1953, N. W. Ayer said: "In our opinion old diamonds are in 'safe hands' only when widely dispersed and held by individuals as cherished possessions valued far above their market price." As far as De Beers and N. W. Ayer were concerned, "safe hands" belonged to those women psychologically conditioned never to sell their diamonds. This conditioning could not be attained solely by placing advertisements in magazines. The diamond-holding public, which includes people who inherit diamonds, had to remain convinced that diamonds retained their monetary value. If it saw price fluctuations in the diamond market and attempted to dispose of diamonds to take advantage of changing prices, the retail market would become chaotic. It was therefore essential that De Beers maintain at least the illusion of price stability.

In the 1971 De Beers annual report, Harry Oppenheimer explained the unique situation of diamonds in the following terms: "A degree of control is necessary for the well-being of the industry, not because production is excessive or demand is falling, but simply because wide fluctuations in price, which have, rightly or wrongly, been accepted as normal in the case of most raw materials, would be destructive of public confidence in the case of a pure luxury such as gem diamonds, of which large stocks are held in the form of jewelry by the general public." During the periods when production from the mines temporarily exceeds the consumption of diamonds—the balance is determined mainly by the number of impending marriages in the United States and Japan—the cartel can preserve the illusion of price stability by either cutting back the distribution of diamonds at its London "sights," where, ten times a year, it allots the world's supply of diamonds to about 300 hand-chosen dealers, called "sight-holders," or by itself buying back diamonds at the wholesale level. The underlying assumption is that as long as the general public never sees the price of diamonds fall, it will not become nervous and begin selling its diamonds. If this huge inventory should ever reach the market, even De Beers and all the Oppenheimer resources could not prevent the price of diamonds from plummeting.

Selling individual diamonds at a profit, even those held over long periods of time, can be surprisingly difficult. For example, in 1970, the London-based consumer magazine Money Which? decided to test diamonds as a decade long investment. It bought two gem-quality diamonds, weighing approximately one-half carat apiece, from one of London's most reputable diamond dealers, for £400 (then worth about a thousand dollars). For nearly nine years, it kept these two diamonds sealed in an envelope in its vault. During this same period, Great Britain experienced inflation that ran as high as 25 percent a year. For the diamonds to have kept pace with inflation, they would have had to increase in value at least 300 percent, making them worth some £400 pounds by 1978. But when the magazine's editor, Dave Watts,tried to sell the diamonds in 1978, he found that neither jewelry stores nor wholesale dealers in London's Hatton Garden district would pay anywhere near that price for the diamonds. Most of the stores refused to pay any cash for them; the highest bid Watts received was £500, which amounted to a profit of only £100 in over eight years, or less than 3 percent at a compound rate of interest. If the bid were calculated in 1970 pounds, it would amount to only £167. Dave Watts summed up the magazine's experiment by saying, "As an 8-year investment the diamonds that we bought have proved to be very poor." The problem was that the buyer, not the seller, determined the price.

The magazine conducted another experiment to determine the extent to which larger diamonds appreciate in value over a one-year period. In 1970, it bought a 1.42 carat diamond for £745. In 1971, the highest offer it received for the same gem was £568. Rather than sell it at such an enormous loss, Watts decided to extend the experiment until 1974, when he again made the round of the jewelers in Hatton Garden to have it appraised. During this tour of the diamond district, Watts found that the diamond had mysteriously shrunk in weight to 1.04 carats. One of the jewelers had apparently switched diamonds during the appraisal. In that same year, Watts, undaunted, bought another diamond, this one 1.4 carats, from a reputable London dealer. He paid £2,595. A week later, he decided to sell it. The maximum offer he received was £1,000.

In 1976, the Dutch Consumer Association also tried to test the price appreciation of diamonds by buying a perfect diamond of over one carat in Amsterdam, holding it for eight months, and then offering it for sale to the twenty leading dealers in Amsterdam. Nineteen refused to buy it, and the twentieth dealer offered only a fraction of the purchase price.

Selling diamonds can also be an extraordinarily frustrating experience for private individuals. In 1978, for example, a wealthy woman in New York City decided to sell back a diamond ring she had bought from Tiffany two years earlier for $100,000 and use the proceeds toward a necklace of matched pearls that she fancied. She had read about the "diamond boom" in news magazines and hoped that she might make a profit on the diamond. Instead, the sales executive explained, with what she said seemed to be a touch of embarrassment, that Tiffany had "a strict policy against repurchasing diamonds." He assured her, however, that the diamond was extremely valuable, and suggested another Fifth Avenue jewelry store. The woman went from one leading jeweler to another, attempting to sell her diamond. One store offered to swap it for another jewel, and two other jewelers offered to accept the diamond "on consignment" and pay her a percentage of what they sold it for, but none of the half-dozen jewelers she visited offered her cash for her $100,000 diamond. She finally gave up and kept the diamond.

Retail jewelers, especially the prestigious Fifth Avenue stores, prefer not to buy back diamonds from customers, because the offer they would make would most likely be considered ridiculously low. The "keystone," or markup, on a diamond and its setting may range from 100 to 200 percent, depending on the policy of the store; if it bought diamonds back from customers, it would have to buy them back at wholesale prices. Most jewelers would prefer not to make a customer an offer that might be deemed insulting and also might undercut the widely held notion that diamonds go up in value. Moreover, since retailers generally receive their diamonds from wholesalers on consignment, and need not pay for them until they are sold, they would not readily risk their own cash to buy diamonds from customers. Rather than offer customers a fraction of what they paid for diamonds, retail jewelers almost invariably recommend to their clients firms that specialize in buying diamonds "retail."

The firm perhaps most frequently recommended by New York jewelry shops is Empire Diamonds Corporation, which is situated on the sixty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building, in midtown Manhattan. Empire's reception room, which resembles a doctor's office, is usually crowded with elderly women who sit nervously in plastic chairs waiting for their names to be called. One by one, they are ushered into a small examining room, where an appraiser scrutinizes their diamonds and makes them a cash offer. "We usually can't pay more than a maximum of 90 percent of the current wholesale price," says Jack Brod, president of Empire Diamonds. "In most cases we have to pay less, since the setting has to be discarded, and we have to leave a margin for error in our evaluation—especially if the diamond is mounted in a setting." Empire removes the diamonds from their settings, which are sold as scrap, and resells them to wholesalers. Because of the steep markup on diamonds, individuals who buy retail and in effect sell wholesale often suffer enormous losses. For example, Brod estimates that a half-carat diamond ring, which might cost $2,000 at a retail jewelry store, could be sold for only $600 at Empire.

The appraisers at Empire Diamonds examine thousands of diamonds a month but rarely turn up a diamond of extraordinary quality. Almost all the diamonds they find are slightly flawed, off-color, commercial-grade diamonds. The chief appraiser says, "When most of these diamonds were purchased, American women were concerned with the size of the diamond, not its intrinsic quality." He points out that the setting frequently conceals flaws, and adds, "The sort of flawless, investment-grade diamond one reads about is almost never found in jewelry."

Many of the elderly women who bring their jewelry to Empire Diamonds and other buying services have been victims of burglaries or muggings and fear further attempts. Thieves, however, have an even more difficult time selling diamonds than their victims. When suspicious-looking characters turn up at Empire Diamonds, they are asked to wait in the reception room, and the police are called in. In January of 1980, for example, a disheveled youth came into Empire with a bag full of jewelry that he called "family heirlooms." When Brod pointed out that a few pieces were imitations, the youth casually tossed them into the wastepaper basket. Brod buzzed for the police.

When thieves bring diamonds to underworld "fences," they usually get only a pittance for them. In 1979, for example, New York City police recover stolen diamonds with an insured value of $50,000 which had been sold to a 'fence' for only $200. According to the assistant district attorney who handled the case, the fence was unable to dispose of the diamonds on 47th Street, and he was eventually turned in by one of the diamond dealers he contacted.

While those who attempt to sell diamonds often experience disappointment at the low price they are offered, stories in gossip columns suggest that diamonds are resold at enormous profits. This is because the column items are not about the typical diamond ring that a woman desperately attempts to peddle to small stores and diamond buying services like Empire but about truly extraordinary diamonds that movie stars sell, or claim to sell, in a publicity-charged atmosphere. The legend created around the so-called "Elizabeth Taylor" diamond is a case in point. This pear-shaped diamond, which weighed 69.42 carats after it had been cut and polished, was the fifty-sixth largest diamond in the world and one of the few large-cut diamonds in private hands. Except that it was a diamond, it had little in common with the millions of small stones that are mass-marketed each year in engagement rings and other jewelry.

A serious threat to the stability of the diamond invention came in the late 1970s from the sale of "investment" diamonds to speculators in the United States. A large number of fraudulent investment firms, most of them in Arizona, began telephoning prospective clients drawn from various lists of professionals and investors who had recently sold stock. "Boiler-room operators," many of them former radio and television announcers, persuaded strangers to buy mail-order diamonds as investments that were supposedly much safer than stocks or bonds. Many of the newly created firms also held "diamond-investment seminars" in expensive resort hotels, where they presented impressive graphs and data. Typically assisted by a few well-rehearsed shills in the audience, the seminar leaders sold sealed packets of diamonds to the audience. The leaders often played on the fear of elderly investors that their relatives might try to seize their cash assets and commit them to nursing homes. They suggested that the investors could stymie such attempts by putting their money into diamonds and hiding them.

The sealed packets distributed at these seminars and through the mail included certificates guaranteeing the quality of the diamonds—as long as the packets remained sealed. Customers who broke the seal often learned from independent appraisers that their diamonds were of a quality inferior to that stated. Many were worthless. Complaints proliferated so fast that, in 1978, the attorney general of New York created a "diamond task force" to investigate the hundreds of allegations of fraud.

Some of the entrepreneurs were relative newcomers to the diamond business. Rayburne Martin, who went from De Beers Diamond Investments, Ltd. (no relation to the De Beers cartel) to Tel-Aviv Diamond Investments, Ltd.—both in Scottsdale, Arizona—had a record of embezzlement and securities law violations in Arkansas, and was a fugitive from justice during most of his tenure in the diamond trade. Harold S. McClintock, also known as Harold Sager, had been convicted of stock fraud in Chicago and involved in a silver-bullion-selling caper in 1974 before he helped organize DeBeers Diamond Investments, Ltd. Don Jay Shure, who arranged to set up another DeBeers Diamond Investments, Ltd., in Irvine, California, had also formerly been convicted of fraud. Bernhard Dohrmann, the "marketing director" of the International Diamond Corporation, had served time in jail for security fraud in 1976. Donald Nixon, the nephew of former President Richard M. Nixon, and fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco were, according to the New York State attorney general, participating in the late 1970s in a high-pressure telephone campaign to sell "overvalued or worthless diamonds" by employing "a battery of silken-voiced radio and television announcers." Among the diamond salesmen were also a wide array of former commodity and stock brokers who specialized in attempting to sell sealed diamonds to pension funds and retirement plans.

In London, the real De Beers, unable to stifle all the bogus entrepreneurs using its name, decided to explore the potential market for investment gems. It announced in March of 1978 a highly unusual sort of "diamond fellowship" for selected retail jewelers. Each jeweler who participated would pay a $2,000 fellowship fee. In return, he would receive a set of certificates for investment-grade diamonds, contractual forms for "buy-back" guarantees, promotional material, and training in how to sell these unmounted diamonds to an entirely new category of customers. The selected retailers would then sell loose stones rather than fine jewels, with certificates guaranteeing their value at $4,000 to $6,000.

De Beers's modest move into the investment-diamond business caused a tremor of concern in the trade. De Beers had always strongly opposed retailers selling "investment" diamonds, on the grounds that because customers had no sentimental attachment to such diamonds, they would eventually attempt to resell them and cause sharp price fluctuations.

If De Beers had changed its policy toward investment diamonds, it was not because it wanted to encourage the speculative fever that was sweeping America and Europe. De Beers had "little choice but to get involved," as one De Beers executive explained. Many established diamond dealers had rushed into the investment field to sell diamonds to financial institutions, pension plans, and private investors. It soon became apparent in the Diamond Exchange in New York that selling unmounted diamonds to investors was far more profitable than selling them to jewelry shops. By early 1980, David Birnbaum, a leading dealer in New York, estimated that nearly a third of all diamond sales in the United States were, in terms of dollar value, of these unmounted investment diamonds. "Only five years earlier, investment diamonds were only an insignificant part of the business," he said. Even if De Beers did not approve of this new market in diamonds, it could hardly ignore a third of the American diamond trade.

To make a profit, investors must at some time find buyers who are willing to pay more for their diamonds than they did. Here, however, investors face the same problem as those attempting to sell their jewelry: there is no unified market in which to sell diamonds. Although dealers will quote the prices at which they are willing to sell investment-grade diamonds, they seldom give a set price at which they are willing to buy diamonds of the same grade. In 1977, for example, Jewelers' Circular Keystone polled a large number of retail dealers and found a difference of over 100 percent in offers for the same quality of investment-grade diamonds. Moreover, even though most investors buy their diamonds at or near retail price, they are forced to sell at wholesale prices. As Forbes magazine pointed out, in 1977, "Average investors, unfortunately, have little access to the wholesale market. Ask a jeweler to buy back a stone, and he'll often begin by quoting a price 30% or more below wholesale." Since the difference between wholesale and retail is usually at least 100 percent in investment diamonds, any gain from the appreciation of the diamonds will probably be lost in selling them.

"There's going to come a day when all those doctors, lawyers, and other fools who bought diamonds over the phone take them out of their strongboxes, or wherever, and try to sell them," one dealer predicted last year. Another gave a gloomy picture of what would happen if this accumulation of diamonds were suddenly sold by speculators. "Investment diamonds are bought for $30,000 a carat, not because any woman wants to wear them on her finger but because the investor believes they will be worth $50,000 a carat. He may borrow heavily to leverage his investment. When the price begins to decline, everyone will try to sell their diamonds at once. In the end, of course, there will be no buyers for diamonds at $30,000 a carat or even $15,000. At this point, there will be a stampede to sell investment diamonds, and the newspapers will begin writing stories about the great diamond crash. Investment diamonds constitute, of course, only a small fraction of the diamonds held by the public, but when women begin reading about a diamond crash, they will take their diamonds to retail jewelers to be appraised and find out that they are worth less than they paid for them. At that point, people will realize that diamonds are not forever, and jewelers will be flooded with customers trying to sell, not buy, diamonds. That will be the end of the diamond business."

But a panic on the part of investors is not the only event that could end the diamond business. De Beers is at this writing losing control of several sources of diamonds that might flood the market at any time, deflating forever the price of diamonds.

In the winter of 1978, diamond dealers in New York City were becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of a serious rupture, or even collapse, of the "pipeline" through which De Beers's diamonds flow from the cutting centers in Europe to the main retail markets in America and Japan. This pipeline, a crucial component of the diamond invention, is made up of a network of brokers, diamond cutters, bankers, distributors, jewelry manufacturers, wholesalers, and diamond buyers for retail establishments. Most of the people in this pipeline are Jewish, and virtually all are closely interconnected, through family ties or long-standing business relationships.

An important part of the pipeline goes from London to diamond-cutting factories in Tel Aviv to New York; but in Israel, diamond dealers were stockpiling supplies of diamonds rather than processing and passing them through the pipeline to New York. Since the early 1970s, when diamond prices were rapidly increasing and Israeli currency was depreciating by more than 50 percent a year, it had been more profitable for Israeli dealers to keep the diamonds they received from London than to cut and sell them. As more and more diamonds were taken out of circulation in Tel Aviv, an acute shortage began in New York, driving prices up.

In early 1977, Sir Philip Oppenheimer dispatched his son Anthony to Tel Aviv, accompanied by other De Beers executives, to announce that De Beers intended to cut the Israeli quota of diamonds by at least 20 percent during the coming year. This warning had the opposite effect of what he intended. Rather than paring down production to conform to this quota, Israeli manufacturers and dealers began building up their own stockpiles of diamonds, paying a premium of 100 percent or more for the unopened boxes of diamonds that De Beers shipped to Belgian and American dealers. (By selling their diamonds to the Israelis, the De Beers clients could instantly double their money without taking any risks.) Israeli buyers also moved into Africa and began buying directly from smugglers. The Intercontinental Hotel in Liberia, then the center for the sale of smuggled goods, became a sort of extension of the Israeli bourse. After the Israeli dealers purchased the diamonds, either from De Beers clients or from smugglers, they received 80 percent of the amount they had paid in the form of a loan from Israeli banks. Because of government pressure to help the diamond industry, the banks charged only 6 percent interest on these loans, well below the rate of inflation in Israel. By 1978, the banks had extended $850 million in credit to diamond dealers, an amount equal to some 5 percent of the entire gross national product of Israel. The only collateral the banks had for these loans was uncut diamonds.

De Beers estimated that the Israeli stockpile was more than 6 million carats in 1977, and growing at a rate of almost half a million carats a month. At that rate, it would be only a matter of months before the Israeli stockpile would exceed the cartel's in London. If Israel controlled such an enormous quantity of diamonds, the cartel could no longer fix the price of diamonds with impunity. At any time, the Israelis could be forced to pour these diamonds onto the world market. The cartel decided that it had no alternative but to force liquidation of the Israeli stockpile.

If De Beers wanted to bring the diamond speculation under control, it would have to clamp down on the banks, which were financing diamond purchases with artificially low interest rates. De Beers announced that it was adopting a new strategy of imposing "surcharges" on diamonds. Since these "surcharges," which might be as much as 40 percent of the value of the diamonds, were effectively a temporary price increase, they could pose a risk to banks extending credit to diamond dealers. For example, with a 40 percent surcharge, a diamond dealer would have to pay $1,400 rather than $1,000 for a small lot of diamonds; however, if the surcharge was withdrawn, the diamonds would be worth only a thousand dollars. The Israeli banks could not afford to advance 80 percent of a purchase price that included the so-called surcharge; they therefore required additional collateral from dealers and speculators. Further, they began, under pressure from De Beers, to raise interest rates on outstanding loans.

Within a matter of weeks in the summer of 1978, interest rates on loans to purchase diamonds went up 50 percent. Moreover, instead of lending money based on what Israeli dealers paid for diamonds, the banks began basing their loans on the official De Beers price for diamonds. If a dealer paid more than the De Beers price for diamonds—and most Israeli dealers were paying at least double the price—he would have to finance the increment with his own funds.

To tighten the squeeze on Israel, De Beers abruptly cut off shipments of diamonds to forty of its clients who had been selling large portions of their consignments to Israeli dealers. As Israeli dealers found it increasingly difficult either to buy or finance diamonds, they were forced to sell diamonds from the stockpiles they had accumulated. Israeli diamonds poured onto the market, and prices at the wholesale level began to fall. This decline led the Israeli banks to put further pressure on dealers to liquidate their stocks to repay their loans. Hundreds of Israeli dealers, unable to meet their commitments, went bankrupt as prices continued to plunge. The banks inherited the diamonds.

Last spring, executives of the Diamond Trading Company made an emergency trip to Tel Aviv. They had been informed that three Israeli banks were holding $1.5 billion worth of diamonds in their vaults—an amount equal to nearly the annual production of all the diamond mines in the world—and were threatening to dump the hoard of diamonds onto an already depressed market. When the banks had investigated the possibilities of reselling the diamonds in Europe or the United States, they found little interest. The world diamond market was already choked with uncut and unsold diamonds. The only alternative to dumping their diamonds on the market was reselling them to De Beers itself.

De Beers, however, is in no position to absorb such a huge cache of diamonds. During the recession of the mid-970s, it had to use a large portion of its cash reserve to buy diamonds from Russia and from newly independent countries in Africa, in order to preserve the cartel arrangement. As it added diamonds to its stockpile, De Beers depleted its cash reserves. Furthermore, in 1980, De Beers found it necessary to buy back diamonds on the wholesale markets in Antwerp to prevent a complete collapse in diamond prices. When the Israeli banks approached De Beers about the possibility of buying back the diamonds, De Beers, possibly for the first time since the depression of the 1930s, found itself severely strapped for cash. It could, of course, borrow the $1.5 billion necessary to bail out the Israeli banks, but this would strain the financial structure of the entire Oppenheimer empire.

Sir Philip Oppenheimer, Monty Charles, Michael Grantham, and other top executives from De Beers and its subsidiaries attempted to prevent the Israeli banks from dumping their hoard of diamonds. Despite their best efforts, however, the situation worsened. Last September, Israel's major banks quietly informed the Israeli government that they faced losses of disastrous proportions from defaulted accounts almost entirely collateralized with diamonds. Three of Israel's largest banks—the Union Bank of Israel, the Israel Discount Bank, and Barclays Discount Bank—had loans of some $660 million outstanding to diamond dealers, which constituted a significant portion of the bank debt in Israel. To be sure, not all of these loans were in jeopardy; but, according to bank estimates, defaults in diamond accounts rose to 20 percent of their loan portfolios. The crisis had to be resolved either by selling the diamonds that had been put up as collateral, which might precipitate a worldwide selling panic, or by some sort of outside assistance from the Israeli government or De Beers or both. The negotiations provided only stopgap assistance: De Beers would buy back a small proportion of the diamonds, and the Israeli government would not force the banks to conform to banking regulations that would result in the liquidation of the stockpile.

"Nobody took into account that diamonds, like any other commodity, can drop in value," Mark Mosevics, chairman of First International Bank of Israel, explained to The New York Times. According to industry estimates, the average one-carat flawless diamond had fallen in value by 50 percent since January of 1980. In March of 1980, for example, the benchmark value for such a diamond was $63,000; in September of 1981, it was only $23,000. This collapse of prices forced Israeli banks to sell diamonds from their stockpile at enormous discounts. One Israeli bank reportedly liquidated diamonds valued at $6 million for $4 million in cash in late 1981. It became clear to the diamond trade that a major stockpile of large diamonds was out of De Beers's control.

The most serious threat to De Beers is yet another source of diamonds that it does not control—a source so far untapped. Since Cecil Rhodes and the group of European bankers assembled the components of the diamond invention at the end of the nineteenth century, managers of the diamond cartel have shared a common nightmare—that a giant new source of diamonds would be discovered outside their purview. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, using all the colonial connections of the British Empire, succeeded in weaving the later discoveries of diamonds in Africa into the fabric of the cartel; Harry Oppenheimer managed to negotiate a secret agreement that effectively brought the Soviet Union into the cartel. However, these brilliant efforts did not end the nightmare. In the late 1970s, vast deposits of diamonds were discovered in the Argyle region of Western Australia, near the town of Kimberley (coincidentally named after Kimberley, South Africa). Test drillings last year indicated that these pipe mines could produce up to 50 million carats of diamonds a year—more than the entire production of the De Beers cartel in 1981. Although only a small percentage of these diamonds are of gem quality, the total number produced would still be sufficient to change the world geography of diamonds. Either this 50 million carats would be brought under control or the diamond invention would be destroyed.

De Beers rapidly moved to get a stranglehold on the Australian diamonds. It began by acquiring a small, indirect interest in Conzinc Riotinto of Australia, Ltd. (CRA), the company that controlled most of the mining rights. In 1980, it offered a secret deal to CRA through which it would market the total output of Australian production. This agreement might have ended the Australian threat if Northern Mining Corporation, a minority partner in the venture, had accepted the deal. Instead, Northern Mining leaked the terms of the deal to a leading Australian newspaper, which reported that De Beers planned to pay the Australian consortium 80 percent less than the existing market price for the diamonds. This led to a furor in Australia. The opposition Labour Party charged not only that De Beers was seeking to cheat Australians out of the true value of the diamonds but that the deal with De Beers would support the policy of apartheid in South Africa. It demanded that the government impose export controls on the diamonds rather than allow them to be controlled by a South African corporation. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, faced with a storm of public protest, said that he saw no advantage in "arrangements in which Australian diamond discoveries only serve to strengthen a South African monopoly." He left the final decision on marketing, however, to the Western Australia state government and the mining companies, which may or may not decide to make an arrangement with De Beers.

De Beers also faces a crumbling empire in Zaire. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer had concluded, more than fifty years ago, that control over the diamond mines in Zaire (then called the Belgian Congo) was the key to the cartel's control of world production. De Beers, together with its Belgian partners, had instituted mining and sorting procedures that would maximize the production of industrial (rather than gem) diamonds. Since there was no other ready customer for the enormous quantities of industrial diamonds the Zairian mines produced, De Beers remained their only outlet. In June of last year, however, President Mobuto abruptly announced that his country's exclusive contract with a De Beers subsidiary would not be renewed. Mobuto was reportedly influenced by offers he received for Zaire's diamond production from both Indian and American manufacturers. According to one New York diamond dealer, "Mobuto simply wants a more lucrative deal." Whatever his motives, the sudden withdrawal of Zaire from the cartel further undercuts the stability of the diamond market. With increasing pressure for the independence of Namibia, and a less friendly government in neighboring Botswana, De Beers's days of control in black Africa seem numbered.

Even in the midst of this crisis, De Beers's executives in London have been maneuvering to save the diamond invention by buying up loose diamonds. The inventory of diamonds in De Beers's vault has swollen to a value of over a billion dollars—twice the value of the 1979 inventory. To rekindle the demand for diamonds, De Beers recently launched a new multimillion-dollar advertising campaign (including $400,000 for television advertisements during the British royal wedding in July), yet it can be expected to buy only a few years of time for the cartel. By the mid-1980s, the avalanche of Australian diamonds will be pouring onto the market. Unless the resourceful managers of De Beers can find a way to gain control of the various sources of diamonds that will soon crowd the market, these sources may bring about the final collapse of world diamond prices. If they do, the diamond invention will disintegrate and be remembered only as a historical curiosity, as brilliant in its way as the glittering little stones it once made so valuable.

[Via The Atlantic]

The United States Leads the World in Producing Prisoners

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much.

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.

Whatever the reason, the gap between American justice and that of the rest of the world is enormous and growing.

It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed.

“In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in “Democracy in America.”

No more.

“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. “Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.”

Prison sentences here have become “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared,” Michael H. Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in “The Handbook of Crime and Punishment.”

Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States “a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.”

The spike in American incarceration rates is quite recent. From 1925 to 1975, the rate remained stable, around 110 people in prison per 100,000 people. It shot up with the movement to get tough on crime in the late 1970s. (These numbers exclude people held in jails, as comprehensive information on prisoners held in state and local jails was not collected until relatively recently.)

The nation’s relatively high violent crime rate, partly driven by the much easier availability of guns here, helps explain the number of people in American prisons.

“The assault rate in New York and London is not that much different,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group. “But if you look at the murder rate, particularly with firearms, it’s much higher.”

Despite the recent decline in the murder rate in the United States, it is still about four times that of many nations in Western Europe.

But that is only a partial explanation. The United States, in fact, has relatively low rates of nonviolent crime. It has lower burglary and robbery rates than Australia, Canada and England.

People who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks, Mr. Whitman wrote.

Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role in explaining long prison sentences in the United States as well. In 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000.

Those figures have drawn contempt from European critics. “The U.S. pursues the war on drugs with an ignorant fanaticism,” said Ms. Stern of King’s College.

Many American prosecutors, on the other hand, say that locking up people involved in the drug trade is imperative, as it helps thwart demand for illegal drugs and drives down other kinds of crime. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, for instance, has fought hard to prevent the early release of people in federal prison on crack cocaine offenses, saying that many of them “are among the most serious and violent offenders.”

Still, it is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.

Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mr. Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

Many specialists dismissed race as an important distinguishing factor in the American prison rate. It is true that blacks are much more likely to be imprisoned than other groups in the United States, but that is not a particularly distinctive phenomenon. Minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are also disproportionately represented in those nation’s prisons, and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States.

Some scholars have found that English-speaking nations have higher prison rates.

“Although it is not at all clear what it is about Anglo-Saxon culture that makes predominantly English-speaking countries especially punitive, they are,” Mr. Tonry wrote last year in “Crime, Punishment and Politics in Comparative Perspective.”

“It could be related to economies that are more capitalistic and political cultures that are less social democratic than those of most European countries,” Mr. Tonry wrote. “Or it could have something to do with the Protestant religions with strong Calvinist overtones that were long influential.”

The American character — self-reliant, independent, judgmental — also plays a role.

“America is a comparatively tough place, which puts a strong emphasis on individual responsibility,” Mr. Whitman of Yale wrote. “That attitude has shown up in the American criminal justice of the last 30 years.”

French-speaking countries, by contrast, have “comparatively mild penal policies,” Mr. Tonry wrote.

Of course, sentencing policies within the United States are not monolithic, and national comparisons can be misleading.

“Minnesota looks more like Sweden than like Texas,” said Mr. Mauer of the Sentencing Project. (Sweden imprisons about 80 people per 100,000 of population; Minnesota, about 300; and Texas, almost 1,000. Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the United States, at 273; and Louisiana the highest, at 1,138.)

Whatever the reasons, there is little dispute that America’s exceptional incarceration rate has had an impact on crime.

“As one might expect, a good case can be made that fewer Americans are now being victimized” thanks to the tougher crime policies, Paul G. Cassell, an authority on sentencing and a former federal judge, wrote in The Stanford Law Review.

From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice Department statistics, the risk of punishment rose in the United States and fell in England. The crime rates predictably moved in the opposite directions, falling in the United States and rising in England.

“These figures,” Mr. Cassell wrote, “should give one pause before too quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate.”

Other commentators were more definitive. “The simple truth is that imprisonment works,” wrote Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review. “Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs.”

There is a counterexample, however, to the north. “Rises and falls in Canada’s crime rate have closely paralleled America’s for 40 years,” Mr. Tonry wrote last year. “But its imprisonment rate has remained stable.”

Several specialists here and abroad pointed to a surprising explanation for the high incarceration rate in the United States: democracy.

Most state court judges and prosecutors in the United States are elected and are therefore sensitive to a public that is, according to opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime policies. In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing.

Mr. Whitman, who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”

[Via NY Times]

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Girls Get Extra School Help While Boys Get Ritalin

At last June's graduation at Franklin High School just outside of Milwaukee, three of the four students who tied for valedictorian were girls. Among the National Honor Society members, 76% were girls. And girls comprised 85% of the students on Franklin's 4.0 honor roll.
The superintendent of schools for this upper-middle-class suburb, Gerald Freitag, investigated those numbers after the parents of a boy filed a complaint. He found that the skewed performances by gender at Franklin pretty much mirror the imbalances across the state — and the nation.

This week, teachers at the middle school feeding into Franklin received training on how to reach out to boys. And high school teachers will continue the gender-sensitivity classes they began last school year.

But reversing the trend will not be easy. In classrooms nationwide, girls are pulling ahead of boys academically. Recent federal testing data show that what starts out as a modest gap in elementary-level reading scores turns into a yawning divide by high school. In 12th grade, 44% of girls rate as proficient readers on federal tests, compared with 28% of boys. And while boys still score slightly higher on federal math and science exams, their advantage is slipping.

Most startling is that little is being done to correct the imbalances. All of the major players — schools, education colleges and researchers — largely ignore the gender gap. Instead of pursuing sound solutions, many educators merely advocate prescribing more attention-focusing Ritalin for the boys, who receive the drug at four to eight times the rate of girls, according to different estimates. "Too often the first reaction to an attention problem is 'Let's medicate,' " says Rockville, Md., child psychologist Neil Hoffman. "Some schools are quick to recommend solutions before they've fully evaluated the problem."

Playing to girls' strengths

One reason boys are losing academic ground to girls appears linked to a shift by schools to more word-based learning for which girls' brains are believed to have an advantage. Over the years, even math problems have become more word oriented, according to education researchers. But because schools are doing little to help boys adjust, males risk becoming second-class academic citizens. Already the academic success girls enjoy in high school translates into more college acceptances — 56% of the students on campuses are female.

The full impact from this shift is something society has yet to discover. But a drop in earnings for males is one likely result. Workers with only a high school diploma earn $20,000 a year less than those with a bachelor's degree.

One fact explains why educators are ignoring boys' needs: You can't address a problem that you don't admit exists. The U.S. Department of Education concedes that no serious research is available comparing different instructional methods that might help boys. In fact, many education researchers are hostile toward research aimed at exploring gender differences in learning.

Last April, when Kenneth Dragseth, superintendent of schools in Edina, Minn., presented a paper describing his district's gender gap at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in Chicago, he says the reception ranged from chilly to hostile. Female education researchers in the audience questioned whether helping boys would mean hurting girls.

Their attitude follows years of lobbying by groups such as the American Association of University Women, which alerted educators to the fact that girls were being shortchanged academically in the fields of math and science. The extra attention helped focus schools on girls' difficulties, but it has made it too easy for educators to overlook the problems of boys. Among them:

•Boys and girls learn differently. The best research on boy-girl learning differences is produced more by accident than by design. The lack of data in this field can hurt girls as much as boys. For instance, as part of an ongoing 20-year dyslexia study focusing on Connecticut schools, Yale neuroscientist and pediatrician Sally Shaywitz discovered that schools were identifying four times as many dyslexic boys as girls. Yet when her team entered schools to screen children, it diagnosed just as many dyslexic girls as boys. Shaywitz found that the mostly female teaching staff was quicker to identify rambunctious boys than quiet girls.

The results are just one example of what might be learned about the role gender plays in education, especially in elementary school, where 85% of teachers are women.

• Future teachers aren't trained to deal with learning differences. Therapist Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently!, has visited more than 100 education colleges. But he has not found one that offers courses on male-female brain differences. His discovery explains why many new teachers arrive in classrooms clueless about what teaching techniques might work best for boys' learning styles.

• Boys lack advocates. The special efforts made by schools to steer more girls into advanced math and science classes came after powerful advocacy groups embraced the problem. But Gurian and other advocates for boys say they run into resistance from educators who point to males' success in the workforce as proof that advocacy for boys is unnecessary.

In spite of the lack of research, anecdotal evidence shows that far more effective strategies are available for teaching boys than plying them with Ritalin. Patricia Henley runs a boy-friendly charter school in Kansas that hires many male teachers. It also recognizes boys' natural tendency to favor active learning by conducting more class work on the chalkboard and allowing more student movement within the classroom. And the school trains teachers to deal with boys' particular styles. For instance, because boys volunteer answers more slowly than girls do, teachers are told to count to 10 before calling on a student.

Beginning in the early 1990s, groups such as the American Association of University Women performed an important service by alerting the public to an educational failing. Their persistence helped convince educators that schools were ignoring important problems plaguing girls, such as the loss of self-esteem among middle school girls who had been successful students throughout elementary school.

Today's education system fails many boys. They deserve the same kind of attention to address why they are losing ground.

[Via USA Today]

Is There Really a Bias Against Women in Politics? History Suggests Otherwise

Are women really discriminated against in politics? Sen. Hillary Clinton surely thinks so.

Indeed, she believes this year's presidential campaign has shown that sexism limits women's influence in politics. She claimed last week that "every poll I've seen shows more people would be reluctant to vote for a woman [than] to vote for an African American."

It's possible that Democrats are particularly sexist, but with women making up the majority of voters, one would think that politicians were ignoring women at their own peril.

In 2004, women made up 54 percent of voters. At least through early February of this year, women made up a much greater share of Democrat primary voters — accounting for between 57 and 61 percent of the vote in primaries and caucuses.

But whatever difficulties Clinton might be having, it seems that the policies adopted are much more important than who puts them into action, and the evidence indicates that women have long gotten their way.

Academics have for some time pondered why the government started growing precisely when it did. The federal government, aside from periods of wartime, consumed about 2 to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) up until World War I. That was the first war in which government spending didn't go all the way back down to its pre-war levels. Then in the 1920s, non-military federal spending began steadily climbing.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal — often viewed as the genesis of big government — really just continued an earlier trend. What changed before Roosevelt came to power that explains the growth of government? The answer is women's suffrage.

For decades, polls have shown that women as a group vote differently than men. Without the women's vote, Republicans would have swept every presidential race but one between 1968 and 2004.

The gender gap exists on various issues. The major one is the issue of smaller government and lower taxes, which is a much higher priority for men than for women. This is seen in divergent attitudes held by men and women on many separate issues.

Women were much more opposed to the 1996 federal welfare reforms, which mandated time limits for receiving welfare and imposed some work requirements on welfare recipients. Women are also more supportive of Medicare, Social Security and educational expenditures.

Studies show that women are generally more risk-averse than men. This could be why they are more supportive of government programs to ensure against certain risks in life.

Women's average incomes are also slightly lower and less likely to vary over time, which gives single women an incentive to prefer more progressive income taxes. Once women get married, however, they bear a greater share of taxes through their husbands' relatively higher incomes — so their support for high taxes understandably declines.

Marriage also provides an economic explanation for why men and women prefer different policies.

Because women generally shoulder most of the child-rearing responsibilities, married men are more likely to acquire marketable skills that help them earn money outside the household. If a man gets divorced, he still retains these skills. But if a woman gets divorced, she is unable to recoup her investment in running the household.

Hence, single women who believe they may marry in the future, as well as married women who most fear divorce, look to the government as a form of protection against this risk from a possible divorce: a more progressive tax system and other government transfers of wealth from rich to poor. The more certain a woman is that she doesn't risk divorce, the more likely she is to oppose government transfers.

Has it always been this way? Can women's suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries help explain the growth of government?

While the timing of the two events is suggestive, other changes during this time could have played a role. For example, some argue that Americans became more supportive of bigger government due to the success of widespread economic regulations imposed during World War I.

A good way to analyze the direct effect of women's suffrage on the growth of government is to study how each of the 48 state governments expanded after women obtained the right to vote.

Women's suffrage was first granted in western states with relatively few women — Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1896). Women could vote in 29 states before women's suffrage was achieved nationwide in 1920 with the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

If women's right to vote increased government, our analysis should show a few definite indicators. First, suffrage would have a bigger impact on government spending and taxes in states with a greater percentage of women. And secondly, the size of government in western states should steadily expand as women comprise an increasing share of their population.

Even after accounting for a range of other factors — such as industrialization, urbanization, education and income — the impact of granting of women's suffrage on per capita state government expenditures and revenue was startling.

Per capita state government spending after accounting for inflation had been flat or falling during the 10 years before women began voting. But state governments started expanding the first year after women voted and continued growing until within 11 years real per capita spending had more than doubled. The increase in government spending and revenue started immediately after women started voting.

Yet, as suggestive as these facts are, we must still consider whether suffrage itself caused the growth in government, or did the government expand due to some political or social change that accompanied women's right to vote?

Fortunately, there was a unique aspect of suffrage that allows us to answer this question: Of the 19 states that had not passed women's suffrage before the approval of the 19th Amendment, nine approved the amendment, while the other 12 had suffrage imposed on them.

If some unknown factor caused both a desire for larger government and women's suffrage, then government should have only grown in states that voluntarily adopted suffrage. This, however, is not the case: After approving women's suffrage, a similar growth in government was seen in both groups of states.

Women's suffrage also explains much of the federal government's growth from the 1920s to the 1960s. In the 45 years after the adoption of suffrage, as women's voting rates gradually increased until finally reaching the same level as men's, the size of state and federal governments expanded as women became an increasingly important part of the electorate.

But the battle between the sexes does not end there. During the early 1970s, just as women's share of the voting population was leveling off, something else was changing: The American family began to break down, with rising divorce rates and increasing numbers of out-of-wedlock births.

Over the course of women's lives, their political views on average vary more than those of men. Young single women start out being much more liberal than their male counterparts and are about 50 percent more likely to vote Democratic. As previously noted, these women also support a higher, more progressive income tax as well as more educational and welfare spending.

But for married women this gap is only one-third as large. And married women with children become more conservative still. Women with children who are divorced, however, are suddenly about 75 percent more likely to vote for Democrats than single men. So as divorce rates have increased, due in large part to changing divorce laws, voters have become more liberal.

Women's suffrage ushered in a sea change in American politics that affected policies aside from taxes and the size of government. For example, states that granted suffrage were much more likely to pass Prohibition, for the temperance movement was largely dominated by middle-class women. Although the "gender gap" is commonly thought to have arisen only in the 1960s, female voting dramatically changed American politics from the very beginning.

*John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Rich Get Hungrier

WILL the food crisis that is menacing the lives of millions ease up — or grow worse over time? The answer may be both. The recent rise in food prices has largely been caused by temporary problems like drought in Australia, Ukraine and elsewhere. Though the need for huge rescue operations is urgent, the present acute crisis will eventually end. But underlying it is a basic problem that will only intensify unless we recognize it and try to remedy it.

It is a tale of two peoples. In one version of the story, a country with a lot of poor people suddenly experiences fast economic expansion, but only half of the people share in the new prosperity. The favored ones spend a lot of their new income on food, and unless supply expands very quickly, prices shoot up. The rest of the poor now face higher food prices but no greater income, and begin to starve. Tragedies like this happen repeatedly in the world.

A stark example is the Bengal famine of 1943, during the last days of the British rule in India. The poor who lived in cities experienced rapidly rising incomes, especially in Calcutta, where huge expenditures for the war against Japan caused a boom that quadrupled food prices. The rural poor faced these skyrocketing prices with little increase in income.

Misdirected government policy worsened the division. The British rulers were determined to prevent urban discontent during the war, so the government bought food in the villages and sold it, heavily subsidized, in the cities, a move that increased rural food prices even further. Low earners in the villages starved. Two million to three million people died in that famine and its aftermath.

Much discussion is rightly devoted to the division between haves and have-nots in the global economy, but the world’s poor are themselves divided between those who are experiencing high growth and those who are not. The rapid economic expansion in countries like China, India and Vietnam tends to sharply increase the demand for food. This is, of course, an excellent thing in itself, and if these countries could manage to reduce their unequal internal sharing of growth, even those left behind there would eat much better.

But the same growth also puts pressure on global food markets — sometimes through increased imports, but also through restrictions or bans on exports to moderate the rise in food prices at home, as has happened recently in countries like India, China, Vietnam and Argentina. Those hit particularly hard have been the poor, especially in Africa.

There is also a high-tech version of the tale of two peoples. Agricultural crops like corn and soybeans can be used for making ethanol for motor fuel. So the stomachs of the hungry must also compete with fuel tanks.

Misdirected government policy plays a part here, too. In 2005, the United States Congress began to require widespread use of ethanol in motor fuels. This law combined with a subsidy for this use has created a flourishing corn market in the United States, but has also diverted agricultural resources from food to fuel. This makes it even harder for the hungry stomachs to compete.

Ethanol use does little to prevent global warming and environmental deterioration, and clear-headed policy reforms could be urgently carried out, if American politics would permit it. Ethanol use could be curtailed, rather than being subsidized and enforced.

The global food problem is not being caused by a falling trend in world production, or for that matter in food output per person (this is often asserted without much evidence). It is the result of accelerating demand. However, a demand-induced problem also calls for rapid expansion in food production, which can be done through more global cooperation.

While population growth accounts for only a modest part of the growing demand for food, it can contribute to global warming, and long-term climate change can threaten agriculture. Happily, population growth is already slowing and there is overwhelming evidence that women’s empowerment (including expansion of schooling for girls) can rapidly reduce it even further.

What is most challenging is to find effective policies to deal with the consequences of extremely asymmetric expansion of the global economy. Domestic economic reforms are badly needed in many slow-growth countries, but there is also a big need for more global cooperation and assistance. The first task is to understand the nature of the problem.

[Via NY Times]