Friday, August 09, 2013

Sometimes the headlines deliver, and other times… (Thank goodness for potash.)

I’ll admit it.

The summer blogging doldrums have most definitely set in.

Despite a raft of topics in my queue, nothing was calling to me, nothing was whispering a sweet something in my writerly ear, I was hearing no ‘pick me, pick me, pick me’ for today’s post. Not one peep out of the entire group.

So I did what I generally do when desperately seeking blog ideas, but have neglected to put the latest Economist in my backpack. I hopscotched my way across WSJ, Bloomberg, and Business Week, with an occasional sordid stop at the Daily Mail UK.

Based on headlines alone, Bloomie’s looked the most promising.

I knew I was on the right track.

Certainly Pink Slip could make plenty out of Bill Gates Mugshot Inspires Teenage Misfits to Lead.

Alas, the headline lead to a video – an uninspiring and misfit way to communicate with me. So I’ll never know how Bill Gates’ mugshot works its mojo on teenagers.

That foray having failed, I noted with interest the headline that read Sexagenarian Bus-Fare Cheats Cost Creditors in Worst Rout.

While I am not a bus-fare cheat, I am a sexagenarian, so I was intrigued at the thought of learning just what my fellow cohort members were doing to “cost creditors in worst rout.” Who? What? Where? When? Why? How much?

As it turns out, Santiago, Chile’s public transpo is losing ridership to Chileans who are opting for cars, and are losing fares to the 19 percent of their pasajeros who sneak onto the buses through the rear doors, rather than enter up front and swipe their prepaid fare card.

But where was the evidence that these fare evaders were sexagenarians?

The sweeping headline indictment of an entire half of a generation was apparently based on this one observation:

Antonia Besares, 60, a maid in north Santiago, said she occasionally skips payment. It’s partly out of frustration over the long wait times, she said.

“I only do it sometimes when there are lots of people,” she said in a telephone interview. “It makes me angry. You wait at a bus stop for 20 minutes and eight come past, but they don’t stop.”

One scofflaw interviewed, who just happened to squeak in on an age cohort by a couple of months. Sheesh!

Journalistic standards just ain’t what they used to be, back when us sexagenarians first started reading the news.

I was about to give up, and declare today a Pink Slip-free day, when this one caught my eye: A Century of International Potash Intrigue.


Completely and utterly relieved, I clicked through and found that, while my eye was off the potash ball:

…the world’s potash markets went haywire last week, after the announcement that Russia's OAO Uralkali, the world’s largest producer of this crucial ingredient in fertilizer, suspended its participation in an alleged cartel with its long-time Belarus partner Belaruskali.

It’s speculated that this is all part of a Russian oligarch’s rich-get-richer power play. (What the potash is a kleptocracy to do if it can’t play power play?)

Potash, as it turns out, is no stranger to “geopolitical power plays.”

In the beginning, life in potash-ville seemed simple. While potash was exceedingly important:

…indispensable for making glass, soap and gunpowder as well as for bleaching and dying fabrics.

It was pretty straightforward to produce: mix wood ash with lye, and boil ‘em up.

No single country controlled potash production; anyone with fire and wood could make it.

Nonetheless, it took a lot of wood to make a little potash, and so periodic shortages plagued the global economy, encouraging constant refinements in potash manufacture. The first patent granted in the U.S. was for an improvement “in the making of Pot-ash.”

But along the way, deposits of potassium salts were discovered in Germany. No longer relying on home cookin’, potash making shifted from a small-scale enterprise to a large-scale industry, which grew as agri-business fueled demand for potash-based fertilizer.

A potash cartel was born.

And when a couple of producers tried to buck the cartel and work directly with potash-hungry American fertilizer companies:

…the German government imposed a prohibitive tax on export contracts set up outside the cartel. A diplomatic row ensued, with the U.S. government taking up the cause of the fertilizer companies, to no avail. The export tax forced the dissenting Germany companies to rejoin the cartel and nullify the contracts.

Well, fast forward through Weimar, Alsace, Herbert Hoover, antitrust, and the scary sounding “International Potash Syndicate,” and, as luck would have it, the U.S. found its own source of potash, right there in new Mexico.

Alas, the wily Euro-cartel bought up the American producer.

Enter the Nazis, who “kept the cartel alive and well until the outbreak of World War II.”

After the war, new cartels emerged, and we ended up where we are today,

…in the current arrangement splitting the industry between the North American group and the now-imperiled one based in Belarus.

And the conniving Russians waiting in the wings to screw everyone.

Potash? Yes, potash!

Who knew?

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