Berlin follows Caracas in goldbug repatriation

Why are they doing it? Because the conspiracists have won.

You may have heard that the Bundesbank is planning to repatriate its gold from the New York Federal Reserve to its own coffers in Germany.

The AP reports:

The Bundesbank plans to bring back to Germany some of its 1,500 tonnes of gold stored in the vaults of the Federal Reserve in New York, and the 450 tonnes stashed with the Bank of France in Paris, reported the German newspaper Handelsblatt.

The central bank declined to comment on the report but will on Wednesday outline a plan to manage the reserves, which total about 3,400 tonnes, or 270,000 gold bars.Most of Germany's massive reserves have been stored abroad since the cold war amid fears of a Soviet invasion.

It's a similar story to one from 2011, when Venezuela announced it would be repatriating up to 211 tonnes of its gold from various vaults around the world. Here's how the FT reported it at the time:

Venezuela would need to transport the gold in several trips, traders said, since the high value of gold means it would be impossible to insure a single aircraft carrying 211 tonnes. It could take about 40 shipments to move the gold back to Caracas, traders estimated.

“It’s going to be quite a task. Logistically, I’m not sure if the central bank realises the magnitude of the task ahead of them,” said one senior gold banker.

It feels — although I can't put my finger on why (no snark intended, for once) — that the tone of the reporting around the Bundesbank's decision has been far more respectful than it was eighteen months ago. Then, it seems to have been taken as a given that the move was a mad power grab on Chavez's part, and all the economics blogs focused on the difficulty of actually carrying out the pledge.

Take Felix Salmon:

It seems to me that Chávez has four main choices here. He can go the FT’s route, and just fly the gold to Caracas while insuring each shipment for its market value. He can go the Spanish route, and try to transport the gold himself, perhaps making use of the Venezuelan navy. He could attempt the mother of all repo transactions. Or he could get clever.

This time, however, the analysis is focusing less on how the transportation will work, and more on patiently analysing the Bundesbank's decisions. Ezra Klein, for instance, writes:

So what the heck is Germany doing? It is a nation with a deep-seated fears about the stability of its currency, no doubt in part the legacy of the Weimar hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The fixation on its gold comes at a time when the world of finance seems in chaos. Germans are being asked to help rescue Greece and other European nations with troubled finances. The European Central Bank has bought bonds from some of those nations, which Germans widely view as tempting enormous inflation. Against that backdrop, it is perhaps not shocking that there is political resonance to the theory that the New York Fed and Banque de France may be putting one over on the Bundesbank and that some of Germany's gold might actually be missing.

This is doubtless partly because transporting up to 1,500 tonnes of gold between New York and Berlin is — probably rightly — seen as less risky than transporting 211 tonnes of gold from London to Venezuela. But it's also because Germany is a Very Serious Country full of Very Serious People and Venezuela is the home of Wacky Hugo.

Germany is repatriating hundreds of tonnes of gold because economic conspiracy theorists have gained a relatively substantial amount of political capital in the country. Venezuela did the same thing in 2011. They are both very silly places.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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