GRATE(FUL) LEADERS

On Thanksgiving Day, which always falls on the fourth Thursday of November, Americans gather with family and friends to overeat and give thanks for blessings large and small. Here's Willis Sparks with a few things others can be grateful for.


US President Donald Trump can be thankful that Democratic lawmakers and a (very large) pack of the party's presidential candidates will share the political spotlight with him in 2019. That will take some of the focus off the president and allow Democrats to take a bit more heat as the 2020 elections approach.

The Democrats can be thankful that they now have real power for the first time since Trump was elected president. Starting in January, they'll be able to set a legislative agenda, at least in the House of Representatives, and they'll have subpoena power to investigate the president. But beyond fierce opposition to Trump, can they offer voters a vision of the future worth voting for?

French President Emmanuel Macron can be thankful he has a five-year term and will remain on the job until 2022 no matter how deep his poll numbers dive. A recent survey put his approval rating at just 26 percent, and that was before one person died and 400 were injured in nationwide protests against new fuel taxes. Macron can also be thankful that pressure from Trump is driving Paris and Berlin closer together, though that rapprochement comes at a tough time: he's weak politically and Merkel is preparing to leave office.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May can be thankful that after a week of high Brexit drama and months of relentless criticism there's still no credible alternative to either her Brexit plan or her leadership. For now. Hardline members of May's party are scrambling to get enough votes to oust her in a no-confidence move, but it's a gamble: if they fail, she cannot face another leadership challenge for at least a year; if they succeed, Brexit negotiations will become even more tough—with the opposition Labor party waiting in the wings to pounce.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be thankful that Education Minister Naftali Bennett has decided to keep his Jewish Home party within Netanyahu's governing coalition. Following the resignation last week of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, it appeared Bennett might follow him out of government, undoing Netanyahu's coalition and forcing him to face fresh elections while he is plagued by multiple corruption investigations.

South Africans can be grateful that their governing institutions continue to hold their leaders accountable. President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has promised to clean up corruption within the governing ANC party, agreed last week to repay about $35,000 given to his party leadership campaign by a firm accused of graft. It's an embarrassment for Ramaphosa but a step forward for his country from the administration of former President Jacob Zuma.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman can be thankful that even as he becomes ever more implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, his own father appears to have the last word in whether he stays in line to become king – and dad is on his side for now.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neil can be thankful that his small country benefits from economic and strategic competition between China, the US, and other regional powers. Not only did O'Neil pull off a smooth APEC Summit last week, the US and Australia agreed to invest in a major new military base on one of his country's remote islands. That could give an economic boost to the country of 7.5 million people, where 40 percent live on less than $1.25 per day.

The Italian town of Acquetico, home to 131 people, can be thankful that it recently set up a camera to catch people driving too fast. The camera reportedly nailed 58,568 speeders in just two weeks. We're hoping the fines imposed will raise Acquetico's per capita income by 28,000 percent.

Your Signal team—Kevin Allison, Alex Kliment, Gabe Lipton, and Willis Sparks—are grateful that so many of you around the world continue to read Signal. Thank you very, very much!

Facebook unveiled plans for a new cryptocurrency and payment system on Tuesday. It's called the Libra, and it's not-so-modest goal is to "reinvent money," and "transform the global economy" so that "people everywhere can live better lives." Ambitious much, Zuck?

This is a huge political gamble, but the rewards could be enormous. Here's a quick look at the tradeoffs:

The risks: Facebook is asking its 2.5 billion users — and government regulators — to entrust it with something that's vitally important to people everywhere and a power that governments jealously protect: access to money. And it's doing so at a time when trust in Facebook and other big Silicon Valley companies is at a low ebb.

Whether it's a concern that Big Tech has become too powerful or that it's not doing enough to protect privacy or put a stop to fake news, it's a heck of a time to launch a new techno-utopian project that could give Silicon Valley much more power — including the ability to track not just what people say they like but how they spend their money.

Mark Zuckerberg understands this — the Facebook founder is setting up Libra as a Swiss-based non-profit that will be governed by an "association" of 28 tech and financial companies and non-profits of which Facebook is just one member. He's also promising that Facebook will not mix personal data with payment information, and to cooperate with regulators.

But this will always be Zuckerberg's baby, and by launching Libra, he's painting a big new political bullseye on his own back.

The payoff: If Libra can survive the inevitable political and regulatory storm (and convince its billions of users that they can trust the underlying technology and financial stability of the new cryptocurrency) the upside could be enormous.

How enormous? The Libra website claims that more than 30 percent of the world's population — about 1.7 billion people — currently lack access to traditional bank accounts. Many more pay steep fees to transfer money using traditional payment services. Libra, by contrast, promises access to anyone in the world with a simple smartphone — and to make payments as inexpensive as sending a text message.

Plug those capabilities into a social network whose user base is roughly double the population of the biggest country in the world, and the results could be revolutionary — not just for billions of people who would gain new access to financial resources, but for Facebook's business model, and for central banks and governments that have traditionally sought to control the flow of money through their economies.

That would be a techno-utopian dream come true, but it's a power that governments won't willingly surrender.

If Willis's story on Tuesday about Argentina being plunged into darkness after a nationwide power failure didn't get you packing a flashlight and checking that your car has a full tank of gas, this one should. Over the weekend, the New York Times said anonymous US officials had revealed a US campaign to plant "potentially crippling malware" inside Russia's power grid "at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before."

Quick thoughts:

This is a big provocation. It's the cyber equivalent of mining a harbor — an aggressive move that falls short of actual conflict but sends an unmistakable message: mess with us, and we'll mess you up.

The leak was probably intentional. The campaign fits with the new US strategy, launched under the Trump administration, of trying to deter cyber adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran from hacking its critical infrastructure. By disclosing the US campaign, US officials are effectively telling Russia (and by extension China and Iran), that they've got a loaded gun cocked and pointed at their economies.

That's dangerous. People — and governments — may not always behave rationally when a gun is pointed at their heads. Russia might be even more inclined to lash out. And unlike more conventional forms of conflict, cyber isn't a domain where the US can be sure it has an overwhelming advantage if push comes to shove.

It gets worse. The Times said US cyber officials described a "broad hesitation" to go into details of cyber operations against Russia with President Donald Trump because they feared he might cancel it or tell other governments about it. Among other things that are disturbing about this story, a lack of communication between the President and US cyber warriors could send mixed signals that further embolden US adversaries.

It's no secret that cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace. But where do most of them originate and what countries do they target most? The graphic above shows the most significant offenders and victims since 2006. Hackers in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea account for three-quarters of all major attacks. Nearly a fifth of attacks, meanwhile, have targeted institutions or companies in the United States.

(At least that we know of: this chart highlights known attacks on government agencies, tech companies, and other operations that caused more than $1 million in economic damage. But many cyberattacks are never disclosed, and some countries are more transparent than others, so consider this a cross-section of a much bigger — and more disturbing — picture.)

China's outrage against Swiss bankers – Paul Donovan, an economist at UBS and a former colleague of your Wednesday Signal author, ended up in hot water last week after he wrote that an outbreak of swine fever that had pushed up pork prices in China, "matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world." The Swiss bank put Donovan on leave after a nationalist tabloid picked up the story, unleashing a torrent of invective from angry Chinese citizens, industry groups, and clients. Although we're a bit puzzled at the intensity of the outrage, we're following this story closely. The anger of 1.4 billion people is a powerful thing, and if the US-China standoff over tech and trade continues to escalate, US firms could soon find themselves on the receiving end.

What we are ignoring: Trump on ICE

Trump's Deportation Threats – As Donald Trump revved up his official reelection campaign in Florida on Tuesday, he took to Twitter to vow mass deportations of "millions of illegal aliens" starting next week. We are ignoring this for two reasons: First, it looks more like a campaign trail stunt than a well-thought-out plan — the scale of deportations Trump envisions would require massive logistical coordination, and it's not clear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can deliver it — even if the federal force got help from local police, who may be reluctant to participate in mass arrests in their communities. Second, while this type of rhetoric may play directly to Trump's base, images of crying children torn from their parents will galvanize the president's opponents — and, in particular, the suburban women crucial to his 2016 victory. We're not ignoring the pain and trauma that mass deportations would inflict on immigrant communities if Trump delivers on this threat. We're ignoring a boast that's likely to prove a political bust.