Watching and Ignoring

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

Locked-up Lula Alex wrote a piece for your Tuesday edition on the emergence of Joaquim Barbosa as a presidential contender in Brazil. Then we got more big news from the country this week. Late Wednesday night, by a vote of 6–5, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal ruled that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, must sit in prison while he appeals a 12-year sentence for a corruption conviction. Lula still leads in opinion polls ahead of October’s presidential election — though the number of voters who say they’re dead-set against him would make it hard for him to win. Lula’s incarceration creates space on the left for other candidates, like Barbosa. But, as Alex points out, it could also delegitimize the election for those who agree with Lula that the charges against him are politically motivated.


Macron vs the unions Every French president who tries to change that country’s labor laws knows that sooner or later the showdown with unions will come. It’s Emmanuel Macron’s turn, and a wave of strikes, led by staff at state railway SNCF, is now under way. Strikes are scheduled to disrupt transport on 36 separate days over the next three months. Rail workers want to protect their relatively generous benefits, while the government says the state can’t afford them — and that EU rules require that state railways open to competition. On Wednesday, students, angry over more selective university entry requirements, added their challenge to President Emmanuel Macron. This is a crucial test for a leader with grand ambitions — for France and for Europe.

The Weiner-Dog Museum — Did you know that Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy loved dachshunds? Did you know that Germans bred dachshunds in the Middle Ages to flush predatory badgers from underground tunnels? Did you know the mascot of the 1972 Munich Olympics was a dachshund called Waldi? If you didn’t know these things, would like to learn more, and are passing through Bavaria, Signal recommends the newly opened Dackelmuseum in Passau, Germany.

WHAT WE’RE IGNORING

US withdrawal from Syria — President Trump made news last week by telling a cheering crowd in Ohio that “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” But there’s been little clarity since then on what “very soon” means. The Pentagon is not ready for withdrawal. Defense officials made clear this week that ISIS is not finished. Turkey’s intervention in Syria has delayed the “fight going against the remnants of ISIS,” said Defense Secretary James Mattis ten days ago. The Pentagon also appears interested in countering Russian influence in shaping Syria’s future and in dissuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, and Iran that it’s safe to attack US Kurdish allies. Until the Commander in Chief and Pentagon sort these questions out, the words “very soon” don’t mean much.

Bahrain’s new oil find — This week, the Kingdom of Bahrain — with a population smaller than Barcelona or Phoenix, Arizona — announced discovery of an offshore shale oil field large enough to push the tiny country’s oil reserves from 66th to 8th in the world. This may be good news for the already wealthy and well-connected in Bahrain, but we’re ignoring this story because its government, in lockstep with Saudi Arabia, won’t use new wealth to pursue a more independent foreign policy.

Iranians who fear nipples — The team logo for Italian football club AS Roma features the traditional Roman image of two babies, city founders Romulus and Remus, being suckled by the Capitoline Wolf. During its coverage of UEFA Champions League football, broadcasters in Iran altered the image by blurring out the wolf’s teats. We’re speechless.

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.