Willis Asks Kevin About Digital Currency Stuff

Here’s another digital-age story. Last month, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced plans for a “sovereign cryptocurrency.” It will be known as the “petro” because it’s backed by crude oil. Maduro says Venezuela will raise $5.9 billion by issuing 100 million units of the new digital coinage at $59 apiece. Venezuela’s opposition-led Congress says this is illegal.


I don’t get it, and I’m not sure Nicolas Maduro does either, but apparently Russia, China, Iran, India, and Estonia are also considering some form of sovereign digital currency. I better ask Kevin Allison what’s going on.

Hey Kevin, what’s a sovereign cryptocurrency?

Good morning, Willis. It’s digital money that uses clever computer code to let people buy things without going through a bank or other financial intermediary. Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency, was created as an alternative to government-issued fiat money. But a sovereign digital currency would be issued by the state — in the case of the petro, a government in Venezuela that has presided over disastrous hyperinflation.

How is a cryptocurrency different from the money in my wallet?

Your cash, known as fiat money, is backed by a central bank, which can fire up the presses and print more. Cryptocurrencies are backed by code, which makes their total supply a design decision. The total number of Bitcoins that can ever be “mined” was hard-wired into the programming from the start. Other currencies, like Ethereum, don’t limit the number, but that could change. Governments will have to decide whether their cryptocurrencies’ supply would be fixed or variable.

Why would a government want a sovereign cryptocurrency?

To revolutionize commerce and governance by creating a decentralized, tamper-proof method of registering changes in — OK, just kidding. Venezuela’s government probably just wants to raise cash, evade sanctions, and counter US influence. By cutting out financial middlemen like banks, cryptocurrencies exist outside the global payments system, which runs on the US dollar. While some countries are eyeing other benefits, there’s a reason why it’s Venezuela, Russia, and Iran that are most aggressively investigating sovereign cryptocurrencies.

Why would I want to buy a sovereign cryptocurrency?

You’re right to wonder. Is the cryptocurrency secure? Is it easily convertible into cash? Would transactions be anonymous, or would they be tracked? These are open questions.

Should I care about this?

It will create financial opportunities that might not be available today in countries with underdeveloped banking systems. We should all care about that. On the flip side, national cryptocurrencies might also make it easier for governments to track what you buy and sell. That should worry anyone who cares about privacy.

Wrecking the global economy's hopes for a relaxing late-August Friday, China and the US have taken fresh shots at each other in their deepening trade war.

First, China announced new tariffs on US goods in response to US levies on China's exports that are set to take effect next month.

Trump responded with a vintage tweet storm, lashing out at China and demanding that US firms stop doing business there. The Dow plunged as markets waited for the next shoe to drop. And drop it did: later in the day Trump announced higher tariffs on nearly everything that China exports to the United States.

Why now? Bear in mind, all of this comes right as Trump is leaving for this weekend's G7 summit in France. That gathering already promised to be a testy one – but with the global economy slowing, the impact of Trump's increasingly nasty trade war with China will add fresh tensions to the occasion.

So where are we in the trade war now? Here is an updated list of what measures each side has imposed to date, and what's next. Both sides have a lot at stake, but from the looks of it, the list isn't going to get shorter any time soon.

When Donald Trump first started talking about buying Greenland last week, we figured it was a weird story with less legs than a Harp seal.

Signal readers, we were wrong. President Trump was so serious about purchasing the autonomous Danish territory that this week he abruptly cancelled a trip to Denmark after the country's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, labelled the idea "absurd."

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The Amazon in flames – More than 70,000 forest fires are burning in Brazil right now, most of them in the Amazon. That's up 84% over the same period last year, and it's the highest number on record. This is the dry season when farmers burn certain amounts of forest legally to clear farmland. But critics say Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to loosen conservation rules have encouraged farmers, loggers, and miners to set more fires, many of them illegally. Bolsonaro – a science skeptic who recently fired the head of the agency that tracks deforestation – says, without proof, that NGOs are setting the fires to embarrass his government. Meanwhile, the EU is holding up a major trade deal with Brazil unless Bolsonaro commits to higher environmental protection standards, including those that affect the Amazon.

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Over the past fifty years, the Amazon rainforest has shrunk by an area equal to the size of Turkey. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian government supported settlement of the sparsely populated region for security reasons. Since then, huge swaths of the forest -- which is crucial for limiting the world's greenhouse gasses -- have been cleared for farmland used to feed Brazil's population and support its massive agricultural exports. Greater awareness of the environmental impacts in the 1990s produced tighter conservation regulations, though plenty of illegal clearing continues. In recent years, the annual deforestation rate has begun to rise again, and Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to weaken regulations further in order to support businesses.