Archive

April 26th, 2016

Hubris made Volkswagen settle with the U.S.

    Volkswagen is apparently setting aside $10 billion to settle all U.S. claims against it for cheating on emission tests. As part of the settlement, it's offering American VW owners $5,000 each or a buyback of their cars. If a deal with U.S. regulators and plaintiffs has indeed been reached on these terms, it's a high price to pay to maintain a presence in a relatively unimportant market, especially since paying it will result in losses to its reputation in bigger markets.

    The U.S. is not huge for VW, which has struggled and failed to break into the big leagues there. In 2014, the last full year before the emissions scandal, it made $36.7 billion in revenue in North America. Applying the company's 5.2 percent net income margin would mean a profit of about $1.9 billion, less than 13 percent of the global total. Even assuming that VW's sales in the region don't drop following the emissions scandal, $10 billion is more than five years' worth of American profits for the company. Essentially, it's agreeing to operate at cost, or at a loss, for half a decade just to lay the scandal to rest.

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Here's how we could hide Earth from aliens if we had to

    What would it take to hide an entire planet? It sounds more like a question posed in an episode of "Star Trek" than in academic discourse, but sometimes the bleeding edge of science blurs with themes found in science fiction.

    Of course, we've been leaking our own position to distant stars via radio and television signals for six decades now, largely ignorant of the cosmic implications. But several notable scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have publicly voiced concerns about revealing our presence to other civilizations. These concerns largely draw from the darker chapters of our own history, when a more advanced civilization would subjugate and displace a less advanced one.

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Harriet Tubman will be on the $20 bill, but still doesn't rate a statue in the Capitol

    Harriet Tubman will officially be the face of a $20 bill.

    And, sure, it's great news that the defiant, brave and inspiring abolitionist will replace slaveholder Andrew Jackson on the currency of America's ATMs.

    But hold the confetti because the fight to get a proper honor for Tubman - or just about any American woman - is far from over.

    You won't find Tubman's likeness on the National Mall. And you won't find the African-American, Maryland-born heroine among the giants honored in the U.S. Capitol, despite a long fight to have Maryland replace its statue of John Hanson (I know, who?) with one honoring Tubman.

    Nope. Didn't happen.

    But that's the case with our continued mansplaining of American history.

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Fix the crooked primary process

    Halfway through the 2016 presidential primaries, we can all look back and be proud of how the democratic process worked again, just like it's supposed to. In state after state, Republicans and Democrats came together in a fair and open process to select the person they wanted to lead their party to victory in November. Right?

    Wrong! I can't believe I'm actually writing these words, but: Donald Trump is right. About this one thing, at least: The primary process is rigged. By both parties, but especially by the Republican Party. And the system badly needs fixing.

    In fact, unlike the general election, which is conducted according to national standards based on the principle of "one person, one vote," there's no one national set of rules for voting in the primaries. Instead, there are 100 different sets of rules. The Democratic and Republican party of each state sets its own rules on who may vote in their primary and who may not.

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Even the best central bankers can't work miracles

    You have to sympathize with European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. In the absence of any fiscal stimulus from euro-zone governments, he's dug deeper and deeper into the previously unread textbook chapters on unconventional monetary policies. His reward? An ear bashing from Germany, stubbornly below-target inflation, and a Fight Club-style dilemma that forbids him from talking down the euro or discussing helicopter money.

    The key takeaway from Thursday's ECB meeting is that the de-facto cease-fire in the global currency war, agreed quietly at February's Shanghai meeting of Group of 20 large economies, seems to be in force. Draghi did his part to keep the peace at a March 10 press conference, saying that "we don't anticipate that it will be necessary to reduce rates further." The euro had been happily on its way down to $1.08; by the time currency traders were enjoying their first evening tipple that day, it had strengthened to $1.12, its highest in almost a month.

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Ben & Jerry say it's worth getting arrested to keep money out of politics

    Hundreds of people crossed police lines with us on Monday and were arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for protesting, the climax of a week of demonstrations and marches against the ways money in politics corrupt our democracy, and demanding the return of political power to the people. We were arrested for our act of nonviolent civil disobedience. In our view, if the laws are unjust, then we should be getting arrested to protest them. After all, this is how most of our nation's most important social movements - for women's suffrage and civil rights, against the Vietnam War -- have moved forward: people putting their bodies in the streets.

    After being detained by police at the Capitol for about four hours, we were released and told to come back Tuesday morning to pay our $50 fines. (After making such arrests all week long, Capitol police were apparently tired of hauling people in.) We were happy to arrive at the police department to pay up; in fact, we came early to stamp the cash of fellow fine-payers as they waited in line.

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'Allahu akbar' isn't a scary phrase, but terrorism has warped the way we hear Arabic

    For the past two years, I've taught English writing to students from Saudi Arabia with a gifted students scholarship program at the University of California at Berkeley Extension. One day during my first semester teaching, the students were discussing their college admissions essays in small groups, using a fervent combination of Arabic and English.

    I overheard the students of one group repeatedly saying, "Hamas, Hamas." While I never suspected a terrorist plot, I did assume they had gotten off topic. My only exposure to the word Hamas was from news stories about the Gaza Strip.

    I asked my students if they were still talking about their essays. They assured me they were. "Then why do you keep talking about Palestine?" I asked.

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Why Obama invests in the Saudi ally he disdains

    The U.S.-Saudi relationship appears to be on the rocks.

    Most recently, the rift of 9/11 has been reopened. This month "60 Minutes" reported on the still-classified final chapter of a 2003 Senate report on the attacks, which it said would show that some Saudi officials, charities and wealthy individuals supported two of the 9/11 hijackers.

    The Saudi connection is especially relevant now because Congress is considering legislation to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for damages. Saudi officials are warning the White House, according to the New York Times, that the kingdom would sell off hundreds of billions of dollars worth of U.S. assets if that bill became law.

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Victory brings back Clinton the happy warrior

    Hillary Clinton should try being happy as a campaign tactic. When she's on top of the world, she's a formidable candidate.

    "There's no place like home," she said Tuesday night, after winning the Democratic primary in her adopted home state of New York by more than 15 points.

    For once, there was no enthusiasm gap and her full-throttle shouting matched the mood of the crowd. She crowed that the path to the nomination was now a straight line and how her campaign "is the only one -- Democratic or Republican -- to win more than 10 million votes." Take that Donald Trump.

    In victory, she had a different tone than in her debate with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders last week, when she went at her rival as if he had to be killed. This time, she scarcely acknowledged his existence. Other than a wish for unity, her only reference to her competitor was a veiled jibe at hopeless dreamers who "diagnose a problem" but have no way to solve it.

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Trump, Clinton gain more than delegates on Tuesday

    Tuesday night was an opportunity for billionaire Donald Trump to make up ground he needed to win the Republican nomination and, for once, he made the most of it. He even beat the polling projections for a change.

    His blowout in New York doesn't quite put him back on track to reach 1,237 delegates and the nomination, but it appears he did what he needed to do: win almost all of the 95 delegates up for grabs.

    Trump accomplished this, despite having jumped out of the Red Queen race he has been in ever since he declared his candidacy last summer. All along, he had managed to grab and maintain an unprecedented share of media attention by making more and more outrageous comments, attacks on the press, anti-democratic boasts and personal smears against his Republican rivals. The formula seemed clear, and Republican voters, who barely knew anything about the other candidates in that information environment, have supported him.

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