Archive

July 17th, 2016

Russia's hyperloop dream is undone by scandal

    President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials dream of a technological leap that could immediately close the gap between Russia and more advanced economies, as Sputnik did for the Soviet Union. The hyperloop, a kind of train in a tube that can reach speeds of up to 700 mph, fits that dream, and a well-connected Russian businessman has invested in it -- only to see the project become embroiled in a lawsuit involving a Silicon Valley startup's founders and claims of financial mismanagement.

    Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive, proposed the hyperloop four years ago. This "fifth mode of transport" would involve a system of practically airless tubes through which magnetically levitated pods could carry passengers and cargo. Musk has not set up a company to bring the project to reality, but others have. For example, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, wants to build a system in Slovakia. Another, Hyperloop One, offered a public demonstration of some elements of its technology in May.

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Obama, Bush share a message in Dallas

    Along with President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush spoke at the memorial service for slain police officers in Dallas on Tuesday.

    Obama's words, whether intentionally provocative or scrupulously fair-minded, invariably end up as vehicles for others' purposes. Partisans hijack them, load them with their own baggage and speed away, often with an acute case of road rage.

    Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, for example, chastised Obama for "raising the specter of slavery and Jim Crow" and fueling the "grievance industry." (It's OK to discuss the fate of unarmed black men being shot by police. But it's unfair to provide historical or social context.)

    Few seem to have noticed Bush's remarks. Social media erupted with chuckles at the former president swaying to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" while grasping Michelle Obama's hand. But Bush's speech -- a more concise, equally eloquent version of Obama's -- deserved attention.

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Obama pulled a nation back together in Dallas

    But for one false note, President Barack Obama's stirring address at Tuesday's memorial service for the five slain Dallas police officers was perhaps one of the finest of his presidency. His remarks actually constituted four different speeches, uneasily knit together. Two of the four were excellent; one was necessary and important, but showed signs of swift and shaky drafting; and the fourth, although worthy, felt out of place.

    Let's consider each in turn.

    Speech 1 - The first and of course obligatory speech was the praise of the professionalism of the police. He noted, borrowing from Dallas Police Chief David Brown, that law enforcement officers do a dangerous job and are rarely thanked for it. In fact, they're often reviled. But, the president said, police are "deserving of our respect and not our scorn." He criticized those who deprecate law enforcement without recognizing the dangers of their job.

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No, 'Black Lives Matter' is not 'inherently racist'

    During an appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation," former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said , "When you say black lives matter, that's inherently racist." Asked whether he agreed with Giuliani, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said , " A lot of people agree with that. A lot of people feel that it is inherently racist. And it's a very divisive term. Because all lives matter. It's a very, very divisive term."

    Folks, I've run out of things to say. The ignorance flowing out of the mouths of politicians has me reaching for words I've already written. So, let me restate some of them. The best way to understand the meaning of the phrase "Black Lives Matter" is to think of it as an incomplete sentence. To those African Americans and other Americans marching to protest lives extinguished by law enforcement, the unspoken finish to the phrase "Black Lives Matter" is "as much as anyone else's."

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Lying to get you drunk isn't the same as fraud

    What could be more fun in mid-July than an appellate court case featuring beautiful Eastern European women who lured pure and innocent American businessmen into private bars where they ran up tabs in the tens of thousands of dollars?

    There's no rule that says judges can't have fun, especially in the judicial summer silly season - and the court certainly tried to be funny in describing the situation.

    But there was also a serious legal issue in play, one that should matter to everyone who sells anything for a living: It's not fraud if you tricked the customer into the transaction, but then gave him exactly what you promised at precisely the price you told him he would pay.

    The case, decided this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, involved a scheme perfected by a Miami businessman named Alec "Oleg" Simchuk and his associates who, like Simchuk, mostly hailed from the former Soviet Union.

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Law can't solve the South China Sea conflict

    The authoritative voice of law has now spoken clearly and decisively on a South China Sea churning dangerously with military maneuvers and heated rhetoric. But law's effects on the conflict are highly uncertain.

    On Tuesday, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague announced a sweeping victory for the Philippines that found unlawful a broad range of Chinese claims and actions regarding the sea. The tribunal's words vindicate the Obama administration's admirable search for law- and rules-based answers to foreign policy disputes. Regarding the South China Sea, President Obama has emphasized our commitment to resolving the dangerous conflicts "peacefully, through legal means, such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."

    While this ruling offers a significant positive contribution, law cannot solve all the conflicts in the South China Sea. Tuesday's decision underscores the limits of law in resolving these disputes in practice, as well as the urgent need to move ahead with negotiations, supported by prudent power politics.

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Despite anger, China isn't in the mood for protests

    Chinese didn't waste any time venting their anger at the Hague's ruling against their country's territorial claims in the South China Sea. Within minutes of the news, Chinese social media was flooded with thousands of comments parroting a testy, often profane nationalism.

    What China hasn't witnessed yet, however, is any semblance of the mass protests that roiled dozens of Chinese cities, sometimes violently, in 2012 after a similar territorial dispute with Japan erupted into the headlines. And the fact is, that's not likely to change.

    Unlike in 2012, Chinese censors almost immediately began deleting the most inflammatory posts about the verdict, such as calls for war in the South China Sea. At times, officials blocked people from even searching the term "South China Sea" on leading social media outlets. Authorities also quickly threw up a police cordon around the Philippine embassy in Beijing to thwart any demonstrations.

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Dallas tests candidates' presidential mettle

    In a misguided effort to be fair, the headline in the Sunday New York Times, "Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Struggle to Be Unifying Voice for Nation," made it seem as if the two candidates were equally unsuited to the task. This is dead wrong.

    Trump and Clinton have some of the highest unfavorable ratings of any would-be presidential nominees in modern history. Yet if you need evidence that bad candidates are not all alike, take a look at the way they grappled with the outburst of racial tension and violence -- the great unsolved problem of our time.

    The Republican standard-bearer, Trump, has inflamed the country's racial divide. Since he tested the power of racial politics by supporting the birther movement and found it potent, he hasn't stopped blowing the dog whistle.

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Clinton's room to grow

    The year's political cliche is that Americans will be choosing this fall between two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in our republic's history. Hillary Clinton is in the midst of a concerted effort to change that story line. And the not-so-distant past suggests that she has a fighting chance of succeeding.

    The assumption behind the debatable cliche is that while a disliked candidate can win by arguing that her opponent is even worse, politicians' unfavorable ratings are something of a constant. As it happens, voters are willing to revisit their opinions and often start liking someone they once dismissed.

    Lesson No. 1 comes from Clinton's husband in 1992. Hammered by a series of highly negative reports about his personal life and draft record, candidate Bill Clinton's favorable rating in the New York Times/CBS poll stood at a mere 16 percent in June.

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July 16th

The profit motive behind financial complexity

    Economist George Akerlof has spent much of his celebrated career thinking about how trickery and deceit affect markets. His most famous insight, which won him the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, is that when buyers and sellers have different information, lack of trust can cause markets to break down. In those models, no one actually ends up getting tricked -- everyone is perfectly rational, so even the possibility of getting cheated causes them to stay prudently out of the market. But in his book "Phishing for Phools," written with fellow Nobelist Robert Shiller, Akerlof goes one step further. Much of the actual, real-world economy, he says, involves trickery and deception.

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