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Four Days Trapped at Sea With Crypto’s Nouveau Riche

Draw me your map of utopia and I’ll tell you your tragic flaw. In 10 years of political reporting I’ve met a lot of intense, oddly dressed people with very specific ideas about what the perfect world would look like, some of them in elected office—but none quite so strange as the ideological soup of starry-eyed techno-utopians and sketchy-ass crypto-grifters on the 2018 CoinsBank Blockchain Cruise.

It happened like this.

Two months ago, an editor from BREAKER called and asked if I wanted to go on a four-day Mediterranean cruise with hundreds of crypto-crazed investors and evangelists. We’ll cover the travel, he said. Write something long about whatever you find, he said. It was 2 a.m. and I was over-caffeinated. I remember explaining that I know almost nothing about either cruises or blockchain, in the way that Sir Ian McKellen, in the criminally underrated series Extras, explains that he is not actually a wizard. Five days later I was at the port of Barcelona, boarding a ship. By which point it was way too late to wonder for the umpteenth time about my life choices.

I knew about bitcoin only as an investment vehicle favored by several essentially sweet nerds close to my heart—and I knew, too, that cryptocurrencies are the pet untraceable funding model of the far-right. I was told there would be an overall “Burning Man theme” to the adventure, guaranteed by the presence of Brock Pierce, the cryptocurrency mogul, former child actor, and one-man art installation about peer pressure. (More about him later.) I was anticipating evenings spent listening to crypto-hippies describe the angel-faced space elves they met when they took DMT. I was expecting to fetch water and painkillers for half-conscious corporate executives with dust in their perfect hair and no idea how to get home. I was expecting to get a bit carried away and end up shouting about the government and chalking poetry all over the walls. I was expecting to hear very rich men talk without blinking about tax planning and sacred geometry. I was expecting corporate-branded swimwear. I was expecting to meet smug Californian polyamorists, about whom smug European polyamorists like me are relentlessly judgy. Reader, all of these things transpired, but by the time they did they were a blessed relief.

https://breakermag.com/trapped-at-sea-with-cryptos-nouveau-riche/

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2020 in Reportages

 

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Imagining a World Without Capitalism

While the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the United Kingdom this month threatened the radical left’s momentum, particularly in the United States, where the presidential primaries loom, capitalism found itself under fire from some unexpected quarters. Billionaires, CEOs, and even the financial press have joined intellectuals and community leaders in a symphony of laments about rentier capitalism’s brutality, crassness, and unsustainability. “Business cannot continue as usual,” seems to be a widespread sentiment even in the boardrooms of the most powerful corporations.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/imagining-a-world-without-capitalism-by-yanis-varoufakis-2019-12

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2019 in Economy, Uncategorized

 

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How our home delivery habit reshaped the world

A decade ago, the British department-store chain John Lewis built itself a long warehouse, painted in gradations of sky blue. The shed, as it is called in the industry, cost £100m and covered 650,000 sq ft. Windsor Castle could easily fit inside it. John Lewis named the shed Magna Park 1, after the site where it stands: a “logistics campus” of warehouses, roads, shipping containers and truck bays east of Milton Keynes. Magna Park 1 was intended to supply the company’s stores around southern England, but almost as soon as it was finished, John Lewis realised that it wasn’t enough. The pace of e-commerce was flying, and Magna Park 1 opened in the midst of a spell in which, between 2006 and 2016, the share of John Lewis deliveries going direct to customers rose 12-fold.

So John Lewis built Magna Park 2, measuring 675,000 sq ft. After that, the company realised it needed a new shed for Waitrose, its supermarket chain, where home deliveries were skyrocketing, too. “It became a bit of a standing joke,” said Philip Stanway, a regional director at Chetwoods, the architecture firm that designed and built all these facilities. “They used to come to meetings with their forecasts, and they’d say: ‘Screw this. This is the new forecast,’” Stanway said, making a scribbling motion in the manner of a John Lewis executive hastily updating the numbers. “We couldn’t build the buildings quick enough for them.”

The Waitrose shed ended up spanning close to 1m sq ft. And then, even as Magna Park 2 was being constructed, John Lewis decided to commission Magna Park 3 to fulfill more home deliveries. Magna Park 3 was slightly smaller than the others, Stanway said – just 638,000 sq ft. “But that’s only because that was the size of the plot. That was all the land was left.”

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/21/how-our-home-delivery-habit-reshaped-the-world

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2019 in Economy

 

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Southeast Asia leaps ahead in high-tech financial services

Bank customers in Asia are swapping their wallets for smartphones, using apps for everything from buying groceries to sending money home from abroad to investing.

Need a loan? Forget filling out paperwork and waiting in line for a bank teller. Now you can apply for credit on your phone and receive an answer almost immediately, thanks to screening that uses artificial intelligence. Financial services are increasingly available anytime, anywhere.

Emerging economies, where many people still do not have access to banking services, are “leapfrogging” the traditional style of retail banking and jumping straight to digitized financial services. For a growing number of people, a visit to a brick-and-mortar bank seems old fashioned.

“I put 70% of my salary into my electronic money account,” said Bayu Wicaksono, a 23-year-old engineer living in Jakarta. Most of the things he buys he pays for with e-money from Ovo using his smartphone.

https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Banking-Finance/Southeast-Asia-leaps-ahead-in-high-tech-financial-services

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2019 in Asia, Economy, Uncategorized

 

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Against Economics

There is a growing feeling, among those who have the responsibility of managing large economies, that the discipline of economics is no longer fit for purpose. It is beginning to look like a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist.

A good example is the obsession with inflation. Economists still teach their students that the primary economic role of government—many would insist, its only really proper economic role—is to guarantee price stability. We must be constantly vigilant over the dangers of inflation. For governments to simply print money is therefore inherently sinful. If, however, inflation is kept at bay through the coordinated action of government and central bankers, the market should find its “natural rate of unemployment,” and investors, taking advantage of clear price signals, should be able to ensure healthy growth. These assumptions came with the monetarism of the 1980s, the idea that government should restrict itself to managing the money supply, and by the 1990s had come to be accepted as such elementary common sense that pretty much all political debate had to set out from a ritual acknowledgment of the perils of government spending. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that, since the 2008 recession, central banks have been printing money frantically in an attempt to create inflation and compel the rich to do something useful with their money, and have been largely unsuccessful in both endeavors.

We now live in a different economic universe than we did before the crash. Falling unemployment no longer drives up wages. Printing money does not cause inflation. Yet the language of public debate, and the wisdom conveyed in economic textbooks, remain almost entirely unchanged.

https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/12/05/against-economics/

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2019 in Economy, Reportages

 

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The ‘crisis of capitalism’ is not the one Europeans think it is

An avalanche of recent books and articles about the “crisis of capitalism” is predicting its demise or dépassement. For those who remember the 1990s, there is a strange similarity between this and the literature of the time, which argued that the Hegelian “end of history” had arrived. That theory was proved to be wrong. The former, I believe, is also factually wrong and misdiagnoses the problem.

The facts show capitalism to be not in crisis at all. It is stronger than ever, both in terms of its geographical coverage and expansion to areas (such as leisure time, or social media) where it has created entirely new markets and commodified things that were never historically objects of transaction.

Geographically, capitalism is now the dominant (or even the only) mode of production all over the world: in Sweden the private sector now employs more than 70% of the labour force, in the US it employs 85%, and in China the (capitalistically organised) private sector produces 80% of the value added. This was obviously not the case before the fall of communism in eastern Europe and Russia, nor before China embarked on what is euphemistically called its “transformation”.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/27/crisis-of-capitalism-europeans-gig-economy

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2019 in Economy

 

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How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash

‘In every major economic downturn in US history, the ‘villains’ have been the ‘heroes’ during the preceding boom,” said the late, great management guru Peter Drucker. I cannot help but wonder if that might be the case over the next few years, as the United States (and possibly the world) heads toward its next big slowdown. Downturns historically come about once every decade, and it has been more than that since the 2008 financial crisis. Back then, banks were the “too-big-to-fail” institutions responsible for our falling stock portfolios, home prices and salaries. Technology companies, by contrast, have led the market upswing over the past decade. But this time around, it is the big tech firms that could play the spoiler role.

You wouldn’t think it could be so when you look at the biggest and richest tech firms today. Take Apple. Warren Buffett says he wished he owned even more Apple stock. (His Berkshire Hathaway has a 5% stake in the company.) Goldman Sachs is launching a new credit card with the tech titan, which became the world’s first $1tn market-cap company in 2018. But hidden within these bullish headlines are a number of disturbing economic trends, of which Apple is already an exemplar. Study this one company and you begin to understand how big tech companies – the new too-big-to-fail institutions – could indeed sow the seeds of the next crisis.

No matter what the Silicon Valley giants might argue, ultimately, size is a problem, just as it was for the banks. This is not because bigger is inherently bad, but because the complexity of these organisations makes them so difficult to police. Like the big banks, big tech uses its lobbying muscle to try to avoid regulation. And like the banks, it tries to sell us on the idea that it deserves to play by different rules.

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/nov/08/how-big-tech-is-dragging-us-towards-the-next-financial-crash

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2019 in Economy, Reportages

 

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The Growing Threat of Water Wars

In 2015, United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which include an imperative to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” Yet, in the last four years, matters have deteriorated significantly.

NEW DELHI – The dangers of environmental pollution receive a lot of attention nowadays, particularly in the developing world, and with good reason. Air quality indices are dismal and worsening in many places, with India, in particular, facing an acute public-health emergency. But as serious as the pollution problem is, it must not be allowed to obscure another incipient environmental catastrophe, and potential source of future conflict: lack of access to clean water.

We may live on a “blue planet,” but less than 3% of all of our water is fresh, and much of it is inaccessible (for example, because it is locked in glaciers). Since 1960, the amount of available fresh water per capita has declined by more than half, leaving over 40% of the world’s population facing water stress. By 2030, demand for fresh water will exceed supply by an estimated 40%.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/water-scarcity-conflict-africa-india-by-jayati-ghosh-2019-11

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2019 in Economy

 

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The End of Neoliberalism and the Rebirth of History

For 40 years, elites in rich and poor countries alike promised that neoliberal policies would lead to faster economic growth, and that the benefits would trickle down so that everyone, including the poorest, would be better off. Now that the evidence is in, is it any wonder that trust in elites and confidence in democracy have plummeted?

NEW YORK – At the end of the Cold War, political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a celebrated essay called “The End of History?” Communism’s collapse, he argued, would clear the last obstacle separating the entire world from its destiny of liberal democracy and market economies. Many people agreed.

Today, as we face a retreat from the rules-based, liberal global order, with autocratic rulers and demagogues leading countries that contain well over half the world’s population, Fukuyama’s idea seems quaint and naive. But it reinforced the neoliberal economic doctrine that has prevailed for the last 40 years.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/end-of-neoliberalism-unfettered-markets-fail-by-joseph-e-stiglitz-2019-11

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2019 in Economy

 

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Our Shrinking Economic Toolkits

For the last four decades, mainstream economists and policymakers have been wedded to fixed dogmas. Their blind belief in fiscal discipline and consolidation, and resulting refusal to consider more public spending even in an obvious downturn, now threatens the very stability of societies.

NEW DELHI – In the natural world, humans stand out for the complexity of the tools, technologies, and institutions that we have developed. According to the anthropologist Joseph Henrich, we owe this success to our ability to accumulate, share, and adapt cultural information across generations. But just as interconnection causes our “collective brains” to expand over time, isolation can cause them to shrink. Economists should take note.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economists-intellectual-isolation-social-disaster-by-jayati-ghosh-2019-10

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2019 in Economy, Uncategorized

 

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