Guess what? All that populist resistance to free trade seems to be working: The volume of global trade stopped growing in the first quarter of 2016 and actually dropped in the second — marking the first time since the Second World War that trade volume declined during a period of economic growth (The New York Times).
Don’t expect that to change any time soon, writes Binyamin Appelbaum: The Walmart revolution is over, India’s trajectory is different from China’s, and the only thing that’s spreading round the world right now is resistance to lowering trade barriers.
One big problem is that when free trade was riding high, its benefits, in Western democracies at least, went mostly to the very rich. The economy globalized, and all we got was this lousy pay cut! Another problem was that politicians and policymakers oversold trade’s benefits in the first place. Says economist Dani Rodrik: “If the demagogues and nativists making nonsensical claims about trade are getting a hearing, it is trade’s cheerleaders that deserve some of the blame.”
What Cold War Ruins Tell Us About Today’s Tech
During the Cold War, the U.S. poured billions into nuclear facilities across the Great Plains, including a concrete pyramid in North Dakota that prototyped a missile-defense system we never built out. The relic now squats on the Canadian border Ozymandias-style, crumbling and flooded. It’s become a bone of contention between the county in which it’s decaying and the back-to-the-earth Hutterite religious sect that bought it, but isn’t maintaining it. Once a geopolitical ace-in-the-hole, now just a hole.
Fusion’s superb feature on the Mickelsen Safeguard Complex reminds us that all tech is finite, and all that is solid eventually melts into dust. In our own spot on the grand timeline, Google seems to be winding down its big fiber play, and Twitter is shutting down Vine. For the actual future to reveal itself, myriad potential futures must be eliminated. Our job is to build things well enough that if they last, we can be proud of them, and if they fail, we don’t have to feel ashamed.
Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Shipping
When you enjoy “free shipping” — whether from Amazon Prime or anyone else — somebody’s still on the hook for what it costs to get the goods from the warehouse to your doorstep. Who that is just gets hidden from consumers (Fast Company). Sometimes it’s investors, who hope their company will build market share. Sometimes it’s suppliers, who get squeezed to cut prices by high-volume merchants. Most often it’s the online retailers themselves — who may save cash by not running retail outlets, but lose it all over again and more by eating the cost of shipping.
All this works out great, for now, for those of us who enjoy the convenience of shopping without schlepping. But it also creates a distorted marketplace with unrealistic expectations. And it’s the smaller online merchants, who can’t rely on volume to limit shipping costs, that suffer the most.
New Cryptocurrencies Promise More Anonymity Than Bitcoin
Bitcoin promised its users anonymity. But it turns out that the blockchain — the public ledger that makes Bitcoin work — makes it possible to assemble the history of each unit of currency. You don’t know the identity of the person who owns it, but you know where it’s been. And if it’s been hanging around in shady neighborhoods, you might not want to do business with its owner.
This might seem useful to many of us, but it also limits Bitcoin’s potential to evolve into a true currency, writes Elaine Ou (Bloomberg). All of which explains the emergence of newer digital currencies like Zcash and Monero, which aim to preserve the benefits of a blockchain (verifiability of transactions, prevention of double spending) while making it impossible to trace the backstory of any particular bit of coin.
Does that mean these newer currencies will be even more attractive to criminal enterprises? Well, yes. Ou argues that we shouldn’t expect digital cash to stop crime any more than old-school money does. But if we’re rewriting the entire monetary system around digital rules, couldn’t we aim to do things better this time around?
Lessons From the World’s Largest Megacity
That would be China’s Pearl River Delta, heart of the Chinese industrial revolution, home to Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou — and now a massive-scale laboratory for figuring out how cities will cope with issues of mobility, densification, land use, and quality of life. Peter Kindel of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill outlines a plan for the Pearl River region to manage its growth while repairing its environment (NewCo Shift).
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