In this week’s headlines…
Early Friday, Feb. 9, President Trump signed a budget deal, turning it into a law that will last for the next two years. Thursday night saw a brief government shutdown when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) tried blocking the budget deal by holding the floor and preventing the bill from passing before Thursday’s midnight deadline. He blocked the deal on the grounds that the budget did not reflect fiscal austerity. However, the shutdown did not last long and Trump managed to sign the bill before the American people felt the consequences. The $300 billion bill, with an additional $90 billion for disaster relief, does not reflect any kind of fiscal austerity. It increases military funding, raises the debt ceiling and does not manage to cut any of the programs Trump has been trying to attack, such as environmental protection, health research and foreign aid (The New York Times, “Trump Signs Budget Deal to Raise Spending and Reopen Government,” 02.08.2018).
On Monday, Feb. 5, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee voted to release a Democratic memo written as a rebuttal to the memo released by Republicans last week. However, Trump has refused to release the Democratic memo, arguing that it includes too many classified and sensitive passages (CNN, “Trump won’t release Democratic memo, sends back to committee,” 02.10.2018).
The White House is once again surrounded by scandal, this time with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly at the center. On Wednesday, Feb. 7, staff secretary Rob Porter stepped down after accusations of domestic violence by his two ex-wives. Kelly reportedly knew about the charges of domestic violence for several months and still kept Porter as part of the team. Kelly has told officials in the White House that he is willing to step down, but he has made no formal offer of resignation yet. Trump has defended Kelly and Porter, noting that Porter has denied accusations (The New York Times, “Kelly Says He’s Willing to Resign as Abuse Scandal Roils White House,” 02.10.2018).
Global stock markets have continued their downturn. Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, the Dow Jones industrial average, and the Nasdaq composite index all fell, dropping by a record number of points. This caused the market to move into correction territory, meaning that it dropped at least 10 percent from a recent high. While corrections are not something very unusual and they usually occur once a year, this drop is unique in its volatility. The VIX index, a measure of market volatility—otherwise known as a fear index—has increased dramatically. One of the reasons for the extremely high volatility we are observing is the move in recent years toward depending on computer-based trading. The use of technology accelerates the upward and downward trends. While it is hard to pinpoint what exactly the reasons were for the sudden fall of the markets, one of the prevailing reasons is that investors were scared that the central bank will increase interest rates in an attempt to fight inflation and prevent overheating of the economy. This is aided by the banks’ efforts to move out of the recession by lowering interest rates, which are at the lowest level since World War II. This makes the safest investment less profitable and encourages investors to invest in the stock market (CNN, “Dow plunges 1,033 points and sinks into correction, 02.08.2018) (The New York Times, “Stocks Plunge as Market Enters ‘Correction’ Territory,” 02.08.2018).
SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk, successfully launched its rocket, Falcon Heavy, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 6. The rocket traveled on a trajectory towards Mars and landed successfully. Despite the central booster rocket missing its target point for landing in the sea, the two side booster rockets both successfully landed back at the Kennedy Center, close to the launching pad. This marks another big success for the private space company and another important step toward the possibility of cheaper space travel (CNN, “SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket,” 02.07.2018).
An official case against Uber began this week. Wayamo, a self-driving car business, which is owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has accused Uber of stealing trade secrets. Uber’s ousted chief executive, Travis Kalanick, testified about acquiring Otto, a startup created by an engineer who was employed at Waymo. The company argues that the acquisition was made only to gain technical secrets, while Uber claims that it obtained Otto because driverless cars present a threat to Uber’s business model (CNN, “What we learned in the Waymo v. Uber case,” 02.10.2018).
Around the world…
The Maldives declared a state of emergency and suspended a large part of its constitution on Monday, Feb. 5. This came as a result of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s refusal to abide by the Supreme Court ruling calling for the release of opposing politicians. On Monday evening, soldiers took over the court building and arrested two of the five judges. Following the incident, the remaining three judges reversed their previous ruling (CNN, “What’s happening in the Maldives? All you need to know,” 02.07.2018).
This week marked the beginning of the 23rd Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. The event was filled with diplomatic fireworks as the two Koreas marched under the same flag at the opening ceremony. Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is attending the games. Though she was seated close to Vice President Mike Pence, the two did not acknowledge each other. She also invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit his country’s northern neighbor. If the visit happens, it will be the first time in a decade that a South Korean president has visited North Korea (The New York Times, “Sister of North Korean Leader Arrives in South Korea for Highly Symbolic Trip,” 02.08.2018).
On Tuesday, Feb. 6, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.4 struck Taiwan, 22 kilometers north of the city of Hualien. The earthquake killed at least nine people and injured around 270 people, while eight people are still unaccounted for. The island is situated on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and thus experiences earthquakes regularly. The largest earthquake in past years occurred in 1999, when a 7.3-magnitude earthquake killed 2,400 people (CNN, “Search for missing in Taiwan after earthquake topples buildings,” 02.08.2018).
In Iran, women are still protesting the law that requires them to cover their heads in public. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani released a report this week showing that almost half of Iranians are in favor of changing the current law (The Wall Street Journal, “‘I Have No Fear’: Iranian Women Cast Off Islamic Head Scarves in Protest,” 02.07.2018).
In our backyard…
The City of Poughkeepsie Common Council has appointed seven new members to the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). IDA promotes economic activity and private investment in Poughkeepsie with the mission of improving job opportunities in the city and the welfare of its residents. The council plays an especially important role, due to Poughkeepsie’s high level of unemployment and poverty (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Seven appointed to Poughkeepsie’s Industrial Development Agency,” 02.01.2018).
Keeping up with 2020 hopefuls…
Former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro has expressed his interest in a 2020 presidential run. Castro said that he will make a final decision by the end of 2018 and that right now he is focusing on helping young Democrats win the midterm races. CNN has speculated that there is a place in the 2020 race for a Latino candidate, with Nevada being the third state to vote and with California moving its primary up to right after Super Tuesday (CNN, “#2020Vision: Castro: ‘Yeah, I’m interested’ in 2020; the Obamaworld primary; Gillibrand rejects Rubio-Ivanka family leave plan,” 02.09.2018).
Former Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that he might be thinking of running in 2020. However, some Democratic strategists are suggesting that he is not thinking seriously about the elections and is only using the attention to increase the funding for his National Democratic Redistricting Committee (CNN, “#2020Vision: Castro: ‘Yeah, I’m interested’ in 2020; the Obamaworld primary; Gillibrand rejects Rubio-Ivanka family leave plan,” 02.09.2018).