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NEED TO KNOW

GERMANY

Atlas Might Shrug

In her recent New Year’s address, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would proudly lead as the country took a seat on the United Nations Security Council for the next two years.

“We must again stand up for, argue and fight more strongly for our convictions,” Merkel said, according to the Associated Press. “And we must take on more responsibility in our own interests.”

But ex-International Monetary Fund official Ashoka Mody threw cold water on those ambitious plans in a Bloomberg Opinion piece. Merkel has announced her intention to leave office when her term ends in 2021. Whoever comes next might inherit a far less powerful nation.

“If her successor can’t pull the German economy out of its slide toward second-tier status, the union could lose its most important financial supporter,” Mody argued.

The problem is twofold. As the economic engine of Europe, Germany’s fate is tied to the eurozone. But instability in Southern Europe is eroding confidence in the shared currency and undermining dreams of closer financial integration.

Meanwhile, the German economy’s nine-year domestic growth spurt is also coming to an end. Industrial orders for German goods are falling, wrote Reuters, citing trade unease, Brexit and sluggishness in emerging markets. Another Reuters report described a decline in business morale in Germany. And in its European election manifesto on Sunday, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party called for the country to leave the euro, suggested the European Parliament should be dissolved and retained the threat of exiting the EU altogether, Deutsche Welle reported.

Economists aren’t forecasting a recession in the world’s fourth-largest economy.

Indeed, George Will believes Germany today is exerting the most positive influence since the country’s founding in 1871. “Stable Germany is even more important to Europe than it was when Kissinger said that Germany is too large for Europe and too small for the world,” wrote Will in a recent column.

What’s more, while the popularity of far-right nationalists in the country is cause for concern, don’t forget that the Greens are also benefiting from voters turning away from Merkel’s conservatives and her rival socialists.

Still, the “fat years” are over, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper recently. “The good times in which the state kept taking in more taxes than expected are coming to an end,” he said.

Yanis Varoufakis is not pleased.

The former Greek finance minister who famously tussled with German creditors during the Greek bailout crisis in 2009 has often said he wants a “hegemonic” Germany that can reform the eurozone by imposing efficiency on countries like Greece that depend too much on debt.

In what might be described as a stunt, Varoufakis is running to represent Germany in the European Parliament to help enact his agenda, the Nation wrote.

But an economically weak Germany couldn’t make those reforms. Or much of anything else.

WANT TO KNOW

COSTA RICA

Who Dropped the Dime?

Police have arrested 12 people in Costa Rica and Spain in connection with the kidnapping of American William Sean Creighton Kopko, the owner of the online gambling site 5Dimes, in September.

Kopko’s family reportedly paid his kidnappers a ransom of $950,800 in Bitcoin, but they never released him and stopped communicating with the family, CNN reported.

A statement issued by the Spanish Civil Guard on Saturday said that the authorities had traced the suspects’ moves to Cuba. From there three of the alleged kidnappers traveled to Spain, where they rented a house in the city of Zaragoza. A raid on another house in Costa Rica on Friday led to the arrest of nine other suspects.

The high-profile kidnapping and the apparent murder of American Carla Stefaniak in November have shaken Costa Rica’s reputation as the safest destination for tourists in Central America, though its 2017 murder rate of 12.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants pales in comparison to Mexico’s.

THAILAND

Differing Democracies

Fears that next month’s election will be postponed brought Thailand’s voters into the streets to exercise a different sort of democracy on Sunday, marking the third such protest to hit Bangkok in a week over the military regime’s delays.

With only around 200 people demonstrating, according to Bloomberg, it appears that the military government gambled correctly in lifting the ban on such protests in December. But that might change if it continues to postpone polls.

“The objective for today is to secure a date for the election after five postponements,” Nuttaa Mahattana, one of the leaders of the We Vote group that organized the demonstrations in Bangkok and several other cities, said on her Facebook page.

The military has repeatedly pushed back elections since it took power in a 2014 coup. The next vote is scheduled for Feb. 24. But officials have signaled it may again be postponed, this time purportedly to avoid a conflict with preparations for the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on May 4-6, Bloomberg said.

ZIMBABWE

Rebooting the Printer

Facing a disastrous shortage of US dollars that has paralyzed its economy, Zimbabwe announced plans to re-introduce its own currency within the next 12 months.

Zimbabwe scrapped its currency in 2009 in response to runaway hyperinflation. But now it doesn’t have enough hard currency in the country to match the $10 billion of electronic funds trapped in local bank accounts, Reuters reported. The result has been acute shortages of imported goods, including fuel, and economic chaos that has forced many businesses to close.

On Sunday, the country increased fuel prices by 150 percent overnight, but most service stations still had no fuel to sell to motorists – who had been sleeping in their vehicles to keep their places in long lines.

With less than $400 million in actual cash in Zimbabwe, according to the central bank, physical notes are selling at a 370 percent premium on the black market, the agency said.

DISCOVERIES

Cuteness Overload

When looking at pictures of cute animals and babies, people get the urge to squeeze them to death or eat them.

Scientists call this “cute aggression” and have defined it as the desire “to squeeze, crush or bite cute things, albeit without any desire to cause harm.”

The research doesn’t indicate that people are naturally mean. The horrifying psychological state has an evolutionary purpose.

Recently, scientists at the University of California, Riverside, conducted a study to analyze what happens in the human brain during bouts of cute aggression, Newsweek reported.

They showed study participants images of babies, puppies and similar fare. Researchers observed that participants experienced a blizzard of emotions, including cuteness aggression. In the end, positive emotions, caretaking urges and increased activity in the brain’s rewards system won out, however. It seems that cuteness aggression was a check on a skyrocketing urge to care.

“Our study seems to underscore the idea that cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down’ by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed,” said lead author Katherine Stavropoulos.

Stavropoulos hopes that the study will stimulate further investigations of how mental disorders affect individual experiences with cute aggression, especially mothers suffering post-partum depressions or people who lack empathy.