Weekend edition—Fed’s challenge, smaller bitcoin, drinkable weed 

Good morning, Quartz readers!

The Federal Reserve cut rates for the first time in a decade on Wednesday. With US growth solid, the move has invited speculation: Might the Fed be appeasing Donald Trump, who routinely blasts the central bank for too-tight rates?

It’s an ominous possibility. One of the most sacred tenets of economics is “central bank independence”—the immunity of monetary policy to politics. And with good reason; state pressure has ignited past inflationary episodes (most notoriously during Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign).

Regardless of its causes, 1970s-style inflation would indeed be frightening. Also scary, though, is the prospect that freakishly low inflation might not budge—a sign that what ails the US economy is beyond the Fed’s powers to heal.

Usually, low inflation signals that people are buying less than the economy can produce—causing rising unemployment and slumping output. Cutting rates encourages borrowing, funding new spending that reverses things. Eventually, businesses and workers are so flush, they start demanding more than the economy can produce. Prices climb. To curb inflation, the central bank hikes rates back to where they had been.

That was the business cycle of the 1950s through the 1970s. No longer.

Despite a decade of ultra-low rates and unconventional monetary policies, inflation refuses to budge—hinting at an economy operating at less-than-full capacity. So the Fed kept rates low (though in fairness, it tightened more than other central banks). That helped the economy—but also fueled a corporate debt binge. Credit now rivals earnings as a critical growth engine—for example, between 2015 and 2017, as much as 40% of business investment (pdf) came from companies financed by junk bonds. That leaves the real economy increasingly hooked on Fed liquidity.

This brings us to the Fed’s big dilemma. Weak global growth and Trump’s trade warring threaten to drag down growth. Preventing mass corporate default requires loose money. Given those conditions, Wednesday’s cut might indeed keep things stable—and maybe even revive inflation. Then again, the economy is already clogged with debt. That makes it harder for cheaper credit to pump up demand and, therefore, prices. And, of course, adds to the costs that eventually must be paid to unclog it. —Gwynn Guilford 

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Who thinks Marianne Williamson should be president? The bestselling author, activist, and spiritual leader blew onto the Democratic debate stage like a strong coastal breeze—first inspiring jokes and memes, and more recently, applause. In Los Angeles, Jenni Avins immerses herself in the candidate’s books, events, and fanbase to learn how Williamson is applying her language of personal transformation to politics—and inspiring her followers to do the same.

Cryptic symbols. Satoshi Nakamoto released bitcoin into the wild in 2009, but the original cryptocurrency didn’t come with a symbol. The effort to establish bitcoin’s “₿” as its answer to the dollar sign finally succeeded in 2017, when the Unicode Consortium approved the character. But with bitcoin’s price near $10,000, crypto lovers have recognized the need for smaller denominations. Matthew de Silva reports in Quartz Private Key.

Sister struggles. Images from Hong Kong in recent months have shocked the world, with police and thugs attacking demonstrators protesting an extradition bill and other issues related to China’s growing political influence. To Ukrainians, the scenes have been eerily reminiscent of anti-Russian protests five years ago. Indeed, the surprising parallels have Hong Kongers looking to Ukraine’s own David vs. Goliath struggle for both inspiration and education, as Isabella Steger reports.

A corporate solution. In the US, there’s a shortage of qualified people willing to work as preschool teachers, and the problem will likely intensify as more states put in minimum-qualification requirements. With that in mind, one of the nation’s biggest private childcare providers is now offering to pay upfront for its employees to get an online degree in early childhood education. As Annabelle Timsit reports, the initiative could create problems of its own.

Sounds familiar. For the average Nigerian, there’s no such thing as a “Nigerian accent”—the country’s 180 million people, after all, speak 200-plus local languages and many more dialects. Nevertheless, there is now a “Nigerian English” option for the voice of Google Maps, fixing the problem of street names being mispronounced by a default American or British setting. Yomi Kazeem explains how Google created the voice, and what it means for Africa’s largest internet market.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Diluting the situation. Bottles of cleaning product are typically over 90% water. That water adds weight, which means more trucks and boats are needed to ship them, and more pollution is generated while doing so. As Alden Wicker writes for Vox, there’s an eco-friendlier way: just-add-water products. A tablet also requires less packaging, another plus for consumers feeling guilty about plastic waste. But as she finds, there are also downsides to some of the offerings.

No four walls. The homeless count in San Francisco, an increasingly unaffordable place to live, has gone from bad to worse in recent years. To highlight the crisis, dozens of reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle spent a 24-hour period meeting members of the city’s homeless community, among them college students living in vans and families hopping from shelter to shelter. The picture that emerges does not reflect well upon a city chock-full of tech-IPO millionaires.

Cheers to weed? Later this year in Canada, marijuana-infused beverages will become legally available for sale. But who wants them? A skeptical Amanda Chicago Lewis explores that question for the Verge, noting that Big Alcohol is pouring billions into the market. Some such drinks, she finds, get you too high and have a delayed intensity, while others are too low-dose. Another issue: Getting baked does not lend itself to social situations the way booze does.

The lesson of a lost city. Today, people are often reassured by the fact that the climate has changed before. In Scientific American, Kate Marvel questions whether they should be, noting that even regionally contained changes in the past have provoked suffering and the collapse of civilizations. She points to the gruesome fate of Cahokia, in present-day Illinois, which turned upon itself when the climate became less conducive to agriculture in the 14th century.

The true challenge of self-driving cars. Today, plenty of technical issues remain to be worked out with autonomous vehicles (AVs). But for university transportation departments and others looking into the future, societal issues are even more concerning. For the New York Times, Eric A. Taub highlights some of the issues they’re contemplating. Jaywalking in Manhattan could explode, for instance, if pedestrians know AVs will never run them over.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, AV scenarios, and all-purpose cleaning tablets to hi@qz.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Kira Bindrim.