Jul 3, 2019

Axios Future

Have your kids signed up? Or your parents?

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,402 words, ~5 minute read.

  • We hope you have a happy July Fourth. We'll return to your inbox on Monday.

What else should we write about this summer? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com, Kaveh Waddell at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The new business around disinformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

During last year's midterm elections, Lisa Kaplan, digital director for Maine Sen. Angus King, established a new-age war room to ward off the kind of online disinformation that dogged the 2016 race, Kaveh reports.

Driving the news: Now, three years after the 2016 mess, Kaplan has set up a firm focused on helping 2020 candidates protect themselves from online bad actors.

  • Hers is one business in a growing field selling weapons to defend against online disinformation.
  • This burgeoning industry is beset by problems, experts tell Axios, crowded by some products that don't do the job at prices that are so wildly different that, at least for now, a lot of campaigns are choosing to go without protection.
  • But, Kaplan says, the crisis is too urgent not to push past the current headaches. “To not have these defensive measures set up is, in my view, negligent.”

The threat includes everything from deepfakes — digitally manipulated videos that can make it look like candidates said something they didn't really say — to social media campaigns that make it seem like a fringe view is broadly held.

Against this, campaigns are inundated with vendors claiming the secret sauce. Solutions run from simple dashboards that show spikes in online chatter about a candidate, at a cost of $3,000–$4,000 a year, to custom monitoring, training and communications strategies reaching $300,000 a year.

  • "There are a lot of people offering snake oil, so it's hard for campaigns to make decisions on what to invest in," says Jiore Craig, a vice president at GQR Research who advises democratic campaigns on disinformation.
  • "Campaign operatives are put into paralysis by fear," says Melissa Ryan, a consultant who works on disinformation issues.

Some political consultants — and, of course, the vendors offering expensive treatments — argue the services are worth it.

  • "Piecemeal information can be distracting, discouraging and even damaging," Craig tells Axios.
  • Kaplan, whose Alethea Group is one of the high-end providers, says human analysis brings in crucial context. "To use only technology is incredibly short-sighted," she says.

Several firms told Axios they're in talks to sell their services to presidential campaigns.

  • The seven highest-polling Democratic campaigns declined or didn't respond to interview requests.
  • For its part, the DNC — which uses an inexpensive tool to monitor online chatter about candidates — said the onus is on campaigns to protect themselves.

The bottom line: It can be hard to make room in campaign budgets, which historically have no line item for battling online mobs, for untested tech and services. "You're working with limited resources and you're being pulled in so many directions," Ryan says.

  • The DNC tells campaigns they can accomplish a lot with free or cheap services, and one prominent expert has told 2020 campaigns to stay away from expensive counter-disinformation products.
  • "It's an extraordinary amount of money to get information that they fundamentally cannot act on" because the damage has already been done, the consultant tells Axios.

Go deeper: The 2020 campaigns aren't ready for deepfakes

2. The age of Tesla skeptics
Expand chart
Data: BloombergNEF; Chart: Axios Visuals 

Tesla surged 4.6% today — more than $10 a share — on a burst of new confidence after it announced record production of its electric vehicles in the second quarter. But this was insufficient to satisfy the new doyens of death who hover over and analyze every hiccup from Tesla and CEO Elon Musk. As a group, they responded, "Eh."

What's happening: After hours yesterday, Tesla announced that it had delivered 95,200 cars last quarter. When you add the cars that were on their way but not yet with the customer, the total surpassed 100,000, an impressive number given the company's age. It puts Tesla on track to reach Musk's 2019 production forecast of 360,000 cars.

  • The skeptics are asking, "Yes, but what about profitability?" Which is a great question if your focus is this year's stock price.
  • But if your concern instead is the future of the company (still by far the electric car industry leader), you should be querying differently. And that's whether Tesla can endure the costly, developmental Valley of Death it has been crossing for another four or five years — until 2023 or 2024.
  • Because that is when scale-up may push average manufacturing costs for mainstream electrics — including Tesla's — below that of rival gasoline-driven vehicles, according to BloombergNEF, a leading research firm in energy tech.

Look at the chart above: By 2030, the average gasoline-driven car will cost some $3,000 more than the average electric, a 12.5% difference, BloombergNEF says.

  • The price plunge, reflecting decreasing supply and manufacturing costs, should materially raise the profitability of mainstream electric SUVs and sedans.
  • Why it matters: A lot of new electric models will be introduced in the coming two and three years. So far, though, only Tesla has shown that it can sell them in big numbers.

Why this is happening: Much of this cost drop flows from the battery, says Nikolas Soulopoulos, a BloombergNEF analyst. By 2023, the cost of lithium-ion batteries are forecast to drop to $100 per kilowatt/hour, the holy grail of the industry, from north of $1,000 a decade ago.

  • "It will be a few more years to reach that level. However, if you think about it in terms of 'model cycles.' it is really quite nearer," Soulopoulos told me.
3. Mailbox: The U.S.-China long game

Photo: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/Getty

We received a number of letters responding to yesterday's post on the long challenge of demography facing the U.S. and China. Here are two of them:

"I challenge the fundamental premise of the China U.S. fertility piece. The underlying view is that unless a country continues to grow its population it will suffer a decline. However the story plays lip service to the role technology will play in spurring greater growth and efficiency. In fact the world’s human population needs to shrink over time to ensure ecosystem stability for us and other species. The real issue will be how our wealth will be allocated in a technology driven world that creates greater inequality and how people will find purpose in an economy where many jobs will be eliminated, as described more fully in 'AI Superpowers.' I think these issues would be worthy of some stories." 
— Jeffery Hurwitz, Warren, New Jersey

"I’ve noticed a spate of articles lately such as yours today about the malign future we face in a world of elderly people. For example, this comment: 'By 2050, more than a third of the population — 487 million people — will be over 60 years old, and in need of public support.'
It’s a big leap from the demographic data, which I assume is accurate, to the conclusion that a third of the population will be 'in need of public support.' Dependency is assumed in a way that needs more examination. Even now, many older people work, can work and want to work. Also many older people are supporting younger people’s work through child care and care of people even more elderly. And we support the economy. We buy things! When we do get dependent, we pay for health services, one of the faster growing parts of the economy (and perhaps a safety net job for people whose other jobs are taken over by robots).
The real story here is that our systems of support (Social Security, retirement age) and our ageist culture will make it harder for our economy to adjust. For example, once Social Security kicks in, paid work is penalized. We still use a retirement age of 65 (basically) that is based on a life span that in advanced economies is no longer valid. But we can discuss these issues without assuming that all people over 60 are a drag on rest of the economy."
— Alicia Kershaw, New York, NY
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The future of women’s political power (Elaine Godfrey & Russell Berman — The Atlantic)

The trouble with "colonizing" space (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

$500 a month to avoid your co-workers (James Wellemeyer — MarketWatch)

AI-generated spam could gum up Google (James Vincent — The Verge)

Recycling diapers (Olivia Rockeman — Bloomberg)

5. 1 unusual birthday party

They aren't just in Kansas City. Here, in Aspen, Colorado. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty

Here's one way to get city officials' attention, writes Erica.

Frustrated by his local public works department's failure to fix a pothole on his street — not to mention hundreds of others around the city — Frank Sereno of Kansas City decided to take action: He threw a birthday party for his own, three-month-old pothole, CNN reports.

  • He had a cake and everything.
  • Within days of Sereno posting a video of the celebration on Facebook, the city fixed the thing.