Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Our Strange Attraction to Self-Destructive Behaviors, Choices and Incentives

Self-destruction isn't a bug, it's a feature of our socio-economic system.
The gravitational pull of self-destructive behaviors, choices and incentives is scale-invariant, meaning that we can discern the strange attraction to self-destruction in the entire scale of human experience, from individuals to families to groups to entire societies.
The proliferation of self-destructive behaviors, choices and incentives in our socio-economic system is profoundly troubling. Exhibit 1 is the opioid epidemic (charts below). How did we reach this level of individual and social self-destruction?
There are culprits aplenty: a "healthcare" (sickcare) system that incentivizes maximizing profits by whatever means are available (for example, claiming addictive medications aren't addictive); a system that encourages the consumption of costly prescriptive medications without regard to their interactions; a system that establishes a "standard of care" that relies on prescribing pills of one kind or another; a system that treats psychological-physical pain with painkillers rather than treat the source of the pain; a system that cannot recognize spiritual pain (from losing sources of meaning, purpose and positive social roles) much less address it; a workers compensation system that incentivizes vague pain-related injuries as a way of getting a vacation from work; a pharmaceutical industry hard-wired to seek and promote "the next billion-dollar drug" regardless of the long-term consequences of the wonder-drug, and a culture that worships convenience and the illusion that instant remedies to chronic conditions are available or should be available.
That is of course only a partial list.
Dependencies are one of the many self-destructive attractors in our society.Dependencies on addictive substances is one manifestation of self-destructive behavior, but dependency on an institution that leads to a loss of self-reliance is also a subtle form of self-destruction.
Strange attractors are mathematical structures within fractal systems that are extremely sensitive to initial conditions within the system. Strange attractors are not a perfect analogy for the many self-destructive dynamics in our socio-economic system, but they do help us understand how the initial conditions established within the system end up defining the incentive structure that then rewards or punishes various behaviors and choices.
So if we "reward" doctors for prescribing painkillers and patients for taking them, an opioid epidemic was essentially built into the system by these initial conditions. The same can be said of our financialized economic system that rewards speculative gambles backstopped by the central bank or state: once those are the initial conditions of the financial system, it's literally "crazy" not to borrow billions to gamble or buy back your own corporation's shares.
Then there's our foreign policy, which is dominated by strange attractors for self-destructive policies such as wars of choiceNew Cold Warswe came, we saw, he died "interventions" and so on.
Notice the recent sharp rise in opioid deaths distributed by our "healthcare" system. After the addict has been exploited for profit, heroin becomes the next attractor.
Do you reckon a system whose initial conditions reward those at the top of the wealth-power pyramid to the exclusion of the bottom 95% might have something to do with our social-economic self-destruction?
Here's a chart of employment trends: aging workers can't afford to retire, while the under-55 work force has been treading water. Might this have some negative effect on the well-being of the populace?
The Japanese term describing a life of meaning, purpose and positive social roles--ikigai-- has caught on in certain policy circles. A life of meaning, purpose and positive social roles is the core reason (along with a diet of plant-based real food) that Okinawans are remarkably healthy and long-lived.
If you designed a system that had zero incentives via its initial conditions for the nurturing of ikigai, you'd have the status quo. Self-destruction isn't a bug, it's a feature of our socio-economic system, built into the system's initial conditions.


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Sunday, April 15, 2018

What Do We Know About Syria? Next to Nothing

Anyone accepting "facts" or narratives from any interested party is being played.
About the only "fact" the public knows with any verifiable certainty about Syria is that much of that nation is in ruins. Virtually everything else presented as "fact" is propaganda intended to serve one of the competing narratives or discredit one or more competing narratives.
Consider a partial list of "interested parties" spinning their own narratives about events in Syria: (in no particular order)
1. The government of Syria
2. non-state groups in Syria
3. Turkey
4. Saudi Arabia
5. Iran
6. Jordan
7. The government of Iraq
8. non-state groups in Iraq
9. The Kurds
10. Hamas
11. Israel
12. Lebanon
13. The Gulf States
14. Russia
15. United States
16. European Union
17. United Kingdom
18. France
19. Germany
20. Italy
21. China
This doesn't exhaust the list of interested parties, of course, but it reflects the spectrum of competing parties pushing a narrative that supports their particular interests in Syria. These include neighboring countries, regional powers, global powers and consumers of Syrian energy exports.
Let's start by stating the obvious: the only way to gain any reasonably accurate contexts / assessments in Syria is to have intelligence-gathering assets on the ground. The situation is fluid and complex, and there is no one "truth."
The only way to get any sort of handle on the military, political and social dynamics in Syria is to have access to the intelligence assessments and analyses of all the major players' intelligence agencies.
In other words, the only way to get any sort of comprehensive understanding would be to have a WikiLeaks-type release of intelligence reports from all the players with assets on the ground and have a deep enough understanding of the history and culture of the region to make sense of the overlaps, conflicts, nuances and shades of "truth" presented in each of the intel reports.
Only by collating "raw" (unfiltered) intel gathered on the ground and high-level analysis by those directing the various interests' campaigns could a reasonably accurate assessment be assembled.
Short of that, we know next to nothing. What are presented as "facts" are narratives designed to persuade us of the fidelity of the "facts" being presented and the rightness of the narrative supported by the presented "facts."
If the "facts" aren't designed to support a specific narrative, then they're designed to undermine or discredit a competing narrative.
There are several ways to push a narrative: one is to present "evidence" that supposedly verifies the "facts," and the other is to limit the public's access to competing narratives amd claims.
In the good old days, the Soviet propaganda machine was famous for erasing public figures from photos once they ran afoul of the regime. In the photo published last week, Igor was standing next to a KGB apparatchik, and in the photo published this week, Igor has vanished, replaced by a snowy background--perhaps appropriate, given that Igor ould soon be enjoying the rigors of a Siberian gulag.
Nowadays, digital manipulation is much easier and more ubiquitous. Not just photos and videos can be edited--all sorts of digital fingerprints can be faked.
We know from various leaks about NSA/CIA capabilities that these agencies (and presumably others) engineer computer viruses so they appear to be the work of foreign intelligence agencies or hackers.
It's difficult to assess the "facts" in a world awash in digital manipulation and misdirection.
We know a few things, but they're not "news." We know oil and natural gas are still the primary energy sources of the industrialized global economy. So-called renewables (so-called because wind turbines and solar panels don't last forever and thus they are more correctly called replaceables rather than renewables) remain a tiny sliver of total global energy consumption.
We also know that Syria and Iraq are the geographic armature of the Mideast.
As I have noted in previous essays, sometimes the strategy isn't to control the assets being contested so much as disrupt competitors' enjoyment of the assets and send signals about future costs and consequences.
It is a grave mistake to take any narrative or set of "facts" presented by interested parties as being anything more than propaganda or signaling. Only those on the ground with intelligence on all the other players on the ground have anything close to a useful understanding of the situation, and they can only claim to have a useful understanding if they also possess a deep appreciation of the regional contexts, histories and dynamics that are in play.
In summary: anyone accepting "facts" or narratives from any interested party is being played. It's best to retain a healthy skepticism of all narratives and an equally healthy appreciation of how little we know or can ever know about the full spectrum of events and dynamics in Syria.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why Trade Wars Ignite and Why They're Spreading

The monetary distortions, imbalances and perverse incentives are finally bearing fruit: trade wars.
What ignites trade wars? The oft-cited sources include unfair trade practices and big trade deficits. But since these have been in place for decades, they don't explain why trade wars are igniting now.
To truly understand why trade wars are igniting and spreading, we need to start with financial repression, a catch-all for all the monetary stimulus programs launched after the Global Financial Meltdown/Crisis of 2008/09.
These include zero interest rate policy (ZIRP), quantitative easing (QE), central bank purchases of government and corporate bonds and stocks and measures to backstop lenders and increase liquidity.
The policies of financial repression force risk-averse investors back into risk assets if they want any return on their capital, and brings consumption forward, that is, encourages consumers to borrow and buy now rather than delay purchases until they can be funded with savings.
As Gordon Long and I explain in the second part of our series on Trade Warsfinancial repression generates over-capacity and over-consumption: with credit almost free to corporations and financiers, new production facilities are brought online in the hopes of earning a profit as the global economy "recovers."
Soon there is more productive capacity than there is demand for the good being produced: this is over-capacity, and it leads to over-production, which as a result of supply and demand, leads to a loss of pricing power: producers can't raise prices due to global gluts, so they end up dumping their over-production wherever they can.
If the producers are state-owned enterprises subsidized by governments and central banks, these producers can sell at a loss because their only function is to sustain employment; profitability is a bonus.
Over-capacity, subsidies and over-production force corporations to slash costs to maintain profitability. Cost-cutting is a never-ending process in a world stuffed with too much capacity: labor costs are slashed by offshoring factories and offices; quality is reduced by buying the cheapest low-quality components and scrimping on quality controls, R&D is trimmed and testing is hurried to get the next product cycle out early enough to maintain a slight competitive advantage.
As profits erode due to over-capacity, corporations turn to financial engineering to boost profits: profits come from either accounting trickery or stock buy-backs that reduce the number of outstanding shares.
With credit cheap and profits scarce, corporations borrow to survive.These become zombie corporations, kept alive only by super-low interest rates and ample credit.
Meanwhile, consumers have over-borrowed and over-consumed, taking on more debt than would have been possible in the pre-financial repression days.
As a direct result of these stimulus policies, private and public debt loads are expanding at rates far above the expansion of the real economy. This is why we read that each new dollar of debt is generating almost no real-world gains, as debt service consumes most of the "new money."
Over-capacity leads to some nations over-producing, and cheap, easy credit leads to over-consumption in other nations. Both imbalances are the result of vast distortions in the incentive structure of the global economy, distortions created by the policies of financial repression: zero interest rates, ample liquidity, financial engineering, government subsidies for over-production, central bank policies keeping zombie corporations alive and so on.
As these distortions and imbalances start destabilizing domestic economies, political leaders turn to trade wars to stem the erosion of the domestic economy. Trade wars are the inevitable consequence of monetary stimulus that creates perverse incentives to borrow more than is prudent, over-produce, over-consume and use accounting trickery and financial engineering to maintain the appearance of fiscal health.
The monetary distortions, imbalances and perverse incentives are finally bearing fruit: trade wars.
Were Trade Wars Inevitable?


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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Genie's Out of the Bottle: Eight Defining Trends Are Reversing

Though the Powers That Be will attempt to placate or suppress the Revolt of the Powerless, the genies of political disunity and social disorder cannot be put back in the bottle.
The saying "the worm has turned" refers to the moment when the downtrodden have finally had enough, and turn on their powerful oppressors.The worms have finally turned against the privileged elites -- who have benefited so greatly from globalization, corruption, central bank stimulus and the profiteering of state-enforced cartels. It doesn’t matter as much as the punditry assumes whether they are turning Left or Right; the important thing is that the powerless have finally started challenging their privileged overlords.
Though the Powers That Be will attempt to placate or suppress the Revolt of the Powerless, the genies of political disunity and social disorder cannot be put back in the bottle. It took a generation of rising inequality, corruption and the erosion of opportunity to create a society of the protected (the haves) and the unprotected (the have-nots), and rubber-stamping more regulations and distributing Universal Basic Income (UBI) will not rebalance a system that is irrevocably out of balance.
But the rise of resistance, as yet nascent, is only half the story: economic trends andcycles are turning as well, and even if the worms remain passively underground, these reversals will disrupt the status quo. The dominant narrative--the rightness, goodness and sustainability of endless growth of consumption and debt--will unravel, and the internal contradictions of this New Gilded Age (widening wealth/income/power inequality) will finally burst through the thin fa├žade of stability that’s been patched together over the past nine years of “recovery.”
Eight Key Trends/Cycles Are Turning
Here’s the thing about trends and cycles: when they inevitably lose altitude or reverse, we rush around trying to identify the cause. All sorts of theories are put forth, but as a general rule, it rarely boils down to one dynamic.
Consider the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. Efforts to identify the cause go back hundreds of years, and include everything from barbarian invasions to the use of lead pipes to deliver water.
A new book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, pins a significant part of the responsibility on climate change and pandemic diseases—system-wide dynamics that slowly sapped Rome’s vigor, food supplies, capital and labor force.  Not only that, but cooling weather patterns in Eurasia may have been behind the westward movement of the mobile tribes (the Huns and Mongolians) that pushed existing tribes on Rome’s borders into Roman territories—the so-called Barbarian Invasions.
The point here is that systemic trends and cycles are often causally connected and tend to reinforce each other. This is how a stable, wealthy and resilient society gets hollowed out: trends end and cycles reverse, and forces that added stability, capital and resilience when they were working together are slowly replaced by forces that erode the foundations of wealth and stability.
In the current era, eight interconnected trends/cycles are either reaching the end of their run or reversing:
-- Central bank distortion/manipulation of markets.
-- The business cycle of credit/debt expansion and contraction.
-- The yield/interest rate cycle.
-- The commodity cycle.
-- The stock market cycle.
-- Regulation.
-- Globalization.
-- Demographics.
Each of these would need a short book to do the topic even partial justice, but let’s summarize each trend/cycle.
Let’s stipulate that technology isn’t a cycle or a trend; its disruptions of existing sectors and institutions accelerate and decelerate over time, but it is woven inseparably into all the trends and cycles listed above.   That said, the emergence of some new technology doesn’t mean the business cycle will be repealed for all time; cycles and trends are influenced by Human Wetware V1.0, an OS developed between 100,000 and 160,000 years ago and still in Version One.
Resource depletion is another background to these trends and cycles: robots and drones will not restore depleted ground water or bring back ocean fisheries.
Central Bank Distortion / Manipulation of Markets
Minus the $21 trillion in central bank asset purchases and trillions more in liquidity/credit programs, would the global economy be growing and global markets be at nosebleed heights? We all know the answer is "no."
Central banks have engineered a "recovery" that looks real enough on the surface, but what are its foundations? Gamed statistics and manipulated markets—in other words, controlling not just the narrative but the information available to market participants.  To achieve the desired outcome—rising equity markets, near-zero bond yields and incentivizing the purchase of risk-on assets—central banks have distorted market information and mechanisms.
The returns on this coordinated distortion are diminishing.  The “buzz” from the initial injections has faded, and now that the monetary authorities are trying to wean the markets off of their drug, the markets have lost the ability to discover the price of assets, risk and capital on their own.
No wonder volatility is rising.
Flooding the economy with trillions in new stimulus worked wonders in the initial stage, but after 9 years, the unintended consequences are metastasizing.
Goosing asset valuations higher in service of “the wealth effect” has widened wealth/ income inequality, creating a New Gilded Age of a few haves and many have-nots. The benefits of the central bank punch bowl—near-zero interest rates, leverage and access to unlimited credit--are reserved for those few at the top of the wealth-power pyramid; very little of the stupendous wealth created out of thin air has trickled down to the bottom 95%.
The relentless rise in asset valuations has pushed homes out of reach of those living in desirable urban/suburban markets, and exposed buyers to the risks of an inevitable reversion to the mean, i.e. a collapse of bubble prices back to historical norms.
Capital is not incentivized to invest in productivity or communities for the long haul; the incentives are for stock buybacks and short-term leveraged speculative bets, forms of mal-investment that hollow out the productive real economy is favor of a momentum-driven financialization boom.
Much of the political resistance troubling the status quo can be traced directly to central bank policies that have exacerbated the New Gilded Age inequalities and excesses. If the central banks can’t find the will to reduce their distortions in service of the few, the political will of the many will do it for them.
The Business Cycle of Credit Expansion & Contraction
The business cycle is a basic structure of any economy based on credit and flows of capital seeking the highest available returns at the lowest available risk. In the expansion stage, households and enterprises borrow more money to boost production and satisfy unmet demand.  Speculators find opportunities in new enterprises and new markets.
In the contraction phase, all the inevitable excesses of freely available credit come home to roost. Marginal investments in new production fail to become profitable and go bust. Marginal household borrowers default, and speculators who bet the farm on momentum plays watch their capital evaporate like mist in Death Valley.
When too much income is being devoted to servicing existing debt, there’s no more net income available to support additional borrowing. Lenders facing losses due to defaults tighten lending standards, and credit—and thus the economy—contracts.
This cycle is an essential dynamic of capitalism.  Central banks have attempted to eliminate the contraction phase that acts as the immune system, washing out bad debt and marginal borrowers.  This has left the economy saddled with “zombie” corporations and debtors that would be liquidated if monetary policies weren’t enabling their feeble survival.
But even the most powerful central banks can’t force firms and individuals to borrow more money when it no longer makes sense to do so. And keeping zombie banks, corporations and households on life support weakens the financial system by piling up the equivalent of dead wood in the forest. When the inevitable conflagration of bad debt catches fire, many of the healthy trees will also be consumed in the flames.
The Yield / Interest Rate Cycle
Many observers are confident interest rates cannot rise due to the deflationary forces in play. Indeed, they predict a future decline in rates back to zero. Perhaps, but history suggests interest rates typically move in long cycles of roughly two or three decades. The current downtrend in rates dates back to 1981, which means the current trend is pushing 40 years. That’s stretching the historical boundaries.
As noted earlier, trends change and then we seek the causes. Interest rates are rising, and perhaps we need no explanation other than reversion to the mean.
The Commodity Cycle
Compared to the stock market (the S&P 500), commodities are at their cyclical lows. As to what happens next, we need only look at a single chart, courtesy of Incrementum AG:
The Stock Market Cycle
We’re implicitly being told that stock markets can loft higher forever, as long as central banks are pumping out the financial stimulus. But nothing goes up forever; valuations get stretched, marginal buyers disappear and doubts about the continuing efficacy of central bank distortions creep in.
The typical Bull Market has a leading sector.  Starting with the mass-market Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, leaders tend to be new industries: railroads, radio, computers, the Internet, etc., or existing industries that have been revolutionized by some innovation: for example, banks freed from regulatory oversight discovered subprime mortgages in the 2000s.
The current leaders—the so-called FAANG stocks—are getting tired.  The tech leaders have reached a scale where growth must slow; the expansion of Facebook from 100 million users to 1 billion was a 10-fold increase; the expansion from 1 billion to 2 billion, a double. Are there even another billion potential users with the bandwidth, devices and interest to join? How much additional revenue can be extracted by selling the data of increasingly marginal users?
The same issues of scale are sapping the growth of Apple, Google, et al.  What happens when Apple has already sold an iPhone to everyone with the means and interest to own one?
There is now political pushback against the quasi-monopolies of big tech. Politicians are being forced to “do something,” i.e. increase regulations, whether they accomplish the intended goal or not.
Valuations and profits are at the top of their respective cycles, the leaders are faltering, victims of their own dominance, and central banks are feeling pressured to reduce the punch bowl of free money for financiers.
Regulation
Democracy is no longer about solving real problems and being held accountable; it’s all about persuading the public that all is well, or distracting them with ginned up controversies. Incumbents get re-elected because they vacuum up enough campaign contributions to buy influence via the mass (corporate) media. They have little incentive to respond to voters, so they don’t.
What they can do is look like they’re doing something other than protecting the cartels and financiers that fund their permanent re-election campaigns. So they propose more regulations, most of which fail to achieve the desired results but succeed in burdening legitimate enterprises to the point of failure. Small enterprises simply fold up when the exhausted owners can no longer bear the burdens and corporations offshore everything that’s over-regulated.
The neoliberal ideology held that the many would benefit if regulations limiting enterprise were eased, and when done judiciously and with common sense, this has functioned as designed. But in the corrupt form of governance that dominates the global economy, regulatory capture means regulations protect cartels and insiders from competition.  Insiders have rigged the system so they can punish competitors and let their cronies off the hook.
The useful regulations protecting the many from the exploitation of the few are being buried by counter-productive “do something” regulations and regulatory moats that protect cartels and insiders.
Globalization
Global trade has a long history, stretching back to the Bronze Age (1500 B.C.). Like every other market, it expands and contracts as conditions change.  The emergence of China (and other nations) since the mid-1980s greatly expanded global trade and capital flows. This distributed new income and prosperity to hundreds of millions of people, and yet it also concentrated much of the newfound wealth in the hands of the few and left many behind.
Nothing goes up forever, not even globalization.  Those left behind are starting to wonder if the good of globalization outweighs the costs.
Demographics
If high-population-growth Africa is set aside, the world’s working age populace is perched on the precipice of decline while the populace of retirees is exploding, not just in the developed world but in the developing world.
Although many put their hopes on robots generating unlimited wealth that will support the elderly and free the working age populace from labor, the more likely prospect is an economy that cannot fulfill the promises made to retirees back when the worker-retiree ratio was 10-to-1 and not the present-day 2-to-1.
Chris Hamilton has written three excellent explorations of demographics that cover the basics. The bottom line is the trend of rapidly-expanding workforces and modest numbers of dependent retirees has reversed:
To underscore this point, chew on this sobering projection: in the US, for the first time ever, retirees will outnumber kids within just 20 years.
Time To Take Action
So as these 8 key trends and cycles change, what can we as individuals do?
In Part 2: 6 Essential Strategies For Prospering Through The Next Crisis, we detail specific steps to take with your money, your career, your lifestyle, your possessions and your mindset that will dramatically improve your odds of ending up on the winning side of these cycle reversals.
But time is of the essence. Preparation has value only if done in advance, and the turning point is upon us.
Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)
This essay was first published on peakprosperity.com, where I am a contributing writer.


My new book Money and Work Unchained is $9.95 for the Kindle ebook and $20 for the print edition.
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