Sunday, January 31, 2016

Stupor Bowl 2016

The Unicorn-believing Bulls will need the financial equivalent of The Catch just to avoid being skunked.
When I use the phrase Stupor Bowl, I refer not to the upcoming Super Bowl or the crazy mid-winter bicycle free-for-all in Minneapolis, but to the economic game of watching the Bear's Recession Offense crush the Unicorn-believing Bulls.
Let's follow the score here in the opening minutes of the Recession 2016 contest:
1. Sales have only one way to go: down. Touchdown Bears.
2. Profits have only one way to go: down. Touchdown Bears.
3. Stock buybacks have only one way to go: down. Touchdown Bears.
4. Global "growth" has only one way to go: down. Touchdown Bears.
5. Risk premiums have only one way to go: up. Touchdown Bears.
6. The efficacy of central bank "easing" only one way to go: down. Touchdown Bears.
This is getting stupefyingly repetitive, and the game has barely started: the Bears have racked up 42 points while the Unicorn-believing Bulls are scoreless.
The Unicorn-believing Bulls are going to need not just one Immaculate Reception, but a half-dozen miracle scores just to stay in the game. But the Bears have barely dented their playbook:
7. Government deficits have only one way to go: up.
8. The growth rate of private-sector debt has only one way to go: down.
9. The number of nations with crashing currencies has only one way to go: up.
10. The number of nations defaulting on sovereign debt has only one way to go: up.
11. The number of IPOs that quickly fall below their initial price has only one way to go: up--way up.
12. The number of margin calls to be issued to overleveraged "investors" has only one way to go: up--way up.
13. The number of junk bonds that will default has only one way to go: up--way up.
14. The number of Greater Fools willing to pay outlandishly absurd prices for homes in hot markets is plummeting; as a result, the market value of real estate globally has only one way to go: down--way down.
The Bears can fumble a few plays and still score another 42 points with ease.
The Unicorn-believing Bulls will need the financial equivalent of The Catch just to avoid being skunked:
But even that won't change the outcome--a recession that will leave all the Unicorn believers, Keynesian Cargo Cultists and the rest of the delusional mob of Bulls stupefied by their crushing defeat.
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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Be Your Own Medicine

Treatment of atomized individuals in a setting of atomized symptoms and treatments is by any measure the opposite of a system that encourages and enables everyone to be their own medicine.
I recently saw a slogan that encapsulated what's wrong with the U.S. healthcare system: Be Your Own Medicine. To Be Your Own Medicine is the essence of prevention, and a way of taking full ownership of one's health, body, mind, diet, fitness and daily habits.
Alas, being your own medicine strips the $3.5 trillion healthcare system of profit, power and control, so the last thing the healthcare cartels want is for us to be our own medicine, as that would reduce our reliance on highly profitable pharmaceuticals, tests, procedures and high-cost facilities.
Note the slogan isn't "take your own medicine" or "make your own medicine"--it's be your own medicine, which suggests that health is a way of being, not just a way of consuming, though what we consume is integral to being your own medicine.
Our materialist-consumerist culture focuses almost exclusively on data, so "health" is quickly reduced to FitBit readings, test results and an obsessive monitoring of calories and diets, to the general exclusion of the mind-body as an integral system.
The importance of what we put in our mouths is expressed by the old Chinese saying: disease comes in through the mouth, i.e. what we consume. But what we consume is not limited to food (or what is sold as "food"): it also includes what our minds consume in the way of "news", entertainment, knowledge, etc., and what inputs we experience as stress.
There is also what we might call a spiritual component that includes beliefs but also purpose, meaning and positive social roles. People who have lost (or been stripped of) positive social roles, goals and purpose are prone to a Devil's brew of psychological and physical ailments that cannot be understood or treated as separate from being.
Yet this is precisely what the U.S. healthcare system does: separate conditions into specialties that can each be treated by medications or procedures. What cannot be "fixed" by medications or procedures--for example, a loss of purpose and positive social roles--are ignored: these realities simply do not exist in the U.S. healthcare system.
Any physician or nurse who attempts to understand and co-treat (with the patient themselves) a patient's entire state of being will encounter multiple layers of institutional resistance or even active hostility.
There's no time or money to address the state of patients' being; treatment is defined by tests, data and diagnoses that then trigger "standards of care" that rely heavily on medications, for a number of systemic reasons: drugs satisfy the patients' demands for the system to "do something" that "fixes" their condition instantly; it enables overworked physicians and providers a ready treatment that can be defended in the courts as current standard-of-care, and it enables every cartel in a system of cartels to reap huge revenues and profits.
What would a healthcare system based on prevention and be your own medicine look like? Such a system would still be called upon to treat diseases such as brain tumors, genetic conditions, traumatic injuries, etc., but the front line of the system would be designed to help individuals be their own medicine, not just in the context of provider-patient but within the day-to-day contexts of households, communities and enterprises.
The idea that actions have consequences is not alien to us, yet our healthcare system is based on giving lip-service to the causal consequences of what we put in our mouths, what we do with our bodies and minds, and what we consume in the material, spiritual and psychological worlds.
Treatment of atomized individuals in a setting of atomized symptoms and treatments is by any measure the opposite of a system that encourages and enables everyone to be their own medicine.
My new book is in the top 20 of Amazon's Kindle ebooks > Business & Money > International Economics: A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All. The Kindle edition is $8.95 and the print edition is currently discounted to $20.82.
Admin note: I will be busy with family commitments this month. As a result, blog posts will be sporadic and email responses will be near-zero. Thank you for your understanding.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Success Is a Source of Destabilization

We tend to assume our system for understanding the cause of failure must be sound, because we've experienced Roaring Success for so long.
Rip-Roaring Success is a funny thing: we assume it's the goal of every person, household, enterprise and nation, but we overlook that rip-roaring success can be as destabilizing as failure.
Rip-Roaring Success can destabilize in a number of ways.
One is the result of human nature. Those who didn't make it onto the Roaring Success Bus feel the gap widening most keenly. Indeed, psychological studies find we assess our wealth and social position not by the actual material prosperity we have, but by the narrowing or widening of the perceived wealth gap with our peers.
This is precisely the situation in the U.S. and China. Both economies are supposedly expanding smartly, but the gains are concentrated in relatively few hands; the Roaring Success Bus has few seats.
The vast majority perceive themselves as being left behind. That is highly destabilizing.
The second is a function of systems and human nature.
Every extreme eventually tends to revert to the mean, which is another way of saying that extraordinary growth rates of profits, stock market advances, etc. that characterize Rip-Roaring Success eventually return to merely average rates of growth.
This inevitably disappoints all who thought outlier rates of growth were permanent features of the system: Apple iPhone sales, China's GDP, etc.
This disappointment greatly exceeds the actual decline in the rate of growth, and the oversized reaction tips the system out of stability.
The collapse in the price of oil can be seen as an example: once oil was no longer behaving as expected, i.e. holding to $100/barrel, the reaction was swift and outsized.
The third is a function of organizations and systems.
Organizations that are hugely successful quickly lose interest in controlling costs. The money is pouring in so fast, every idea is presumed to be worthy of development, every functionary is presumed to need an assistant, and lavish parties celebrating the organization's roaring success become the norm, along with hefty bonuses and grand expansions of benefits.
Another way of saying this is costs that should have remained contingent and temporary become fixed costs. Once costs become fixed, the institutional resistance to eliminating them becomes fierce, and the organization slides into destabilizing crisis as rising fixed costs consume all profits/surpluses and start eating away at what little remains of truly productive activities.
The fourth is a function of success itself.
Success results from the optimization of productive capacity. In many cases, this optimization is accidental, or the result of chance alignments. Even when the optimization is entirely planned, a great many assumptions are made in designing that optimization: for example, that further investments of capital will continue to yield high rates of productivity growth, or that sales can continue expanding as product cycles become shorter, and so on.
But once conditions change, as they inevitably do in a dynamic world, the system that was designed to optimize for success is suddenly optimized for failure--yet nobody perceives the stagnation as the result of the very optimization that created the roaring success.
In effect, the organization is programmed to do more of what's failing.
In a previous post, I mentioned the example of World War II bombers that returned from missions heavily damaged. The experts examined the damage for clues as to what could be done to increase the survival rate of the aircraft.
This is entirely rational, right? The best way to improve results is to examine the sources of failure. But the experts did not examine the planes that were shot down--those planes whose damage caused them to crash. As a result, their observations were limited to those aircraft that were able to return to base. As a result, their conclusions were necessarily incomplete and misleading.
Put another way: we tend to assume our system for understanding the cause of failure must be sound, because we've experienced Roaring Success for so long. But the two skillsets are not necessarily related.
The fifth is a function of how we measure success. If a rising stock market is taken as the measure of success, then everyone watching stocks loft ever-higher assumes the system being measured (the economy) is experiencing rip-roaring success.
But the success reflected by the metric may be entirely artificial--for example, China's GDP. The choice of a single metric of success heavily incentivizes those in charge to game the metric to exaggerate the system's health and the competence of their leadership.
Ironically, a steady stream of small failures is the path to adaptation and stability. Experimentation results in a continual flow of failures that informs the process of maintaining progress. Organizations, individuals, households and economies that have been successful without experimentation are increasingly vulnerable to destabilization, for the reasons noted above.
In 2016, I suspect we will see previous success leading to destabilization as often as we see outright failure lead to destabilization.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 45. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to subscribers and major contributors.
My new book is in the top 20 of Amazon's Kindle ebooks > Business & Money > International Economics: A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All. The Kindle edition is $8.95 and the print edition is currently discounted to $20.82.
Admin note: I will be busy with family commitments this month. As a result, blog posts will be sporadic and email responses will be near-zero. Thank you for your understanding.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
Thank you, Al I. ($100), for yet another outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Illusion of Safety: Index Funds Are Not Low-Risk

If the risk-on euphoria of punters borrowing billions of dollars in margin debt doesn't materialize, stocks could languish for years after falling 50%.
The financial service industry's Prime Directive is to exploit humanity's core drives of Greed and Fear. Financial service companies promise high returns (fulfilling our greed) that are low-risk, i.e. "safe" (placating our fear of losing our nest-egg).
But the safety of many supposedly low-risk investments is illusory. The risk is not actually near-zero; rather, the risk has been buried, masked or obscured, for the obvious purpose of persuading the marks (i.e. the investing public, non-financial institutions, etc.) that the promised gains are essentially risk-free.
One example of selling the illusion of safety is the financial service industry's promotion of index funds--funds that mirror the return of the entire S&P 500 index (or other diverse index of stocks) as reliably low-risk investments.
In a narrow sense, an index fund that in effect owns 500 stocks is lower risk than a mutual fund that owns 15 stocks, as one stock blowing up in a portfolio of 500 stocks is going to do less damage than a stock blowing up in a portfolio of 15 stocks.
Index funds have very low administrative fees, reducing the drag on total returns created by high management fees, and this feature is also touted as lowering the risk to investors.
What is left unsaid is that if the broad market declines 50%, index funds also plummet 50%. The supposedly low-risk nature of index funds is completely illusory once the entire market tanks.
What's also left unsaid is the possibility that the market might not just drop 50%, but that it might not bounce back. Here is a chart (courtesy ofmdbriefing.com) of the S&P 500 (SPX) and margin debt. Notice the tight correlation between margin debt (money borrowed against a portfolio of stocks to buy more stocks) and the S&P 500: once the risk-on euphoria of borrowing money to buy more stocks rolls over, stocks follow margin debt down.
The two are self-reinforcing: once stocks crater, those who have borrowed to the hilt on margin get the dreaded margin call--a demand to either add cash to the account or reduce the margin debt by selling stocks.
As those with margin calls sell, others decide to preserve their gains (or limit their losses) by selling their holdings. This pushes the market lower, which then triggers additional margin calls, which then forces more selling.
If the risk-on euphoria of punters borrowing billions of dollars in margin debt doesn't materialize, stocks could languish for years after falling 50%. Central banks have generated risk-on euphoria after every crash since 2000, but there is no guarantee the bloated balance sheets of central banks and plummeting profits of corporations can support a fourth expansion of manic risk-on borrowing to buy stocks.
Perhaps third time's the charm and the current bubble will be the last of its kind for a generation or three. If this is indeed the last bubble, all those holding onto index funds in the mistaken belief that these funds are low-risk will discover the illusion of safety via devastating losses that can never be recovered.
My new book is in the top 20 of Amazon's Kindle ebooks > Business & Money > International Economics: A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All. The Kindle edition is $8.95 and the print edition is currently discounted to $20.82.
Admin note: I will be busy with family commitments this month. As a result, blog posts will be sporadic and email responses will be near-zero. Thank you for your understanding.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

The Self-Serving Apologists for Student Debt-Serfdom

Mankiw's claim that college costs are the inevitable result of Baumol's Disease is pure self-serving rubbish.
Everyone who isn't blinded by self-interest sees that the cost of higher education in America--and the way we pay for it, by turning students into debt-serfs-- is unsustainable. Those benefiting richly from the bloated, ineffective bureaucracy see no alternative, of course; their self-serving handwringing would be laughable if it wasn't so destructive to the nation and the economy.
Greg Mankiw, professor at Harvard, recently offered up a typical helping of self-serving handwringing: Three Reasons for Those Hefty College Tuition Bills. Mankiw squeezes out a few insincere (but necessary for PR purposes) alligator tears over the soaring costs of a college degree, and then trots out the usual justifications for maintaining the status quo, which just so happens to reward him so well.
Let's dismantle his bogus justifications one by one.
1. Mankiw predictably trots out the Gold Standard of justifying the absurdly high cost of an often-ineffective and useless college degree: those with college degrees earn $1.5 million more over a lifetime of work than those without degrees.
On the face of it, this offers plenty of justification for $120,000 piles of debt for degrees in Critical Studies, etc.: that extra $1.5 million will easily fund the cost of a 4-year degree.
But this data is completely out of date. Yes, a college degree offered substantial lifetime wage increases back when four years of college cost about as much as a new car, not a new house, i.e. the current cost; but as recent graduates have discovered, a four-year college degree offers little advantage, and substantially underperforms journey-person wages for skilled trades workers such as pipefitters, plumbers, etc.
The exception is of course highly technical degrees in engineering, computer science, biotechnology, etc. But this reality has led to a systemic over-supply of graduates with STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, math), as the economy does not create paid positions in these fields simply because more people have studied these subjects.
As I often note here (and in my book that proposes a much cheaper and more effective system of higher education, The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy: The Revolution in Higher Education), employers can only hire employees if the business will earn a profit from their labor--and opportunities to earn a profit in STEM fields are not as abundant as boosters of the status quo claim.
The economy has changed profoundly and structurally in the past 15 years, and the breezy cliche that a college degree automatically boosts lifetime earnings by $1.5 million is no longer supported by current realities. Just having a college diploma offers little advantage, especially when compared to those with real-world skills. Even those with STEM degrees find themselves in a Darwinian struggle to get a job in these fields, a struggle that forces many to get deeper in debt to secure a Masters or PhD.
But alas, tens of thousands of other under-employed college graduates had the same idea, and the job market is over-supplied with graduates holding Masters and PhDs.
Yes, if a student slaves away for 7 years to secure a PhD in computer security, he/she will likely enjoy multiple job offers. But the number of such positions is vanishingly small in an economy of 140+ million workers.
The reality is a college degree no longer offers the leverage it once did, due to simple supply and demand: millions of other people have degrees now, too, including advanced degrees, and the job market doesn't create jobs just because people have degrees.
2. Next, Mankiw claims (with zero factual justification) that teachers enlightening a small groups of students in a classroom (i.e. the standard educrat model that pays Mankiw his fat salary and hefty benefits) is the best and thus the only way to teach.
In other words: garsh, I'm sorry costs are soaring (phony handwringing), but this is the way it has to be; there is no alternative (TINA). This is self-serving rubbish: the better and much more cost-effective way to teach real skills that employers actually need is directed apprenticeships taught by working professionals, accompanied by nearly free digital resources and courses.
I describe this model in detail in my book The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy. Not only does this model offer an order of magnitude reduction in cost (there is no longer any need for a costly campus or hundreds of highly paid administrative staff), it also teaches students real skills in the emerging (i.e. real) economy.
Yes, there will still be a need for the top 200 research universities, but these institutions offer little to nothing to the vast majority of undergraduates who are currently entering debt-serfdom for ineffective or even useless 4-year degrees.
3. Mankiw then invokes every entrenched special interest's favorite high-concept defense for their morbidly high-cost/ineffective bureaucracy: Baumol's Disease, which holds that the cost of violin lessons rises because as the productivity of manufacturing and commoditized services rises, alas, teaching violin is a one-on-one process that is necessarily unchanged from 1741.
Mankiw conveniently overlooks the sordid reality that the academic establishment that rewards him and his fellow smug handwringers so amply depends on an underpaid army of academic ronin, teachers with few benefits and zero security known in the polite self-serving circles of academia as adjunct professors.
Please consider this chart of the University of California system's employment of professors and administration. If we extrapolate the lines into the present, it appears that there are far more highly-compensated seat-warmers in the university administration than there are professors teaching in the classrooms.
In 13 short years, the number of senior administrators shot up by 142% while the number of tenure track professors rose by 29%.
The shortfall in classroom staff has been filled by adjunct professors, educrat doublespeak for poorly paid academic ronin, academics with Masters Degrees and Doctorates who have few realistic chances to secure a tenured teaching position. These academic ronin are typically paid $40,000 or less and receive few if any benefits and no security. Their total compensation (wage/salary plus benefits) is a third or even a quarter of what tenured professors receive.
Their career track has little future; they may be able to switch universities, just as Samurai ronin in Japan might attach themselves to a feudal lord for a time, but their employment will always be contingent and short-term.
Mankiw's claim that college costs are the inevitable result of Baumol's Disease is pure self-serving rubbish: Mankiw's grandiose position atop the academic heap is supported by the toil of a vast army of poorly paid academic ronin, while soaring costs can largely be attributed to entirely useless (in terms of actual learning of useful skills and knowledge) administration and lavish campus facilities--costs that have nothing to do with Baumol's Disease and everything to do with American higher education being a cartel, i.e. an exploitive, parasitic racket that fails most of its students miserably.
The emerging economy enables a 90% reduction in the costs of higher education and a highly adaptive structure of directed apprenticeships in every academic field. The way to learn how to do anything, from journalism to multimedia to pipefitting to philosophy is to start right in under the guidance of a working professional in the field: as Emerson noted, do the thing and you shall have the power.
If we want a vibrant, adaptive, resilient economy, we need to ditch Mankiw and his entire parasitic cartel for a higher education system that actually serves the economy and the nation, rather than an entrenched cabal of self-serving insiders.
My new book is in the top 20 of Amazon's Kindle ebooks > Business & Money > International Economics: A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All. The Kindle edition is $8.95 and the print edition is currently discounted to $20.82.
Admin note: I will be busy with family commitments this month. As a result, blog posts will be sporadic and email responses will be near-zero. Thank you for your understanding.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Top-Down "Solutions" = Institutionalized Serfdom, Bottom-Up Solutions = Reviving Opportunity

If the "solution" doesn't enable the accumulation of capital in all its forms by individuals and households, it isn't a real solution--it's just another top-down scheme that institutionalizes subsistence serfdom.
Phrases like reviving the American Dream emit the lingering stench of empty political rhetoric mouthed by bought-and-paid-for candidates. But if we wave aside this foul smell, we're left with a very profound topic: reviving broad-based opportunity.
Longtime collaborator Gordon T. Long and I discuss what it will take to revive opportunity in a new 27-minute video Reviving the American Dream.
The status quo "solution" to the decline of opportunities for meaningful work is predictably top-down: guaranteed income for all, a.k.a. "welfare for all." This is of course a re-hash of the Keynesian Cargo Cult's 1930 fix for the Great Depression, except on a far grander scale.
There are three completely unsupported assumptions in every proposed "welfare for all" scheme:
1. The trillions of dollars/ euros/ yen etc. required to fund "welfare for all" can be raised from taxing profits and wages. Yet wages and profits are both set to decline sharply in the near-term as the global recession tightens its grip and longer term from the unstoppable forces of automation.
2. Paying people to do nothing will free people to become artists, entrepreneurs, etc. This is a noble ideal, but if we look at communities that have become dependent on top-down central-state welfare, we find despair, social depression and the collapse of real community.
"Welfare for all" debilitates the community by stripping away the sources of meaningful work and positive social roles. I explain this further in my book A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All.
3. Though few if any supporters of "welfare for all" schemes state this directly, the underlying assumption is that "welfare for all" is a temporary measure to get the unemployed/under-employed through a rough patch, and that the economy will magically heal itself and create millions of new jobs if given time.
Automation has changed the economy in ways the status quo cannot dare admit. As a result, pundits profess their faith in the false premise that technology will always create more jobs than it destroys. As I explain in my book, this is no longer true, as the prime directive of automation is the elimination of costly human labor--not just in the developed economies, but in the developing economies.
The full-spectrum failure of "welfare for all" is the inevitable result of its essential nature as yet another central-state/bank top-down "solution." Real solutions no longer come from central states/banks that have long been captured to serve the interests of Elites. Real solutions are bottom-up: the community economy is the only sustainable foundation for broad-based opportunity and the wide spectrum of solutions that support employment, capital accumulation and vibrant local economies.
If the "solution" doesn't enable the accumulation of capital in all its forms by individuals and households, it isn't a real solution--it's just another top-down scheme that institutionalizes subsistence serfdom. Stripped of unrealistic ideological faith, "welfare for all" is revealed as nothing more than institutionalized subsistence serfdom.
Reviving the American Dream boils down to reviving bottom-up opportunities within the community economy.
Gordon and I discuss the bottom-up community economy in Reviving the American Dream (27:48 video).
My new book is in the top 20 of Amazon's Kindle ebooks > Business & Money > International Economics: A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All. The Kindle edition is $8.95 and the print edition is currently discounted to $20.82.
Admin note: I will be busy with family commitments this month. As a result, blog posts will be sporadic and email responses will be near-zero. Thank you for your understanding.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
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