Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Are We Really that Divided?

If we don't challenge these poisonous polarizing binaries, they may well trigger the accidental suicide of our polity.
If there is any statement about politics in America that qualifies as as a truism accepted by virtually everyone, left, right or independent, it's that America is a deeply divided nation. But is this really true?
Like everyone else, I too accepted that the line between Hillary supporters and detractors, and Trump supporters and detractors, was about as "either/or" as real life gets.
But are we really that divided? A fascinating 55-minute lecture by historian Michael Kulikowski entitled The Accidental Suicide of the Roman Empire has made me question this consensus certitude.
Maybe the real driver of this division is devisive language--more specifically, language that is designed to drive a wedge between us. In other words, maybe the divisions are an intentional consequence of the language we're using.
Kulikowski makes a number of nuanced arguments in his talk, but his primary point is that the late-stage Roman Empire collapsed partly as an unintended consequence of rhetorical binaries, polarizing rhetoric that lumped an extremely diverse Imperial populace into false binaries: Roman or Barbarian, Christian or heretic, and so on.
The actual lived reality was completely different from these artificial either-or binary classifications. As Kulikowski explains (and anyone who has read a modern history of late-stage Rome will know this from other accounts), many "Roman generals" were "Barbarian" by birth, and the boundary between "Roman citizen" and "Barbarian" was porous on purpose.
Rome had prospered by ensuring the boundary was porous (not counting slaves, of course). An impoverished young man from the hinterlands could join the Roman military and achieve a stable income and Roman citizenship. (Women could advance through marrying into a Roman-citizen family--even one that was "Barbarian" until recently.)
By Imperial decree in the 3rd Century A.D., any free person inside the boundaries of Imperial Rome was declared a Roman citizen. So numerous people of a variety of ethnicities may have been born outside the boundaries (i.e. Barbarian) became as "Roman" as any native born Roman in terms of their obligations to pay taxes and rights to judicial review.
This social/economic upward mobility was a key "secret sauce" of Rome's enduring success.
So why the sudden fatal attraction to completely false polarizing binaries?Kulikowski makes the case that deploying these rhetorical devices--polarizing binaries-- served the political purposes of warring elites within the Imperial aristocracy.
For example, one sure-fire way to undermine a political challenger was to label him as a "Barbarian." Even though he might have served in the Roman army from his youth, his political opponent could transform him into a "bad guy" by virtue of his being born a non-Roman. Sound familiar? (Hint: try "deplorable".)
There is a self-destructive, self-reinforcing dynamic in this polarizing rhetoric:though it served the political interests of individual members of the elite, it did so at the cost of the entire polity, which was poisoned by these false binaries that then developed into dominant narratives.
Hence Kulikowski's startling conclusion: Rome didn't "die of natural causes"--it accidentally committed suicide once its political elites embracing polarizing binaries as political weapons. These weapons seemed targeted to their users, but the rhetorical narratives spread like a deadly virus through the empire, helping to trigger collapse of the Imperial core.
Bloomberg-BusinessWeek published a major multiple-part story in September of 2016 prior to the election entitled One Nation Divisible: The American Electorate.
The story repeats the truism of America being a divided nation, but my take-away was not the either-or binaries accepted by the mainstream and alternative media alike-- my take-away was a newfound appreciation for the incredible diversity in America, not just ethnically, but geographically, demographically, and in every other measure of complex diversity.
How could a nation of such astounding diversity be artificially cleaved into polarizing binaries? The short answer is that it cannot: the polarizing binaries are artificial rhetorical devices, completely out of touch with the nuanced, complex reality of a diverse populace with widely diverse opinions on a wide spectrum of political topics.
My conclusion is that we should be alert to the great distance between these politically useful but systemically poisonous polarizing binaries and the complex and dynamic realities of the American populace.
We would also benefit from recognizing the artificiality and self-serving nature of these polarizing binaries, and be alert to the false and destructive narratives and teleologies they generate.
For more on narratives and teleologies, please read my recent essay The Deep State's Dominant Narratives and Authority Are Crumbling.
We've already witnessed the toxic weeds of polarizing binaries spreading across the political landscape, choking out real-world narratives: diverse populations are being demonized as "deplorables," "racists," "evil," and so on. So many of our choices are false choices based on polarizing binaries. For example-- how many voters would have championed an alternative to Hillary or Trump? If given a choice, would 60% of the voters have chosen someone other than the two party candidates? (Hint: Bernie Sanders is the most popular politico in America, according to recent polls.)
Identity politics is another rhetorical device designed to consolidate diverse populaces into politically useful (to the elites jockeying for power) binary blocks: you're either "for us" (and good) or "against everything good" (bad, evil, racist, etc.)
If we don't challenge these poisonous polarizing binaries, they may well trigger the accidental suicide of our polity. The saying is the demographics is destiny; the same can be said of the language we use to divide or unite people of good faith who are sick of the parasitic, predatory elites that are plundering the nation.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 15. The weekly Musings Reports are emailed exclusively to major contributors/ subscribers /patrons ($5/month or $50/year). 


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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Rising (Central Bank) Tide Turns Everyone into a Genius

Until the system implodes--you're a genius.
So you've ridden the markets higher--stocks, housing, commercial real estate, bat guano, quatloos, you name it--everything you touch turns to gold. What can we say, bucko, other than you're a genius!
It's a market truism that rising tides lift all boats. But that's not the really important effect; what really matters is rising tides turn everyone into a genius--at least in their own minds.
Those of us who have been seduced by the Sirens' songs of hubris know from bitter experience how easy it is to confuse a rising tide with speculative genius. When everything you touch keeps going higher, the only possible cause is.... your hot hand, of course!
Stocks--I'm a genius! Housing--I'm a genius! Commercial real estate--yes, well, I suppose the evidence is overwhelming--it does seem I'm a genius.
The only thing better than buy and hold is buy the dips and hold--and use margin or whatever leverage you have to buy more before the price goes even higher.
What can we say other than: this is the strategy of geniuses. The proof is in the charts:
The S&P 500: margin to the hilt and buy every dip: genius!
Housing in Sweden, Toronto, Brooklyn, West L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Shanghai and every other blazing-hot market: borrow more from the shadow banking system, mortgage your house to the hilt, do whatever you have to do to get the down payment and buy another flat: pure genius!
Commercial real estate: everyone who jumped in with all four feet in mid-2009 forward: geniuses!
The source of our collective genius isn't an act of Nature--it's that good old pump inflating every asset bubble on the planet, central banks creating credit-money out of thin air and buying assets hand over fist: stocks, ETFs, bonds, mortgages, and so on.
Central banks have collectively purchased $1 trillion in assets year to date:
The Federal Reserve and the other central banks are playing the role of financial gods, intervening in the interactions of mere mortals to create the illusion of stability.
To this end, the Fed has created trillions of dollars and used this money to prop up delusional asset values (high) and destabilizing interest rates (low).
If we look at a decentralized financial system as a self-organizing ecosystem, we find that the strength of the system lies in the adaptability of the myriad organisms in its many micro-climates. The key strength of a decentralized financial ecosystem, i.e. one not organized as a top-down command economy, is the "genetic diversity" of its many participants. There is not just one dominant species in the ecosystem, but many interdependent species.
In a financial ecosystem, there is not one lender and one class of borrowers, but a huge diversity of lenders, borrowers, creditors and savers, and a wealth of interacting, inter-dependent enterprises.
A centrally planned financial ecosystem is a doomed system. The Fed is the equivalent of an ignorant, hubris-infused agency that seeks to "restore" an ecosystem by flooding it with water and unleashing a single predatory species raised in an unnatural, contrived "factory."
The Fed is wiping out diversity and thus the adaptability of the enterprises that survive its crude flooding and replication of a single predatory species.
The Fed is creating a sickly, vulnerable mono-culture of an economy, one dominated by financial predators which are themselves lacking in genetic diversity.
Just as agencies playing god further degrade the natural systems they claim to be "restoring" with ever-grander interventions, so too is the Fed destroying the U.S. economy with equivalent god-like meddling and ever-more grandiose, ever-more delusional interventions in what were once decentralized, self-organizing systems that naturally sought harmony and stability through the low-level churn of bad bets being written off and over-leveraged speculators going bankrupt.
Put another way: the Fed has taken the risks generated by predatory institutions and policies, and distributed it throughout the entire financial system. This distribution of risk in service of maintaining asset bubbles creates the illusion of stability, low risk and "sure thing" speculation.
Rather than let over-leveraged speculators and institutions reap the consequences of their excesses, the Fed (and other central banks) have loaded the entire system with risk.
Until the system implodes--you're a genius.
NOTE: James Collins, please email me re: your generous contribution via Dwolla.


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Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Housing's Echo Bubble Now Exceeds the 2006-07 Bubble Peak

If you need some evidence that the echo-bubble in housing is global, take a look at this chart of Sweden's housing bubble.
A funny thing often occurs after a mania-fueled asset bubble pops: an echo-bubble inflates a few years later, as monetary authorities and all the institutions that depend on rising asset valuations go all-in to reflate the crushed asset class.
Take a quick look at the Case-Shiller Home Price Index charts for San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, OR. Each now exceeds its previous Housing Bubble #1 peak:
Is an asset bubble merely in the eye of the beholder? This is what the multitudes of monetary authorities (central banks, realty industry analysts, etc.) are claiming: there's no bubble here, just a "normal market" in action.
This self-serving justification--a bubble isn't a bubble because we need soaring asset prices--ignores the tell-tale characteristics of bubbles. Even a cursory glance at these charts reveals various characteristics of bubbles: a steep, sustained lift-off, a defined peak, a sharp decline that retraces much or all of the bubble's rise, and a symmetrical duration of the time needed to inflate and deflate the bubble extremes.
It seems housing bubbles take about 5 to 6 years to reach their bubble peaks, and about half that time to retrace much or all of the gains.
Bubbles have a habit of overshooting on the downside when they finally burst. The Federal Reserve acted quickly in 2009-10 to re-inflate the housing bubble by lowering interest rates to near-zero and buying over $1 trillion of mortgage-backed securities.
When bubbles are followed by echo-bubbles, the bursting of the second bubble tends to signal the end of the speculative cycle in that asset class. There is no fundamental reason why housing could not round-trip to levels below the 2011 post-bubble #1 trough.
Consider the fundamentals of China's remarkable housing bubble. The consensus view is: sure, China's housing prices could fall modestly, but since Chinese households buy homes with cash or large down payments, this decline won't trigger a banking crisis like America's housing bubble did in 2008.
The problem isn't a banking crisis; it's a loss of household wealth, the reversal of the wealth effect and the decimation of local government budgets and the construction sector.
China is uniquely dependent on housing and real estate development. This makes it uniquely vulnerable to any slowdown in construction and sales of new housing.
About 15% of China's GDP is housing-related. This is extraordinarily high. In the 2003-08 housing bubble, housing's share of U.S. GDP barely cracked 5%.
Of even greater concern, local governments in China depend on land development sales for roughly 2/3 of their revenues. (These are not fee simple sales of land, but the sale of leasehold rights, as all land in China is owned by the state.)
There is no substitute source of revenue waiting in the wings should land sales and housing development grind to a halt. Local governments will lose a majority of their operating revenues, and there is no other source they can tap to replace this lost revenue.
Since China authorized private ownership of housing in the late 1990s, homeowners in China have only experienced rising prices and thus rising household wealth. The end of that "rising tide raises all ships" gravy train will dramatically alter China's household wealth and local government income.
If you need some evidence that the echo-bubble in housing is global, take a look at this chart of Sweden's housing bubble. Oops, did I say bubble? I meant "normal market in action."
Who is prepared for the inevitable bursting of the echo bubble in housing?Certainly not those who cling to the fantasy that there is no bubble in housing.
NOTE: James Collins, please email me re: your generous contribution via Dwolla.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Who Will Live in the Suburbs if Millennials Favor Cities?

Who's going to pay bubble-valuation prices for the millions of suburban homes Baby Boomers will be off-loading in the coming decade as they retire/ downsize?
Longtime readers know I follow the work of urbanist Richard Florida, whose recent book was the topic of Are Cities the Incubators of Decentralized Solutions?(March 14, 2017).
Florida's thesis--that urban zones are the primary incubators of technological and economic growth--is well-supported by data that shows that the large urban regions (NYC, L.A., S.F. Bay Area, Seattle, Minneapolis,etc.) generate the majority of GDP and wage gains.
Cities have always attracted capital, talent and people rich and poor alike.Indeed, "city" is the root of our word "civilization." So in this sense, Florida is simply confirming the central role cities have played for millennia.
More recently, Florida has addressed the rising wealth/income inequality that is making desirable urban areas unaffordable to all but the top 10% or even 5% wage earners. This is a critical concern, because vitality is a function of diversity: a city of wealthy elites paying low wages to masses of service workers is not an economic powerhouse.
What happens as buying a home in a desirable city becomes out of reach of all but the most highly paid tranche of workers?
The larger question is: what happens to home ownership as housing prices continue higher while the next generation's wages remain significantly lower than previous generations' incomes?
Millennials are typically earning less than Baby Boomers and Gen-X did in their 20s and 30s, and if this continues--and history suggests it will--then how many Millennials will be able to buy a pricey house?
One consequence of stagnating wages and rising home valuations is a "nation of homeowners" morphs into a "nation of renters."
The other big question is: if Millennials aren't earning enough to buy pricey homes, who is going to buy the tens of millions of houses Baby Boomers will be selling as they downsize/move to assisted living? As for inheriting Mom and Dad's house--that's not likely if Mom or Dad need the cash to fund their retirement/assisted living.
This question is especially relevant to suburban homes, especially those far from employment centers. Though data on this trend is sketchy, it seems Millennials strongly favor city living over exurban/suburban living.
Anecdotally, I can't think of a single individual in their 20s or 30s that I know personally who has bought a house in a distant suburb. Everyone in this age group has bought a house in an urban zone. Not a highrise condo in the city center, but a house in a ring city near public transport.
Though data on this is hard to find (if it exists at all), Millennials seem more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to live in the urban core, either by renting rather than buying a cheaper suburban home, or by purchasing a modest bungalow on a small lot rather than an expansive suburban home on a big lot.
(This could change if Millennials start having lots of children, but to date small bungalows in urban regions appear big enough for families with two children.)
In a turn-around from the postwar era, which saw a mass exodus of the middle class from city centers to suburbia, the upper middle class is moving back to urban centers and the lower-income populace--once the urban poor--are being pushed out to the suburbs. We can now speak of the suburban poor.
To some degree, the suburbs have become victims of their own success. Long commutes in heavy traffic are the inevitable result of the vast expansion of suburban subdivisions, shopping malls and business parks. These killer commutes detract from the desirability of suburbs, especially to auto-agnostics of the Millennial generation, who exhibit low enthusiasm for auto ownership.
Rather than symbolizing freedom, auto ownership is viewed as a burdensome necessity at best.
If we overlay these trends (assuming they continue into the future), we discern the possibility that marginal suburban housing could crash in price and morph into suburban ghettos of isolated low-income residents.
The Pareto Distribution may play a role in this transformation. Should 20% of the suburban housing stock fall into disrepair, that could trigger the collapse of valuation in the remaining 80%.
Not all suburbs are equal. Those with diverse job growth may well act as magnets much like small cities. Those with few jobs and long commutes are less desirable and have smaller tax bases to support services.
The asymmetry between modest/stagnant Millennial wages and the soaring cost of housing cannot be bridged. If these trends continue, only the top tranche of highly paid young workers will be able to afford housing in desirable areas. Given a choice between affordable ownership in a small city or in a distant suburb, Millennials may well choose the affordable small city rather than the distant exurb or low-services suburb.
Note that most incomes have gone nowhere since about 1998. Even the top 5% has made modest gains in real (inflation-adjusted) income.
Meanwhile, home prices are back in bubble territory. "Hot" urban areas such as Seattle, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Brooklyn NYC, etc. have logged double-digit gains in recent years.
So who's going to pay bubble-valuation prices for the millions of suburban homes Baby Boomers will be off-loading in the coming decade as they retire/ downsize? We know one part of the answer: it won't be Millennials, as they don't have the income or savings to afford homes at these prices.
These trends promise to remake the financial geography of cities (large and small) and suburbia--and in the process, radically shift the financial assets of households, renters and owners alike.
NOTE: James Collins, please email me re: your generous contribution via Dwolla.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 15. The weekly Musings Reports are emailed exclusively to major contributors/ subscribers /patrons ($5/month or $50/year).


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
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Friday, April 21, 2017

Our State-Corporate Plantation Economy

We've been persuaded that the state-cartel Plantation Economy is "capitalist," but it isn't. It's a rentier skimming machine.
I have often discussed the manner in which the U.S. economy is a Plantation Economy, meaning it has a built-in financial hierarchy with corporations at the top dominating a vast populace of debt-serfs/ wage slaves with little functional freedom to escape the system's neofeudal bonds.
Since I spent some of my youth in a classic Plantation town (and worked on the plantation as a laborer in summer), the concept of a Plantation Economy is not an abstraction to me, but a living analogy of the way our economy works.
The Plantation Economy is extremely hierarchical. Corporations and the state are both extremely hierarchical.
In the Plantation Economy, the Company has access to nearly unlimited credit.Small businesses serving the employees and the employees have enough credit to live on but not enough to buy productive assets. As a result, the Corporation can always buy up any productive assets, expanding its monopoly.
The state also has an essentially unlimited line of credit which it can use to fund its favored cartels and state fiefdoms.
In the Plantation Economy, the Company suppresses any innovation that threatens its monopoly and the state enforces whatever means the Corporation deploys: buying up patents and small companies, predatory pricing to bankrupt competitors, etc.
The Plantation Economy is a mono-culture of large corporations and their partner in rentier skimming, the state. Our economy is a state-cartel finance-debt system; it's only capitalist on the margins, that is, in the fringes that aren't profitable enough for corporations to control.
The core feature of this Plantation Economy is the privileges of accumulating capital are all in the hands of the state-cartel elites. The foundation of classical capitalism is the accumulation of capital, which in our era is not just cash, factories, mines, etc.--financial and industrial capital--but knowledge capital: intellectual property, knowledge of processes, creation and control of content, research and development, control of information streams (that is, maintaining information asymmetry) and so on.
Those with unlimited access to low-cost credit can buy up or control all productive capital, including the labor of knowledge-based workers.
When an economy is optimized for global corporations, the only possible result of this arrangement is a Plantation Economy. Our economy is optimized for corporations: they have access to unlimited low-cost credit, their capital can be shifted around the globe at a moment's notice (i.e. it is mobile), they have the tax advantages of incorporation and complex tax codes, they can declare bankruptcy without any limitations and wipe out their debts, they can engage in fraud, corruption and embezzlement and face no consequence other than a modest fine, they can suppress competition and their size enables dominance of the labor market.
Imagine if all these immense advantages were granted solely to worker-owned collectives and co-ops, and corporations were de-optimized, that is, they no longer had access to credit, their employees and managers could be jailed for systemic fraud and embezzlement, they paid high fees for merely existing and they were denied the ability to buy political influence as easily as an employee buys a loaf of bread.
The problem with a Plantation Economy is that it inevitably stagnates and collapses. Suppressing competition and innovation corrodes productivity, and as productivity and social mobility both fade, so does wealth creation.
The state-cartel Plantation eventually eats all its own seed corn via the vast expansion of credit. What appears to be "wealth" in the state-cartel Plantation is illusory asset bubbles fueled by state-engineered credit expansion.
Beneath this brittle veneer of great "wealth," the real economy is stagnating.These charts reflect this reality:
Productivity: stagnant:
New business growth: stagnant:
New credit-money issued to finance, monopolies and cartels: through the roof:
And the only possible output of the state-cartel Plantation Economy: runaway wealth and income inequality. There is no other possible output of our system.
We've been persuaded that the state-cartel Plantation Economy is "capitalist," but it isn't. It's a rentier skimming machine. Capitalism enables the accumulation of capital by anyone in a transparent market, and the capitalist state enforces a level playing field.
There's the get-to-work horn, people. Time to labor for the rentier skimming machine and its enforcer, the state, to pay your taxes, student loans, mortgages, and all your other neofeudal "obligations" to the state-cartel elites.
For more on the inevitable collapse of Plantation economies, please see my book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.
Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print, $5.95 audiobook) For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.

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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