Thursday, April 27, 2017

Are We (Collectively) Depressed?

We need to encourage honesty above optimism. Once we can speak honestly, there is a foundation for optimism.
Psychoanalysis teaches that one cause of depression is repressed anger.
The rising tide of collective anger is visible in many places: road rage, violent street clashes between groups seething for a fight, the destruction of friendships for holding the "incorrect" ideological views, and so on. I Think We Can Safely Say The American Culture War Has Been Taken As Far As It Can Go.
A coarsening of the entire social order is increasingly visible: The Age of Rudeness.
This raises a larger question: are we as a society becoming depressed as we repress our righteous anger and our sense of powerlessness as economic and social inequality rises?
Depression is a complex phenomenon, but it typically includes a loss of hope and vitality, absence of goals, the reinforcement of negative internal dialogs, and anhedonia, the loss of the joy of living (joie de vivre).
Depressive thoughts (and the emotions they generate) tend to be self-reinforcing, and this is why it's so difficult to break out of depression once in its grip.
One part of the healing process is to expose the sources of anger that we are repressing. As psychiatrist Karen Horney explained in her 1950 masterwork, Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization, anger at ourselves sometimes arises from our failure to live up to the many "shoulds" we've internalized, and the idealized track we've laid out for ourselves and our lives.
The recent article, The American Dream Is Killing Us does a good job of explaining how our failure to obtain the expected rewards of "doing all the right things"(getting a college degree, working hard, etc.) breeds resentment and despair.
Since we did the "right things," the system "should" deliver the financial rewards and security we expected. This systemic failure to deliver the promised rewards is eroding social mobility and the social contract while generating frustration, anger, etc.
We are increasingly angry at the system, but we reserve some anger for ourselves, because the mass-media trumpets how well the economy is doing and how some people are doing extremely well. Naturally, we wonder, why them and not us? The failure is thus internalized.
One response to this sense that the system no longer works as advertised is to seek the relative comfort of echo chambers--places we can go to hear confirmation that this systemic stagnation is the opposing political party's fault.
We don't just self-sort ourselves into political "tribes" online--we congregate in increasingly segregated communities and states: The Simple Reason Why A Second American Civil War May Be Inevitable.
Americans are moving to communities that align more with their politics. Liberals are moving to liberal areas, and conservatives are moving to conservative communities. It’s been going on for decades. When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, 26.8% of Americans lived in landslide counties; that is counties where the president won or lost by 20% of the vote.
By 2004, 48.3% of the population lived in these counties. This trend continues to worsen. As Americans move to their preferred geographic bubbles, they face less exposure to opposing viewpoints, and their own opinions become more extreme. This trend is at the heart of why politics have become so polarizing in America.
We’re self-sorting at every level. Because of this, Americans are only going to grow more extreme in their beliefs, and see people on the other side of the political spectrum as more alien."
Part of the American Exceptionalism we hear so much about is a can-do optimism: set your mind to it and everything is possible.
The failure to prosper as anticipated is generating a range of negative emotions that are "un-American": complaining that you didn't get a high-paying secure job despite having a college degree (or advanced degree) sounds like sour-grapes: the message is you didn't work hard enough, you didn't get the right diploma, etc.
It can't be the system that's failed, right? I discuss this in my book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform: the top 10% who are benefiting mightily dominate politics and the media, and their assumption is: the system is working great for me, so it must be working for everyone. That's the implicit narrative parroted by status quo mouthpieces.
The inability to express our despair and anger generates depression. Some people will redouble their efforts, others will seek to lay the blame on "the other" (some external group) and others will give up. What few people will do is look at the sources of systemic injustice.
Perhaps we need a national dialog about declining expectations, rising inequality and the failure of the status quo that avoids the blame-game and the internalization trap (i.e. it's your own fault you're not well-off).
We need ways to express our resentment, anger, despair, etc. that are directed at the source, the complex system we inhabit, not "the other." We need to encourage honesty above optimism. Once we can speak honestly, there is a foundation for optimism.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 16. 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.
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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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 divisive 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 12. 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.
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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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.
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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