Friday, June 28, 2019

Following in Rome's Footsteps: Moral Decay, Rising Inequality

Here is the moral decay of America's ruling elites boiled down to a single word.
There are many reasons why Imperial Rome declined, but two primary causes that get relatively little attention are moral decay and soaring wealth inequality. The two are of course intimately connected: once the morals of the ruling Elites degrade, what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine, too.
I've previously covered two other key characteristics of an empire in terminal decline: complacency and intellectual sclerosis, what I have termed a failure of imagination.
Michael Grant described these causes of decline in his excellent account The Fall of the Roman Empire, a short book I have been recommending since 2009:
There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. (The Status Quo) attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.
This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.
This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all.
A lengthier book by Adrian Goldsworthy How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower addresses the same issues from a slightly different perspective.
Glenn Stehle, commenting on a thread in the excellent website peakoilbarrel.com (operated by the estimable Ron Patterson) made a number of excellent points that I am taking the liberty of excerpting: (with thanks to correspondent Paul S.)
The set of values developed by the early Romans called mos maiorum, Peter Turchin explains in War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, was gradually replaced by one of personal greed and pursuit of self-interest.
“Probably the most important value was virtus (virtue), which derived from the word vir (man) and embodied all the qualities of a true man as a member of society,” explains Turchin.
“Virtus included the ability to distinguish between good and evil and to act in ways that promoted good, and especially the common good. Unlike Greeks, Romans did not stress individual prowess, as exhibited by Homeric heroes or Olympic champions. The ideal of hero was one whose courage, wisdom, and self-sacrifice saved his country in time of peril,” Turchin adds.
And as Turchin goes on to explain:
"Unlike the selfish elites of the later periods, the aristocracy of the early Republic did not spare its blood or treasure in the service of the common interest. When 50,000 Romans, a staggering one fifth of Rome’s total manpower, perished in the battle of Cannae, as mentioned previously, the senate lost almost one third of its membership.This suggests that the senatorial aristocracy was more likely to be killed in wars than the average citizen...
The wealthy classes were also the first to volunteer extra taxes when they were needed… A graduated scale was used in which the senators paid the most, followed by the knights, and then other citizens. In addition, officers and centurions (but not common soldiers!) served without pay, saving the state 20 percent of the legion’s payroll...
The richest 1 percent of the Romans during the early Republic was only 10 to 20 times as wealthy as an average Roman citizen."
Now compare that to the situation in Late Antiquity when
"an average Roman noble of senatorial class had property valued in the neighborhood of 20,000 Roman pounds of gold. There was no 'middle class' comparable to the small landholders of the third century B.C.; the huge majority of the population was made up of landless peasants working land that belonged to nobles. These peasants had hardly any property at all, but if we estimate it (very generously) at one tenth of a pound of gold, the wealth differential would be 200,000! Inequality grew both as a result of the rich getting richer (late imperial senators were 100 times wealthier than their Republican predecessors) and those of the middling wealth becoming poor."
Do you see any similarities with the present-day realities depicted in these charts?
And how many congresspeople served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan? How many presidential candidates had boots on the ground in combat theaters? The answer is one. Here is the moral decay of America's ruling elites boiled down to a single word.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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Thursday, June 27, 2019

No, Autos Are Not "Cheaper Now"

According to the BLS, inflation in the category of "New Vehicles" has been practically non-existent the past 21 years.
Longtime readers know I've long turned a skeptical gaze at official calculations of inflation, offering real-world analyses such as The Burrito Index: Consumer Prices Have Soared 160% Since 2001 (August 1, 2016) and Burrito Index Update: Burrito Cost Triples, Official Inflation Up 43% from 2001 (May 31, 2018).
Official claims that grossly understate real-world inflation is a core feature of debt-serfdom and neofeudalism: we're working harder and longer and getting less for our earnings every year, but this reality is obfuscated by official pronouncements that inflation is 2%--barely above zero.
Meanwhile, quality and quantity are in permanent decline. New BBQ grills rust out in a few years, if not months, appliance paint is so thin a sponge and a bit of cleanser removes the micron-thick coating, and on and on in endless examples of the landfill economy, as new products are soon dumped in the landfill due to near-zero quality control and/or planned obsolescence.
Free-lance writer Bill Rice, Jr. recently analyzed shrinkflation, the inexorable reduction in quantity: What Does Your Toilet Paper Have to Do With Inflation?Manufacturers have been engaging in "shrinkflation," leaving consumers paying more for less, but stealthily.
In the guest post below, Bill looks at new car prices, and finds that official inflation for "new vehicles" from November 1983 to November 2013 measured only 43.8 percent... while actual car inflation (based on archived price records in Morris County, NJ) is 4.85 times higher than official CPI "new vehicle" inflation.
Prices for new cars sky-rocketed over 30 years (or did they?)
A lesson in ‘hedonic adjustments’
By Bill Rice, Jr.
In addition to grocery and household staples, the Annual Price Survey of Morris County, NJ lists the prices of new cars for each year. I was curious to learn how the price of a car the year I graduated from high school (1983) compared to the price of a car 30 years later in 2013. (The MC Price Survey ended in 2014).
What did I learn? Well, I learned that car prices went up a LOT in 30 years. Between 1979-1983 the least expensive car available, at least from this price survey, averaged $6,366. By comparison, the least expensive car in 2009-2013 averaged $19,879. This is a nominal price increase of 212.3 percent.
Now here’s the head-scratcher. According to the BLS, inflation for all goods (CPI-U) from August 1983 to August 2013 increased by 133.4 percent -- that is, far less than the sample of inexpensive cars from Morris County, NJ.
But that’s just part of the inflation story. The BLS also publishes indexes in the category of "new vehicles." According to these indexes, inflation for "new vehicles" from November 1983 to November 2013 measured only 43.8 percent. That is, actual car inflation (based on archived price records in Morris County, NJ) is 4.85 times higher than official CPI "new vehicle" inflation.
How is such a huge discrepancy explained? Here, we detour into a discussion of hedonic adjustments, an eye-glazing topic for some, but where the rubber meets the road in any contemporary analysis of inflation.
In the latter part of the 1990s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) decided to adjust new vehicle prices (and the prices of many other products such as computers) for "quality." The rationale for this “improved methodology” is that new cars are clearly superior to older cars.
For example, newer models often include features that weren’t standard in earlier times/car models. Presumably today’s cars last longer than yesterday’s cars, require fewer repairs and even include life-saving features like air bags. In short, we get a lot more car for the buck than we did in 1983.
While the 2010 Buick Regal is certainly a better car than the 1980 Regal, is it really $17,160 better? Or: could I ask for a Regal with "just the basic stuff" that was standard in the 1980 version and then ask my sales person, "Can you knock $17,000 off the sticker price?" I could ask, I guess, but the answer would be no. (Another person, I discovered, asked the same-type questions).
While the merits of hedonic adjustments can be debated, what can’t be debated is the hard data produced by the BLS. Back in the day - before hedonic adjustments - new vehicles did experience price inflation, documented in the steep incline of CPI price indices for new vehicles from 1974 into 1997. However, beginning in March 1997, this graph suddenly pivots south. In recent decades, new vehicle prices have essentially been flat.
Indeed, in more years than not, the CPI index for new vehicles was negative, representing price deflation for new vehicles.
Anyway, I was not surprised to discover that a new car cost a whole lot more in 2013 than it did in 1983. I was, however, surprised to discover that, according to the BLS, inflation in the category of "New Vehicles" has been practically non-existent the past 21 years of my life.
See price comparisons below:
Bill Rice, Jr. is a freelance writer in Troy, Alabama. He can be reached atwjricejunior@gmail.com.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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Could a Cryptocurrency Become a Global Reserve Currency?

Will bitcoin appear on this chart of global reserve currencies in the future?
Could a non-state cryptocurrency like bitcoin become a global reserve currency? I first proposed the idea back in November 2013, long before bitcoin's rise to $19,000, decline to $3,200, recent ascent to $13,000 and current retrace.
The idea is intriguing on a number of levels. In terms of retaining value though thick and thin, the ultimate reserve currency cannot be printed (and thus devalued) with abandon by a government. Gold and silver have served as the ultimate reserve currency, as precious metals can be traded for commodities and services, provide collateral for debt and serve as reliable stores of value.
While many observers believe gold is still the only reliable reserve currency (or if you prefer, the only reliable backing for government-issued paper money), it's a worthy thought experiment to ask if a digital currency could also act as a reserve currency.
Since there is no real-world commodity backing the digital currency, its value must be based on scarcity and its ubiquity as money. The two ideas are self-reinforcing: there must be demand for the digital money to create scarcity, and the source of demand is the digital currency's acceptance as money that can be used to buy commodities, goods, services and (the ultimate test) gold.
It follows that the first step in a non-state issued digital currency becoming a reserve currency is that it isn't created in quantities that dwarf demand. If the digital currency is issued with abandon, it cannot be scarce enough to gain any value. If I own one quatloo (our hypothetical digital currency) and a trillion new quatloos are issued tomorrow, the value of my one quatloo will decline to near-zero.
The second step is its widespread acceptance globally as money, i.e. a store of value and something which can be traded for goods and services.
There is a bit of a built-in conflict in these two requirements. To be useful in the $60 trillion global economy, the quatloo must be issued in size: there must be enough of it around to grease transactions large and small in all sorts of markets. Using the U.S. dollar as a guide (since the USD is the primary reserve currency), we can estimate that a minimum of $1 trillion in quatloos would be needed to become a practical global currency.
To act as a reserve currency, another trillion or two would be needed, as nations would hold these quatloos as reserves. (Nations hold an estimated $7 trillion in USD reserves, about $3 trillion euros and $1 trillion or so in yen, pounds and other currencies.)
But issuing quatloos in these quantities would remove any scarcity value. Thus the issuer of the quatloo would have to carefully issue more quatloos only when demand justified the need for more monetary "grease" for the global economy.
If on the other hand skyrocketing demand/scarcity drove the value to the stratosphere, holders of the quatloo would rejoice, but this volatility would present its own set of risks for those seeking to use the quatloo as a reserve against currency volatility in the home-country currency. If a digital currency can leap ten-fold in a short time, then might it not drop with equal volatility?
Volatility is the enemy of reserves; the holder of reserves needs a liquid (meaning it can easily be sold or traded in size) currency that predictably retains its value. A volatile currency poses risks, as do currencies that cannot be traded in size without drastically influencing the market value of the currency.
These conditions pose a steep challenge for any cryptocurrency, but they are not insurmountable. Even as a niche currency, non-state issued digital currencies could play a role in the global economy, especially if government-issued fiat currencies destabilize/ devalue due to massive money creation by desperate central banks and state treasuries.
Is scarcity enough to back a non-state issued currency? Bitcoin offers a real-world experiment.
As for Facebook's proposed Libra digital currency--it's simply state-issued fiat currency in a corporate package. Libra will be backed by state-issued fiat currency, so it's nothing but a corporate-controlled proxy for all the unbacked, prone-to-hyperinflation state currencies.
Will bitcoin appear on this chart of global reserve currencies in the future? How would Venezuela or Zimbabwe have fared had they invested some of their reserves in bitcoin in 2013, or even 2016? Much better than they did attempting to launch a state-controlled digital currency (Venezuela) or relying on the printing press.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Local Government Is an Engine of Inflation

Insolvency isn't restricted to private enterprise; governments go broke, too.
One reason the economy is so much more precarious than advertised is inflation has pushed households and small businesses to the edge--and one engine of that inflation is local government. This is not to dump on local government, which is facing essentially unlimited demands from the public for more services while mandated cost increases in government union employee wages and benefits ratchet higher.
Since personnel costs are 70+% of city and county budgets, those ever-increasing payroll, pension and benefits costs are the key driver of budgets expanding.
But local governments' ability to increase revenues are also essentially unlimited. There are all sorts of fees that can be created or increased if outright tax increases have been voted down by the public.
What amounts to blackmail is generally effective, however: if you want the giant potholes filled in your streets, you have to pass this municipal bond--or else.
Official inflation, growth in the economy (GDP) and increases in wages are typically pegged at around 2% to 3% annually. But cost increases in local government and agency services are soaring at rates far above the modest rates of economic expansion.
Here's a list of tax and fee increases hitting residents of one of the counties I call home; the list includes taxes/fees raised in 2017 and 2018:
1. Property taxes: between 6.5% and 10%, depending on the property class
2. Gasoline tax (county), from 8.8 cents to 23 cents, phased in over 3 years
3. General excise tax, up 6.3%
4. Garbage fee (commercial): up 27%
5. Sewer fees: up 44%
6. Electricity (base rate): up 7.4%
7. Annual vehicle safety inspection fee (state): up $5.81
8. County water service: up 8%
9. Accommodation fee (a.k.a. hotel tax) (state): up 10%
I may have missed a few, but you get the idea: while wages have supposedly gone up 3% in 2018, taxes and fees are rising at much higher rates.
Small businesses are exposed to higher business license and other fees. Some cities have tripled certain classes of business license fees, charging a percentage of gross income, not net income, meaning a business that's losing money still has to pay the full annual licensing fee if they're struggling to keep afloat.
All these increases are manifestations of the Ratchet Effect: organizations and institutions only know how to expand, so budgets, head counts, administration, etc. are always ratcheting higher.
There are no institutional memories or mechanisms for contraction, i.e. reduced revenues, so when revenues decline sharply, the institution breaks down.
The Ratchet Effect sets up The Rising Wedge Model of Breakdown: as complexity, costs and layers of management all ratchet higher, the organization loses the flexibility required to deal with outright declines in revenues. As a result, any sustained drop in revenues causes the institution to break down, i.e. fail systemically.
Allow me to explain another mechanism of rampant inflation triggered by local government. Cities and counties discovered a new revenue source in the late 20th century: real estate development fees. Building permits that once cost a few hundred dollars now cost thousands of dollars, and a host of new fees are now standard: sewer hookup fees, plan review fees, and development fees.
Then there are transfer fees for every sale of real estate, and mandated subsidized housing requirements for new apartment buildings: a percentage of the new apartments must be made available at below-market rents for qualified tenants. The cost of the subsidized units are borne by the owner/developer, not the taxpayer, so the subsidy in effect raises the market rents.
Partly as a result of these local government fees, the cost of building new apartments is very high. As a result, rents are also higher. If demand is strong, some desperate (or rich) tenants will pay the much higher rent.
The owners of existing buildings look at the high rents and their natural response is to raise their rents accordingly: the new market price for a one-bedroom apartment has been set by the high-cost new building, and rents throughout the city ratchet higher.
The same dynamic pushes commercial rents higher, too. The ground-floor commercial space in the new complex is rented out at sky-high rates to a corporate chain, and suddenly that insanely high rent is the new baseline for every equivalent space in the city.
When an old building is demolished to make way for a new apartment complex with ground-floor commercial spaces, the old tenants never return: they can no longer afford the rent. As I've discussed here before, this gentrification drives out diversity, leaving the city's commercial districts a homogenized, lifeless cluster of Corporate America outlets.
Corporate America has zero loyalty or interest in local economies: the moment an outlet doesn't make its numbers, HQ shutters it.
Since rents have risen beyond what local small businesses can afford, there are no new tenants for the empty space when the chain outlet closes.
This sets up the rising tax/fee spiral of death, as local government seeks to replace the lost revenues by jacking up taxes and fees on the remaining small businesses. The higher costs appear "affordable" to a public and city staff who don't have to pay the soaring costs of keeping the doors open, so they're mystified when one small business after another closes their doors forever.
The Ratchet Effect has pushed costs above the point the businesses can survive, so they close.
Local government then increases tax and fee burdens on the remaining businesses, pushing more of them over the edge.
At some point, the trickle of businesses closing becomes a self-reinforcing flood. As vacant storefronts become the norm, cities respond to the loss of tax donkeys by launching desperate marketing campaigns which do nothing to address the real problem, high costs: come spend money in our commercial districts! These campaigns fail to move the needle, and as the economy slips into a long-delayed recession, city revenues plummet, triggering even more onerous fees and taxes.
The resulting collapse in small business eventually leads to a collapse in city finances. Insolvency isn't restricted to private enterprise; governments go broke, too.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Human Cost of "Recovery": We're Burning Out

The asymmetries are piling up and we're cracking under the weight.
Judging by the record-high stock market and the record-low unemployment rate, the "recovery" has reached new heights of prosperity. Academics and think-tankers viewing the global economy from 40,000 feet are brimming with policies to bring the remaining laggards into the booming economy.
You can imagine them rubbing their hands with glee as they quote statistics such as: the 53 metropolitan areas in the U.S. with populations of 1 million or more accounted for two-thirds of the GDP growth and three-quarters of the job growth. A staggering 93% of the population growth in the U.S. in the past decade occurred in these urban centers.
And this asymmetry is even greater if we separate the top 10 metropolitan areas from the rest: super-cities with super-charged economies, fueled by enormous influxes of capital and people, which just so happen to make life unbearable as overcrowded, aging infrastructure breaks down and costs for housing, rent, taxes, utilities, fees etc. skyrocket out of reach of the bottom 95%.
The well-paid pundits viewing glowing statistics of growth never get around to examining the human costs of this lopsided "recovery": the "winners" in increasingly unlivable urban centers are cracking under the pressure-cooker stress, burning out, flaming out, crashing.
The residents of all the regions sucked dry of capital and talent--the "losers" of neoliberal globalization's concentrations of mobile capital and talent in a few favored megalopolises--are also cracking under the weight of a loss of dignity and secure livelihood, the two being intimately bound, much to the dismay of the supporters of "just pay them to go away and not bother us" Universal Basic Income (UBI).
In other words, the "winners" are losing, too. They're losing their sanity in 3-hour daily commutes on jammed freeways and equally jammed streets as thousands of other commuters seek a work-around to the endless congestion.
They're losing their dreams of a better life, as all the average-wage worker can afford to rent is a bed in a cramped living room that has been converted into sleeping quarters for two workers who don't make six-figure salaries and who don't have stock options in a Unicorn tech company.
They're fixated on FIRE--financial independence, retire early--because they hate their job, their career and the sector they toil in, and they count the days until they're free, free, free of the pressure, the stress, the BS work, and the insanity of daily life in a teeming rat-cage.
No wonder the FIRE movement is spreading like (ahem) wildfire. Nobody in their right mind wants to do their job for another 10 years, much less 20 or 25 years. Everybody is bailing out the moment they can, or if they burn out and crash, when they're forced to.
Let's say you want to start a business in a super-progressive city that fulfills all your most cherished ideals: paying your employees good wages, providing customers with value, and paying all your taxes and fees, of course, as a responsible progressive citizen.
Welcome to burnout and bankruptcy. This story is a microcosm of small-business reality in mega-cities choking on monumental asymmetries of wealth, income and power: Why San Francisco Restaurants Are Suffocating: What I witnessed during my two years in the industry.
Where do we start? How about the reality that virtually no one employed in the restaurant sector can afford to live in San Francisco unless they inherited a rent-controlled flat or scored one of the few subsidized housing openings?
The city's solution--mandating a $15/hour minimum wage--doesn't magically make healthcare or rent affordable; all it does is increase the burden on small businesses that are hanging on by a thread.
The writer doesn't even mention the sky-high rent she paid for her restaurant space. Rent alone drove this small food service business into the ground: Via Gelato owner plans to close Ward store, file for bankruptcy.
Working 100 hours a week couldn't compensate for the crushing rent.
Even the well-paid are burning out. Astronomical household incomes (say, $300,000 annually) aren't enough to buy a decayed bungalow for $1.3 million and pay for childcare, private-school tuition, healthcare, an aging parent and all the services the overworked wage-earners don't have the time or energy to do themselves. Oh, and don't forget the taxes. You're rich, people, so pay up.
No wonder people who can afford to retire are bailing at 55 or 60, on the first day they qualify. Life's too short to put up with the insane pressure and stress a day longer than you have to.
Not everybody feels it, of course. People who bought their modest house for $100,000 30 years ago can hug themselves silly that it's now worth $1,000,000 (but with a still-modest property tax), and if they're retired with a plump pension and gold-plated medical benefits, their biggest concern is finding ways to blow all the cash that's piling up.
These lucky retirees wonder what all the fuss is about. "We worked hard for what we have," etc. It's easy to overlook being a lucky winner of the housing-bubble lottery and the equally bubblicious pension lottery, and easy not to ask yourself how you'd manage if you arrived in NYC, San Francisco, et al. now rather than 35 years ago.
The asymmetries are piling up and we're cracking under the weight. When do we recover from the "recovery"? The answer appears to be "never."
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

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