Monday, March 18, 2019

While the Nation Fragments Socially, the Financial Aristocracy Rules Unimpeded

America's aristocracy is not formalized, and that's the secret of its success.
If there is one central irony in American history, it is this: the citizenry that broke free of the chains of British Monarchy, the citizenry that reckoned everyone was equal before the law, the citizenry that vowed never to be ruled by an aristocracy that controlled the government and finance as a means of self-enrichment, is now so distracted by social fragmentation that the citizenry is blind to their servitude to a new and formidably informal financial aristocracy.
From this juncture, ironies abound: the so-called Socialist demands for Medicare for All, "free" college for all and Universal Basic Income (UBI) are encouraged (or perhaps orchestrated) by the financial aristocracy, which rakes in tens of billions of dollars in profits from its banking, healthcare, national defense and higher education cartels: throwing more trillions down the ratholes of Medicare and higher education will only further enrich and empower the financial elites.
As for Universal Basic Income (UBI), the financial aristocracy is cheering loudly for UBI, which would enable debt-serfs to keep servicing their debts. (Is anyone so naive to think that UBI won't have a clause which enables the deduction of debt payments from the monthly "free money"? Does anyone think the financial aristocracy is going to give $1,000 a month to debt-serfs and then let them default on their debt? Get real!)
The demands for social justice, i.e. that everyone be allowed to be treated the same before the law and enjoy the same rights as other citizens, is a core tenet of American culture. Long before the Constitution was even ratified, the calls to end slavery were becoming louder. Long before women won the the right to vote, the calls to treat women equally before the law were gaining ground.
In the long sweep of U.S. history, the rights of gays to marry and other contemporary social justice issues are of a piece with all previous drives to eliminate disparities between the way individuals are treated before the law. This is of course as it should be: this was a core value of the revolutionaries, as limited as it was in that era, and this drive is largely what makes America America.
Equally important was the cultural drive to never be ruled by a neofeudal aristocracy or let an aristocracy form in America. Yet this is precisely what has come to pass: we are ruled by an informal but oh-so neofeudal aristocracy.
As social justice controversies fragment the increasingly economically precarious populace, a financial aristocracy has arisen that rules the nation behind the screens of "meritocracy" and "equal rights." No one is more in favor of equal rights and the abolition of social privilege that the members of the financial aristocracy, who have no need for social privilege since they control the real source of power in America: proximity to credit and newly issued money.
(Look at the liberal leanings of the Silicon Valley, L.A., Boston and NYC elites. They all love whatever distracts everyone from scrutinizing their power, and love recruiting fresh talent to slave away for their private empires.)
With this wealth, the financial aristocracy buys political influence for piddling sums and scoops up most of the low-risk productive assets of the private sector.
The core structure of the financial aristocracy is the state-cartel, the cartels that are funded and enforced by the central state: higher education, healthcare, national defense, banking, mortgages, student loans, etc.
For the financial aristocracy, the federal government is their personal enrichment machine, collecting trillions in taxes and borrowing additional trillions which are funneled through the state-cartels.
The number of seats in the American aristocracy is extremely limited, and so the top 5% are willing to go to extreme lengths to get in the first class lifeboat as the Titanic takes on water. This manifests in all sorts of ways, including the elite college admissions scandal.
While social justice proponents focus on divisive distractions, the financial aristocracy is tightening its control of the nation's economy and political order.As everyday life, civil liberties and economic security all become increasingly precarious for the bottom 90%, the divisive focus on social privilege becomes a useful distraction for the financial aristocracy, which also controls the mainstream media.
America's aristocracy is chuckling with great amusement as society is torn to pieces by media-circus sideshows. America's aristocracy doesn't need any titles or overt class distinctions as the aristocracy of old had; this would only call attention to their dominance. The ideal arrangement is a society shredded by social-media-driven fabricated divisions and a profound apathy to the actual structures of power, wealth and control.
America's aristocracy is not formalized, and that's the secret of its success.The power and control are exercised behind the formal machinery of governance and finance, and this structure protects the aristocracy from scrutiny.
So by all means demand Medicare for All and UBI: the aristocracy is heavily promoting these expansions of its wealth and power. Just as the Roman elites favored distributing free bread to the disenfranchised masses and the staging of Netflix binge TV watching--oops, I mean circuses-- so too does America's aristocracy favor UBI, Medicare for All and a fragmented society in thrall to disunity.
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, March 17, 2019

The Coming Crisis the Fed Can't Fix: Credit Exhaustion

Thus will end the central banks' bombastic hubris and the public's faith in central banks' godlike powers.
Having fixed the liquidity crisis of 2008-09 and kept a perversely unequal "recovery" staggering forward for a decade, central banks now believe there is no crisis they can't defeat: Liquidity crisis? Flood the global financial system with liquidity. Interest rates above zero? Create trillions out of thin air and use the "free money" to buy bonds. Mortgage and housing markets shaky? Create another trillion and use it buy up mortgages.
And so on. Every economic-financial crisis can be fixed by creating trillions of out thin air, except the one we're entering--the exhaustion of credit. Central banks, like generals, always prepare to fight the last war and believe their preparation insures their victory.
China's central bank created over $1 trillion in January alone to flood China's faltering credit system with new credit-currency. Pouring new trillions into the financial system has always restarted the credit system, triggering renewed borrowing and lending that then powered yet another cycle of heedless consumption and mal-investment--oops, I meant development.
The elixir of new central bank money isn't working as intended, and this failure is now eroding trust in the central bank's fixes. Central banks can issue new credit to the private sector and it can can buy bonds, empty flats and mortgages, but no central bank can force over-indebted borrowers to borrow more or force wary lenders to lend to uncreditworthy borrowers.
Let's be honest: the entire global "recovery" since 2009 has been fueled by soaring debt. The output of more debt is declining, that is, every additional dollar of debt is no longer generating much in the way of positive returns. As with any stimulant, increasing the stimulant leads to diminishing returns.
Then there's the issue of debt saturation and debt exhaustion: those who are creditworthy no longer want to borrow more and those who are not creditworthy cannot borrow more, unless lenders want to eat the losses of default a few months after they issue the new loan.
The evidence is plain enough: defaults of student loans and auto loans are already at monumental levels, and the recession hasn't even started. Zero-percent financing for vehicles is a thing of the past, and those borrowers with average credit ratings are paying 6% or more for a new vehicle loan.
Coupled with the ever-higher prices of vehicles, this is leading to auto loans of $600 and $700 a month and lenders extending the duration of the loans from 5 to 7 years. Just how badly do households need a new vehicle at these rates and prices?
As for housing--unless the buyer just sold a house in a bubblicious market and has hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, housing is out of reach of the bottom 95% in many markets. This raises the other dynamic of credit exhaustion: the whole exercise of buying a home or dumping more money in stocks is ultimately based on greater fools arising who will pay substantially more that the buyer paid today.
Greater fools generally depend on credit to finance their purchase, and so the erosion of creditworthy borrowers means the pool of greater fools willing and able to pay $1.2 million for the old bungalow someone paid $1 million for today is drying up fast.
Only a fool buys an asset that is poised to lose value as the pool of future buyers dries up. No wonder insiders are selling stocks like no tomorrow, and housing markets have become decidedly sluggish: the pool of qualified borrowers who are willing to bet on another decade of central-bank goosed "growth at any cost" is shrinking rapidly.
The next crisis won't be one of liquidity that central banks can fix by emitting additional trillions; it's a crisis that's impervious to central bank manipulation.The credibility of central banks is already evaporating like spilled water in July-baked Death Valley.
Central banks cannot magically make uncreditworthy borrowers creditworthy or magically force those who have forsworn adding more debt to borrow more at high rates of interest, and as a result they are powerless to stop the tide of credit from ebbing.
Thus will end the central banks' bombastic hubris and the public's faith in central banks' godlike powers, the "global growth" story, the China story, and all the other fairy tales that have passed as policies for the past decade rather than what they really were: politically expedient cover for the greatest expansion of inequality in modern history.
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, March 14, 2019

A Precarious Revolution Is Brewing

Once again profound social and economic forces are changing the nation in ways that are difficult to understand in real time.
The American Revolution arose not from politics but from rapid social and economic changes that revealed the precariousness of the colonists' prosperity. Conventional histories focus on the political context (Boston Tea Party, etc.), but more important were the changes in social relations, and the impact of the economy moving from quasi-feudal forms of patronage to an economy of impersonal market forces.
The political revolution was the result of profound shifts in social and economic structures.
As Gordon Wood explains in his seminal book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, it was these social changes that nurtured the revolutionary zeal of the average (non-elite) male citizen.
Americans came to appreciate the precariousness of their prosperity, and this led to a deep split in the populace. Around 25% to 30% of the populace remained loyal to the British Crown/King, and these Loyalists reckoned it a political and economic disaster to separate from the "Mother Country."
The majority felt the exact opposite: their prosperity and liberties were all too easily snatched away by a Parliament and/or a Monarch who had little to no regard for their prosperity or liberties.
The precariousness of the relatively widely distributed prosperity and political liberties drove average people into an all-or-nothing choice: there was no middle ground, and the bitterness of the divide was life-changing. Benjamin Franklin, for example, completely cut off his eldest son when the son remained a Loyalist, despite the decades of affectionate intimacy they'd shared.
Such prosperity and liberties that existed were reserved for Caucasian males, of course; women had the right to divorce and own property but no political suffrage, and slaves had no rights unless they were freed by their owners.
The social changes in the family and economy Wood describes are of especially keen interest, as they mirror the present era in so many ways. Parents in the 1760s were admonished to treat their children as individuals and to use reason rather than punishment. Parental authority was thus reduced from rigid authoritarianism to a much more nuanced and difficult process of nurturing and guidance--a process familiar to every parent today.
The economy was changing rapidly as well, as the lines of authority that were once personal became market-contractual. Where small farmers in the early 1700s sold their harvests to gentry planters or merchants, by mid-century Scottish trading houses were buying small farmers' harvests directly, requiring written contracts rather than personal trust.
Small farmers made more money, and the landed gentry lost power over the flow of goods.
This disruption of traditional authority stretched from the home to the marketplace and ultimately to the British Crown and Parliament, which saw the rebellious colonists as wayward children who needed a good lashing to set them straight.
All of which brings us to the present, when once again profound social and economic forces are changing the nation in ways that are difficult to understand in real time. Traditional authority is weakening, and traditional social relations and markets are being disrupted, leaving most participants far more financially precarious than they were a few decades ago.
To take one important example: where owning a home once meant counting on slow and steady appreciation of home equity, in today's bubble-and-bust economy, timing is everything: poor timing can trigger the loss of one's down payment and home equity, and capturing that equity requires selling at the top.
As I noted last week in What If Politics Can't Fix What's Broken?politics as practiced in a bygone era of stability no longer offers any solutions to these profound disruptions. Middle ground has vanished, and ideologies have become quasi-religious because they no longer offer any practical guidance to a society and economy that are being transformed by the 4th Industrial Revolution, resource depletion and demographics.
Once again Americans are awakening to the precariousness of their prosperity and liberties, and traditional forms of belonging, loyalty and authority are unraveling. As the pie shrinks, the struggle to maintain one's own share at the expense of others becomes Darwinian, and so it's no surprise that finance and politics are increasingly winner-take-all or winner-take-most zero-sum endeavors.
The elite college admissions scandal is a timely example of this dynamic: those with $500,000 can bribe the right people in the centralized hierarchy to get their Little Darling onto a winner-take-most career track.
A precarious revolution is brewing, as the old social, political and economic structures unravel and fail. The sober politics of compromise is giving way to the expedient politics of bread and circuses, borrowing whatever sums are needed to placate every corrupt, parasitic elite and every demanding constituency. This is the pathway to financial ruin as the currency will be destroyed by the politics of expediency.
New social, political and economic structures will arise that are stable because they reflect new realities. Describing these structures is the purpose of my books:
Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic
The politics of failed ideologies and financial expediency will not end well.
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, March 13, 2019

What Sort of "Democracy" Do We Have If Everyone's Goal Is Maximizing Their Government Swag?

The "marketplace" of individuals and entities all seeking to maximize their share of the central-state swag doesn't make a democracy.
A democratic republic is a government in which power flows from citizens to their elected representatives. The American revolutionaries did not make a big distinction between republic and democracy, for in the context of the late 1700s, the dominant political structure was monarchy, and democracy meant the people have the final say via elections.
As Gordon Wood explains in his seminal book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the upper-class revolutionaries had their doubts about the rabble's ability to pursue the common good above their own narrow self interests. This ability to focus on the public good rather than on one's own financial interests was widely understood to be the make-or-break dynamic of a durable democracy: without a class of citizens who could set the public good above their own interests, democracy would fail and be replaced by a neofeudal system of patronage in which loyalties followed a hierarchy of self-serving privilege.
In other words, precisely what we have today in the USA.
The revolutionary founders understood that only financially independent citizens had the wherewithal to put the public good above their own private interests. Those who were dependent on a powerful individual or organization would have no incentive to put the common good above their own share of the swag, and every incentive to support their patron (individual, corporation or government program) at the expense of the common good.
How many citizens are truly financial independent in America today? How many don't depend on a wealthy individual, corporation or government program for their livelihood and financial well-being?
What incentives are present that would cause a dependent to vote against the narrow interests of their patronage? Very few if any.
The number of financially independent citizens is very low in a neofeudal economy dominated by centralized government, cartels, corporations and a super-wealthy financial nobility-- the latter three (cartels, corporations and financial elites) being just as obsessed with maximizing their share of government swag (tax breaks, subsidies, sweetheart contracts, etc.) as any welfare dependent.
As a result, politics in America has decayed into an endless free-for-all of parasitic elites and dependent constituencies squabbling over their share of the federal swag.
The public good is given lip service but everyone knows patronage and dependence are the dominant dynamics of our society and economy. How can an elected official who must spend half their time raising millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy elites have any real conception of the public good? How can voters who approve every "free" benefit and financial "right" that will flow to their account have any real measure of the public good?
The "marketplace" of individuals and entities all seeking to maximize their share of the central-state swag doesn't make a democracy. They are merely a rabble fighting over the bread and circuses issued by an empire that seeks to placate and distract a citizenry and commercial elite that has lost all sense of public good beyond "free" patronage.
Time will reveal that nothing is truly free, including democracy and the public good. Those dependent on central state patronage will discover that centralization has entered diminishing returns on its way to dissolution and ruin.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

How States/Empires Collapse in Four Easy Steps

The promises cannot be met, and so society decays into warring elites and competing constituencies.
There is a grand, majestic tragedy in the inevitable collapse of once-thriving states and empires: it all seemed so permanent at its peak, so godlike in its power, and then slowly but surely, too many grandiose, unrealistic promises were made to too many elites and constituencies, and then as growth decays to stagnation, the only way to maintain the status quo is to appear to meet all the promises by creating money out of thin air, i.e. debauching the currency.
This political expediency works most wonderfully for a time: people don't realize the silver content of their coinage is being cut to near-zero, or there's nothing holding up the value of their currency but trickery and vague allusions to past glory.
Trust in the state/empire's currency suddenly collapses in a phase shift: all seems well until the moment the avalanche sweeps it all away.
It's a simple progression: during the permanent-growth-is-our-birthright phase of self-reinforcing virtuous cycles, when everything is expanding rapidly--credit, resources, jobs, capital, profits, state tax revenues, etc.--promises are made to elites and constituencies that look easy to meet as the economy is projected to expand rapidly essentially forever.
But virtuous cycles decay to unvirtuous cycles of bureaucratic sclerosis and corruption, systemic friction, declining productivity and resource depletion, and the rise of parasitic elites who contribute nothing but skim plenty saps the surplus available for productive reinvestment.
Every elite under pressure to satisfy the demands of those who were over-promised in the good times reverts to the same two financial fixes: debt and currency debasement. First the state borrows and borrows and borrows, all under the belief that "the government can't go broke because it issues its own money."
Any rationalization will do in the phase of stagnation, but the reality is it's all political expediency: lacking the resources to pay all the promises, the state borrows from the future to maintain the illusion of stability.
Alas, the future arrives, and the interest on the debt begins stripmining tax revenues needed to fund the essential responsibilities of the state/empire. At this point, the ruling elites pursue two equally fatal fixes: they raise taxes on the remaining productive class while the parastic elites pay little or nothing, and they devalue the currency so they can continue to pay the promised sums with less actual wealth.
The productive class either escapes to other climes, goes underground or opts out. As tax revenues fall, the ruling elites turn in desperation to debauching the state currency, in effect issuing 10 units of currency for every 1 unit of actual purchasing power.
This maintains the fiction that the promises are being met, but the purchasing power of the currency erodes so drastically that the parasitic elites and the constituencies eventually catch on and demand a full payment of what was promised back in good times.
This demand cannot be met, and so society decays into warring elites and competing constituencies. The only real solution--to make severe sacrifices in order to live within the modest means available and jettison the parasitic elites--is politically and culturally unpalatable to a citizenry steeped in a belief that good times should be forever and it's the fault of the ruling party of the moment rather than a failure of the entire system.
Then the "free" distribution of bread and circuses ramps up and the silver shipped to phantom legions defending the borders ends up in the quartermasters' pockets. The delusional state of the ruling elite infects the general populace, and magical thinking abounds, as do vague claims to future greatness based on the mythologies of previous eras that had earned prosperity with sacrifice and thrift.
The entire global status quo is in the stagnation phase, and the promises that cannot be met are looming large. And so the politically expedient ruling elites turn to debt and financial trickery to stave off the reckoning. This works for a few years but it guarantees the coming collapse.
Expansion, maturation, stagnation and collapse:
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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