Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Dear Central Bankers: Prepare to be Swept Away in the Next Wave of Populism

The political moment when the "losers" connect their discontent and decline with central bankers is approaching.
The Ruling Elites' Chattering Classes still haven't absorbed the key lesson of the 2016 U.S. presidential election: the percentage of the populace that's becoming wealthier and more financially secure in the bloated, corrupt, self-serving Imperial status quo is declining and the percentage of the populace that's increasingly insecure and financially precarious is increasing, and candidates that mouth the usual platitudes in support of the bloated, corrupt, self-serving Imperial status quo lose to those who speak of the failing status quo as a travesty of a mockery of a sham, i.e. a "populist" speaking truth to power.
Donald Trump steered clear of the status quo's favored platitudes and embraced a bit of populist cant, and so to those who understand that the majority of Americans have been abandoned by America's hubris-soaked, self-serving managerial / ruling elites, his victory was not entirely surprising.
Just as we've reached Peak hubris-soaked, self-serving managerial / ruling Elites, we've also reached Peak Central Bank Cargo Cult: from now on the majority that's been abandoned by the managerial / ruling elites will become increasingly aware that the unprecedented asymmetries of wealth and power that have undermined American social and economic life can be traced directly back to the central bank, the Federal Reserve, which has become the all-powerful Cargo Cult of the global economy.
The same awareness of central bankers' responsibility for soaring wealth-income inequality and the decline of social mobility is spreading in other nations as well.
Longtime readers are probably tired of the chart below, depicting the incredible expansion of wealth in the already super-wealthy and the stagnation in the prospects of the bottom 95%. But let's shake off the boiled-frog syndrome and check the temperature of the political water we're immersed in: It's getting hotter--a lot hotter.
The ideological rhetoric of the next wave of populism matters less than its intensity. It's not just possible but increasingly likely that the next populist wave will assume many of the populist positions of the Left, positions which the "progressive" status quo is desperately attempting to co-opt and water down.
The core reality that powers populism Left and Right is the economy no longer works as advertised for the bottom 80%, and by many measures, the bottom 95%. The "conservative" camp generally holds that the "problem" is markets have been throttled by heavy-handed government regulations while "progressives" see private-sector wealth / power as as the problem and "taxing the rich" and redistributing the wealth as the solution.
What neither status quo camp dares mention is the domination of central bankers and the "winners" of their dominance, financiers, global corporations and state-enforced monopolies / cartels. (The losers are of course the rest of us: tax donkeys, debt-serfs, wage slaves, the restive crowd demanding more bread and circuses, etc.)
The political moment when the "losers" connect their discontent and decline with central bankers is approaching. Perhaps the wires will arc in 2020, or maybe it will be 2025; but whatever the timing turns out to be, the all-powerful Cargo Cult of the central bankers will be swept away in a global political convulsion unlike any in memory.
If you harbor any doubts about the demise of the Central Bank Cargo Cult, reflect a bit longer on the meaning of this chart:
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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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

America's Managerial Elite Has Failed, But We Can't Get Rid of Them

The system is broken, and the managerial elite will keep it broken because it serves their interests to keep it broken.
America's managerial elite came to do good and stayed to do well--at the expense of everyone beneath them. Now that they've entrenched themselves at the top of the status quo, there's no way to dislodge them, even as their failure to address what's broken, much less actually fix what's broken, insures systemic breakdown.
In government, the managerial elite is known as The Deep State: those who remain in power regardless of who's in elected office. In local government, managerial elites often shift positions, moving from elected office to a plum position in the bureaucracy where they can draw a big paycheck out of sight until they retire.
In Corporate America, managerial elites also move around, leaving sinking ships (that they may well have helped sink) as needed, and moving to think tanks or academia if their failures start multiplying.
Changing elected officials does nothing to dislodge our managerial elite overlords. The new mayor, governor or president comes and goes, and all the major institutions--education, higher education, healthcare, national defense, critical infrastructure--continue down the same path of enriching entrenched insiders while the institution fails its core missions.
If you think this chart of soaring student loan debt is a sign of "success," you are 1) delusional 2) protected from the dire consequences of this failure 3) getting your paycheck from this failed system. That in a nutshell is the state of the nation: those who are protected from the consequences of failure are loyal to the Establishment, as are the millions drawing a paycheck from systems they know are irredeemable failures.
Let's review the central institutions of the nation:
1. Healthcare: a failed system doomed to bankrupt the nation.
2. Defense: a failed system of cartels and Pentagon fiefdoms that have saddled the nation with enormously costly failed weapons systems like the F-35 and the LCS.
3. Higher Education: a bloated, failed system that is bankrupting an entire generation while mis-educating them for productive roles in the emerging economy. (I cover this in depth in The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy and Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.)
4. Foreign policy: Iraq: a disaster. Afghanistan: a disaster. Libya: a disaster. Syria: a disaster. Need I go on?
5. Political governance: a corrupt system of self-serving elites, lobbyists, pay-to-play, corporate puppet-masters, and sociopaths who see themselves as above the law.
In Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform, I explain why the only possible output of these systems is failure.
The sole output of America's managerial elite is self-serving hubris.
In an open market, failed leadership has consequences. Customers vanish and the enterprise goes bankrupt, or shareholders and employees rally to fire the failed leadership.
In our state-cartel system, failed leadership only tightens its grip on the nation's throat. The Deep State can't be fired, nor does it ever stand for election. The two political parties are interchangeable, as are the politicos who race from fund-raiser to fund-raiser.
It's tempting to blame the individuals who inhale the wealth and power of our failed system, but it's the system, not the individuals, though a more corrupt, craven, self-serving lot cannot easily be assembled.
Centralized hierarchies concentrate power at the top of the pyramid. That power is a magnet for everyone who seeks to wield power and enrich themselves in the process.
In the financial system, this concentration of power is visible in the chart below: the super-rich have become immensely richer in the past few decades of central banks' vast expansion of credit and financialization.
As systems become more complex, the need for a professional class to manage the overwhelming complexity grows. This class excels at appearing to manage complexity while ignoring the larger dynamics driving the system over the cliff.
And so we have endless meetings of highly paid people over trivial issues while the entire system careens toward meltdown. "Stakeholders" multiply in endless profusion, dooming every project to a glacial process that increases the sums paid to manage the glacial process and pushes the final cost to the moon.
The self-serving managerial elite always has one answer for every problem: give us more money. If the budget expands by 10% and nothing actually changes for the better, then the "solution" is a 25% increase in funding.
Budgets expand by leaps and bounds, but none of the systemic problems are ever resolved.
It's not hard to figure out why: look at the system's incentives. If systems were radically simplified and made more efficient, the need for an ever-expanding class of permanent managers would diminish. And so the solution is always more fodder for the managerial elite: more complexity, more meetings, more accumulation of power, more managers and always, more money.
Thus it is no surprise that the calls for "free" college and "Medicare for All" are rising: the managerial elite that has bankrupted higher education and healthcare while enriching themselves desperately needs to be bailed out, lest the systems they've steered toward the fiscal cliff deservedly go broke.
In a similar set of incentives, few weapons systems ever come in under budget when the Pentagon can always come up with another $10 or $20 billion for cost over-runs.
The system is broken, and the managerial elite will keep it broken because it serves their interests to keep it broken. Unfortunately we'll all suffer when the managerial elite is no longer able to stave off the dire fiscal consequences of their self-serving leadership.


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.


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.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, Donald C. ($50), for your magnificently generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.
 

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

How Much of Your "Wealth" Is Hostage to Bubbles and Impossible Promises?

All asset "wealth" in credit-asset bubble dependent economies is contingent and ephemeral.
A funny thing happens to "wealth" in a bubble economy: it only remains "wealth" if the owner sells at the top of the bubble and invests the proceeds in an asset which isn't losing purchasing power.
Transferring "wealth" to another asset bubble that is also deflating doesn't preserve the "wealth" from evaporation.
All the ironclad promises made in bubble economies ultimately depend on credit-asset bubbles never popping--but sadly, all credit-asset bubbles pop. So all the promises--which are of course politically impossible to revoke--will be broken as all the credit-asset bubbles that created the "wealth" that was to be redistributed--pensions, retirement benefits, etc.--deflate.
Consider the Case-Shiller housing index chart below. Housing is an asset that has reached the apex of a second bubble. (Stocks are reaching the apex of a third bubble.)
It is widely viewed as "impossible" for the housing market to lose 50% to 75% of its value. It is equally widely viewed as "impossible" for the stock market to lose 50% to 75% of its value.
Yet all credit-asset bubbles pop and lose 50% to 75% of their value--or even more. What's "impossible" isn't the bubbles popping--what's impossible is for bubbles to inflate forever and never pop.
Yet this impossibility is the foundation of all pensions and other promises: the pensions are only payable if all the credit-asset bubbles keep on expanding and never pop. They're also equally dependent on marginal borrowers never defaulting, marginal companies never going belly-up, and marginal speculations never going bust.
But this is precisely what marginal borrowers, companies and speculative ventures do--they blow up and default, delivering neutron-bomb like losses to the lenders: the physical assets remain, but the the "wealth" has been utterly destroyed.
Meanwhile, back at the government ranch, the vast majority of tax revenues are also dependent on credit-asset bubbles never popping. Most of the capital gains taxes reaped in bubbles dry up and blow away, high-earners who pay most of the income taxes lose their jobs or bonuses, and absurdly overvalued real estate that generated outlandish property taxes loses half its value, slashing property tax valuations.
Two retracement levels beckon on the Case-Shiller Home Price Index: a retrace to the previous Bubble #1 lows--a roughly 33% decline--or a full retrace back to pre-Bubble #1 levels, about a 60% drop from current levels.
In bubblicious regions that have seen decaying bungalows on postage-stamp lots rise 10-fold from $100,000 to $1 million, an 80% drop would be expected if history is any guide. This will be quite a shock to buyers who assumed that their home "wealth" would double from $1 million to $2 million.
All asset "wealth" in credit-asset bubble dependent economies is contingent and ephemeral. "Sure things" become less sure when credit bubbles pop and self-reinforcing defaults topple an ever widening circle of dominoes.
How much of your "wealth" is tied up in bubbles and impossible-to-keep promises? Only those who sell at the top before the herd panics and move their "wealth" into the few assets that are maintaining or gaining their purchasing power will still have their "wealth" after the conflagration turns credit-bubble "wealth"into ashes.


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.


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.

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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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Misplaced Pride: Most of the "Middle Class" Is Actually Working Class

If we look at these charts, it looks like only the top 10%, or perhaps the top 20% at best, might qualify as "middle class" by the metrics described below.
The conventional definition of working class is based on income and education:the working class household earns between $30,000 and $69,000 annually, and the highest education credential in the household is a two-year community college degree or trade certification.
The definition of the middle class is also based on on income and education, but adds financial security as a metric: the middle class household earns $80,000 or more, holds 4-year college diplomas or graduate degrees, owns a home, has a 401K retirement account and so on.
(My own definition is much more rigorous, as I reckon "middle class" today should have the same basic assets as the "middle class" held 40 years ago: What Does It Take To Be Middle Class? (December 5, 2013.)
But in some key ways, income and education are misleading metrics: the key attributes that actually define the working class are:
1. Stagnant incomes: incomes that over time barely keep up with real-world inflation or even lose purchasing power.
2. Income insecurity: wages, benefits and pensions are not as guaranteed as advertised.
3. Not enough ownership of financial capital to be meaningful. Financial capital excludes household items, vehicles, etc. Financial capital includes stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, ownership of a profitable business, equity in real estate, precious metals, bitcoin, etc.
By meaningful I mean enough to:
-- augment Social Security benefits in a way that greatly improves the household's lifestyle and retirement options
-- equity that is significant enough to fund college educations so one's children do not have to become debt-serfs to attend college
-- enough capital to fund (or help with) a down payment for a house, i.e. inheritable wealth that transforms the children's lives while the parents are still alive
-- income from capital, i.e. income isn't dependent on a government agency or government transfer.
How many U.S. households qualify to be middle class if that means:
-- the household income has outpaced real-world inflation over the past 20 years
-- the household's financial capital/assets have grown to become meaningful (as defined above) in the past 20 years
-- the household doesn't depend on government transfers for much of its income / spending
-- the household income and wealth are not dependent on financial bubbles, corporate guarantees, local government pensions on the verge of insolvency, etc.
While tens of millions of households qualify as "middle class" based on college diplomas and income, far fewer qualify when wealth and financial security are the key metrics. Plenty of households earn well in excess of $100,000 annually, but their financial status is as precarious and threadbare as any working class household.
They don't own enough assets or capital to move the needle, and what they do own is generally dependent on financial bubbles or speculative gambles.
Feeling like we belong to the "middle class" because we have a college diploma and make a good income offers up a false sense of pride and progress.If we're realistic about the financial wealth and security of "middle class" households, most qualify as working class: stagnant incomes, precarious financial circumstances, very little meaningful wealth and even less meaningful wealth that isn't dependent on the bubble du jour or promises that might not be kept.
If we look at these charts, it looks like only the top 10%, or perhaps the top 20% at best, might qualify as "middle class" by the metrics described above.
What sort of society do we have if the bottom 20% of households are poor, the next 60% are working class/precariat and only the top 20% (at best) have any of the core attributes of "middle class" financial security and wealth?
If we take off our rose-colored glasses, we have a much more stratified economy and society than we might like to believe: there's the top 1%, the next 4% "upper middle class," the next 10% "middle class," the next 65% working class, and the bottom 20% poor, those largely dependent on government transfers.
The "middle" has eroded away, leaving the top 15% who are doing very well in the status quo and the bottom 85% who are struggling to maintain a meaningful sense of prosperity and progress.
Personally, I'm proud to be working class in terms of my skillsets and values. Labels mean nothing. What counts is having skills, drive, agency, curiosity, frugality, integrity, self-discipline and kindness. Those forms of wealth cannot be taken from you when the bubble du jour pops and all the phantom "wealth" vanishes like mist in Death Valley.


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.


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.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, Lisa P. ($50), for your spendidly generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.
 

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Self-Destructive Trajectory of Overly Successful Empires

It's difficult not to see signs of this same trajectory in the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990.
A recent comment by my friend and colleague Davefairtex on the Roman Empire's self-destructive civil wars that precipitated the Western Empire's decline and fall made me rethink what I've learned about the Roman Empire in the past few years of reading.
Dave's comment (my paraphrase) described the amazement of neighboring nations that Rome would squander its strength on needless, inconclusive, self-inflicted civil conflicts over which political faction would gain control of the Imperial central state.
It was a sea change in Roman history. Before the age of endless political in-fighting, it was incomprehensible that Roman armies would be mustered to fight other Roman armies over Imperial politics. The waste of Roman strength, purpose, unity and resources was monumental. Not even Rome could sustain the enormous drain of civil wars and maintain widespread prosperity and enough military power to suppress military incursions by neighbors.
I now see a very obvious trajectory that I think applies to all empires that have been too successful, that is, empires which have defeated all rivals or have reached such dominance they have no real competitors.
Once there are no truly dangerous rivals to threaten the Imperial hegemony and prosperity, the ambitions of insiders turn from glory gained on the battlefield by defeating fearsome rivals to gaining an equivalently undisputed power over the imperial political system.
The empire's very success in eliminating threats and rivals dissolves the primary source of political unity: with no credible external threat, insiders are free to devote their energies and resources to destroying political rivals.
It's difficult not to see signs of this same trajectory in the U.S. since the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990.
With the primary source of national unity gone, politics became more divisive. After 9/11, new wars of choice were pursued, but the claims of a mortal threat to the nation never really caught on. As a result, the unity that followed 9/11 quickly dissipated.
I have long held that America's Deep State--the permanent, un-elected government and its many proxies and public-private partnerships--is riven by warring elites. There is no purpose in making the conflict public, so the battles are waged in private, behind closed doors.
Competing nations must be just as amazed as Rome's neighbors at America's seemingly unquenchable drive to self-destruct via the in-fighting of entrenched elites and the battle for supremacy between various parasitic elites who hold the power and privilege to squander the nation's resources on needless self-destructive wars of choice and on domestic in-fighting.
I suspect this trajectory of great success leading to self-destructive waste of resources is scale-invariant, meaning it works the same on individuals, families, communities, enterprises, cities, states, nations and empires.
It reminds me of former Intel CEO Andy Grove's famous summary of this dynamic:"Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive."
An empire weakened by self-inflicted internal conflicts may appear mighty, but it becomes increasingly vulnerable to an external shock. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) may well have collapsed from the devastating effects of the extreme weather circa 535 AD and the great plague of Justinian in 541 AD had it been weakened by internal in-fighting. But despite the staggering losses caused by these external catastrophes, the Byzantine Empire survived.
Rome, on the other hand, burned while self-absorbed factions jockeyed for power.
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.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, Alexander R. ($50), for your superlatively generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.
 

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