Monday, July 24, 2017

There Is Only One Empire: Finance

Any nation-state that meets these four requirements is fully exposed to a global loss of faith in its economy, debt, balance of payments and currency.
There's an entire sub-industry in journalism devoted to the idea that China is poised to replace the U.S. as the "global empire" / hegemon. This notion of global empire being something like a baton that gets passed from nation-state to nation-state is seriously misleading, in my view, for this reason:
There is only one global empire: finance. China and the U.S. both exist within the Empire of Finance. Virtually every mercantile nation with access to global markets lives, works and thrives/dies within the Empire of Finance. Every nation that allows capital to flow into its economy is subservient to the Empire of Finance. Every nation with capital and debt markets exposed to (or dependent on) global financial flows is just another fiefdom in the Empire of Finance.
China has thrived within the Empire of Finance by creating more debt and at a faster rate of expansion than any other fiefdom. China has brought 20 years of future growth and income forward, and eventually that vein of "wealth" runs out as time advances into the stripmined future.
The same can be said of all nations that have borrowed heavily from future growth and income to fund consumption/GDP "growth" today.
The Empire of Finance has few requirements for hegemony in its realm, but they are big ones.
1. If you want your national currency to act as a global reserve currency (or the global reserve currency), you must run permanent large trade deficits to export your currency in size to the rest of the world. This is the essence of Triffin's Paradox, which I have covered many times.
2. Your national currency must float freely in the global marketplace and be liquid enough to trade $1 to 2 trillion per day in global foreign exchange (FX) markets.
3. Your sovereign debt/bonds must float freely in the global credit/debt marketplace and be liquid enough to trade in size (tens of billions of dollars) daily.
4. Global capital must be free to flow in and out of your currency, debt, assets and economy without restriction. (Ease of capital flow is the core of liquidity, risk management, and profitability.)
Any nation-state that meets these four requirements is fully exposed to a global loss of faith in its economy, debt, balance of payments and currency.The Empire of Finance is a harsh master; any nation-state that wants to secure the privileges of hegemony must first be willing to accept the risk of full exposure to skittish global markets and capital flows.
Nothing wipes out "wealth" quite as quickly or effectively as a currency meltdown resulting from a sudden loss of faith / risk-averse capital exodus.Such a loss of faith or fear of loss quickly kills a nation's ability to float more debt on the global marketplace.
There's an irony in all this talk of empire: only nation-states that operate within the unforgiving global Empire of Finance can establish hegemony in that Empire, but only nations that become autonomous autarkies (i.e. self-sufficient and independent of global markets, resources, credit, capital, etc.) can thrive outside the global Empire of Finance.
There's only one global empire, that of Finance. If you want global hegemony, you must accept the dominance of global finance and pay tribute. If you don't want to submit to the empire, then you cannot be a global hegemon.
When the Empire of Finance collapses under the weight of its debt, perverse incentives, exploitation and inequality, the financial system of every nation-state within the Empire of Finance will collapse, too. Being the hegemon within the collapsing system won't protect the hegemon from collapse. Every nation-state that has submitted to the Empire of Finance will collapse.
These charts are snapshots of an unsustainable global financial system.
Debt is outracing "growth" everywhere, including China:
To the moon, baby! There's no upper limit on debt--until there is.
There's no limit on the sale of claims on future energy, income and "wealth"--i.e. bonds:
The global economy, by one (flawed) measure (GDP):
As for hegemony and empire--be careful what you wish for. Life outside the financial bubble is much more contingent and risky than life inside the bubble--until it pops.


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Sunday, July 23, 2017

In the Footsteps of Rome: Is Renewal Possible?

Once the shared memories of these values are lost, the Empire ceases to exist; there is nothing left to reform or renew.
Is renewal / recovery from systemic decline possible? The history of the Roman Empire is a potentially insightful place to start looking for answers. As long-time readers know, I've been studying both the Western and Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empires over the past few years.
Both Western and Eastern Roman Empires faced existential crises that very nearly dissolved the empires hundreds of years before their terminal declines.The Western Roman Empire, beset by the overlapping crises of invasion, civil war, plague and economic upheaval, nearly collapsed in the third century C.E. (Christian Era, what was previously A.D.) -- 235 to 284 C.E., fully two hundred years before its final dissolution in the fifth century (circa 476 C.E.).
Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) faced similar crises in the seventh and eighth centuries, as its capital of Constantinople was besieged by the Persians in 626 C.E. and the Arab caliphate in 674 C.E. and again in 717 C.E. The invasions which preceded the sieges stripped the empire of wealthy territories and the income those lands produced.
In both cases, the Empire not only survived but recovered a substantial measure of its former resilience and stability. Fortune delivered strong leadership at the critical moment: leadership that was able to protect itself from petty, self-aggrandizing domestic rivals, force the reorganization of failed, self-serving bureaucracies, inspire the populace to make the necessary sacrifices for the common good, win decisive military victories that ended the threat of invasion, and generate a moral claim to leadership via personal rectitude and/or participation in a religious revival.
Absent such strong, stable, legitimate leadership, neither empire would have survived their existential crisis.
But strong leadership alone isn't enough. A strong military leader can win battles, and a strong political leader can aggregate power, but these are merely steps to the ultimate goal of strong leadership, which is to reform the Imperial system so it once again serves the needs of the entire Empire rather than just the greed of the few at the top of the wealth-power pyramid.
The system itself must still hold the potential to be reformed. If the systems of communication, trade, control and finance have all eroded beyond the point of no return, then the victories of a strong leader die with that leader.
The army must still have the means to recruit new legions, the Treasury must still have a system to collect tax revenues, the central leadership must have a way to communicate with far-flung commanders and local leaders, and so on.
The collective shared memory of imperial cohesion and competence must still exist in the general populace. Any political group identity, be it tribe, village, nation or empire, is anchored by a shared awareness of membership, i.e. the rights and responsibilities of belonging, and a collective memory of the group / empire as a functioning whole that served the many and not just the few.
Once the shared memory of the Empire as a functioning whole is lost, the entire notion of empire is lost.
The leadership in these existential crises of the third century C.E. in the West and the eighth century in the East could still draw upon a collective memory of a functioning empire. Residents had not yet lost the shared memory of serving in the army, of paying taxes, of stable trade protected by the Empire, of a stable Imperial currency, and so on.
Once the shared memories of these values are lost, the Empire ceases to exist; there is nothing left to reform or renew.
We are far down the road to a system that serves the few at the expense of the many. The collective memory of a system that once served the common good is fading. Strong leadership can still wrest popular political power from the self-serving elites atop the wealth-power pyramid and wield this political power to reform the system so it serves the many instead of just the few, but the window for such reform /renewal is closing fast.
In another decade, a living system that served the common good rather than just the interests of a few will be as distant as the shattered monuments of ancient Rome.


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Thursday, July 20, 2017

When We Can No Longer Tell the Truth...

Lies, half-truths and cover-ups are all manifestations of fatal weakness.
When we can no longer tell the truth because the truth will bring the whole rotten, fragile status quo down in a heap of broken promises and lies, we've reached the perfection of dysfunction.
You know the one essential guideline to "leadership" in a doomed dysfunctional system: when it gets serious, you have to lie. In other words, the status quo's secular goddess is TINA--there is no alternative to lying, because the truth will bring the whole corrupt structure tumbling down.
This core dynamic of dysfunction is scale-invariant, meaning that hiding the truth is the core dynamic in dysfunctional relationships, households, communities, enterprises, cities, corporations, states, alliances, nations and empires: when the truth cannot be told because it threatens the power structure of the status quo, that status quo is doomed.
Lies, half-truths and cover-ups are all manifestations of fatal weakness. What lies, half-truths and cover-ups communicate is: we can no longer fix our real problems, and rather than let this truth out, we must mask it behind lies and phony reassurances.
Truth is power, lies are weakness. All we get now are lies, statistics designed to mislead and phony reassurances that the status quo is stable and permanent. The truth is powerful because it is the core dynamic of solving problems. Lies, gamed statistics and false reassurances are fatal because they doom any sincere efforts to fix what's broken before the system reaches the point of no return.
We are already past the point of no return. The expediency of lies has already doomed us.
Honest accounts of hugely successful corporations that implode share one key trait: in every case, managers were pressured to hide the truth from top management, which then hid the truth from investors and clients.
This is the key dynamic in failed oligarchies as well: if telling the truth gets you sent to Siberia (or worse), then nobody with any instinct for self-preservation will tell the truth.
If obscuring the truth saves one's job, then that's what people do. That this dooms the organization is secondary to immediate self-preservation.
A distorted sense of loyalty to the family, community, company, institution, agency or nation furthers lying as the "solution" to unsavory problems. Daddy a drunk? Hide the bottle. Church a hotbed of adultery and thieving? Maintain the facade of holiness at all costs. Company products are failing? Put some lipstick on the pig. The statistical truth doesn't support the party's happy story? Distort the stats until they "do what's needed." The agency failed to fulfill its prime directive? Blame the managerial failure on a scapegoat.
Pathological liars and cheats rely on self-preservation and misplaced loyalty to mask their own failure and corruption. A hint here, a comment there, and voila, a culture of lying is created and incentivized.
Obscuring the truth is the ultimate short-term expediency.Now that it's serious, we have to lie.We'll start telling the truth later, after everything's stabilized.
But lying insures nothing can ever be truly stabilized, so there will never be a point at which the system is strong enough and stable enough to survive the truth.
We are now an empire of lies. The status quo--politically, socially and economically- depends on lies, half-truths, scapegoats and cover-ups for its very survival. Any truth that escapes the prison of lies endangers the entire rotten edifice.
In an empire of lies, "leaders" say what people want to hear. This wins the support of the masses, who would rather hear false reassurances that require no sacrifices, no difficult trade-offs, no hard choices, no discipline.
The empire of lies is doomed. Lies are weakness, and they prohibit any real solutions. Truth is power, but we can no longer tolerate the truth because it frightens us. Our weakness is systemic and fatal.



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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Death Spiral of Financialization

Each new policy destroys another level of prudent fiscal/financial discipline.
The primary driver of our economy--financialization--is in a death spiral. Financialization substitutes expansion of interest, leverage and speculation for real-world expansion of goods, services and wages.
Financial "wealth" created by leveraging more debt on a base of real-world collateral that doesn't actually produce more goods and services flows to the top of the wealth-power pyramid, driving the soaring wealth-income inequality we see everywhere in the global economy.
As this phantom wealth pours into assets such as stocks, bonds and real estate, it has pushed the value of these assets into the stratosphere, out of reach of the bottom 95% whose incomes have stagnated for the past 16 years.
The core problem with financialization is that it requires ever more extreme policies to keep it going. These policies are mutually reinforcing, meaning that the total impact becomes geometric rather than linear. Put another way, the fragility and instability generated by each new policy extreme reinforces the negative consequences of previous policies.
These extremes don't just pile up like bricks--they fuel a parabolic rise in systemic leverage, debt, speculation, fragility, distortion and instability.
This accretive, mutually reinforcing, geometric rise in systemic fragility that is the unavoidable output of financialization is poorly understood, not just by laypeople but by the financial punditry and professional economists.
Gordon Long and I cover the policy extremes which have locked our financial system into a death spiral in a new 50-minute presentation, The Road to FinancializationEach "fix" that boosts leverage and debt fuels a speculative boom that then fizzles when the distortions introduced by financialization destabilize the real economy's credit-business cycle.
Each new policy destroys another level of prudent fiscal/financial discipline.
The discipline of sound money? Gone.
The discipline of limited leverage? Gone.
The discipline of prudent lending? Gone.
The discipline of mark-to-market discovery of the price of collateral? Gone.
The discipline of separating investment and commercial banking, i.e. Glass-Steagall? Gone.
The discipline of open-market interest rates? Gone.
The discipline of losses being absorbed by those who generated the loans? Gone.
And so on: every structural source of discipline has been eradicated, weakened or hollowed out. Financialization has consumed the nation's seed corn, and the harvest of instability is ripening in the fields of finance and the real economy alike.



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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Over-Quantification of Life

The idea that all endeavors can be distilled down to statistics has put us in the Over-Quantification Box.
Correspondent Chad D. recently submitted a thought-provoking commentary on the Over-Quantification of Life:
"I think you could constructively explore the over-QUANTIFICATION of the US. Or we could call it the Wal-Martization of the US. The only that that counts is a number (i.e. price, sales, clients, patients, tickets, arrests, convictions, fines, sex partners, scores, averages, etc.).
What is missing is quality. I think you've mentioned something similar before talking about junk products with a short lifespan, but this way of doing things pervades our society.
I would argue that in nearly every area of society, quantity rather than quality rules the day. In the Criminal Justice system, officers and their immediate supervisors are evaluated based on how many tickets/arrests are made and/or how many complaints are answered. Prosecutors are judged by how many defendants go to jail. Judges are judged by how many cases they clear and how many cases are on their docket. Prisons want more prisoners. Legislators are rated on how many laws they passed. I remember Ron Paul was castigated for not passing many if any laws while in office.
I could go on with banking, investing, medicine, education, sports, farming, etc. Quality has been left in the dust by the system. The quality that remains is due to the good people who are still in the system. I don't know what really drives this phenomena, but I would say that usury is part of it. Usury demands that the system go ever faster to 'produce' more and more to feed its ever hungry stomach.
But there must be something more to it than that. Ideas/thoughts?"
Thank you, Chad, for an insightful introduction to a profound topic we all experience in daily life.
Let's start with Chad's reference to usury, i.e. interest on debt. When we borrow money, the interest we pay over the term of the loan can add up to far more than the sum borrowed, depending on the rate of interest and the duration of the loan.
Over time, indebtedness and the interest due on all the debt diminishes the net income remaining to pay for everything other than interest, and the household/ state / economy is hollowed out.
This is one reason for the biblical notion of debt jubilees, in which all debts are periodically forgiven to remove the drag of debt on debtors and the economy at large.
The only way to sustain expanding debt is 1) inflation, which enables borrowers to pay interest with "cheaper" money and 2) expanding income.
Let's say I owe $10,000, and my annual wage is $30,000. With modest but sustained inflation, my wage eventually doubles (assuming it keeps up with inflation) while my debt remains $10,000 minus whatever principal I've paid.
Alternatively, if inflation is near-zero but my wage rises by 10% a year, eventually my wage will double to $60,000, while my debt remains $10,000 minus whatever principal I've paid.
I think Chad is describing something rather subtle but very real: expanding debts require an equivalent expansion of income, i.e. productivity, to provide debtors with enough income to service the rising debt loads and have enough left to pay the rest of their obligations and to fund the consumption the economy depends on for growth.
This is a driver of demand for increased productivity that is rarely if ever recognized. This demand for increased productivity then drives the over-quantification of the processes and outcomes of every sector and endeavor.
If we think back to the early days of industrialization, a key tool to identify bottlenecks in production and improve productivity was breaking down the entire process into discrete steps that could be measured and quantified.
Quality control was also quantified, which enabled the gradual improvement not just of production but of the quality of the output. This is the foundation of the Deming Prize for Development of Quality Control/Management in Japan, which recognizes contributions to Total Quality Management (TQM).
The prize honors Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who taught that "by adopting appropriate principles of management, organizations can increase quality and simultaneously improve productivity."
It was all too natural, if fundamentally false, to reckon that these same statistical tools of quantification could be profitably applied to every field, from education to criminal justice to healthcare.
While certain aspects of these endeavors might benefit from being measured, counted and quantified, the idea that all endeavors can be distilled down to statistics has put us in the Over-Quantification Box Chad described: by relying solely on quantification, we've lost a truly useful sense of quality and outcome.
There are multiple problems with quantification. I often mention the key flaw: we only recognize what we measure. If it isn't measured, it simply ceases to exist in a quantified world.
Another flaw: many activities and endeavors cannot be distilled down to statistics. We can go through the motions of counting something or other, but this process misses the essence of the endeavor or process.
We're also tempted to invoke flawed methods of measure. Take the system many colleges now use in which students are invited to rate (quantify) their professors.
Any such survey method is self-selecting, i.e. the students who choose to rate their professors are self-selected. So if the 20% who dislike a teacher complete the survey while the 60% who liked the teacher do not, the teacher's rating will be harmfully inaccurate.
Students are not unbiased observers. Those who received poor grades might seek a form of payback by giving the offending professor low marks.
There are even subtler flaws in what we measure and how we measure. In a previous Musings Report, I discussed the World War II-era damage reports on aircraft returning from bombing missions over Nazi Germany. The idea was to study the damage inflicted by fighters and flak with an eye on strengthening the aircraft's weak points.
Mathematician Abraham Wald hit on a profound flaw in the methodology: the really important damage reports could not be filed, because it was the bombers which had been shot down that held the vital clues to the aircraft's weaknesses. The aircraft that had been shot down could not be studied, so they effectively ceased to exist. This fatally distorted the results of the statistical analysis.
Here is a link that describes the study: Survivorship Bias
The goal of improving productivity is laudable, but justice (and many other aspects of human society) cannot be reduced to counting convictions. This dependence on quantification creates perverse incentives to game the system and push up the numbers to evoke a success that is phantom.
The infamous "body counts" of the Vietnam War come to mind, as do prosecutors' heavy reliance on plea bargaining to up their conviction count.
Students are now slavishly instructed to serve one goal: to improve their scores on tests that like the WWII bomber study, ignore what cannot be measured easily, yet is actually vital.
Quantification is easier than actually studying complex problems and situations, and it can generate an illusion of knowledge and insight. This is the danger of over-quantification and Big Data, that is, the over-reliance on over-quantification to make assessments and judgments about endeavors in which the key dynamics and meanings cannot be captured or illuminated by quantification alone.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 27. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to major contributors ($50 or more annually), subscribers and patrons ($5 or more monthly).


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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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