Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Four Disastrous Presidential Policies That Are Destroying the Nation

The nation is failing as a direct consequence of these four catastrophic policies.
It's admittedly a tough task to select the four most disastrous presidential policies of the past 60 years, given the great multitude to choose from. Here are my top choices and the reasons why I selected these from a wealth of policy disasters.
1. President Johnson's expansion of the Vietnam War, which set the stage for President Nixon's continuation of that disastrous war for an additional five years.
For those who missed the 30-minute lecture on the Vietnam War in history class, Johnson took a low-intensity guerrilla war in South Vietnam in which the U.S. was supporting a corrupt and venal South Vietnamese elite and expanded it into a full-blown war with over 500,000 troops on the ground and numerous other forces engaged in a vast regional conflict.
Johnson's basic motivation was domestic politics: being a domestic political animal, Johnson was obsessed by the possibility that the Republicans could accuse the Democrats of being "soft on Communism" and win congressional seats in the next election if he declared victory and withdrew from Vietnam.
To insure this wouldn't happen, Johnson relentlessly pursued a war in ways that guaranteed it couldn't be won while killing and maiming millions of people, mostly civilians, and squandering the lives of U.S. servicemen and women.
Johnson did not follow the Constitutional requirement of declaring war with congressional approval. He opted to undermine the Constitution with an open-ended declaration of Imperial Presidential Powers (The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to wage unlimited war based on a "fake news" fictitious attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
But the war itself was only one disaster of many. To mask the complete and utter failure of his "limited" war, Johnson launched a massive, concerted "fake news" propaganda effort in support of the "we're winning the war" narrative.
When Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the true story was revealed: thousands of Deep State insiders knew the war was unwinnable and was being lost, at great cost. But few dared challenge the disastrous policy or the lies and propaganda being distributed by the federal government in support of the war.
Meanwhile, the "law enforcement" efforts of the FBI were focused on draft evaders and other dissenters. Organized crime got a free pass as the FBI was politicized to fight domestic dissent--an institutionalized politicization that continues to this day.
Both the FBI and CIA engaged in concerted, covert and completely illegal campaigns to infiltrate, disrupt and destroy dissenters in the anti-war and civil rights movements. This was well-documented by the congressional Church investigations in the early 1970s.
Simply put, Johnson's policy of pursuing an illegal full-scale war laid waste to the Constitution and launched an era of official "fake news" propaganda and the politicization of federal law enforcement. These disasters live on to this day, as official "fake news" propaganda and the politicization of federal law enforcement is the New Normal.
No wonder the Vietnam War remains a poorly understood taboo topic; understanding the destructive consequences of the war's embedded policies is extremely dangerous to the status quo.
2. President Clinton's deregulation of banking/finance in the early 1990s. Eliminating the common-sense and easily enforceable Glass-Steagall Act separating investment and commercial banking (and other limitations as well) opened the floodgates of financialization, i.e. institutionalized fraud and embezzlement which reached full flower in the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown triggered by U.S. banks and other financial institutions.
3. President G.W. Bush's Invasion of Iraq and the launch of Endless War (tm).President Bush followed Johnson's playbook to a Tee: a "fake news" fictitious excuse for launching a full-blown war (weapons of mass destruction lurking in hidden bunkers, etc.), a wildly unrealistic understanding of the culture and politics on the ground (civilians would greet our conquering troops with flowers and smiles, etc.) and a propaganda machine spewing official fake news about our wonderful spreading of democracy via war.
The complete and utter failure of the invasion policy ushered in the current era of Endless War(tm). $3 trillion squandered and countless lives lost, and all for what geopolitical gains?
4. Presidents G.W. Bush and Obama's rescue of predatory parasitic banks in 2008-09. The nation had a once-in-a-century opportunity to eradicate the predatory parasite (the financial sector) that's killing the economy and democracy of the host (the USA) and replace the "too big to fail" aristocracy with 1,000 local and regional financial institutions with severely limited powers to institutionalize fraud and embezzlement and leverage fictitious collateral into unprecedented wealth and political power.
Instead, both Bush and Obama obediently knelt down and served up $16 trillion in taxpayer-funded bailouts, backstops and loan guarantees to rescue the "too big to fail" aristocracy from their well-earned collapse.
The crippling inequality and dysfunction plaguing our economy can be traced back to this abject and needless surrender of sovereignty to the financial sector.
The nation is failing as a direct consequence of these four catastrophic policies, policies that undermined our economy and system of governance, that introduced the poisons of official fake news and propaganda, that institutionalized the suppression of dissent and institutionalized the fraud and embezzlement of "too big to fail" financialization.
Travesty of a Mockery of a Sham Book Sale: (September only) Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform is now $2.99 for the Kindle ebook, a 25% savings, and $6.95 for the print edition, a 22% savings.
Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It is now $2.99 for the Kindle ebook, a ridiculous 70% discount, and $10 for the print edition, a 50% savings. 


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 in PDF format.
My new 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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Saturday, September 22, 2018

On Turning 60

"My biggest fear is a health crisis that will degrade my life, or that of a member of my family."
In response to my recent post on the brevity of life and the difficulty in making changes, I received an insightful response from long-time correspondent, Kevin M. who writes the Out Of Your Rut blog. (Here's one of his recent posts: Is 75 the New 65? There May Be No Choice)
I found myself nodding in recognition of Kevin's observations on turning 60. (I'm 64.) Many readers may feel they speak to turning 50 or even 40.
Here is Kevin's commentary:
"Excellent report. I turned 60 this year, and share many of your observations. It’s good to see you articulate what many are feeling, but few discuss.
Here are some of my own random thoughts on turning 60:
-- I’m at what I feel is the best time in my life, an outcome my younger self would never have anticipated. Life really is strange.
-- I spend more time being thankful for the things I’ve done in my life, and think increasingly less on the ones I haven’t. I attribute this in part to making major life changes in my 50s.
-- Taking the above point a step further, I remain open to future changes. Flexibility is one of our best allies as we age, but one so many abandon as they get older.
-- A point you made so clearly, life goes by much faster than we can imagine in what used to be the endless days of youth. That’s painfully obvious now.
-- Life is not as "clean" as I once thought it could be. It’s downright messy, and that doesn’t change when you reach some theoretical golden years.
-- Like you, many of my best ideas lay waste in the graveyard. But at this point I reckon I was never that passionate about bringing them to reality, otherwise I’d have tried harder. Not all ideas and dreams are meant to become our destiny. I’ve let go of the ones I didn’t pursue.
-- We’re imperfect people, surrounded by imperfect people, living imperfect lives in an imperfect world. I’ve come to terms with that, and I’m happier as a result.
-- Energy is the biggest casualty. I don’t have as much of if as I did 10 years ago. I have to limit what I do each day, but the slowdown – and the reduction in pressure – seem to be making me more efficient and productive.
-- To offset the loss of energy (and physical strength), we learn to make better use of our time and the energy we do have. We also use creativity, flexibility, and better leverage (of time and resources) to accomplish what we once did with brute strength.
-- I find I have to "push" myself – to be very intentional about what I need to do. Automatic pilot stopped working years ago, and it’s been replaced by to-do lists that are much shorter but more focused than they were in my younger days.
-- I feel totally blessed to do the work that I do (blogging/freelance writing), especially when I see the many people over 60 working in retail, hotels, and delivery services. I did many of those jobs when I was younger, and can’t imagine doing them now.
-- I’m also blessed to be a corporate "outsider". The less system dependent we are, the better life seems to go as we age. As you embrace outsider status, you realize you have more options in life. It’s a pattern I’ve noticed in other outsiders. I like it. You’ve inspired me on that path over the years.
-- Family, friends and faith have become much more important. They’re important throughout life, but they become virtually life sustaining as we age.
-- Being thankful and celebrating each day has become a life skill. We can either live a life of being thankful for what we do have, or be miserable for what we don’t.
-- I’ve come to accept that my life will end one day, and that there are many goals I won’t achieve. But I’ll focus on the few I do accomplish and ring the victory bell with each.
-- My biggest fear is a health crisis that will degrade my life, or that of a member of my family. Our society doesn't have much of a safety net to help us deal with that, especially considering that the potential extent of such a disaster is virtually without limit (medical costs, ongoing care, etc)."
Thank you, Kevin, for the "food for thought" on aging. What we think about ourselves and our life, consciously and subconsciously, does shape the course of our life. We're not mechanisms or computers.
Travesty of a Mockery of a Sham Book Sale: (September only) Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform is now $2.99 for the Kindle ebook, a 25% savings, and $6.95 for the print edition, a 22% savings.
Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It is now $2.99 for the Kindle ebook, a ridiculous 70% discount, and $10 for the print edition, a 50% savings. 


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 in PDF format.
My new 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.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

When Does This Travesty of a Mockery of a Sham Finally End?

Credit bubbles are not engines of sustainable employment, they are only engines of malinvestment and wealth destruction on a grand scale.
We all know the Status Quo's response to the global financial meltdown of 2008 has been a travesty of a mockery of a sham--smoke and mirrors, flimsy facades of "recovery," simulacrum "reforms," serial bubble-blowing and politically expedient can-kicking, all based on borrowing and printing trillions of dollars, yen, euros and yuan, quatloos, etc.
So when will the travesty of a mockery of a sham finally come to an end? Probably around 2022-25, with a few global crises and "saves" along the way to break up the monotony of devolution. The foundation of this forecast is this chart I prepared back in 2008 (below).
This is of course only a selection of cycles; many more may be active but these four give us a flavor of the confluence of crises ahead.
Cycles are not laws of Nature, of course; they are only records of previous periods of growth/excess/depletion/collapse, not predictions per se. Nonetheless their repetition reflects the systemic dynamic of growth, crisis and collapse, and so the study of cycles is instructive even though we stipulate they are not predictive.
What is predictable is the way systems tend to follow an S-curve of rapid growth with then tops out in excess, stagnates in depletion and then devolves or implodes. We can see all sorts of things topping out and entering depletion/collapse: financialization, the Savior State, Chinese credit expansion, oil production, student loan debt and so on.
Since each mechanism that burns out or implodes tends to be replaced with some other mechanism, this creates the recurring cycle of expansion / excess / depletion / collapse.
I plotted four long-wave cycles in the first chart:
1. The credit expansion/renunciation cycle. a.k.a. the Kondratieff cycle. Credit expands when credit is costly and invested in productive assets. Credit reaches excess when it is cheap and it's malinvested in speculation and stock buybacks, and as collateral vanishes then credit is renunciated/written off.
This is inexact, but obviously the organic postwar cycle of expansion has been extended by the central bank money-printing / credit orgy.
2. The generational cycle of four generations/80 years described in the seminal book The Fourth Turning. American history uncannily tracks an 80-year cycle of crises and profound transformation: 1860 (Civil War), 1940 (world war and global Empire) and next up to bat, 2020, the implosion of the debt-based Savior State and the financialized economy.
3. The 100-year cycle of inflation-deflation described in the masterful book The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. The price of bread remained almost constant in Britain throughout the 19th century. In contrast, the 20th century has been characterized by inflation--the U.S. dollar has lost approximately 96% of its value since the early 20th century.
Another characteristic of this cycle is wage stagnation: people earn less even as costs of essentials rise, a dynamic that inevitably leads to political crisis and upheaval.
The end-game for inflation is destruction of fiat currencies, i.e. rising inflation or complete loss of faith in paper money. This is of course "impossible," just like World War I, the Titanic sinking, the global meltdown of 2008, etc. Impossible things happen with alarming regularity.
4. Peak oil, which does not mean the world runs out of oil, it simply means oil production no longer rises to meet demand and eventually declines even as new fields are brought online. It can also mean that the price of energy rises to the point that consumers can either buy energy or they can keep the consumer economy afloat, but they are no longer able to do both.
Many observers are confident that fracking and other technologies will enable current energy profligacy to continue unabated as the U.S. production of oil and natural gas soars.
All this surplus energy in North America sounds wonderful, but that doesn't mean the world as a whole has escaped Peak Oil. Even if fracked wells didn't deplete in a year or two (they do), that expansion of production will not replace the loss of production as supergiant fields in Mexico, the North Sea and the Mideast enter the depletion phase. Yes, technology can extract more oil, but technology is costly. The days of cheap natural gas may have arrived, but the days of cheap oil are numbered.
How all this plays out is unknown, but even raising U.S. production might not be enough to maintain current production levels. Since several billion more people desire the U.S.-type lifestyle of energy profligacy, then what are the consequences of the mismatch between global demand and supply?
We can also posit that "good-paying jobs" in developed economies are also tracking an S-curve. The post-industrial decline in labor has many causes, but the Internet is a key factor going forward as the Web, AI, Big Data and mobile telephony leverage all sorts of productivity gains without the pesky overhead, costs and trouble of employees.
This reality was masked by the initial boom in Web infrastructure that topped out in 2000, and again by the credit-fueled global malinvestment in real estate that topped out in 2007 and soon by the topping out of the social media/mobile app tech boom, the third stock market bubble and Housing Bubble #2.
Once these bubbles have popped, the reality of long-term employment stagnation can no longer be masked.
Credit bubbles are not engines of sustainable employment, they are only engines of malinvestment and wealth destruction on a grand scale.
A number of other questions arise as we ponder these dynamics. How "cheap" will all that energy be to those without full-time jobs? How will 100 million workers support 100 million retirees, welfare recipients and parasitic Elites plus Universal Basic Income as costs rise, taxes soar and wages stagnate?
The Status Quo is unsustainable on a number of fundamental fronts. How long it can maintain the facade of stability and sustainability is unknown, but the global willingness to squander additional years on artifice and propaganda suggests that another four years will fly by and the end-game will be at hand whether we approve of it or not.
Travesty of a Mockery of a Sham Book Sale: (September only) Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform is now $2.99 for the Kindle ebook, a 25% savings, and $6.95 for the print edition, a 22% savings.
Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It is now $2.99 for the Kindle ebook, a ridiculous 70% discount, and $10 for the print edition, a 50% savings. 


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 in PDF format.
My new 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.

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Thank you, Simon C. ($5/month), for your splendidly generous pledge to this site -- I am greatly honored by your renewed support and readership.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Digging into Wealth and Income Inequality

That changes our perspective on the wonderfulness of ever-expanding household wealth.
The assets of U.S. households recently topped $100 trillion, yet another sign that everything is going swimmingly in the U.S. economy. Let's take a look at the Federal Reserve's Household Balance Sheet, which lists the assets and liabilities of all U.S. households in very big buckets (real estate: $25 trillion). (For reasons unknown, the Fed lumps non-profit assets and liabilities with households, but these modest sums are easily subtracted.)
If we look at the numbers with a reasonably skeptical view, we start wondering about aspects that might have previously been taken as "facts" that were above questioning.
For example, households hold $11.6 trillion in cash (deposits). That's unambiguous. So is the $29.3 trillion in stocks (owned directly and indirectly, i.e. retirement funds, etc.).
But what about the $16 trillion in "other financial assets"? This isn't cash, stocks, bonds, retirement funds or noncorporate businesses--then what is it? Offshore banking?
That $16 trillion is equal to all homeowners' equity (real estate minus mortgages). It's a non-trivial chunk of the $100 trillion in net assets everyone is crowing about.
I also wonder about the valuation of noncorporate businesses--small family businesses, LLCs, sole proprietorships, etc.-- $11.9 trillion. How do you value a business that's hanging on by a thread? Or one that's a tax shelter?
We know from other sources that roughly 85% of all this wealth is held by the top 10% of households. This isn't included in this balance sheet, but without those statistics, these numbers lack critical context: if household wealth is soaring, that sounds wonderful. But what if 95% the gains are flowing to the top 5%, and within the top 5%, mostly to the top .1%?
That changes our perspective on the wonderfulness of ever-expanding household wealth.
IRS data from tax returns are one of the most reliable sources of financial data because there are stiff penalties for not filing accurate returns, and there are no "adjustments" or massaging of the statistics: they are what they are.
Here's the primary page with numerous Excel spreadsheets for download: Individual Statistical Tables by Size of Adjusted Gross Income.
Adjusted Gross Income is reported on line 37 on Form 1040, income after major deductions such as moving expenses, self-employed health insurance, etc.
Each spreadsheet is a trove of information on wealth and income--distribution, inequality, sources of income, etc.
Consider Returns with Income or Loss from Sales of Capital Assets Reported on Form1040, Schedule D. This spreadsheet consolidates all tax returns that reported capital gains or losses.
Out of 150 million total individual tax returns, 11 million reported capital gains/losses, and 9.3 million were taxable returns.
1.26 million taxpayers reporting adjusted gross income of between $50,000 and $75,000 (middle-middle class) reported average capital gains of $6,187.
3 million taxpayers reporting adjusted gross income of between $100,000 and $200,000 (upper-middle class) reported average capital gains of $16,000.
250,000 taxpayers reporting adjusted gross income of $1 million or more reported average capital gains of $1,600,000.
So those earning 10 times a middle-class income of $100,000 reaped (on average) 100 times the middle class average of capital gains.
It's worth noting that only 6% of tax returns reported taxable capital gains, and of these 9 million returns, the lion's share of the capital gains flowed to the top 0.0016% of all returns--the 250,000 reporting incomes of $1 million and higher.
If we want to understand wealth and income inequality, we can start with the data point that 63% of all capital gains flows to the top (those earning $1 million and up).



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 in PDF format.
My new 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.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

We're All Speculators Now

When the herd thunders off the cliff, most participants are trapped in the stampede..
One of the most perverse consequences of the central banks "saving the world" (i.e. saving banks and the super-wealthy) is the destruction of low-risk investments: we're all speculators now, whether we know it or acknowledge it.
The problem is very few of us have the expertise and experience to be successful speculators, i.e. successfully manage treacherously high-risk markets. Here's the choice facing money managers of pension funds and individuals alike: either invest in a safe low-risk asset such as Treasury bonds and lose money every year, as the yield doesn't even match inflation, or accept the extraordinarily high risks of boom-bust bubble assets such as junk bonds, stocks, real estate, etc.
The core middle-class asset is the family home. Back in the pre-financialization era (pre-1982), buying a house and paying down the mortgage to build home equity was the equivalent of a savings account, with the added bonus of the potential for modest appreciation if you happened to buy in a desirable region.
In the late 1990s, the stable, boring market for mortgages was fully financialized and globalized, turning a relatively safe investment and debt market into a speculative commodity. We all know the results: with the explosion of easy access to unlimited credit via HELOCs (home equity lines of credit), liar loans (no-document mortgages), re-financing, etc., the hot credit-money pouring into housing inflated a stupendous bubble that subsequently popped, as all credit-asset bubbles eventually do, with devastating consequences for everyone who reckoned their success in a rising market was a permanent feature of the era and / or evidence of their financial genius.
Highly volatile speculative bubbles are notoriously humbling, even for experienced traders. Buy low and sell high sound easy, but when the herd is running and animal spirits are euphoric, only the most disciplined speculators and the lucky few who have to sell exit near the top of the bubble.
The "safety" of investments in housing, commercial real estate, stocks, corporate bonds, emerging markets, etc., is illusory: these are now inherently risky markets, and it's difficult to hedge these risks. (Not many participants knpw how to hedge housing, commercial real estate, etc.)
In an environment in which participants have been richly rewarded for believing that "the Fed has our backs," i.e. central banks will never let risk-assets drop because they understand pension funds, insurers, banks, etc. will implode if the risk-asset bubbles pop, few see the need to bother with hedges, as hedges cost money and reduce yields.
As a result, few participants are fully hedged. Most participants are buck-naked in terms of exposure to risk, and once the tide goes out we'll find out how few are hedged against bubbles popping.
Financial markets are not linear by nature, so predictably rising markets are atypical. Financial markets are intrinsically non-linear, meaning that the dynamics are inter-connected and prone to asymmetric events in which a small input triggers an outsized output such as a crash.
In the fantasy world conjured by central bank stimulus, markets never go down and economies never slide into recession. Financial engineering has eradicated risk. But the dynamics interact in ways that can't be controlled. As inflation heats up globally, central banks are being forced to "normalize" interest rates and yields, and political pressure to stop saving banks and the super-wealthy is mounting.
All speculative markets deflate, slowly or suddenly, depending on the marginal buyers and sellers. The shakier the marginal participants, the greater the likelihood that the speculative bubble will pop with a suddenness that surprises the vast majority of participants.
Take a look at stock valuations as a percentage of GDP, i.e. the real economy: stocks are clearly in a bubble.
The national Case-Shiller housing price index: bubble.
The Seattle Case-Shiller housing price index: super-bubble.
The Dallas Case-Shiller housing price index: super-duper-bubble.
You get the point: virtually every supposedly low-risk asset class is actually a super-risky, super-dangerous bubble. Speculation drives valuations far beyond financial rationality because we're herd animals and unearned gains supercharge our greed, especially when we see all sorts of undeserving people making fortunes for doing nothing but running with the herd.
So when the herd thunders off the cliff, most participants are trapped in the stampede. Very few exited far from the cliff, and even fewer will wait patiently for the dust to settle before moving cash into assets.
Risk has a knack for hiding in plain sight. Few people look for it, and even fewer recognize it. Only a handful act on it.


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 in PDF format.
My new 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.

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