Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Corporate America Is an Anti-Social Black Plague: Negative Network Effects Run Amok

The anti-social carnage unleashed by Corporate America's "lock-in" / negative network effects has no real limits.
Here's the U.S.economy in a nutshell: Corporate America is an anti-social Black Plague, gorging on cartel-monopoly profits reaped from negative network effects running amok, enriching the few at the expense of the many and concentrating political power in the hands of the most rapacious, anti-democratic corporate sociopaths.
Let's start with network effects: the conventional definition is "When a network effect is present, the value of a product or service increases according to the number of others using it."
So for example, when telephone service was only available to a few users, its value was limited. As more people obtained telephone service, the value of the network increased to both its owners and to users, who could reach more people and conduct commerce more easily as a result of having telephone service.
In the conventional analysis, negative network effects occur from "congestion," i.e. the network is adding new users so quickly that "more users make a product less valuable."
But this superficial analysis misses the fatally anti-social consequences of corporate negative network effects, a dynamic described by analyst Simons Chase in this essay. Here is an excerpt:
Even the most imaginative and far-reaching narratives about non-obvious economic fragility and off balance sheet risks are mere rants without constructive ideas about causes and solutions.
Consider network effects, the popular economic construct applied to market concentration and increasing returns for strategies pursued by some leading tech companies. This dynamic economic agent is also known as demand side economies of scale.
W. Brian Arthur, the economist credited with first developing the theory, described the condition of increasing returns as a game of strategic positioning and building up a user base to the point where 'lock in' of dominant players occurs. Companies able to tap network effects have been rewarded with huge valuations and highly defensible businesses.
But what about negative network effects? What if the same dynamic applies to the U.S.'s pay-to-play political industry where the government promotes or approves of something through a policy, subsidy or financial guarantee due to private sector influence.
Benefits accrue only to the purchaser of the network effects, and consumers, induced by the false signal of large network size, ultimately suffer from asymmetric risk and experience what I'm calling a loss of intangible net worth for each additional member after the 'bandwagon' wares off.
If this were the case, then you would see companies experience rapid revenue growth (out of line with traditional asset leverage models), executives accumulating huge fortunes and political campaign coffers swelling.
But the most striking feature would be the anti-social outcomes, the ones not available without the instant critical mass of government-supported network effects, the ones that, at scale, monetize a society's intangible net worth.
Some products tied to these metrics include: prescriptions drugs, junk food targeting children, mortgages, diplomas, and social media. The list of industries that are likely to have gained through the purchasing of network effects in D.C. maps closely to the decay that is visible in U.S. society.
The loss of intangible capital and other manifestations of non-obvious economic fragility (to use Simons' apt phrase) is the subject of my latest book, Will You Be Richer or Poorer? Profit, Power and A.I. in a Traumatized World, in which I catalog the anti-social consequences of negative network effects and other forces eroding our nation's intangible capital.
Consider Facebook, a classic case of negative network effects running amok, creating immensely anti-social consequences while reaping billions in profits: Facebook isn't free speech, it's algorithmic amplification optimized for outrage (TechCrunch.com).
The full social cost of social media's negative network effects are difficult to tally, but studies have found that loneliness and alienation are correlated to how many hours a day individuals spend on social media. (An Internet search brings up dozens of reports such as NPR’s Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time On Social Media May Be Why.)
Facebook is trying to leverage its social media "lock-in" to issue its own global currency and both Facebook and Google are trying to offer banking services without any of the pesky regulations imposed on legitimate banks. (Will $10 million in lobbying do the trick? How about $100 million? We've got billions to "invest" in corrupting and controlling public agencies and political power.)
Once Corporate America locks in cartel-monopoly power, i.e. you have to use our services and products, the corporate sociopaths use their billions in market cap and profits to buy the sociopaths in government. Pay-to-play is the real political machinery; "democracy" is the PR fig-leaf to mask the private sector "lock-in" (monopoly) and the public-sector "lock-in" (regulatory influence, anti-competitive barriers to entry, the legalization of corporate fraud, cooking the books, embezzlement, etc.)
Consider Boeing, an effective monopoly which used $12 billion in profits to buy back its own shares and "invested" millions in buying political influence so it could minimize public-sector oversight.
Rather than spend the $12 billion designing a new safe aircraft, Boeing cobbled together a fatally flawed design dependent on software, as described in The Case Against Boeing (The New Yorker) to maximize the profitability of its "lock-in".
Google is running amok on so many levels, it's difficult to keep track of its anti-social "let's be evil, it's so incredibly profitable" agenda: Google's Secret 'Project Nightingale' Gathers Personal Health Data on Millions of Americans (Wall Street Journal). The goal, of course, is to reap more billions in profits for insiders and corporate sociopaths.
The anti-social carnage unleashed by Corporate America's "lock-in" / negative network effects has no real limits. Consider the essentially limitless private and social damage caused by Big Tech: Child Abusers Run Rampant as Tech Companies Look the Other Way (New York Times).
Then there's the opioid epidemic, whose casualties run into the hundreds of thousands, an epidemic that was entirely a creature of Corporate America seeking to maximize "lock-in" profits by buying regulatory approval and pushing false claims that the corporate products were safe and non-addictive.
Note the media sources of these reports: these are the top tier of American journalism, not some easily dismissed alt-media source.
What does this tell us? It tells us the anti-social consequences are now so extreme and so apparent that the corporate media cannot ignore them. Once Corporate America locks-in market, financial and political power, it acts as a virulent Black Plague on the social order, legitimate democracy, and an entire spectrum of intangible social capital including the rule of law.
As Simons put it: "The ethical dimension underpinning the whole system is this: what's moral is what's legal and what's legal is for sale." Where does this Black Plague pathology take us? To a collapse of the status quo which enabled it, cheered it, and so richly rewarded it.



My recent books:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Stock Market Cheerleading: Why Do We Celebrate the Super-Rich Getting Richer?

It's not too difficult to predict a political rebellion against the machinery of soaring wealth and income inequality.
The one constant across the media-political spectrum is an unblinking focus on the stock market as a barometer of the national economy: every major media outlet from the New York Times to Fox News prominently displays stock market action, and TV news anchors' expressions reflect the media's emotional promotion of the market as the end all to be all: if stocks rose, the anchors are smiling and chirpy, and if the market fell then their expressions are downcast and dour.
This cheerleading of the stock market is based on an implicit assumption that the rising stock market raises all boats: a rising market is assumed to reflect an expansion of sales and profits that trickle down to the masses in higher wages, more jobs and rising 401K retirement accounts.
The reality is starkly different: the vast majority of the gains generated by a rising stock market flow to the top 10% households who own 93% of all financial assets, and the gains within the top 10% are highly concentrated in the top .01% of financiers, super-wealthy families and corporate managers who have reaped the vast majority of the past decade of stock market gains.
As my friend Adam T. recently observed: when we cheer the rising stock market, we're celebrating the super-rich getting even richer. Why are we celebrating an unprecedented widening of wealth inequality that erodes democracy (because the super-wealthy buy political influence) and the social contract (as the vast majority of wealth and power flow to the top .01%)?
Soaring wealth inequality is extremely destabilizing politically, socially and economically: much of the social unrest breaking out around the world can be traced to the political, social and financial disenfranchisement of the masses by super-wealthy elites.
Economically, soaring inequality concentrates and capital and power in the hands of the few, creating fertile ground for cartels and monopolies which raise costs without generating better services or more jobs. This dynamic is easily visible in the U.S.:
The U.S. Only Pretends to Have Free Markets: From plane tickets to cellphone bills, monopoly power costs American consumers billions of dollars a year.
Politically, the 90% who are losing ground seek political redress, generating tension in a political system dominated by the super-wealthy. Since the political machinery is controlled by the elite, the bottom 90%'s efforts to gain political redress will fail: Medicare for All (to take one example of many) is just an expansion of rapacious sickcare cartels that further concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
(Recall that 40% of Medicare spending is billing fraud, worthless or harmful meds and procedures and paper-pushing. All Medicare for All will accomplish is sickcare CEOs skimming $80 million a year in stock options will skim $160 million.)
In cheering advances in the stock market that benefit the financial and political elite, we're cheering the destabilization of our economy and society. Is that really something worth cheering?
At some point, people will awaken to the fact that the soaring stock market is the primary engine of soaring inequality, the erosion of democracy and the destabilization of the social order.
It's not too difficult to predict a political rebellion against the machinery of soaring wealth and income inequality, which will eventually lead to a severe reduction in the power of the Federal Reserve and its greed-driven dependent, Wall Street.
It's not just wealth that's concentrated in the hands of the top .01%--virtually all the income gains of the past decade of "recovery" have flowed to the top .01%: and the super-wealthy's response? Let them eat brioche, a response so disconnected from reality that it would be humorous were it not a reflection of a completely corrupt and rotten status quo.



My recent books:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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Monday, November 11, 2019

Now That We've Incentivized Sociopaths--Guess What Happens Next

As long as central banks create and distribute trillions in conscience-free credit to conscience-free financiers and corporations, the incentives for sociopathy only increase.
"Sociopath" is a word we now encounter regularly in the mainstream media, but what does it mean? Here is a list of 16 traits, many of which are visible in lionized corporate and political leaders and entrepreneurs.
One key trait is a lack of moral responsibility or conscience; the sociopath feels no remorse if he/she takes advantage of people or exploits them.
Sociopaths are masters of superficial charm, intelligence and confidence, and adept at massaging or misrepresenting reality up to and including outright lying to persuade others or get their way.
Like all psychological syndromes (manic depression, autism, bipolar disorder, etc.), there is a wide spectrum of sociopathological traits, some of which may offer some adaptive benefits (and hence their continued presence in the human genome). In other words, an individual can have a few of the traits in greater or lesser proportions.
Thus the modern BBC Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) describes himself as a "high-functioning sociopath" (though many contest this diagnosis of the original Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories).
Anyone who has read Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs can readily see manifestations of sociopathy in Jobs: his famous "reality distortion field," his refusal to accept that he'd fathered a daughter, his lack of empathy, his wild emotional swings (from verbal abuse to weeping), his dietary extremes, his charm, so quickly turned on or off, his uneven parenting, and so on. His obsessive-compulsive behavior was also on full display. Yet Jobs is lauded and even worshiped as a genius and unparalleled entrepreneur. Was this the result of his sociopathological traits, or something that arose despite them?
The ledger of costs and benefits of Jobs' output is weighted by the global benefits of the products he shepherded to market and the hundreds of billions of dollars in sales and net worth he generated for investors while the head of Apple. Though narcissistic in many ways (with the resulting negative effects on many of his intimates), Jobs was clearly focused on creating "insanely great" products that would benefit customers and users. Despite his sociopathological traits, there is no evidence he set out to deceive anyone with the objective of exploiting their good will or belief in his vision to skim billions of dollars from unwary investors.
But the ledgers of others manifesting sociopathy are far less beneficial, as the billions of dollars they generated were in essence a form of fraud.
The rise and fall of WeWork is a recent textbook example of sociopathy reaping enormous financial gains for the sociopaths without creating any actual value. There are plenty of media accounts of the founders' excesses (including the goal of becoming the world's first trillionaire), some of which we might have expected to raise flags in venture capitalists, board members, etc., but these traits were overlooked in the rush for all involved to garner billions of dollars in fees and net worth when WeWork went public.
This example (among many) illustrates that sociopathy is incentivized in our socio-political-economic system, and sociopathic "winners" are lionized as epitomes of ambitious success. (The entire charade of the stock market rising due to Federal Reserve-enabled stock buybacks is an institutionalized example of sociopathy.)
Correspondent Tom D. recently summarized the core dynamic and consequence of this systemic incentivization of sociopathy:
I've been a successful business owner, but I'm not a sociopath--I deliver value to my customers, my investors, and I don't move forward if I see anyone being substantially hurt by my actions.
My peers and I look at organizations such as WeWorks, see the rewards reaped by the sociopathic leaders, and realize we are at a constitutional disadvantage working within such a system.
I could never conceive of taking a $700-900m payday at the expense of investors for whom I've generated no value whatsoever.
I simply could not do it.
If 'out-sociopathing' the sociopaths is what it takes to 'succeed' in todays business climate-- I'll fail.
So I don't try.
From the sociopath's standpoint, that's probably a feature not a bug--one that helps keep effective competition out of the marketplace.
I wonder how much of civilizational decline is simply due to good people accepting their lot and opting out.
If the system incentivizes conscience-free sociopaths more than it incentivizes those creating real value, the system will eventually fall into the equivalent of Gresham's law ("bad money drives out good money"): the con-men and fraudsters will drive out entrepreneurs with a conscience who create real value for customers, investors and society at large.
If we look at recent IPOs and compare them to the Apple IPO, it seems we've already reached that point. Apple went public as a highly profitable company. Uber, Lyft, Beyond Meat and WeWork (if their IPO fraud hadn't been revealed) are all unprofitable, in some cases losing billions of dollars with little prospect for eventual profits.
Venture capital folks explain this by noting that the flood of central bank credit-money-creation has generated trillions of dollars of liquid capital seeking "the next big thing" that will "disrupt" existing models and therefore generate billions in profits.
This pinpoints one key source of the incentivization of sociopaths: central banks' creation of trillions of dollars of conscience-free capital seeking a quick profit anywhere on the planet, by any means available.
Conscience-free capital is an easy mark for a conscience-free sociopath. It's a marriage made in heaven, a perfect match.
Those with a conscience are essentially squeezed out of the system. The choice is binary: either play and lose or opt out.
I've written about "opting out" since 2009, since it was one of the few options available to commoners in the final decline of the Western Roman Empire. If we feel we're at a systemic disadvantage, i.e. the system is rigged against us, opting out makes much more sense than sacrificing oneself in a fruitless battle to stay alive in a system that incentivizes amoral sociopaths.
If we consider what generates outsized success in our rapidly changing economy, we find a variety of factors supporting "winner take most" asymmetric gains. As economist Michael Spence has observed, those who develop new business models earn outsized gains because new forms of capital and labor that are scarce create the most value.
Many of these new business models disintermediate existing models, obsoleting entire layers of middlemen and management.
Netflix is a good example: the move from mailing CDs to streaming content obsoleted cable companies. Now Disney is disrupting Netflix by launching its own streaming service at $6.99 a month, offering content that cable subscribers had to pay $60+ a month to access via a "premium" cable add-on, most of which they didn't even use.
In contrast, WeWork sold itself as a "tech innovator" when in fact it was simply a commercial real estate packager, leasing large spaces and chopping them up into small spaces with common areas and a few services.
How does our system incentivize sociopathy? By focusing exclusively on short-term gains reaped from IPOs (initial public offerings) and by blindly seeking "the next disruptor that will generate billions," the system is easy prey for charming sociopaths who can tell a good (if not quite truthful) story.
The amoral sociopath with the story attracts amoral sociopaths in venture capital, banking and politics, as these fields are all focused on short-term, outsized, quickly skimmed gains, regardless of the consequences to investors or society at large.
What would change this incentivization of sociopathy? Ending the Federal Reserve's delivery of trillions of dollars in conscience-free capital to sociopaths and limiting the VC-IPO flim-flam machine would be a start, but given Wall Street's dependence on these profits and the millions the Street gives to political campaigns, this is politically unfeasible. Any such regulation that reaches Congress will be watered down or larded with loopholes.
There may be no way to excise the incentives for sociopathy, because the incentives all favor the sociopaths' most fertile ground: the Federal Reserve's money spigot of nearly free money for the most sociopathological financiers and corporations; amoral, conscience-free greed; the worship of short-term gains, regardless of consequences, and the extreme profitability of rigged games and The Big Con PR ("we're only evil when it's profitable, which is, well, all the time".)
As long as central banks create and distribute trillions in conscience-free credit to conscience-free financiers and corporations, the incentives for sociopathy only increase, and the incentives for everyone else to opt out increase proportionately.
What happens next? The dead wood of sociopathy is ignited by a random lightning strike, and the entire financial system (and the economy it feeds) burns to the ground in an uncontrollable conflagration of blowback, consequence and karma.



My recent books:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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.

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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Friday, November 08, 2019

No Recession Ever Again? The Yellowstone Analogy

Just as forestry management's policy of suppressing forest fires insured uncontrollable conflagrations, so central banks' attempts to eliminate recessions insure a financial conflagration that will burn down the entire global financial system.
The first task of those at the levers of neoliberal global capitalism is to deny that global capitalism is in crisis. One manifestation of this is the no recession ever again policy that is the implicit goal of central banks and governments globally.
Any hint of global slowdown draws an immediate and overwhelming deluge of credit and currency as central banks slash interest rates, buy bonds and stocks to push markets higher and unleash a tsunami of fresh credit so corporations can buy back billions of dollars of their own shares and consumers can continue to buy vehicles, houses and other goodies.
Neoliberal global capitalism has one unstated law: credit must always expand or the system dies. The rate of credit expansion can increase or decrease but it must continue expanding forever.
This is the foundation of the no recession ever again policy: as long as governments, consumers and corporations continue to borrow more, nothing else matters.
But as the Yellowstone Analogy illustrates, something else does matter: the financial dead wood of mal-investment, bad debt and excessive speculation is piling up, creating the ideal conditions for a financial conflagration that will consume the entire system.
Let's start with neoliberal global capitalism.
Neoliberal global capitalism has two elements: one is the ideological quasi-religion that everyone prospers when everything is turned into a global marketplace of freely flowing capital, labor and buyers-sellers.
The second element is the model of State-managed capitalism which has been in vogue since the Great Depression and the Keynesian revolution: when capitalism's business cycle veers into recession (unemployment, slowing sales and borrowing, etc.) then the government suppresses recession with monetary policy (quantitative easing and injections of liquidity) and fiscal policy (debt-funded stimulus programs, etc.)
Sounds good, but the Yellowstone Analogy reveals the fatal flaw in this recession-suppression strategy. "Free market private sector capitalism's" normal business cycle of over-investment and excessive risk-taking is naturally followed by a reduction in debt, the liquidation of bad loans and excess inventory, a trend to reduced risk, etc.--in other words, a fast-burning forest fire which incinerates all the dead wood, clearing space for the next generation of growth.
For decades, the operative theory of forestry management was that limited controlled burns-- mild reductions of dead underbrush and debris--would essentially reduce the possibility of a major fire to near-zero.
But the practice actually allowed a buildup of dead wood which then fueled the devastating forest fire which swept Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Recessions are like low-level naturally occurring forest fires that cleanse the system of the dead wood of bad debt, mal-investment and excessive speculation.
The global financial system has been busy piling up dead wood since the brief fire in 2008-09 threatened to burn down the entire system. All the derivatives originated and sold prior to 2009 were supposed to, along with "self-regulating markets" (heh), limit the risks in the financial systems to near-zero.
In other words, even as dead branches piled ever higher, various complex hedges would insure no fire in global financial system would ever spread.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve made sure the slightest whiff of debt reduction or other signs of recession were instantly snuffed with unprecedented low interest rates and abundant government stimulus.
But this private and public risk suppression not only failed to eradicate risk--it enabled risk to grow to unprecedented levels.
The recession-suppression technique being pursued by governments everywhere are simple: borrow and print staggering sums of money to bail out the private-sector banks which sparked the crisis, and then borrow and print even more money and throw it into the economy as monetary and fiscal stimulus.
Unfortunately, all this credit-stimulus is adding more dead wood to an already vast pile which is choking what's left of the economy's living forest. Rather than close down failed banks and businesses, various games are being played to negate the fires of creative destruction which real capitalism needs to thrive; without a write-off of bad debts and risky failed gambles and a closure of overcapacity then the new business cycle cannot take root.
Instead of letting the dead wood burn, the system props up zombie corporations and banks that would be destroyed if credit wasn't "free." The zombie banks and businesses--the equivalent of dead but still-standing trees--are the perfect tinder for a fast-spreading conflagration that burns everything to cinders.
Isn't it obvious that by trying to make forest fires a thing of the past then you're actually killing the forest? The same mechanism is at work in the multi-trillion dollar attempts to make financial cycles of over-indebtedness and excessive risk a thing of the past: the no recession ever again policy.
You can't make people and enterprises with little real collateral creditworthy. To shove more debt into the system is to pile more dead wood onto the already-dense pile of dry debris awaiting a lightning strike.
The big conceit here is that borrowing trillions of dollars is risk-free as long as the government is doing the borrowing. That is an illusion: there is always risk when you borrow or print or backstop/guarantee trillions of dollars of risky debt; the risk has simply been transferred to taxpayers, who will soon suffer the consequences.
For the crisis in capitalism is not just debt-based--it's also resource and demographic-based. Back when the Social Security system was designed, it was assumed there would always be 10 workers to "pay as you go" to support 1 retiree. The Baby Boom in the 1950s made that projection reassuringly long-term--or so it seemed.
Now that we're approaching a worker-retiree ratio of 2.5-to-1, the system cannot possibly pay the benefits promised without borrowing trillions of dollars each and every year--and from whom?
Neoliberal capitalism is in crisis for one fundamental reason: the central bank and state have played "the fixer" with monetary and fiscal policy in the belief that risk could be suppressed or even massaged away by spreading it over the entire system.
But the excesses of credit, risk, bubbles and overcapacity are now gutting the very middle class which the State relies on to pay most of the taxes. And as tax revenues stagnate, the State and the "private sector capitalism" which depended on passing off its risks and gambles-gone-awry to the State will find the firestorm was not suppressed-- the dead wood was only piled higher, so the only possible outcome is an uncontrollable conflagration that consumes the entire neoliberal global system.
The no recession ever again policy is exactly like suppressing forest fires: just as suppressing naturally occurring fires that keep the forest healthy insures a raging conflagration that burns down the entire forest, so too does the no recession ever again policy insure an uncontrollable financial conflagration.
Shouting that "we owe it to ourselves" will not stop the conflagration, and neither will any other form of magical thinking.



My recent books:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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, Dan F. ($50), for your superbly generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.
 

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