Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Oil and Debt: Why Our Financial System Is Unsustainable

How much energy, water and food will the "money" created out of thin air in the future buy?

Finance is often cloaked in arcane terminology and math, but the one dynamic that governs the future is actually very simple.

Here it is: all debt is borrowed against future supplies of affordable hydrocarbons
(oil, coal and natural gas). Since global economic activity is ultimately dependent on a continued abundance of affordable energy, it follows that all money borrowed against future income is actually being borrowed against future supplies of affordable energy.

Many people believe that alternative "green" energy will soon replace most or all hydrocarbon energy sources, but the chart below shows why this belief is not realistic: all the "renewable" energy sources are about 3% of all energy consumed, with hydropower providing another few percent.

There are unavoidable headwinds to this appealing fantasy:

1. All "renewable" energy is actually "replaceable" energy, per analyst Nate Hagens: every 15-25 years (or less) much or all of the alt-energy systems and structures have to be replaced, and little of the necessary mining, manufacturing and transport can be performed with the "renewable" electricity these sources generate. Virtually all the heavy lifting of these processes require hydrocarbons and especially oil.

2. Wind and solar "renewable" energy is intermittent and therefore requires changes in behavior (no clothes dryers or electric ovens used after dark, etc.) or battery storage on a scale that isn't practical in terms of the materials required.

3. Batteries are also "replaceable" and don't last very long. The percentage of lithium-ion batteries being recycled globally is near-zero, so all batteries end up as costly, toxic landfill.

4. Battery technologies are limited by the physics of energy storage and materials. Moving whiz-bang exotic technologies from the lab to global scales of production is non-trivial.

5. The material and energy resources required to build alt-energy sources that replace hydrocarbon energy and replace all the alt-energy which has broken down or reached the end of its life exceeds the affordable reserves of materials and energy available on the planet.

6. Externalized costs of alt-energy are not being included in the cost. Nobody's adding the immense cost of the environmental damage caused by lithium mines to the price of the lithium batteries. Once the full external costs are included, the cost is no longer as affordable as promoters claim.

7. None of the so-called "green" "replaceable" energy has actually replaced hydrocarbons; all the alt-energy has done is increase total energy consumption. This is Jevons Paradox: every increase in efficiency or energy production only increases consumption.

Here's a real-world example: building another freeway doesn't actually reduce congestion in the old freeway; it simply encourages people to drive more, so both freeways are soon congested.

Setting aside the impracticalities of replacing most or all hydrocarbons with "replaceable" energy, the real issue is all debt service / repayment is ultimately funded by future energy.

On the face of it, future income is used to pay back borrowed money, but all future income is nothing more than a claim on future energy.

"Money" without access to affordable energy is worthless.

Imagine being air-dropped into the Sahara desert with a backpack of gold and $100 bills. You're wealthy in terms of "money" but if there's no water, food and transport to buy with your money, you'll die. The point is that "money" is only valuable if the essentials of life are available at affordable prices.

Right now the average fulltime wage in the U.S. is about $19/hour, and the average cost of a gallon of gasoline is $2.25. So a mere 7 minutes of (pretax) labor will buy a gallon of gasoline.

But what happens if inflation increases the cost of oil but wages continue stagnating? What happens to the economy if it takes one hour of labor to buy a gallon of gasoline instead of 7 minutes?

Economics claims that cheaper substitutes will appear to replace whatever is expensive, so cheap electricity will replace costly oil, or transport will switch to cheap natural gas, etc.

But these proposed transitions are not cost-free. The cost of replacing 100 million internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles is non-trivial, as is building the "replaceable" energy infrastructure needed to power all these vehicles.

The true costs of "replaceable" energy have been fudged by not counting external costs or replacement costs; the full lifecycle costs of "replaceable" energy are much higher than promoters are claiming.

There are supply constraints that are also not included. For example, all the plastic in the world is still derived from oil, not electricity. (Note that each electric vehicle contains hundreds of pounds of plastic.)

As I explained in a previous post, energy in any form is not magically pliable. Just as we can't turn electricity into jet fuel, we can't turn a barrel of oil into only diesel fuel. Coal can be turned into liquid fuel but the process is non-trivial.

All of which is to say that the cost of energy in hours of labor is likely to increase, possibly by more than the global economy can afford.

There may also be supply constraints, situations where the energy people want and need is not available in sufficient quantities to meet demand at any price.

As "software eats the world" and automation replaces costly human labor, it's also likely that the erosion in the purchasing power of labor that's been a trend for 20 years will continue and accelerate.

Analyst Gail Tverberg has done an excellent job of explaining that it's not just the availability of energy that matters, it's the affordability of that energy to the bottom 90% of consumers. 2021: More troubles likely.

"Money" is nothing but a claim on future energy, because energy is the foundation of the global economy. Without energy, we're all stranded in the desert and all our "money" is worthless because it can no longer buy what we need to live.

Central banks can print infinite amounts of currency but they can't print energy, and so all central banks can do is add zeroes to the currency. They can't make energy more affordable, or guarantee that a day's labor will buy more than a fraction of the energy that labor can buy today.

The global financial system has played a game in which "money" is either printed or borrowed into existence, on the theory that energy will be more abundant and more affordable in the future. If this theory turns out to be incorrect, the "money" used in the future to pay back debts incurred today will have near-zero value.

The question is: how much energy, water and food will the "money" created out of thin air in the future buy?

If the lender can only buy a tiny sliver of the energy, water and food that the "money" could have bought at the time the "money" was borrowed, then it won't really matter how many zeroes the "money" will have. What matters is how much purchasing power of essentials the "money" retains.

Borrowing trillions of dollars euros, yen and yuan every year expands the claims on future energy at a rate that far exceeds the actual expansion of energy in any form.

This has created an illusion that we can always create money out of thin air and it will magically hold its current purchasing power for ever greater amounts of energy, food and water.

The monumental asymmetry between the staggering rate of expansion of "money"--claims on future energy-- and the stagnant supply of energy means this illusion is only temporary.



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Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Anatomy of a Bubble and Crash

Needless to say, few are expecting bubble symmetry to manifest now, because, well, of course, "this time it's different." Indeed. It's always different and yet always the same, too.

Let's indulge in some basic logic:

1. All speculative bubbles pop, regardless of source, time or place. (100% of all historical evidence supports this.)

2. The current "Everything Bubble" is a speculative bubble.

3. Therefore the current speculative bubble will pop.

Now that we got that out of the way, the question becomes: how will the crash play out? There is no way to forecast precisely when or how the current speculative bubble will crash, but history offers a few potential templates.

The dot-com bubble offers a classic example of bubble symmetry and scale invariance. (See chart below.) Note how the bubble arose in two legs of X duration and it crashed in two symmetrical legs of X duration. In both legs, the crash returned to the same levels from which the bubble took off.

Scale invariance: this same symmetry is visible in bubbles that soar and crash in 6 days, 6 months or 6 years. The symmetry also holds whether the instrument soars from $1 to $5 or $100 to $500, or whether it is in index, commodity or equity. (See charts of Cisco Systems (CSCO) in 2000 and Tesla (TSLA) in 2020 below.)

If bubble symmetry holds this time around, the explosive rallies visible in the charts of the Russell 2000 (IWM) and Global Nasdaq (NOGM) will crash back to their lift-off levels in an equally explosive collapse of similar duration to the explosive rise.

Needless to say, few are expecting bubble symmetry to manifest now, because, well, of course, this time it's different. Indeed. It's always different and yet always the same, too.











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Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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Monday, February 22, 2021

The Babble-On 7: The Fed and Yellen

So babble on, Babble-On 7; it won't change anything. The forces in motion are like tides, and you can't talk the tide into reversing.

Allow me to introduce the Babble-On 7: the six board members of the Federal Reserve and Treasury chief Janet Yellen. (The Fed board has seven slots but one is vacant at the moment, so 6 + Yellen = 7.)

These seven lackeys of the Financial Aristocracy babble on, endlessly repeating the same disconnected-from-reality fantasies and delusions, apparently on the premise that if they repeat "you can fly, you can fly!" often enough, people will jump off the cliff actually believing the Fed and Treasury gave them super-powers to sprout wings at will.

Alas, denying reality does not stop reality from intruding, typically with great force. The Fed is not all-powerful, and wings will not sprout from believers' shoulder blades. They will impact the rocks at the bottom of the cliff with the devastating force known as gravity.

The short list of endlessly spewed disconnected-from-reality fantasies and delusions by the Babble-On 7 are:

Fantasy/Delusion # 1. The Federal Reserve's policies of free money for financiers and speculators did not cause or exacerbate the skyrocketing wealth-income inequality that is undermining America's democracy, social order and economy.

If the Fed governors were Pinocchio, their noses would have now crossed the Grand Canyon. Please examine any chart of wealth-income inequality in the U.S. and note how it took off as former Fed chair Greenspan destroyed market discovery of the price of credit and risk, and the Fed chair servants of the Financial Aristocracy who followed (and who were each well-rewarded for their abject servitude) only accelerated and amplified the wealth-income inequality that has fatally undermined the nation.

The chart below reflects how each of the three Fed-inflated speculative bubbles enriched the Financial Aristocracy at the expense of the bottom 90%. The Fed's most recent spew of free money for financiers and speculators enriched the billionaires by a cool $1 trillion.

Fantasy/Delusion # 2. This is not a bubble, it is merely plain old normal investor activity. At this point, the Babble-On 7's noses are in the troposphere, threatening low-orbit satellites, as even the most cursory glance at the charts of equities such as Tesla or the Russell 2000 index (IWM) reveal GBOAT: The Greatest Bubble of All Time.

Fantasy/Delusion # 3. The next trillion will make it all better--and if $1 trillion isn't enough, we'll go big and create $5 trillion, $10 trillion, $20 trillion, whatever it takes, to prop up the sad, pathetic distortions that have brought America to the precipice.

Because the one thing Yellen and the Fed Six cannot allow is for those they serve so diligently to lose any of their bubblicious wealth. Since the bottom 90% own near-zero of the nation's income-producing capital, the karmic collapse of the Fed's latest and greatest bubble won't have much of a direct effect on those who actually work for a living--but it will remove the immense hoard of phantom wealth the Fed has bestowed on the financiers and speculators that make up the Financial Aristocracy.

For the Fed, supposedly blessed with god-like powers, cannot eliminate diminishing returns on its delusional tricks. Lowering interest rates to zero--done. The sugar high from the Fed's spew of trillions is diminishing faster than they can babble on.

The Babble-On 7 would do well to study the meaning of their moniker: Babylon:

Babylon has achieved considerable prominence throughout the ages as a symbol and by-word of wealth, luxury, decadence, vice and corruption. The city owes its fame (or infamy) to the many references the Bible makes to it; all of which are unfavorable.

So babble on, Babble-On 7; it won't change anything. The forces in motion are like tides, and you can't talk the tide into reversing.















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A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
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Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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Friday, February 19, 2021

Next Up: Global Depression

This madness is now global, so next up: global depression.

A few days after the Covid pandemic was officially announced last year on 1/23/20, I prepared a chart projecting the course of the pandemic. In my view it still stands, with two updates: "vaccines months away" has been updated to "mass vaccinations months away" and "Wave 2" has been updated to "Wave 4." (see chart below)

The end-point--global depression--is up next. Very few are prepared for this eventuality because they put their faith in 1) central banks pursuing an insane folly and 2) a fragile, brittle global economy that was already teetering on the edge of destabilization before the pandemic.

Here's the central banks' insane folly in a nutshell: to create new enterprises and jobs, we'll blow the world's greatest speculative bubble into an even greater speculative bubble. So in other words, we'll further enrich the top layer of the Financial Aristocracy who own the vast majority of the assets we're pushing to the moon, and by some inexplicable magic, adding trillions of dollars, yuan, yen and euros to the wealth of this elite will somehow launch a thousand new thriving enterprises which will magically hire 500,000 new workers every month.

Can we be honest for a split second and admit that the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus look plausible compared to this insane proposition? Since there's a tiny window of honesty open, let's also admit that adding a booster rocket to the wealth-income inequality that is undermining democracy, society and the economy is exactly what we'd choose to do if our goal was destroying America. Yet this is precisely what the entire Federal Reserve policy sets out to do: boost wealth-income inequality to new extremes.

What Poisoned America? (2/18/21)

Meanwhile, global supply chains that were optimized for Globalization Heaven are incredibly brittle and fragile as a result of the optimization. Optimizing for maximizing profit means getting rid of redundancies, buffers, quality control and ramping dependence on offshore suppliers to 100%.

If you set out to design a global supply system that would fail catastrophically, creating self-reinforcing shortages of essentials and key components, you'd choose the system now teetering on the edge of implosion. Optimization is wonderful for boosting profits when everything is priced to perfection and functioning to perfection, but when reality intrudes, you find you've stripped out all those costly, unnecessary bits that enabled the supply chain to deal with a spot of bother.

Unfortunately for the central bankers, their policy of giving trillions in free money for financiers and speculators is suffering from diminishing returns: where $100 billion once had a significant effect on financial markets, now $1 trillion no longer has any effect at all, and so the only dose that causes the patient's eyelids to flicker briefly is $3 trillion--no wait a minute, make that $5 trillion, nope, not enough, make it $10 trillion, yikes, still not enough, pump in $20 trillion!

I prepared a chart (below) which depicts how diminishing returns on inflating speculative asset bubbles leads the global financial system to a cliff from which there is no return.

Though few seem to be aware of it, we're tottering on that cliff edge. The final manifestation of central bankers' insane folly is the promise that endless wealth can be yours if only you join the speculative extremes racing over the cliff. Maybe the immense herd of speculators will all magically grow wings once they're in free-fall; that's no more insane than counting on speculative asset bubbles to magically create real enterprises and jobs.

This madness is now global, so next up: global depression. The story of the past year hasn't changed: blowing an even bigger speculative asset bubble is the sure cure; the latest "fix" to the pandemic will make it go away forever and ever, and everything that was broken before the pandemic will magically be restored by the magic of ever larger and more precarious speculative asset bubbles.





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Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

Local and Decentralised Economies: The Start Of A New Environmentalism (54 min)

AxisOfEasy Salon #37: The Tension Between Nation State Conformity and Network State Cacophony (51 minutes)


My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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



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Thursday, February 18, 2021

What Poisoned America?

America's financial system is nothing more than a toxic waste dump of speculation, fraud, collusion, corruption and rampant profiteering.

What Poisoned America? The list of suspects is long: systemic bias, special interests dominating politics, political polarization, globalization and the offshoring of productive capacity, over-regulation, the rise of rapacious cartels and monopolies, Big Tech's gulag of the mind, the permanent adolescence of consumerism, permanent global war, to name a few.

The question boils down to this: what problems cannot be addressed by the status quo? Most of the ills listed above can be addressed with existing mechanisms of governance and adaptation. For example, consider systemic bias. The U.S. Armed Forces have demonstrably led the way in dramatically reducing systemic bias via performance-based advancement. The rest of America would do well to copy these organizational improvements.

Many of the other ills could be addressed within current systems of governance--antitrust, etc.

The two that appear impervious to reform are 1) soaring wealth-income-power inequality and 2) the dominance of special interests. In both cases, the corporate foxes are guarding the hen house, so any reforms with real teeth are watered down to PR by those reaping the vast majority of the financial gains. Corporate profits are in the billions while you can buy elected officials' cooperation for mere millions. There is no way to get around that asymmetry.

I would propose an even deeper systemic poison: zero-interest yield on capital. For a variety of reasons, the yield on capital is either zero or less than zero if we factor in inflation. We now earn (heh) 0.1% on our cash while inflation is somewhere between the "official" rate of 3% and more real-world measures between 5% and 10%.

This is a significant change from the days when savings (in savings and loans institutions) earned 5.25% by regulation.

While ordinary capital earns nothing (or less than zero), the capital and income of the top 0.01% has rocketed to unprecedented levels. This vast asymmetry is poisoning America, and the financial system, from the Federal Reserve on down, is incapable of addressing it other than making it even more distorted and destructive by doing more of what's failed spectacularly.

To understand why yields on capital have fallen to zero while wealth-income has flowed to the top elites, we need to look at wages share of the economy and capital's share of the economy. Wages share (i.e. labors' share) has been falling for the past 45 years, while corporate profits and the wealth of America's top tier has soared. (see chart below)

It is not coincidence that as interest rates fell to zero the wealth and income of the top 0.01% soared while ordinary wage income fell 10% when adjusted for the purchasing power of the earnings.

A recent report prepared by the RAND Corporation, Trends in Income From 1975 to 2018, documents that $50 trillion in earnings has been transferred to owners of capital from the bottom 90% of American households in the past 45 years.

What happens when the purchasing power of the earnings of the bottom 90% declines for decades? (Even high-earners such as doctors have experienced a decline in the purchasing power of their earnings since 1975.) Households cannot borrow as much money as they once could because their earnings simply don't go as far; there is less disposable income to support more debt service.

What happens when corporate profits skyrocket as jobs are offshored and corporations arbitrage all the goodies of globalization? The corporations don't need to borrow as much money as they have trillions in profits to work with.

In other words, demand for credit stagnates while at the same time, the Federal Reserve has flooded the economy with near-zero rate credit. Demand has stagnated along with wages while supply has rocketed into the trillions thanks to unprecedented central bank credit creation.

The reason why central banks have slashed rates to zero is obvious: if the bottom 90% can't borrow more money at 5% to consume more goods and services, they can certainly borrow more at 1.5% because the interest part of their monthly payment drops significantly.

And sure enough, crushing rates to near-zero has triggered refinancing/housing bubbles and generated high auto-truck sales based on a few dollars down and 1.9% auto financing.

In other words: as the purchasing power of wages has relentlessly declined, the "fix" is to substitute debt for earnings. The fact that eventually stagnating earnings cannot support more debt at any rate of interest is inconvenient, so it's been ignored.

Zero-interest rates has played out differently in Corporate America: since capital is so cheap to borrow, why not borrow a few billion dollars at 1.5% and use the money to buy back shares of the company's stock, which generates a hefty 10% annual increase in the share price? Indeed, why not?

And why not use that cheap capital to automate tasks to reduce costly American labor and move even more staff overseas to low-wage nations? Indeed, why not? Maximizing profits demands it, and the near-zero cost of capital incentivizes it.

The net result of near-zero yields on capital? The top 0.1% own more wealth than the bottom 80%. Roughly 75% of all income gains have gone to the top 0.01%.

This extreme asymmetry has poisoned American society and its economy. This immense distortion in the cost of capital can best be understood by asking: what happens when a resource is free?

The answer is that it's squandered. But the squandering is only part of the problem.

Consider what happened when air and water were "free". Both the air and water became toxic waste dumps, and American rivers infamously caught on fire. The same is true of "free" capital: America's financial system is nothing more than a toxic waste dump of extreme speculation, fraud, collusion, corruption and rampant profiteering.

The rivers are on fire but the Federal Reserve's plan remains the same: keep the cost of capital at "free" so the extremes of speculation can run to failure. The run to failure will be as extreme as the asymmetries that have poisoned America.











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.

My new book is available! A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet 20% and 15% discounts (Kindle $7, print $17, audiobook now available $17.46)

Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

Local and Decentralised Economies: The Start Of A New Environmentalism (54 min)

AxisOfEasy Salon #37: The Tension Between Nation State Conformity and Network State Cacophony (51 minutes)


My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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



Become a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.




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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

GBOAT: Is This the Greatest Bubble of All Time?

The lifestyle you ordered in the euphoria will be out of stock in the panic.

Humans running Wetware 1.0 (which is all of us) love to gamble, and we are entranced by the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. When there's a market for speculation, these wild swings of emotion manifest as euphoria (I'm winning!) and fear (I'm losing).

Thus the soaring price of goats due to speculation in 1740 B.C. Babylon so vexed Hammurabi that he ordered the execution of those he deemed responsible for profiteering off their clever speculative manipulation.

Speaking of goats, let's ask a GOAT (greatest of all time) question: what's the greatest bubble of all time (GBOAT)? The easiest way to measure speculative bubbles is the starting price and the peak price, but that may not do justice to the question. Perhaps the number of people drawn into the speculative frenzy is a better measure of GBOAT: after all, if only a handful of speculators lose their shirts, how that can be the greatest bubble of all time?

To even qualify, a bubble must drawn the masses into the euphoria and then slaughter them as mercilessly as Hammurabi massacred the goat profiteers.

Another qualifying factor is the scale of disconnect from reality. Even if you overpaid for a goat in a speculative mania, at least you can still milk the goat and make cheese. But tulips, which drove the remarkably excessive speculative Tulip Mania in 1636 Holland, are not even edible.

At least tulips offer a bit of beauty in a world besmirched by speculative ugliness, but the shares of the South Seas Company that sucked in the best and brightest in 1720 Britain and proceeded to lay waste to their wealth did not even have that saving grace.

Another qualifying factor is the power of the delusion driving the bubble. To qualify as a contender for GBOAT, the mania has to be utterly convincing and persuasive to everyone involved. In other words, it isn't even speculation to invest all your money in the bubble, it's simply common sense due to the dead certainty of the proposition fueling the mania.

The 1999-2000 Dot-Com Bubble is a good example of the universality of belief in the obviousness of the gains to be reaped: the Internet was changing the world and would expand for decades, so obviously the companies involved would grow for decades, too, as would their profits (obviously!).

The chart of the dot-com bubble offers a textbook example of how a bubble gathers momentum, spikes to insane heights, falters as the smart money exits but soars to a lower high as true believers buy the dip. Once the buying is exhausted, the bubble collapses back to its starting level.



But not all bubbles follow this trajectory. Here is a current chart of IWM, the Russell 2000 index, courtesy of NorthmanTrader.com. (I added the black box and the red line in the center panel to indicate the previous bubble top.) The violence and amplitude of this speculative mania over the past year makes the dot-com bubble appear quaintly staid in comparison.



So let's make the case that we're experiencing the greatest bubble of all time in real time. The magnitude of the price movement is extreme: check. The number of people sucked into the mania is extreme: check. The power of the delusion is extreme: check. (The Fed will print trillions forever, federal government will borrow and blow trillions forever, the world is about to enter Roaring 20s, technology is changing the world, etc. etc. etc.) The gains to be reaped are extremely obvious: check.

History leaves no doubt that all speculative bubbles pop, and much sooner and more violently than the euphoric participants believe possible. Before Hammurabi shut down the mania in goats, a rare goat with distinctive markings could be traded for an entire house. After the bubble popped, it was just another goat.

The lifestyle you ordered in the euphoria will be out of stock in the panic. Everyone running Wetware 1.0 is prone to getting caught up in a mania in which a tulip or goat can be traded for a house. But then euphoria flips to fear and after the mania fades and the losses have crushed spirits, hopes and dreams, a tulip is once again just a tulip and a goat is one again just a goat.

NOTE: I made up the story about the bubble in goats and Hammurabi. That is fiction, not history.



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A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
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Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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Monday, February 15, 2021

Presidents Day: Carter's Prescient Farewell Address in 1981

Regardless of our opinions about President Carter and his legacy, his Farewell Address is worthy of our attention and study.

On Presidents Day 2021, I invite you to read/watch President Carter's Farewell Address from 40 years ago. As a Washington outsider, Carter was relentlessly mocked and undermined by the Establishment, as insiders' loathing of outsiders knows no bounds.

In a similar fashion, the loathing of the corrupt and self-absorbed for the faithful aspiring to better world despite our weaknesses and flaws also knows no bounds, and so the establishment insiders that run the nation had no use for Carter other than as a handy whipping post.

President Carter was not the only outsider president reviled by the Washington elites, of course; outsiders of both parties draw the fierce fire of a corrupt Establishment fearful of exposure.

Although many reckon it good sport to make fun of President Carter's initiatives (along with his grin, hair, accent, etc. etc. etc.), a strong case can be made that he was the first and only 21st century President the nation has elected. Every president since, regardless of party or ideology or canned speeches (Soaring Rhetoric (TM), has been embedded in a continuation of the 20th century economy, politics and Imperial Project.

Carter was the first and only president to address DeGrowth, though the word had yet to be coined: DeGrowth is the idea that resources would eventually become scarce and thus unaffordable, and rather then pursue the insane fantasy of eternal growth on a finite planet, a new arrangement that did more with less would be needed.

"There are real and growing dangers to our simple and our most precious possessions: the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land which sustains us. The rapid depletion of irreplaceable minerals, the erosion of topsoil, the destruction of beauty, the blight of pollution, the demands of increasing billions of people, all combine to create problems which are easy to observe and predict, but difficult to resolve.

But there is no reason for despair. Acknowledging the physical realities of our planet does not mean a dismal future of endless sacrifice. In fact, acknowledging these realities is the first step in dealing with them. We can meet the resource problems of the world--water, food, minerals, farmlands, forests, overpopulation, pollution if we tackle them with courage and foresight."


President Carter was also prescient in his understanding that a nation's greatest strength is its social cohesion, a cohesion that America's unprecedented wealth/ income /power inequalities has undermined. Consider this excerpt from his Address:

"Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad, greater even than the bounty of our material blessings."

President Carter recognized that civil rights / liberties are not just fatuous PR to be trotted out in Soaring Rhetoric (TM) lip-service; they are the foundation of our national identity:

"America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it's the other way around. Human rights invented America. Ours was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded explicitly on such an idea. Our social and political progress has been based on one fundamental principle: the value and importance of the individual. The fundamental force that unites us is not kinship or place of origin or religious preference. The love of liberty is the common blood that flows in our American veins.

We have no cause for self-righteousness or complacency, but we have every reason to persevere, both within our own country and beyond our borders."


President Carter recognized the fatal consequences of special interests dominating the political order, a danger that has now reached full flower in 2021:

"Today, as people have become ever more doubtful of the ability of the Government to deal with our problems, we are increasingly drawn to single-issue groups and special interest organizations to ensure that whatever else happens, our own personal views and our own private interests are protected. This is a disturbing factor in American political life. It tends to distort our purposes, because the national interest is not always the sum of all our single or special interests. We are all Americans together, and we must not forget that the common good is our common interest and our individual responsibility."

Regardless of our opinions about President Carter and his legacy, his Farewell Address is worthy of our attention and study:

President Carter's Farewell Address to the Nation (16:56)



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The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

Jay Taylor and I discuss The Upcoming Revolt of the Middle Class
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My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Gains Are Unreal, Losses Are Real

Why would anyone sell when further gains are guaranteed? Because the gains are unreal but the losses are real.

When markets are soaring and your portfolio is rocketing higher, the gains seem unreal. Did I really make that much in one day, week, month? Wow! With the gains higher every time you look, it would be foolish to sell because look at the flood of media reports on "the Roaring 20s" that are predicted with such certitude that it's essentially guaranteed, the reflation that's lifting all boats globally, the Federal Reserve printing trillions to further inflate the market, and the millions of new traders scooping fantastic gains.

Why would anyone be idiotic enough to sell when the Bull Market is just getting started? Indeed. Sure, you sold to book those crazy gains in a couple of speculative frenzies, but you bought right back in to grab the next booster rocket higher.

There is only one thing more painful than watching the market continue higher after you sold: and that is holding on for the inevitable bounce and losing your entire profit.

There is only one thing more painful than holding on for the inevitable bounce and losing your entire profit: and that is continuing to hold because you're so sure the market will bounce big-time that you lose much or most of your capital.

There is only one thing more painful than being so sure the market will bounce big-time that you lose much or most of your capital: and that's refusing to accept your losses and hanging on until you've lost all your capital.

There is only one thing more painful than refusing to accept your losses and hanging on until you've lost all your capital: and that is realizing you still owe the government an enormous sum for the capital gains you reaped on the way up but no longer have the money to pay.

Why would anyone sell when further gains are guaranteed? Because the gains are unreal but the losses are real. Put another way: the gains aren't really yours until you sell and pocket them in cash. (Best to pay your estimated taxes the day after you book the gains, as a third of those gains aren't really yours, they belong to the government.)

Gains are unreal, losses are real.



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.

My new book is available! A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet 20% and 15% discounts (Kindle $7, print $17, audiobook now available $17.46)

Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

Jay Taylor and I discuss The Upcoming Revolt of the Middle Class
(22 min)

My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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



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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

What Collapsed the Middle Class?

The middle class has already collapsed, but thanks to debt and bubbles, this reality has been temporarily cloaked.

What collapsed the middle class? In many ways the answer echoes an Agatha Christie mystery: rather than there being one guilty party, a number of suspects participated in the collapse of the middle class.

Can we consolidate these dynamics into a few core causal factors? I've made the case in the pst few posts that yes, we can: many of these causes are part of a single dynamic, the decapitalization of the middle class and the decay of the ladder of social mobility which enabled tens of millions of workers to transform their wages into productive capital via saving and investment in their own human capital, their own enterprises and assets that earn income.

The Top 10% Is Doing Just Fine, The Middle Class Is Dying on the Vine (2/4/21)

The second primary dynamic is the substitution of debt and speculation for earned income and productive capital. As the purchasing power of the bottom 90%'s wages declines, the status quo has substituted debt for income and speculation for investing in productive capital.

Debt and the Demise of the Middle Class (2/9/21)

This dynamic incentivizes debt, speculation and consumption rather than producing, savings and investments in human and productive capital. The source of this incentive structure is the maximization of corporate profits earned by banks loaning money to the middle class and by selling the middle class on superfluous consumption being the signifier of "success" rather than production being the signifier of "success".

In reality, what counts is agency (control of one's life, having a voice in governance) and ownership of productive capital. Becoming a debt-serf to buy more stuff and grab a few chips in the speculative casino sacrifices both agency and the acquisition of productive capital. But this sacrifice is oh-so profitable to the financier purveyors of debt and speculative gambles in the casino.

The third dynamic is globalization, and specifically the tyranny of global markets. Global banks and corporations are ideally placed to profit from the arbitrage of labor, environmental regulations, currencies, corruption (dear in some places, cheap in others) and the price of debt and risk.

Wage earners have no such leverage. In effect, all the risks of competition are eliminated for corporate monopolies and cartels while the risks are transferred to workers who face a global race to the bottom in wages, opportunity and income security.

The fourth dynamic is speculative bubbles put many assets out of reach of the bottom 90% who have only their wages and savings. The winners in speculative bubbles are those fortunate enough to have bought homes, bonds, rental properties, land, etc. decades ago when a house could be had for three times median income and bonds paid solid, above-inflation returns.

The bottom 90% attempting to find productive assets at affordable prices now are out of luck. Consider a 900 square foot home built in 1916 in the desirable San Francisco Bay Area community of Albany, CA. The house sold for $135,000 in 1996, 3.8 times the national median household income.

Then Housing Bubble #1 boosted the value to $542,000 in 2004, 12.2 times the national median household income. Housing Bubble #2 has pushed the value to slightly over $1 million, 14.5 times the national median household income. Only those inheriting wealth (or who chose wealthy parents), those earning over $250,000 annually or speculators who just scored big gains in bitcoin or GameStop could afford this very small, modest house.

That's what speculative bubbles do to the middle class: they leave them behind forever. Those who bought 25 years ago entered the top 10% in wealth due to the bubblicious increase in the value of their home. A few winners in the casino who sold at the top might have edged into the top 10%, but the vast majority of gamblers in the casino cannot compete with the insiders, manipulators and pros, so they lose ground. This is why the bottom 90% collect an insignificant 3% of all income from capital.

Jay Taylor and I discuss The Upcoming Revolt of the Middle Class (22 min)

These four primary dynamics manifest in the following ways. Each one helps generate a two-tier Neofeudal Economy of a Financial Aristocracy and its top 9.9% technocrat class who own virtually all the productive capital and the bottom 90%, a disenfranchized ALICE (assets limited, income constrained, employed) workforce.

1. The shifting of pension and healthcare costs and risks from the state and employers to employees. (see chart below)

2. The decline of safe, secure high-yielding investments as central banks have driven savers into risky, crash-prone speculative assets such as stocks and junk bonds.

3. The decline of scarcity value in college diplomas that were once the ticket to middle class security. How Many Slots Are Open in the Upper Middle Class? Not As Many As You Might Think (March 30, 2015).

4. The inexorable rise in big-ticket costs: higher education, healthcare and housing. Even as wages stagnate, these costs continue rising, claiming an ever-larger share of household incomes, leaving less to save/invest.

5. The transition from a stable economy with predictable returns to a financialized boom-and-bust economy that wipes out middle class wealth in the inevitable busts but does not rebuild it in the booms.

6. The regulatory and administrative barriers to self-employment, forcing most of the workforce into wage-slavery and/or dependence on the state. Endangered Species: The Self-Employed Middle Class (May 2015).

7. The rising exposure of the U.S. workforce to highly educated, lower-cost competing workforces in a globalized economy.

8. The decline of labor's share of the U.S. economy: the slice of the pie distributed to earned income has been declining for decades.

9. The share of the earned-income slice going to the top 5% is rising.

10. The wealth of the middle class is tied up in the family home, a non-income producing asset prone to the wild swings of housing bubbles and busts. Stagnation Nation: Middle Class Wealth Is Locked Up in Housing and Retirement Funds (October 25, 2017).

The middle class has already collapsed, but thanks to debt and bubbles, this reality has been temporarily cloaked. All bubbles pop and all excessive debt ends in default. When these inevitably occur, the reality can no longer be hidden.







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.

My new book is available! A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet 20% and 15% discounts (Kindle $7, print $17, audiobook now available $17.46)

Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

Jay Taylor and I discuss The Upcoming Revolt of the Middle Class
(22 min)

My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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



Become 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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Monday, February 08, 2021

Debt and the Demise of the Middle Class

Unfortunately for those at the top who've benefited immensely from speculative bubbles, speculative bubbles don't create a vibrant middle class--they push what's left of the middle class off a cliff.

What exactly is the Middle Class and what unique role does it serve in the economy? Given that the Middle Class is constantly invoked by politicos and economists, you'd think the status quo had a solid understanding of the Middle Class. Alas, it isn't that simple.

The conventional view defines the middle class by income, education or type of labor being performed. These are all superficial attributes and ignore what actually differentiates the working class from the middle class. Yes, the middle class tends to earn more, have higher educational credentials and perform white-collar labor rather than blue-collar labor.

But getting a higher education credential and increased pay doesn't automatically provide a middle class role in the economy, nor does performing white-collar work. None of these automatically moves the individual up the social mobility ladder from near-zero ownership of capital (working class) to meaningful ownership of productive capital (middle class).

As I explained in The Top 10% Is Doing Just Fine, The Middle Class Is Dying on the Vine, the middle class is fundamentally a means of transforming labor into capital via savings and investment. The traditional ladder of social mobility from the working class to the middle class is one of capitalizing work: time and savings are invested in higher education, in effect capitalizing future labor by increasing productivity.

In other words, what separates the working class from the middle class is the middle class is able to transform their labor into capital while the labor of the working class only funds consumption. The working class is defined not by credentials, type of labor or credentials but by limited access to the means to transform their labor into capital.

In the classical Marxist view, there is a bright line between labor and capital: the proletariats labor in the factories owned by the capitalist industrialists who depend on monopoly capital controlled by the commercial/investment banks.

The class of small business--tradecrafts, commerce, professionals, etc.--is merely a wedge between the dominant classes of labor and capital.

In this view, the exploitation of labor is the dominant force of capitalism. While labor is indeed exploited in many cases, the dynamic that this schema misses is the essential role of middle class credit/debt and consumption in generating profits for the big owners of capital. Low-wage workers benefit their employers but not the banks or those who profit from selling goods and services to higher-wage workers--the middle class.

Debt is immensely profitable, and so low-income workers are a limited pool of profitability. The financial services are expert at ripping off the working class with payday loans, check-cashing services, sky-high used auto loans, rapacious late fees and overdraft charges, but again, there is only so much blood that can be extracted from low-wage workers.

The higher, more secure wages of the middle class offer a bonanza of longer-term profits from debt taken on by the middle class: student loans to gain the credentials deemed necessary for middle class membership; auto loans, the larger the better for the aspirational consumption enabled by fatter paychecks, mortgages to buy homes, and consumer debt for all the consumption the middle class can afford: ski trips, cruises, fine dining, etc.

In other words, modern capitalism stagnates without a vibrant, creditworthy middle class that borrows and spends freely, for profits flow from high levels of debt and aspirational consumption that low-wage, insecure precariats cannot afford.

But here's the rub: most of the middle class debt stems from the aspiration to transform labor into capital via higher education (student debt) and home ownership (mortgages). As middle class wages lose purchasing power and incomes become more precarious (as employers offload healthcare and pension costs onto employees and shift workers from employees to gig-contract workers), the ability of the middle class to borrow and consume more falters.

Even worse, these time-honored avenues to ownership of productive capital are no longer reliable. Highed education credentials no longer guarantee stable, ample wages, and home ownership in a housing-bubble-addicted economy is less a means of saving and more a chip in the bubble-economy casino.

Debt serfdom awaits the aspirants to middle class ownership of productive capital. While debt payments are guaranteed, the rewards for taking on the debt are contingent and prone to sudden collapses in demand for credentials and assets purchased with debt.

Debt only works for the middle class if incomes and income security rise due to improving productivity and access to productive capital. Both productivity and access to productive capital are eroding, and so what made sense in past generations--borrowing for university educations and homes--are increasingly pathways to debt-serfdom.

The status quo "solution" to the decline of middle class ownership of income-producing capital is an economy that is now totally dependent on speculative bubbles. The idea here is as assets bubble ever higher, those in the middle class who own these assets will reap capital gains that will offset their declining purchasing power and income security.

Unfortunately, this "solution" has only enriched the top 10%, as the bottom 90% collect a near-zero 3% of all income from capital, which indicates that 1) the bottom 90%, which includes the middle class, own near-zero income-producing capital and 2) what capital they do own is either rapidly depreciating "stuff" (vehicles, appliances, etc.) that generates zero income or dead-money assets such as family homes that cost a fortune but produce no income and are no longer reliable investments, as the next bubble burst might evaporate the phantom homeowners equity generated by the serial housing bubbles.

As the middle class stagnates, so do the banks and producers of goods and services, and the lower-wage working class who labors in services and low-productivity producers. As the middle class awakens to the fact that the rungs of social mobility are broken, a systemic breakdown is predictable, a topic Jay Taylor and I discuss in the Upcoming Revolt of the Middle Class (22 min)

Unfortunately for those at the top who've benefited immensely from speculative bubbles, speculative bubbles don't create a vibrant middle class--they push what's left of the middle class off a cliff.











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.

My new book is available! A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet 20% and 15% discounts (Kindle $7, print $17, audiobook now available $17.46)

Read excerpts of the book for free (PDF).

The Story Behind the Book and the Introduction.



Recent Podcasts:

Jay Taylor and I discuss The Upcoming Revolt of the Middle Class
(22 min)

My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

A Hacker's Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
(Kindle $5, print $10, audiobook) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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



Become 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.

Thank you, Andre ($5/month), for your marvelously generous pledge to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

 

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