Tuesday, August 04, 2020

TikTok and our Last-Ditch Desperation for Social Mobility

Social media offers hope of achieving higher social status, something that is increasingly out of reach in our winner-take-most economy.
I've often addressed the decline of social mobility and the addictive nature of social media, for example, Why Is Social Media So Toxic?
I have long held that the decline of social mobility--broad-based opportunities to get ahead financially and socially--is part of a larger dynamic I call social depression: the social decay resulting from economic stagnation and the decline of social mobility and financial security. America's Social Depression Is Accelerating.
Japan offers a real-world 30-year lab experiment in the negative social consequences of economic stagnation, a topic I've addressed since 2010: The Non-Financial Cost of Stagnation: "Social Recession" and Japan's "Lost Generations"
The conventional explanation of social media's addictive hold is that it activates the human brain's reward circuits much like an addictive drug: in effect, we become addicted to being "liked" and to checking our phones hundreds of times a day to see if we received any "likes".
FOMO, fear of missing out on some emotion-stimulating "news" or a "like" from someone in our network also feeds the addictiveness.
The innate addictive appeal of social media is pretty clear, but that's not all that's at work here. Being social animals, humans naturally seek to identify their status in the pecking order and improve their position by whatever means are available as a way of increasing their reproductive success and their relative share of resources.
Traditional societies were bifurcated into a small elite and a much larger mass of commoners. As a general rule, social mobility was limited to those extraordinary commoners who were especially valuable to the ruling elite as soldiers, scribes, etc.
From its inception in the early 1800s, the American Dream was to acquire the "good life" via mass produced luxury goods via conventional employment or entrepreneurial drive--two avenues available to the masses. This access to the social mobility of higher earnings enabling the purchase of status symbols that boosted one's social status has been the mainstay of the modern consumer economy.
The downside of mass-produced luxury items (status symbols) is that in a credit-based economy, just about everyone can afford to own them. Thus just about anyone can qualify for a mobile phone plan that offers a status-symbol iPhone as part of the multi-year contract.
As a result, the upper classes have been forced to greater extremes in cost and scarcity to differentiate themselves from the masses. For example, now that exotic travel is a affordable to anyone with credit, travel has little status value, unless it's extremely costly or difficult to duplicate.
The same is true of the arts and other cultural status markers, along with the traditional markers such as yachts and second (or third) homes.
As the underlying economy has stagnated, access to higher social states via earned income has decayed, and so commoners have been forced to find some other non-financial means to improve their social status.
Social media fits the bill perfectly: it's essentially free (since everyone has to pay for Internet service anyway) and the only "investment" is in time: time snapping and posting photos on Instagram and Facebook, time posting comments and links designed to attract tribal "likes" and so on.
A commoner with essentially zero social status economically can with enough effort become a "big shot" in some social media platform.
The bar is low enough to attract millions of players: a few dozen "likes" is still a potent reward to most people, as are having a couple hundred followers / readers.
Social media superstars with millions of followers on YouTube have cult-like groupies and all the other social status rewards of recognition and fame.
Social media offers hope of achieving higher online social status without having to succeed financially in a winner-take-most economy or having any of the conventional attributes of becoming famous: physical beauty, extraordinary talent, etc. These attributes are of course helpful in attracting a social media following, but they are not essential.
As a result, everyone wonders "how did so-and-so get hundreds of thousands of followers?" The answer varies, of course: a viral video, a high level of marketing moxie, an engaging style, charismatic presence on camera, a knack for something others admire, etc.
If we understand social media as a new and accessible-to-everyone way to improve our social status, its tremendous grip becomes less of a mystery.
As Jesse explains in our Salon #15 podcast, Toxic Tech Platforms and Disposable Social Media Stars, TikTok's explosive popularity is the direct result of its ease of access and promise of social mobility. TikTok's model bypasses the laborious process of gaining social status via collecting masses of followers/friends and offers an instantly accessible version of semi-celebrity via the number of people viewing one's videos-- a semi-celebrity that can be monetized once the numbers get big enough.
Achieving social status through social media is the last-ditch desperation of a society that has lost all other meaningful social mobility ladders. Conventional wages have stagnated for decades and unconventional wages (gig economy, etc.) are generally low and insecure. Credential pathways that once led to secure, high paying, high-status jobs have crumbled; legions of PhDs who were told their years of sacrifice and effort would lead to tenure-track faculty positions or secure positions in government or industry are academic ronin, wandering from temporary position to temporary position, in effect highly credentialed gig-economy workers.
The rungs of the ladder of entrepreneurial drive have decayed as the costs and risks of starting a business have soared, crowding the get-rich-quick hopefuls into the insanely over-crowded casinos of venture-capital funded tech start-ups, all of whom hope to reach the pinnacle of going public and skimming instant wealth--the tech version of a kid dreaming of becoming an NBA star.
A winner-take-most economy is the only possible output of our corrupt financial/political system which has systematically stripmined all sources of social mobility, leaving the masses with little hope of escaping debt-serfdom / just getting by. In this bleak landscape in which the masses constantly lose ground, TikTok and other social media platforms offer a rare beacon of hope to those who have little chance of winning recognition or riches in our winner-take-most economy.
TikTok and other social media reflect the last-ditch desperation of a society stripped of economically meaningful social mobility and positive social roles. Unfortunately the social media platforms are toxic to both their enthralled users and society at large.
Of related interest:
Recent Podcasts:
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.
Thank you, James C. ($10/month), for your outrageously generous pledge to this site -- I am greatly honored by your longstanding support and readership.
 
Thank you, James Y. ($10/month), for your outrageously generous pledge to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

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Sunday, August 02, 2020

A Vaccine May Not Be the "Magical Cure" Everyone Anticipates

Few appear willing to follow the probabilities of a future in which a vaccine cannot possibly be the "magic cure" everyone wants.
Let's attempt the impossible and set aside all preconceptions we might have about a vaccine for Covid-19, and think it through somewhat dispassionately. Let's start by stipulating that dispassionate analysis is as rare as anti-matter, as everyone's barely-cloaked self-interest and ideological biases demand an indignant, rabid response to any challenges to the one true faith, i.e. whatever they believe.
Speaking of self-interest, we would blind not to notice the rapacious interest of Big Pharma in reaping billions of dollars in profits from a vaccine or vaccines. What could be better for obscene profits than a vaccine everyone must have to participate in the conventional economy, a vaccine the federal government will let the "owner" price at "market"?
"Owner" is in quotes because the federal government is funding much of the research expenses yet the Big Pharma corporations retain ownership of the results--such a deal for Big Pharma! The gummit puts up the money but Big Pharma gets 100% "ownership" and the right to price their vaccine at "market," which is whatever the government is willing to pay for the vaccine it funded.
We would also be remiss not to notice that Big Pharma's track record of releasing medications with glossed-over side-effects and poor efficacy is not exactly spotless. Horrendously costly meds have been passed out like candy with claims of efficacy that have later been shown to be unsubstantiated and side-effects that have been under-reported or otherwise marginalized.
We've all heard the comedic fast-talking voice talent listing the horrific side-effects in a blur during Big Pharma's ceaseless adverts--adverts that were illegal not that long ago. Side effects include hallucinations, dizziness, heart failure, seizures, warts, temporary blindness, compulsive spending sprees, fear of people in white coats, obsessions with travel to Mars, imaginary super-powers, itchiness in the cranial cavity and shortness of breath when eating ice cream. This parody is not far off the actual listings of side-effects.
Yes, it was illegal for drug companies to advertise directly to the public not so long ago. That impediment to additional billions in profits disappeared when the bribes, oops I mean campaign contributions became large enough for politicos to sell the public interest down the river.
Thus a bit of cautious skepticism about Big Pharma's claims and pricing is in order. The list of people who are now dead after believing Big Pharma's claims that its opioids were "safe" and "non-addictive" is tragically long.
Then there's the pesky issue of reliability: can any corona-virus vaccine achieve 99% effectiveness? And for how long? There is some science-based skepticism that a corona-virus vaccine that works for virtually everyone and is effective for a year or longer is even achievable.
If the reliability/effectiveness is significantly less than 99%, that introduces a Russian-Roulette type risk calculus in those getting the vaccine. What if I'm one of the unlucky folks who get the virus despite getting the vaccine?
If the duration of efficacy is variable--maybe it works for a year for most people but considerably less for a significant percentage of those who get the vaccine--then that also introduces the same risk assessment: how can I know if the vaccine will protect me for a full year?
Since Nature often tracks a Pareto Distribution--the 80/20 rule--let's make some preliminary estimates based on that. Let's say that the vaccine is 80% effective, and 80% of the populace agrees to get the vaccine. (Let's set aside the reasons why 20% of the populace might decide not to get the vaccine regardless of its purported effectiveness or the penalties placed on those who refuse.)
The U.S. population is around 330 million, and let's estimate that institutionalized residents might not be given a choice about getting the vaccine--ot if there are recognized risks, some at-risk institutionalized residents might be refused the vaccine as a matter of caution.
So perhaps 10 million people won't have a choice in the matter. That leaves 320 million with a choice. If 20% refuse for various reasons, that's 64 million who will be unvaccinated and 256 million who choose to get the vaccine.
If the vaccine is effective in 80% of these 256 million people, then 205 million will receive the benefits of the vaccine and 51 million might come down with the virus (perhaps in milder cases, perhaps not--that will have to be determined by large-scale double-blind studies).
Again following the Pareto Distribution, let's estimate that 20% of the 256 million people who get the vaccine will choose to avoid higher-risk settings such as cruises, concerts, etc., even though they've been vaccinated, because the uncertainty increases their caution. This would be entirely understandable and prudent in at-risk populations such as those older than 60, those with pre-existing conditions, etc.
As I explained in Consumer Spending Will Not Rebound--Here's Why (May 18, 2020), this older, at higher-risk cohort happens to collect the lion's share of household income and own the lion's share of household wealth. Their decisions to limit participation in riskier activities have an outsized economic impact because they collect almost half the income and own about 85% of all household wealth.
Following the 80/20 rule, we end up with 64 million unvaccinated and 51 million vaccinated who choose to avoid higher-risk activities. That's 115 million people who will not resume their pre-pandemic lifestyles either because they may be barred from activities because they're not vaccinated or because their at-risk profile and the inherent uncertainties of the vaccine cause them to avoid higher-risk activities.
Those assuming that requiring vaccination to board a airliner will boost vaccination to nearly 100% could be underestimating the strength of the motivations of those who decide not to get the vaccine. It would also be unwarranted to assume that everyone who chooses not to get the vaccine is a rabid anti-vaxxer.
Given the latent uncertainties and the self-interest of those pushing for a rapid approval of a vaccine, it would be entirely prudent to choose to let the first wave of residents get the vaccine and then await the results of large-scale studies of efficacy, duration, etc.
Given the rapacious greed of Big Pharma corporations and their track record of playing fast and loose with claims of safety and efficacy, we can also anticipate multiple vaccines battling for market share, a struggle that will create incentives to inflate claims of efficacy and marginalize side-effects.
As for bans on air travel, concerts, etc. for the unvaccinated, many people will simply drop out of the mainstream economy. The wealthy will book seats on private charter aircraft and hire performers in open-air venues, etc., the unwealthy will seek unconventional options and give up flying, going to sports events, etc.--activities they may no longer be able to afford anyway.
What kind of economy will we have if a third of the populace--100+ million people--are no longer participating at pre-pandemic levels for one reason or another? An accurate description might be The Greater Depression.
Few appear willing to follow the probabilities of a future in which a vaccine cannot possibly be the "magic cure" everyone wants. Some percentage of the populace will not be participating in the economy at pre-pandemic levels for one or more of these reasons:
1. They choose not to be vaccinated.
2. They choose to be vaccinated but remain cautious in their activities and spending.
3. They no longer have the income or wealth to resume their 2019 level of borrowing/spending.
Lastly, imagine the impact if a few people die of the virus after getting the vaccine. Human risk assessment does not necessarily track probabilities like a computer. Assuring everyone that only 1% of the recipients of the vaccine become ill or die within a year will not be as reassuring as proponents hope.
Recent Podcasts:
My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


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.
Thank you, Victoria S. ($50), for your splendidly generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your longstanding support and readership.
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Friday, July 31, 2020

Memo from Insiders: Dear Bagholders, Thanks for Buying Our Shares at the Top

The self-sustaining recovery is a fantasy that's evaporated.


What looks like a powerful, can't-lose rally to newbies is recognized as distribution by old hands. In low-volume markets (as in the past few months), insiders holding large positions can't dump all their shares at once or the price of the stock would plummet due to the thinness of the bid.


The only way to get top-dollar for one's overvalued shares is to play distribution games: sell a little each day on the upticks, and buy back shares when they threaten to drop below the key support levels followed by trading algos.


When insiders have finished distributing their shares to naive and trusting bagholders at the top, then the price can flush lower with a velocity that shocks the complacent bagholders who saw only the inevitability of an endless rally rather than the inevitability of a collapse of bubble valuations.


Stocks are priced for a V-shaped recovery and/or $1 trillion in federal giveaways per month. Neither is possible. The V-shaped recovery hopes were based on $6 trillion in federal/Federal Reserve stimulus washing over the nation, boosting household incomes and opening spigots of cash for enterprises and local governments.


The basic idea was to give the economy a needed shot of adrenaline to get to to the point where a recovery would be self-sustaining: companies would hire back laid-off workers, people would start borrowing and over-consuming again, sales and income tax revenues would return to pre-pandemic levels, etc.


The self-sustaining recovery is a fantasy that's evaporated. The spike in activity was all the giveaways being spent. Now that most of the free-money programs are expiring, there's no more stimulus to spend.


As for budgeting another trillion or two for future infrastructure projects: what few proponents of infrastructure spending realize is the number of companies and skilled workers capable of getting this work done is limited. You can create the cash out of thin air but you can't conjure up experienced welders, crane operators, etc. to get the work done or the complex operational skills required to manage these large, complicated projects.


Also overlooked is the fact that most of these companies and workers are already busy, and it takes years to train new workers with the requisite skills.


So what's left to support the can't-lose rally? The promise of trillions of dollars more given directly to households and enterprises and local governments, at a run-rate of a trillion a month. Anything less won't be enough.


And then there's the line of dominoes that are toppling:

Distribution isn't a rally.


Recent Podcasts:

AxisOfEasy Salon #14: Jobageddon and the Coming Education Revolts

Charles Hugh Smith on the disconnect between the Markets and the Economy (51 min)

My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

Audiobook edition now available:
Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World ($13)
(Kindle $6.95, print $11.95) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 (Kindle), $12 (print), $13.08 ( 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).


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.

Thank you, Kevin S. ($50), for your outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

 

Thank you, Michael R. ($5), for your most generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Next Leg Down: The Top 10% Are About to Take a Hit

No federal bailout or stimulus can reverse these three dynamics, and no amount of legerdemain can replace the spending of the top 10%.


Few of those anxiously seeking a rebound in consumer spending take into account the top 10% of households account for almost 50% of consumption, and that top 10% skews heavily to the older, wealthier top tier whose free-spending ways have been built on the enormous wealth effect as their stocks, bonds and real estate assets have soared in value over the past 12 years.


The top 10% has largely escaped the significant financial hits cutting a swath through the bottom 90%, but that's about to change. Few of the top 10% have seen their pensions cut, their portfolios of stocks and bonds shredded, their home value in free-fall or their managerial / technocrat position eliminated. Most are watching the financial devastation from the security of owning 85% of the nation's assets, and from positions in the protected-class with access to federal money, either directly or indirectly.


Three factors could materially suppress the future consumption of those responsible for 50% of all consumer spending.


1. Age-related caution about exposure to the virus. Not only are many of the top 10% older, many of these households are caring for parents in their 70s, 80s or 90s. Given the heightened risks for these demographics, is it really worth it to go into crowds for entertainment? The short answer is no. Furthermore, these older, wealthier households have been there and done that-- foregoing cruises, air travel, fine dining, live music, etc. is not that much of a sacrifice, as they've enjoyed all these niceties for decades.


2. As corporate revenues and profits continue sliding, the managerial / tech class will start getting culled. All sorts of positions that looked "essential" before the pandemic are suddenly on the chopping block.


3. The wealth effect is about to reverse as the Everything Bubble finally pops. With the Nasdaq at record highs, bonds rising in value as yields plummet and the real estate market bubbling along on 3% mortgage rates, such a reversal is widely viewed as "impossible." Of course it is--until it isn't. All bubbles pop.


All the bright spots of consumption fueled by top 10% spending--rising sales of second homes, RVs, home remodeling, etc.--are based on the incomes and wealth of the top 10% never materially declining. But how realistic is it to reckon a rotten-to-the-core economy dominated by greedy monopolies and cartels and looted by financier skims that is finally in an inevitable free-fall would magically leave the top 10% untouched?


How realistic is it to reckon that the Everything Bubble would magically continue inflating forever when history is conclusive that all bubbles pop?


No federal bailout or stimulus can reverse these three dynamics, and no amount of legerdemain can replace the spending of the top 10%.

Recent Podcasts:

AxisOfEasy Salon #14: Jobageddon and the Coming Education Revolts

Charles Hugh Smith on the disconnect between the Markets and the Economy (51 min)

My COVID-19 Pandemic Posts


My recent books:

Audiobook edition now available:
Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World ($13)
(Kindle $6.95, print $11.95) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 (Kindle), $12 (print), $13.08 ( 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).


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.

Thank you, Egon V.G. ($10/month), for your outrageously generous pledge to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

 

Thank you, Shawn K. ($10), for your most generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

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