Friday, November 15, 2019

Medicare-for-All "Socialism" Is Just Another Racket

The entire system of health needs to be re-organized from the ground up, and funding the rackets will only speed the collapse of the system.
The core problem with "socialist" proposals such as Medicare-for-All is that they don't actually fix what's broken--they just expand existing rackets such as the healthcare/sickcare racket, the higher education racket, and so on.
Let's start by separating "real socialism" (state ownership of the means of production) from "faux socialism" (the state borrows trillions of dollars to fund self-serving public-private rackets).
The basic idea of classic socialism is that state ownership of the means of production enables the state to harvest the surplus production and invest it in the public good. If the state is organized as a democracy, then the public gets a say in defining "the public good" and changing course if the national surplus is being mal-invested or diverted into the hands of the few under the guise of "the public good."
What's being labeled "socialist" in present-day U.S.A. is nothing more than the state borrowing from future generations to fund profiteering rackets today. It's hardly a secret that the U.S. spends twice as much per person on healthcare but trails the pack of other developed nations in actual health. (See infographic below for the facts, which I have discussed here for 14 years.)
Problem #1 is robust health isn't profitable, while managing chronic lifestyle diseases and pushing needless/harmful medications and procedures are immensely profitable.
Problem #2 is the external costs of destructive but oh-so-profitable products are not paid by either producers or consumers at the point of purchase. The tobacco industry offers an example of this decoupling of "price discovery" and externalities that manifest years or decades later.
Selling tobacco was and is an enormously profitable venture, but only because the full costs of tobacco use manifest many years after the products are purchased and consumed, and these costs do not fall on the tobacco producers but on the consumers (who suffer terrible health consequences and early death), and on the healthcare system and society at large, which must absorb the staggering direct cost of dealing with the diseases caused by tobacco addiction and the indirect costs of lost productivity and early death.
For every $1 of profit the tobacco companies earned, $100 of future external costs were imposed on the consumers of tobacco and society at large. If the full external costs were levied at the point of sale, tobacco would be extremely expensive, and if the true risks had been advertised as heavily as the products themselves, the tobacco companies' liability exposure would have made the packaging and selling of tobacco an unprofitable business.
To maintain profitability, the tobacco companies engaged in a decades-long campaign to mask the real-world health consequences of using their products. The goal was three-fold: hide the well-known consequences of tobacco addiction, maintain that tobacco wasn't addictive, and maintain that it wasn't unhealthy, decoupling the sale of tobacco from the eventual costs.
The same dynamic is in play with America's food industry. Garbage in, garbage out: garbage "food" in, garbage health out.
This plays perfectly into sickcare's PR, which is that there is a magic handful of oh-so-profitable pills one can swallow to "fix" all the disorders caused by a garbage diet and near-zero fitness. And in case your doctor didn't adequately explain the wunnerful benefits of the magic handful of oh-so-profitable pills, Big Pharma helpfully spends billions of dollars on ads to promote a magical-thinking belief that some new med or procedure will "fix" complex, inter-connected metabolic disorders created by poor diet and an absence of fitness.
Medicare-for-All is simply a way to fund the racket as painlessly as possible, which is to borrow from future generations to fund profiteering rackets in Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Packaged Food/Fast Food, and so on--the equivalents of Big Tobacco.
Just as smokers were encouraged to kill themselves without being aware of the eventual consequences of tobacco addiction, consumers of highly processed foods are killing themselves without being aware of the eventual consequences.
The promoters of Medicare-for-All offer a Band-Aid to fund the racketeering nature of U.S. healthcare: we're gonna tax the billionaires and they'll pay for the racket. It would be comical if it wasn't so painfully obvious that in our pay-to-play political circus, any new tax bill will be larded with exceptions and loopholes.
Let's say the "tax the rich" proposals raise $50 billion -- woohoo. But this is a drop in the bucket of additional costs incurred by Medicare-for-All, which could easily top $500 billion a year.
Nobody pushing Medicare-for-All dares connect the dots between garbage in, garbage out lifestyles and an unsustainably costly healthcare system of gargantuan waste, fraud, shameless profiteering, needless/harmful med and procedures, etc., a system which consumes twice as much money per person as our developed-world competitors for a measure of national health that is, if we're honest with ourselves (gasp), actually declining.
The entire system of health needs to be re-organized from the ground up, and funding the rackets will only speed the collapse of the system.
U.S. Healthcare Spending
U.S. Healthcare Spending, courtesy of Peter G. Peterson Foundation



My recent books:
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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.

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, Karen K. ($5/month), for your splendidly generous subscription to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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

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