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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

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Monday, June 29, 2015

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

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Monday, June 22, 2015

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Friday, May 22, 2015

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Second Thoughts on "Free Enterprise"


After thinking about Nick Hanauer's TED presentation the last few days I went back to some of my older blog posts. The following was first posted in October of 2009 and looks at the realities (good and bad) of globalization. 

Here are the main points; you can read the whole thing to get more nuance:

  1. What we call globalization is just the labor market on a larger scale -- and if we don't share the jobs, somebody's going to take them by force.
  2. Successful entrepreneurs leverage a system that rewards them for driving prices down by subsidizing the cost of the goods and services they sell to us -- McDonalds is able to sell cheap burgers because of farm and tax and transportation (etc.) subsidies. 
  3. Perhaps inevitably, businesses that have achieved success will do whatever is necessary to guarantee future success -- including taking advantage of subsidies and cheap labor and regulations that protect the stays quo. Capitalism is fundamentally hegemonic/monopolistic, but now on a global rather than market scale.
  4. Labor -- the human beings who do the work -- are a fungible commodity. Workers are on the books as a liability, not an asset. Productivity gains go to shareholders, not stakeholders.
  5. This is not up for argument. It's already the received wisdom by the global financial/political elites. But there is still a "What's next?" question to be answered.

Entering the Summer of 2012, our eyes are on Greece and Spain in Europe, but the of capitalism may also be found in places like Bangladesh or Singapore or, god forbid, Somalia.


The piece was meant to be provocative, somewhere outside the dialog at the time. I'm pleased (or saddened) to find it still current. Let me know if you think we've learned something.






WHY FREE ENTERPRISE ISN'T (October '09)


Among the inescapable lessons drawn (by me) from the current economic tsunami are:
  •  Globalization is absolutely necessary: if we want to keep every ambitious or desperate third-worlder from coming to where the jobs are (here), we have to send at least some of the jobs to where they are. 
  • Globalization means that the American working middle class is history: it was their jobs that got sent wherever.

This is not happenstance. There is a key human, behavioral imperative in operation. It is a trait, an instinct perhaps, which has allowed us to compete so successfully with the other species in our environment. We (you and me) would not be here without it. And it could easily be  the imperative that cause the collapse of our global society.

In virtually every human culture we know about, humans demonstrate competitive behaviors, played out in the acquisition of money and/or power. Not every individual is driven by this, certainly, but most cultures reward that minority of individuals who are the most competitive personalities large amounts of control over everyone else. You can argue that ethnic and political cultures gained strength to the degree that they formalized the ascent to power (to prevent endless battles) and balanced the interests of the power elite (who may be less competitive than their founders) with the interests of the plebes (some of whom may be more).

If that balance is lost, the natural urge to dominate is by definition more unbridled, even manic.  The American economy has gone through several cycles of this excited, almost pathological activity in its history. We have been shrugging it off as a necessary aspect of an efficient free market. Sounds good. But the definition of "free" is what is at the center of this.

It was a blog posted by Robert Singer on disinfo.com that got me thinking about what free market really means (at least in this version of capitalist democracy) with the statement:
"You don’t eat the hamburger at McDonalds because it’s a dollar: It’s a dollar to get you to eat it."
 Singer's point is that Ray Croc could sell a hamburger cheap because the grain (which made the bun and fed the cattle ground into the patty) was subsidized -- farmers could sell it for less than it cost to grow. That was because somebody -- taxpayers -- paid them a subsidy that made up the difference.

Now, Ray Kroc could have sold the burger for a higher price and have gotten rich that way. But the genius of Ray Kroc is that the burger he sold bought him both your dollar and a powerful piece of the market. This was about Ray versus everybody else slingin' burgers. Which was mostly diners and cafes run by moms and pops and small entrepreneurs -- gone. The dollars he got from us let him buy a lot of real estate  -- the asset value of McDonalds is primarily in the land the stores sit on, not the number of burgers served. The burgers pay the mortgage. Or perhaps we all do.

Singer sees this an example of the "downward manipulation of prices," a deliberate strategy supported by the Federal Reserve and big finance from its inception:
"Butler’s investigation has identified JP Morgan Chase, one of the founding members of the Federal Reserve, as the prime suspect, in the “ongoing intentional, not accidental” great crime of keeping the price of commodities low so the middle class can afford the American dream, a nightmare for the planet."
It's the same strategy employed by Standard Oil (and all its offspring) and the agribus monoliths, in terms of domestic policy and building reliance on chemical fertilizers and engineered seed. And it's the same strategy, but now leveraging global IMF inequities, that WalMart employs to use low-paid, off-shore labor to supply the goods that will purchase our domestic dollars.  A subsidy here, a controlled wage there, every little wrinkle lets me buy more customers.

But for now, we should know that every piece of food, virtually every consumer item, is paid for in unseen ways -- by manipulated commodity pricing, and by the use of virtual slave labor to work our farms and factories.

The lesson: if you want to win, you've got to own the market, and one way to do that is to decouple everything from value, make it only about price. It's anything but a "free market," unless you mean that by becoming the dominant player you are now free of pesky rivals, other than those that play by your rules. And the players are now global, concentrating huge capital wealth among a tiny fraction of the world's population. Local communities, national societies and cultural ties mean virtually nothing to them. If you buy the competitive thing, at that level it may only be about dueling with the other big players, mano a mano.

Along the way, in our particular culture, we have undervalued skill and knowledge, and have created a glutted workforce that will take slave wages rather than no work at all. And Wall Street continues to reward those companies that add to the unemployment role, because workers are simply costs, and costs must always be cut.

There was a time when slash-and-burn agriculture was probably key to human survival. It provided sunlight for earth that was rich with the ash of the burned plants. But after a year or two the fertilizer was consumed. It took decades for the biomass on that patch to build to the same level of nutrients. Not a big problem in a big forest with few people.

As the forest fills up with hungry people, slash and burn is probably not a good strategy, except it's always worked before. We know how to do it. It's someone else's problem.

At some point, we may change our short-term tactics to match long-term imperatives. Or the winners will just keep fighting over the remaining forest. For that kind of social disconnect, think London in 1870: toffs in the clubs, corpses in the East End.  I've seen articles/ads on Newsmax.com promising to give you the secret to being a "Robber Baron" in this financial crisis. Something to think about.

Friday, May 18, 2012

TED and the Conventional Wisdom

Over the last few years TED has established itself as a forum for new thinking, a platform for ideas that question (in many cases) the current conventional wisdom. A couple of months ago Nick Hanauer, who has been an enthusiastic entrepreneur for a few decades, and canny enough to make a pile of money, made a brief presentation to a TED audience.

Nick spoke as a capitalist, a person who uses his resources to build new businesses. His point was that capitalists do not create jobs. In fact, as a capitalist he knows that hiring people is one way to scare investors off. He made the point that it is delusional to think of capitalists as job creators -- the transfer of wealth to the 1% (and rising un- and under-employment) over the last few decades of lower marginal tax rates should prove that assertion.

TED, for reasons of its own, decided that it would not post the talk on its website. Nick, who has also been writing about our political culture for several years, pushed for posting. Yesterday, after the issue got picked up by some media outlets TED posted the presentation -- on YouTube -- and got about a quarter million view in the last 17 hours.

Despite TED's characterization of Nick's speech as "partisan" it comes across as low-key and fact-based -- a rich man who recognizes wealth is its own blessing and deserves no other favors. So why TED's insecurity about his talk? Is it a little too at odds with their conventional wisdom? Is TED just another arm of the MSM? Or is this a clever plan to get Nick's message beyond the TED auditorium?

Beyond that, can you think of a reason why this viewpoint, and perhaps Nick himself, is not given greater coverage and discussion in the media?



- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Waves, Markets and the Confidence Game

There is a school of thought that sees clear patterns in economic activity, especially as measured by markets in stocks and commodities. One group coalesces around the Elliott Wave Principle. 

In the 1930s, Ralph Nelson Elliot, an American accountant, observed that markets move in clear cycles, commonly called Elliott waves. His analysis identified the key attributes of these cycles -- dominant-trend 5-wave patterns and corrective-trend 3-wave patterns. Moreover, this pattern self-replicates fractally as you move to larger or smaller time scales, from minutes to centuries. The patterns themselves, as it turns out, also reflect some interesting mathematical affinities: fibonacci progressions and golden ratios. 

To his credit, Elliott did not try to identify a cause, other than a collective human personality, or "mood", that reflects the cycles and mood swings of countless individuals. He accepted the fact that the entire system was massively complex, chaotic even, and the cycle was way bigger than any individual actors. His goal was to build in a certain patience, as observers use an understanding of the cycles to pursue their own ends.

In the ‘70s his work was rediscovered by Robert Prechter, a trader at Merrill Lynch, who published Elliott’s findings and became an important theorist for the stock market for the last three decades.

What really interests me about the Wave Principle is that it assumes the dominant role of the collective (un-)consciousness, and that the market indices, like the Dow, are accurate indicators of the general mood.

In the online journal The Scionomist (www.socionomics.net) , an article I found by Euan Wilson, "A Parting of Peaceful Ways: A Socioeconomic View of Civil Wars," correlates market performance and/or GDP per capita to major social events, like civil wars, back as early as 1695 (pretty much the beginning of capitalist markets). The point was that major disruptive events, like wars, follow market declines, and declines follow gains. And that these declines are then manifested in popular fashion and entertainment (“news”), and then, eventually in indicators like peace and war. 

The cycles work in both directions, in terms of mood, in a dynamic pattern: every movement is a correction, positive to negative to positive, down to the smallest scale. If you get the scale right, you might have a picture of the next week, or decade, or century, and place you bets accordingly. Wilson also recreates Robert Prechter’s timeline for these peaks and valleys stretching  back to 0 AD.

I can not judge the accuracy of Elliott’s theory or Wilson’s vision, either as a look backwards or as it comments on our current situation and outlook. In the numbers-driven world of financial markets it seems to have been well tested and is still highly regarded. That said, I’m still not sure that it doesn’t work better after the fact than as a predictor. Or wouldn’t there be a sizable group of people who made a lot of money on this last finance kerfuffle? Oh, wait, there were some people who made a LOT of money on the “meltdown,” weren’t there. Lol.

Looking at these graphs, it’s hard not to think that the “market” is not just analogous to the general mood, it is inseparable from it. The larger the market, the more widespread the cycle. As soon as Rome started to depend on grain from Egypt and other colonies, it was pretty much downhill for the Empire. A bad harvest on the Nile affected the price of grapes in Germany, as well as confidence in the future. "Maybe those barbarians at the gate wouldn’t be such a bad change." Enter, stage right, Dark Ages.

I also get from these graphs that the trend is remarkably up. There is something that drives human beings to consume more, to have more. We have not got past the lesson of the cave: life is fragile and we are in a constant battle for an advantage just in case the harvest does fail. And the cycles tell us the harvests will fail, sooner of later. The models also suggest that this particular crisis has a long way to fall to actually reset to Zero.

By the way, other research I’ve done into these cyclical patterns suggests that perhaps an even better indicator than the Dow or S&P indices might be the ratio of employment to population. Not many of us actually buy or sell equities, but we are all aware if we are employed or not. And it might give us a more meaningful metric in this oxymoronic “jobless recovery.”

In the meantime, this constantly competitive market means there always losers as well as winners. And concentrations of capital mean many more losers, though in capitalist democracies there is also turbulence, so even a loser might think he’s going to be a winner in the future. 

And, that I think, is the driver behind public “mood” -- Confidence. As in, this is in fact a confidence game. The declines we see in financial markets are closely related (if not identical) to confidence in the future -- "this time the lottery will give me what I deserve." So what disruption are we heading for? What sack of Rome awaits us?

I didn’t find much idea in that article of what we should actually do if we do recognize the current trend as a decline. But another Socionomist article, “Sports Scandals and Signs of Shifting Mood” by Gary Grimes, might give us some guidance. Especially if we are celebrities.

Grimes starts by tracking the Tiger Woods story, and especially the point that a number of people knew something about Tiger’s extra-curricular sex life five or six years ago, but the stories never gained any traction with the press or the public until recently. He also makes the point that Tiger began to lose endorsements after the stock market started its decline in 2007. People in a more negative mood were more willing to believe the worst and so his current crisis is another reflection of the deepening bear-market mood.

In fact, Grimes sees a general trend of disillusionment with sports and its stars tracking the emergence of the down market. And he points to one star -- Andre Agassi -- who played the cycles in significant ways. In the bear-market ‘80s he was the wild-child rebel. As the market turned positive he wore white at Wimbeldon and founded a charity. And now he’s back with a tell-all autobiography just right for declining market -- sex, drugs and attitude. Grimes’ advice to Tiger is to consider toughening up the ol’ image, Tiger as predator, perhaps (like the recent Vanity Fair cover shot?).

My advice would be aimed more at the political arena. If we see this as a period of decline, then we understand the appeal of any mad-as-hell rabble rouser. That’s how Obama ran, even if he was an unusually academic sounding rabble rouser. So all that anger may be swirling around out there, and while it hasn’t yet coalesced around anything, it doesn't need to coalesce to disrupt. The wave theory tells us increased bad news will give more credence to somebody who can focus that disaffection. So, we're looking at either chaos or a despot.

Looking at the data, the only thing that really matters is the public mood, and the one way to swing public confidence is to increase employment (and not necessarily GDP, for instance). That would be good for incumbents, and for the country. But for the current opposition party what’s good for the country would be bad for their ambitions, and would be playing against the cycle. And I think we can see how that’s working.