Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why the Periphery Is Crumbling: The Spoils System Is Cracking

Instability starts on the periphery and moves into the core.

While it is clear that the instability in periphery nations is arising from dynamics unique to each nation, there is one unifying causal factor: the spoils system in each nation is breaking down.

Every nation-state, from brutal dictatorships to nominal democracies, ultimately depends on a spoils system that provides the various factions, classes, etc., with sufficient material and status benefits to accept the Status Quo arrangement.

The more a regime relies on oppression for its legitimacy (for example, North Korea or Saddam's Iraq), the greater its vulnerability to erosion in the spoils system, which naturally favor the military and the regime's Elites.

In broad brush, the spoils available for distribution are the surplus generated by the national economy. In the case of North Korea, this surplus stems from extortion (of donations from other nations), satrapy (free oil from China) and illicit activities (arms sales and counterfeiting). A common source of surplus is oil (Venezuela, Iraq, Iran) or some other desirable commodity.

The vast majority of surpluses outside oil exporting nations have been generated by three factors: cheap energy, rising productivity and the expansion of credit. If we examine periods of rapid expansion and generalized prosperity, we find these three factors were active: cheap energy, rising productivity and ample credit.

Just look at Europe and the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s, Japan in the 1960s and 70s, and China in the 1980s and 90s for examples.

Any reversal in these factors reduces surplus and the spoils being distributed. Sharply higher energy costs crimp profits and cause recessions, stagnating productivity leads to near-zero growth and institutional/state sclerosis and credit contraction leads to recession and the destruction of malinvestments.

Since ruling Elites are by definition constantly picking winners and losers, any Status Quo operated by Elites is systematically malinvesting on a gargantuan scale. This is the ontological imperative of any Elite: skim as much of the national surplus as possible and funnel it to cronies and loyal toadies. The prudent Elites (and imprudent Elites don't last long--the spoils system is quite Darwinian) set aside enough surplus to distribute as spoils, effectively buying the complicity of key sectors, classes, factions, etc.

Thus the default policy of any ruling Elite is bread and circuses: supply the potentially disruptive masses with food and entertainment, and they'll continue their grudging support of whatever arrangement is supplying the bread and circuses.

Any mob that appears threatening can be dissipated with a "whiff of grapeshot."

In the U.S., the spoils system is almost unlimited: corporate welfare for capital, food stamps and SSI disability for the lumpenproletariat, big-bucks jobs as water-carriers for the Elites for technocrats in the State, finance, think tanks, elite universities and Corporate America sectors, a variety of quasi-secure lower-level positions as enforcers, lackeys, apparatchiks and factotums and a smattering of tax subsidies (mortgage interest deduction, etc.) to placate what's left of the non-state-dependent middle class.

The spoils system is not only the foundation of every Elites' political legitimacy, it is the thin layer of plaster that covers all the longstanding ethnic, regional, linguistic, religious and political fault lines that run beneath current nation-state arrangements.

As noted in yesterday's entry Ukraine: A Deep State Analysis, numerous national borders were drawn after World War II (1945) with little regard for historical divisions between various groups or preceding borders.

Entire nations were penciled into existence by Imperial diktat in complete disregard for existing historical groups--Iraq and Syria being just two examples of many.

As long as the stick of repression and the carrot of the spoils system were sufficiently persuasive, the tectonic plates beneath the regime were masked. But once the spoils system and the machinery of suppression crack, the old rivalries arise anew.

The spoils system can crack for two reasons: either the national surplus declines so there simply isn't enough spoils left to keep everyone placated, or the spoils diversion to the Elites and their cronies exceeds the tipping point of legitimacy.

Greece and Venezuela are examples of the first dynamic, and Ukraine is an example of the second dynamic. Greece essentially funded its vast spoils distribution system with borrowed money. When the regime's free-money machine finally broke, the spoils system crashed along with the legitimacy of the Status Quo.

Venezuela is suffering a similar crash, based not on a withdrawal of credit but on the current Elites' destruction of the nation's oil industry and what was left of its productive private economy.

In Ukraine, the plundering of the national surplus by oligarchic Elites finally exceeded the populace's threshold of legitimacy, and once the armed forces and police refused to murder their cousins, brothers, nieces and nephews in the streets, the Status Quo arrangement collapsed.

Now that the spoils system has crumbled, all the historical tectonics and fault lines are emerging in full force. the same can be said of Iraq and many other inherently unstable nation-states/regimes.

Why is the periphery crumbling? It's simple: the conditions that enabled rising national surpluses and the distribution of spoils is breaking down for three reasons:

1. Energy is no longer cheap (compared to past prices)

2. The low-hanging fruit of higher productivity has all been plucked

3. The free-money flood of cheap, limitless credit is drying up

As regimes find surplus and credit are both contracting, their ability to placate every key group with spoils is also declining, and the conflicts between them can no longer be patched over with bribery or brutality.

Instability starts on the periphery and moves into the core. I have covered this in depth a number of times:

Instability Start on the Margins (October 31, 2013)

The Core-Periphery Model (June 11, 2013)

EU Leaders Throw Europe a Plutonium Life Preserver (October 27, 2011)

Everywhere, the instability from a failing spoils system is seeping from the periphery into the core: the E.U., the U.S., China and India. Two Powder Kegs Ready to Blow: China & India (January 23, 2014)

This erosion of the spoils system has a peculiar characteristic: once the old spoils system cracks and collapses, it cannot be put back together. A new arrangement arises, despite the best self-serving efforts of the current Elites. 



The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economy

With the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

It is no surprise everyone is asking: Where is the return on investment? Is the assumption that higher education returns greater prosperity no longer true? And if this is the case, how does this impact you, your children and grandchildren?

go to Kindle edition
We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy clearly describes the underlying dynamics at work - and, more importantly, lays out a new low-cost model for higher education: how digital technology is enabling a revolution in higher education that dramatically lowers costs while expanding the opportunities for students of all ages.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy provides clarity and optimism in a period of the greatest change our educational systems and society have seen, and offers everyone the tools needed to prosper in the Emerging Economy.

Read Chapter 1/Table of Contents

print ($20)       Kindle ($9.95) 




Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Read the Introduction/Table of Contents
Kindle: $9.95       print: $24 



Thank you, John D'A. ($50), for yet another exceptionally generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.Thank you, Steve L. ($10/month), for your wondrously generous subscription to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ukraine: A Deep State Analysis

Some preliminary thoughts on a complex situation.

It doesn't take any special insight into the situation in Ukraine to conclude that no one narrative illuminates all the dynamics. Various contesting Grand Narratives have emerged in the media--neofascist coup, rampant corruption, east versus west, to name a few--but these only describe a few of the regional fault lines and complexities.

At my request, correspondent A.C. offered a preliminary Deep State analysis of the situation. A.C.'s perspective is informed by decades of experience in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Baltic region.

I recently discussed the Deep State in The Dollar and the Deep State, and offered this definition by Mike Lofgren:

The term “Deep State” was coined in Turkey and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized crime.

The Deep State is a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the nation without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.

I describe the U.S. Deep State as the National Security State which enables a vast Imperial structure that incorporates hard and soft power--military, diplomatic, intelligence, finance, commercial, energy, media, higher education--in a system of global domination and influence.

One key feature of the Deep State everywhere is that it makes decisions behind closed doors and the surface government simply ratifies and implements the decisions. I have covered various aspects of geopolitics and the Deep State for years, for example:

The Great Game: Geopolitics and Oil (October 19, 2010)

The Banality of Evil and Imperial Over-Reach (December 14, 2010)

Speaking of Iraq--let's start with the obvious Deep State agenda in Ukraine: energy. Nations with a strategic "vital interest" in the region's energy mix include Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Germany (and the rest of the Europen Union, which currently depends on natural gas piped through Ukraine from Russia), Romania and (of course) the United States, which maintains a strategic interest in every square meter of the planet (including the seas and ice caps).

It's not much of a stretch to say that Russia's fiscal health and geopolitical influence are based on hydrocarbons--specifically gas and oil delivered to other nations for cash and/or political favors.

The maturation of fracking technologies have led to the exploration of western Ukraine, Poland and Romania by super-major oil companies such as Chevron:Where We Operate - Chevron

Chevron holds four shale concessions in Poland—Frampol, Grabowiec, Krasnik and Zwierzyniec—which total approximately one million acres. In the Grabowiec concession, drilling of the first well was completed in March 2012, followed by a diagnostic fracture integrity test in December 2012. A first well also was drilled in the Frampol concession in 2012. In the Zwierzyniec concession, drilling began in December 2012. Continued exploration drilling is planned for 2013. 
Chevron holds more than 2 million acres in Romania, including a 1.6-million-acre concession in the Barlad Shale. We plan to drill an exploration well in 2013. We hold three additional concession agreements covering 670,000 acres in southeast Romania. Acquisition of 2-D seismic data across these concessions is expected to begin in 2013. 
Chevron successfully bid for the right to exclusively negotiate with the government of Ukraine for the Oleska Block. The company is expected to operate and hold a 50 percent interest in the 1.6 million-acre concession.
Ukraine holds promise for shale gas despite uncertainty

The development of gas fields in these regions poses a direct competitive threat to the near-monopoly currently held by the Russian national oil company, Gazprom.This sets up a scramble for energy, where western Ukraine, Poland, Romania and the EU have powerful financial incentives to develop energy sources outside of Russian control, while Russia has an incentive to secure energy resources and assets in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Here is A.C.'s outline of some of the key dynamics:

This gas pipeline map graphically illustrates Gazprom's real problem. A major competing gas field is appearing literally underneath a major existing east-west gas pipeline running into central Europe. Drill wells and immediately begin selling to Germany and other existing Gazprom customers. And also undercut Gazprom's pricing by a touch. 
The extent to which US-based multinational oil and gas firms are directly displacing Russian enterprises in supplying the EU is remarkable. Chevron and Exxon are very prominent in the emerging offshore and shale plays. 
I think the imminent threat of Ukrainian shale gas development is a factor in forcing Putin's hand over the EU trade deal. Putin's regional Great Power ambitions are backed entirely by strong arm hydrocarbon diplomacy. Putin's domestic political position equally rests on stable and elevated hydrocarbon prices to fund the state budget. 
He has no revolutionary ideology with mass appeal in religion, politics or economics. Nor does he possess a large internationally recognized sphere of dominance like Stalin obtained at Yalta in 1945. 
Nor does he have a large land army with which to intimidate and subdue neighboring states. He's only managed to convert a portion of the shrunken Army to "kontraktniki" (well-paid professional volunteers). These guys are the ones suppressing the Muslim insurgents in the Caucasus. If Putin attempted to openly intervene in the Ukraine with the available and virtually untrained conscript military forces it would produce a political explosion in Russia's own internal politics. This is addition to the surge of Ukrainian nationalist opposition that would ensue. 
Putin's risk arises not just from the example being set for Russian domestic opponents. If Putin is seen to be responsible for alienating and finally "losing" the Ukraine he'll find himself in trouble with the Russian Deep State. 
What's Happening in Kiev Right Now Is Vladimir Putin's Worst Nightmare (New Republic) 
Will Ukraine Break Apart (New Yorker) 
As this piece notes, modern Ukraine in its present form is an artifact of the 1945 Yalta Conference and the post World War II order. Just like Yugoslavia. Unfortunately for all concerned, this latent instability is now compounded by a happenstance of geology and the recent maturation of the technology for exploiting shale gas reserves. Adjoining neighbors like Poland now have motives that were missing when the Ukraine was a poor and primarily agrarian land. 
The gas pipeline map shows the major incentives and rational objectives of a partition strategy from Putin's perspective. He can't stop development in Polish Lublin or near Lviv. He at least needs to keep control of infrastructure in the eastern Ukraine. Offshore Black Sea oil and gas tract concessions are also at stake.
This suggests that the interests of all parties align in supporting a de facto partition rather than a civil war in Ukraine in which neither side could establish stable, long-term control of the other.

I asked A.C. for his view of the U.S. Deep State's goals in the region.

The short two-part answer is: 
1. Frustrate Moscow's ambitions to dominate Eurasia. The operative strategic analyses employed are MacKinder's World-Island Theory as subsequently and heavily modified by modern hydro-carbon fuel economics: The Geographical Pivot of History. 
2. Continue to improve the EU's Central European position with respect to its hydrocarbon fuel supplies. The Neocons were already deeply worried about the growth of NATO dependence on Gazprom and the eastern pipelines in the mid-1980s. This has been on their radar for decades. 
The overall objective is to destroy Putin's capacity to set marginal natural gas prices in Europe. If pipelines under the Baltic and Black Seas are feasible so are pipelines under the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to France, and from the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean to Greece and southeastern Europe. Add some LPG terminals and European shale gas operations and this is achieved. 
There may be a third goal in trying to set an example for domestic Russian opponents, which exist in great numbers. I think it's more likely the Russian Federation's Deep State will find another leader first.
Thank you, A.C., for your perspective on this complex, fast-evolving situation.Sometimes strategic goals can be met not by establishing overt control (i.e. becoming a target) but by indirectly thwarting the goals of competing Deep States. 



The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economyWith the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

It is no surprise everyone is asking: Where is the return on investment? Is the assumption that higher education returns greater prosperity no longer true? And if this is the case, how does this impact you, your children and grandchildren?

go to Kindle edition
We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy clearly describes the underlying dynamics at work - and, more importantly, lays out a new low-cost model for higher education: how digital technology is enabling a revolution in higher education that dramatically lowers costs while expanding the opportunities for students of all ages.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy provides clarity and optimism in a period of the greatest change our educational systems and society have seen, and offers everyone the tools needed to prosper in the Emerging Economy.

Read Chapter 1/Table of Contents

print ($20)       Kindle ($9.95) 




Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Read the Introduction/Table of Contents
Kindle: $9.95       print: $24 


Thank you, Cheryl A. ($100), for yet another outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.Thank you, Luther A. ($50), for your extravagantly generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Clearing Billions in Profit Is About to Get Much Harder

The math of netting $1 billion is daunting.

The mainstream financial media nearly wet its collective pants with excitement in reporting that the planet's corporations paid $1 trillion in dividends in 2013. What they didn't report is that clearing billions in profit is about to get much harder.

As a refresher, let's look at what it takes to net $1 billion in net profit.
You sell 10 products or services that each yield $100 million in net profit. There aren't too many such products or services. Aircraft carriers come to mind, but there are fewer than 40 active-duty carriers in the world. A semiconductor fabrication plant that costs $1+ billion might yield $100 million in net profit for its vendors, but there aren't many $1+ billion fabs around.

You sell 100 products or services that each yield $10 million in net profit. Examples include large airliners, power plants, etc.

You sell 1,000 products or services that each yield $1 million in net profit.

You sell 10,000 products or services that each yield $100,000 in net profit.

You sell 100,000 products or services that each yield $10,000 in net profit.

You sell 1,000,000 products or services that each yield $1,000 in net profit.

You sell 10,000,000 products or services that each yield $100 in net profit.

You sell 100,000,000 products or services that each yield $10 in net profit.

You sell 1,000,000,000 products or services that each yield $1 in net profit.

Let's consider a well-known example of a highly profitable company: Apple. Back in the good old days, when Macintosh computers were scarce and highly desirable, Apple famously netted $1,000 per computer in profit. (Please adjust for inflation to dial in the time-frame.)

So Apple had to sell 1 million Macs to net $1 billion.

Margins have dropped considerably as competition increased and the cost of components dropped. Can any company net $1,000 nowadays on a personal computer? It seems unlikely, as technology works to lower costs and increase supply, reducing margins.

Let's say Apple nets $100 per iPhone and iPad. If so, Apple has to sell 10,000,000 of these devices to net $1 billion.

But since low-cost Android phones and tablets can be had in China for $50 each wholesale, manufacturers without the cache of the Apple brand and features have to sell 100,000,000 such low-cost phones and tablets at $10 net profit each to net $1 billion.

At the consumer-products level, companies selling shampoo, diapers, etc. have to sell 1 billion items that each net $1 to reap $1 billion in net profit.

As the costs of production and the demand both decline, profits plummet along with prices and sales. Apple looks ahead and sees a market for smart phones and tablets that is increasingly saturated in advanced economies (i.e. everyone who wanted one has already bought one, and the market for replacements is not a high-growth scenario) and increasingly competitive in emerging markets (i.e. consumers might desire an Apple product but are unable to afford one, so they buy a $50 device instead).

Thus it is not entirely surprising that Apple is looking far afield for new opportunities to reap high margins and profits: Apple exploring cars, medical devices to reignite growth (S.F. Chronicle, subscription required)

Such a buying spree has ignited fierce speculation in tech circles and on Wall Street about Apple's future ambitions, especially as smartphone and tablet sales start to slow. Most of that speculation has centered on wearable technology or perhaps a souped-up upgrade of Apple TV.But Apple is thinking bigger. Much bigger. 
A source tells The Chronicle that Perica met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in Cupertino last spring around the same time analysts suggested Apple acquire the electric car giant. 
The newspaper has also learned that Apple is heavily exploring medical devices, specifically sensor technology that can help predict heart attacks. Led by Tomlinson Holman, a renowned audio engineer who invented THX and 10.2 surround sound, Apple is exploring ways to predict heart attacks by studying the sound blood makes at it flows through arteries. 
Taken together, Apple's potential forays into automobiles and medical devices, two industries worlds away from consumer electronics, underscore the company's deep desire to move away from iPhones and iPads and take big risks.
Allow me to state the obvious: Apple is grasping at straws in its search for new ways to net $1 billion. Electric autos are a small but growing market, but Mr. Musk appears to be doing quite well on his own at Tesla and has little incentive to cut anyone else into the deal.

High-cost medical devices depend on the tottering sickcare system for payment, and if the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has indeed provided the final destabilizing push over the cliff, counting on the gummit to pay full price for millions of costly devices/tests may not be a sure bet any more.

The math of netting $1 billion is daunting. You have to sell a million products or services that net $1,000 each to clear $1 billion. Say the battery pack on an electric car costs $12,000 now. It's certainly possible to net $1,000 on each pack at that price. But you have to sell 1 million packs a year to net $1 billion. Since electric autos are selling in the thousands, not millions, it will be a long time before anyone can sell 1 million battery packs a year.

As the price of batteries declines, it will become more difficult to net $1,000 per pack. By the time the price has declined to the point that someone can sell 1 million packs a year, the net profit per pack might be $100 rather than $1,000.

Here's the macro picture: China and the emerging markets are slowing as various credit bubbles pop, meaning the profits from moving commodities to Asia will plummet. The developed world is also depending on credit bubbles and the one-time consumption of seed corn (capital/equity) for its anemic expansion. Eating Our Seed Corn: How Much of our "Growth" Is From One-Time Cashouts? (February 25, 2014)

The point is this: technology lowers margins, and credit bubbles inevitably pop.Any company or nation that depends on maintaining high margins in credit-bubble-based "growth" is about to find that it's much harder to net $1 billion, much less $1 trillion. 




The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economyWith the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

It is no surprise everyone is asking: Where is the return on investment? Is the assumption that higher education returns greater prosperity no longer true? And if this is the case, how does this impact you, your children and grandchildren?

go to Kindle edition
We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy clearly describes the underlying dynamics at work - and, more importantly, lays out a new low-cost model for higher education: how digital technology is enabling a revolution in higher education that dramatically lowers costs while expanding the opportunities for students of all ages.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy provides clarity and optimism in a period of the greatest change our educational systems and society have seen, and offers everyone the tools needed to prosper in the Emerging Economy.
Read Chapter 1/Table of Contents

print ($20)       Kindle ($9.95) 



Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Read the Introduction/Table of Contents

Kindle: $9.95       print: $24 


Thank you, Michael J. M. ($50), for yet another outstandingly generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership. Thank you, William B. ($25), for your extremely generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Eating Our Seed Corn: How Much of our "Growth" Is From One-Time Cashouts?

We as a nation are consuming our seed corn in great gulps, and there will be precious little left in a decade to pass down to the next generation.

Anecdotally, it seems a significant percentage of our recent economic "growth" is being funded by one-time cashouts of IRAs, 401Ks, sales of parents' homes, etc. This is the equivalent of eating our seed corn. Once these pools of savings/equity/capital are gone, they aren't coming back.

I personally know a number of people who have cashed out their retirement account 401Ks (and paid the taxes) to pay for their kids' college expenses--in effect, cashing out their retirement to lower but not eliminate the debt burden of their offspring who bought the "going away to college" experience.

The cashed-out 401K delighted the government, which reaped huge penalties and income taxes, as the cashout pushed the annual income of the recipient into a high tax bracket. ("Hardship" withdrawals for medical care and education waive the penalties, but the income tax takes a big chunk of the withdrawal.)

The middle-aged person who cashed out their retirement will not work long enough to save an equivalent nestegg. Not only is time against such an accumulation of retirement savings, so is the stagnant economy: companies are slashing 401K contributions to offset rising healthcare (a.k.a. sickcare) expenses, and many workers young and old alike are finding jobs that pay them as self-employed contractors or part-time jobs with no benefits.

Another set of middle-aged people are withdrawing from IRAs (and paying the penalties) just to fill the gap between expenses and income. For a variety of reasons, many people are loathe to cut expenses or are unable to do so without drastic changes in their lifestyle. So they withdraw from the IRA (individual retirement account) to cover expenses that are left after income has been spent.
This "solution" is appealing to those whose incomes have declined in what they perceive as "temporary" hard times.

Another pool of equity that is being drained is the home equity in aging parents' homes. The government will only pay for one set of medical expenses (long-term care, for example) if the elderly person has assets of less than $2,000 (as I recall). Given this cap, it makes sense for elderly homeowners to transfer ownership of their home to their offspring well before they need long-term care (which can cost $12,000 to $15,000 a month).

A variety of other medical expenses can arise that cause the home to be sold to raise cash--either expenses for the elderly parents or for their late-middle-age offspring who develop costly health issues. Family disagreements over sharing the equity can arise, leading to the sale of the house and the division of the equity among the offspring.

This cash is immediately hit with a variety of demands: a grandkid needs a car, somebody needs money to go back to graduate school (pursuing the fantasy that another degree will provide financial security), and so on--not to mention "we deserve a nice vacation, a new car, etc.", the temptations in a consumerist culture that we all "deserve."

Once the family home is sold, the furnishings and other valuables are also sold off to raise cash. In many cases, the expense of transporting the items across the country to relatives exceeds the value of the furnishings.

One common thread in all these demands for liquidation of equity is the short-term need is pressing. A consumerist culture offers few incentives for long-term savings other than life insurance, IRAs and 401Ks, and all of these can be tapped once a pressing need arises.

Though people may want to hang on to their nestegg, they are faced with short-term needs: how else can I pay tuition, or this medical bill?

As incomes have stagnated and costs for big-ticket expenses such as college and healthcare have soared, the gap between income and expenditures has widened every year for the bottom 90%.



Even those in the top 10% are not protected from draw-downs in retirement funds and family equity in homes and other assets.

Retirement funds, home equity, family assets--these are the financial equivalent of seed corn. Once they're cashed out and spent, they cannot be replaced.

In more prudent and prosperous times, these nesteggs of capital were conserved to be passed on to the next generation not for consumption but as a nestegg to be conserved for the following generation. That chain of capital preservation and inheritance is being broken by the ravenous need for cash to spend, not later but right now.

So how much of the recent "growth" in GDP results from our consumption of seed corn? It is difficult to find any data on this, something which is unsurprising as the data would reveal the entire "recovery" story as a grandiose illusion: we as a nation are consuming our seed corn in great gulps, and there will be precious little left in a decade to pass down to the next generation.

We face not just an impoverishment in consumption but in expectations and generational assets. 




The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economyWith the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

It is no surprise everyone is asking: Where is the return on investment? Is the assumption that higher education returns greater prosperity no longer true? And if this is the case, how does this impact you, your children and grandchildren?

go to Kindle edition
We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy clearly describes the underlying dynamics at work - and, more importantly, lays out a new low-cost model for higher education: how digital technology is enabling a revolution in higher education that dramatically lowers costs while expanding the opportunities for students of all ages.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy provides clarity and optimism in a period of the greatest change our educational systems and society have seen, and offers everyone the tools needed to prosper in the Emerging Economy.

Read Chapter 1/Table of Contents

print ($20)       Kindle ($9.95) 



Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Read the Introduction/Table of Contents

Kindle: $9.95       print: $24 


Thank you, Robert B. ($100), for yet another outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership. Thank you, Michael M. ($60), for yet another supremely generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

Read more...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Dollar and the Deep State

If we consider the Fed's policies (tapering, etc.) solely within the narrow confines of the corporatocracy or a strictly financial context, we are in effect touching the foot of the elephant and declaring the creature to be short and roundish.

I have been studying the Deep State for 40 years, before it had gained the nifty name "deep state." What others describe as the Deep State I term the National Security State which enables the American Empire, a vast structure that incorporates hard and soft power--military, diplomatic, intelligence, finance, commercial, energy, media, higher education--in a system of global domination and influence.

Back in 2007 I drew a simplified chart of the Imperial structure, what I called the Elite Maintaining and Extending Global Dominance (EMEGD):



At a very superficial level, some pundits have sought a Master Control in the Trilateral Commission or similar elite gatherings. Such groups are certainly one cell within the Empire, but each is no more important than other parts, just as killer T-cells are just one of dozens of cell types in the immune system.

One key feature of the Deep State is that it makes decisions behind closed doors and the surface government simply ratifies or approves the decisions. A second key feature is that the Deep State decision-makers have access to an entire world of secret intelligence.

Here is an example from the late 1960s, when the mere existence of the National Security Agency (NSA) was a state secret. Though the Soviet Union made every effort to hide its failures in space, it was an ill-kept secret that a number of their manned flights failed in space and the astronauts died.

The NSA had tapped the main undersea cables, and may have already had other collection capabilities in place, for the U.S. intercepted a tearful phone call from Soviet Leader Brezhnev to the doomed astronauts, a call made once it had become clear there was no hope of their capsule returning to Earth.

Former congressional staff member Mike Lofgren described the Deep State in his recent essay Anatomy of the Deep State:

There is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. 
The term “Deep State” was coined in Turkey and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized crime. 
I use the term to mean a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.
I would say that only senior military or intelligence officers have any realistic grasp of the true scope, power and complexity of the Deep State and its Empire.Those with no grasp of military matters cannot possibly understand the Deep State. If you don't have any real sense of the scope of the National Security State, you are in effect touching the foot of the elephant and declaring the creature is perhaps two feet tall.

The Deep State arose in World War II, as the mechanisms of electoral governance had failed to prepare the nation for global war. The goal of winning the war relegated the conventional electoral government to rubber-stamping Deep State decisions and policies.

After the war, the need to stabilize (if not "win") the Cold War actually extended the Deep State. Now, the global war on terror (GWOT) is the justification.

One way to understand the Deep State is to trace the vectors of dependency. The Deep State needs the nation to survive, but the nation does not need the Deep State to survive (despite the groupthink within the Deep State that "we are the only thing keeping this thing together.")

The nation would survive without the Federal Reserve, but the Federal Reserve would not survive without the Deep State. The Fed is not the Deep State; it is merely a tool of the Deep State.

This brings us to the U.S. dollar and the Deep State. The Deep State doesn't really care about the signal noise of the economy--mortgage rates, minimum wages, unemployment, etc., any more that it cares about the political circus ("step right up to the Clinton sideshow, folks") or the bickering over regulations by various camps.

What the Deep State cares about are the U.S. dollar, water, energy, minerals and access to those commodities (alliances, sea lanes, etc.). As I have mentioned before, consider the trade enabled by the reserve currency (the dollar): we print/create money out of thin air and exchange this for oil, commodities, electronics, etc.

If this isn't the greatest trade on Earth--exchanging paper for real stuff-- what is?While I am sympathetic to the strictly financial arguments that predict hyper-inflation and the destruction of the U.S. dollar, they are in effect touching the toe of the elephant.

The financial argument is this: we can print money but we can't print more oil, coal, ground water, etc., and so eventually the claims on real wealth (i.e. dollars) will so far exceed the real wealth that the claims on wealth will collapse.

So far as this goes, it makes perfect sense. But let's approach this from the geopolitical-strategic perspective of the Deep State: why would the Deep State allow policies that would bring about the destruction of its key global asset, the U.S. dollar?

There is simply no way the Deep State is going to support policies that would fatally weaken the dollar, or passively watch a subsidiary of the Deep State (the Fed) damage the Deep State itself.

The strictly financial arguments for hyper-inflation and the destruction of the U.S. dollar implicitly assume a system that operates like a line of dominoes: if the Fed prints money, that will inevitably start the dominoes falling, with the final domino being the reserve currency.

Setting aside the complexity of Triffin's Paradox and other key dynamics within the reserve currency, we can safely predict that the Deep State will do whatever is necessary to maintain the dollar's reserve status and purchasing power.

Understanding the "Exorbitant Privilege" of the U.S. Dollar (November 19, 2012)

What Will Benefit from Global Recession? The U.S. Dollar (October 9, 2012)

Recall Triffin's primary point: countries like China that run trade surpluses cannot host reserve currencies, as that requires running large structural trade deficits.

In my view, the euro currency is a regional experiment in the "bancor" model,where a supra-national currency supposedly eliminates Triffin's Paradox. It has failed, partly because supra-national currencies don't resolve Triffin's dilemma, they simply obfuscate it with sovereign credit imbalances that eventually moot the currency's ability to function as intended.

Many people assume the corporatocracy rules the nation, but the corporatocracy is simply another tool of the Deep State. Many pundits declare that the Powers That Be want a weaker dollar to boost exports, but this sort of strictly financial concern is only of passing interest to the Deep State.
The corporatocracy (banking/financialization, etc.) has captured the machinery of regulation and governance, but these are surface effects of the electoral government that rubber-stamps policies set by the Deep State.

The corporatocracy is a useful global tool of the Deep State, but its lobbying of the visible government is mostly signal noise to the Deep State. The only sectors that matter are the defense, energy, agriculture and international financial sectors that supply the Imperial Project and project power.

What would best serve the Deep State is a dollar that increases in purchasing power and extends the Deep State's power. It is widely assumed that the Fed creating a few trillion dollars has created a massive surplus of dollars that will guarantee a slide in the dollar's purchasing power and its demise as the reserve currency.

Those who believe the Fed's expansion of its balance sheet will weaken the dollar are forgetting that from the point of view of the outside world, the Fed's actions are not so much expanding the supply of dollars as offsetting the contraction caused by deleveraging.

I would argue that the dollar will soon be scarce, and the simple but profound laws of supply and demand will push the dollar's value not just higher but much higher. The problem going forward for exporting nations will be the scarcity of dollars.

If we consider the Fed's policies (tapering, etc.) solely within the narrow confines of the corporatocracy or a strictly financial context, we are in effect touching the foot of the elephant and declaring the creature to be short and roundish. The elephant is the Deep State and its Imperial Project. 




The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economyWith the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

It is no surprise everyone is asking: Where is the return on investment? Is the assumption that higher education returns greater prosperity no longer true? And if this is the case, how does this impact you, your children and grandchildren?

go to Kindle edition
We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy clearly describes the underlying dynamics at work - and, more importantly, lays out a new low-cost model for higher education: how digital technology is enabling a revolution in higher education that dramatically lowers costs while expanding the opportunities for students of all ages.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy provides clarity and optimism in a period of the greatest change our educational systems and society have seen, and offers everyone the tools needed to prosper in the Emerging Economy.

Read Chapter 1/Table of Contents

print ($20)       Kindle ($9.95) 



Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Read the Introduction/Table of Contents
Kindle: $9.95       print: $24 


Thank you, David H. ($100), for yet another outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership. Thank you, William H. ($50), for yet another superbly generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

Read more...

Saturday, February 22, 2014

From My Garden to My Table in 20 Minutes

Though the the Status Quo is unsustainable, that doesn't mean we are powerless to improve our own lives.

The great thing about a garden is that you can harvest vegetables and serve them for dinner a short time later. Winter gardens are not possible in many areas, but there are a few vegetables that are hardy enough to thrive in cold (but not freezing) temperatures, for example, chard and kale.

I am a very lazy gardener, so the kale and chard thrive on their own, with no help from me other than a bit of compost and weeding. These leafy veggies will continue to produce new leaves for months, so you can harvest a few leaves from each plant throughout the season. Here's some red and green chard I picked a few days ago:



There are many ways to prepare kale and chard--for example, in soups--but one way is to steam a few leaves, squeeze the moisture out and fashion a roll that you slice and top with a drizzle of sesame oil and roasted sesame seeds. This produces a yummy Japanese-style side dish:



Though I often write about the systemic reasons the Status Quo is unsustainable, I also discuss what we can do as individuals and households. That includes having a garden, being frugal as a means of assembling capital ( The Only Leverage We Have Is Extreme Frugality December 27, 2013) and focusing on assets that cannot be devalued or expropriated: skills, social capital, trusted networks, small-scale enterprises you own and control, etc.

This philosophy finds expression in this selection of aphorisms:

"There is no security on this earth; there is only opportunity." (Douglas MacArthur)

"We are what we repeatedly do." (Aristotle)

"Do the thing and you shall have the power." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

"The man who has a garden and a library has everything." (Cicero)

"A healthy homecooked family meal and a home garden are revolutionary acts." (CHS) 



The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economyWith the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

It is no surprise everyone is asking: Where is the return on investment? Is the assumption that higher education returns greater prosperity no longer true? And if this is the case, how does this impact you, your children and grandchildren?

go to Kindle edition
We must thoroughly understand the twin revolutions now fundamentally changing our world: The true cost of higher education and an economy that seems to re-shape itself minute to minute.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy clearly describes the underlying dynamics at work - and, more importantly, lays out a new low-cost model for higher education: how digital technology is enabling a revolution in higher education that dramatically lowers costs while expanding the opportunities for students of all ages.

The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy provides clarity and optimism in a period of the greatest change our educational systems and society have seen, and offers everyone the tools needed to prosper in the Emerging Economy.

Read Chapter 1/Table of Contents

print ($20)       Kindle ($9.95) 




Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Read the Introduction/Table of Contents
Kindle: $9.95       print: $24 


Thank you, James M. ($20), for yet another splendidly generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.Thank you, Steve W. ($25), for your extremely generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Read more...

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