Sunday, June 28, 2015

What's Forever For?

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So what's the glory in living?
Doesn't anybody ever stay together anymore?
And if love never lasts forever
Tell me what's forever for

Throwing love away and losing their minds… good love is hard to come by…. Rafe VanHoy  penned these lyrics in the late 70s and Michael Martin Murphey launched it onto the top of the Billboard charts in 1982.  I remember painting the inside of our neighbor's stove shop on a cold February morning with my radio blaring Anne Murray's earlier rendition of this song in Ephrata Pennsylvania in 1981.  And the answer to VanHoy's question in 2015 is a resounding, "Not Many!"  Less than half of American households contain a married couple.  In a world where "settling down" was supposed to mark the end of promiscuity and a lifetime of "loving commitment", neither of these are seen as relevant to the majority of Americans.  The Puritanical notion that sex and marriage are inextricable has been vigorously promoted - often by those who themselves live with "guilt" from their own polyamorous physical pasts - as an ideal to which few aspire and even fewer uphold.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nearly 1/3 of the entire U.S. population has a sexually transmitted disease so the odds of a health based argument for fidelity is a modern statistical fallacy.  Nearly a third of married men and women in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and California have been married more than twice making the idyllic "lifetime" marriage illusion an anachronism.  In short, the nonsensical "defense of marriage" campaign that alleged an apocalyptic end of days result from this week's Supreme Court decision upholding the 14th Amendment argument of equal protection picked a diaphanous fig leaf to mask their pretense of intolerant fear.

Marriage is now available to all Americans regardless of sexual orientation.  And this is consistent with the spirit and letter of the 14th Amendment.  The Supreme Court decision is not about sex.  This decision is not about morality.  This decision is about the FACT that the Constitution of the United States affords equal protection and, in an effort to legislate morality, financial incentives were created to coerce people into marriage with the cunning cooption and manipulation of the theater of religious endorsement.  When it was passed on July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment had two objectives: first, to define the principle that people (regardless of origin) were people; and, second, to confirm that the public debts we incur we're obligated to repay.  It's ironic that, this week, we're demonstrating that our efforts to legislate equal treatment of humanity and faith and confidence in keeping the financial promises that we make are as inadequate now as they were in the sunset of the Civil War.  And for those who actually pay attention, the same Bible that is used to argue against homosexuality contains the presumption of slavery, instructions on polygamy, and endorsement of the abusive treatment of those not like the "chosen".  In 1868, plenty of end-of-days prophets railed against the notion that people with different colored skin should be treated as people.  Like this week, the defense of bigotry comes most loudly from those who allegedly take their cues from a man who encouraged tolerance for the other - including bureaucrats, tax collectors and prostitutes!

Behind every smokescreen - particularly when religious fervor is flamed into zealotry - there's usually a substantive issue that is not being discussed.  Why would States be so desperate to keep marriages from happening?  Why would we be more concerned about homosexual lifestyles than Blue on Black murders that seem to be epidemic in their frequency?  Why would self-proclaimed christians feign moral consternation about love and sex while staying silent in the face of state-sanctioned murder perpetrated in defense of "our values"?  I think that the answer is simple.  We The People are predictably manipulated into fearing the other for the economic benefit of a few. 

Who loses economically if gays and lesbians marry?  Well, for starters - taxation authorities.  Tax rates are lower for married couples.  IRA contributions are greater if spouses use each other's earnings for maximum contributions.  Transfers of assets in death are treated differently between spouses.  In short, marriage conveys real economic benefit.  And given that marriage and affluence have been strongly correlated (a correlation that is growing), extending marriage economic benefits to people who chose a homosexual partnership means that a broader swath of the affluent population may diminish tax collections.  Certain employers fear the possibility that they may have to extend benefits to more spouses failing to contemplate that respecting the quality of life of their employees could more than offset in productivity the cost of such benefits.  But chief among the losers are those politicians who have built their power dynasties on preying on "wedge issues" that conveniently divide "conservatives" and "liberals".  With the 14th Amendment losses to abortion and marriage, how is the average Bible belt extremist politician going to get elected?  How are they going to raise money?  How can we expect a democracy to function when we don't have the "other" to fear and hate?

And that's the real economic driver.  Fear and Hate.  We've built economic systems that measure and celebrate Fear.  Tomorrow when the markets take a hit, it will be blamed on Greece.  This is the same Greece who hosted the 2004 Olympics where, in the name of defense from terrorism, a country was forced to pay U.S. defense contractors exorbitant sums of money to "protect the games" while funneling millions to "freedom fighters" who have now turned their guns on their benefactors.  And we enrich our coffers on Hatred.  The U.S. Administration which swore to be the "most transparent" in history has used hatred for Chinese economic influence to craft the most secretive trade agreement in modern times paling against Reagan's economic cold war with Japan in the early 80s.  We haven't built economics based on productive engagement but rather on separation and defense of scarcity.    

Which brings me to the song.  Love lasting forever is and has been seen as an idyllic condition shrouded in make-believe illusions of marriage, patriotism, and religion.  Yet these very institutions in reality have been the bastions of intolerance, fear and hatred.  If we're ever going to answer the question of "forever", we're going to have to see the rainbow not as an emblem of tolerance against the tyranny of hatred but rather for what it actually is - the diffraction of light that allows us to see that it takes all wavelengths to illumine Reality!


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Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Longest Father's Day

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On this 9th Father's Day coinciding with a Summer's Solstice I have a lot of light hours to reflect on my writing and my friends in the Southern Hemisphere have ample hours of darkness to have nothing better to do than read my blog!  As this is the first Father's Day / Summer Solstice double header since I began writing Inverted Alchemy, I thought I'd use this week to reflect on two topics which converge for me around my father.

For those of you who don't know him, my Dad, Aaron E. Martin, is first and foremost a teacher.  There are few people who have mastered the art of conveying knowledge in such a way as to enthrall students rivaling my Dad's capabilities.  In subjects ranging from the minutia of mathematics to the cosmic grandeur of the boundless celestial expanses in astronomy, my Dad constantly embodied a passion for the transmission of that which is known in a form that placed it in the life of the learner. 

My Dad is the embodiment of generosity.  I don't recall a moment in my life when my Dad's passion and compassion for the well-being of others didn't equal or transcend his own.  When I was young, my three brothers and I shared our home and our Dad with many young men who - as Dad's students - needed shelter, mentorship, or a home away from the massive obstacles that life had placed in their path.  Our "big brothers" ranged from recovering substance abusers to young men from broken homes who never knew in their own life the love of a Dad.  On holidays - I remember most often at Thanksgiving - my Dad would find those who did not have a place to celebrate the holiday and bring them home to the feast that Mom prepared.  In Integral Accounting parlance, my Dad lives on the gnosis ordinate - the dimension of alchemy where knowledge and well-being live in dynamic flow.

These two attributes - passion for teaching and generosity - have infused the lives of my brothers and me.  When Ebola struck West Africa, my brother Dan generously and selflessly jumped at the chance to parlay his work at CDC to join the front lines seeking to eradicate this horrible humanitarian crisis.  My brother Jim has turned his research into the infinitely complex cosmology of the nature of matter, energy and transitional structures at the smallest and subtlest levels expressing the wonder of crystalline order in various states of matter.  My brother Tim rappels out of the ceiling of his Earth Science class to teach middle school students a love for the Earth carrying on Dad's love for the Love of Learning.  In short, my Dad's legacy is very much alive and well animating the generation of men he ushered into the world.

As I reflect on the events of this past week - the Federal Open Market Committee meeting to discuss the economy and interest rates, the massacre of worshippers in Charleston, the Jack Brewer Foundation Impact Investor Conference where I spoke, the torrential rains and parched droughts across the world, and Pope Francis' Encyclical on Climate - I was overwhelmed with the inventory of ideas that I had to reflect on in this week's blog.  And as I mused on these seemingly disparate topics on this Solstice Father's Day, I was fascinated by why these things all seem to perfectly inter-relate in my mind while they seem to be so disconnected in the minds of others.  It wasn't until last night when I was watching the twenty year-old film Powder that it dawned on me why I see connections where others see dissociated particles.

We live in a world where we've mistaken value for that which we denominate (from the Latin roots "to name" and "to set away from").  The FOMC tries to support the illusion of serving a public good - facilitating employment and monetary flows - while it in fact is the sanctioned collusive mechanism to enrich its stakeholders.  While banks are felons for rigging foreign exchange, the Fed has been rigging interest rates for years legally because it acts as its own law by virtue of a century of negligent public abdication.  Racism - one of the most insidious denominations in our culture - is reviled when a young shooter guns down worshippers in a church but is celebrated as patriotism when Muslims are in the scope of a U.S. sniper or drone.  We know that generosity is a value worth celebrating but we parasitically extract energy and matter from the Earth in such reckless abandon as to extinguish from present and future generations that which we view as "physical" or "natural" and therefore subject to our dominion.  Our impulse to name and separate - that which we've mistakenly called education, value, and belief - when it fully metastasizes becomes a cancer that robs our economies, kills the "other", and gouges the earth and belches poison into our skies so that we cannot see the stars that my Dad taught me to love.

My Dad's generous instruction allowed me to see the edges of consensus "knowing".  I often tested the boundaries of this view but, without his involvement, I may never have developed the capacity to breach those mythical limits and become the person that I know I'm here to be.  On this Father's Day and Solstice, I trust that the balance of my days are marked not with the impulse to denominate and separate but rather to embodied the quantum entanglement in which the greatest and least are equivalently served.  This, in the final analysis, is the ultimate acknowledgement of that which my Father entrusted to me. 




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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Dueling for Dignity… A Burr-ied Legacy

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Happy 800th Birthday Magna Carta... how little we remember thee!

On this Runnymede Eve I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the quality of thought evidenced by the tract written by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1791.  When you read this, realize that this was Hamilton's explicit adaptation of the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest in which he lays out his view that government should create conditions favorable to, but not interfere with, the commerce of the private sector.  These excerpts are a reminder of the quality of thought that framed the experiment of commerce in trade which now is shrouded by present demagoguery in secrecy and opacity. 

"To endeavor by extraordinary patronage of Government, to accelerate the growth of manufactures, is in fact, to endeavor, by force and art, to transfer the natural current of industry, from a more to less beneficial channel."  As you read this essay, think about substituting "industrial" for "knowledge" economies and ask yourself it we're closer to or further from The Grand (and failed) Experiment.  And when you are finished with this blog post, reflect on how much easier my weekly prose lands in contrast with the likes of Hamilton, Jefferson, and those we celebrate as our greatest continental philosophers!

The expediency of encouraging manufactures in the United States, which was not long since deemed very questionable, appears at this time to be pretty generally admitted.

There still are, nevertheless, respectable patrons of opinions, unfriendly to the encouragement of manufactures. The following are, substantially, the arguments, by which these opinions are defended. "In every country (say those who entertain them) Agriculture is the most beneficial and productive object of human industry. This position, generally, if not universally true, applies with peculiar emphasis to the United States, on account of their immense tracts of fertile territory, uninhabited and unimproved.”  To endeavor by the extraordinary patronage of Government, to accelerate the growth of manufactures, is in fact, to endeavor, by force and art, to transfer the natural current of industry, from a more to a less beneficial channel. Whatever has such a tendency must necessarily be unwise. Indeed it can hardly ever be wise in a government, to attempt to give a direction to the industry of its citizens. This under the quicksighted guidance of private interest, will, if left to itself, infallibly find its own way to the most profitable employment. If contrary to the natural course of things, an unseasonable and premature spring can be given to certain fabrics, by heavy duties, prohibitions, bounties, or by other forced expedients; this will only be to sacrifice the interests of the community to those of particular classes.”

It ought readily to be conceded, that the cultivation of the earth - as the primary and most certain source of national supply - has intrinsically a strong claim to pre-eminence over every other kind of industry.  But, that it has a title to any thing like an exclusive predilection, in any country, ought to be admitted with great caution.  It might be observed that the labour employed in Agriculture is in a great measure periodical and occasional, depending on seasons, liable to various and long intermissions; while that occupied in manufactures is constant and regular, extending through the year.  Manufacturing establishments not only occasion a positive augmentation of the Produce and Revenue of the Society, but they contribute to rendering them greater than they could possibly be, without such establishments. These circumstances are additional employment to classes of the community not ordinarily engaged in the business. The promoting of emigration from foreign Countries; the furnishing greater scope for the diversity of talents and dispositions which discriminate men from each other; the creating in some instances a new, and securing in all, a more certain and steady demand for the surplus produce of the soil.  

The objections to the pursuit of manufactures in the United States, which next present themselves to discussion, represent an impracticality of success, arising from three causes: scarcity of hands, dearness of labor, and want of capital.  With regard to scarcity of hands, the fact itself must be applied with no small qualification to certain parts of the United States. There are large districts, which may be considered as pretty fully peopled.   But there are circumstances that materially diminish every where the effect of a scarcity of hands. These circumstances are - the great use which can be made of women and children - the vast extension given by late improvements to the employment of machines, which substituting the Agency of fire and water, has prodigiously lessened the necessity for manual labor.  As soon as foreign artists shall be made sensible that the state of things here affords a moral certainty of employment and encouragement - competent numbers of European workmen will transplant themselves, effectually to ensure the success of the design.  The supposed want of Capital for the prosecution of manufactures in the United States is the most indefinite of the objections which are usually opposed to it.  The introduction of Banks has a powerful tendency to extend the active Capital of a Country. experience of the Utility of these Institutions is multiplying them in the United States. It is probable that they will be established wherever they can exist with advantage; and wherever, they can be supported, if administered with prudence, they will add new energies to all pecuniary operations.  The aid of foreign Capital may safely, and, with considerable latitude be taken into calculation. Its instrumentality has been long experienced in our external commerce; and it has begun to be felt in various other modes.

There remains to be noticed an objection to the encouragement of manufactures, of a nature different from those which question the probability of success. This is derived from its supposed tendency to give a monopoly of advantages to particular classes at the expense of the rest of the community.  It is not an unreasonable supposition, that measures, which serve to abridge the free competition of foreign Articles, have a tendency to occasion the enhancement of prices; but the fact does not uniformly correspond with the theory. A reduction of prices has in several instances immediately succeeded the establishment of a domestic manufacture.   But though it were true, that the immediate and certain effect of regulations controlling the competition of foreign with domestic fabrics was an increase of prices, it is universally true, that the contrary is the ultimate effect with every successful manufacture. When a domestic manufacture has attained to perfection, and has engaged in the prosecution of it a competent number of Persons, it invariably becomes cheaper.  There seems to be a moral certainty, that the trade of a country which is both manufacturing and Agricultural will be more lucrative and prosperous, that of a Country, which is, merely Agricultural.  The importation of manufactured supplies seem invariably to drain the merely Agricultural people of their wealth.  Previous to the revolution, the quantity of coin, possessed by the colonies, which now compose the United States, appeared, to be inadequate to their circulation; and their debt to Great Britain was progressive.


Since the revolution, the States, in which manufactures have most increased, have recovered fastest from the injuries of the late War, and abound most in pecuniary resources.  It is not uncommon to meet with an opinion that thought the promoting of manufactures may be the interest of a part of the Union, it is contrary to that of another part. The northern & southern regions are sometimes represented as having adverse interests in this respect. Those are called Manufacturing, these Agricultural states; and a species of opposition is imagined to subsist between the Manufacturing and Agricultural interests.  The idea of an opposition between these two interests is the common error of the early periods of every country, but experience gradually dissipates it.  Ideas of a contrariety of interests between the northern and southern regions of the Union, are in the Main as unfounded as they are mischievous. The diversity of Circumstances on which such contrariety is usually predicated, authorizes a directly contrary conclusion. Mutual wants constitute one of the strongest links of political connection.  If the northern and middle states should be the principal scenes of such establishments, they would immediately benefit the more southern, by creating a demand for productions.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Brevis sit et vana huius seculi fallax gloria

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- Beware Invisible Hands

Jacques de Vitry penned these words after seeing the near naked, stinking, and looted body of Pope Innocent III lying in distressed state in Perugia.  Less than one year after declaring the Magna Carta null and void as a concession to his loyal subject King John, this most influential pontiff was desecrated by those who saw more value in his burial clothes than in the legacy he tried to carve out of the medieval hornets nest of Europe.  Having presided over the fourth Lateran Council giving Papal State rulers sanction to burn, behead, torture, and otherwise torment anyone capriciously deemed to question the lofty office of the church, Pope Innocent III, in many respects the perpetrator of such unspeakable acts of tyranny, played a central role in creating the conditions which made the Barons' demands at Runnymede so pressing. This week's 800th anniversary celebration of the Magna Carta reminds us of the sad tale of the power of dogmatic tyranny over pragmatic humanity. 

Pope Innocent III's objection to the Magna Carta is noteworthy for a number of reasons.  Like his own papal decrees, it is suitably anti-Semitic in its disdain for the necessary financial services provided by Jews.  Given the Christian predilection of consuming beyond ones means and thereby incurring debts - many of which survived the life of the debtor - the Jews who were capable of providing interest-bearing loans to Christians were taxed by the church and crown in a bizarre, morally remote money-laundering scheme.  The pope had a similar scheme.  Like the pope's rules, the Magna Carta made it clear that clerics had equivalent or higher preference to the feudal lords and enjoyed considerable favored treatment.  In short, when it comes to conscripted service, money-lending, and property rights, there's quite a high degree of similarity between Innocent's own rules and the Magna Carta.

So what is it that was so offensive that the Pope had to declare the Barons' mandates null and void?  The answer is really quite subtle.  In a regime defined by a supreme ruler who had dominion over every regent in the empire, the Barons made copious references to the need to have due process, witnesses to offenses, and independent juries of peers.  These procedural mandates - a cornerstone of modern jurisprudence - threatened the economic interest of the church and thereby constituted heresy.  And behind the Pope's objection to the Magna Carta for the benefit of King John was a not-so-well publicized spate between the two just a few years earlier which had resulted in the Pope excommunicating King John from the church.  When Pope Innocent III appointed Stephen Langton to serve as the Archbishop of Canterbury, King John objected.  The Pope proceeded to place a restriction on all rites (mass, marriage, etc) anywhere in England and in retaliation, John confiscated property of the church and imposed levies on the clergy.  Meanwhile, France's Phillip II was rapidly confiscating land in France occupied by John and, when both the Pope and John realized that they needed each other to check the aspirations of Phillip II and liberty-minded English Barons, John agreed to recognize Langton and the Pope reinstated John.

This week we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.  This celebration suffers greatly in its hopelessly romantic nostalgia.  While the document - like many other idealist impulses (the Hammurabi Code, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Human Rights) - marks an important impulse in the response to abuse and dominion, it also reifies the hopelessness of such impulses in the face of the fisted "invisible hand".  While Adam Smith extolled the virtues of the invisible hand when it was associated with the beneficial field effects of actions taken by individuals which had greater than anticipated salutatory consequences, his recognition of benefit did not extend across the entire value chain. 

We are standing idly by while secret agreements are being forged by corporate privateers under the auspices of the White House in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  Like the Innocent III and King John secret negotiations of 800 years ago, the need for maniacal dictators to act in the paternalistic interest of the governed is as dangerous now as it was then.  And the expediency - the elusive siren seducing a President who vowed to run the most transparent White House - is to the TPP what the promise of France was to John - an empty illusion with hundreds of years of conflict insured to ensue. 

Why is this relevant to our discussions about the economy?  The answer is quite simple.  We all pay a price for risk.  Geopolitical upheaval adds costs to goods and services.  Supply chain disruptions effect employment and trade.  And the more we have cause to doubt the certainty of operating conditions, the more we see risk premiums in price.  Which brings me to the real point.  I think that the TPP secrecy has nothing to do with secrecy.  I think this is a phenomenally corrupt tool in the emptying toolbox of economic brinksmanship.  The TPP is America's last gasp at confusing the influence of China across the Pacific.  However, this is as wrong-headed as was John's calculus on Pope Innocent III's hollow support in his nullification of the Magna Carta.  Like the Papal States, China does not need to concern itself with the petty trade skirmishes with its Pacific neighbors.  If China wants, it can turn inward (as did Italy, Germany and France during the 13th - 18th centuries) and ignore the "heresies" in the periphery.  And if the U.S. insists on seeing China as a threat, we'll spend the next 500 years trading more violence than value. 

"Brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world," was not a commentary on the world.  de Vitry gave us all a wonderful truism for those who imagine themselves to have obtained such exalted dominion as to no longer be accountable to anyone.  And while tweedy historians wax poetic about the 800 years of due process that was whimsically promised by a King who was known for expedient double-crossing and bad faith, a few of us should learn from the same history and agree that we won't be bamboozled at our Runnymede.



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Monday, June 1, 2015

Vis et voluntas

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During the Norman Conquest of 1066, the dispossessing of traditional feudal title holders by William the Conqueror and the emancipation of Anglo-Saxon slaves offered clear advantages to those who had been oppressed, enslaved and indentured.  Trading land title holders for military victors and allies of the Conqueror, while shedding one form of tyranny to be sure, put in motion what would 149 years later be squarely addressed at Runnymede.  Commoners – farmers, tradesmen, and laborers – were introduced to the fickle whims of kings, earls, dukes and anyone who enjoyed the patronage of crown or church (largely indistinguishable at the time courtesy of Pope Alexander II’s cosy relationship with William).  A papal legate and the right flag and one could levy tax on money, commodities, and family members – particularly daughters!

As we stand on the eve of the mid-June 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, I found myself disheartened by the degree to which eight centuries have done little to fundamentally change the timeless tyranny of those who perceive to wield power and dominion over others.  Power and dominion rear their ugly heads in countless ways – most of the time barely gaining the attention of the average citizen.  At 3:59pm yesterday, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly stopped collecting information on American phone calls and the FBI lost certain access to corporate records that they used to “hunt terrorists”.  Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA can’t collect phone records but can rifle through records held by phone companies with court oversight.  Clothing manufacturers across the globe are racing to find low cost labor to manufacture the clothes Americans don’t need at prices that are “too low to pass up” putting in jeopardy the lives of those who will never live to see the fluorescent glare of gluttonous consumption.   In recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, girls as young as 12 years old are being auctioned as sex slaves in Syria and being subjected to unspeakable violence.  Barrick Gold paid out-of-court settlements to women in Papua New Guinea for numerous rapes of local women in the vicinity of the Porgera Mine stating that, “the women will receive compensation under the Porgera remedy framework, and a payment in connection with their participation in the mediation process.”  We’ve changed the venues, made them more remote and less verifiable, but our current systems are as dysfunctional as they were in 1066 and our sterilization of the industrial forms of inhumanity are potentially more insidious than lords of a millennium ago.

As we approach the Magna Carta anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit a couple of the key principles that were contained within the Articles of the Baron’s which was drafted 800 years ago right now.  While our systemic violation of humanity seems to persist largely unabated, knowing what a group of Barons thought would be worth demanding of King John may remind us what we should care about in 2015.  The Angevin monarchs ruled “above the law” (a practice boldly embraced by the Bush Administration and canonized under the present administration) and ruled by force and will.  The Barons, sick and tired of paying tribute to John for the reclamation of lands he lost to King Philip II in 1204, defied both King and Pope Innocent III and demanded of the King a series of concessions that they designed to democratize their influence.  In what would become the Magna Carta, they sought to strip John of his unchecked abuses.

One of the most fascinating provisions in the Articles was the notion that common people should be capable of persistent livelihood.  In Article 7, minimum wage was established by insisting that no one should be forced to do more service for a “knight’s fee than is owed for it.”  Article 10 demanded equivalent ecumenical compensation to clerics.  Bailiffs and sheriffs were prohibited from taking land and commodities from a debtor who was capable of servicing debt.  And commodity seizure that would impair the livelihood of the debtor was prohibited.  In short, the Barons sought assurance that imposition of levies and debts would not enslave humanity nor subject them to inhumane treatment!

The Article that struck me most profoundly, however, was Article 9.  Some of us are unfamiliar with the principle of amercement.  This was the practice of being held “in the mercy of” the crown for offenses great and small.  Harvest a deer from the King’s forest – you were amerced a tariff.  Trespass on the wrong road or land – you were amerced a tariff.  In the 13th century, if a crown wasn’t on your head, you were subject to someone who wanted to collect something from you for violating some petty rule they’d established – kind of like modern homeowners’ associations.  This death by a thousand financial cuts was so harmful that the Barons demanded that these penalties be commensurate with the offense rather than capriciously determined.  What is most profound in the demands of the Barons was the insistence that no offense should warrant the threat to someone’s livelihood.  

We’ve long forgotten the wisdom of the Barons.  The notion that laws and rules should ultimately be for social benefit but should never lead to the perversion or extermination of individual well-being is as relevant in the halls of Congress as it is in the tortured towns in Syria, Iraq, and East Africa.  Whether you justify your tyranny based on a perversion of “national security” or under some warped theology which places women under the crushing abuse of sex-crazed mercenaries, the notion that any cause justifies the removal of individual liberty is sadistic and evil.  And We The People must muster the courage and the audacity – like Barons of 800 years ago – to first identify and then demand alternatives to systems great and small which place dominion over mercy.  If not, 800 years from now, this time will be described as the darkest of ages when we could have known so much and chose to do so little.



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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Felons at the Gate...or maybe Vikings

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We know that if someone walked into a Citibank or Chase establishment with a face mask or a gun, pulled out a note stating that the teller should fork over, say, $547,000 and walked out of the place in broad daylight, he'd get 36 years in a federal prison.  Apparently, Chicago's own Joseph Banks, who during his trial reported that he was a "humble, anti-gun" bank robber, should have said that he was a FOREX trader.  That would have entitled him to keep 1/2 the money he stole just so long as he agreed to go three years without trying to do any other criminal activity.  Mr. Banks robbed a Chase Bank, a Citibank, and the First Commercial Bank in a string of robberies dating from August 2007 to August 2008.  He's a menace to society according to U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer.  Maybe he should have dropped the humble bit and gone for the, "I'm a bank CEO," defense.  Then, his death-defying escape from the Metropolitan Correctional Center would have given him the opportunity to add "performance acrobatics" to his Linked-In executive profile.
Image from ABC7 Chicago

Barclays CEO Anthony Jenkins and Citi's CEO Michael Corbat "deeply regret" behavior that did not represent the banks' values.  UBS CEO Sergio Ermotti, JPMorgan Chase's illustrious Jamie Dimon and RBS Chairman Philip Hampton threw rogue employees under the bus while stating their commitment to controls and compliance.  FOREX traders brazenly used terms like "Bandits", "Mafia", and "Cartel" to fix foreign exchange rates to rob their clients of billions of dollars.  JPMorgan's Dimon went as far as to say that the bank's felony was "principally attributable to a single trader," in a refrain echoing his derivatives buck-passing in 2012 with the London Whale.   According to the headline grabbing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Citi's $925 million fine will be, "the largest single fine ever imposed for a violation of the Sherman Act."

She'd barely completed crooning over the record setting fines levied against the banks when she went on to state the following hollow warning:

"the Department of Justice, under my watch, will not hesitate to file criminal charges for financial institutions that reoffend."

Oooohhh!  I can see the bank executives shaking in their boots with such an ominous warning.  "If you break the law," she is saying, "you'll have to share about 1/2 of the revenue from your illegal activity with the same institution that you manipulate on a regular basis and which uses public funds to bail you out in your wanton mismanagement." Oh and before you get all emotional about the "record" fines that the banks are paying (a jaw-dropping $5.7 billion), let's remember that Citi received $45 billion in equity, $300 billion in government guarantees, and nearly $2 trillion in loans from the Federal Reserve as a reward for bringing the global markets to their knees in 2008.  So, Loretta, forgive me for being entirely unimpressed with your crowning inaugural achievement - and confirming that your justice department, just like Eric's, is for sale.  But the public shouldn't fear.  Both felon banks in the U.S. were put on a 3-year probation during which they are to "cease all criminal activity" for the period.  Whew!  That's a relief.  Right?  Not so fast!  They've not been able to stay clean for half that period since December 2007 so a three year non-criminal run would be unprecedented.

I'm not sure which disappointed me more: the corporate felony admission or the fact that the media was impressed (along with the pseudo-activist public) with the penalty without ever reporting on the magnitude of the crime.  If the Federal Justice system used Mr. Bank's crime as a sentencing guideline, the 5 bank CEOs would be looking at a 355,393 year prison term.  Heck, I'm a merciful guy - let's let them all serve a cumulative concurrent sentence and have them go away for 71,078 years apiece.  Obviously, this would be ludicrous, right?  No one could serve a 71,000 year sentence.  But it used to be the case that you couldn't commit a crime when the numbers you were stealing were measured in the billions either.

But in the longer view, what is most troubling is what both the banks' leaders anemic contrition and the faux justice charade mask.  The concept of a bank represented an innovation in society in which a trusted agent would hold assets for safe-keeping and, based on the public trust, play a vital role in the circulation of money so that it served a utilitarian function in the economy.  When we see the current state of affairs, what we see is not the behavior of a bank.  Rather, we see organized crime which seeks to rob the public of its money under a government sanctioned racket in which the government is fully complicit.  And why would the government be willing to go along with this?  For the simple reason that they are a part of the bank's business beholden to the felons for their own public delusion.  Take away the complicity of the banks and the manipulated markets and we'd find out that none of the foundation of our current economic system works on its own.  It requires criminal acts to prop up the illusion.

And as long as We The People decide that the ultimate scorecard in life is the dollars we think we control (now, all of which are merely digital records which could be expunged by anyone in an instant), we'll feign disgust and go on using the exact same system that we know is parasitically extracting from us that which we think we own.  Capital One had a successful ad campaign, "What's in your wallet?", which cost them a reported $285 million to turn into an iconic message.  It's time this question takes on a whole new meaning.  Look at your credit cards, your car payments, your mortgage, your student loans and see if you're doing business with a felon.  And if you are, ask yourself if that's the kind of world in which you want to live.  If not: Change IT!


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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sipping a Pisco Sour Listening to Phonograms

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I find it fascinating that in the hundreds of pages of provisions set forth in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the one token request from Chile - to secure the name "Pisco" for their signature drink the way France got Champagne - was opposed by Australia, the United States, Peru, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Mexico, Canada and Japan. 

What a terrible day to be the trade negotiator from Chile.

"Listen Eduardo, we know that we're going to have pharmaceutical, agrochemical, and digital rights from the U.S. shoved down our throats so at least get us our signature drink protected!", Chile's President said as the trade delegation was leaving Santiago.

"Si, El Presidente," Eduardo nodded beaming from ear-to-ear with his chance to do his country proud.

… followed by….

"Um, El Presidente, the U.S. got Mickey Mouse protected for 120 years and got to extend the copyright for phonograms for 95 years - longer than their own law allows…"

"Yes, yes, Eduardo," the President waited, "and what of our Pisco sours?"

"Well," Eduardo cleared his throat and kicked his well worn shoes into the pavement, "it doesn't look good."

If you listened to President Obama and Congressional leaders this week, you heard that the United States was urgently seeking to conclude a vital piece of trade legislation paving the way for the TPP.  Senate Bill 995 also known as the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (CTPA) allegedly will boost the U.S. export market for its goods and services.  Supported by the American Association of Port Authorities, the National Council of Textile Organizations, the U.S. Business Coalition for TPP, Honeywell, and others, Congress feigned opposition long enough to attempt to placate labor momentarily only then to give the President most of what he wanted.  To date, we don't have a lot of visibility into what the TPP includes but, from the CTPA, we can get a great clue as to the identities who have shaped it. 

Leading off the list of campaign contributors would be U.S. pharmaceutical companies.  In the copy of the TPP published by Wikileaks last year, the leading provisions for trade enforcement begin with specified protections for U.S. pharmaceuticals (§QQ.E.16) followed by agrochemicals (§QQ.E.XXX) rounded out by recorded media and software (§QQ.G.1).  The CTPA adds color to this list by highlighting interests of U.S. industrial agriculture and about a dozen specified industries.  Under the TPP, many protections afforded to U.S. exporters exceed the current U.S. legal protections for commerce rights (patents, copyrights, trademarks and the like) despite the fact that the CTPA clearly states that no trade agreement shall have provisions that supersede U.S. law.  Apparently, what this means is that as long as it is as favorable or more so to U.S. commercial interests, we're willing to impose our most greedy position on other nations but if the inverse is the case, it's right out.

In the final analysis it's clear that both the TPP and the Orrin Hatch / Paul Ryan sponsored CTPA are evidence of the Executive and Legislative branches of government selling the law for patronage.  Wrapped in whimsical nostalgia about creating U.S. employment, protecting the rights of workers, and caring for the environment, a detailed reading of these documents (including that unfortunate TPP §QQ.D.12 which screws Chile and its one drink of note), shows that these efforts are purely protectionist.  Changing the terms of copyrights, forcing the recognition of U.S. pharmaceutical patent rights (including their term extensions based on U.S. regulatory delays), and criminalizing IP theft while allowing "traditional knowledge" abuses to be a best efforts compliance is an affront to the principles of genuine competition. 

The implications of TPP abuses are not ephemeral.  This past week, I was the target of a very angry investor who alleged that I had "ruined his retirement" by threatening the value of a stock in which he held a sizable position.  Early in the week, M∙CAM published a detailed report showing that the patents supporting the drug Revlimid® made by Celgene were clearly subject to legitimate invalidity findings.  Making matters worse, just one week earlier, the European Patent Office had arrived at the same conclusion.  The arrogance with which the company dismissed this critical ruling and the U.S. market's contempt for the European decision - with numerous analysts stating that the European decision didn't matter because it had no bearing on the U.S. patent - was disgusting.  Never mind the fact that a good friend of mine in Australia, suffering from a form of cancer for which Revlimid® is indicated but for whom the drug is excluded by virtue of the patent-inflated cost, faces a worse prognosis because of a patent system abuse.  By showing that Celgene had at best exerted influence and at worst, outright mislead authorities, apparently I was the reason why an investor was "ruined" - the same investor who likely laments the cost of prescription drugs in the U.S. and has no knowledge of the patent manipulation upon which his investment rides.  In a TPP world, my Australian friend will be even more likely to suffer and die so that my U.S. investor acquaintance can get enriched.  Stock chatrooms were alight with suspicions that M∙CAM had been hired by a notable equity trader to do a "hatchet job" paying NO attention to the facts of unfair competition and systemic abuse.

I'm not na├»ve.  I know that governments and corporations collude now just like they have from the beginning of delegated sovereignty.  Furthermore, it has been and remains the case that the economically and militarily powerful typically get to make the rules that they get to impose on others.  While I think that this is reprehensible, I don't see many people seriously seeking to transform this reality.  But what I find most tragic is the silent assent We The People give to those who, after taking every advantage, still have to cheat to win.  While Congress talks about staying competitive, our trade negotiators are still using the term "phonograms" which signifies the state of awareness of the thinking (or lack thereof) in those who craft and manipulate the rules.

Worst of all, in the Commerce and Congressional activities around the TPP and the CTPA, we're neglecting a profound problem.  The system of industrial drug addiction, genetically modified caloric production (formerly known as agriculture), digital media hypnosis, and monotonic industrial design has been leading to decreased economic status in the U.S. middle class (to say nothing of the unemployed and uninsured lower class).  The model of planned obsolescence - made famous by industrial designer Brooks Stephens - has itself become obsolete.  And now, rather than calling for a renaissance of quality and aesthetic improvement, we're merely placing the rest of the world under the screws of a system that failed us.  It may be the case that no one in the U.S. is capable of waking from the hypnosis to architect a More Perfect Union but certainly, someone in  Australia, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Mexico, Canada or Japan could wake up before this protectionist train-wreck is allowed to take effect.  Or maybe, just maybe, too many have simply given up.

Cue the phonograph, pour yourself a Pisco sour, and, in the waning moments that we have to actually do something about these reckless abuses of ourselves and our Earth, consider whether you wish to stand for a better tomorrow.

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