Saturday, December 2, 2017

Happy Enron-versary...Sweet 16

Sixteen years ago, the then-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history was filed.  Back in 1984 and 1985, when Ken Lay took the helm of Houston Natural Gas, HNG’s earnings were nose-diving on the collapse in gas consumption as cheap oil was putting the squeeze on a business that had been flourishing since its start in 1925.  InterNorth – a gas company founded in 1930 in Omaha and stretching to Minnesota gas fields in 1932 – was a conservative, profitable energy conglomerate seeking to avoid the break-up axe of Irwin Jacobs.  In 1985, InterNorth spent $2.3 billion to acquire HNG giving HNG’s investors a 40% market premium.  A decade later, Ken Lay was presiding over what Fortune magazine described a “America’s Most Innovative Company” – a designation that the magazine awarded from 1996 until… the music stopped today in 2001.

What was so innovative?  Selling commodities like oil, water and telecom hardly makes a company innovative.  Doing big deals, paying break-up fees to opportunistic financiers, hosting lavish parties and having financial statements that look like a tangled web of tangled webs – none of these are innovative.  And when Warren Buffett bought the still profitable Northern Natural Gas Company for $928 million (the legacy of InterNorth) – returning its ownership to Omaha there still was no innovation.  Regrettably, try as one may to find “innovation” befitting Fortune’s pronouncements, the only thing that surfaces is professional collusion and fraud.

Arthur E. Andersen earned his accounting credentials working as the assistant to the comptroller at Wisconsin-based Allis-Chalmers before becoming Illinois’ youngest CPA at the age of 23.  Somewhat ironically, Allis-Chalmers (a massive agricultural, industrial and machine conglomerate) itself was born of an opportunistic bankruptcy liquidation in 1860, was nearly wiped out in the “financial panic” of 1873 had, to re-organize itself in 1912, and plead guilty to price fixing and bid-rigging in 1960.  When Arthur Andersen founded his accounting practice in 1913 he rapidly built a reputation of advocating for the professionalization of accounting to serve the transparency interests of investors rather than the promotional interests of clients.  Arthur died in 1947 but his firm still turned down business (and lost clients) due to its reputation for being a stickler for rules in the 1970s.  Watching its competitors enrich themselves on client-favored accounting and consulting, the tide began to turn in the 1980s and revenue became more valuable than reputation.  When David B. Duncan’s assistant sent the damning e-mail on November 9, 2001 that instructed staff to “stop the shredding” (of evidence), he merely punctuated the end of the “innovation” Fortune and the stock market celebrated. 

In a sad commentary on justice in white-collar crime, Mr. Duncan’s guilty plea (which carried with it a 10-year prison sentence) was currency that he used to keep himself out of jail until the Supreme Court overturned Arthur Andersen’s conviction in 2005 at which time David withdrew his plea.  In 2008, the SEC settled with him stating that he failed to “exercise due professional care and the necessary skepticism,” to avoid defrauding the market.  No fine was levied against him.

Enron and Arthur Andersen got caught.  Each day, far greater damage is being done in the financial markets and, each day, the perpetrators of these injustices are celebrated.  Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the great fortune of meeting several of these white-collar criminals-in-waiting.  They live in beautiful suburbs in Boston, New York, London, Singapore, Geneva, Melbourne and Hong Kong.  They send their 1.2 children to private schools, drive their 3.3 cars parked in their 4 car garage homes inhabited by their picture-perfect families doing weekend sporting activities before or after attending the religious service of their heritage.  Each day they tell their clients that they’re doing right by them out of one side of their mouth knowing full well that, in reality, they are cutting fee deals with fund mangers and distributors, influencing financial advisors, and playing fast and loose with their fiduciary management of the funds of billions of people because they know they’ll never get caught.

“David,” said one of them a few weeks ago, “you don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?” I replied.

“Picture a 53 year-old school teacher.”


“Do you really think that she’d ever understand the difference between the returns that she sees on her annual financial statement and what she could have made?” the chief investment officer asked me.

“Yes,” I started, “I suspect she’d get the math if she saw it.”

“Yes,” he said, “but that’s the point.  Each year the law makes her put money into our fund.  Each year we tell her how her retirement has grown.  And next year, she’ll pay us more money to manage for her again.”

“Yes,” I acknowledged, “I’m sure that’s the case.  But don’t you have an obligation to insure she’s getting the best return?”

“Nope,” he smugly replied.  “No law says that we have to deliver best performance.  We just have to manage our clients’ accounts.”

If the same woman, walking down the street in a major city had her handbag snatched losing $250 dollars, we’d call that theft.  But if that woman lost $2,500 last year by this one firm’s sub-optimal allocation, it’s called a “service”.

But thankfully, the 99%ers now have their day of reckoning with the Man!  Anonymous crypto-currencies and block chain are giving power back to the people, right?  After all, it was the government and Big Brother that created runaway speculation on energy banks in Houston, that created credit default swaps for no-documentation mortgages, and rating agency fraud (which has still gone unprosecuted).  If we have an opaque, digital, anonymous system based solely on a speculative algorithm with no verification methodology to confirm provenance, that should fix these horrible abuses, right?

Greed and opacity were all Enron can claim as Innovation.  Complicity and subterfuge were all Arthur Andersen could claim as Innovation.  Financial illiteracy is all the chief investment officer of a few weeks ago can claim as Innovation.  And casino-fueled hype is all Bitcoin can claim as Innovation.  It is not innovation to sate the avarice that besets a population that prefers anonymous excess to rational sufficiency.  And with Bitcoin now at $10,908.01 and the Facebook founding Winklevoss twins becoming reportedly the first bitcoin billionaires – are we really a more egalitarian, democratic, society?

Sixteen years later and we’ve learned nothing.  Our governments and their regulators have done nothing.  The public is not more protected.  And to be sure, our behavior evidences that we still place blind trust… blindly!  Put a runaway speculation opportunity in front of the average person and, guess what?  Speculation happens.  The solution to Enron / Arthur Andersen wasn’t to separate the assurance and consulting businesses of accounting firms.  The answer wasn’t to throw millions of dollars into investigations and prosecutions so that guilty partners could live in their Texas mansions in retirement.  The solution was for individuals – you and me – to improve our financial literacy.  To see where our dollars flow in our daily lives and to learn enough to hold our 401(k)s and pensions accountable.  But here’s the trouble.  We made movies like The Smartest Guys in the Room, Inside Job, and The Big Short but have no concept of the current, looming pension, Social Security, and insurance crisis of the mid-2020s.  Oh, yes!  Another GFC of larger proportions is already infecting the market today.  And like the GFC, it doesn’t take prediction to see it coming.  It just takes reading public documents, doing a little math and recognizing that even the criminals are telling us that its coming.  But like the GFC, we’ll stick to being surprised. 


Monday, November 13, 2017

When Arithmetic is Forgotten: Xerxes’ Omens in the Market


 The strength of bulls or lions cannot stop the foe. No, he will not leave off, I say, until he tears the city or the king limb from limb  - the Delphic Oracle 480 BCE

“a really extraordinary thing happened: a horse gave birth to a hare. Xerxes dismissed it as insignificant, though its meaning was transparent. It meant that, although Xerxes would walk tall and proud on his way to attack Greece, he would return to his starting-point running for his life”  Herodotus 452 BCE

This morning’s USA Today featured the headline, “Is a market crash coming?”.  In it, Yale Economist Robert Shiller, Euro Pacific Capital’s Peter Schiff, and Artemis Capital’s Christopher Cole opined on the U.S. Stock market and its pre-2008, pre-2000, pre-1929 similarities.  These three men were featured for their prognostications and performance leading up to and during the 2008 market collapse.  Whether they didn’t talk about it or whether the article’s author Adam Shell didn’t ask or report it, there was a glaring arithmetic omission in the piece.

Over the past 20 years, U.S. and European companies have engaged in the longest period of share buy-backs and internally financed merger and acquisition (M&A) activity wiping out nearly $5.5 trillion in investable securities based on U.S. Federal Reserve data.  Over the same period, the number of publicly traded companies has nearly halved.  And while off their 2012 peak, the Reserve Bank of St. Louis reports that corporate earnings as a fraction of U.S. GDP is still at 40-year highs.  Venture capital investments – investments that can only be made by qualified, elite investors, has nearly doubled in the past 10 years though the number of funded transactions is in only half the companies that were financed during 1999 and 2000.  There’s no question that the central bank intervention on interest rates has fueled the massive corporate share repurchasing activities and that rising capital balances among the ultra-wealthy have migrated into the exclusive unicorn VC clubs.

In short, each share that exists in the market today has a higher price premium on it for the simple reason that the supply is not meeting the demand. 

Unlike 1929 (human speculators), 2000 (fad speculators), and 2008 (asset speculators), there are a few other market phenomena that miss the attention of the experts and the article.

First, actuarial tables!  This is the most damaging reality facing the largest number of investors that is never discussed.  While the central bank intervention following 2008 was like shooting atropine into a heart in crisis, an insidious problem was created.  Fiduciaries who are required to purchase and hold investment-grade debt (pensions, insurers, banks, mutual funds, endowments, even Social Security) saw their yields decrease below the compounding level required to meet their future obligations.  This meant that they needed to “catch up” their returns in other (riskier) investments without alarming the public.  Corporations, using cheap fiat money, issued record amounts of investment grade debt essentially playing the spread between sovereign debt and corporate risk.  In the first quarter of 2017, a record $372 billion in new corporate bonds were issued.  When entities that take today’s money with a promise to repay value in the future (think pensions, life insurers, Social Security, and mutual funds), they rely on compounding rates of return on the money they hold.  With nearly 9 years of interest rate manipulation, these parties no longer can meet their obligations in the future without buying much higher risk assets (public and private equity).  And for their math to work, guess what?  They must have equity markets appreciate in value at a rate in excess of ”fair value” as they’re making up in equities what they’ve lost in compounding returns in debt.

Second, reinvestment risk.  This is a high-class problem that’s getting worse, not better.  When any investor elects to leave one form of investment, one of the greatest challenges is to move all the money to other investments that achieve equal or better returns.  With record amounts of passive investments in public equities (mutual funds, ETFs and other Index strategies), the ability to sell equities and move the money into anything else has become unwieldy at best and impossible for many asset managers.  Let’s say you don’t like the valuation of a company and its stock.  Great!  What are you going to do with the money that you take out?  And if you’re a large holder of said stock, how are you going to exit without drastically dropping the price with a glut of supply?  Oh, that’s right, you’re not.  On the one hand, you’ve got no place to go with the volume of capital that you’d get from the sale and on the other, you’ve got no way to exit without devaluing the thing you’re selling.  So, caught between a rock and a hard place (or using, our opening metaphors, facing the Greeks at Thermopylae) you just have to hold your breath and hope that King Leonidas caves first.  Put in modern market terms, you have to hope that everyone else is equally obligated to keep prices rising so that the mutual assured destruction button doesn’t get pressed.

Like Xerxes and the Persian Army, today’s market oracles are missing the lessons of the Athenian States.  Overwhelming force (whether its soldiers or hordes of cash) is irrelevant when the Hot Gates are narrow.  With little option to purchase assets with returns and with less inventory to fill the gaps that interest rate manipulation has created on future liabilities, the market is stuck with odds that are worse than Xerxes.  If anyone creates the “correction” the whole Achaemenid empire falls.  Every manager knows this, every central banker knows this, and they’ve all seen the movie 300.  Nobody wants to take on King Leonidas so the rhinos are getting dressed as bulls.  Untangle this last metaphor and you’ll get extra points!


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Losing Your Head...Sir Walter Raleigh Style


Three hundred and ninety nine years ago today, “Sharp Medicine” ended the life of Sir Walter Raleigh in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster.  Having been the beneficiary of Elizabeth I’s interest in exploring and colonizing “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian people,” Raleigh was one of the more colorful characters in the 16th century expansionist era.  Given a 20% interest in all riches he found, stole, privateered or came by in any fashion by Elizabeth, his fortunes were as volatile as his lodgings.  In and out of the Tower of London for all manner of offenses, the amplitude of his state swung wildly – at one time prisoner in the Tower only to arise to Parliament and the Queen’s court.

Sir Walter Ralegh by 'H' monogrammist.jpgI had the great fortune of seeing Sir Walter Raleigh’s last correspondence with King James I written on the eve of his execution which is in permanent archive at Hatfield House.  This rare moment was at the generous invitation of Robert Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury during a stay at Hatfield.  In rather grandiose flair, Raleigh’s letter regaled the regent with every manner of flattery and, at the bottom of the page, wrote his final plea for mercy – oozing with his self-deprecating unworthiness -  in the smallest script I’ve ever seen in quill and ink.  The flattery got him nowhere and a few short days later, his head was embalmed and given to his widow.

Now while the fascination with Sir Walter Raleigh’s life and grisly death could occupy pages of intrigue, I’m particularly interested in the notion of one legacy of his life (and what may have very well contributed to his death).  That’s the notion of the 20% commission granted by Elizabeth I.  To this day, this rather arbitrary commission lives on in modern compensation.  And what I find fascinating is the historical context in which this number appears to emerge.  You see, in Jewish and Christian traditions, 10 percent (also known as a tithe) were the conventional tax for the ecclesiastical establishment.  So it is somewhat intriguing that a Christian regent would bestow on a single individual a sum equivalent to twice the tithe due the church.

In Mesopotamia, the notion of a 20% rate of interest was considered commonplace for several millenia.  It is thought that the Abrahamic traditions’ opposition to usury may be in response to the oppressive effect this rate placed on the poor and disadvantaged.  The Council of Nicea confirmed the prohibition on usury in 325 CE.  For the next 900 years, various Popes allowed those with resources to charge interest or take collateral in rather direct correlation to their need to be on the take from the wealthy to fund their aspirations.  In Italy, France and Spain, rates of up to 20% were not uncommon with the church taking its cut and the moneylender taking his.  The 10% tithe never seemed to be in question.  To make money, a lender would need to charge the church’s 10% and then add his take on top.  But Elizabeth’s 20% commission seems to establish an explicit authorization for an individual to personally benefit without cutting the church in on anything.

Today, the amount of money charged by investment managers retains this 20% legacy.  What gives rise to the notion that an individual’s actions represent one fifth of the community interest of their actions?  When Sir Walter Raleigh confiscated the treasure-laden Spanish ships, was he entitled to 20%?  By the Queen’s order, yes.  But when King James I negotiated peace with Spain, was he entitled to Spanish treasure or commission – unfortunately for him, no.  Twenty percent motivated Raleigh to act out of self-interest.  Today, 20% motivates many investment managers to act also out of self-interest.  One wonders if the 20% interest is in part a presumed tithe (the community interest) and in part an incentive.  And when these are given equal weight, one wonders if the self-interest piece can blind the community interest.

I’ve been amazed, during my recent meetings with investment managers in the U.S. and Australia, the number of managers who have entirely lost the plot when it comes to fiduciary responsibility.  Mangers and the sovereigns that regulate them are turning a blind eye towards fees that are assessed to the public for returns that fail to even match passive market returns.  Large asset managers and financial services firms are racing each other to the bottom on fees in recognition of the fact that they are delivering no value to their clients.  But no one is looking behind the curtain to see where these same firms are making their money.  How can billions and trillions of dollars of pensions be managed by firms that are charging negligible fees?  When Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are now charging less and 1/10 of one percent, how can the titans make it?  Tragically, the public is being duped into believing that their investments are being managed for nearly nothing.  But this is NOT the case.  What the public doesn’t know and cannot see is where the incentives are.  When a fund fails to return passive market rates, someone somewhere took that money.  And the SEC, ASIC and regulators around the world are not probing this because they’re either unable or unwilling to deal with the answer. 

How much is management worth?  Is Elizabeth’s 20% correct?  Well, it seems that the answer to that question is a resounding, “It depends.”  If someone is committed to transparent delivery of value, it may be correct.  If someone is hiding their real benefits while misleading the public into thinking that they’re doing something, it is certainly wrong.  And on this anniversary of Sir Walter Raleigh’s cerebral dispatch, it may be prudent for us to use our heads while their affixed and start paying attention to the fact that someone is preying on the public ignorance.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

America Saudi Divorce...Save it for another Knight

In my 10 Years Hence lecture The Emergence of the Fusion Economy at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, I correctly forecast (to the month) the “news” that has markets buzzing this week.  When Chief Economist and Managing Director at High Frequency Economics Carl Weinberg posited that “yuan pricing of oil is coming” it was neither news nor newsworthy.  Yes, China and Saudi Arabia struck the framework of an economic cooperation agreement in March – 10 years after my forecast of the exact event.  But it was not news then either. 

And because the “fake news” is being treated as “news”, the derivative concerns are as much in error as the attribution of news.  This is not about the nearly $800 billion in oil related dollar exchanges.  This is much more profound.  But let me first digress.

I learned a very important lesson from my divorce.  For three decades, I operated under the mistaken assumption that my loyalty and fidelity were a gift to my marriage.  With the world echoing with the cacophony of dishonor and infidelity, I thought that I was offering something of great value.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that these were assumptive attributes in my partner.  “Of course you're loyal,” she thought.  “That’s what being married means.”  She couldn’t value what I worked at each day because I conflated my identity as a husband with loyalty and thus saw both devalued.  She didn’t devalue me.  She just didn’t value my principle attribute the way I wanted.  And I couldn’t understand why my efforts were not seen as effort worthy of recognition.  For the past 73 years, the U.S. has assumed that the world agreed to Bretton Woods accords.  While the U.S. variously subsidized and manipulated commodity supply and demand across the globe, it blamed others for “manipulating” currencies and market dynamics.  Like my partner, the U.S. assumed loyalty just is – an effortless assumption requiring no recognition or appreciation.  Like me, the rest of the world said, “Hold on a minute!  We’re sick of being taken for granted.”  Let me abundantly clear.  Neither party is “right”.  What is wrong is the absence of dialogue and deep, reflective understanding on fundamental expectations.

We live in a perverse society in which the narratives of chivalry echo in our collective value consciousness for a few more waning moments.  A gallant knight swears to serve and protect.  In the rare event that he does, his beneficiaries go back to the feast when the danger is past and the knight rides off alone with nothing but his elusive monastic honor – something he values, something for which he trains each day, something that sets him apart…and curses him to a life of being alone.  Saudi Arabia was our knight.  With the reciprocal agreement that the great democracy of the west would prop up the monarchy of the peninsula, the U.S. could go about its global hegemonic consumptive orgy without genuinely appreciating the Saudis.  Sure, they were invited to a ball or two.  Sure, the U.S. gave them access (at a price) to some powerful weapons.  But, at the end of the day, the Saudis did not get to sit at the table with the kings.

And now, with the One Belt One Road diplomacy of another global power (and, notably with a new king in Saudi Arabia), China is not “compelling” a damn thing.  They are sitting down with a respected new leader, treating him with respect, and notably NOT taking his resources (or loyalty) for granted.  This is NOT about oil or petrodollars.  This is about a generation of economic model transformation.  This is about the end of Bretton Woods.  It’s America’s great divorce.

Remember, with oil wealth came purchases of arms.  And with arms came alliances.  The U.S. has long confused alliances with loyalty.  Just because someone is an ally does not mean they’re LOYAL to you or your cause.  It simply means that in a pragmatic assessment, alignment is self-serving.  And the dissociation of oil trade from the dollar means that China is now positioned to be an arms, chemicals, and power technology supplier destabilizing MUCH more of the U.S. economy than simply the “petrodollar”.  China is not making a “power grab” as much as they are recognizing the consequence of the U.S. government’s blatant disregard for the value of loyalty.  And into that emotional void, they realize that engagement and cooperation lead to a “harmonious relationship” (language that the State Council has lavished on their partners for years).  Harmony sounds a lot more attractive than hegemony.  And while there’s no question that China is being shrewd, it will be a massive shame if the U.S. doesn’t pull itself up and examine its role in the great divorce.

From August 23-25, 2017, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli signed about 60 agreements worth about $70 billion with Saudi Arabia.  Xinhua reported that the agreements covered investment, trade, energy, postal service, communications, and media.  What most Western media overlooked was the rather important meeting with 31 year-old crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.  Sure, he’s the crown prince and the President of the Council for Economic Development Affairs.  But most importantly, he’s the de facto Minster of Defense and China knows that very well.  Giving this young prince honor and respect is an excellent example of a Confucian / Lao Tzu diplomacy that eludes the West.  We just witnessed the first step on the Journey of a Thousand Miles.  And, because we don’t value loyalty, we didn’t report on it.  That’s the real news.  And it will have more than a 10 years hence effect.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Digital Educational Delusions - Adding ROOTs and LEAVES to STEM


Bill Gates and Paul Allen dropped out of Harvard and Washington State University to build Microsoft.  Oprah Winfrey left Tennessee State University in her second year to become a media juggernaut.  Michael Dell’s pre-med aspirations were abandoned at 19 to start Dell Computers.  Steve Jobs couldn’t last a year at Reed College before following video games to a pilgrimage in India where he got the inspiration for Apple.  Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard after two years to start Facebook.  Oracle’s Larry Ellison dropped out of University of Illinois and University of Chicago – completing neither – when his CIA project at Ampex led to one of the greatest corporate successes in modern times.  JetBlue Airways founder’s learning disability made the University of Utah inaccessible to David Neeleman and he became a titan in the airlines.  Henry Ford ended his academic career at 16 and built the largest business of his time.  Buckminster Fuller was expelled from Harvard for “irresponsibility and lack of interest.” Walt Disney left school at 16 and developed one of the world’s most iconic media brands.  Richard Branson, Elizabeth Holmes, Adele, Evan Williams… these and hundreds of others who have achieved unprecedented commercial success made impulsive, adolescent decisions which shape all of our lives today. 

Do these social, technological, and industrial icons demonstrate the irrelevance of education?  No. Do they demonstrate a fundamental challenge incumbent models of education?  Absolutely.  The data is irrefutable that secondary and tertiary education offers socialization advantages at a far greater level than it equips young people to thrive in a rapidly changing environment.  Those who graduate – heavily indebted in most of the G-20 through their own investment or the public subsidies upon which they rely – do earn more than those who do not.  However, Australia has lower return on investment than the OECD average and lags the U.S. and the EU[1].  In a study of over 900 tertiary education providers in the U.S., nearly 1/3 of arts and humanities graduates were economically worse off than had they invested the same amount of money in U.S. Treasuries[2].  In short, education is not serving most of its consumers with genuine ROI.  And, employers are increasingly bearing the brunt of this social disservice – and are noticing. 

Education must transform to be relevant.  The student of the 21st century will not be known by professional affiliation or “proper noun” titles.  Rather the paradigm for the 21st century will take inspiration from Buckminster Fuller’s comment:

“I am not a thing – a noun.  I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.”

What does this mean?  First we must examine the core capabilities of the fully functioning education ecosystem.  As the abject failure of pundits and analysts have shown in the recent U.S. Presidential election, if you measure consensus assumptions, your conclusions are entirely wrong.   Therefore we must examine the context in which we are commencing inquiry and engagement rather than assuming we know that linear assumptions that are required by consensus.  In short, before we can analyse, we must learn to sense and perceive the analyte!

Therefore, we examine the nature of the student of the 21st century.

In a world where industrial production STEM obsession has resulted in Japan’s over 20-year retrocession, we must have explicit programs and experiences which challenge antiquated models of inquiry by expanding digital and analog powers of observation.  From this point, we can begin to understand systems and formulate models to understand and critique them.  This gives rise to explicit, integral value awareness and exchange that informs the design and techno-experiential frameworks in which we operate.  This fully sensory, fully engaged, and values-based engagement builds the foundation for the productive and purposeful global citizen.

From this awareness, we then directly see the emergence of a new paradigm for what would have been considered “disciplines” or “core competencies”.  Now, rather than focusing on reifying existing assumptions, we invite the student and faculty to engage in mutual development integrating the six domains of functional relevance for the enterprises of the 21st century.

These serve as our organizational principles for the pedagogical and experiential delivery of education in the 21st century.  And this does NOT mean that we take the broken system we have and "digitize" or "virtualize" it.  "Digital" learning in the 21st century is as laughable as it would have been to have "electrical" learning in the middle to latter 19th century.  When when mistakes a Utility for a Social Mandate, the consequences are inhumane and destructive.  STEM failed to produce critical thinkers and collaborators - it produced iPhone consensus zombies doing automatable tasks.  And it ignored the ROOT (Regenerative Organismal Orthogonal Training) and the LEAF (Life Experience Application Facility).  When we make the mistake of imagining only that world that industrial consumption dictates, we put our very existence in jeopardy.  

Our times call for high degrees of adaptation.  Our modes of education and socialization reward consensus.  It's time to prune the stem and let a new shoot emerge.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Nuclear Twilight's Last Gleaming


Seventy two years ago today, aboard the USS Missouri, the Japanese government signed the Instrument of Surrender bringing to an end their involvement in World War II and permanently barring them from engaging activities that would allow them to “re-arm” for war.  This week, without provocation from Japan, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched a missile that flew above Japan.  Within hours, the global media was buzzing with the prospects of re-arming Japan.  In 1945, the U.S., China, the United Kingdom, the USSR (Russia), the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of Canada, the provisional Government of France, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the Dominion of New Zealand stood united in their resolve to end hostilities, to defend the Pacific, and to work towards a common good in the world. 

Seventy two years later the situation is quite altered.  The U.S. is engaged in militant rhetoric with North Korea.  Russia and China are both advising negotiations and talks.  The U.K. is so engaged with its protectionist agenda it is blissfully on the side-lines.  Australia is spending record amounts of money to subsidize U.S. and European defense contractors to arm themselves and the region with “strategic assets” for a defense doctrine that is patently absurd.  Australia is preparing to defend itself against the threats posed by China and “terrorists” despite the fact that its largest trading partner is China.  Over 34% of Australia’s exports go to China followed by 15% to Japan.  No other trading partner even makes it out of single digit percentages.  Oh, and for the record, Australia intends to spend 5600% of its export trade with France for its submarines and 1100% of its export trade with Germany for its land vehicles.

Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) are the only two populated cities to be bombed by the United States of America with nuclear weapons.  The same U.S. that insists that North Korea shouldn’t have a bomb is the perpetrator of history’s only evidence of the use thereof.  With an immediate death toll of estimated between 129,000 and 220,000 people and with a subsequent physical and mental toll in the millions, this unspeakable technological depravity took the murderous business of war to an inconceivable scale.  And while perpetrators and historians alike defend the barbarism as a necessary evil to end Japan’s resolve in the war, the seduction of mass destruction went viral.

So when, over the past few weeks, President Donald Trump has sought to goad North Korea into precipitous foolishness (on both sides, let me assure, both sides), I reflect on some of the mercantile facts that seem to be eluding the real and fake media alike.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are armed by the U.S.  Rounding out the top 10 countries we officially arm are Turkey, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, India, Singapore, Iraq, and Egypt.  Oh, and then there are the top recipients of foreign military financing leading off with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Iraq.  Isn’t it ironic that Pakistan – a nuclear power and nuclear proliferator – is being financed by the U.S. while they are also inextricably linked to the North Korean nuclear program?

Over 1/3 of the world’s disclosed arms trade originates in the United States making it the largest exporter of armaments. 

The U.S. doesn’t export arms directly to North Korea but would certainly like to have ample reasons to diversify its sales to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.  And with 40% of its weapons currently flowing to the Middle East, market diversification is vital to the commercial interests of the U.S.

Missile defense systems are big business.

Having evidence of the “need” for missile defense is a vital market development tool.  Remember how valuable Iron Dome was for Israel?

Missile intercept technologies are a much more competitive marketplace and owning the future of missile defense business will put the U.S., Russia, China, India, Israel, and France in fierce competition for dominance. 

The world has lived with the experiential specter of nuclear weapons for 72 years.  This menace to human decency fueled the Cold War mercantile interests of a few for the better part of 35 years.  We’re now in an era where the diffuse enemies created by cartographers, ideologues, and despots (on both sides, really, on both sides) do not conveniently create industrial efficiencies.  Variously arming thugs – from Toyota’s ubiquitous presence in land transport for all manner of vigilantes, to unmanned air, land and sea vehicles, arms and explosives – industrial scale defense contractors would benefit from a more robust and sizable threat.  And missile defense is just the right target.  Let’s face it.  If we really cared about state and non-state actors having nuclear weapons, we’d realize that Pakistan’s Punjab Province nuclear arsenal is as likely put in service to North Korea or Iran as it is to “deter” India from attacking.  And Pakistan is capable of putting their nuclear arsenal in any neighborhood on the globe with submarine and surface delivery efficiency rivaling the U.S., Russia, or France.  We don’t want a “nuclear free” Korean Peninsula.  We want armaments markets that serve our commercial interest.

So 72 years later, have we as world citizens learned anything?  Precious little!  Using our taxes, governments are rattling sabers in an effort to instill fear and uncertainty in the populace.  Unquestioningly, a cowed public is taught to fear and surrogate their sense of security to the architects of the menace in the first place.  And, when we all blindly call for defense and security, the government acting on our behalf and with our blind confidence, obliges with more technologies of terror.  This genius, nefarious system has been working with remarkable efficiency for thousands of years.  And it will until we realize that putting real people under flying missiles does not advance an ideology or moral “right”.  It merely puts real people in real harm.  It’s time for us to realize that governments and their benefactors are NOT serving their headline missions.  Instead, they’re creating instability into which those who prey thereon can serve their gluttonous ends.  And it’s time, on this anniversary of the end of hostilities, that We The People stop falling for the lies and start building our common defense – namely, erasing fear and rage with engagement and understanding.  Salam, Pax, Paz, Nyimbur-ma, Achukma, Heiwa, Peace, Heping, Mir, you get the point.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Terra Nullius of the Mind - Anyone Up for Change?

“Pleased as we are with possession, we seem afraid to look back to the means by which it was acquired, as if fearful of some defect in our title; or at least we rest satisfied with the decision of the laws in our favour.”

Commentaries on the Laws of England (18th Ed.) Vol. 2.  1823.

King George V, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India was the grandson of Queen Victoria.  In 1910 under his seal, the British Parliament passed a series of laws dictating the form and substance of education in Australia – laws that to this day define much of how Australian education is delivered.  This same King and Parliament, during the same period, were operating with the sublime consciousness that determined that Aboriginal children should be wards of the State justifying the kidnapping of children from their own parents.  This same King and Parliament promulgated a series of laws in which the term “Caste” and “Half-Caste” were commonplace.  To this day, the system that King George V put in place in Australia serves as the defining structure for the caste-based education system of Australia in which the elite and entitled are afforded one path to learning while the disenfranchised are ushered into trades and technical skills that don’t require “disinterested thinking” (Sir Eric Ashby, 1946).  
Portrait at Government House, Melbourne

Today, King George V is dead but his legacy is alive and well.  His Education Act 1910 (Law No. 2301 enacted 4 January 1911) put into motion what is now the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) tertiary education system in Australia.  Organized to efficiently provide the labor to extract the wealth of a land colonized under the genocidal terra nullius principle which suggested a land and resources that belonged to no one, technical education was not for the betterment of the mind or of the learner.  Rather, as with the doctrine of terra nullius, it presumed that the rank and file Australian – the common laborer – was as vacant-minded as the land they were trained to pillage.  And missing from the vast reaches of the humanity of the citizens of Australia is the equivalent to Mabo v. Queensland (1992) and Wik Peoples v. The State of Queensland (1996) – the sentinel cases that began to unravel the carnage wrought by the colonial unconsciousness. 

When enacted, the technical education mandate was to confirm basic competency for laborers to meet the proficiency standards for the tasks they to which they were to indenture their lives.  During the Depression in the 1930s, the system took on a broader social mandate as a means to deal with rampant unemployment.  In 1957, the Committee on Australian Universities warned that technical education, “may be led by a false sense of values to try its hand at producing another type, the professional engineer or technologist and so lessen its effectiveness for its own particular task.”  As recently as 1998, the Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy concluded that technical training institutions should teach “competencies and maintain the strong focus on skills and higher education should cultivate attributes.”  And with Liberal and Labor Governments from the 1970s to the present assuring the population that technical education should be seen as an equivalent alternative to higher education at the university level, each of them have failed to add substance to the diaphanous veil of caste separation implicit in the very system they allege to laud. 

For every recognition of the structural inadequacy of the educational and social engineering model, the response is to form a commission, generate a report, and then perpetuate the same social and commercial irrelevance as the preceding, equally ineffective impulse.  To read the history of technical education in Australia is to hear the echo of Charlton Ogburn’s 1957 quote misattributed by an Australian scholar to Emperor Nero’s Arbiter Gaius Petronius (AD66), “we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing...a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralization.”  Ironically, had either the public or the government familiarized themselves with the actual writings of Petronius, they could have encountered the quite apropos admonition, “A man who is always ready to believe what is told him will never do well.” (Section 43 of Satyricon). 

What makes the emancipation of the mind as important as the reconciliation with the First Nations?  What difference would it make if serious reform were contemplated in the education framework of Australia? 

Well, let’s start and the uncomfortable reality that faces the caste system.  Australia doesn’t have – nor has it ever had – a holistically functioning economy.  From the first Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon (1606) that rocked up in Perth to the celebrated First Fleet, to the gleaming titans of today’s skylines in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney, Australia’s terra nullius legacy has meant that its celebrated history has been that of a price taker – not a market maker.  And while we can localize, assemble, and extract with trained and qualified aplomb, there’s no part of the Australian ecosystem that fosters the ability to integrate synthetic critical thinking with foresight to play in a market leading role at transformative scale.  From mining and agriculture to financial services and defence, Australia’s default posture is to acquire and assimilate. 

But here’s the trouble with that.  Purchasers of services and technology surrogate their confidence on their suppliers.  The resident talent to approach the world through synthetic systems engineering logic and commercial industrial experience is anemic.  We can spend $150 billion in France, Germany, and the U.S. to defend ourselves against a threat manufactured by those who sell us their defences but when I discuss hydrogen gassing batteries, anti-cavitation propulsion, combined projectile land vehicle vulnerabilities, cyber security, concentration capital risks, or intelligent covaler conductive laminates, I’m met with incredulity, or worse.  In a world of competency-based training (both at the technical and university level), critical assumptions are accepted as stipulated by an anonymous other rather than independently examined or verified.  (The very gullibility Emperor Nero’s chief aestheticist warned against in the first century.)  The two largest defense procurements in Australia suffer from known vulnerabilities (both technical and financial) and the response is inaction.  Over $400 billion dollars are invested in pensions and superannuation funds in the U.S. and U.K. and no one can explain why performance lags retail index market performance (or the undisclosed fees that Australian’s are charged).  In short, the university elite are sure that there’s a technical someone somewhere doing their job and the technical skills masses assume that there’s someone smarter than them looking over the details.  And NEITHER is right or capable of verifying the assumptions.

Someone else.  Somewhere else.  It’s no surprise that a system built by a near Russian oligarch who sat on the throne in Britain in 1910 expressly for the purpose of taking riches from a land he presumed was devoid of any one has failed modernity.  It is sad to see the amount of effort poured by so many into the maintenance thereof.

But what if we had a different narrative?  What if we built the next 150 years about regenerating the land through the engagement of ALL its inhabitants?  What if we explicitly built an economic and social model around the repatriation of value that has been distributed across the globe?  What if we had the audacity to become social and technological innovators and exporters to a world currently in the throes of moral and leadership bankruptcy?  What if we defended ourselves not against manufactured foes that serve ideologues but instead against the predilection to classify, denigrate, and appropriate?  What if our national infrastructure was conscripted to serve as a model for – not an acquiescent beneficiary to – the rest of the world?  Sound interesting?  Has a better ring than “caste”, doesn’t it?

Well, to do so will require more than an overhaul of the education system and its delivery.  It’s going to require each individual to step up and engage in a more thoughtful process.  We’re going to need to learn about the matter and energy around us – not for its export and commodity value but for its regenerative engagement.  We’re going to need to examine our worldviews and the metrics that constrain our insight and emancipate the same to enhance our awareness.  We’re going to need to learn from others – not rote facts and figures but deep structure narratives of new organizational thinking.  We’re going to re-evaluate our values so that we don’t keep running up a real-estate bubble, inflating the already over 180% indebtedness to earnings gluttonous consumption, and indenturing our future for acquisitions and procurements that serve the needs of others oblivious to our own.  We’re going to need to engineer rather than acquire the innovations we use taking advantage of the vast open-innovation resources that the world has laid at our fingertips.  And finally, we’re going to have to seriously decide that our liberty doesn’t come when we diminish and indenture those around us.  It’s time to replace minimum competencies with informed confidences.

Or…we could go to school again on Monday and keep serving an anonymous monarch.  It’s time to choose