Sunday, December 26, 2010

Calling All Wisemen

Gold, frankincense and myrrh… and a vulture in a pear tree.

Looking out the window at the 5 inches of fluffy snow hanging on lifeless tree limbs, I took the time to compare Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s testimony to Congress with the December 9, 2010 Federal Reserve Flow of Funds data which I’ve encouraged you all to read regularly. I guess I was looking forward to some glimmer of holiday cheer which would suggest that, at some point, now that the Treasury and the Fed are co-conspirators in their Ponzi scheme to undermine the US economy for the largest expropriation of sovereign wealth in modern history, they’d at least agree on each other’s chimera. Alas, I was disappointed. You see, if you’re printing money supported by uncollateralized debt purchases, it’s nice to know that you’re at least lying consistently. Wishful thinking!

In his report card of the TARP, TALF, HAMP, HOPE, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords a leaping, a bunch of damn birds swimming and pointlessly sitting in trees, and a red-nosed reindeer, the Grinchner decided to perjure himself before Congress. In keeping with the on-going desperation to manufacture the illusion of economic recovery to anesthetize the American consumer against confrontation with the reality that we’re now in a Depression, he painted a picture that has more hallucination than a fat, red-suited man dropping down nonexistent chimneys could ever muster aided by all the egg-nog in the world. And worst of all, the indicting data is published by the Federal Reserve and is in print for all to see.

Since the government intervention in 2008, the rate of access to credit available through mortgages worsened by 100% in 2010 (when compared to 2009); consumer credit continued to shrink an additional yearly rate of -2.9%; and, that great hallmark of “job creation fantasy” – corporate credit – barely nudged 5% growth. All the while, the Federal Government continued to borrow at an expanding rate of over 20% year-on-year growth. The cold facts are that the Federal Government’s programs have been less effective at rebuilding the economy than had they simply borrowed from the Gulf and Asian countries, handed out per capita distribution of cash, and switched the lights off in D.C. In fact, we’ve actually failed to return one quarter of the economic return that would be required simply to support our debt.

What I find most puzzling about all of this is that we sit idly by as the corporate borrowing – the only positive inflection in the on-going Depression period credit collapse – is being used, among other things, to pay DIVIDENDS to Microsoft shareholders. That’s right, it’s cheaper to pay Goldman bonuses and Microsoft dividends with subsidized DEBT than actually take cash out of international growth market investment funds. By the way, this is what I mean when I talk about the expropriation of sovereign wealth. Using nonsensical debt and currency policy, the government (courtesy of Secretary Grinchner and his elf Ben) has made it possible for subsidized debt to incentivize U.S. domiciled corporations to deploy their capital in the international markets while riding cheap debt to pay domestic shareholders and employees their dividends and bonuses. Bottom line… the system is working provided that you’re riding the dividend / bonus wave of subsidized incentives.

When we look back on 2010, one thing is certain. While pensions were hollowed out, entitlement programs were cannibalized for short-term liquidity, and EVERY national government guaranty program (aka “insurance” programs like PBGC and FDIC) were mismanaged into official insolvency, the alphabet soup of capital intervention has provided a few banking and corporate interests the opportunity to leverage the country’s credit future for their own immediate benefit. Conveniently, they’ve set up pathways for capital flow and hording far beyond the reach of an incompetent IRS and the theft of country is nearly complete.

And not surprisingly, their bets with your taxpayer-subsidized special drawing rights (because the dollar is even too risky for the World Bank now) are in markets like China, Brazil, Southeast and Central Asia. And just for fun, China has decided to plop a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking by decoupling the renminbi from the dollar 25 basis points more. Occidental economists should puzzle – going into the New Year – over the century-in-coming William Jennings Bryan populist revenge… yuan in Chinese means “lump of silver.” It looks like the “cross of gold” speech may, at long last, be vindicated!

All we really needed for Christmas this year was a little bit of Truth and Accountability. It looks like we’ll have to wait for next year to see if that’s possible. So, if you’re out there Wisemen, be warned… take a different way home. You’ll probably want to find a bunch of tax havens along the way because you’ll need to store your gold, frankincense and myrrh well out of reach of Americans who, when they wake up from their long winter’s nap and see that their country has been stolen, will be a bit more disgruntled than King Herod. Silent night… bah humbug!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Confutation of Atheism and Its Consequences

Sitting by the fire on this chilly Christmas week I am enticed by the beverage owing its legacy to none other than Sir Hans Sloane. Finding cocoa and water a “nauseating” mixture, it was Sir Sloane who, upon returning from Jamaica, found that adding milk and sweetener to cocoa made it a pleasant physic. Who knows, without his advancements, chocolate may have remained relegated to the tantric, spiritual elixir of the Mayans (hmmm, come to think of it, maybe I would have preferred that… but, alas, I digress)?

One week and 15 time zones ago, I encountered a more consequential legacy of Sir Han Sloane who, upon his death, bequeathed his cupboard of over 70,000 curiosities to the world (along with his estate’s demand of £20,000 from George II) serving as the basis for the founding of the British Museum. In his Last Will and Testament, Sir Sloane stated:

Whereas from my youth I have been a great observer and admirer of the wonderful power, wisdom and contrivance of the Almighty God, appearing in the works of his creation, and have gathered together many things in my own travels or voyages, or had them from others, especially my ever honoured late friend William Courten Esq who spent the greatest part of his life and estate in collecting such things, in and from most parts of the earth, which he left me at his death;… And whereas I have made great additions of late years as well to my books, both printed as manuscript, and to my collections of natural and artificial curiosities, precious stones, books of dryed samples of plants, miniatures, drawings, prints, medals, and the like, with some paintings concerning them ... Now desiring very much that these things tending many ways to the manifestation of the glory of God, the confutation of atheism and its consequences, the use and improvement of physic, and other arts and sciences, and benefit mankind, may remain together and not be separated where they may by the greatest confluence of people be of most use; And I do hereby declare that it is my desire and intention, that my said museum or collection be preserved and kept and that the same may be from time to time, visited and seen by all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the same, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons.

During a conversation with the incoming director of the National Museum of Papua New Guinea, I was struck by the fact that, in Inverted Alchemy terms, the legacy of the archetypal museum actually serves as an interesting social metaphor for the economic system of scarcity management that has served humanity so inadequately. Setting aside the conceit expressed by this successor to Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society, I was struck by the essential elements of “The Museum” which reinforce the value memes intertwined in our economic system.

In a collection assembled, expropriated, and stolen from cultures and locations which celebrated animism, polytheism, astrological customs and cults, and all forms of social values, Sir Sloane saw his collection as a refutation to the very communities from which his collection came. Almighty God, it seems, saw fit to be reflected in the works of people who were unfit by virtue of their beliefs. However, the appropriation of the artifacts and totems of veneration – while a product of heathen practice – was suitable to glorify God provided that it was in the sterility of a curiosity collection safely ensconced in the stewardship and view of an Anglican audience. It is no surprise that our Keynesian economic view places no value on the “unimproved” “natural resource” in situ when the esteemed moral philosophy that stimulated industrial economics embraced the schizophrenia of the British Museum and its logical derivatives.

The Museum served another very important role in colonial societies which was evidenced in researching the deposition of cultural artifacts from Papua New Guinea and other heritage traditions around the world. The collection of biological and anthropological artifacts served as a metric of “improvement”. By enshrining a record of the conditions of social systems in the “pre-improved” state, one could graphically represent “progress”. Why is it, for example, that museums show clubs, swords, spears and arrows and conclude with guns? Never mind that the greatest (by cultural diversity and land mass) empires were assembled by archers on horse-back. No, the supremacy of guns is because they’re closest to “us” in time and, as such, represent the hubris of temporal relativism which sees progress as a linear, always improving state. As in our debt-based, perpetual growth, unsustainable monetary systems, we need our social archetypes to support the illusion that we’re ever growing and ever improving. We cannot conceive of the intellectual complexity which was required to, while riding a horse in full gallop, determine range, wind-speed and sighting sufficient to shoot an arrow and have it hit its mark at 150 meters. We cannot see that a Mongol warrior was intellectually and physically superior to a 21 year-old with a video screen and joystick controlling a lethal drone over Pakistan killing anyone in the neighborhood of a suspected terrorist. When you want to reinforce a consensus illusion, your children need to go on field trips to see that temporally “modern” is “better” and that’s a primary motivation explaining why museums have to display artifacts in order.

Value in the museum was defined by curiosity, rarity, and observer-based perception. Whether it was the cocoa from Jamaica, butterflies, plants, carvings, paintings or statues, value was imputed by the observer / collector giving no thought to community-defined relevance. The Spaniards were looking for gold in the Americas and ignored the astronomical knowledge which would have radically altered the efficiency of navigation, the understanding of time, and the wisdom of cosmology. Americans are hungry for oil and natural gas and cannot see the integrated value in ANWAR, Iraq, or Afghanistan. By assuming that value is only manifest in its explicit recognition by the foreign observer, massive values and wisdom are overlooked and lost. The British Museum and its spiritual off-spring are filled with the hubris which see novelty, curiosity, and scarcity as the defining value arbiters and, as a consequence, fail to apprehend the true values of the lands and people from which value is taken.

Rather than building monuments to scarcity – in the form of zoos and museums – so that we can wax nostalgic about the world that we’re erasing in the name of modernity, why don’t we stop the madness and figure out a way to celebrate abundance in situ? In efforts like the Heritable Innovation Trust, we’ve created a pathway to share in abundance that which communities and cultures wish to celebrate with the world. Efforts like this are essential not only to reshape our unconsidered cultural insensitivities and ignorance but they are the root of framing a new value system. One that is built on the recognition that unappreciated value in diverse communities may expand understanding of wealth and engagement may wind up being more productive in the long run. Goodness knows the model built under the patronage of George II hasn’t worked out so well. It’s high time that we understand that perpetual linear economic growth based on autocratic control of scarcity for the exclusive benefit of the few is as much an anachronism as Sir Sloane’s legacy. It’s time to evolve and confute ignorance.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Debtor in Possession… well, at least Possessed

Article One, Section 10. Constitution of the United States of America

No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; Coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver a Tender in Payment of Debts; Pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligations of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.

To call it a Constitutional Crisis would be wrong in two ways. First, our national constitutional illiteracy is so great that we wouldn’t know most of it if it bit us in the face. Second, for the past few Presidential and Congressional cycles, the breach of the “protect and defend” oath has been more common than the actual enforcement of the Constitution and, as such, it’s melodramatic to imply that Americans actually still care about the Constitution, much less are animated to the level befitting the animation of Crisis. That said, I thought I would humor you with an interesting puzzle which, like other inconveniences where things like the Constitution get in the way, will be surreptitiously cloaked in some hyperbolic rhetoric and ignored by the governed. Bear with me because each of the ingredients below back a cake but they appear to be uncorrelated when you see them on the counter….

As a nation, we’re bankrupt. The St. Louis Federal Reserve Review (July/August 2006) published a wonderful article by Laurence J. Kotlikoff entitled, “Is the United States Bankrupt?” in which he argued, before the 2008 melt-down, that the question is not entirely answerable because for countries, many of the rules that apply to people or corporations don’t apply. Countries can go broke – as many have – but, with creative currency manipulation and foreign complicity, they can enjoy a non-dead zombie status for a dreadfully long time. In his conclusions, he suggested three steps to solve the problem that was looming in 2006: 1) impose a retail sales tax of up to 30%; 2) establish a personalized Social Security scheme; and, 3) establish a universal health care system. Without these radical steps – and with the economy still reportedly healthy when written – we were going to be in tough shape.

We’re in worse shape than we were in 2006 and Kotlikoff’s critique reads like an epitaph on an already mouldering marble stone in a forgotten graveyard. However, take heart! This President and Congress have demonstrated an equal unwillingness to confront the politically undesirables and are once again wrangling over how to demonstrate the fiscal irresponsibility which serves as the mainstay to satiate the lunatic electorate and special interests which seem to forget that an illiquid dollar, regardless of how many you horde in the current madness is worthless.

Before I wander too far into this farce, it’s worth pointing out a rather interesting and largely unreported piece of data (unless you live in Detroit where the data affects the regional GDP). The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (“PBGC”) – ah, yes, that venerable institution that Inverted Alchemists have known more about than any other segment of society – reported its deepening deficit in which its known liabilities outstrip its capacity to meet its obligations (and that’s before the municipal pensions crater at year’s end). However, in the fine print of the PBGC report on their illiquidity, there was an alarming – albeit, innocuously presented – piece of data. You see, insurance of any kind has two ways of making money: premiums and investment income. And the PBGC contracts “institutional investors” to manage its investments. Well, premiums were insufficient to meet obligations and investment income in 2010 was down. More fascinating still is the fact that the U.S. Government’s investment strategy is underweight in equities (almost 1/3 equities and 2/3 in currency and monetary instruments). In the face of recommendations like the one made by Kotlikoff for Private Social Security, one must puzzle over the fact that the government’s own money managers don’t believe in the equity markets despite the public statements lauding the recovery of Wall Street. For all of our wishful thinking about being on the road to recovery and with over 2 million more Americans with expired unemployment benefits, we’ve got an interesting puzzle on the horizon.

It looks like this. When municipalities simultaneously face growing demands for services based on the growing unemployed masses at the same time that they themselves are underwater with respect to, or have leveraged their own pension liabilities, they will be unable to respond with adequate revenue. As a result, as is already happening across the country, municipalities are teetering on bankruptcy (which, by the way, they can declare). This will have a double negative impact. Obviously the liability will seek to be absorbed in PBGC or related instruments thereby increasing the notional benefits guaranteed. However, at the very moment these new obligations hit pension insurers, the bond, currency and fixed income defaulted assets will be what is supposed to backstop the benefit. Oops, the cupboard is bare! States, most of whom are in abysmal fiscal condition themselves, will be asked to step in but have no capacity to do so. And then….

There are several authors who are talking about the bankruptcy of States like Illinois, California and others. The American Catholic (November 30, 2010) published an article entitled “Bankruptcy Coming Soon to a State Near You,” in which they discussed the systemic fiscal challenges looming on the horizon for many jurisdictions. In the discussion of State bankruptcy, I find an interesting Constitutional question… ah, yes, I promised I would come back! What is the Constitutional capacity of Representatives and Senators from a State which bankrupts? Precisely what role does such a State’s impairment play on the Constitutional duties of Congressional members from that State? How do you objectively steward national assets (or in our case, liabilities and debt) and still defend your home turf? On the one hand, faux federalists of the Tea Party ilk would love to see “less big government intervention” and would love to jump on Fox News to advocate for callous neglect (provided it wasn’t THEIR State). Interventionalists would advocate for fresh national debt to come to the aid of the failing States (Can anyone say “stimulus for shovel ready projects”?). This acrimonious banter will ignore the Constitutional question. Can a Representative or Senator be the de facto Bankruptcy Trustee – advocating for the interests of the creditors – while at the same time fulfilling their elected role as advocate for the State that sent them to Congress? The answer, in case you’re wondering, is NO!

Remember how quickly diehard Conservos decided that taking stimulus was justified – over their boisterous rhetoric of the specter of socialism – because “everybody else was doing it.” You see, the euphoric hypoxia induced by the cult of elected power when positions are purchased – not earned – makes fiscal accountability an endangered species and directly starves the moral center in the cerebral cortex of much needed fortitude. Principles are, regrettably, viewed as “best efforts” ideals, not as binding calibrators of accountability. And we really didn’t have a Constitution framed in which the fiscal collapse of the State would be contemplated. We should have. Silly me, I wax nostalgic when I read that our Constitutional fathers wrote that appropriations for War should not exceed two years (Article One, Section 8). And of course, the part about the enumeration of our population in which certain classes of humans were to be counted as 3/5 human.

However, I think that our bigoted forefathers might have buried a clue in the 3/5 human National Treasure that, with a little lemon juice on the disappearing Masonic ink on parchment, some magical spectacles from Ben Franklin’s top left desk drawer, and a black light, might just form the germ of a good idea. When States become insolvent (as the law is iffy at best on whether they can actually be bankrupt), how about we reduce the Congressional voting participation by the proportion of the State fiscal burden places on the national government? How about making 3/5 Representatives and Senators – including having the proportion be reflected in party majority status? After all, 3/5 was structured for indentured sub-humanity and a member of Congress from a dead-beat State is representationally indentured (at least morally indistinguishable from a pithed toad). When a State craters, let’s have some real teeth in it. Why? Am I just some heartless, ill-tempered patriot? Absolutely not. I think that if Congress knew that fiscal irresponsibility at the National level and State level had DIRECT consequence on the wielding of power, we could turn the tables on making some of the hard decisions.

Having a Congress and White House which both refuse to act with or model accountability requires a Constitutional response. The reference at the beginning of this blog reminds us that the State cannot impair Contracts and, with their conflicted fiscal role in our nation, bankruptcy would do that. As the Constitution is silent on State bankruptcies, the least we can do is extrapolate in the pursuit of Happiness (or at least, amusement).

In the coming months, the PBGC will be a canary in the coal mine. The bird’s already got emphysema, is taped to the perch and has a molting wing. However, it will become a Monty Python stage prop pretty soon. Watch how quickly Michigan, California, New Jersey, New York and Illinois members line up to appropriate money into the PBGC crater. Watch to see how they respond in January to the new wave of pension liabilities that are forthcoming. Watch how they finesse the municipal pensions which are collapsing cloaking their advocacy in sweeping generalizations rather than broadcasting their self-interest. Carefully examine the asset allocation for the PBGC (and FDIC for that matter) investment management and watch how they dance around the need to do the right thing while falling in line with the lemming-like insanity that dupes a gullible public into believing that the markets are surging. What you’re observing is a fate of our nation that our founders never imagined. And in this case, the best you can say when you’re sitting in your cave having bludgeoned dinner with a club fashioned from the bumper of your minivan, was that, courtesy of this blog, you saw it coming!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Beyond Freedom to Liberty, Beyond Revolution to Transformation

The following is the transcript for the speech to be delivered December 6, 2010 for the EBI Freedom Day Dinner for the Government, Civil Society and Honored Guests of Mongolia's 21st Anniversary of Freedom from Russian control.

Freedom Day Speech
Dr. David E. Martin, Chairman, M•CAM

In Honor of the 21st Anniversary of the Democratic Union of Mongolia

Honorable Citizens of Mongolia,

It is my distinguished privilege to stand before you this evening as we celebrate the upcoming 21st Anniversary of the organization of the Mongolian Democratic Union. In the short period of time during which my relationships in Mongolia have been deepening, I count it a particular honor to engage as dear friends many of those who resolved, in the Winter of 1989, to choose peaceful engagement to transform this great country. In a world where conflict and injustice is so frequently spotlighted in media and social metaphors, the courage of those who, in modesty and in anonymity, chose to put country before personal gain and put the cause of the citizen above the cause of the State demands our appreciation and evokes our deepest respect. To each of you gathered here tonight, and to all those who read and hear these words, let me promise you that your contribution to humanity’s brighter models of transformation will live in honor.

As I reflect on my interactions with public and private sector interests here in Mongolia, I see an interesting mix of challenges and opportunities confronting this young incarnation of an 800 year old nation. Eight centuries ago, a vision of a unified network of tribes and trade routes led Mongolia to determine a geopolitical and economic model which defined the economic, social, cultural, religious, and military principles for people ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the East to the Mediterranean and North Sea to the West. During periods of European repression of knowledge and inquiry at the hands of power intoxicated clerics, the Mongolian impulse to act expansively on the global stage shaped human history in ways that persist to this day.

It is, therefore, ironic, that on this Freedom Day we would consider the pursuit of Mongolia’s destiny with the words “Freedom”, “Democracy”, and “Revolution”. And I would like us to consider, with great precision, the assumptions embedded in these much used, albeit much misunderstood terms to see if they are the best descriptors of what we gather to celebrate this evening.

Freedom, at its core, represents the principle of being released from restraint. It is, in fact, the absence of a restrictive force or influence. While many celebrate Freedom as an aspiration, this tendency is filled with unintended consequences. In 1989, and for the years leading up to the march to autonomy, it was clear that release of restraints and restrictions on the thoughts, words, actions, and destiny of the citizens of this country was a value worth pursuing. In short, it was very clear in the minds of many that an undesirable State needed to be transformed by rejecting certain impositions and embracing a different path. And in the moment we celebrate this evening, Freedom was a short-term, valuable goal. However, in 2010, the persistence of the messages of “Freedom” may fuel political and social interactions that are destructive to the social fabric of the country. In a multi-party system, dialogue, honest disagreement, and transparent social experimentation for the common good are of far greater value than the tyranny of victory by viewing fellow citizens as opponents. In fact, what Mongolia – and for that matter, the U.S. and many other failing democracies – need to reconsider is whether the impulse to see public disagreement as restrictive and restraint is in fact in direct opposition to the very value we say we hold. By characterizing public service in the paradigm of Freedom, we constantly see struggle and victory as tactical goals and achievements and we quite often lose sight of a common, shared destiny achieved through a multitude of optional paths.

So this evening, I would propose that, instead of Freedom, we encourage the value of Liberty. Where freedom is a response to an imposed force, Liberty is the capacity to fully engage as citizens of a common future. Liberty is both an ideal and a right. However, implicit in the construct of Liberty are the notions of Tolerance (both for self and others) and Citizenship (seeing a communal good as a unifying principle).

In what is thought to be the first Declaration of Human Rights, Cyrus the Great of Persia declared:
“I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them. I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one of them rejects it, I resolve never to war on them. I never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs, I will take his or her right back and penalize the oppressor. I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force or without compensation.”
It is evident that this remarkable vision understood that tyranny of conflict in which one is the victor and the other the loser is destructive to the common good. Liberty of culture, religion, and even loyalty were all seen as fundamentally human.

Which brings me to “Democracy”. The Greek ideal, clearly defined by Plato as the “rule by the governed” is as elusive today as it was 2600 years ago. And, in 2600 years, the same challenges and threats to manifesting the ideal exist. In its present state, democracy’s greatest threat comes from the commercialization of the public office. In countries calling themselves democracies, the financial corruption of this social institution has reached epidemic levels. In the recent elections in the U.S., over half the GDP of Mongolia was spent in eight months on trying to purchase influence in the U.S. Congress. The fact that people vote in elections is somehow confused with the ideal of democracy. To be clear, voting is NOT democracy – it’s a procedural and parliamentary decision methodology. Democracy requires those who are citizens selecting among their fellow citizens those who are worthy of leadership. Long ago, the United States abandoned the notion of public service in high office. The business of government begins, far too often, at the compromise of pure intention for the expediency of power or financial gain. And to be clear, without a conscious decision to take another path, the future for Mongolia could be very compromised as the world desperately seeks to influence those who will provide concessions to the expropriation of Mongolian resources for the benefit of special interests and foreign investors. If elections are funded or influenced by any foreign interest, they are NOT democracy. In fact, the functional corporate-led coup d'état which led the financial markets and industrialists to rule the U.S. and the U.K. from the 19th century to present is a risk facing Mongolia today. If Democracy is to be manifest in its true form in Mongolia, this young nation must clearly set down mechanisms to insure that the people’s voice – not the special moneyed interests – are clearly and most powerfully heard.

Which brings us to my final theme. In the fashion of other founding impulses, there is a predisposition to see transformation of social systems as Revolution. There is a certain pride associated with forging an identity that is galvanized around the passion of Revolt. Out with Oppressors and Power to the People seems like such a wonderful, populist ideal. However, let us be quite clear. In the two decades since Mongolia began its current history, what has been the case is that the colonial powers of industry and oppression have been traded for colonial powers of the global capital markets. When the Government of Mongolia purchases goods and services from China, Korea, Russia, Taiwan, the US and EU, this government does not use economic development tools like trade credits, joint venture manufacturing agreements and technology transfer to build its economy at scale. When local natural resources – metals and energy – are planned for development, the country becomes indebted to its own resource use. Rather than using tools of true empowerment and development for the social good, Mongolia has traded one form of oppressor for another in many instances. This is not revolution, independence or sovereignty. Rather it is the persistence of seeing outsiders as those who wield power over the destiny of the citizens of Mongolia.

Tonight, we can do better. In a few short months, we’ve established many partnerships with a singular focus to deal with this challenge. At the heart of the transformative challenge is the greatest challenge facing Mongolia – Information Asymmetry. The Government of Mongolia has not made bad choices – they’ve not been shown real choices. The People of Mongolia have not selected exploitative models of global engagement – they’ve been asked to accept what’s been offered. It is the role, not only of the Citizens of Mongolia but on the Citizens of the Global Community to realize that equal access to information is the most important variable in the transformation of this great nation. If the herder in the South Gobi gets information about water resources from a company who benefits from the disproportionate use of water, it’s not acceptable. If a city official in Ulaanbaatar is told how to control air quality by those who control fossil fuel interests, it’s not likely to be objective. In a world where communication and information seems to be infinite, we lack here and around the world, the ability to ask the question that we didn’t know to ask. We will never find that for which we never knew to look.

So on this Freedom Day night, I encourage you to reclaim the passion that many of you shared in the cold December evenings of 1989. Realize that, on this night, we celebrate the peaceful launch of a great social experiment in one of the most wealthy countries on earth. Wealth measured in metals, fossil fuels, ecosystem of water, sun, and wind exposure, culture, heritage is in abundance here. As such, each of you, together with me and those like me who seek to build a more perfect union, must stand together. As citizens, we must extol the virtue of Liberty. As responsible stewards of a nation with resource and cultural wealth, we must insure that leadership is not turned into a commodity to be bought by the highest bidder. And through the culture of honored citizenship, the transformation born in Mongolia may once again serve as a beacon for a world that needs the inspiration of a country which honors the ideals it promotes. To that end, you have my pledge and my deepest gratitude and respect.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hidden In Plain Sight

As I stood atop the Salkantay Pass at 15,256 ft in the Peruvian Andes (instead of posting a blog post last week) the biting cold rain driven by gale-force winds gave me a new appreciation for my senses. Every nerve in my body was firing in unison. My eyes strained to see the towering glaciers on the mountain to my right. Each pain sensor in my knees reminded me that I had pushed my physical limits. Each surface of exposed skin was reminded of the value of clothing. My breathing was momentarily punctuated by reminders that oxygen was in shorter supply. I was, in the moment, fully aware and fulfilled.

At the same time, I was filled with a myriad of questions heightened by the place. Confronting the giant cut stones at Sachsaywaman, the elaborate agricultural terraces at Pisac, and the great temple to abundance at Ollantaytambu in the Sacred Valley provides a context to ponder humanity in a broader context. Why is it, for example, that we impose early twentieth century narratives – courtesy of the National Geographic’s support for modern science’s conquistador, Hiram Bingham – on how the Inca lived, worked and built their grand civilization? Why do we assume that, from our modern self-proclaimed superiority, the Inca and Tiwanaku before them, were bound by the same “natural laws” which have enslaved and limited our Occidental minds for the past few centuries? When astrophysicists and astronomers now conclude that most of the energy and matter in the universe is unquantifiable with our current understanding, why do we impose a nostalgic “stone age” derogation on those who accomplished a permanence to which we cannot even aspire?

I think an answer may lie in our deepest, greed-based motives. Walk with me, for a moment, through a scenario which I believe may explain why we cannot confront a world in which we are less advanced than those who came before.

I just read the Shareholders Agreement executed between a country with vast mineral and energy wealth and companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, The Netherlands, and Canada. In eerie similarity to agreements I have seen for oil palm, gold, copper, tin, and natural gas in the Pacific, Africa and South America, this World Bank-endorsed theft of a nation’s assets is an affront to every human value. By taking advantage of the ignorance of a country and its people to corporate finance jargon as illusive as “dark matter”, opportunistic raiders not only have stolen but also enslaved a country and its people. And mind you, the countries providing tax havens for these pirates (the U.K., Canada and the Netherlands) are complicit in these crimes. In the Agreement, the country agreed to a debt financing of its equity in its own assets (yes, that’s how sick our system is) with money provided by the very pirates perpetrating the theft. And, to add insult to injury, the country cannot participate in the wealth extracted from it until it has repaid the debt with its dividends declared from profits fully manipulated by – you guessed it – the pirates! You should be asking, at this point, how was this possible? Who was advising the country? Who was looking out for the interest of the people?

The answer. The same interests who want to exploit ignorance asymmetries built on patently false historical narratives. Yale University’s and the National Geographic’s centennial theft of Peruvian knowledge, artifact and culture are no different than the World Bank-sponsored theft of national assets today. And the arbiters of “advancement” are not those with elevated consciousness, deeper understanding, or a greater sense of humanity. No, they are merely the ones with the purse with which they can gain concessions from the empowered few at the expense of the masses.

Hiram Bingham did not discover Machu Picchu. Robert Friedland did not discover gold and copper in Mongolia. Mark Caruso did not discover gold in Papua New Guinea. No, these mercenary pirates, armed with the Letters of Marque with which the “developed powers” (aka the World Bank’s IFC) sanctioned plunder, merely defined a narrative that assuaged the consciences of their remote benefactors.

It is time for each one of us – yes, there’s something each of you can do – to initiate a new paradigm for understanding the world and its wealth of commodity, culture & custom, knowledge, money, technology, and well-being. And it starts out simply – in the same way that massive public awareness addressed South Africa’s apartheid and Ethiopia’s famine. We need to awaken a consciousness long numbed by social systems which ask for faith in the empowered despite every evidence to the contrary. When the stories you’re being told don’t seem to resonate with truth, take the time to engage in finding out the source of your unease.

- In the wake of this week’s Wiki-leaks release of evidence of insensitive arrogance perpetrated by public servants in the U.S. and its allies, reach out to the offended countries’ embassies with a personal letter stating your regard for respectful dialogue;

- If you reside in the U.K., the Netherlands, Canada, the U.S., Switzerland, Luxembourg or other countries which shield and sanction the expropriation of sovereign assets through their corporate and tax concessions to pirates, raise your voice and state that this tyranny is no longer acceptable;

- If you hear anyone, anywhere use the term “discovery”, begin programming your mind and your responses to recalibrate this term to evoke it’s authentic meaning – namely, that the user of the term just removed his or her own blindness to that which was already there – and rather than celebrating “discovery”, have empathy for opaque ignorance newly unveiled to the narrator; and,

- As I’ve encouraged you to do for over two years, continue to read, share and discuss those sources which provide perspective that deepens awareness and a connection to humanity at-large.

The sting of poverty and injustice is a scourge on our current expression of humanity and its institutions. It is made worse by our apathy to that which is done in our names. And its toxin is fully released when each of us chooses to do nothing when confronted by our perception that we can do nothing. So, after reading this post, share your comments on what you can do. Share the letter you sent to the Pakistani Ambassador. Describe the conversation you had with an elected official regarding a more respectful engagement with China. Engage this community with the conversation you had with your associates on these issues. In short, do!

What you’ll find along the way is the simplicity of trusting your consciousness. You’ll find that idle acquiescence is less desirable than seemingly imperceptible steps towards awakening. The path towards a more fruitful humanity is not hard to find – you already know it by every time you’ve seen injustice and chosen to do nothing. Like the towering Salkantay glacier, it’s merely shrouded in the mists of incumbent, institutional ignorance – hidden in plain sight!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Standing a crowd

What would a world look like if proprietary did not exist?

During a recent conversation in the office, I had the privilege of telling another entrepreneur that his patented idea was not unique. This has been a refrain that is getting so monotonous that I find myself consciously avoiding interactions with people who promote themselves as creative. It’s not that I’m not fascinated by the eccentricity of those who live in their circumscribed primordial isolation from which ignorance of the activities of others can be transubstantiated into the illusion of creativity. And it’s not that I don’t have my own ego reinforced by appearing to have infinite knowledge at my fingertips when, with a click of a button, I can watch a crest-fallen titan in his or her own illusion find hundreds or thousands of identical impulses flash on the screen of our global innovation archival displays. No, my reason for avoiding “creatives” is my growing discomfort with the social value embedded in the notion of creativity itself.

It’s hard not to carry baggage around the verb “create” and its derivatives. From art to science, from religion to pop culture, the production of artifacts of admiration seems inextricably part of the fabric of our social value system. From a blank canvas, a masterpiece emerges. From a darkened lab filled with bubbling flasks, new compounds are synthesized. And to the admiring throngs, each Merlin’s manifestation of magic – defined as “something I couldn’t do or can’t understand” – becomes the must-have for a moment. We wait breathlessly for the next iWidget to be unveiled and line up to purchase an artifact that we don’t know we need. All the while, we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to a global humanity dealing with iMalaria, iUndrinkableWater, and iAmHungry. In most of our consumer society, “creativity” has more to do with getting someone to buy your thing or be associated with your social network than tackling challenges that have persisted for millennia.

At a more fundamental level, creation is an archetypal projection of belief. The notion that any animating force can manifest something from nothing – reinforced by religious and cultural narratives – somehow seduces humans into the notion that their piece of the god-complex action is creation at human scale. Sure, planets, the sun, black holes may be above our pay-grade (although the latter seems to be an aspiration of a few Merlins) but we can at least put gigabytes of music on a fleck of silicon. And while a few pursue substantive innovation to take on Quixotic challenges, most labeled as “creative” or “inventive” are merely thus labeled by those who have ignorance of the pursuits of others.

But my indigestion around creativity is probably still more fundamental. While illusions are annoyances made worse when they’re supported by language, culture or general ignorance, it’s what we do with those labeled “creative” or “inventive” that’s more problematic. These labels, once applied, simultaneously lead to intrinsic perceptions of entitlement and, when fed with sociopathic reinforcements, lead to impulses to isolate and defend. In the industrial economic model at present, each word, expression, or artifact manifest in any mode or reproducible form is de facto the copyright of its originator. Where once the sciences and useful arts were intimately linked to the dissemination of knowledge, now patent-before-you-publish is dogma in most universities and laboratories around the world. And tragically, not only is the impulse flawed at a basic social value level, but in its careless execution, no link to commercial or social consequence is considered in the impulse to protect and defend meaning that most such defenses are prima facie useless.

Once ensconced in the cloister of ignorance fueled isolation, the next impulse is to animate the monster with the most usurious form of capital on earth – private equity. In an orgy of greed, those who seek exorbitant monetary gain prey on the illusion keeper and divide future interests on that which doesn’t exist. Seldom is any consideration given to whether the artifact is commercially associated with the control of marginal market value (in other words – in its use, can enough revenue be generated over a sufficient duration to offset the cost of capital and development?) and obsolescence. The theory is that, once animated, the money will be made on an “exit”. That exit is either follow-on deepening of the equity model, enterprise sale, or in the heady days of yore – going public. Ironically, when development agencies around the world promote this model of enterprise creation, none of them disclose that this model doesn’t work without a healthy M&A market, a healthy, regulated public market, and a well-established public investment source like national pension schemes. So think of it. A “creative” or “inventive” person is pastured by an interest who explicitly states an intent to abandon – if it sounds like fattening for slaughter, it’s not by accident. And around this abattoir of aspiration, the carrion of failures outnumber success in developed markets by an industry extolled ratio of 10 to 1 or worse!

Somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten a core principle in even the uninspired capitalist system – the notion of revenue and value derived from customers and assets. Whether you subscribe to my framework of Integral Accounting or some variation of classic capitalism, what is missing from our isolation roulette enterprise model is good old-fashion cash flow. I point out to stunned audiences around the world that venture capital never built an economy anywhere on Earth. No, in fact in every place where venture capital has become a market utility, a public procurement preference has been pre-existing at the national level where governments pay excessive contracts to domestic producers. In addition, in each jurisdiction where such models are even reported to have success, the acquiring food chain behemoths have preferential access to benefits (in the form of taxes, incentives and, in the case of GM and AIG massive bailouts) to keep the ecosystem sustaining the illusion. In other words, outside of 15 of the G-20, there’s no possible pathway to make our isolation-based system even appear to work.

Which leads me to propose that a new enterprise model is necessary for humanity. While there are many contours that are vital to such a model, a few core principles seem evident:
- endeavors should be optimized to take advantage of as much latent capacity in the system as possible – the more latent efficiency put to use, the greater the enterprise value;
- endeavors should be optimized to link innovation to engagement with those who have sought any similar manifestation in the past and honor each contributing component in what is attempted in a new undertaking;
- endeavors should be optimized to require as few phase- or state-changes* as necessary to achieve the desired outcome of an endeavor;
- endeavors should be formed with consideration for the duration to value exchange and a specific plan to modify or retire such activities when obsolete or irrelevant;
- endeavors should be capitalized on a Correlated Capital model in which returns are explicitly linked to the marginal productivity of an endeavor rather than a capital-imposed uncorrelated internal rate of return (IRR); and,
- endeavors should invite participation through productivity participation rather than equity (be that dividend returns or discount futures on production).
By reintegrating humans into their endeavors, by focusing on future productivity rather than perpetual financial engineering for the capital roulette racket, we could actually find that integration actually grows in the compost of the excesses of an isolation-based legacy of the past 30 years.

To be clear, we don’t have an option. As Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reported yesterday, the Fed – Treasury Ponzi scheme (and yes, it meets the legal definition thereof) only works when the tax-payer subsidizes the racket through Congressionally-sponsored additional “stimulus” programs. In other words, it DOESN’T WORK. If we want to build economies at the local, national or international level, we must embrace new modes of engagement and rediscover the roots of economic productivity and employment. These models will focus on building revenue and assets – not on reanimating financial engineered paper shuffling schemes. Fewer lottery winners will come out of the model I’m proposing but, in the lottery of heritable genetic wealth or in the lottery derived from the periodic anomaly of capital excess, I’ve not yet met a cohort modeling behavior befitting generalized aspiration. We’re working on implementing this new path and are delighted that many of you are coming alongside to participate. Here’s to a more perfect Union Together!

Happy Thanksgiving.

* When I refer to efficient phase- or state-change, it may be helpful to consider a simple example. If I know that to achieve refrigeration, I need to compress a gas, the fewer steps required to achieve that outcome, the fewer phase- or state-changes. If I use electricity to effect refrigeration, I start with coal (state), burn it (phase), use the heat (state) to boil (phase) water (state) to convert it (phase) to steam (state) to drive a turbine (phase) to activate a coil (phase and state) to harness electricity (state) to deliver (phase) across a power grid to a home where it animates a coil (phase and state) to drive a compressor (phase) to compress gas (phase) to effectuate a thermal gradient (phase) to cool my beverage (state of madness). If, however I directly animate a compressor using a compression source (flowing water, wind or even combustion) I achieve Phase State Efficiency by removing energy and materials demands imposed by a more inefficient system.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Great White Whale and an Empty Rag


“…a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it”

“The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

Herman Melville’s words greeted this day 159 years ago as American readers began their entranced journey with Ishmael, Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod in search of the elusive Moby Dick. Cracking open the classic, Chapter 1 reads like it was pulled off the newsstands moments ago:

“Grand Contested U.S. Election”
“Bloody Battle in Afghanistan”

Really? After a century and a half, we’ve advanced thus far?

I was reflecting on this paradox as I drove to Washington’s Dulles International Airport for my flight to California. En route, the BBC was reporting on the interview with British General Sir David Richards who was quoted as saying that the West cannot defeat al-Qaida. Defeating Islamist militancy, he said, was “unnecessary and would never be achieved.” I couldn’t help but think about the futility of Melville’s caricature of the first Anglo-Afghan campaign and the 1843 analysis by the Reverend G. H. Gleig, a British Army Chaplain from the failed war. He discerned that the war was, “…begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it.” General Richards and his U.S. counterparts have not studied or taken heed of Gleig’s summation in which he declared that “Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.” For at the end of Richards’ interview, he recommended that the solution for Afghanistan was education and Democracy. Ah, I hear that there’s a great white whale out there!

Quite possibly, the most profound observation in Moby Dick is Queequeg’s observation that “…there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” While I waited in the interminable line at the moribund TSA queue at Dulles (quite possibly now the single most inefficient TSA outpost in the U.S.), I reflected on the events of the past week. No really, with over 20 x-ray machines and body scanners sitting idle, TSA, thanks so much for giving travelers time to reflect! With an employment crisis in America, staff the equipment for crying out loud! Oh, there I go…, now back to my reflection.

Melville’s wisdom spoken through a South Sea Islander showed up in many manifestations this week. As I spoke to a colleague about creating new economic models for farmers in Bangladesh, I was impressed by the intellectual poverty our society has when thinking about alternative capital models. While conscious of the usurious tyranny of micro-credit (celebrated with a Nobel Prize) in which people are charged over 40% interest in the world’s poorest nations in the name of development, equity was suggested as the only alternative. Why? Was there any notion of enterprise liquidation possible? Was there a healthy merger and acquisition middle market to monetize an enterprise in Bangladesh? Was there ethical capital that would be patient to partner with a new enterprise in its bumpy launch? No. Equity was suggested because we don’t know a different way. When the Treasury and the Federal Reserve both know that our economic “recovery” is a façade masking the obfuscation of toxic assets which overlay our current Great Depression, they turn to printing more money so that the Fed can support bank dividends one last, euphoric time before the sham is revealed. And when we know that our Bretton Woods debt-based currency is valueless, we haul out the G-20 apologists to rail against a gold standard failing to realize that China and the rest of the growing economies have already adopted a de facto basket commodity monetary standard.

And for the moment, let’s set aside the screaming reality that needs to be addressed – namely, that we don’t understand the illusions in our own fallacies which lead us to believe that the levers we’re manipulating will change the collision course with reality. Rising above the din of hawkers of “recoveromics” is a commentary that Melville and his literary contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes seemed to discern 160 years ago. We don’t effectuate change by altering the narrative by degrees. We can only provide perspective to effect social change by offering an entirely new narrative that is evidenced in graphic realism.

Let me explain. The reason why the British went to war in the first Anglo-Afghan war was to secure safe-passage for industrial interests. That’s right. Men were sent to their deaths in service to companies – not to a country. Resources required to sate the consumption of Europe needed to have access to overland routes from India and Afghan interests were not cooperative. So tens of thousands were killed and the world was no less dangerous. For business and ideology, the British – in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (and then the Russians and Americans) – followed the same path. Hundreds of thousands were killed and the world was no less dangerous. While Americans were literally and figuratively fighting amongst themselves (levying tariffs to make Northern Industrialists wealthy and hold the South in a subordinate position) and the British were campaigning in Afghanistan, Germany’s Second Reich was investing in science and technology and coming up with things like the internal combustion engine (1876) and high speed rail (1879). By 1900, the economy built on investing in new metaphors for industrial vision in Germany eclipsed the British economy built on military defense of trade routes.

Whether it is in how we view economic, political, or ideological systems, or how we approach transformation, a picture seems to emerge like that barnacle encrusted white whale from the depths of the abyss. We can continue to use the tools which have brought us our current ruinous condition – usury, subterfuge, futile conflicts animated by ideological monomaniacal despots, and wanton gluttony – and, when enlightened, rail against the same. Or, we can actively endeavor to manifest a different narrative. The harpoon rope that pulled hunter and hunted into their watery grave is as unimaginative in the governments of the U.S. and Europe today as it was 160 years ago. And in 2170, another carbon-based life form may sit at his keyboard and join Melville and me in trying to point out the need for new modes of engagement. However, I know that we’ve had our fill of Ahabs. In collaboration with colleagues around the world, we’re lighting lamps without blubber. Consignment to perdition is not a human condition that must persist.

Call me David. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world… let’s write a new story.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Gordian Trust Manifest


Remember, remember the 5th of November
The emperor severs Gordian’s Knot
Entwining the globe the knot is rewoven
And shall never be forgot

Adapted from Bishop Andrewes’ 1606 poem

Remember, remember the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot
I know of no reason the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

When Lancelot Andrewes delivered his Gunpowder Plot Sermons in 1606, this brother of the translating editor of the King James Bible had no clue that his poem would be as remembered (or more so) than his brother’s verses. Precisely 405 years following the Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up Parliament, the Fifth of November served as the day of the launch of a new global initiative called the Gordian Trust. And, in a beautiful irony on this anniversary, what a dedicated group over 20 global citizens did, while more profoundly destabilizing to the status quo than gunpowder under Parliament, was to put in motion a path towards reunification, reclamation, and reconciliation of centuries of humanity’s progressive isolation.

The Gordian Trust is the launch of a new socio-economic model. In a world where millions of creative people and their artifacts have been almost achieved and manifest only to fail on a singular reliance on monetary scarcity, the Gordian Trust provides a new context for integral engagement. Let me explain.

Ever since the 1960’s, when a person in the U.S., Europe, or Asia sees an innovative way to address a social or technological challenge, they are encouraged to enclose that impulse in “proprietary” intellectual property. Everything that is written or reduced to some media is copyrighted. Technical innovations and processes are patented. Brands or images are trademarked. And the enclosures go on. Once entombed in a proprietary “property right”, the manifestor is told that they need to get funding to take their idea to prototype and, if successful, on to commercialization. By placing these “property” artifacts in the hands of usurious capital, greed and its cousin – desperation – drive the manifestor and capital provider to get as much return as possible for as little input as possible. Worse yet, in the U.S., ALL innovation and creativity is held by banks in liens which impair all diversified options arising from intangible assets while the banks ascribe NO value to any of these agents of business development and network benefit. Through a perverse system of maladjusted affronts to free markets, creativity is forced into scarcity, creatives are forced into isolation, and the lottery winners are those who have careless excess to squander for the episodic, disproportionate return. Generosity of creativity is replaced by greed animated scarcity. Collaborative inspiration is replaced by proprietary isolation. And networks of collaborative value exchange are forced into artificial scarcity premiums to reward the lottery odds makers. And for 50 years, vital innovation has not reached humanity to address its greatest needs. Millions of creatives are disillusioned and bankrupted (actually, morally and socially). And wealth aggregation has benefited an ever fewer elite.

The Gordian Trust is constituted of all of the technologies (social, technical, mechanical, etc) which have been manifest but then immediately been enslaved by the “funding impulse.” Recognizing that we all have been seduced into laying creativity’s gifts on the grisly alter of monetary idolatry, we now reconcile ourselves to our creativity and re-engage the stimulus for creativity. Rather than an Enterprise (where the heroic is defined by the success of the evermore insular creative scarcity drunk on the wine of greed), the Gordian Trust is based on the principle of honoring the impulse ex nihilo.

Here’s how we do it.

All assembled share the artifacts, innovators, stories, etc. of things that address big and small challenges which served as an impulse to create a business or venture. A catalogue of the Collective Abundance is compiled. Next to each venture, we identify a truthful accounting of what went into each (money, time, employees, relocation, mortgages, marriages, relationships, etc) and we take a moment to honor each of these. In particular, we name the people who have borne the cost of our addictions to a scarcity resource model.

Then we invite each of these artifacts and innovators to contribute their in-process, “failed”, or contemplated technologies or ventures into a Gordian Trust. This Trust will be stewarded by all who contributed – including all of the relationships which paid the ultimate price for an adherence to a broken model. All integral benefit arising from the Trust (commodity, custom & culture, knowledge, money, technology, and well-being) will be used 2/3 to dividend back to the Trust contributors and 1/3 to a Future Option pool which will be used to empower future Trust contributors who are equally willing to join the effort. On an annual basis, the Gordian Trust will hold a reunion of reconciliation where all those who have lost personal connections or suffered injury can reassemble and celebrate emancipation from the forces which caused the loss and welcome the energy of networked benefit and accountability.

Indeed, the Fifth of November will be remembered. But unlike the 405 years that have passed during which the Act of Thanksgiving (the 1606 law that enshrined the divine right of Kings celebrated on each November 5th) has been marked by the reinforcement of hierachical and tyrannical models, this first Fifth of November heralds a new beginning into which you are all invited. You will be learning about specific ways to be involved in the coming weeks so stay tuned...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mare Sit – Lux Sit

I didn’t finish my salad. That’s not an indictment on the indulgent lunch menu at the Napa Valley Grille in Westwood nor on the excellent kitchen which manifests epicurean delights. The grilled chicken and avocado were transcendent but they couldn’t hold a candle to the conversation which satiated far more than my palate. As Anna, Jeff, Adam and Ran wove a tapestry of conversation ranging from art, to geopolitics to finance, I was transported to that monastic silence from which I can at once observe, interact, and amalgamate each colorful strand. Mind you, my reclusive reflections were of imperceptible brevity as my half-eaten plate witnessed. Ran Ortner, whose work I’ve celebrated in previous posts, was discussing the evocative engagement he has with his opus studies in the sea. Like Constable’s voyeuristic intimacy with the agricultural metaphors in the late 18th and early 19th century in which the artist and observer enter the image at the organic and authentic level, Ran’s work evokes an appreciation for breathing as you find yourself prostrate on a surf-board at wave trough level in wild seas. Constable’s homage to the earth (in the face of the blackening skies of industrial England) and Ran’s tortured currents swirling about in that delicate balance between buoyancy and the abyss both provide perspective for a deeper exploration of the fundamental questions of who we are and why are we here? Both Ortner and Constable give us an image inspired by entering into the powerful dominion OF nature – not the popular, remote denigrated apology to nature.

A few days ago I received another map of “who owns the Federal Reserve.” Spoiler alert. It was the same August 1976 House Banking Committee diagram that has “discovered” the nefarious conspiracy of the Rothschilds, Morgans, Schroders, and Rockefellers at least five times in Congressional records since the creation of the Fed in 1914. Iconoclasts, conspiracy theorists, and self-avowed patriots alike have all come to an intriguing conclusion that periodically pretending to out the fact that the U.S. currency is manipulated for the self-interest of individual family dynasties and their corporate beneficiaries is somehow a right of passage into a deeper knowing. It’s not. The very fact that this public information is treated as intrigue for a Nicolas Cage-inspired National Treasure thriller every few months paradoxically reinforces the primary intoxicant of the agents of control.

Every era in recorded human history includes elusive wealth that serves to capture the greed fueled imaginations of those without. The metaphoric House of Rothschild, to be sure, has had ample opportunity to wield inhumane power without regard for humanity and has failed to steward its resources for the advancement of the marginalized. But like previous despotic heirs in history, this behavior is enabled, in large part, by the illusions of impenetrable intrigue maintained by those who whisper public things in hushed voices. When Doge Pietro II Orseolo inaugurated the Sposalizio del Mare (“Marriage of the Sea”) in around 1000 and Pope Alexander III elevated it to near sacramental in 1177, there was ample madness fueling the notion that humans had dominion over the sea. However, this insanity and hubris was only in part the responsibility of the perpetrators. It was celebrated by the complicit, opulence-struck masses. Watching from Venetian balconies and gondola in the harbor were throngs of on-lookers who buoyed the delusions of the ego-maniacal few. An empty coliseum would have not only spared many a gladiator but would have likely attenuated the delusional Emperors. I was struck by Brian Williams’ NBC Nightly News piece this past Thursday when he somberly reported on the growing outrage among voters over the cacophony of negative political ads. Having had to watch three such ads on NBC to get to his feature, I arrived at a singular conclusion. His piece, after all, was on the same network that was more than happy for the ad revenue all the while disingenuously wringing its hands about the terrible content. These ads have an effect because people become emotionally, transiently engaged – for good or ill – with their content. Each dollar donated to a campaign was donated by a complicit participant in the mayhem. In short, there are no victims – just buyer’s remorse from the co-conspirators. My solution to NBC’s faux news – turn off the TV.

Wandering into the labyrinth further, one begins to see a pattern resolve in the hedges. What allegedly makes money work is a consensus illusion which links status, social engagement, and identity to a metric measured in the coin of the realm. The more you have, the more power is at your disposal. Countless millions hate their jobs but “need to make a living.” Living has become synonymous with money. As we’ve discussed in earlier blog posts, the centrality of money as metric is the arbiter of everything from creativity to industry to compassion. Americans desperately cling to the illusion of Freedom and Democracy but we’re spending $3 billion to put our free and fair elections into the hands of the lords of money yet somehow are angry with them. While we’re certain that the whole world wishes to have the “American Dream”, we fail to reflect on the fact that our values are being promoted most aggressively and financially, at the point of a spear – hardly Freedom. Are we really victims of the lords of money or are we venting our self-loathing on those who feed our addiction with them serving as simply a convenient, reductionist target?

I’ve spent a lot of time with the lords of the currency of the realm. From time to time, I’ve deeply angered them by bringing transparency to things that were designed to persist in obscurity. I’m frequently reminded that, when the powerful have so much to loose, my cavalier proclivity to point out injustice and sociopathic behavior is not in my self-interest. But I’ve also seen many of the world’s monetary elite confronting mortality with the recognition that their power didn’t give them confidence in their progeny, ideological satisfaction that their dogma would prevail, or satisfaction that their legacy would idolized. And I wonder, what if those who share a conviction that there’s a better way would actually learn from my artist inspirations – Ortner and Constable? Rather than maintaining the ostracizing distance which both fuels mistrust and energizes hostility, what if we actually invited the aging incumbents into a transitional narrative which would provide redemption rather than damnation? Is it, in fact, conceivable that the insular world of the perceived powerful elite robs them of the collaborative and transformative other narrative? If they were invited into the hay fields or the wave’s yawning troughs, would they find a path to another mode of engagement?

Art wouldn’t work without Light. And the nonsensical debate about whether light is a wave or a particle is, well… nonsense. Photons, regardless of the energy state, are only manifest in an excitation ecosystem with other photons. Light propagates. If we want to paint a new picture of humanity on the canvas woven by sinners and saints alike, we might do well to reflect on Light. If those who see themselves as bearers of Light transition from the judgmental elucidation of the darkness and, instead engage in Light propagation in the dimly lit recesses, we may see a remarkable transformation. Wishful thinking – maybe. But let me remind you that the illumination of conspiracies hasn’t minimized their power. So let there be Light…at eye level.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Who Wants To Be A Billionaire? (and Archimedean Theorem V)


Over the past three weeks, I have had the good fortune of wading through the gutter of our society’s delusional view of “innovation” and “exploration” and its illusory association with wealth creation. After learning that one of his venture capital backed technologies was not unique (just a mirage created by the technical amnesia of a faux “inventor”), a duped investor said, “Well, I don’t think any of us expected the invention would make us billionaires.” A few days later, in a meeting with an engineering firm I learned that they routinely have charlatan inventors present technologies to them thinking that they’re worth “billions of dollars”. I’ve been reviewing the history of one of the world’s largest mining deals and am once again struck by the asymmetry of speculation – a few million dollars of “exploration” entitles one organization to claim $16 billion dollars worth of control of a nation’s minerals! And for some mysterious reason, the sign that keeps flashing on my dashboard of conscience says: “Warning: Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.” Recently, I’ve been working on multi-billion dollar projects and still going about life pretty much the same way. I’m still bouncing around the world working like I have for 20 years. I’m still coming home and helping my son Zach clean out his pet du jour tank (this time a turtle named Squirt).

And I’m reflecting on the half-life of the perception of big. Just ten years ago, when I was still working with developing policies to govern technology transfer from universities in the U.S. and Japan, I remember hearing people say, “These professors think that their inventions will make them the next millionaire,” with disbelief and distain. In ten years, we somehow went from million to billion. And I think that in the process, something far more important happened. I think that on the way into the troposphere of our imagination we became more isolated and detached from our capacity to engage with genuine, meaningful endeavors. Note that, in 2007 and early 2008, ICAP traded over $1.3 trillion dollars in counterparty risk instruments a day every day! In a complex global roulette game, betting on the downside of a non-transparent financial market, the greatest notional value traded were bets AGAINST humanity’s honoring its commitments. While Inverted Alchemy readers have known this for two years, the perfect storm of municipal bond defaults, pension illiquidity, and slowdown in over-leveraged consumption finally made international “news” this week when the financial press finally said that we’re at least $3 trillion underfunded in reported state pension obligations which the public is required to pay – saying nothing of the crater in funding for corporate and social security entitlements which make $3 trillion a drop in the bucket.

I am intrigued by the callousness with which we throw around numbers. Did life in the U.S. or around the world improve by an order of magnitude in the past 10 years? Did we create an order of magnitude of value in the past 10 years? And, why, given our recent opportunity to learn the lessons of the ills of excess in our on-going Great Recession, have we chosen to extol the virtues of ever-bigger illusion? Is it not the case that we’ve instead become an order of magnitude less connected to our humanity? Have we not become an order of magnitude more insulated from the consequence of our actions on the rest of the world?

I was lucky. Last weekend, I got to take part in a reality check. Coming off a week of international deals and cross-border trade negotiations, I was invited to the house of Zach’s girlfriend’s family in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every year, April’s family gets together in October (like many other families in rural Virginia) to make apple butter. Sitting above a small fire was a huge copper cauldron into which a heaping bushel of apples was placed. Starting at 2 AM, the apples boiled into applesauce and gradually thickened into a dark, syrupy sauce. The stirring paddle – a two meter pole with a large slotted paddle affixed to the end – constantly mixed the sauce making certain that no part of the cauldron was allowed to burn or stick. Zach got there at the crack of dawn. Katie and I showed up fashionably late around noon. We were immediately welcomed and given the opportunity to stand next to the boiling inferno and have the mix of smoke and apple steam burn our eyes.

Next to the apple butter contraption was Great Grandfather. He sat – mostly silent – save the moments when we’d ladle out a bit of sauce onto the plate for him to check the moisture content. If any juice still separated out of the dollop, it was more stirring, more smoke in the eyes. When the apple reduction was suitably thick, it was time to add sugar. We had 110 pounds of sugar in the sugar bin – 11 ten pound bags. “Start with five,” was the sagely advice from Great Grandfather. With bubbling apple concentrate burning my hands, I poured in 50 pounds of sugar while Katie, Tammy and others mixed the pot. Fully mixed, another test dollop. “Add two more bags.” In went 20 more pounds. Another test dollop. “I think that that’s about right,” reported Great Grandfather. “Oh no! Grandmom’s butter was much sweeter – we need more sugar!” protested one of the family. So in went another bag. And then, it was perfect. A bit of cinnamon, a touch of cloves and, voila, dark brown apple butter. The only thing lacking was Colleen’s homemade oatmeal bread… but that had to wait for three long days!

What I found particularly noteworthy was the comment that was made as I was cleaning the gooey, apple sugar mess off the stirring paddle after the last embers had died on the fire and after the last of 88 quarts of apple butter had been sealed. “That paddle has been around for about 100 years.” One hundred years of the same ritual on a crisp October morning! Amazing! Even more profound, however, was the story in the sugar. You see, over 100 years, wisdom had deduced that somewhere between 50 and 110 pounds of sugar is the range in which the “perfect” apple butter is produced. And in 100 years, the variability in this amount was governed by the sweetness of the apples (a function of nature’s rain and sun), the discerning palate of the eldest member of the family and the boisterous lobbying of the next generation who argued for 10 more pounds to evoke the sweetness of Grandmom. More sugar, you see, doesn’t make better apple butter. The perfect amount exists within a known, constant range. And while some of you, jaded by post-modernism will argue that this is just a Norman Rockwell anachronism in the Virginia country-side, I would suggest that we could benefit a lot from the lesson of the apple butter.

Human scale is not measured in logarithms and scientific notation. It’s measured in discerning dynamic ranges within which perfection is manifest. The pathologic obsession which celebrates perpetual growth infects incentives with an untenable mandate for ever larger, ever bigger, ever greater MORE. However, as academics like UVA’s Darden Business School Dean Robert Bruner and financial consultants like KPMG report, bigger not only is not better – in as much as 83% of M&A transactions, value is destroyed! Mind you, to the swindlers that promote them (aka Investment Bankers), they’re quite lucrative as they generate immense commissions. However if these same promoters were ever held accountable for their compulsive misrepresentations, the market would wake up and realize that there is a limit to growth and there’s a point at which we need to conclude that enough is, well… enough.

Which brings me to Archimedean Theorem V (yes, another one of these). If more than 6 zeros are at the end of any number associated with investment or transaction, insufficient accountability is most likely present. Precision is not an antiquated value – it’s vital to regaining a sense of integrity. If our “fudge factor” is over two orders of magnitude, we should go back to our assumptions and get them more carefully focused. I would welcome each of you to become critical consumers of zeros and realize that when they’re thrown carelessly about, it’s your time that is being wasted.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Crimes Against (and by) Humanity

This week marks the two year anniversary of Inverted Alchemy. Two years ago I was encouraged by Global Business Network pioneer Napier Collyns to continue the multi-year tradition I had established as the economist at The Arlington Institute. We were in the throes of an economic collapse created by willful, reckless opacity in which the Bush Administration, the U.S. Congress, investment banks, rating agencies and insurers were all co-conspirators. In a contorted coup d’état, the public sector, in one month set in motion the nationalization of assets in an exhausted, last-ditch effort to consolidate the U.S. economy for the convenient bankruptcy filing with our largest creditor – China.

I chose the title “Inverted Alchemy” as a challenge. After millennia of esoteric efforts to turn substances into gold, I thought it would be a fascinating proposition to encourage humanity to end its gold addiction and see if we could turn gold into something that built a better humanity. Given that our only alchemical success to date is the transformation of natural beauty, homelands and cultures, and human blood into gold, I thought that there needed to be at least one voice persistently challenging us to act differently.

Two years later:

- the bankruptcy is complete as we see Treasury Secretary Geithner officially “recognizing” China’s currency policy against which the U.S. can do nothing (including the announcement this week delaying a statutory deadline of currency reporting in an election-year stunt);
- blog readers are familiar with the growing illiquidity of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) which continues to assume failed business pensions at a record rate;
- blog readers saw Inverted Alchemy break the story on the illiquidity of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) months before the FDIC made the information public;
- the Toronto Stock Exchange, the London AIM and the Australian Stock Exchange continue to provide global investors the opportunity to launder their cauterized consciences while they mint brokerage fee income on mining operations operating illegally across the globe;
- we’ve seen authors and artists like Peter Buffett and Chip Duncan wake us up to hope in places devoid thereof;
- we’ve explored and deployed accessible Integral Accounting and have provided pathways to start acting and thinking differently;
- we’ve investigated the roots of our financial system and learned about interdependencies in ways not discussed before; and,
- we’ve seen a community of several thousand become part of the Inverted Alchemy blog conversation.

The most popular (based on download frequency and persistence) post in the history of Inverted Alchemy has been the March 2009 post on the AIG shell game. This post had a bizarre cameo relevance this month as SNL Financial reported what, on its surface, appeared to be a rather innocuous analysis that life insurers had a net loss of $900.3 million (down from an income of $8.9 billion last year). While their reserves were increased 17% from the previous year, their total REVENUE off of investment income increased only 3%. In short, they’re making a lot less with a lot more money in their control. This is ominous in light of the “Shell Game” post. On the superficial level we know that when Prudential, MetLife, TIAA-CREF, New York Life and AIG catch a cold, the global flow of capital gets…well…seriously congested! However, when you understand that since the establishment of the U.S. Federal Reserve system, it was life insurers who were at the foundation of the racket you realize that this loss has a long tail. Absent the actuarially dictated long-term investment allocations from life insurers, a major component of the global economy seizes up. And as we surmise from the extinct brontosaurus, a long tail can do a lot of damage when controlled by an un-evolved brain.

Building an economic system on actuarial management of life-expectancy is an experiment whose time has run. While the past 90 years saw excessive benefit flowing to a select few, the disparity of access to dignified living conditions for huge populations in the world grew disproportionately larger. And now, when we are confronted with the alignment of phenomenal growth in marginalized countries and the rare moment for humanity to actually back up the promises made at the millennial milestone regarding human rights, dignity of women and children, poverty eradication and global accountability, the response is to horde cash. Profits made on fear of death, profits made on covering end-of-life consumer credit leverage excesses, profits made from illegal resource exploitation operations, profits made on engines of warfare and death – now line the actuarial treasuries of those who see no future save the yawning void filled with the ghosts of their callous neglect.

We must break the cycle of a monetary system that rides of the mortality of human life for this is the insidious, pervasive Crime Against Humanity.

The last century worked (albeit, poorly) with the Keynesian notion that “natural resources” were free, that “labor” was a variable commodity (regrettably and ignorantly celebrated by the Nobel Prize in Economics this year), and that autocratic, central control of the public under partisan “isms” served as the expedient way for a few to lord over the masses. In 2010, we now have evidence that each of these conditions precedent are erroneous and prone to abuse. And, more importantly, we know that in their careless rush to option every food, metal, and energy resource on the globe, China is experimenting with a new imperialism which is on a collision course with the reckoning of its own neglect of China’s massive population still in poverty. Let’s face it. While we breathlessly watched as 33 miners were pulled to the surface after spending two months underground, the same week saw more than that number killed by rockslides, cave-ins, and actual violence against workers by mine owners and operators. The justification? Great copper and gold prices justify reckless mining practices for the benefit of….oh, that’s right, the investor. When mining agreements with countries call for “within economically feasible” standards for safety for workers and the environment, it is the INVESTORS and CONSUMERS who are actively or ignorantly supporting and enabling crimes against humanity. Whether it’s toxic sludge in the Danube, poison in the water in the Niger Delta, collapsed mines in China, Ecuador, or Chile, or silt slides in the Tabar Islands which bury gardens which sustain the food for a community, our addiction to metals and electronics is currently supporting the deaths of thousands. And we can stop it.

Much like public awareness contributed to the end of Apartheid, you can act today. The money that flows to those companies who trade on human lives passes through listing exchanges. The Toronto, Australian, London, and New York Stock Exchanges are directly involved with laundering these funds – insulating their investors from the expediency of having to confront business practices which result in the loss of lives and livelihoods. Today, begin the process of raising your voice to their compliance departments to call for an accounting standard that actually has listing eligibility requiring:
- local land owner and country interest participation in the LISTED stocks of companies benefiting from minerals and energy rather than in phony, illiquid shell corporations which accrue debt and expenses with no control of revenues;
- local land owner and country grievance procedures ON EXCHANGES so that shareholders are informed of business practices which violate human rights and environmental laws;
- de-listing for any company which resorts to contracted violence (mercenary or police action) to manage labor disputes; and,
- de-listing for any company which illegally by-passes customs and audit authorities and procedures in the host countries.
These are simple recommendations and, if a few of you begin to take the trouble of beginning the communication with exchanges, we’ll begin to be accountable for crimes done in our names. The ecosystem – including humans – is waiting for us to Invert Alchemy.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Your Attention, Please?

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the United States Congressional authorization for President Bush’s Iraq War. Letting it pass without acknowledging the hundreds of thousands of lives lost or permanently damaged by this fatal lack of judgment would be to perpetuate the assent to injustice and inhumanity unleashed by willful ignorance. In a country whose population consumes information with the attention span of a squirrel, our collective accountability for this blight on our generation is yet to be fully apprehended. From the mental and physical injuries on our men and women in the military to the thousands of Iraqi citizens who will live with unspeakable loss, the world is worse off today and, absent some change of behavior, will dishonor those who have lost so much.

On Friday, I had the opportunity to be reminded of why we went to war. During a conversation with two individuals who advocate changing the world for the better, I heard one of them say, “The problem is reading. You can’t expect people to read anymore. We need to engage people in a simple media platform with simple messages…like with Twitter.” For those of you who are not linked into the social media scene, Twitter is a social communication utility which has the intellectual depth of antiquated Morse-code telegraphs – messages limited to 140 characters! “We need a viral app that will get people to engage in virtual conversations which will shift humanity for the better.”

This type of analysis of engaging the human mind for behavior transformation is why we went to war in Iraq. This is why we still are unwilling to face the economic collapsing vortex which is continuing to render tens of thousands perpetually falling into unemployment and poverty. This is why we have a political leadership constipation of conscience in Washington, Brussels and Beijing. What’s the challenge? Your attention.

The issues confronting humanity were not developed on 140-character Twitter feeds. The CIA didn’t support and co-opt despot leaders and tyrants from the Middle East to Central America based on sound-bytes. The World Bank, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and the IMF haven’t had countries leverage their resource wealth for the benefit of a few financiers using short hand memos. The collusive financial racket that propped up AIG and took down Lehman wasn’t done on the back of a napkin. And in 1998, 2004 and 2006 when I reported the 2008 banking collapse, I wasn’t prescient. I actually took the time to wade through information that was hidden in plain sight. Ironically, corruption, treason, and greed have gotten so confident in your lack of attention that injustice is done in the open. And NOBODY pays attention. When SAIC floated their IPO, they reported vast unaccounted for sums of money associated with the Greek Olympic security contracts - sums that no accountable organization could verify - and nobody cared. When the New York court found Bulf Oil – a company owned by an Iran-Contra co-conspirator – guilty of numerous Iraqi Oil For Food crimes in which SunTrust, Texaco, BP and Chase Manhattan were all monetarily and materially involved, nobody cared. And when the Vice President of the United States used this same felonious network to prop up the “enemy” for our war on terror, few read about it or cared. When the U.S. government participated in the largest financial cover-up of accounting shenanigans in banks and insurers in 2008, they actually published the evidence in the public and nobody read it.

Do we suffer from a lack of information which would raise our consciousness? Would we pay attention more if we had an honorable, non-mainstream media source that would tell us the truth? Would the lives of Afghanis or Pakistanis mean more to us if we had a social media network that would allow us to use a defense-department funded network (called the internet) to unmask the truth and stand up to propaganda? Would we care more about those displaced and killed by mining and extractive industries if we had better social media platforms to display on our conflict-metal-filled-techno-gadgets?


Our eyes are blind because we don’t want to see. Our ears are buzzing with the hypnotic MP3 players that are surgically attached to our virtual existences. Our hearts are calloused from our incessant need to care about tsunami, earthquake, and flood victims by donating $10 dollars to anonymous surrogates who are our consciousness ambassadors and who, once paid, are long forgotten and seldom held to account. And our minds have carefully formulated a protective cocoon which allows us to put our aspirations on par with actions – “as long as we’re thinking about a better world, we’re doing our part”, we tell ourselves. And the next gadget is not going to break us out of our profligate coma. No the problem isn't the information, the access, or the mode of dissemination. The problem is that we are unwilling to confront complexity as complexity. And as such, we cannot find the singularity upon which the complexity could be resolved - the fulcrum as it were. In our rush to serve up sound-bytes - even those from the well-intended - we dishonor the reality of a multifactorial system in which covariates are THE story. In isolation things don't exist and in isolation, they will not be substantially engaged or addressed.

On this day in which we mark the millions who have paid the price for our willingness to acquiesce to the sound-bytes that sold tyranny under the self-righteous banner of “freedom”, we are invited to actually do something. Rather than flagellating ourselves yet again for our unconsidered complicity in the march of injustice and the affront to liberty, we can actually take part in manifesting another narrative for humanity.

Today, we will inaugurate the Exemplar Zero Initiative in New York. This Initiative, launched to demonstrate the potential of private sector global citizenship which acts rather than waiting for an anonymous government to lead, is already working to make climate mitigating technologies accessible in Mongolia. In a country whose capital is ranked as the world’s most particulate-polluted cities, we are partnering with the public and private sector to begin a new journey. One that does not stand on speeches, white-papers, and feasibility studies. Rather, one that is willing to stand up, make good-faith deployment efforts, and when confronted with challenges, stands up again and again. Tomorrow, you will hear of the anticipated launch of the Global Innovation Commons 2.0 – the only global platform that makes innovation data available to every person on Earth who can access a computer or can link to someone with access. We will not wait for the next “killer app”. We will not abide another day when those who are marginalized are fodder for their abusers. And we will not let willful ignorance be the defense for inaction and non-involvement. And here’s the deal – if you don’t care about environmentally suitable technologies in Mongolia or open-source innovation in water, clean energy, public health, and food security for the world – that’s cool with me. Just share with the world what you do care about and we’ll work with you to transform your caring to action. For in the end, what we really need are people who are willing to act differently. We have all we need already – save the willingness to courageously engage. Let’s take that mantle and move forward together. And yes, it’s going to require thinking in complete sentences, paragraphs and even whole stories. Because the story of our seduction has been an epic and we need to learn the language of a new story that will never fit on Twitter.