Sunday, August 28, 2011

Willful Practice of Ignorance


Plato could have scarcely imaged a state of civilization in which the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit would coin as obtuse an argument as the ‘willful practice of ignorance’. In my Pantheon of the Ludicrous, just beyond my Foyer of Incredulity, abutting the verdant Courtyard of Folly, the notion that anyone would actively ‘practice’ ignorance is embodied with a marble deity with a considerable portion of his cerebral structure deeply embedded in his own lower digestive, alimentary and excretory tract. This idol, affectionately known as Occidentus, is bathed in modified corn starch three times a day. The effluent of this offering fattens his priests while starving his worshipers with a bizarre famine of cerebral nourishment. Note that visiting my pantheon is not for the faint hearted.

While I encountered the far flung consequences of Occidentian adherents during my recent sojourn in Papua New Guinea and Australia, I was most intrigued by the juxtaposition of these encounters.

The first encounter was the published interview of one Mr. Greg Anderson, Executive Director for the PNG Chamber of Mines and Petroleum. When confronted with statements made by newly appointed Mining Minister Byron Chan regarding the constitutional and Organic Law fact that the resources of the land and sea belong to the people of the country (this is where you should recoil in horror at such a heretical idea), he stated that such an allegation is ‘playing with fire’ as it will ‘scare off investors’. Now, I’m sure that Mr. Anderson has a literal truth defense. If, by investors, he means the operators who have robbed the country of its resources with the cunning use of shell corporations, overt financing tactics to evade sovereign commitments, and explicit dealings to remove cash-flow from the reach of their local ‘partners’, he may be telling the truth. Alternatively, he may also be stating a truth if, by investors, he means the ventriloquists who have their hands firmly placed within him and by whom, if he doesn’t yell bloody murder at such a benign recollection of the law, his cushy compensation may be ‘down-sized’. In a world where China has declared a de facto policy intonation advocating for a commodity (possibly metal) currency standard, what he doesn’t mean is bona fide financial investors seeking to participate in genuine, risk managed resource production.

His fear mongering is analogous to the driver of a getaway car who, while dozing off fails to alert the robbers that police are on the front steps of the bank as they run out with bags of money. Such a driver should be appropriately scared of: the police who might nab him; his robber buddies for whom he was supposed to keep watch; and, any future hope at being a driver for another group of thugs. There’s plenty of fear available for those who have willfully exploited ignorance but, to ascribe it to a resource endowed country is, well, the evidence of an Occidentus adherent behavior. Given that billions of dollars are being minted on the hype of companies exploiting PNG and this wealth is accumulating on the expanding impoverishment of the country, it’s time for investors to stop turning a blind eye towards this behavior and start realizing that stable cashflows and sovereign risk are best managed with ethical treatment of sovereigns and people. The intangible assets – the rights granted by the government – are the key to economic engagement and it’s time that the global markets participate with, rather than exploit, the granting interests.

Far from the specter of ‘nationalization’ (reignited in the public with recent statements by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez), Minister Chan was merely reminding current operators that he intends to enforce the constitution and the law. And while the World Bank and IFC may exert strong-arm tactics to intimidate this affirmation of an appreciation for law and order at the bidding of their patrons, the rest of the world should be encouraged that a member of the new government is actually referring to the law as a standard.

The second encounter was in the Sydney Morning Herald in which I read about the grave concerns about the faltering Australian economy with specific focus on the manufacturing and technology sectors. Following – belatedly – in the footsteps of the U.S., Europe, Singapore, South Africa, India and China, Australia made a number of untimely economic and policy choices. The one that struck me the most in reading about the sagging manufacturing and technology sectors was the ill-conceived notion that providing domestic proprietary pseudo-protection in the form of Australian ‘innovation’ patents (an internationally unrecognized proprietary seduction to make people believe they’ve invented something when they’ve really just incrementally modified other stuff). Promoted as a way to ‘stimulate’ entrepreneurial activity and venture capital, this policy has backfired. Not only have countless technologies developed by CSIRO and Australian universities and businesses been reverse engineered and expropriated by others, but, in some instances, the recklessness around this policy’s implementation has enticed investors into the illusion of value that has neither export nor domestic market value. Peddled by well-positioned consultants who plied their empty Silicon Valley wares across Australia just as the indictments of failure were surfacing in the U.S., the charlatans failed to point out that entrepreneurial success is about customers, not investors. And, as an island, continent nation, constraining innovation to domestic relevance alone is antithetical to a global, export-denominated world. Regrettably, unlike Japan and China (and the U.S. back during the creation of Silicon Valley’s illusion), the government as a primary and premium purchaser from entrepreneurial ventures did not materialize and, without this absolute necessity, the model fell like an ill-prepared soufflĂ©.

Ironically, these events were unfolding as a macro-system reality was playing out on the global scene. In the past several weeks, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have been engaging in an unprecedented intangible asset buying spree. Rewarding bankrupt and defunct companies for thousands of patent artifacts with billions of dollars of transactions, these titans have been validating the existence and notional value of assets which are key to solving our looming second global financial crisis in banks. Every bank holds liens within their security agreements on intangible assets. Yet, to date, no bank on Earth can count the value of these assets against the collateral entered to calculate credit quality – a criteria for determining reserve capital. BIS and other regulators appear incapable of considering the possibility that accounting behavior last reformed in the post-World War II industrial era needs to be updated if there’s any hope of stabilizing a future banking system. Whether it’s resource rights in PNG or intangible innovation rights in Australia, these assets which govern all marginal cashflow from enterprise productivity are being ignored by financial institutions precisely at the moment that they’re achieving their most publicly recognized value.

Which leads me back to my mythical idol whose presence seems to be anything but mythical. Like Demetri Martin’s Paradoxataur – a creature that only exists if you don’t believe in it – current policy behavior seems to observe changing conditions and growing uncertainty and then willfully respond with solutions known not to be applicable. Word has it that Occidentus is riding across Jackson Hole on a Paradoxataur. Keep your eyes shut and persist in disbelief and in so doing, we just may have a chance of seeing some order emerge from the madness.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

“Talking Business” in New Ireland

Mediocrity is self-inflicted. Genius is self-bestowed
-Walter Russell, 1946

During a meeting of Local Level Government leaders and landowners at the Sentral Neu Ailan (Central New Ireland) town of Konos yesterday, I had the pleasure of sitting with a number of individuals who share a deep passion for finding paths to increase their participation in the value being extracted from their land. In his opening remarks, the President of the SNA LLG zealously advocated for ‘outsiders’ to treat his community with respect. “If we’re here to talk business, then let’s talk business. Let’s negotiate,” he said with an impassioned pitch.

In my experience during the years I’ve spent working in Papua New Guinea, I have found countless paradoxes. From the vestiges of occupier language – particularly German – in Tok Pisin (the primary language) to the repurposing of Customary traditions to accommodate the growing number of tourists, I am constantly reminded of the cost of inconsiderate opportunism which has been visited on this, and countless other communities. When the nexus of nature – metals, energy, and food – coincides with people who have lived with these abundances without the perceived need to exploit the same, conquistadors have often exaggerated willful ignorance to coerce concessions of unspeakable proportions. ‘Talking business’ and ‘negotiating’ were occupier code for an implicit assumption of transacting the removal of value by an outsider in a manner and for consideration that was, at best, vaguely perceived.

For the next several hours, I transacted ‘information’ under the assumption that, with information would come a greater awareness of the effects of past ‘negotiations’. This information included almost two hours of detailed reviews of financial statements and corporate machinations of a multi-national corporation who, through the cunning use of ignorance, has succeeded in extracting millions of dollars from the country and from international investors – willfully duping both. Ironically, just as the company misrepresented its benefit to the country, it also recently extracted funds in excess of $120 million from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, a Canadian Bank, and London investors without disclosing countless material legal and civil issues. Using predatory ignorance in Papua New Guinea, they merely constructed a stage upon which they could prey on the ethnographic and geographic ignorance of markets. Just like it was a safe bet that no one would ever inform local communities about the games being played with debt-filled shell companies, it was an equally safe bet that no one would ever inform the capital markets of the material mis-representations of the company.

So it was particularly poignant that, as I boarded my flight from Kavieng to fly over the Bismarck Sea, I pulled out my stowed reading: “The Man Who Tapped the Secrets of the Universe”. This short essay by Glenn Clark on the life and thoughts of Walter Russell is dense illumination into the experience of a man of great consequence. Russell’s Five Laws of Success (Humility; Reverence; Inspiration; Deep Purpose; and, Joy) served as a generous invocation on the dawn and benediction on the day past. More impactful in my reading, though, was Russell’s treatment of the essence of Cause and the simplicity of Source.

“Thus I was made to see the universe as a whole and its simple principle of creation as one unit, repeated over and over, endlessly and without variation, as evidenced in the universal heartbeat to which every pulsing thing in the light-wave universe is geared to act as one unit of the whole.”

In his understanding of this unity, he explains that toxicity, pathology, and destruction are merely evidences of things out of phase and in dissonance with the unifying, animating pulse. In his admonition, I hear the echo of the simple axiom I conveyed to my children each time I gave a bit of life advice. “Focus and balance,” I would say, “are the only two abiding principles. Hold these and the rest of life will fall into clear alignment.” What I experienced through the oration of the SNA LLG President was that out-of-phase dissonance that evoked a response in me. To address the diffuse EFFECT of exploitative ignorance, one must discern SOURCE rather than CAUSE. In the linear hubris of regression, we could assume that the CAUSE was a company who chose to mislead and, in a single dimension, we may be correct. However, that company is a component of an ecosystem in which the SOURCE of the dissonance comes from a theme we’ve been addressing in several recent posts – namely, surrogacy. By allowing an unaccountable ‘other’ to procure anonymous, hoardable wealth, we all foster predation in which suffering is a by-product. And tragically, the ‘prey’ turn to the language of the predator to seek solace from their abuse and, in so doing, perpetuate their injury.

Yesterday, the careful application of information dissemination took a first, tentative step towards the emergence of a new narrative – not just for the people of New Ireland but for the investors unknowingly, primitively isolated from their own awareness and complicity.

My soul quickeneth with the beauty of the dawn.
Today is, and will be.
Yesterday was, and has been.
I will reach out my hand into the darkness and lead him that asketh into the light.
My day shall be filled to overflowing, yet shall I not haste the day; nor shall I waste the day.

- from The Message of the Divine Iliad, Walter Russell

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Somewhere Over the Rainbow


"In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art."
— Rumi

Today I got to be a Dad. Yes, technically ever since that snowy gray day in Goshen, Indiana over 22 years ago when we found out that Katie was on her way into the world, I have been legitimately a member of the fraternity, but today was far more than biology. Today, we moved Zach into his dorm to launch his university career and, with this move came a haunting of the ghost of me in years past.

I remember sitting in the Purl St. house in Goshen with a few friends right after Katie was home from the hospital. John and Mark were standing with me looking down into the rocking cradle that my Dad had made for me (now sitting in our basement among other memories). Laying in a pillowy mass of blankets and fluffy things was a beautiful baby girl.

“What are you thinking when you look at her?” either John or Mark asked.

“You know,” I responded, “the truth is that I hope to see her get to college age having a foundation of confidence and with the certainty that she is loved. If that happens, I will be the proudest, most grateful man I could imagine.”

I don’t know which one of them asked me the question and, in truth, it doesn’t matter. Because what does matter is that today I got to see the other end of aspiration and got a rare opportunity to look back across 22 years to a me then. I had more hair on my head. I couldn’t stand without braces and canes from my many surgeries. I was embarking on a life that bore no resemblance to what I had expected just a few short years earlier. Whatever was left of a fantasy of ‘ideal life’ was either dead or comatose. I would learn to walk with my children – literally and figuratively.

And what an awesome journey! In Katie I got to see the power and the sorrow of a person gifted with a quick mind, deep perception, refined intuition and walked into life with her as we both learned how to be ‘different’ in communities and cultural contexts which regress masses to a mean. In Zach I got to learn the strength of compassion – compassion for everything: animals, nature, people. Through their eyes and in their words I was given a constant path to see my insights, words and actions reflected in admonishing brilliance. Zach taught me to look beyond my conscious perception to ‘see’ what wants to be seen. Katie taught me to embrace influence without striving to manipulate.

Wealth and the metrics we use to assess it are illusive vapors. Depending on context – defined by time, geography or external factors – they may be as fickle as a light summer breeze. Moving into his dorm room (complete with his signature rumpled bed sheets; his abundance of t-shirts, his immediate embrace to jump confidently into his nervous, illusive unknown next) Zach gave me a gift of perspective. Across two decades, I got to visit me. And beyond just a nostalgic reflection, I got to tell younger me that I got it right. Having two amazing kids successfully embark into life with a foundation of confidence and the certainty of love did, indeed, live up to its billing. I am a proud Dad and a grateful man. And when I arrive in Papua New Guinea in two days and embrace Katie, the arms around her are those not just of a Dad and man, but of a person, who in deep reverence and appreciation, acknowledges that as teachers and masters, my kids have refined my path. Thank you.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

S&P and the tale of $2 trillion (or $4.2 trillion)


In Alfred North Whitehead’s 1933 Adventures of Ideas, he joins other mathematician physicist philosophers from the period who admirably sought to reconcile societal dissonance evidenced in monetary policy, war, and the transforming gestalt of the role of Christian morality in a globalizing world. Whitehead is well known for his critically acclaimed principle of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in which he shows the consequence of the failure to apprehend the nature of the essence of things and the conventional understandings of the same. He explores the social derivatives of this fallacy in which people separate, enter conflict (including going to war), and engage in destructive acts over ‘truth’ that is neither ‘true’ nor ‘reality’ – simply an unconsidered consensus.

The events of Friday of this week – the capping of a contentious and fallacious closely averted disaster around the U.S. government’s inability to find a path to accountability which, like the gusher in the Gulf, will emit even more toxic sludge when it fails in a few short months – provide a wonderful opportunity to consider Whitehead’s long forgotten wisdom.

Written in 1933…

Ironic, isn’t it, that the “remote chemical discovery” (don’t you love his resistance to using the term ‘alchemy’?) that would render gold of little value was anticipated to be more readily replaced by paper currency whose “number can increase…at their arbitrary will.” Who would have thought that a mathematician philosopher in 1933 could have seen into the mind of Ben Bernanke?

This week, the markets and politicians provided a plethora of fodder for InvertedAlchemy. However, what struck me most was the concrete fallacy that emerged around the controversy triggered by S&P’s decision to downgrade U.S. debt. Let’s be clear, S&P and the rest of the government-protected monopolist rating agencies (NRSROs), are incapable of rendering meaningful risk assessments due to the fundamental detachment they all share from assessing future productivity. Sell-side rating agencies, given the fact that they must serve as the concubines for two equally maniacal lovers – the debt sellers who buy favorable treatment and statutory buyers (like pension funds, banks, insurance companies and others) who are required to hold ‘investment-grade’ investments – couldn’t be objective if they tried. In their deal with the devil, they get monopoly protection through legislation in exchange for always saying nice things about those who protect their monopoly. If this sounds corrupt, it does because it is.

So, imagine the ‘gotcha’ thrill that happened when someone at the Treasury (represented by John Bellows, Acting Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy) found S&P’s much ballyhooed $2 trillion mistake. Clearly, the argument went, if you subtracted the $2.1 trillion estimated cost savings from the CBO analysis rather than adding it (which by the way, folks at the Treasury, makes this a $4.2 trillion mistake), the economy would look much better – so much so that a down-grading wouldn’t be justified. Tragically, by focusing the public attention on the gnat (o.k., rather large pterodactyl, but who’s measuring these days) of the error, the public fell for the S&P bashing without looking at the real numbers. So, to be clear, rather than being over $90 trillion in the hole – based on the error – we’ll only be something over $82 trillion in the hole. Don’t you feel better? Moody’s and Fitch should feel great that our nation is falling faster into unsustainable growth of debt and entitlements at a pace that would require us to more than quadruple our GDP growth and, because of their august wisdom and impeccable insight, they still see ‘investment grade’ when they’re looking at the U.S. debt.

The Chinese are right. We must get our financial house in some semblance of order. Note that I wish we would actually begin telling ourselves something that more closely approximated the truth but I’m not sanguine that that’s likely anytime soon. But between now and then, we need to revisit Whitehead’s axiom. Ratings are not truth. Ratings are not derived from independent, forward-looking assessments of productivity. Ratings are illusions created to fulfill a demand for a specific type of investment instrument whose production is required by statute. If we want transparency, we’ll have to tackle it through banking, insurance, pension, ERISA, and securities reform and that’s unlikely given the House divided. S&P is neither the cause nor the effect that people have made them out to be. They were complicit in the failure of financial products in 2007 and 2008 and, with their co-monopolists at Moody’s and Fitch, they will contribute to more market carnage in the future. But, let’s be clear, it’s all of our reliance on a fallacy of misplaced concreteness that precludes We the People from raising our voices to advocate for greater risk assessment and future productivity insight. And that’s something we can all change today.