Sunday, March 25, 2012

Life Arbitrage

Having returned from Dubai at the end of this week, I had intended to write a post about the decade of my experience there and the observations I made about the state of the region. However, the U.S. government’s announcement today that it was paying $50,000 per death in the recent Afghan homicides and $11,000 for every wounded victim trumped my plans. At a ceremony in Kandahar Province, the families of the dead were assembled to receive this extraordinary compensation. Extraordinary in that the going rate for previous civilian casualties had been typically $2,000. That’s right, the going rate for a human life authorized by a country that has a significant percentage of its population described as “pro-life” values human life at $2,000. Or maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe the only life that is valued is those born in the right jurisdiction.

Now before I dive more deeply into this matter, I trust that you pause for a moment and let this fact settle in. Our response to show that we, as a nation, care about the human tragedy of recent events is to pay the families of victims $50,000 per life extinguished. How are we feeling about this? Is this the ‘family values’ that we want for our legacy?

Let’s dig a bit deeper. Under the Military Compensation schedule, the U.S. Department of Defense offers a tax free “Death Gratuity” of $100,000 to surviving family members of those who fall in conflict. And government contractors, the class of citizens who have experienced the greatest number of reported casualties since 2010 in Iraq and Afghanistan, have much more opaque consideration for loss of life. L-3 Communications employees lead the somber statistics with the leading casualty count. Civilian government employees killed in conflict are entitled to a $10,000 Death Gratuity – reduced by burial allowances and costs associated with being terminated from employment by virtue of death. Mind you that civilian employees operating in areas under the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) are authorized to be paid (during their 'living' employment) up to $230,700 in a calendar year (capped at the annual salary of the Vice President of the United States).

At what point in our history did we decide that the principle of “blood money” was a legacy of the human experience worth keeping? In a world where we campaign against slavery of all sorts – child labor, sex trafficking, sweatshops, and the like – where is the impulse of William Wilberforce to finish the abolitionist movement he had the courage to pioneer for 26 years before the passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act? When thousands of people in organizations across the globe are philosophizing about the prospect of an evolutionary leap in human consciousness, where are the voices saying that exchanging money for life is a stain on civilization that must be ended?

Mind you, it’s not just the extermination of life where we’ve got this wrong. We’ve told our children that, when marriages don’t work, we can transact parental care for money. We’ve decided that when life pulls marriage apart, the finality of separation is transacted by paying the marriage ‘death gratuity’. Have anyone of us ever met anyone for whom this transaction actually worked? Was the settlement really worth the loss of intimacy? Did we ever see the wound of a loss of life and love healed with the ointment of money? There is no Legal Tender that can hold a candle to the tenderness of humanity.

The families who suffered in Afghanistan are not whole because we paid them $50,000 for their loss. The families of L-3 contractors are suffering as well – just with far less publicity and under the President’s ruse that has reduced troops while expanding anonymous contractors in harm’s way. They need an America that actually shows up with a humanity that values their lives. They have stories to tell, wisdom to share, and means of engagement that must be valued. Their children need access to education and sanctuary. Their mothers and fathers need opportunities for peaceful engagement in a global value exchange. Their grandfathers and grandmothers need to see the cessation of conflict that for generations have kept their homeland in constant violence. And until their lives are valued in their living, no blood money will absolve us our collective inhumanity.

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” - William Wilberforce prior to the 1789 Abolition Bill vote in Parliament.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Don’t Call the Plumber for a Liver Transplant

Over the past several months I have been intrigued by the number of people who are certain that the economy’s getting better because companies are sitting on loads of cash. And as we come sneaking up on the infamous anniversary this week – you know the one, March 23, 2006 when the Federal Reserve Board of Governors ceased the publication of M3 – I find myself puzzling over why the selective erasure of a metric makes us think that the problem it measured can’t come back. (For those of you too young to remember, M3 was a measurement of monetary supply which included large denomination deposits, repurchase agreements, and Eurodollars – a key indicator to measure the threat of inflation.) It’s kind of like saying that by destroying all cholesterol tests, we can eliminate heart disease. After all, having an ability to measure the liquidity trading between extreme large financial players, governments, and banks shouldn’t impact the economy that much, right?

Forbes published an interesting note yesterday by Michael Pollaro entitled, “Money Supply booming, seeds of the next Greater Recession”. For those of you who find my blog posts somewhat tedious and in great need of simplification, I would commend this article to you. In it he argues that we are poised, yet again, for another even more pronounced recession triggered by yet another credit bust. Both U.S. and European Central Bank activity – pumping productivity-uncorrelated money into circulation (well, not so much circulation – more congealing in a few nearly dead organs) – has put us in a position where our only exit will be inflationary accompanied by equally unpalatable credit busts. Forex commentator Sean Lee largely dismissed Pollaro’s concerns suggesting that despite another jump of $15 billion in monetary supply last week, we should not have correlated crises because were in what he described as a Keynesian ‘liquidity trap’. Kind of like a gunk filled trap under your sink only filled with soggy money.

Quietly attracting no attention is the piece of the economy that troubles me more in its anonymity than in its actual gravity. Receiving too little attention in the recent Olympic Greek drama is the fact that it was pensioners who took the biggest proportional consequence of the default. These are the same ones who vote. They’re the same ones who need to spend money for an economy to work. And they just had half of their mandatory pension contributions erased. In a macabre sort of way, this tragedy seems to be rather Promethean. You know the story. The titan Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and brings it to mortals and, for this crime, Zeus has him bound to a boulder where, once a day, a giant eagle comes and eats half of his liver. The bummer is that, over night, his liver grows back only to have said bird come and gnaw it out again. In our story, the IMF plays the role of Zeus. Opportunistic investors and bank reserve investors are the eagle. And last but not least, Central Banks are the mysterious regenerators of the liver – pumping more blood into the system just in time for the eagle to devour it again.

Now, to be clear, Prometheus in our story is humanity. And lest we wish to invoke a pity party on our sorry lot of being chained to a rock for wanting to have fire, we need to clear up a few things. We have all participated in a system that has dripped soporific tranquilizers into our veins encouraging us to ‘work’ less, ‘consume’ more, and keep the hamster wheel spinning. We’ve been presented with Herculean challenges and petty drivel and have, for the most part, decided that a tweet-attention span consciousness is to be desired over something that takes, look it up, considered thought! Too many of the chains that are holding humanity to its rock awaiting the daily visit of the eagle have been forged not from Thor’s anvil but from the swipe of our credit and debit cards. And, as if to portend the gift of Pandora (another one of the great works of Aeschylus), we’re seeing that at the nadir of the housing market, younger people are using reverse mortgages to pump liquidity into their own consumption. And this isn’t just for taking that extra trip to Florida. At present, nearly 16% of seniors are officially in poverty – a number that’s growing. So at a time when we already know that entitlements are bankrupt, pensions are gutted and/or underfunded, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is stuck in a zero return interest rate environment courtesy of the Fed so it cannot fulfill its mandate, we’re awash with money that is more decoupled from productivity than ever before.

The process set in motion during the Nixon Administration is nearly run its course. Cut from any mooring in the form of assets, we are now harvesting the crop of uncorrelated debt-based monetary policy. Massive wealth transfer has concentrated more money in the hands of fewer people than at any other time in our industrial history. Far from a system falling apart, we need to understand that the system is working to near perfection for its designers. The mistake most people make when they’re looking at what’s happening is to actually think that the system was designed with their best interest in mind. It wasn’t.

At the end of this particular Greek tragedy we know that there will be a number of people – disproportionately senior citizens – who will be hardest hit. Sure, there will be pain to spread around as is always the case in Great Recessions / Depressions. So before the full bloom of the next bust, why don’t we work to build some support infrastructure for those upon whom the furies might fall hardest. Let’s work to engage our seniors in our present endeavors and reignite the spark that once burned brightly in our history – a flame of industrious production in which the young and old worked together throughout all of life – not for some arbitrary time to retirement. Having just spent several days with my parents building a windmill in Papua New Guinea, I’m here to tell you that my experience with them showed me that it was this cross generational richness that seemed to unleash the only thing Pandora didn’t let escape her jar – Hope.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

KONY 2012 – His Invisible Employers

Joseph Kony is, without question, one of the most heinous criminals of our time. His elaborate scheme of exterminating the innocence of childhood through the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) represents a level of sociopathic cruelty that must be ended. Having had numerous interactions between our organization and Invisible Children, I have been impressed with the passion with which the Invisible Children team has persisted to shine a light on the human tragedy unleashed by the LRA.

I encourage you to watch Invisible Children’s KONY 2012… but, here’s one tiny caveat. Joseph Kony is not a deranged sociopath who came out of a vacuum and exsanguinated the life-blood of children in Uganda and the Central African Republic simply because he’s incarnate cruelty. Joseph Kony’s impunity was possible because an ecosystem was created which celebrated injustice and inhumanity. He represents the malignant end of a disease that KONY 2012 does not address.

Central Africa is a land filled with diamonds, timber, oil, gold, tantalum, tin, tungsten and other minerals. And the cold reality is that the funds that arm the LRA are not anonymous donors sworn to promote genocide – they’re the consumers of the products that are being ripped out of the ground and have been for years. In compliance with Dodd-Frank Section 1502 – a law that was passed to allow public companies to report and justify the “necessary functionality or production” of the use of “conflict minerals” – companies like Intel report the fact that they are aware that part of their supply chain funds “human rights atrocities.” Now, the reason I’m highlighting Intel is because, while admitting their ‘potential’ role in the conflict metals genocide, they also have been leading industry efforts to deal with this issue.

What’s missing, however, is the recognition that the Joseph Kony phenomenon is not without its patronage. Children are being robbed of their innocence not merely by ruthless warlords. Girls are not being forced into sex-slavery and death because there’s a #1 bad guy indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Young boys are not killing their parents because there’s a rogue scout troop that took things a bit too far. These crimes are happening because real companies are supporting a supply chain that they, and their investors have allowed to operate in opacity. And remember, the same Congress that authorized military trainers to go to Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and wherever Kony may run to hide, is the Congress that passed a law stating that companies can justify their use of resources produced through genocide!

Ten percent of Facebook’s users have watched the Invisible Children video. That’s awesome. But most of them watched that video on an appliance that holds the ghost of a killed family, a raped girl, a childless gun-toting boy, an Asian indentured laborer…, and the list goes on. And until we realize that Kony is just the homicidal end of a road that our consumption has paved, we’ll stop him while hundreds of his inspired spawn operate in anonymity. As long as Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank is the best we can do; as long as we don’t pay attention to the corporate profits and the investment banks who finance the corrupt industries that provide liquidity to warlords; we will continue to inherit a world in which Joseph Kony will continue to rob, abduct, kill, and maim.

On April 20, 2012 – let’s also name the real beneficiaries of the LRA and the chaos they maintain so that corporations and investment banks rob the countries where the LRA operates. Look at your diamond ring, look at your mobile device, look at your 401(k) and realize that the ghosts in the mirror are the Invisible Children – the one’s you still don’t care about. And then, get informed and cut off the money supply so they cannot persist. How about having a day of NO ELECTRONICS PURCHASES? How about having a day where NOBODY GETS ENGAGED WITH A ‘GIRL’S BEST FRIEND’? See, if we really want to make a change, we have to stop merely naming the ‘bad guy’ and start realizing that it is US that made him and WE HAVE TO CHANGE OURSELVES to exterminate his kind in our world.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Shark-fin Soup

One of my greatest professors – quite possibly the greatest – was Dr. Bruce Craig at Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory. Armed with the Gospel of Arthur Guyton he guided his graduate students through the labyrinth of neurophysiology with maddening precision and monotonic poise that conveyed complete command of one of the world’s most complex electrochemical systems. And to this day, there are few facts that he imparted that I would not be able to recite if I was under even the slightest duress. Under extreme pressure, I could regurgitate it all (including his not-so-P.C. quips that offended the more sensitive of his students). So it was, as I trudged through the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union which was heralded as a significant step forward for the stabilization of the Eurozone, I found myself wishing that at least one policymaker or economist would have been a classmate of mine with Dr. Craig.

Allow me to explain using a simple lesson in neuromuscular physiology. Most reflexes are dumb. Now, before you rush to judgment about this dismissive assessment, allow me to clarify. They are mindless, as it were. There a few things you learn about reflexes (and how they work) that support the empirical truth of this statement. When a stimulus triggers a receptor it causes a nerve membrane to go from its resting state (a -70mV charge) to an activated state (a +100mV charge). But, here comes the dumb part. That “all-or-nothing” stimulus goes racing up the nerve to the spinal cord where it executes a hardwired response – hyperactivating certain muscles and rendering others flaccid. At no point does the brain kick-in and say, “Hey, let’s think about whether our response is actually helpful or whether it might do more harm than the thing we’re avoiding.” No, the brain plays no role whatsoever. It just hangs out and hopes that nothing too catastrophic happens. Like the nerves that stimulate them, the muscles go through the same “all-or-nothing” response and respond with unmodulated, unconsidered, unconscious action. Tragically, having been thus activated, the whole system goes into a refractory state where the ions that flipped the switch on have to re-equilibrate during which time no movement can be effectuated. Now, if your reflex, let’s say, had you punch a shark in the nose to get it to swim away and it worked, you’re in luck. If, however the shark decides to chase you, well your myoneural refractory period will get you well acquainted with the digestive juices of a shark.

And here’s the kicker: the Member States of the European Union just punched a proverbial shark in the nose. The stimulus in this case was the on-going contagion that has rendered the Greeks, Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese as at-risk states (with debt to GDP ratios of 142%; 120%; 60%; and, 93%, respectively). In the treaty, 60% debt-to-GDP is the resting nerve state over which the reflex of this treaty is activated. But, as if to evidence the absence of a cognitive involvement to attenuate the reflexive error of the theory of this treaty, the Member State that fails to get its fiscal house in order is subject to a variety of penalties adjudicated in the Court of Justice. However, assiduously absent from this treaty is any sanction for the Member State(s) who aids in the reckless indebtedness of a State by PURCHASING debt issued by the violating state. During the week where the Chinese continued to alter their purchasing of U.S. debt realizing that our investment-grade status is not likely to re-emerge with the impotent policies of the present administration – to say nothing of the sheer madness coming from the leading contenders to make the Obama’s join the ranks of the jobless and homeless in 10 months – it’s particularly noteworthy to see the European leadership fail to lead. The Chinese know that part of fiscal discipline includes NOT BUYING what is toxic. It would seem obvious that this lesson should be self-evident to a Europe awash with banks that don't have Tier 1 capital courtesy of bad sovereign debt.

The central problem that this treaty fails to address along with all the other ‘trained-economist-proposed’ solutions that preceded it is the fundamental problem of decoupling credit from productivity. In the name of efficiency, our central bank and capital markets’ impulse that leads to capriciously setting interest rates on debt issuance based on political winds rather than actual economic productivity is the curse from which we can’t seem to escape. Uncorrelated returns – a necessary corollary to enterprise-ignorant debt – is the malignancy which, if supported by mindless purchasers will insure on-going fiscal malaise. We may stimulate. We may artificially manipulate interest rates. And like the stupid spinal reflex, we’ll get a twitch. But also like the reflex, without cognitive engagement in which rates and productivity are linked, we’ll continue to create debt instruments that are fundamentally unsubstantiated. And, as long as buyers can consume these debt issues without consequence, the crisis of confidence will spread its malignancy across the markets. So, get used to the digestive juices of sharks ‘cuz there’s some sharp teeth sneaking up behind us.