Sunday, December 30, 2012

Haunted Forest of Bretton Woods


What if we never were the economic power we thought we were?  What if the dollar really held up on its own?  What if the three largest economic powers of the past 60 years all suffered from failing one of wisdom's oldest admonitions recorded as the words of the Patriarch Moses.

"… And it will be, when the Lord, your God, brings you to the land He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant, and you will eat and be satisfied.  Beware, lest you forget the Lord, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."  

Devarim 6:10-12.  The Fifth Book of the Torah (Deuteronomy for Gentiles).

In July 1944, it was not certain that the Allies were going to win the Second World War.  The winds were blowing in their favor to be sure.  The Allies were regaining territory on the west with France and on the east in Russia.  One month earlier, the success of D-Day had buoyed confidence that the German juggernaut was vulnerable and that the Allied powers may indeed prevail.  The U.S. economy, barely functional save the frenetic ultra-nationalist industrial orgy supporting the war machine with a dollar untested since the Great Depression, had no evidentiary power save the aspiration wafting on the breezes of imagined victory.  U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull pleaded with is colleagues for free trade as a remedy for a world at war.  Thinly veiled post-colonial score settling placed the U.S. dollar above the British pound in large part due to the linking of the British Parliament accession to Bretton Woods one year after its negotiation as a condition of $4.4 billion in much needed reconstruction aid.  A similar inducement forced the Franc to bow to the Dollar in exchange for a Dollar denominated billion dollar loan for French reconstruction. 

A cunning convergence of levers conspired to create the illusion of U.S. dollar hegemony.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, later the World Bank) were carefully constructed to reinforce what, at the time was merely an illusion.  The great concession - linking the U.S. dollar to a gold rate of $35/oz - was half the commodity illusion; the other being the growing global demand for oil conveniently financed with dollars.  But, to reclaim the prophetic warning referenced above, we must consider the Marshall Plan and the U.S. occupation and MacArthur administration of Japan.  The fiat currency - in the form of the U.S. dollar - was instrumental in rebuilding Europe and Japan and building infrastructure (and dollar trade dependency) for the manufacturing base of the subsequent economic booms in both regions.  By August 15, 1971, President Nixon realized that the illusion could be maintained no longer.  Slamming the gold window closed and, with Executive Order 11615, instituting a last gasp effort to preserve the Adam Smith inspired economic employment doctrine, Nixon sealed a fate that would have come fully due in the early fall of 2001 had it not been for a certain distraction.

Without the world's credit tolerance - a much ignored though vital policy that Nixon crafted to allow expansion of foreign ownership of our dollar-denominated debt -  we would have lost our Bretton bet long ago.  With Treasury Secretary Geithner's recent announcement that we are once again at a debt ceiling - one side or the other of $16.394 trillion - we continue to bet that the foreign 'others' and our pensions will keep us going.  But what we seem to overlook is the $1.26 trillion in debt that we have to repay this year!  That's in addition to the new debt we have to raise. 

Now, I'm warning you, I'm about to introduce a concept that you may think is entirely unrelated; but please indulge me. 

In 1993, Richard M. Auty introduced the term "resource curse" to describe the phenomenon in which countries rich in natural resources were typically locked in grinding poverty.  He and hundreds of economists and social scientists have pretended to be puzzled over this phenomenon in faux sincerity.  But this "curse" is an illusion derived from disingenuous monetary myopia.  While Bretton Woods broke the literal colonial trade controls of Britain, and to a lesser degree France, by imposing the U.S. dollar reserve and trade dominance, it merely traded a sovereign colonial force for a monetary one.  To participate in the global economy, a single currency hegemony insures that local collateral (in the form of extractable resources) will be denominated in a debt-based currency (the dollar).  The country capable of selling resources, unable to develop them with direct investment in local denomination is pressured to debt-finance its minority equity participation in its OWN resource development thereby forcing two monetary inefficiencies from which escape (sans corruption and despotism for the few in power) is impossible.  The natural resource, which in the ground could serve as the basis for sovereign wealth, becomes the alienated collateral for international financiers who, with no thought for development, extract rents in excess of the resource commodity sales yield insuring instability and ultimate unrest.  By removing domestic enterprise and commodity optionality through compulsory dependence on a debt-denominated currency financial utility, the country is incapable of sustainable development. 

Which leads me to a couple of conclusions.  By betting the U.S.'s future not on our productivity, industry, or innovation but rather on our money, we removed our own optionality to recover from our present fiscal maelstrom.  Money, in and of itself, is not productive and has no natural yield.  It is optionality constrained.  If its flow is directed towards assets with future productivity, it can serve an important purpose.  However, if money is its own productive cycle in the form of capricious usury, it is unsustainable.  Our perpetual debt growth cycle - fueled in the U.S. and Europe by our complete unwillingness to evidence economic will to: a) live within our productive means; and, b) reduce our Federal employment and procurement market dominance; insures our dollar's ultimate demise. By financing our trade empire with a dollar backed by debt rather than by resource or productivity-linked value creation, we've cut off our own economic and wealth-creating future options.  Ignoring productivity and assets, we've implored the world to continue the illusion for its own sake.  But we've failed to recognize that our dollar was never entirely what the world wanted.  We used our power to create the mandate making it what everybody needed.  When that illusion breaks, well… let's go back and look at the Children of Israel and see how they faired in the "promised land."

Recitation of a lie, no matter how loud and often, does not make it true.  But for the Commonwealth (Anglo-Iranian Oil Company later to become BP which globalized oil production ahead of the Rockefeller's Standard Oil; Anglo-American, De Beers, Rio Tinto; etc.) the U.S. and Europe would have been incapable of enacting Bretton Woods because it was through dollar debt denominated commodity pricing and industrial production - not acclaim and desire of the nations - that the dollar had its ride.  While the World Bank's International Finance Corporation perfected the natural resource piracy still alive and well in Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Forum Secretariat nations, Southeast Asia,  South America and Africa, it did little to improve upon the debt slavery extractive industry model that was quite well entrenched by the Commonwealth and other colonial powers before the Second World War.  

So where am I going?  Very simply put: the U.S. and Europe are currently trying to fix a central bank-enabled problem hoping that, in so doing, they'll reassert their will on the world.  They're hopeful that today's pensioners-in-waiting (a polite way to say modern labor) have total financial and historical illiteracy and, as a result, continue to buy growing debt.  But that's where InvertedAlchemy seeks to be a bit of a spoiler.  The clarion call that emanates once a week from Charlottesville, Virginia (home of the fiscal incompetent but globalist Thomas Jefferson) explicitly reminds you that productivity-linked economic models are, and will be, the ONLY way for We The People to actually build sustainable systems.  If we allow indebtedness to stand as a surrogate for our unwillingness to be productive, we all lose.

Allow me to leave you with the most compelling statement made in this year's volume on June 10, 2012. 

wealth = utility x retained optionality

where ∞ = ∫ of all users across all value dimensions

When one considers this formula, one can readily see that the greatest wealth is experienced when the maximum benefit can be derived (in number of participants) from the least phase and state alteration (for more on this, take a look at my previous postings on Phase and State Coherence).  And the more value (in terms of integral accounting) dimensions can be simultaneously appreciated by the more participants, the greater the momentary and residual wealth.  So use 2013 to align your assets with wealth of the form that lasts!  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Waiting for the Sunrise


This morning, I saw the first rays of the sun hitting the palm fronds of richly laden coconut trees; the golden coherence dancing off the respiring branches and warming the nubile fruit clutching closely to the trunk.  The light this morning was particularly precious by virtue of the date:  December 23rd, 2012.  Regardless of the calendar employed - Mayan, Gregorian, or Lunar - today's light is the shortest and most fleeting for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere and most abundant for those of us in the Southern.  And, as with every other circumnavigation of the solar plane, we anticipate the pilgrimage to the north with spirits of our Roman ancestors who celebrated this moment religiously until, in the 4th century A.D. when a replacement "son's" celebration required the practice to be outlawed.

Waiting in line at Customs at the airport in Cancun, I was thrilled to see the Mexican economy benefiting from a host of pilgrims who had come to the Yucatan Peninsula to be present for the eschatological puzzle that was to unravel (or ravel) on December 21, 2012.  Waiting for nearly 45 minutes in that line, I reflected on the 25 years that I had been married to my wife: our anniversary on December 19th being the proximate cause for our sojourn among our friends in Mexico.  As I often do, my mind tried to piece together the marking of time (my anniversary) and the anticipation of the end of time held by many around me (the end of the Mesoamerican 13th b'ak'tun).  "Time is money," a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin in his 1748 Advice to a Young Tradesman, appeared to have some phenotypic truth given my surroundings teaming with tourists.  Addressing his friend, A.B., Franklin wrote:

"Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or, rather, thrown 
away, five shillings besides."

In our collective trips to Mexico during this winter solstice, had we all "thrown away" something of value?  Was our sixpence of diversion or, in my case, sun-soaked idleness, worth our lost days' wages?  What purpose is there in marking temporal milestones - say, anniversaries of vows and covenants?  

On December 21, 2012, the History Channel's multi-year marketing march towards the solar ejection at the galactic alignment foretold by aliens visiting Mayans joined the Long Count of confident predictions of that which was not "meant to be".  And while I've commented in several preceding missives on the error of metrics, what struck me on this morning was the even greater error:  not knowing our point of departure.  Were archeologists correct in assuming that August 11 or 13 of the year 3114 B.C.E. was the beginning of the last deific punch of the stopwatch marking the race to the end of days two days ago?  Are astronomers and 'officials at NASA' more or less correct than their antiquarian colleagues in observing the precessional dynamics of the gyroscope we call our home in the incalculable expanse of the cosmos?  On this solstice, are we going to experience a "transformation of human consciousness" on a scale unseen before?

My humble answer to all of the preceding questions is an unambiguous, "No".

Recognizing that I've: a) committed a heresy punishable by death under the Holy Roman Empire's Christian rules making questioning the calendar a capital crime;  b) had the unspeakable audacity to question the supremacy of prevailing 'scientific' dogma; and, c) thrown a tuning fork of dissonance in the emerging global harmonic; allow me to explain a bit more.

Together with our Mayan and Olmec sojourners, we are plagued with a disease far worse than the conquistador-bequeathed small pox and influenza.  That which defies our limited capacity to understand and our even more limited temporal inquisitiveness is relegated to our priestly classes:
-  religious 'scholars', funded by the tithes of the lost they seek to lead, who treat Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Hieroglyphs as the infallible statement of a disembodied divine fully subject to construction by…, well,… uh, humans;
-  scientists who confidently state - through grant-sponsored research - that we understand about 2% of that which is within us and surrounds us while confidently telling us that the 98% rest is 'Dark Matter' or 'Junk'; and,
-  pop-philosophers who, with the cunning use of prefixes like "morpho", "bio", or "trans", get millions to buy their books and spend thousands of dollars to attend their seminars on emergence.
Oh, and can anyone see the thread that links each of these groups with one another?  And lest the agnostic, secular, or atheist reader thinks they've dodged the bullet, take a look at the 12.12.12 Wall Street Journal (does that date 'mean' something?) in which we were simultaneously told to have "Faith" in banks (pg. C4), ignore the Treasury's "Losses" on taxpayer funded "investments" (pg. C2), and told about the $51 trillion college of cardinals who gather every two months in Basel who are guessing their way through a financial apocalypse created and administered by the SAME individuals (pg. A1 and A16).  Oh, and the economy is obviously too difficult to understand so, thank god someone knows what they're doing.

"If the central bankers are correct, they will help the world economy avoid prolonged stagnation and a repeat of the central banking mistakes in the 1930's.  If they are wrong, they could kindle inflation or sow the seeds of another financial crisis."

For those of you who are not paying attention, that 1930s risk was resolved with a world war killing over 50 million people.  How's that for an apocalypse?  Wow, pardon me for not being impressed!  Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff (co-author of This Time is Different) is quoted as offering the following collegial reassurance.  "Will history decide they did too little or too much?  We don't know because it is still a work in progress."  Kenneth Rogoff is a fascinating fellow.  He is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University and was the 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize winner in Financial Economics.  In his December 4, 2102 blog post on Innovation or Financial Crisis, he acknowledges the merits of the question if we have become victims of our own innovation crisis.  While he concludes that our problems are of an economic nature rather than a secular innovative failure, he at least has the decency of contemplating a biocular perspective.  What I find noteworthy in his writing is his accessible candor and clarity.  While I find the bias of his institution and discipline embedded in much of his work, he tenaciously holds open the space for multi-disciplinarity which is a endangered attribute among many in our time.

What happened on December 21, 2012?  Did we end something or begin something new?  In fact, only you and those with whom you interact will know.  Here's why.  We're not waiting for an ecumenical convergence, an eschatological resolution, or a great unified theory that explains "it all".  Because if you're among the 'waiting' there's one thing that is certain:  until you animate yourself with purpose, your world will look pretty much the same with each new sunrise.  No winged serpent, cosmic collision, sword-wielding horse, or karmic butterfly will save you.  But if, on this winter solstice 2012, you chose to become an informed, sentient being, one refusing to allow for a surrogacy of life and accountability, then welcome to the New Age which, with each rising Sol Invictus, is ever new!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Drive By Shootings: A Call to Arms


I was driving on I-84 in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday afternoon after meetings in Beaverton.  The AM radio station - for some reason the only one I could access in my Hertz rental car - broke into the talk-radio rant with the news that a shooting was taking place at the Clackamas Town Center just a dozen miles from my precise location.  In moments, Steve Forsyth and Cindy Ann Yuille were dead, Kristina Shevchenko was seriously injured before Jacob Tyler Roberts ended his own torture.  Hours later, I boarded a red-eye flight from Portland to New York's JFK via Los Angeles.  In the early morning on Wednesday, I was met by a wonderful driver who was to drive me to business meetings in Southeastern Connecticut.  A terrible accident on I-95 forced us to divert and we traveled north.  Passing young children waiting for their school buses in the early, cold morning, I reflected on the tragedy in Portland.  We turned right at an intersection which indicated that a left would take us to Newtown.  I couldn't have known that within 24 hours, on opposite sides of the country, I would be in the immediate vicinity of two horrific tragedies.   Young children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School - now 26 people we'll never meet, know and love - were within range of the Christmas vacation.  Now candle-light vigils, rants on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and myriads of blog posts across the ideological spectrum serve as the reflexive catharsis which will wax and then wane until we're 'shocked' again.

As I rode through frigid Southern Albemarle County this morning, I felt visited by those whose lives had been extinguished this week.  Young and old, they seemed to ask, "How long will we join the ranks of those who die for no reason?"  In the empty woods, up and down the hills marking the interface between the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains' edge and the James River, the empty cold, punctuated from time to time with a small flock of birds, one sentinel redheaded woodpecker and the odd squirrel seemed to reply, "Yes, how long?"  This experience wasn't new.  Since I was introduced to murder with the stabbing death of my then-best friend at the age of 6, I've been invited to ponder this question thousands of times.

The lives that were extinguished this week were sacrificed for ideology.  Ideology born of a legacy that stretches back at least 1,111 years.  Defenders of the Second Amendment merely recite the liturgy from the nadir of Europe's Dark Ages that citizens must both defend their king and be defended from tyranny defined by King Alfred around 886 A.D.  This good Christian King of the Anglo-Saxons edited the Golden Rule to state that, "What ye will that other men should not do to you, that do ye not to other men."  Rather than calling for elevated human morality, he defined the defensive posture that survives to this day.  Among his other elevated achievements, Alfred and Pope John IX also came up with the precedent for church-sanctioned sex trafficking of nuns with their brilliant scheme of fining 120 shillings those who take women with the revenue split between the King and the Bishop presiding over the convent!

"How long must we die?"

How long will we accept murder as a means to resolve ideological disputes?  How long will we promote murder - in the name of sacrifice - as a means to better social ends?  How long will religion insist that through murder comes love and life?  How long will we accept social systems which give preference to the lives like 'us' while blindly accepting the murder of those not like 'us'?  A classroom of kindergarten students, courtesy of our contempt for humanity, will never be able to ask these questions.  A small cadre of teachers will never be able to impart a more enlightened thinking.  Because our ideology adherence was more valuable then their lives.  And the lives of millions before. 

Today, we mark the 221 anniversary of the adoption of the Second Amendment which, for those of you who don't read the history you debate states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I recite this both for the informational value it serves as well as the ideology it presumes.  The infallible canonical truth infused in this amendment is that security comes with violence and the capacity to visit the same on enemies.  But James Madison's logic for the amendment had more to do with the political points scored by assuring Anti-Federalist militias that they would not be disarmed.  Against the back-drop of a rejection of a standing army, the preservation of arms by the militias was a high-stakes bluff showing that the Federalists had nothing to fear from the conspiracy soaked Anti-Federalists who were certain that they would face tyranny equal to or worse than that which they'd just rejected from Britain.

Let's dig deeper.  The Amendment assumes:

-  force is a companion to security;
-  security is a necessity of a free State,
-  armed citizens will keep and bear arms for the benefit of a secure State, and,
-  that Evangelical Christians, who place their absolute faith in God, will protest most loudly - to the point of using violence -  if the government ever steps foot on their property which they bought with their hard-earned money that came from… well, uh oh, the government… so they need their assault rifles for hunting, abortion clinics, and terrorists!

O.K., the last one was not contemplated by Madison or Jefferson, neither of whom had much use for the dogma embraced by today's Evangelicals who insist that the founding fathers were Christians like them.

These assumptions are born of fear and dogmatic adherence to our religious narrative requiring murder.  People displease God - kill them with a flood.  People live in the place that 'chosen people' would rather live - kill them with the sword.  People promote heresy like letting women read - burn them at the stake.  People question any authority - drown them, burn them, rip their flesh… and do it publicly so that there's no question that others will learn to fall in line.  And here's the pièce de résistance:  it's either the celebrated murder of a Nazarene by the Romans or your eternal death!  Oh, and that one, we actually call an act of love!

We're still in the European Dark Ages when it comes to our engagement with humanity.  Robert K. Merton, in his 1949 publication Social Theory and Social Structures brilliantly describes: 

"…a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come 'true'. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning."

It's not arms that secure us.  They never have and they never will.  Karl Popper's Oedipus Effect explained the social and scientific effect of expectations derived from dogmatically held perspective (derived, not tacit truth) which in fact played a role in bringing about that which was the "fulfillment of it's prophecy."  If we assume armed security from certain violence as a predicate to freedom, we'll have arms, security, violence and will never achieve lasting freedom.  Why?  Because we'll observe those conditions in which our perspective-based assumptions exist (or fail to exist) and then causal links between those conditions and the events manifest therein.  We will not contemplate an alternative to Freedom, the State, Security, or Force.

Because after all, who would want a land filled with people at Liberty?  Who would want a social order in which the citizens actually understand their interdependence oblivious to ideology, race, color, or creed?  Who would want to have a society so compellingly inclusive that the impulse to horde would be replaced with the impulse to be conduits of abundance benefiting oneself and those with whom one interacts?  Who would want the grace and mercy to be the ideal to which we are striving?  Who?  Well, for starters, twenty eight of our fellow citizens who lost their lives this week.  Use your arms - I really mean your arms - and embrace someone you don't know.  Then ask yourself if a More Perfect Union would be possible if you pointed a gun in their direction.  The truth is staring us in the face.  And 28 souls are waiting for you to show up and cast off the shackles of an ideology born three centuries before we sent 30,000 children to their death in the Children's Crusade in 1212.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Twelve Men on the Field


No serious sports fan or athlete can forget the contest in which a game was decided by an egregious call made by the referee.  It's worse when the referee has called a lopsided game and rewards a deficient team with a favor that creates the illusion of victory where defeat was the merits of performance.  If this analogy doesn't land on some field in your memory, you've never played (or cheered) hard enough.

Favored by aggressive credit intervention by China Development Bank, China's ZTE is surging into global dominance in an industry once defined by American and European innovation and engineering.  The announcement of a $20 billion credit facility from CDB has drawn the consternation of the U.S. House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee and equally protectionist-minded EU critics.  Global network equipment sales leaders now are exclusively Asian and European and, with Alcatel misfiring on all cylinders at the moment, America's Bell legacy is on the verge of extinction.  So, having lost the game in the fourth quarter, we're hoping for "fair" to become "favored" and we want a ref to make up a call.  Block contracts.  Block sales.  Make up excuses like national security to restrict free trade.  C'mon ref, give us a call!

Amusing or pathetic?  So long the evangelist for capitalism and "free trade", all our chickens are coming home to roost and just at the wrong time for the U.S. economy.  Before we can have any hope of emerging on a competitive pitch, we have to realize that our offense is out of shape and our defense has become lazy.  While the rest of the world has been scrapping it out, we were drinking modified corn starch-laden beverages all the while ignoring our obese complacence.  Now that it's time to compete, we're off our game.  And we're off our game, in part, because we cheated so long that we forget the actual rules.  Let me explain.

Modern protectionism has introduced a particularly insidious virus into global markets.  Born of the UN's 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), war ravaged countries realized that trade and commercial interdependency may serve as a partial prophylaxis to avert future global conflicts.  In principle, this impulse was laudatory.  However, in practice, signatories to GATT and its handicapped spawn, the World Trade Organization (WTO), failed to evidence genuine commitments to what all agreed would be "fair".  Ironically, in the 1986 Uruguay Round (from which WTO actually emerged), some of the players called their own foul - led by the Cairns Group including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil and Indonesia - when they insisted that agriculture must be subjected to fairness too. 

Agriculture subsidies - some of the most extreme distortions to market forces - continue to wreak havoc on global food and energy economics and, regrettably, among the chief abusers are U.S. policy makers who continue to enrich less than 2% of the population with billions of dollars of subsidies on corn, cotton, soy, wheat, tobacco, dairy, and rice.  Promoted as "farm income stabilization" in Congressional appropriations including the Depression Era 1929 Agriculture Marketing Act and the 1933 Agriculture Adjustment Act, these multi-billion dollar vote-buying manipulations pump billions of dollars into states like Texas, Iowa and Illinois (can anyone say politics?).  What the U.S. and parts of Europe means by the term "fair" has to often meant 'the stuff that harms our advantage'.  So predictably, when we realized we were losing our competitive edge on technology (having seen agriculture dominance wane) in 1986, we decided to force our defunct scheme of intellectual property (mostly patents) on the world.  In Doha, Qatar in November of 2001, the world did the unthinkable: it pushed back.  Realizing that we can't admit to our own hypocrisy on the global stage in front of the lights, for over a decade, the U.S. and parts of Europe have adjusted trade strategy to favor obscure bilateral agreements where we can preserve our will without having to come to terms with our incapacity to play by our own dogmatic rules.

So ZTE is getting a banking break from the CDB.  So what?  Does anyone remember May 21, 2007 when the General Electric Corporation sold its crown jewel, GE Plastics, to the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) for $11.6 billion?  This sale was inevitable not because GE wanted it to happen but because Japan's Asahi Kasei, like ZTE, had benefited from Japan's aggressive credit financing of its plastics operations.  Without the ability to compete on the cost of capital, GE's selection of SABIC was inevitable as the Saudis could compete on the cost of benzene and petroleum derivatives through, you guessed it, de facto subsidies.  Some of you may appreciate the irony that Asahi Plastics just this week won the "Most Innovative Use of Plastics" award for its work with Ford Motor Company in some of their cars that are supported by, you guessed it, subsidies!  And how many U.S. corporations have buoyed investor returns by Fed and Treasury interest rate interventions artificially pricing borrowing at such low rates that companies are raising debt to pay dividends!  We're losing because we're not playing - not because China's deploying the same distortions that we've used for the last 80 years. 

When the European Council convened 21 years ago this month in Maastricht, Netherlands to codify the economic and monetary union, one would have imagined that, informed by the Uruguay Round, pragmatists would have recognized that the idea of economic interdependence for the common good would require an end to protectionism and market distorting behavior.  By then, there had been over 40 years of evidence that the wrench in the machine of global trade was the disingenuous impulse to laud free and fair markets out of one side of the mouth while placating parochial interests at home with the other.  Self-evident or not, alas, this pragmatism failed to rear its intelligent head and now, the European Central Bank (ECB) is hopelessly flailing in its attempts to execute its chief objective: stabilize price and labor.  Having reached the age of majority (21 years old), we have to seriously consider whether we're dealing with an adult or a genetically modified organism with the appearance maturity but limited cognitive capacity.  Judging by the reflexes triggered by system shocks of late, it appears that this Frankenstein clone of the post-war U.S. is more GMO than organic and, as a result, one wonders if it would be legally sold within the EU.

Watching the U.S. Congress and Executive bicker over taxes and austerity and watching Chancellor Merkel tip-toe between integrity and electoral expediency is making for cheap theater.  Court jester economists and pundits pretend that we're on the verge of breakdown or breakthrough with a staccato that turns equity and debt traders into clunky marionettes.  In the first few months of 2013, over $2 trillion in maturing U.S. debt will come due (a topic conspicuously absent from any conversation coinciding with inevitable additional debt demands).  The U.S. and Europe are engaged in theatrics in the smoke all the while ignoring the fire.  The inferno is being fueled by our abject failure to address the root of our current economic woes.  Using hegemonic monetary distortions to market economics, we subsidized ourselves into a gluttonous stupor ignoring those we derided as "poor" and "underdeveloped".   Now, these objects of our neglect and contempt are running circles around us and our response is to cry foul.

It's time that We the People stop falling for this ruse and tolerating policy makers who seek to continue the manipulation.  Sport teaches us that if a competitor is gaining advantage, a true athlete learns, adapts, and plays harder.  Timeless martial arts teach us that, in times of extreme adversity, the master actually absorbs the energy from the opponent and redirects it to his benefit.  Reemerging wisdom of the Commons suggests that the duality of competition - together with all of its necessary market manipulations - may serve more harm than good and, at times, we may need to develop new narratives of aligned interest rather than archetypes of conflict.  The one thing that we most assuredly know is that the condition in which we find ourselves is NOT the fault of bad officiating - it's the fault of lethargy born of complacency.  I hope you find plenty of ZTE network switches upon which you forward this message!  Let the games begin!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

'Fiscal' Cliff or Crushing Rocks and the Treaty of Westphalia


On October 24, 1648 a Christian, Universal, Perpetual, True and Sincere Peace settled across the conflict-torn map of Europe insuring placement of all previous Trouble into "perpetual Oblivion".  In a mere 128 Articles, the Treaty of Westphalia set forth the conditions under which the future of Occidental humanity would operate.  While today's post (written 364 years from the condemnation of the Treaty by Pope Innocent X who declared it "null and void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, condemned, rejected, frivolous, without force and effect") will address a few of the legacies of this momentous agreement, I would like to remind us all of the fact that today's headlines portend the conclusion of what Westphalia sought to promulgate.  The dogmatic aspiration of the nation state - an organization of humanity where sovereigns lord over their citizens in exchange for certain illusions of stability, peace and protection - has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Looming 'fiscal cliffs' facing the U.S. economy and the federated interests of Europe invite a comparison of historical cliffs: the Symplegades and Wile E. Coyote (yes, look it up so you get the comparison).

Sequestration is not a crisis; neither is it new.  So for those of you who are inclined to fear (or masochistically revel in) the wistful apocalypse now upon us, here's a bit of a spoiler.  The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 which used sequestration as a fulcrum to impose federal spending constraints, was not only survived but, many would argue, contributed to the Clinton-era economic health illusion.  We'll have a sunrise on December 22, 2012 so that Quetzalcoatl can warm his newly minted feathers, and we'll have a Congress and Executive rife with dysfunction and enmity on January 2, 2013.  For most of us, gravity will still mysteriously hold us to the spinning globe; we'll still eat, drink, and by and large get along.  But the reset of the Mayan Long Count may actually inaugurate a change - one that will introduce subtle shifts that, in the long view of history, may be of profound consequence.  And, the $1 trillion belt-tightening exercise, if experienced, will be a tiny blip on this larger scope of human evolution kind of like the declaration of Pope Innocent X:  full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The Treaty of Westphalia is a fascinating read.  Trying to make it through the grandiose titles bestowed upon the exalted egos is a feat of endurance.  However if you do, you might find the shortest Articles to be some of the most interesting and relevant in our present condition.  Articles 38 - 40 set forth the fiscal preconditions of the fledgling nation states.  Article 38, the shortest of all, is the codification of financial contract law.  This simple Article states that, "… if Debtors have by force got some Bonds from their Creditors, the same shall be restor'd, but not with prejudice to their Rights."  Article 39 sets forth revenue claims (a proxy for taxes) which shall be clearly articulated within two years or, failing to do so, be "condemn'd to perpetual Silence".  How many of us would benefit from financial rules which are either clearly articulated or perpetually silenced?  Ah, for the good old days! 

While lazy historians teach their students that the Treaty of Westphalia is the basis of the modern nation state, this uninformed apology masks its more pragmatic substance.  To end tyranny, social unrest and economic exploitation, the Treaty actually:
  • Set forth principles of religious and cultural tolerance and co-existence (the reason why the Pope hated it);
  • Set forth a model of pragmatic, pay-as-you-go economic accountability; and,
  • Set forth a clear statement that the regent and sovereign, at the end of the day, seeks self-preservation and wealth accretion over the interests of the citizenry.
While we may rail against the undesirability of any of these (notably the last intention), there is a certain elegance in the prima facie transparency of self-interest that does not hide this third intention behind the façade of public benefit.  The fiscal cliff we've been asked to fear allegedly threatens our national security illusion with defense cuts.  However, last time I checked, our multi-billion dollar bloodlust has more to do with ideological imposition than it does with defense.  Oh, and how can I forget that we'll also have discretionary reductions which will deflate the bloated corpses of bureaucracies that have inefficiently preserved their own existence rather than becoming sacrosanct by virtue of self-evident competence?

So which rocky metaphor is apropos:  the crashing rocks of Jason and the Argonauts that will crush the illusion of our failed systems of organization and governance or an animated cartoon created for entertainment and distraction from which we will recoil in fear only to realize that it wasn't real in the first place?  Well, that's where it becomes a bit more complicated… and interesting.  

When one considers these two contrasting themes, a few observations are noteworthy.  The Symplegades served as an invitation to courage and navigational precision.  To survive the crushing rocks, a skillful navigator had to understand the rhythm of the rocks and enlist the full compliment of crew.  Jason, according to the story, sent a dove to fly ahead of the ship.  The bird, flying between the colliding boulders, lost only a tail feather.  Observing this foul, Jason could time his own transit.  And thus informed, he encouraged his men to lean into the oars mightily and, in so doing, they too made it through losing tail ornamentation but not the rudder thus allowing further navigation.  Wile E. Coyote, in contrast, runs off the cliff in complete ignorance to his surroundings and devoid of any appreciation for gravity.  His splat coefficient is a function of his neglect for his environmental conditions times the singular myopia animating his frenetic pace.  The greater his ignorant frenzy, the more debilitating the injury.

We have an opportunity to consider our modern heirs of the Treaty of Westphalia.  At present, there's more Wile E. Coyote than Jason being evidenced in what passes as leadership.  In light of this, we may be well-served to realize that the celluloid passing before our eyes should be seen for what it is.  It is a cartoon derived from a series of crude drawings moving in rapid succession creating the illusion of animation and life.  The animators of today, like their Westphalian ancestors, have neither your interest nor mine in mind.  And this is not bad.  It simply is the present condition.  So in this moment, we would be well advised to step back from the cliff illusion and see the movement of the rocks.  We do have challenges ahead and we need to understand when to apply our backs to the oars.  The fiscal cliff is NOT that time.  But the time is now!  It's time for We The People to realize that a More Perfect Union is derived from tolerance, transparency and trade.  For this, we do not need divine right claimants but rather need to fearlessly engage in productive ventures.