Category Archives: Economics

Tied to the tipping point

“When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known.  The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” – (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 1821)

In this month’s issue of National Geographic Magazine, the cover story entitled “The Super Trees” by Joel Bourne describes the current trends in Redwood forest management.  With only approximately 5% of the old growth redwood forests remaining and under protection, the challenge is now to bring sustainable forest management back to  2nd or 3rd generation growth forests.

The tale of the redwood forests mirrors the tale of most of human resource management.  In a sad irony of human history, the story of earth’s largest trees is a microcosm of the drama still playing out across the globe.  If the current patterns continue we shall only recognize the error of our ways when, like the redwood forests, only a fraction of the world’s ecosystems remain.  Then, with the shades of night upon us, as a species, perhaps we will understand how to begin to restore in some way the planet we have destroyed.

In terms of the history of the Redwood forests Bourne tells the story of Charles Hurwitz who in 1985 with underwriting from Michael Milken, engineered a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber.  As Bourne goes on to say:

“With Pacific Lumber, Hurwitz inherited roughly 70 percent of the remaining old redwoods in private hands. In his first meeting with the employees, the dark-suited businessman told them—in a now famous quote—that he believed in the golden rule: “He who has the gold, rules.” Hurwitz then proceeded to break up the company and sell its assets…  Most important for the redwoods, Hurwitz adopted a business model of clear-cutting, doubling—and some years even tripling—the annual amount of timber harvested from the company’s holdings, which eventually reached 210,000 acres.”

The application of this business model based on high yield and short term profit pitted loggers against those outraged by the company’s practices.  According to this model the leveraging of junk debt is used to acquire a company in order to extract every ounce of productivity at the expense of its capital resources.  This model functions to the point where the productive capacity of the company is unable to continue to service the acquiring party’s debt.  At this point the company collapses into bankruptcy, its capital siphoned off and exhausted.  The acquiring party then moves on to another “victim” repeating this process ad nauseam.  It’s not difficult to see how according to this model the incentive to sustain both the business and the resources was absent due to the inherent lack of a vested interest in the stable and long term growth of the company.

In 2008 Pacific Lumber ended up in federal bankruptcy court and is now known as the Humboldt Redwood Company, part of the Mendocino Redwood Company. Bourne’s article goes on to detail the efforts now being made on the part of responsible owners of the 2nd and 3rd generation Redwood forests to create a business model based on sustainable forest management.  This example illustrates classic issues with capitalism.  How can society foster the responsible application of capital to the profit of its owners, while at the same time regulating its use in order to maintain a secure and lasting social order?

Year after year, decade after decade we have continued along a path that the vast majority agrees is leading to systematic collapse.  The reliance on regulation of companies and industries whose products and by-products cause harm to individuals and society’s interests has proven to be counterproductive from a systematic perspective.  To maintain a system which regulates the same broken business model allows very profitable companies to pay symbolic fines and allows politicians to claim defense of the public good.  In the meantime business as usual continues, profits are made, and the capital resources of society as a whole are exhausted further and further.

We can see the same dynamic playing out in the debate on American health care, in the response to the financial crisis, and in the response global warming and mass extinction which is underway across the globe.  The question in each of these cases is do we have the collective will to choose to take preventative measures to at least slow the rate of decline, if not to solve the underlying causes in time to avoid the tipping point?  Or will we again claim ignorance and impotence in the eyes of future generations to the dialectic of history?

In each case entrenched opposition on both sides will vehemently defend their vested interests and fight any change to the current model.  The time however is almost past for us to have the ability to choose to move the old dichotomies.  Very shortly we will be faced with the ruin of both the current financial interests and remaining natural resources themselves.  We have the supposed luxury in economics to stave off systematic financial collapse through our ability to change the rules of the game in order to avoid ruin.  But unlike economic systems, ecological systems are not the products of human invention.  Once ecological degradation reaches the point of crisis we will be unable to stop it, and once that occurs the very foundation upon which our economies are based will collapse.

What is necessary is to reorganize the way we quantify natural resources in terms of economic units to better align our measures of economic value to those ecological significance.  The value or liability of a given resource must be able to be measured and quantified in the market place.  In this way standing forests, marshlands, prairie, etc.. could all have an economic value equal to their ecological value.  The current model of resources being economically null in value until such time as they are “harvested” or utilized and transformed into some derivative product builds into the system the incentive to pillage functioning ecosystems in the quest to create wealth and value.  By fundamentally reorganizing the way in which we quantify a given resource’s value in terms of its carbon impact, its ability to provide clean water and clean air, the economic incentive will be built in to not only preserve, but to restore and manage living biosystems.

It is a foolish assumption on our part today that we consider the basic elements upon which our societies and economies are based as given to us from either God or from Nature.  While quantifying the natural world in terms of economic value will be opposed by both classical economics and by traditional ecology, a synthesis of two zero-sum gain problems to create a win-win solution is at the heart of the issue.  It is a question of universal significance as to whether humanity can finally learn from its past and apply those lessons to the present. Can we as a species reach a synthesis with the planet without having the harsh logic of history force change upon us, or will history’s dialectic again force humanity’s hand into reacting to catastrophe?

Redwoods Owl

Redwoods Owl

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In FED we trust?

Representative Ron Paul (R- TX) has introduced a bill in congress entitled HR 1207 Federal Reserve Transparency Act.  The FED, according to it’s own website is an institution which is “Independent within the government”.  Created on December 23rd 1913 under the Federal Reserve Act, it functions as a self funding semi-autonomous entity responsibile to report periodically in front of congress.  The FED’s site states “The Federal Reserve’s ultimate accountability is to Congress, which at any time can amend the Federal Reserve Act.

Currently, the Federal Reserve is audited annually by an independent auditor and can be audited by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) under the Federal Banking Agency Audit Act of 1978.  The question is if the FED is created by Act of congress and is subject to independent audit then what is the purpose of the new Federal Reverse Transparency Act, and why has the Act gained such broad support in congress thus far?

The Washington Post ran a story on July 24th which stated that the Federal Reserve Transparency Act would “subject the Fed’s decisions to a full-blown audit by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.”.  Additionally Bloomberg.com reported that on July 22nd “Bernanke told Paul at a House Financial Services Committee hearing last week that GAO audits, often initiated at the request of members of Congress, could be used as a club against the Fed.”  But if, as we’ve seen, the FED’s own website states that it is already subject to audit by the GAO what is the real issue here?

 

Ron Paul questions Ben Bernanke

Ron Paul questions Ben Bernanke

The principle on which the FED’s independence rests is its mandate to regulate monetary policy free from the influence of politics.  This fact is actually quite strange when we think that the foundation of this nation was the dependence of all institutions on civil society as opposed to the dependence of the government on institutions such as the Church or the Central Banks of Europe.

Now the regulation of the monetary system is something which we seem to take for granted.  It has only been the recent expansion of the FED into areas not traditionally under it’s domain in response to the financial crisis which has cause the backlash behind the Federal Reserve Transparency Act.  The recent attempts to have the FED regulate financial markets, oversee consumer protection, purchase distressed structured assets in order to support the markets, and intervene in the support of businesses from brokerages, investment banks, manufactures, and mortgage lenders have all contributed to the general impression that the government has ceded too much power to an entity which is self described as an “independent entity within the government”.

Prior to this financial crisis it was commonly understood that the dual mandate of the FED was to balance price stability and full employment.  It did this through it’s regulation of short term interest rates and its control over monetary policy.  Basically, the FED would lower or raise interest rates or, in conjunction with the US Treasury, reduce or increase the amount of currency in circulation.  Thereby, in theory, the FED was able to add a layer of control over the economic cycles of boom and bust which all nations and economies are subject to.

It is open for debate as to the effectiveness of the FED in this regard.  A mere 16 years after its creation the FED was unable to (or even contributed to) the Great Depression.  We generally assume that the marvelous expansion of the economy in the 20th century was proof of the effectiveness of the FED.  Certainly the American Economy is many many times larger now at the beginning of the 21st century than it was at the beginning of the 20th.  But, as this financial crisis has made clear, so is the balance sheet of the government many many times larger as well.

We see today that the FED has done everything possible to achieve so called “price stability” at the expense of its other assumed mandate of “full employment”.  There are many who openly question whether it wasn’t the FED’s own policies of artificially low interest rates and artificially cheap credit which caused the current crisis.  In this regard, with years of FED supported asset price growth and a short period of asset price crash the term “price stability” seems incorrect, the more correct term would be “price control” or lack thereof.  With the official unemployment rate at almost 10% and the unofficial unemployment rate projected to be much higher, we hear that such is the necessary sacrifice in order for “the markets to heal”.  As if markets were human beings who bleed and heal and human beings are just workers whose place is analogous to red blood cells rather than individual citizens.

I think this really is at the heart of the debate over the Federal Reserve Transparency Act.  On one side there are those who believe that the economic system is paramount and from it comes the health of the nation, while the other side believes that individual citizens in representative democracy are the ultimate source of the State’s continued existence.

This philosophical debate goes to the core of our ideas of government and the individual and its history is as old as human civilization.  Where does our individual responsibility lie? Is it to us, or our family, or our friends? Is it to our city, or our state, or our nation?  Where does the FED’s ultimate responsibility lie? Is it to itself and its member banks, or the United States government, or to the other central banks of the world?

It remains to be seen whose best interests are being served here; but I can only trust in the knowledge that anytime attempts at transparency are resisted it can only mean one thing… fraud.  Can we afford to trust the same individuals, the same organizations, and the same system to fix the societal ills which they have caused?  Transparency will never be tolerated when it comes to the FED, regardless of what their website claims.  If it were, the American people would know that they are only cogs in the machine, and the owners of capital mean to continue to impose the silent tax upon them… inflation.  Just as the revolutions of representative democracies were wagged on the basis of “no taxation without representation”, so the public knowledge of the silent tax of inflation would demand a response in kind and in measure.

 

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke

The Emperor has no clothes… again.

This past weekend “This American Life” from Chicago Public Radio did a fantastic piece entitled “The Watchmen” about the credit rating agencies (Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service, and Fitch Ratings), the three main companies responsible for grading the financial health and well being of investments. 

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=382

Recently I was reading the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to my young son and I realized that the story was really a parable of the all too common human folly of trust in authority.   Not sure if you remember the story but basically there was a very vain emperor (the investment community) who is approached by two shyster tailors (the investment banks) who convince the emperor that they can make him a garment (the structured security) made out of a cloth (the underlying assets) so exclusive that those who are stupid (the general public) or unfit for their positions (the government regulators) cannot see it.  The emperor, for fear of appearing stupid and unfit to rule believes that the tailors must know what they are talking about and agrees that indeed the cloth is extremely valuable and gives the tailors all the money the request.  The emperor’s ministers (the credit rating agencies) are extremely upset when they do not see the garments, however for fear of appearing useless and losing their privileged positions they too agree that the clothes are wonderful (AAA). 

As the story goes, the emperor took his new clothes out on parade and the entire city marveled at the finery, no-one wanting to let it be known that they could not see what the others saw.  It was not until a small boy in the crowd shouted out “The Emperor has no clothes!” that everyone began to realize the truth.  Never one to have any common sense, the emperor very properly finishes his parade, head held high and ass swinging in the breeze.

Now, my question is… Who in the analogy is the small boy?  There were a few “crackpots” or “pessimists” who saw this coming for a long time.  But, are they really the ones who finally snapped the city back to reality?  No.  To my mind the boy in this parable is the subprime home borrowers themselves.  By simply trying to participate in the massive scam of economic growth before the whole masquerade came to an end they signaled to the broader market that the whole system was a castle made of sand.  It was simply the extension of the ethos of the ruling class (the Wall St. creditors) to the peasants (the vast majority of the indebted working poor) which signaled the end to the illusion.

The moral of the story? It depends on your vested interest I guess.  Some people would say the moral is the emperor shouldn’t have been so stupid and it’s his own damn fault, some might say the emperor was directly responsible for making the whole city foolish (bankrupt) and should be brought to the guillotine (not too big to fail), then there are others who believe that if that little brat had just kept his mouth shut and known his place everything would have been fine!

One final little twist is that in the story the Emperor thanks the small boy and takes him on as his new advisor and the Emperor becomes a wise and prudent ruler because each time he tries something stupid the boy tells him so. (democracy free of corporate lobbies and special interests)

But this is all just a silly fairy tale right??

Greenspan

Greenspan

Imagine…

 At long last a U.S. President reaches out to the “other half” of the world.   In a time where it feels like an almost insurmountable culture war between factions of various sorts, it’s encouraging to be opening a dialogue between peoples.  Truly, as President Obama states below, the only way out of the vicious cycles of hatred and war is by tackling the issues of social and economic justice and mutual prosperity:

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Having been privileged to have spent a semester of college in Cairo in 1998 I am especially glad to see President Obama calling attention to our commonalities as one people.  The vast majority of people on earth share far more in common with one another than we realize.  One speech does not change the reality of the situation the world faces, however, as President Obama has shown through his career, the power of words, thoughts, and speech is in their ability to change minds, attitudes, and preconceptions.   Just as terrorists do not aim to win in direct combat, but seek to defeat a people emotionally and spiritually, destroying the fabric of their lives and forcing them to become the very enemy they project upon the other;  so to can a consistent policy of political engagement, equitable economic growth, and social justice serve to undercut the pool of hatred and resentment that fuels terrorism.

Such a policy however, can only enrage the engines of war and hatred on both sides.  As we have seen so many times in history, the practical application of peace among peoples is the most dangerous of political activities.  Let us hope that peaceful, hardworking, and reasonable people across the world of all nations, faiths, and ethnicities can stand together and put out the flames of violence.  Change starts with words, and words can change minds, and only minds can change the world.    This is a historic speech and worth reading (or viewing):

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/04/obama-speech-in-cairo-vid_n_211215.html

The real pirates of the global pyramid scheme

          Psalm 118:22 – “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”

     Have you heard about the pirates off the coast of Somalia who are hijacking cargo ships for ransom?  Well we have our own pirates here. Unfortunately for us they are not just armed farmers and unemployed fishermen, but our own private aristocracy.  Right now the citizenry of the world are being held hostage by these pirates who are demanding our governments debase our currencies and productive potential to prop up their poorly designed business models.

            It’s interesting to observe all the “experts”: from the CEOs to the economists all expressing their genuine confusion and frustration at this continuing global financial crisis.  Like Menard Madoff did with 50 billion, collectively there are 3 to 4 trillion in losses still to be realized in the economic decline.  Like any pyramid scheme, the global economy over the last few decades has produced growth from the top down while systematically eroding the economic base.  But any pyramid scheme, like any cancer, must continue to grow or it must cease to exist.  That is because pyramids are not built from the top down, if they were we’d see sky scrapers being build from the top floor down to the foundation. 

            The growth and wealth that have been created over the past decades came as a direct result of the exponential expansion of the outstanding amount of credit and debt in the economy.  As with any pyramid scheme, once continued expansion ceases to bring new capital into the system the system effectively seizes up and collapses under its own gravity.  We can take consolation that in the failure of any pyramid scheme those at the top stand to fall the farthest.  Those at the bottom who bear the weight of the structure have been tapped out, and have been for years… 

            We are at a crossroads; we can either agree to the demands of those who threaten to take all of us down with them, or we need to fight aggressively the global consortium of private banking lead by the controlling interests of the world’s central banks.  Government is the only means that the vast majority of people have to leverage some control over the racket that is the private control of the wealth of nations.  In Somalia, the lack of government allows such pirating to flourish as the only means of economic activity.  In the United States and around the developed world, poor governance has allowed massive inequity and injustice to prosper.  In somewhat biblical language, we are in a period of reaping what has been sown.

            Let’s hope that a renewed citizenry can take up and shoulder the burdens of the obligations of world stewardship.  The rapidly changing demands of human existence on earth shall provide unending challenges to which we can apply our capital resources.  The role of responsible government is to use the material and human capital of its people to work to solve these needs.  As we prepare to plant the seeds of future growth, millions of individual jobs await those prepared to re-build the engines of the economy, however the political will to let bad business fail and support future growth is essential.  Can we as a people adapt as a society without being forced by war, or famine, or disease, or crisis?

            On the back of the dollar bill in your wallet there is a symbol of a pyramid with 13 stacks of gold bars with a giant eye within a circle of light.  In 1971 when the United States effectively began issuing fiat or floating currency the value of that dollar was allowed to shrink little by little as we issued more and more credit and created more and more debt.  In the almost 40 years since then, we have in effect financed our economic growth.  The choice is now ours to either continue to pass on to our children the legacy of social decadence financed through massive debt, or to begin the work of fixing what is broken from the ground up.

eye of the pyramid

eye of the pyramid

Antediluvian antebellum

You have to wonder

 

Peace! I’m out…

Check out one of the most impressive “Fuck you, I’m Out” moments I have ever seen.  Talk about going out on top.  You know truth when you see it.  When there is no motive sometimes the truth can be encapsulated in some very concise statements.

Enjoy