Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Faith or a Theory? Your Money or Your Life?

In the eye of Sandy
View from Joralemon St at Furman St on October 29th, 2012 with Brooklyn Bridge Park flooded.

The idea of adaptive markets in the title of Andrew W. Lo's recent Evonomics post, while interesting, confuses causality by placing agency in markets rather than in some living thing: markets don't adapt, living things do. When after his prologue he says, "the short answer is that financial markets don’t follow economic laws. Financial markets are a product of human evolution, and follow biological laws instead," he is on the right track but then blows it all half way through with this: "in fact, investors would be wise to adopt the Efficient Markets Hypothesis as the starting point of any business decision."

That a market, a particular configuration of human relations, can for short periods produce mutually beneficial distributions of real wealth while encouraging technological innovations that with sustained effort can be held in a beneficial relationship to this outcome has to do with people deliberately creating and maintaining these conditions, it has nothing to do with any property inherent to "markets." Such outcomes have occasionally been a goal, often as now claimed as a goal, more talking point than policy, they are certainly not an inherent property. To say, as Mr. Lo does, "investors would be wise to adopt the Efficient Markets Hypothesis as the starting point of any business decision," after conceding, "financial markets are a product of human evolution, and follow biological laws instead," is in the spirit of Paul Samuelson who, in conceding Joan Robinson did in fact fundamentally subvert his hypothesis with her deeper extrapolations into the historical and sociological roots of real wealth creation, grounding all present wealth in what came before both physically and culturally, because of the difficulty of the math none the less decided he'd just ignore all that and go on assuming utility maximizing universal agents with perfect predictive powers and perfect information, an act of faith. So bolstered he Fama's Efficient Markets Hypothesis. So does Lo.

For a theory to replace Efficient Markets, it must dispose of the counterproductive underlying assumptions of that theology: hypothesize instead that economics is simply the sociology of the credit relationship. Money is of our making, not the reverse and economics is the study of how the human animal engages with this thing its made. While innumerable mythologies have organized human societies since time immemorial, the most decisive of them all, the most orderly, predictable and consistent over the millennia has mostly eluded perception in its central generative role. It has aggregated civilizations into a collective, an interlocked historically coherent unit more visible on balance sheets than in words and is as a result mostly invisible in written history. It captures every individual who lives in a civilization, anywhere in the world, in a set of social and material relations that have a coherence across civilizations unlike any other collective feature. From the moment credit was first accounted for with math, a logical abstraction has, more or less unobserved, gone about structuring productive human relations to its form without any but a small minority of the people thus coerced by its beguiling logic actually understanding the force acting on them, the force of money. We all now march to money's beat and increasingly have for five thousand years: our material lives take the form dictated by the credit relationship despite our having dreamt up the relationship in the first place, we have let ourselves become subject to our tool.

At its base that relationship is one of trust. As Minsky said, "anyone can 'make' money, the trick is getting it accepted." Trust is what does that trick. Trust is a relationship found in all social animals, one that culture, by refining perceptions through our symbolic meaning systems, makes uniquely human. Our nature is animal nature, it is our culture that makes us human primarily through our two dominant symbolic systems: language and mathematics. Social animals of all kinds have power and reciprocity dynamics based on a binary between animal trust and animal violence mediated by animal emotions, humans, by applying language and math mediate these emotions through infinitely expandable channels of verbal and symbolic culture, imagining both ethical and engineered systems to collectively shape emotional meanings to social purpose. 

But these abstracting systems denature the trust, mathematics in particular idealizes it, which is to say, turns it into something else: trust is something we feel, it is not subject to accurate measure and as such inappropriate for use as a variable in any kind of symbolic logic or math. The abstracting of trust from the credit relationship is what converts poverty from a medieval virtue into a contemporary vice. A moral value, idealized numerically into money and thereby transubstantiated, has been elevated over all other social values and made into an absolute. It presents itself that way as a platonic object and requires a high degree of self consciousness to resist the transitive impulse to port this idealism back into our social heuristics. This intuitive primacy of the ideal, the clarity of the symbolic over the often shambolic nature of our human social relationships, engages with heuristics tuned by evolution to address individuals as such, not as properties in an equation. When it does, it casts an irrelevant moral weight on simple, abstract, symbolic measures. Succumbing as we frequently do to this heuristic impulse, once mediated through the filter of the ideal, money rationalizes all manner of degradation of the real on its Procrustean bed.

For Karl Polanyi, money was the final of his "three fictitious commodities" after land and labor. His point in so defining these was that every example of each in its unique, individual, manifestation is, well, unique. But, to make them serviceable in the Utilitarian Utopia his book "The Great Transformation" was critiquing the Utopians had to commoditize each, to make them fungible so they could be subject to the mathematical abstraction that was the organizing vision of the utopia: that making money was making wealth. Ever since money was first idealized, its value system has been entangling itself with all of our prior conceptions of real wealth and worth, corrupting our entire prior value system. The genetic heuristics that drive consciousness sympathize with and gravitate to the quick numeric measure money affords and reflexively deploy what Daniel Kahneman calls "the illusion of understanding" to save us from having to shift into "slow thinking" to comprehend the simple instrumentality and moral neutrality our material relations as described with this abstraction. The heuristic uptake of a product of "slow thinking", money, a logical abstraction, confounds our understanding unless we willfully override our genetic tendencies. The triple abstractions of the 18th Century Utilitarians, the commoditizing of land (the environment generally), labor (people with nought to sell but time and and their bodies) and money, now a thing denatured of trust, through "the illusion of understanding" has perverted our "rational behavior" to more or less dictate the calamity which the NeoLiberal implementation of the Utilitarian Utopia has bequeathed us: dead oceans, melting ice-caps, erratic weather, desertification of land; a burgeoning population the Utopians increasingly see as "useless eaters"; an unprecedented global super-surfeit of fiat money.

Among the bitter ironies of this awful situation is that money has been the first of the three fictitious commodities to be de-commoditized. The MMT community has been the first to realize this: that while credit remained denatured of trust in our current financial system, it was free of real material constraint in its quantity by no longer being tied to an external commodity, gold, for its valuation. This theoretically freed the monetary system to pursue "public goods" which if truly conceived publicly would be a restoration of trust to the credit system. We find we have a powerful tool with which to pursue solutions to NeoLiberalism's disasters at just the moment when NeoLiberals have succeeded in baffling the political institutions that could implement such solutions. They have built a Library of Babel stacked with counter factual "economics", "history" and ideology deliberately sponsored, over the last forty years, by plutocrats hellbent on reshaping culture to institutionalize themselves at its top. But culture is a living thing, and like all living things has a will to live that is already nurturing antibodies to the dead hand of money.

Even at the dawn of Civilization, mathematicization of a key section of culture concomitant with the monetization of the credit relationship created an economic sub-culture even if it was not understood as such at the time. This is what had Jesus upending the tables of the money changers in the Temple thousands of years after Deuteronomy codified seven year debt jubilees to contain the obvious, predictable, recurring social deformations caused by the sociology of the credit relationship: peoples moral heuristics interfere with proper application of logic to the credit relationship once debt detaches from individual relations and is socialized as money. Mathematicians and psychopaths are the two obvious subsets of humanity for whom this heuristic failure is most easily overcome. The respective value sets of these two human types suggest the latter is most likely to exploit the misalignment between our genetic gifts and our rational constructs for pure power. Plu ca change, it has ever been thus, at least since the dawn of accounting. If economics is to be useful to most people, it will become so by taking seriously the sociology of money. We have the technology now to map how people deploy their monetary resources, to monitor the monetary and material flows of subsistence, of comfort and of luxury and to track the ecological, social and monetary effects.

It may be that we live now in a brief interlude of digital transparency where our sectorially competing digital monopolies have windows into the realities of the sociology of the credit relationship. Maybe because of the diminishing "energy return on energy invested" this window will close when the power fails which it surely will if we continue on the centralizing, real wealth destroying path we are on. We should be availing ourselves as a "public" to these databases, we should be converting these vast, networked information systems into public utilities for this purpose. Our best hope for keeping the power on is in breaking up our IT monopolies and re-structuring the networked infrastructure they are built on as the public utilities they should be. With intellectual property law returned to what it was initially imagined for, a short term incentive to innovate, rather than the permanent toll both its been allowed to become, the data mining underlying the fortunes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple would manifest in the real wealth of massively improved efficiencies in the distribution of goods and transportation of people rather than being used as at present to husband real inefficiency into massive monetary profits. In addition, with the right privacy protections public purpose mining of the newly massive data sets could establish a real science of economics based on the real world decisions made by every individual now tracked in secrete by Corporations and Governments for their own private or secrete ends.

For something like this to become feasible, we must first reestablish that individuals own the things they purchase and that the data produced by those things, by extension, are the property of individuals. Like all of our other rights, these too would be subject to being overridden by supervening public rights, but the default setting would again be individual privacy with demonstrated public good being the criterion for the breach of this principal. In such a world, a real sociology of the credit relationship could flourish in real time and inform public debates. The degree to which this inverts our current legal, political and economic structure is the degree to which that current structure eschews any concern for real public goods and the creation of real wealth. The "Adaptive Market Hypothesis" Mr. Lo proposes at the top would melt into total irrelevance with the recognition that people make markets and the purpose of markets is to make the material world better for people, which by extension requires a survivable, indeed rather a flourishing biosphere. We have been subjected in the last forty years, the NeoLiberal era, to a worldview that stands reason on its head through a love of money that is turning into a global suicide pact. It's time for a fundamental change.

Friday, February 17, 2017

David Brooks, a Letter to a Friend


Thank you for the article, having read it now, my main problem is with the premise. The framing of the issues in popular media is so far from my own perceptions I can't say what I think without more detail than I can ever supply and my experience of life accords so little with how our culture represents itself I often struggle to make myself understood, but I'll try. The idea that Trump should be "resisted" implies there is a previous order that should be restored. I simply don't believe that's the case, any such order was destroyed two generations ago. Although I can see how David Brooks, most pundits and the vast majority of our political class would believe the last decade has been great: for the top 10% to 20% of the income distribution, concentrated mostly in the coastal cities, it has been. The centers of economic and political power for the country are mostly in these coastal cities and for a shrinking minority of the population capitalism as practiced there is working better and better.  

Physical proximity to political or economic power is now the best way to maintain the possibility to secure wealth in this country, this is new and if you're in on it, it looks pretty great, unless you think about it for a minute, but then business with its ever accelerating quarterly focus and politics as practiced for donors rather than voters is self selecting against that. And most people can't live in these cities: there's neither enough housing nor jobs. I don't believe Trump should be resisted, I believe the system that has foisted him on us as what 46.1% of the population thought was the lesser evil must be reformed, must be dramatically altered, root an branch and I don't believe either of our parties has any interest in doing so. Political contests should be for popular goods, not against competing calamities, as ours have become. I think Trump is a garish charlatan but I also think he is smarter, more capable and personally effective than people want to credit: I just watched a year of what our press described as blundering incompetence deliver him the White House. This does present a real danger, but Hillary Clinton did not seem a safer choice: her "statesman like" "competence" not only lost to Trump where competence matters most, the Electoral College, her tenure at State delivered us three undeclared wars while she campaigned for yet another with our nuclear peer, Russia. This strikes me as even more dangerous than Trump. All of my ex-military friends agree while those who would never have considered the military were mostly for Hillary.

Trump is clearly an opportunist who has an instinct for power. The danger in a Trump presidency is that he will in fact attain it, but then that is what those who voted for him voted for and ours claims to be a representative democracy. Given events of the last week it looks very much like the Intelligence Community has subverted that, we shall see, but it appears the CIA just took the helm from an elected President dictating to him a reversal of his policy stance, the one he campaigned on and had begun implementing. In the short term, this frightens me a great deal more than Trump. The CIA is now setting policy rather than the Constitutionally elected President, whether you like him or not. This institutional change has profound implications for our form of government. If it's not reversed, what's the point of electing Presidents? If both of our parties accept this outcome, as no other entities appear to be able to make their voices heard in our system, this becomes the new Constitutional order. From my perspective, if this stands it will complete a process thus far ratified by both parties that began with the Judicial coup d' etat of the 2000 election, advanced with CIA lies to Congress regarding WMDs in Iraq, justifying that invasion, followed by Abu Ghraib, legalization of torture, the drone assassinations and NSA universal surveillance programs. These Bush "innovations" became institutionalized, ratified, when Obama reversed none of them, rather defending them ever more aggressively, attacking whistle blowers with the temerity to alert the voting public more viciously than any preceding administration. We now see the CIA actively, publicly and with Democratic Party support trying to unseat an elected President. However diseased you may think our President is, and I'll agree he's the worst in my lifetime, having him unseated by the CIA, the sine qua non of unaccountable, secret institutions, is a cure certainly worse than the disease. 

Brooks ends with an appeal for "rebuilding" and "rebinding", but Hillary's deplorables, who map fairly well with folks Obama thought "cling to guns and religion", despite a fair number of them voting for him (it was the white working class vote for Obama that Hillary lost, losing her the election and giving the lie to the claim that Trump won on racism: either whites who voted for Obama became racists when Hillary ran or their sexism was greater than their racism, particularly white women whom Trump won with 53%, a notoriously sexist crowd!). To be clear, no, I don't think white women are sexist, but that is what the Democratic argument about "deplorables" implies: that's how the demographics shook out. I was a Bernie voter because I believe universal economic benefits like jobs paying a living wage for everyone that wants one, universal health care and universal higher education are the kinds of things that will make large majorities secure and confident enough that, as in the 60s, universal civil rights will be achievable across the class spectrum where now those rights accrue only to those wealthy enough to insist on them through the courts. But the labor policies, including immigration, of the last 40 years under both Democrats and Republicans have made living wage jobs, access to medical care and higher education increasingly "aspirational" for what is now a majority of the population across all racial and gender, though not class lines. In fact, the decade and a half since 2000 have seen a spike in mortality, particularly among poor white women. This spike is statistically on par with the AIDs epidemic but the poor, white, people most affected are the last people in the country its OK to hate and apparently neither party cares about their accelerating deaths. 

While I believe the Civil Rights legislation of the Johnson administration was the crowning achievement of the Democratic party, after a century finally making good on what MLK called the "promissory note of emancipation", the "War on Drugs" only a decade latter bounced that check, incarcerating a grossly disproportionate number of black people, regressing backward beyond Jim Crow now with huge, mostly black prison populations subject to forced labor on corporate plantations we call "private prisons". As many incarcerated under Democratic as Republican administrations. And while the Democrats continue to focus on nominal minority rights to the exclusion of nearly everything else, it was the New Deal that, by making the majority of whites economically confident and secure for the first time in our nations history, made possible the passage of the Civil Rights laws: confident, secure people are generous people. Since then the Democrats have been engaged with the GOP in a systematic bi-partisan demolition of the institutional structures that underwrote that success. It was Bill Clinton who ended "welfare as we know it", repealed "Glass Steagall" and deregulated Wall Street. Timid, insecure people are nervous, skeptical people. Still hoping for positive change, they voted for it in 2008 when Wall Street and the War Machine were both discredited: Obama restored both, the latter with Hillary at the helm at State and ensured nothing changed, betraying those who had voted for an improved middle class economy. Obama continued all the wars he promised to end and started three more. He declined to prosecute fraudulent bankers and torturers. He institutionalized the Bush surveillance and drone assassination programs. He implemented a Heritage Foundation plan to require Americans to pay taxes to private insurance companies and self fund significant portions of their own health care before the tax farmers in insurance were obligated to entertain paying for anything at all. This has resulted in accelerated death for a huge number of people, so no, I don't think this is an order that should be restored. Again the peopleat least 46.1% of them, now angry and frustrated, voted for change and the Democratic Party saw to it the only change on offer was Trump.

I personally expect that within two years the majority of Trump voters will be as disappointed in him as I was with Obama by 2010. But "the resistance" is not proposing to reverse any of the litany of bi-partisan disasters of the last 40 years. The Democrats just lost the election by promising to continue the decline most Americans have come to expect from the establishment, a platform that couldn't compete with Trump's contempt for that same establishment however incoherent his policies: voters took him seriously but not literally, the establishment took him literally but not seriously. Because they did not take him seriously they thought they could win offering the vast majority nothing, and however crazy Trump sounded he at least offered something. You can't beat something with nothing and the Democrats didn't. "The resistance" is against Trump, what are they for?  Sanders and his supporters are now pushing Medicare for all as an alternative to ACA. The $15 minimum wage campaign isn't enough: American workers should have the right to a living wage job. We can manage 12 years of primary education as a right, it is a waste of human capital that impoverishes the future that we choose to stop there. There is plenty to be for. That our political duopoly is not for these things tells you what they are for which is apparently the maximal impoverishment of the maximum portion of the population until it reaches a boiling point and revolts, or simply dies. "The establishment" on current evidence appears to be betting on the latter. And all of this is before one gets to Climate Change: the most important challenge our species has ever faced that our bi-partisan consensus has avoided addressing since, again, The Reagan Administrations. 

We are far out to sea. The ship of state is damaged and adrift, but the people on board are no less talented, creative and resourceful than any before. They are being prevented from making a better future by a very narrow and narrowing elite that continues to benefit increasingly disproportionately from an extractive system that if left unchecked much longer will kill everyone below the First Class deck. It's about time the people took to the oars and brought the ship back to a safe coast somewhere and looked after themselves. There are no shortages of problems to solve that could well employ and reward massive human effort in their solution. That we don't do these things is an indictment of a system that no longer serves life, indeed hardly pays lip service to it, having defined it as an "externality" to markets, the mechanical heart of a soulless system. Markets are a kind of machine our species makes, and they're marvelous machines so long as we structure them to support our needs in the creation of real wealth. We have instead tooled them to support the logic of money, an empty representation of anything, including wealth, and that empty-ness now threatens the biosphere and with it, us. Each passing day of this status quo sees species extinctions at a rate unprecedented since the giant meteor impact ended the Pleistocene. We need a change, not a restoration.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Trump's Global and Domestic Capital and Trade Policy

Anyone who intends to improve anything regarding international trade and capital flows must first understand this.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Comment at "Contrary Brin", on why I sat out the 2012 vote


David, Following your comments thread, this one got me: "But the balance sheet is hugely in favor of the American Peace. Violence has plummeted and child health and education skyrocketed. The world that Roosevelt and Marshall built is better than any that ever was." The balance has been in our favor. In my first comment here I proposed that as a civilization we are poised near the right most extremity of an epochal pendulum swing. Along the course of that century long swing America was truly exceptional and "the world that Roosevelt and Marshall built" was central to that exceptionalism.  

However, we have recently incorporated torture into our cultural norms, we have abandoned the prosecution of fraud against the rich and powerful, we have legislated an executive right to assassinate US citizens on foreign soil at the sole discretion of an increasingly imperial presidency that has made Nixon's transgressions look timid, even naive. These execrable policies are legacies of the last administration that could easily have been repudiated by the current one under the cover of party change, but instead have now been consolidated into the bipartisan consensus in DC, the consensus that whatever the powerful do there must be no negative consequence for themselves.  

Born into the GOP in the deep South(west), the sight of my parents and their friends, good people for the most part, reduced to maniacal if not outright homicidal hysteria by what seemed and continues to seem to me the racial progress of Johnson's policies, I fled that society before its descent into evangelical fanaticism. The Democratic party has now incorporated all of what was worst of that Southern GOP I fled into its own establishment. This "left" critique of Ron Paul, about whom I mostly agree with what you've said, is illuminating in that it shows just how destructive the scope of real bipartisan consensus in Washington is, at the same time outlining a region of broad agreement between the "left" many libertarians.  

Maybe as you say, lefties want to expand horizons and seek problems to solve while righties don't want change thrust upon them, but with the radicalism that passed for conservativism for the last twelve years, and yes I am including Obama as this kind of "conservative" (what power relationship has he changed, has he not conserved?), change is coming now hard and fast. Global climate change is real, the "Sovereign debt crisis" is a hoax, but our politics have been holding this reality on its head for twelve to fourteen years. Greed is virtue, up is down, good is bad etc. Last October at an INET conference George Soros said "the system has collapsed, it's just that no one recognizes it yet". I still hold that we are at or near that ultimate rightward position on the techno/cultural pendulum swing. The reverse swing will happen despite every entrenched power centers strenuous effort to prevent it and with 7 billion souls in the world the change will come fast and frightening.  

When I meet people who describe themselves as conservative I always ask them what it is they conserve. I consider myself a "conservative" who is trying to conserve the positive legacy of the enlightenment and our New Deal inheritance of democratic capitalism. The gridlock of our politics has not held back change, it has merely prevented the changes accelerating around us from adversely affecting those who currently wield political or economic power, and even then only within our own borders. Those without power have been abandoned to the torrents of transformation and are making the future now because they have no choice, and it may not be one we like.  

The center pieces of the Marshall Plan, Germany and Japan have, with our encouragement, taken our scientific advances and applied them to real technology even as we export our own productive capacity to them and to China. The difference between Republicans and Democrats on all these issues is just in tone. I left Texas over a quarter century ago to escape repugnant racial views like those Paul has recently been pilloried for from his past but as Greenwald discusses in detail in the first link above Paul is providing a real service to everyone that continues to want America to stand for freedom. I don't know that I could vote for him, but I don't know that there will be anyone I can vote for this time around. A first for me.  

Change has overwhelmed our political system it seems to me. It's almost like it's 1989 again but we are the Soviet Union, what can not work won't; what can not last won't; debts that can not be repaid will not be repaid. But our national debt is not in that category, Europe's are (second link above). Are Russians better off now than they were in 1989? Will we be in twenty years? Neither Democrats or Republicans other than Paul have anything to say about any of this in the run up to a national election. Reality has left our politics behind. As William Gibson said, "the future has arrived, it is just poorly distributed", none of it has made it inside the beltway!

Four years after I wrote the above, we have Trump as President and the CIA trying to initiate a coup. Our first Banana Republican President!

Flow Of History Links

Trumping Intelligence Agencies: Patrick Lang: Sic Semper Tyrannis
Assange And The CIA: M K Bhadrakumar: Indian Punchline
Russia's Weak Hand: Justin Burke: Lobelog
Putin's Trump: Robert E Hunter: Lobelog
Himalayan Winter: M K Bhadrakumar: Indian Punchline
The Far Side Of The Mountains: Michael Pettis