Blog Archives

We’ll Pay All Those Future Obligations by Impoverishing Everyone

I’ve been focusing on inflation, which is more properly understood as the loss of purchasing power of a currency, which when taken to extremes destroys the currency and the wealth/income of everyone forced to use that currency.

The funny thing about the loss of a currency’s purchasing power is that it wipes out every holder of that currency, rich and not-so-rich alike. There are a few basics we need to cover first to understand how soaring future obligations–pensions, healthcare, entitlements, interest on debt, etc.–lead to a feedback loop which will hasten the loss of purchasing power of our currency, the US dollar.

1. As I have explained many times, the only possible output of the way we create and distribute “money” (credit and currency) is soaring wealth/income inequality, as all the new money flows to the wealthy, who use the “cheap” money from central and private banks to lend at high rates of interest to debt-serfs, buy back corporate shares or buy up income-producing assets.

The net result is whatever actual “growth” has occurred (removing the illusory growth that accounts for much of the GDP “growth” this decade) has flowed almost exclusively to the top of the wealth-power pyramid (see chart below).

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Millennials Are Abandoning the Postwar Engines of Growth: Suburbs and Autos

If anything defined the postwar economy between 1946 and 1999, it was the exodus of the middle class from cities to suburbs and the glorification of what Jim Kunstler calls Happy Motoring: freeways, cars and trucks, ten lanes of private vehicles, the vast majority of which are transporting one person.

Ol’ 55 (freeway cars and trucks) (written by Tom Waits, performed by The Eagles)

The build-out of suburbia drove growth for decades: millions of new suburban homes, miles of new freeways, sprawling shopping malls, and tens of millions of new autos, trucks, and SUVs, transforming one-car households into three vehicle households. Then there was all the furnishings for those expansive new homes, and the credit necessary to fund the homes, vehicles, furnishings, etc.

Now the Millennial generation is turning its back on both of these bedrock engines of growth. As various metrics reveal, the Millennials are fine with taking Uber to work, buying their shoes from Zappos (return them if they don’t fit, no problem), and making whatever tradeoffs are necessary to live in urban cores.

Simply put, the natural progression of this generation is away from suburban malls, suburban home ownership and the car-centric commuter lifestyle that goes with suburban homeownership.

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We’re in the Eye of a Global Financial Hurricane

The Keynesian gods have failed, and as a result we’re in the eye of a global financial hurricane.

The Keynesian god of growth has failed.

The Keynesian god of borrowing from the future to fund today’s consumption has failed.

The Keynesian god of monetary stimulus / financialization has failed.

Every major central bank and state worships these Keynesian idols:

1. Growth. (Never mind the cost or what kind of growth–all growth is good, even the financial equivalent of aggressive cancer).

2. Borrowing from the future to fund today’s keg party, worthless college diploma, particle board bookcase, stock buy-back, etc. (oops, I mean “investment”)–a.k.a.deficit spending which is a polite way of saying this unsavory truth: stealing from our children and grandchildren to fund our lifestyles today.

3. Monetary stimulus / financialization. If private investment sags (because there are few attractive investments at today’s nosebleed valuations and few attractive investments in a global economy burdened with massive over-production and over-capacity), drop interest rates to zero (or below zero) to “stimulate” new borrowing… for whatever: global carry trades, bat guano derivatives, etc.

Here is my definition of Financialization:

Financialization is the mass commodification of debt and debt-based financial instruments collaterized by previously low-risk assets, a pyramiding of risk and speculative gains that is only possible in a massive expansion of low-cost credit and leverage.

That is a mouthful, so let’s break it into bite-sized chunks. (more…)

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2016 Theme #4: The End-Game of Debt-Fueled “Growth”

A number of systemic, structural forces are intersecting in 2016. One is the end-game of debt-fueled “growth.”

We can summarize the official “solution” to the Global Financial Meltdown of 2008 in one line: borrow and blow trillions–of yen, yuan, dollars, euros, reals, you name it.

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Here’s Why the Status Quo Is Doomed

The central illusion of this era is that the Status Quo can be reformed or saved. All we need to do is (or so we’re told):

1. Get money out of politics

2. Re-impose the Glass-Steagall Act on banking

3. Close the tax loopholes exploited by corporations and the wealthy

4. Overturn the Supreme Court decision giving corporations personhood

5. Restrict the Imperial War Powers of the president

6. Restore the civil liberties stripped by post-9/11 legislation

and so on. All good-governance, all prudent, all necessary.

But none of these reforms–or any of the other good-governance tweaks habitually promoted by left, right, center and Libertarian–can save the Status Quo.

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When Capitalism Turns to Cannibalism

With authentic growth scarce, there’s no other way to reap huge profits but cannibalism.

When people say “capitalism has failed” or “capitalism has succeeded,” we have to ask: what type of capitalism do you mean? Authentic capitalism, in which capital is placed at risk to earn a return in a competitive, transparent marketplace, or do you mean cartel-state capitalism, or crony-capitalism, or monopoly capitalism or finance capitalism, i.e. the types that dominate the global economy?

As long as most startups crash and burn, and anyone with a few bucks and plenty of inner drive can start an enterprise, authentic capitalism still lives. But let’s face it, authentic capitalism occupies a diminishing corner of the U.S. and global economies.

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GDP = Waste

Any system that has no way to measure, much less prioritize, opportunity costs and maximization of utility is not just flawed–it is terribly misguided and structurally destructive.

We’re told the gross domestic product (GDP) measures growth, but what it really measures is waste: capital, labor and resources squandered in quixotic pursuit of waste masquerading as “growth.”

50 million autos and trucks stuck in traffic, burning millions of gallons of fuel while going nowhere? Growth! All that wasted fuel adds to GDP. Everyone who works from home detracts from “growth” since they didn’t waste fuel sitting in traffic jams.

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The Rot Within, Part II: Inflation Is Not “Growth”

Just as the Federal Reserve cannot directly force you to stick the needle of monetary heroin (debt) into your arm, it also can’t force employers to pay employees more.

The official policy of the Central Bank (Federal Reserve)/government is: inflation is necessary for “growth,” i.e. economic expansion. The unstated reason for this official support of inflation is that it’s easier for borrowers to service their debts as their income inflates.

To take an extreme example: let’s say a homeowner has a mortgage of $100,000, an annual wage of $40,000 and annual mortgage payments of $10,000. At 100% annual inflation in both prices and wages, the home mortgage remains fixed at $100,000, the payment remains fixed at $10,000 but his earnings double to $80,000.

Where the mortgage payment initially took 25% of his earnings, now it only takes 12.5%. Yippee Skippy, the homeowner has an “extra” 12.5% of his earnings to support more consumption and debt: thanks to inflation, the homeowner can now buy a car on credit and use the “extra” 12.5% of earnings to pay the auto loan.

Central banks around the world seek inflation for another reason:

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And the Next Big Thing Is … Degrowth?

This is not doom-and-gloom for society–it is only doom-and-gloom for the current unsustainable arrangement (Plan A).

The Grand Narrative of the past few centuries goes something like this: from religious authority to secular authority, from agriculture to industrial, from rural to urban, from local to global, from periphery to center, from decentralized to centralized, from low-density energy to high-density energy (from wood to coal to oil/natural gas), from industrial to communication technology, from gold to fiat currencies, from linear to non-linear (complex/fractal), from local scarcity and high cost to global abundance, from islands of prosperity to continents of prosperity, from cash to credit, from collateral to leverage,from productive to consumerist and from sustainable to unsustainable.

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