Blog Archives

How States/Empires Collapse in Four Easy Steps

There is a grand, majestic tragedy in the inevitable collapse of once-thriving states and empires: it all seemed so permanent at its peak, so godlike in its power, and then slowly but surely, too many grandiose, unrealistic promises were made to too many elites and constituencies, and then as growth decays to stagnation, the only way to maintain the status quo is to appear to meet all the promises by creating money out of thin air, i.e. debauching the currency.

This political expediency works most wonderfully for a time: people don’t realize the silver content of their coinage is being cut to near-zero, or there’s nothing holding up the value of their currency but trickery and vague allusions to past glory.

Trust in the state/empire’s currency suddenly collapses in a phase shift: all seems well until the moment the avalanche sweeps it all away.

It’s a simple progression: during the permanent-growth-is-our-birthright phase of self-reinforcing virtuous cycles, when everything is expanding rapidly–credit, resources, jobs, capital, profits, state tax revenues, etc.–promises are made to elites and constituencies that look easy to meet as the economy is projected to expand rapidly essentially forever.

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Want Widespread Prosperity? Radically Lower Costs

It’s easy to go down the wormhole of complexity when it comes to figuring out why our economy is stagnating for the bottom 80% of households. But it’s actually not that complicated: the primary driver of stagnation, decline of small business start-ups, etc. is costs are skyrocketing to the point of unaffordability.

As I have pointed out many times, history is unambiguous regarding the economic foundations of widespread prosperity: the core ingredients are:

1. Low inflation, a.k.a. stable, sound money

2. Social mobility (a meritocracy that enables achievers and entrepreneurs to climb out of impoverished beginnings)

3. Relatively free trade in products, currencies, ideas and innovations

4. A state (government) that competently manages tax collection, maintains roadways and harbors, secures borders and trade routes, etc.

Simply put, When costs are cheap and trade is abundant, prosperity is widely distributed. Once costs rise, trade declines and living standards stagnate. Poverty and unrest rise.

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Stagnation Is Not Just the New Normal–It’s Official Policy

Although our leadership is too polite to say it out loud, they’ve embraced stagnation as the new quasi-official policy. The reason is tragi-comically obvious: any real reform would threaten the income streams gushing into untouchably powerful self-serving elites and fiefdoms.

In our pay-to-play centralized form of governance, any reform that threatens the skims, privileges and perquisites of existing elites and fiefdoms is immediately squashed, co-opted or watered down.

So the power structure of the status quo has embraced stagnation as a comfortable (except to those on the margins) and controllable descent that avoids the unpleasantness and uncertainty of crisis. We all know that humans quickly habituate to gradual changes in circumstances, and that if the changes are gradual enough, we have difficulty even noticing the erosion.

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Does the World End in Fire or Ice? Thoughts on Japan and the Inflation/Deflation Debate

Do we implode in a deflationary death spiral (ice) or in an inflationary death spiral (fire)? Debating the question has been a popular parlor game for years, with Eric Janszen’s 1999 Ka-Poom Deflation/Inflation Theory often anchoring the discussion.

I invite everyone interested in the debate to read Janszen’s reasoning and prediction of a deflationary spiral that then triggers a monstrous inflationary response from central banks/states desperate to prop up their faltering status quo.

Alternatively, economies can skip the deflationary spiral and move directly to the collapse of their currency via hyper-inflation. This chart of the Venezuelan currency (Bolivar) illustrates the “skip deflation, go straight to hyper-inflation” pathway:

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Dear Millennials: If You Want to Escape Minimum Wage Debt-Serfdom…

Let’s start with the sobering reality that the Millennial generation faces economic challenges that are unique to this era: sky-high student loan debt, soaring costs for basics such as rent and healthcare, a stagnant neofeudal crony-cartel economy and an intellectually bankrupt status quo in thrall to failed ideologies: Keynesian Cargo Cult central banking, outdated models of capital and labor and an unthinking worship of debt-funded centralization as the “solution” to all social and economic ills.

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Japan: A Future of Stagnation

One of our longtime friends in Japan just sold the family business. The writing was on the wall, and had been for the past decade: fewer customers, with less money, and no end of competition for the shrinking pool of customers and spending.

Our friend is planning to move to another more vibrant economy in Asia. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life struggling to keep the business afloat. She wanted to have a family and a business with a future. It was the right decision, not only for her but for her family: get out while there’s still some value in the business to sell.

I have written a number of entries on Japan’s economic downward-spiral and its largely hidden social depression over the past decade, most recently: Global Bellwether: Japan’s Social Depression (September 25, 2014)

Lessons from Japan: Decades of Decay, Unavoidable Collapse (April 26, 2016)

The Keynesian Fantasy is that encouraging people to borrow money to replace what they no longer earn is a policy designed to fail, and fail it has. Borrowing money incurs interest payments, which even at low rates of interest eventually crimps disposable earnings.

Banks must loan this money at a profit, so interest rates paid by borrowers can’t fall to zero. If they do, banks can’t earn enough to pay their operating costs, and they will close their doors.

If banks reach for higher income, that requires loaning money to poor credit risks and placing risky bets in financial markets. Once you load them up with enough debt, even businesses and wage earners who were initially good credit risks become poor credit risks.

Uncreditworthy borrowers default, costing the banks not just whatever was earned on the risky loans but the banks’ capital.

The banking system is designed to fail, and fail it does. Japan has played thepretend-and-extend game for decades by extending defaulting borrowers enough new debt to make minimal interest payments, so the non-performing loan can be listed in the “performing” category.

Central banks play the game by lowering interest rates so debtors can borrow more. This works like monetary cocaine for a while, boosting spending and giving the economy a false glow of health, but then the interest payments start sapping earnings, and once the borrowed money has been spent/squandered, what’s left is the interest payments stretching into the future.

Central banks played another game: buying assets to inflate asset bubbles, bubbles that were supposed to spark the wealth effect: once businesses and households see their net worth rise as assets bubble higher, they will be psychologically induced to borrow against that new wealth and spend, spend, spend.

The Bank of Japan has played this game to little effect. The BOJ now owns a significant chunk of Japan’s stock market, but the real economy continues its long descent into stagnation.

Demographics matter. As the populace ages, older people spend less and sell assets to raise cash for their non-earning retirement years. As young families have fewer children, consumption declines accordingly.

Take a declining population with declining rates of productivity growth and load it up with debt, and you get a triple-whammy recipe for permanent stagnation.There are Degrowth strategies that make sense because they’re designed to be sustainable, but first the systems that have been designed to fail–Keynesian stimulus policies and the banking system–must be allowed to fail.

A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All is now available as an Audible audio book.

My new book is #5 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book’s website.

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Lessons from Japan: Decades of Decay, Unavoidable Collapse

Japan’s fiscal and monetary extremes are in the news again: this time it’s the Bank of Japan’s extraordinarily large ownership of Japanese stocks, a policy intended to boost “investor sentiment” and prop up sagging equity valuations:

The Tokyo Whale Is Quietly Buying Up Huge Stakes in Japan Inc.

The core failure of Japan’s central bank and state is they have attempted to substitute monetary games for desperately needed social, political and economic reforms. This is the Keynesian ideology and project in a single sentence:

Keynesian policy holds that expansionary monetary and fiscal policy can be substituted for structural social, political and economic reforms, enabling the status quo to retain its power and privileges without disruption.

In effect, Japan has pursued a vast monetization campaign for 26 years. The Bank of Japan creates money out of thin air and uses the free money to buy government bonds, funding the state’s enormous fiscal deficits (also known asmonetizing government debt). The BoJ has extended this monetization to corporate bonds and the stock market– effectively propping up government debt, corporate debt and the stock market with newly created money.

That these were once private-sector markets has been set aside, as the only thing that matters now is keeping them propped up, regardless of the cost. As I note in my new book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform, when emergency measures become permanent policies, you know the status quo is on life support.

Longtime readers know I have a long history of studying Japan, starting with language and cultural studies in university (mid 1970s) and continuing into the 2000s with economic, financial and social analyses. We have many friends in Japan (representing all age groups), and maintain an on-the-ground situational awareness of cultural/social trends.

If you seek a data-based grasp of Japan’s fiscal and financial decay, I recommend the following documents: the first is an easy-to-digest series of slides from an OECD study, the next two are detailed official Ministry of Finance reports in English, and the fourth one is an article describing the political resistance of the status quo in Japan to any real, systemic reform:

OECD Revitalizing Japan 2015 (Slideshare)

Japanese Public Finance Fact Sheet

Japan’s Fiscal Condition

Japan’s powerful prime minister still can’t get the economy going

The key takeaway here is that decay can last for decades, enabling the status quo of the state and media to maintain the illusion that superficially all is well.As visitors and paid pundits never tire of exclaiming, Japan remains a wealthy nation where everything works wonderfully well–public transport, etc.–and the average lifestyle is enviable: long lives, good health, an abundance of consumer goodies, etc.

But this well-being has been maintained at a high cost. Social cohesion is fraying (beneath the surface, of course), birthrates continue to decline (and what does that say about a culture, that young women no longer want children?) and the signs of economic stagnation are visible to anyone who peeks beneath the hood.

The Keynesian fantasy that Japan has embraced holds that every problem can be solved by printing more money. The Keynesian faithful (a.k.a. the Keynesian Cargo Cult of Paul Krugman et al.) hold that there is no problem that can’t be solved by printing more money and issuing more credit.

Not only are some problems immune to printing/borrowing more money, the reliance on printing/borrowing vast sums of money year after year creates a new set of intractable problems. Just to give one example of many: over 80% of Japan’s farmers are over 60 years of age and are poised to retire in the next decade. Printing money hasn’t printed new young eager farmers, nor has it changed the perverse incentives and political imbalances that are exacerbating the problem.

Decades of borrowing money in a futile attempt to avoid structural reforms has crippled Japan’s fiscal future. Even at effectively zero rates of bond yields, Japan now spends roughly a quarter of its government budget on debt service–and servicing of existing debt now consumes 41% of all tax revenues.

Tax revenues only cover 64% of spending; 35.6% of the government’s spending is borrowed.

These are staggeringly unsustainable policies, yet the status quo’s refusal to accept fundamental structural changes dooms Japan to the TINA Trap: there is no alternative to endless monetary expansion and central-planning control of markets.

Meanwhile, the fiscal realities become more unsustainable every year. While tax revenues increased 14.7% from 51 trillion yen (TY) at the peak of the property and stock bubble in 1989 to 57.6 TY today, social security spending has tripled from 10 TY to 32 TY.

While tax revenues rose a modest 15% in 26 years, total government spending soared from 60 TY to 96.7 TY–an enormous 60% gain.

Even as the BoJ repressed interest rates paid on government bonds to near-zero, national debt service more than doubled, from 11.6 TY to 23.6 TY.

Cutting income taxes–another Keynesian staple–failed to accomplish anything but further weaken the fiscal outlook. The percentage of personal income taxes as a share of all tax revenue has plummeted, to no avail: all the conventional measures of economic vitality have continued their downward trend.

Every status quo and every nation has pursued the same fantasy: that playing monetary games such as quantitative easing and buying stocks and bonds to prop up over-valued markets can be substituted for painful structural reforms in the core fiscal, social and financial sectors.

Japan has proven that decay can be stretched into decades, but it has yet to prove that gravity can be revoked by central bank monetary games.

My new book is #2 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, a 20% discount thru May 1, $8.95 print edition) For more, please visit the book’s website.

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One True Measure of Stagnation: Not in the Labor Force

Heroic efforts are being made to cloak the stagnation of the U.S. economy. One of these is to shift the unemployed work force from the negative-sounding jobless category to the benign-sounding Not in the Labor Force (NILF) category.

But re-labeling stagnation does not magically transform a stagnant economy.To get a sense of long-term stagnation, let’s look at the data going back 38 years, to 1977.

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One Word Defines This Era: Stagnation

Beneath the surface PR of progress, the operant dynamic of this era is stagnation. Cheerleaders of progress have a few unalloyed wins in the past 15 years–battles won against diseases, for example–and a general increase in living standards among the world’s poorest populations.

But much of what is sold as progress is an inch deep and a mile wide: the proliferation of smart phones and social media for example.

What the cheerleaders of progress don’t dare mention is the stagnation of quality, political choice, productivity and growth that isn’t dependent on the hyper-expansion of debt and financial speculation.

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Anatomy of a Failing State: Japan’s Budgetary Nightmare

Once the global economy rolls over into contraction, the tide will recede and Japan’s fiscal and monetary bankruptcy will become painfully apparent.

What do you get after 25 years of stagnation and Keynesian Cargo Cult monetary stimulus? A failing state, that’s what. The intellectually bankrupt ruling Elites of Japan have no solution for Japan’s slow stagnation, as real reform would diminish their wealth and power.

So their only “solution” is to double-down on monetary stimulus: flood the enfeebled Japanese economy with more credit and fiscal stimulus, a.k.a. building bridges to nowhere: Japan’s Monetary Pearl Harbor.

But reality isn’t as immobile as failed policies.

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The Critical Difference Between Rentier Wealth and Wealth Creation

If you want to understand why our economy is stagnating and wealth inequality is rising, look at the rise of rentier skims and the resulting decline in wealth creation.

To understand why the real economy is stagnating, we have to understand the critical difference between rentier wealth and wealth creation. Rentier wealth is skimmed by fees that provide little to no value to the to the person paying the fee.

The classic example is a fee collected to pass from one fiefdom’s border to the next: no value is provided to the person paying the border fee; it is a rentier skim that transfers wealth from serfs to the fiefdom’s landowning nobility.

In the modern economy, rentier skims take a variety of forms.

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What Happens After the Low-Hanging Fruit Has Been Picked?

Right now China is at the top of the S-Curve, and the problems of stagnation are still ahead.

What happens after all the low-hanging fruit has been picked? We can phrase the same question using a different analogy: what happens when all the oxygen in a room has been consumed?

One way to understand why the global financial meltdown occurred in 2008 and not in 2012 is all the oxygen in the room had been consumed. In the U.S. housing market, there was nobody left to buy an overpriced house with a no-document liar loan because everyone who was qualified to buy a McMansion in the middle of nowhere had already bought three and everyone who wasn’t qualified had purchased a McMansion to flip with a liar loan.

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