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Risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb predicted the 2008 financial crisis, by pointing out that commonly-used risk models were wrong. Distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University, author of best-sellers The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, Taleb became financially independent after the crash of 1987, and wealthy during the 2008 financial crisis.
Now, Taleb is using his statistical risk acumen to take on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Taleb’s conclusion: GMOs could cause “an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be the planet.”
Sure it does … but only because we don’t understand statistics, and so we have no handle on what’s risky and what’s not.
Taleb and his 2 co-authors write in a new draft paper:
For nature, the “ruin” is ecocide: an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be the planet.
Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs fall squarely under [the precautionary principle, i.e. the rule that we should err on the side of caution if something is really dangerous] not because of the harm to the consumer because of their systemic risk on the system.
Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) There is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of arbitrarily taking a gene from an organism and putting it into another. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become ”natural”. [i.e. evolving over thousands of years in a natural ecosystem, or at least breeding over several generations.]
What people miss is that the modification of crops impacts everyone and exports the error from the local to the global. I do not wish to pay—or have my descendants pay—for errors by executives of Monsanto. We should exert the precautionary principle there—our non-naive version—simply because we would only discover errors after considerable and irreversible environmental damage.
Taleb shreds GMO-boosters – including biologists – who don’t understand basic statistics:
Calling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor—indeed warped—understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.
It became popular to claim irrationality for GMO and other skepticism on the part of the general public —not realizing that there is in fact an ”expert problem” and such skepticism is healthy and even necessary for survival. For instance, in The Rational Animal, the author pathologize people for not accepting GMOs although ”the World Health Organization has never found evidence of ill effects” a standard confusion of evidence of absence and absence of evidence. Such a pathologizing is similar to behavioral researchers labeling hyperbolic discounting as ”irrational” when in fact it is largely the researcher who has a very narrow model and richer models make the ”irrationality” go away).
In other words, lack of knowledge of basic statistical principles leads GMO supporters astray. For example, they don’t understand the concept that “interdependence” creates “thick tails” … leading to a “black swan” catastrophic risk event:
Fat tails result (among other things) from the interdependence of components, leading to aggregate variations becoming much more severe than individual ones. Interdependence disrupts the functioning of the central limit theorem, by which the aggregate is more stable than the sum of the parts. Whether components are independent or interdependent matters a lot to systemic disasters such as pandemics or generalized crises. The interdependence increases the probability of ruin, to the point of certainty.
(This concept is important in the financial world, as well.)
As Forbes’ Brian Stoffel notes:
Let’s say each GM seed that’s produced holds a 0.1% chance of — somehow, in the intricately interdependent web of nature — leading to a catastrophic breakdown of the ecosystem that we rely on for life. All by itself, it doesn’t seem too harmful, but with each new seed that’s developed, the risk gets greater and greater.
The chart below demonstrates how, over time, even a 0.1% chance of ecocide can be dangerous.
I cannot stress enough that the probabilities I am using are for illustrative purposes only. Neither I, nor Taleb, claim to know what the chances are of any one type of seed causing such destruction.
The focus, instead, should be on the fact that the “total ecocide barrier” is bound to be hit, over a long enough time, with even incredibly small odds. Taleb includes a similar graph in his work, but no breakdown of the actual variables at play.
Source: Author’s input, based on Taleb, Read, and Bar-Yam paper
Taleb debunks other pro-GMO claims as well, such as:
1. The Risk of Famine If We Don’t Use GMOs. Taleb says:
Invoking the risk of “famine” as an alternative to GMOs is a deceitful strategy, no different from urging people to play Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty.
And calling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor—indeed warped—understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.
2. Nothing Is Totally Safe, So Should We Discard All Technology? Taleb says this is an anti-scientific argument. Some risks are small, or are only risks to one individual or a small group of people. When you’re talking about risks which could wipe out all life on Earth, it’s a totally different analysis.
3. Assuming that Nature Is Always Good Is Anti-Scientific. Taleb says that statistical risk analysis don’t use assumptions such as nature is “good” or “bad”. Rather, it looks at the statistical evidence that things persist in nature for thousands of years if they are robust and anti-fragile. Ecosystems break down if they become unstable.
GMO engineers may be smart in their field, but they are ignorant when it comes to long-run ecological reality:
We are not saying nature is the smartest possible, we are saying that time is smarter than GMO engineers. Plain statistical significance.
3. People Brought Potatoes from the Americas Back to Europe, Without Problem. Taleb says that potatoes evolved and competed over thousands of years in the Americas, and so proved that they did not disrupt ecosystems. On the other hand, GMOs are brand spanking new … created in the blink of the eye in a lab.
As if “ecocide”isn’t enough, there are many other reasons to oppose GMO foods … at least without rigorous testing, including decreased crop yield, increased pesticide requirements, and potentiallysevere health effects.
On the plus side? A few companies will make a lot of money.
Over a three-hour lunch in Davos yesterday, Carlyle Group LP (CG) co-founder David Rubenstein told a group of investors and bankers his biggest worry: nobody appeared to be worried about anything at all.
Less than 24 hours later, the devaluation of the Argentine peso accelerated the worst selloff in emerging market stocks in five years, unnerving delegates at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. As they shuttled from meetings to meals, losses were piling up by the minute as developing nation currencies slid with equities.
“I don’t want to look,” Daniel Loeb, billionaire founder of hedge fund Third Point LLC, said of the financial markets as he walked between meetings at the Congress center in Davos.
After recent gatherings were dominated by crises from Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. to Greece, this year’s had begun to reflect a mood of optimism as economies and stock markets recovered. That enthusiasm waned today as the rout in emerging markets exacerbated concern that the engines of global growth since the crisis have now stalled.
Attendees at the Davos lunch included Larry Fink, chief executive officer of Blackrock Inc. (BLK), the world’s largest money manager, Blackstone Group LP (BX)’s Steve Schwarzman andUBS AG (UBSN) Chairman Axel Weber. They were briefed by Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda.
“Over the last couple of years people have gotten a lot less worried, but there are always things like black swans that come around,” Rubenstein said in an interview today. “I just wanted to make sure everybody remembers that and that we are likely to have some bumps along the road.”
Emerging market stocks have suffered their worst start to a year since 2009 as signs of weakness in China’s economy add to concern about the impact of cuts to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s stimulus program. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index fell 1.5 percent today, extending this year’s slump to 5.3 percent.
Argentine policy makers devalued the peso by reducing support in the foreign-exchange market, allowing the currency to drop the most in 12 years to an unprecedented low. Turkey sold dollars to prop up the lira and South Africa’s rand declined to a five-year low.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein told Bloomberg Television’s Erik Schatzker and Stephanie Ruhle today he would “wait a while before saying there is a complete reversal” in markets, noting they were due a consolidation having “gone up very far in a single direction.”
“Davos Man is probably right in thinking 2014 will be a nice year, with more growth than last year,”Jean-Claude Trichet, former president of the European Central Bank, said in an interview. “But of course risks are still there.”
Forcing the reappraisal is the Fed’s tapering of monetary stimulus, which had previously covered all ills by prompting investors to chase returns in emerging markets.
With the U.S. central bank now cutting its monthly asset purchases from $85 billion, money managers are refocusing on the fundamentals of economies, punishing those with weak policies or imbalances such as large current account or budget deficits.
The shift was underscored this week by the International Monetary Fund, which released new forecasts showing emerging markets will outpace advanced nations by the smallest margin this year since 2001.
“Investors have been overly complacent in emerging markets,” Davide Serra, founder of London-based Algebris Investments LLP, said in Davos. “In 12 to 18 months, as real rates rise in the U.S. we’ll see which emerging markets were swimming naked.”
Other emerging economies are displaying faultlines, with investors mainly focused on the so-called fragile five of Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey.
China is also struggling to contain $4.8 trillion in shadow-banking debt, while Brazil is trying to rein in inflation fuelled up by a falling currency and higher public spending. A corruption investigation is embroiling Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet and deadly protests in Ukraine and Thailand are eroding confidence in their stability.
“We’re in a volatile era and anyone who doesn’t think that is overly complacent,” said Tim Adams, president of the Institute of International Finance, which represents more than 400 financial firms, and the U.S. Treasury’s former undersecretary for international affairs. “The re-pricing of risk will continue and there will be peaks of convulsions and complacency.”
Nouriel Roubini, Davos Speakers, Kyle Bass, Larry Edelson, Charles Nenner, James Dines, Jim Rogers, Marc Faber, Jim Rickards and Martin Armstrong Warn of Wider War
Well-known economist Nouriel Roubini tweeted from the gathering of the rich and powerful at Davos:
Many speakers compare 2014 to 1914 when WWI broke out & no one expected it. A black swan in the form of a war between China & Japan?
Both Abe and an influential Chinese analyst don’t rule out a military confrontation between China and Japan. Memories of 1914?
Kyle Bass writes:
Trillions of dollars of debts will be restructured and millions of financially prudent savers will lose large percentages of their real purchasing power at exactly the wrong time in their lives. Again, the world will not end, but the social fabric of the profligate nations will be stretched and in some cases torn. Sadly, looking back through economic history, all too often war is the manifestation of simple economic entropy played to its logical conclusion. We believe that war is an inevitable consequence of the current global economic situation.
Larry Edelson wrote an email to subscribers entitled “What the “Cycles of War” are saying for 2013″, which states:
Since the 1980s, I’ve been studying the so-called “cycles of war” — the natural rhythms that predispose societies to descend into chaos, into hatred, into civil and even international war.
I’m certainly not the first person to examine these very distinctive patterns in history. There have been many before me, notably, Raymond Wheeler, who published the most authoritative chronicle of war ever, covering a period of 2,600 years of data.
However, there are very few people who are willing to even discuss the issue right now. And based on what I’m seeing, the implications could be absolutely huge in 2013.
Former Goldman Sachs technical analyst Charles Nenner – who has made some big accurate calls, and counts major hedge funds, banks, brokerage houses, and high net worth individuals as clients – saysthere will be “a major war starting at the end of 2012 to 2013”, which will drive the Dow to 5,000.
Veteran investor adviser James Dines forecast a war is epochal as World Wars I and II, starting in the Middle East.
Billionaire investor Jim Rogers notes:
A continuation of bailouts in Europe could ultimately spark another world war, says international investor Jim Rogers.
“Add debt, the situation gets worse, and eventually it just collapses. Then everybody is looking for scapegoats. Politicians blame foreigners, and we’re in World War II or World War whatever.”
Marc Faber says that the American government will start new wars in response to the economic crisis:
- “The next thing the government will do to distract the attention of the people on bad economic conditions is they’ll start a war somewhere.”
We’re in the middle of a global currency war – i.e. a situation where nations all compete to devalue their currencies the most in order to boost exports. And Brazilian president-elect Rousseff said in 2010:
The last time there was a series of competitive devaluations … it ended in world war two.
Jim Rickards agrees:
Currency wars lead to trade wars, which often lead to hot wars. In 2009, Rickards participated in the Pentagon’s first-ever “financial” war games. While expressing confidence in America’s ability to defeat any other nation-state in battle, Rickards says the U.S. could get dragged into “asymmetric warfare,” if currency wars lead to rising inflation and global economic uncertainty.
As does Jim Rogers:
Trade wars always lead to wars.
Martin Armstrong wrote in August:
Our greatest problem is the bureaucracy wants a war. This will distract everyone from the NSA and justify what they have been doing. They need a distraction for the economic decline that is coming.
Armstrong argued last month that war plans against Syria are really about debt and spending:
The Syrian mess seems to have people lining up on Capital Hill when sources there say the phone calls coming in are overwhelmingly against any action. The politicians are ignoring the people entirely. This suggests there is indeed a secret agenda to achieve a goal outside the discussion box. That is most like the debt problem and a war is necessary to relief the pressure to curtail spending.
In addition, historians say that the risk of world war is rising because the U.S. feels threatened by a rising China … and the U.S. government considers economic rivalry to be a basis for war
Moreover, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan said that the Iraq war was really about oil, and former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill says that Bush planned the Iraq war before 9/11. And see this and this. If that war was for petroleum, other oil-rich countries might be invaded as well.
And the American policy of using the military to contain China’s growing economic influence – and of considering economic rivalry to be a basis for war – are creating a tinderbox.
Finally, multi-billionaire investor Hugo Salinas Price says:
What happened to [Libya’s] Mr. Gaddafi, many speculate the real reason he was ousted was that he was planning an all-African currency for conducting trade. The same thing happened to him that happened to Saddam because the US doesn’t want any solid competing currency out there vs the dollar. You know Gaddafi was talking about a golddinar.
Indeed, senior CNBC editor John Carney noted:
Is this the first time a revolutionary group has created a central bank while it is still in the midst of fighting the entrenched political power? It certainly seems to indicate how extraordinarily powerful central bankers have become in our era.
This suggests we have a bit more than a ragtag bunch of rebels running around and that there are some pretty sophisticated influences. “I have never before heard of a central bank being created in just a matter of weeks out of a popular uprising,” Wenzel writes.
The Snow Avalanche Image
During the good times the snow falls and slowly builds up. Without anyone noticing, the snow reaches a pre-collapse state. It is at this time that avalanches are born. The impossible becomes the inevitable.
The Arab Spring is an example of the snow avalanche concept as applied to societies.
Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. His act became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring, inciting demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia in protest of social and political issues in the country. Source: Wikipedia.
How is it possible that a Tunisian fruit vendor could bring down governments through one act of defiance? It simply is not possible unless the countries involved were already in a pre-collapse state. The snow was ready to avalanche and just needed a trigger. The fruit vendor provided the trigger.
The Avalanche Concept Applied to Societies
Stability is not your friend. Controlled instability is your friend. Compare democracies and dictatorships: One has controlled instability – elections, and the other has only stability. The dictatorship model is more stable, until there is a revolution and everything breaks. Democracies avoid the revolutions by voting out the bums. Systems with controlled instabilities avoid the big avalanches.
While democracies use controlled instability to avoid revolutions, the same is not true in economics. Typically democratic governments suppress recessions in order to get reelected. This suppression process seeks to enhance economic stability. The elimination of controlled instability in economics pushes societies to the point of economic avalanche – a depression.
When is an avalanche likely?
First rule, moving from a stable state to avalanche state takes time. Time of stability is the most important factor in determining when the next avalanche will occur. Looking back in history will give us an idea of how long it takes before things break. For the US, that time is 80 to 100 years since the beginning of the last crisis. The last crisis period ran from 1925 to 1945. The next crisis period runs from 2005 to 2025. These periods are based on the research by two historians as told in The Fourth Turning.
Second rule, problems or cracks start to appear in society after a long period of time. Experts start to warn about instabilities or dangers on the horizon. Societies become more sensitive, and there are protests and/or riots.
Third rule, there must be a triggering event. However, this event does not need to be big as we saw with the Tunisian fruit vendor. Causality is not linear. Linear causality is where small things can only have a small impact.
Avalanches, forest fires, economic crashes and wars work the same way. They all follow the same mathematical distribution in terms of collapses – the power law distribution. Who cares? Keep reading as I apply these concepts.
Mathematics of Collapse
Take a look at this little video about the mathematics of war.
Take a look at the graphs in the video. These are the same graphs as forest fires. Notice how the frequency (y-axis) versus size (x-axis) graph follows a straight line for both attacks in war and forest fires. Wars in total also follow the same graph.
The next graph shows attack frequency versus the size of the attack in the Iraq war.
The following graphs show forest fire frequency versus size of the fire.
The graphs between the Iraq war and forest fires look kind of similar, don’t they? They tend to form a straight line. Why is that?
Societies and forests move into the future in the same way. Each new day is heavily influenced by the past. And that is a positive feedback loop process. That feedback loop process causes collapses to be similar in both sets of graphs with both having a power-law distribution of collapses. You can treat societies and forests the same way in terms of collapses. If you suppress small collapses then you will get bigger collapses. If you suppress bigger collapses then you will get the mother of all collapses. If you suppress that collapse then you will sit on the edge of a cliff forever, or until you allow the collapse to happen. The probability of an extreme collapse (the black swan) is 10 to 20 times greater than you think. A society or forest becomes susceptible to a black swan (catastrophic fire, depression, major war, …) after a long period of stability. Use history to determine what “long period” means. For a snow avalanche, long period may mean months. For a forest or society, long period may mean 50 years or 100 years.
If societies follow a positive feedback loop process, then so do economies. Economic stability (suppressing collapses) leads to catastrophe. That’s why Japan has been stuck in the mud for the last 20 years. The West is now stuck with Japan at the edge of a cliff waiting for something to push them over.
Why is stability a bad thing?
During the good times, the bad stuff (bad ideas, bad decisions and corruption) grows along with the good. Small collapses help to eliminate some of the bad stuff before it gets too big. Suppressing all collapses means the bad stuff grows so big that only a huge crash will fix the problems. No crash equals no solution.
How can we tell when the bad stuff has become a real problem? In the next paragraph see how scientists figured out how to discover the rot developing in growing sandpiles until there was a complete collapse.
“To find out why [such unpredictability] should show up in their sandpile game, Bak and colleagues next played a trick with their computer. Imagine peering down on the pile from above, and coloring it in according to its steepness. Where it is relatively flat and stable, color it green; where steep and, in avalanche terms, ‘ready to go,’ color it red. What do you see? They found that at the outset the pile looked mostly green, but that, as the pile grew, the green became infiltrated with ever more red. With more grains, the scattering of red danger spots grew until a dense skeleton of instability ran through the pile. Here then was a clue to its peculiar behavior: a grain falling on a red spot can, by domino-like action, cause sliding at other nearby red spots. If the red network was sparse, and all trouble spots were well isolated one from the other, then a single grain could have only limited repercussions. But when the red spots come to riddle the pile, the consequences of the next grain become fiendishly unpredictable. It might trigger only a few tumblings, or it might instead set off a cataclysmic chain reaction involving millions. The sandpile seemed to have configured itself into a hypersensitive and peculiarly unstable condition in which the next falling grain could trigger a response of any size whatsoever.”
Without color-coding it’s a lot harder to see the rot. We have to rely on clues. Extreme problems in one or more areas of society after a long period of stability probably indicate that that society is in trouble. 9/11 was one clue. The financial collapse in 2008 was another clue. There is rot in our military. The US nuclear arsenal has been gutted. So America appears to be in trouble at this time.
About the Power Law Distribution
Find out a little more about the power law distribution. Did you ever wonder where the 80-20 rule comes from? Please meet the power law distribution.
The power law – sometimes referred to as the Pareto distribution, Zipf’s law, or the 80-20 rule – has drawn a great deal of attention lately as an alternative to the ‘normal’ (Gaussian) distribution (i.e, the bell curve). The power law has gained in popularity among more numerate intellectuals, policy makers, and business people because it seems to fit better with common sense than what we were told in Statistics 101: Extreme and rare events have a greater than expected impact; a few products, people, and websites seem to have the bulk of market share, wealth, and mindshare; etc.
The power law distribution doesn’t fit everything which means outliers exist. However, it does a much better job than the normal distribution. For our purposes of trying to understand the real world better, the power law distribution provides a good foundation.
Collapse Framework for Societies
What follows is a framework for viewing collapses in society – economic collapse or war/revolution. I have essentially summarized the concepts I covered above.
1. Societies follow a positive feedback loop process. Each new day is heavily dependent on the past. This is similar to forests and sandpiles. The process never stops and collapses are impossible to prevent. One may only transform the size and timing of collapses.
2. Positive feedback loop processes are subject to self-organizing criticality. They will automatically move toward a pre-collapse state, then just collapse.
3. Collapses follow a power-law distribution. Outliers exist.
4. All collapses are the same. There is no difference (other than size) between a small collapse and a big collapse. Big collapses require longer to form and happen less often.
5. Collapse transformation: Collapse suppression will delay a collapse and make the resulting collapse bigger. Suppress small collapses and you will get bigger collapses. Suppress bigger collapses and you will get the mother of all collapses. Suppress that and you will sit on the edge of a cliff forever waiting to fall or be pushed over the edge. Think Japan.
6. Collapses are caused by the build-up of bad ideas, bad decisions and corruption. These things can spread to all corners of society.
7. War or revolution is just a collapse like an economic collapse. Only the form is different.
8. Collapse suppression leaves the original problems (bad ideas, bad decisions and corruption) in place giving them the ability to continue growing.
9. A collapse in one area could mean problems in other areas as well. For example, 9/11 could mean more than a terrorism problem. It could represent a sign of spreading problems into all corners of society.
10. The longer the time of stability means the longer (and bigger) the problems can grow. Time of relative stability is the most important criteria in determining when a large collapse is possible. History helps us determine which time frames are important.
11. When a system has reached a point where a small event can have a large impact then it is at a pre-collapse state or tipping point. Causality is not linear.
12. Big collapses (the outliers) may represent phase transitions where everything you know changes.
13. Black swans are outliers in a normal distribution which cause a phase transition.
14. Dragon-kings are outliers in a power-law distribution which cause a phase transition.
15. Examples of systems with a power-law distribution (outliers allowed): Forest fires, sandpile collapses, snow pile avalanches, earth quakes, financial market collapses, wealth, city size, serial killers, riots, attacks within war and wars.
16. In financial mathematics, the use of the normal distribution is forbidden. It assumes behavior is independent. In a crisis or collapse, market behavior is not independent as people start herding. Naturally this means in reality all financial mathematics uses the normal distribution. Were you wondering why these models blow up?
17. How to build a better economic model. The key here is to harness collapses.
Debt is serfdom, capital in all its forms is freedom. The only leverage available to all is extreme frugality in service of accumulating productive capital.
There are only three ways to better oneself financially: marry someone with money, inherit money or accumulate capital/savings and invest it in productive assets. (We’ll leave out lobbying the Federal government for a fat contract, faking disability, selling derivatives designed to default and other criminal activities.)
The only way to accumulate capital to invest is to spend considerably less than you earn. For a variety of reasons, humans seem predisposed to spend more as their income rises. Thus the person making $30,000 a year imagines that if only they could earn $100,000 a year, they could save half of their net income. Yet when that happy day arrives, they generally find their expenses have risen in tandem with their income, and the anticipated ease of saving large chunks of money never materializes.
What qualifies as extreme frugality? Saving a third of one’s net income is a good start, though putting aside half of one’s net income is even better.
The lower one’s income, the more creative one has to be to save a significant percentage of one’s net income. On the plus side, the income tax burden for lower-income workers is low, so relatively little of gross income is lost to taxes.
The second half of the job is investing the accumulated capital in productive assets and/or enterprises. The root of capitalism is capital, and that includes not just financial capital (cash) but social capital (the value of one’s networks and associations) and human capital (one’s skills and experience and ability to master new knowledge and skills).
Cash invested in tools and new skills and collaborative networks can leverage a relatively modest sum of cash capital into a significant income stream, something that cannot be said of financial investments in a zero-interest rate world.
We hear a lot about the rising cost of college and the impossibility of getting a degree without loans or tens of thousands of dollars contributed by parents. I think my own experience is instructive, as there is another path: extreme frugality.
At 19, my two sets of parents were unable to provide me with more than a rust-bucket old car. My father sent me an airline ticket to visit him, but nobody ponied up any cash for tuition, books, or living expenses.
Step One was eliminating housing costs until I earned enough to pay rent. By good fortune, I was able to secure a work-trade housing situation: I was given a room filled with boxes of accounting records, and a path through the boxes to a bathroom and tiny kitchenette in trade for yard work.
Step Two: cut all other expenses to the bone. Since I was working for a remodeling contractor, I needed the car to get to the various jobsites, but I bicycled whenever possible to save on gasoline. I prepared all my own meals and avoided buying snacks, drinks, etc. until my income rose enough to swing such luxuries. I can count the number of drinks or meals I bought on campus in four years on one hand.
Music purchased: none. (We played our own music or listened to the radio on the jobsite.) Clothes purchased new: none. (That’s what church jumble sales/bazaars are for: $1 shirts, etc.) And so on.
Step Three: find a job with upside earnings and skills. I’d worked in snack bars and mowed lawns, but construction opened up opportunities to advance my skills and gain sufficient proficiency to deserve a raise in pay.
Since I wasn’t guaranteed any opportunity for advancement, I volunteered to work Saturdays for my bosses or anyone else on the crew who had sidework on the weekends. I volunteered my construction services to community groups to gain experience (there’s nothing like being responsible for the project, as opposed to just following orders) and open access to new networks of productive, accomplished people.
For example, I rebuilt the rotted redwood rear steps to the historic Agee House in the back of Manoa Valley for free. (Sadly, this wonderful building burned down a few years later.)
In business, the word “hustle” has the negative connotation of high pressure sales or a scam. In sports, it has a positive connotation of devoting more energy and effort as a means of compensating for lower skills or physical size. Step Three requires hustle: when you don’t have any advantages of capital, connections or skills, you have to acquire those by hustle and initiative.
Step Four: apply for obscure, small-sum scholarships. $500 may not sound like a lot, but it means competition will be lower and if you get it, that’s $500 you don’t have to earn. As you build your networks in the community, put the word out you’re looking for small scholarships for next semester’s tuition. In general, people tend to respond more positively to helping you with a specific goal rather than an open-ended or undefined goal such as “I need money for college.”
Step Five: work productively and ambitiously, i.e. work a lot but work smart. It never occurred to me that working 25+ hours a week and taking a full load of classes (4-5 classes and 15+ credits a semester) was something to bemoan–I was having a great time, and earned a 3.5 grade point average and my B.A. in four years.
60-hour work weeks should be considered the minimum effort necessary–but only if those hours are 100% productive work, not hours interrupted with games, phone calls, goofing off, etc. Those 60 hours are flat-out, power-out-the-work hours, not hours diluted by half-effort, distractions, etc.
Step Six: learn to do things yourself that cost money, such as maintaining your car. It’s not that hard to change the oil and other basics of maintenance.
If you push yourself and maintain a disciplined life, huge amounts of work can be ground through in a few hours. This is as true of digging a ditch as it is of plowing through texts and writing papers.
Tuition at the state university I attended (the University of Hawaii at Manoa) has risen enormously in the decades since I worked my way through college (roughly $9,000 a year now), but it’s still possible to work one’s way through if the student pursues all six steps assiduously and with perseverance and hustle and secures full-time work in summers.
One reason I did not bemoan working long hours and practicing extreme frugality was that this was still the default setting in a few dwindling enclaves of our culture and economy. The idea that you could borrow money for everything you wanted had not yet conquered the culture and economy: thrift in service of big goals was still a cultural norm.
In other words, what I did wasn’t heroic or unusual; it was the norm.
I should mention that my university years overlapped with the deepest recession (at that time) since the Great Depression: 1973-74. Work was hard to come by, gasoline skyrocketed in price, and inflation started to outpace wages, especially in the low-wage jobs typically available to college students.
It was not a cakewalk by any means.
The upside of relentlessly pursuing Steps One – Six is tremendous: personal integrity, financial independence, and the other powerful freedoms that accrue to these foundations. Measured by income and things I owned, I was “poor.” But measured by independence and by skills and networks gained, I was wealthy in many important ways.
Extreme frugality enabled me to not just finish college in four years but to buy a (cheap) parcel of land while still a student with cash and have a substantial savings account by graduation day.
I don’t look back on those years of voluntary deprivation in service of independence, freedom, knowledge, and social and human capital as “poor me:” I see them as the extremely positive, productive template that I have followed in the decades since. I never did marry or inherit money, and so whatever I have now is the direct result of extreme frugality in service of integrity, independence and the accrual of capital that can be productively invested.
The only leverage available to all is extreme frugality in service of accumulating savings that can be productively invested in building human, social and financial capital.
Debt is serfdom, capital in all its forms is freedom.
Debt = Serfdom (April 2, 2013)
How Frugal Are You? (August 7, 2010)
- The Chinese Black Swan (ritholtz.com)
- ZeroHedge: China GDP To Hit 6.7% (silveristhenew.com)
- Monday Market Mayem – Asia’s Meltdown Continues (philstockworld.com)
- Will China need the ‘wet nurse’ again? (independent.co.uk)
- Capital flight “black swan scenario” for China – Victor Shih (chinaherald.net)
- NASSIM TALEB: My Moral Obligation Is To Destroy The Economic Establishment, And I Will (businessinsider.com)
- Anti-fragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb (jpgardiner.com)
- A Reddit “Ask Me Anything” with Nassim Nicholas Taleb (readingbyeugene.com)
- Black Swan Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Fragility, Centralization, and Capitalism (reason.com)
- Taleb: Learn to Love Volatility (ritholtz.com)
Signs of Collapse?
The events in Cyprus continue to evolve. It has become evident that well-connected and informed depositors with uninsured funds were told of the coming capital controls and withdrew their funds prior to the government’s implementation of the deal with the European ‘troika’ (see this and this) reinforcing the increasingly-held belief that the elite prosper by gaming the system leaving the masses to bear the burden of profligate governments and a malfeasant corporate elite, particularly the ‘banksters’ (see this).
It is also important to note that the amount of a loss for depositors could now be as high as 100% (see this), indicating that losses will be much, much higher than previously suggested (the plutocrats who were foretold of the move and removed their deposits added significantly to the losses). An analogous move used by the state to put down protests by its citizens is kettling, where a cordon of police with riot gear and often on horseback herd large groups of people into areas without an exit and hold them there, catching up non-involved citizens who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In an attempt to ‘tax’ the Russian oligarchs, all matter of Cypriot was caught in the E.U.’s unprecedented move in recapitalising its banks. Social unrest is sure to follow…
I have tried to raise domestic concern for these events (see this) but we appear to be stuck in the ‘this-time-is-different syndrome’ (see this). I have recently noted that our own Canadian Federal government is preparing for a Cypriot-like confiscation of depositor funds (see this). It is important for Canadians to remember that history shows that Canada was one the of the most severally impacted nations during the Great Depression of the 1930s (see this) and while history may not repeat itself precisely, current events can certainly rhyme with historical ones. In ‘kicking-the-can down the road’ and denying the significance of the problems that will most certainly affect us in the not-too-distant future, our leaders are assuring an increased shock for the uninformed and ill-prepared masses (see this).
My initial advice for individuals during our ‘relative calm’ is three-fold:
a) get out of debt as quickly as possible, central banks cannot hold interest rates down forever–this may create the need for a significant drop in your ‘standard-of-living’ but better to do it now and have some control over this realignment of expectations, rather than having no control during a crisis and adding to your stress;
b) after you are out of debt, begin to save your surplus wealth through purchase of physical precious metals (no paper ETFs and held at a very reputable storage unit) or investments that could help you ‘weather’ the storm such as investing in home gardening supplies, updating your home’s insulation, or purchasing a wood-burning stove–get your money out of institutions that carry third-party risk (i.e. banks);
c) begin to supplement your food consumption with local sources, your own if possible–build a vegetable garden, plant fruit trees, find out where your local farms and farmers’ markets are.
Communities should be focusing on one thing: becoming sustainably self-sufficient in as many ways as possible; for example, food, water, and energy, the three foundations of our existence. A good sign is that there are transition movements springing up all across the globe (see this).
There is absolutely no way to predict when a crisis may occur–it could be tomorrow or ten years from now; so it is better to be prepared in the event of one, rather than to be reacting during one; this is why elementary schools practise various drills repeatedly during each school year or why we purchase insurance or carry a spare tire in our cars-just in case. Any consequences of economic collapse could occur quickly with little time to react, or it may occur over a prolonged period, allowing gradual adaptation. As Nasim Taleb argues in The Black Swan, it is the unknown, low-risk events that have the most significant impacts upon us. Being prepared for the coming economic tsunami is not only prudent but the first step towards self-sufficiency.
If you haven’t checked out my novel, Olduvai, please do:) Aiming to sell 422 copies: known sold to date–via FriesenPress, 4 hardcover, 2 paperback; via ebook sales, 2; via Amazon et al not known at this time; via me, 16 paperback and 3 hardcover, for a grand total of: 27 (395 to go…yikes;P)
April 1, 2013
The crises in Europe continues unabated. In the latest crisis, Cypriot citizens and businesses with uninsured deposits were hit with a ‘one-time tax’ that could be as high as 80% (see this). The narrative the media was sharing at one point was that rich, Russian oligarchs would be the main ones to be hit in this, as Cyprus supports an off-shore banking ‘haven’ for these plutocrats (see this). The Russians have NOT been pleased about this and after already moving ships off the coast of Syria (see this), they began an unannounced war games exercise in the Black Sea, a stone’s throw from entering the Mediterranean (see this). This was after the ECB’s first proposal that ALL depositors be hit with a ‘one-time tax of almost seven percent for insured deposits and close to ten percent for uninsured deposits (see this). Governments were being told to take money from their citizens in return for loan guarantees to help bail-out insolvent banks. This has changed from using the taxation system to support bail-outs; the taxpayer was not to be used to bail-out the banks. It would seem, however, that someone leaked the news to the Russian and British off-shore depositors, as they seemed to have moved their money out already (see this and this), leaving the citizens of Cyprus to bail-in the banks. Most certainly, it is beyond obvious that the crises in Europe are not over and is likely to continue to deteriorate (see this).
In light of this change, many are beginning to wonder if the elite have suddenly changed the rules (or put in place something that they’ve been planning) (see this). Marc Faber, the author of the Gloom and Doom Report website, suggests that developed nations the world over are likely to follow this model: to begin to implement a ‘wealth tax’ for anyone above an arbitrary cut-off (see this). This could mean that all of your assets are considered and a ‘one-time tax’ will be implemented to help support the banks (see this); you know, those institutions that have gambled their depositors’ property that they were entrusted with.
The Canadian government is actually preparing for something along these lines. Their first move has been for the federal government to hide in their latest budget a provision for a ‘depositor haircut’ (see this and this). A more general wealth tax may be in the future…
There is little doubt Canadian governments at all levels are testing the waters with respect to what they can force upon their citizens. As a vice-prinicipal, I have been subjected to the Ontario government’s latest salvo at educators, Bill 115 (see this). This bill was used to impose contracts on educators across the province. The government spun a tale that focused upon a wage freeze and the media conveniently played along, while the unions attempted their own spin by focusing on the constitutionality of collective bargaining rights. Regardless of the intent, what I found most distressing about the bill was the section that stated the government’s actions were above the rule of law, beyond the purview of the courts to judge (see this).
We also see the Canadian military pursuing the use of unmanned drones over Canadian territory (see this) and the media is trumpeting it (see this). Unmanned ‘eyes-in-the-sky’ have been increasingly used over Canadian skies by the RCMP and various local police forces (see this). So, is the Canadian government preparing to restrict the freedoms of its citizens in the future through the more widespread use of these drones? What better way to ensure the masses do not stray from their confines, as Noam Chomsky reminds us (see this).
Couple this with the American precedent to use such drones to assassinate ‘terrorists’ within their domestic borders (see this) and we are a stone’s throw away from a state that could not only spy on our every move, both aerially and digitally (see this), but target us for ‘elimination’ if we are deemed terrorists. Given that the definition of who is considered a terrorist shifts as governments deem fit (see this and this), the door is open for anyone who disagrees with or challenges the government to be labelled a ‘domestic terrorist’. But there could be more brewing here as there are some suggesting that the American government could be preparing for a potential civil war (see this and this). Where would the Canadian government lay its allegiance in such a war and what would be the impact on Canada considering that the U.S. is our most significant trading partner; and we have the world’s longest, unguarded border?
As geopolitical tensions rise, environmental concerns escalate, and economic sustainability and trust are increasingly questioned, one has to wonder when the tipping point will be reached and cause our hyper-complex, interconnected world to crack and crumble…
I stand before this faceless crowd
and I wonder why I bother
so much controlled by so few
stumbling from one disaster to another
I’ve heard it all so many times before
it’s all a dream to me now
a dream to me now
And if we’re lost
then we are lost together
Blue Rodeo, 1992
Lost Together, Lost Together