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(March 26, 2014)
What is the shelf life of a system that rewards confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence?
Let’s connect the dots of natural selection and the pathology of power.
In his 2012 book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, author Kevin Dutton described how the attributes of sociopathology are in a sense value-neutral: the sociopathological attributes that characterize a dangerous criminal may also characterize a cool, high-performing neurosurgeon.
As Dutton explains in his essay What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed(Scientific American):
Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. Far from its being an open-and-shut case–you’re either a psychopath or you’re not–there are, instead, inner and outer zones of the disorder: a bit like the fare zones on a subway map. There is a spectrum of psychopathy along which each of us has our place, with only a small minority of A-listers resident in the “inner city.”
While there is obviously a place for high-functioning sociopaths in professions which reward those characteristics, what about sociopaths who substitute deviousness and deception for competence? For some context, let’s turn to thePathology Of Power by Norman Cousins, published in 1988.
Cousins was particularly concerned with the National Security State, a.k.a. the military-industrial complex, which at that point in U.S. history was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Empire. Cousins described the pathology of power thusly:
“Connected to the tendency of power to corrupt are yet other tendencies that emerge from the pages of the historians:1. The tendency of power to drive intelligence underground;
2. The tendency of power to become a theology, admitting no other gods before it;
3. The tendency of power to distort and damage the traditions and institutions it was designed to protect;
4. The tendency of power to create a language of its own, making other forms of communication incoherent and irrelevant;
5. The tendency of power to set the stage for its own use.
In broader terms, we might add: the tendency of power to manifest hubris, arrogance, bullying, deception and the substitution of rule by Elites for rule of law.
Natural selection isn’t only operative in Nature; it is equally operative in human organizations, economies and societies. People respond to whatever set of incentives and disincentives are present. If deceiving and conning others is heavily incentivized, while integrity and honesty are punished, people will gravitate to running cons and embezzlement schemes.
What behaviors does our Status Quo reward? Misrepresentation, obfuscation, legalized looting, embezzlement, fraud, a variety of cons, gaming the system, deviousness, lying and cleverly designed deceptions.
Let’s connect the pathology of power and the behaviors selected by our Status Quo. What we end up with is a system that selects for a specific category of sociopaths: those whose only competence is in running cons.
No wonder we have a leadership that is selected not for competence but for deviousness. What’s incentivized in our system is spinning half-truths and propaganda with a straight face and running cons that entrench the pathology of power.
What is the shelf life of a system that rewards confidence-gaming sociopaths rather than competence? Unless we change the incentives and disincentives, the system is doomed.
Of related interest:
The Normalization of Sociopathology in America (October 16, 2010)
The Federal Reserve and the Pathology of Power (November 18, 2010)
The Banality of (Financial) Evil (November 9, 2010)
(March 14, 2014)
I recently discussed the Deep State and “throwing Wall Street under the bus” with my friend and colleague Jim Kunstler.
When we speak of The Powers That Be or the Deep State, this ruling Elite is generally assumed to be monolithic: of one mind, so to speak, unified in worldview, strategy and goals.
In my view, this is an over-simplification of a constantly shifting battleground of paradigms and political power between a number of factions and alliances within the Deep State. Disagreements are not publicized, of course, but they become apparent years or decades after the conflict was resolved, usually by one faction winning the hearts and minds of decision-makers or consolidating the Deep State’s group-think around their worldview and strategy.
History suggests that this low-intensity conflict within the ruling Elite is generally a healthy characteristic of leadership in good times. As times grow more troubled, however, the unity of the ruling Elite fractures into irreconcilable political disunity, which becomes a proximate cause of the dissolution of the Empire if it continues.
I recently proposed the idea that Wall Street now poses a strategic threat to national security and thus to the Deep State itself: Who Gets Thrown Under the Bus in the Next Financial Crisis? (March 3, 2014)
Many consider it “impossible” that Wall Street could possibly lose its political grip on the nation’s throat, but I suggest that Wall Street has over-reached, and is now teetering at the top of the S-Curve, i.e. it has reached Peak Wall Street.
Consider what the extremes of Wall Street/Federal Reserve predation, parasitism, avarice and power have done to the nation, and then ask if other factions within the Deep State are blind to the destructive consequences:
How The Fed Has Failed America, Part 2 (March 12, 2014)
The Fed Has Failed (and Will Continue to Fail), Part 1 (March 11, 2014)
Can anyone not in Wall Street or the Fed look at this chart and not see profound political disunity on the horizon?
source: Poll Shows Why QE Has Been Ineffective (STA Wealth Mgmt)
I recently discussed the Deep State and “throwing Wall Street under the bus” with my friend and colleague Jim Kunstler: here’s the resulting podcast, which you can download or listen to on whatever device you are using at the moment: KunstlerCast 250 — Chatting with Charles Hugh Smith
Jim’s trademark wit and clarity guide the discussion, and he kindly lets me blather on about the Deep State. I think you’ll find the discussion of interest; you certainly won’t hear this topic being aired elsewhere.
I have covered the Deep State and profound political disunity for many years:
Going to War with the Political Elite You Have (May 14, 2007)
The Shape of Things To Come (July 8, 2011)
The only way to eliminate the financial parasites is to stop subsidizing their skimming and scamming, and the only way to stop subsidizing the financial parasites is to shut down the Fed.
Before I explain how the Federal Reserve has failed America, let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s imagine that instead of creating $3.2 trillion and giving it to the banking sector to play with–funding carry trades and high-frequency trading, for example–the Fed had invested in carry trades itself and returned the profits directly to taxpayers.
Before we go through the math, let’s recall how a carry trade works: Financiers borrow billions at near-zero interest from the Fed and then use the free money to buy bonds in other countries where the return is (say) 5%. The financiers are skimming 4.75% or more for doing nothing other than having access to the Fed’s free money.
If the bonds rise in value (because interest rates decline in the nation issuing the bonds), the financiers skim additional profit. If the trade can be leveraged via derivatives, then the annual return can be bumped up from 5% to 10%.
OK, back to the experiment. The Fed created $3.2 trillion in its quantitative easing (QE) programs. let’s say the Fed’s money managers (or gunslingers hired by the Fed to handle the trading) earn around 5% annually with various low-risk carry trades.
That works out to an annual profit of $160 billion (5% of $3.2 trillion). Now let’s say the Fed divvied the profit up among everyone who paid Social Security taxes the previous year. That’s around 140 million wage earners. Every person who paid Social Security taxes would receive $1,100 from the Fed’s carry trade profits.
The point of this experiment is to suggest that there were plenty of things the Fed could have done with its $3.2 trillion that would have directly benefited taxpaying Americans, but instead the Fed funneled all those profits to financiers and banks.
The Fed apologists claim that lowering interest rates to zero benefited American who saw their interest payments decline. Nice, but not necessarily true. Try asking a student paying 9% for his student loans how much his interest rate dropped due to Fed policy. Or ask someone paying 19.9% in credit card interest (gotta love that .1% that keeps it under 20%)–how much did your interest drop as a result of Fed policy?
Answer: zip, zero, nada. The Fed’s zero interest rate policy (ZIRP)funneled profits to the banks, not to borrowers.
And let’s not forget that many Americans chose not to borrow at all. What did the Fed do for them? It stole the interest they once earned on their savings. Estimates vary, but it is clear that the Fed’s ZIRP transferred hundreds of billions of dollars in interest to the banking sector, income forceably “donated” by savers to the banks.
Lowering interest rates to zero is effectively a forced subsidy of borrowers by savers. But that’s not the only subsidy: who makes money from originating and managing loans? Banks. The more loans that are originated, the higher the transaction fees and profits flowing to banks. So incentivizing borrowing generates more profits for banks.
Humans make decisions based on the incentives and disincentives in place at the time of their decision. Lowering the cost of money (interest) to zero creates an incentive to gamble the money on low-yield bets. After all, if you can earn 3% on the free money, then why not skim the free 3%?
If speculators had to pay 6% for money and 7.5% for mortgages (the going rate in the go-go 1990s), then the number of available carry trades plummets. The only carry trades that make sense when you’re paying 6% for money are those with yields of 10%–and any bond paying 10% carries a high risk of default (otherwise, the issuer wouldn’t have to offer such a high rate of interest to lure buyers).
All of these incentives to borrow money at zero interest rate are only available to banks and financiers. And that’s the point of the Fed’s policies: to stripmine the bottom 99.5% and transfer the wealth to banks and financiers. Lowering interest rates to zero incentivizes carry trades and speculative bets that do absolutely nothing for America or the bottom 99.5% of taxpayers.
A self-employed worker pays 50% more tax than a hedge funder skimming billions of dollars in carry trades. A self-employed worker pays 15.3% in Social Security and Medicare taxes and a minimum of 15% Federal income tax for a minimum of 30.3%. (The higher your income, the higher your tax rate, which quickly rises to 25% and up.) The hedge funder pays no Social Security tax at all because the carry trade profits are “long-term capital gains” which are taxed at 15% (20% if the Hedgie skims more than $400,000 a year).
Despite the Fed apologists’ claims that ZIRP and free money handed to banks and financiers create jobs and start businesses, there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. The only beneficiaries of Fed policies are tax accountants for the banks and financiers and luxury auto dealerships. Since Porsches and Maseratis are not made in the U.S., the benefits of the top .5% buying costly gew-gaws and evading taxes is extremely limited.
Attention, all apologists, lackeys, toadies, minions and factotums of the Fed: is there any plausible explanation for the wealthiest .5% pulling away from everyone else since the Fed launched ZIRP and QE other than Fed policies? And while we’re at it, how about publishing a verifiable list of companies that were founded and now employ hundreds of people because the owners could borrow millions of dollars at zero interest?
Get real–no new business can borrow Fed money for zero interest. The only entities that can borrow the Fed’s free money are banks and other financial parasites.
The truth is the Fed incentivizes and rewards the most parasitic, least productive sector of the economy and forcibly transfers the interest that was once earned by the productive middle class to the parasites. Though the multitudes of apologists, lackeys, toadies, minions and factotums of the Fed will frantically deny it, the inescapable truth is that the nation and the bottom 99.5% would be instantly and forever better off were the Fed closed down and its assets liquidated.
The only way to eliminate the financial parasites is to stop subsidizing their skimming and scamming, and the only way to stop subsidizing the financial parasites is to shut down the Fed.
Source: Wealth, Income, and Power (G. William Domhoff)
The speculative excesses and political power of Wall Street pose a strategic threat to the Deep State, and as a result a showdown between the Deep State and the surface machinery of governance that has been captured by Wall Street is looming.
The basic idea of the Deep State is that the visible machinery of governance–electoral politics and the Federal Reserve–doesn’t set strategic policy, it ratifies and implements decisions made behind closed doors. In Mike Lofgren’s definition, the Deep State is “effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.”
In my analysis, the Deep State is the National Security State which enables a vast Imperial structure that incorporates hard and soft power–military, diplomatic, intelligence, finance, commercial, energy, media, higher education–in a system of global domination and influence.
The Dollar and the Deep State (February 24, 2014)
Ukraine: A Deep State Analysis (February 27, 2014)
Like any other bureaucracy, the Deep State is prone to group-think, the tendency to join the prevailing “herd” in accepting a dominant paradigm and narrative that identifies key dynamics and sets priorities.
Group-think responds to both success and failure. In the case of the Deep State, key elements of the neo-conservative paradigm have been discredited. The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm: Requiem for a Decade of Distraction (Foreign Affairs)
(Anyone seeking a public reflection of the current thinking within the Deep State would do well to read Foreign Affairs, with an emphasis on reading between the lines.)
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the leaders of the U.S. Deep State are not complete morons. Granted, that is quite a stretch, given that these are the people who gambled the lives of thousands of American troops and trillions of dollars in treasure on discretionary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it is also reasonable to assume that the neo-conservatives who naively assumed that residents of Baghdad would not only welcome their foreign liberators with baskets of flowers but would magically reconstruct the social institutions that had been systemically destroyed by Saddam over the previous 30 years–yes, those neo-con nincompoops– have been quietly put to pasture on their mini-estates in Northern Virginia.
In other words, it is reasonable to assume that the Deep State has accepted that “mistakes were made” and flushed those responsible for the previous decade’s disasters.
The Deep State undoubtedly has its own niceties and protocols, but it is by necessity ruthlessly Darwinian: failure is not only always an option, it is inevitable as a systems-level consequence of tightly connected, interactive complex systems; such failures are known as “normal accidents,” catastrophes resulting from seemingly small miscalculations and miscues that cascade into systemic crises.
As a result, incompetence cannot be rewarded lest the Deep State itself suffer the consequences.
The Deep State’s prime directive is to preserve the Deep State itself and the nation it depends on for its survival. My analysis starts by identifying the vectors of dependency. (To the best of my knowledge, I am the first to use this term in this context.) The Deep State depends on the survival of the U.S. nation-state, but the nation-state does not depend on the Deep State for its survival, despite the certainty within the Deep State that “we are the only thing keeping this thing together.”
Strategy is one thing, responding to crisis is another. The surface government (elected officials, regulatory agencies, the Federal Reserve, etc.) responds to crisis in two basic ways: it chooses whatever short-term politically expedient fix reduces the immediate political pain (also known as “kicking the can down the road”) and it sacrifices the interests of politically weak groups to protect its cronies and fiefdoms.
This crisis-response triage requires that somebody gets thrown under the bus. In the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed threw savers and the bottom 95% under the bus to funnel hundreds of billions of dollars–what was previously paid in interest–to the banks to rebuild their broken balance sheets. The Fed also provided limitless liquidity to bank trading desks and financiers to skim billions from carry trades, effectively channeling the nation’s financial resources to enrich its cronies, the top 1/10th of 1%.
The Deep State must take a longer view, and make strategic triage decisions. All sorts of people, groups and policies are routinely tossed under the bus–foreign leaders, resistance groups, civil liberties, etc.–as the Deep State adjusts to long-term developments and crises with strategic consequences.
Many Deep State decisions and policies are barely noticed, even though they are completely public. For example, the U.S. Deep State recognized that the dissolution of the Soviet Union opened an extremely dangerous door to nuclear weapons falling into non-state hands. So the U.S. spent tens of billions of dollars helping secure the thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons left in limbo after the breakup.
Though the Deep State’s institutional bias is to focus on conventional national security issues, it must also monitor potential strategic threats created by issues such as climate change, immigration and Peak Cheap Oil. The financial crisis was apparently an unexpected and unwelcome distraction from the geopolitical Great Game, and the response of the Deep State was muted.
while the surface policies of the Federal Reserve and Federal government appear to serve the interests of the financial Elites, I am beginning to discern the possibility of a strategic Deep State response to the next (and inevitable) financial crisis.
This crisis is simple to summarize: the paper claims on wealth so far exceed actual wealth that something’s gotta give. These claims include trillions of dollars in shadow-banking bets (derivatives and other leveraged claims all teetering on a tiny base of real collateral) and trillions of dollars in debt-based claims on future income.
Simply put, the vast majority of these claims will have to be zeroed out, i.e. these phantom-claim “assets” will be voided and declared worthless. This leads to the key question: who will the Deep State throw under the bus to preserve itself and the nation-state?
Once again, identifying the vectors of dependency clarifies the strategic priorities. As I pointed out in The Dollar and the Deep State, the pre-eminence of both the Deep State and the U.S. nation-state depend on the U.S. dollar remaining the key reserve currency in the global economy.
The collapse of the U.S. dollar would destroy the foundation of both the Deep State and the U.S. nation-state, hence my conclusion that the Deep State will not enable that collapse.
As for all the financial claims on real wealth that will have to go to zero value, let’s identify the operative vector of dependency with a question: which scenario most threatens the Deep State: 50 million hungry Americans taking to the streets shouting, “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” or 10,000 financiers losing a couple trillion dollars in phantom wealth?
In other words, the phantom financier claims of Wall Street now pose a strategic threat to the integrity of the U.S. and its Deep State.
The Deep State needs a functioning U.S. nation-state, and a mass uprising arising from the collapse of the state cannot be suppressed with a few whiffs of grapeshot. The collapse of global pre-eminence and state financing of food stamps and other social welfare programs directly threaten the Deep State.
The collapse of financier fortunes? While that would hurt some Yalie cronies, the Deep State is not Wall Street; it attracts those who prefer power to wealth and strategy to trading. I have no doubt whatsoever that the leadership of the Deep State would have no qualms about throwing bankers and financiers under the bus once they pose a strategic threat to the U.S. dollar and other financial interests vital to the Deep State, for example, keeping 300 million Americans distracted, placated and docile.
It’s certainly not lost on the Deep State that a palpable hatred of bankers, financiers and the Federal Reserve is taking root across the land. I know this is outside the mainstream, but I think it is increasingly likely that the financial system’s skimmers and swindlers are being recognized as potential strategic threats to the Deep State.
What is essential to the Deep State’s survival and supremacy and what is not essential? Are 10,000 obscenely wealthy financiers essential? No. Between saving the U.S. dollar and making whole the $100 trillion in nominal-value bets made by financiers in offshore shadow-banking accounts–there’s no contest.
Conventional wisdom has it that Wall Street dominates the state and the Fed. To the degree that these formal surface institutions can be influenced by lobbying, campaign contributions and plum positions, this is true. But these surface institutions only ratify and implement Deep State directives.
I know this sounds “impossible” within conventional narratives, but I am increasingly confident that the financiers’ phantom claims on real wealth will be thrown under the bus in the next global financial crisis. Look at it this way: there’s essentially nothing left to stripmine from the bottom 80%; most have been reduced to neofeudal debt-serfdom. Since the survival of the nation-state depends on the 80% remaining either passive or productive, the Deep State has a vital strategic interest in both the U.S. dollar and in maintaining the social welfare programs that enable the bottom 80%’s survival.
The Three-and-a-Half Class Society (October 22, 2012)
The Deep State also needs the top 20% to remain productive to maintain U.S. soft and hard power. Transferring trillions of dollars in real wealth to make good the claims of the financier class would require the stripmining of the whatever assets the top 20% still hold. This transfer would directly threaten both the nation-state and the Deep State.
The dominance of Wall Street over the formal, visible machinery of governance has persuaded many that Wall Street is the Deep State. I believe this is a serious misread of the real Deep State. As I noted in The Dollar and the Deep State, to even discern the outlines of the Deep State requires a senior military position or national-security civilian equivalent.
Those writing knowledgeably about Wall Street and finance typically show near-zero knowledge of high-echelon U.S. military and national-security assets, policies and networks, so this blind spot is understandable.
It’s widely assumed that Wall Street rules the roost in both the mainstream financial media and in the alternative financial blogosphere. In my view, the speculative excesses and political power of Wall Street pose a strategic threat to the Deep State, and as a result a showdown between the Deep State and the surface machinery of governance that has been captured by Wall Street is looming.
Though everyone who is convinced the U.S. dollar will go to zero is confident that Wall Street will emerge victorious from the next financial crisis, I am convinced of the opposite: the Deep State will do whatever it takes to eliminate strategic threats to the integrity of the Deep State and the nation it depends on for its power and survival. In a financial crisis that threatens the dollar and the Deep State, the phantom claims of Wall Street’s financier skimmers, scammers and swindlers will be tossed under the bus with few qualms. The triage might even be performed with a certain relish.
Put another way: we’ve reached Peak Wall Street and it’s all downhill from here.
If we consider the Fed’s policies (tapering, etc.) solely within the narrow confines of the corporatocracy or a strictly financial context, we are in effect touching the foot of the elephant and declaring the creature to be short and roundish.
I have been studying the Deep State for 40 years, before it had gained the nifty name “deep state.” What others describe as the Deep State I term the National Security State which enables the American Empire, a vast structure that incorporates hard and soft power–military, diplomatic, intelligence, finance, commercial, energy, media, higher education–in a system of global domination and influence.
Back in 2007 I drew a simplified chart of the Imperial structure, what I called the Elite Maintaining and Extending Global Dominance (EMEGD):
At a very superficial level, some pundits have sought a Master Control in the Trilateral Commission or similar elite gatherings. Such groups are certainly one cell within the Empire, but each is no more important than other parts, just as killer T-cells are just one of dozens of cell types in the immune system.
One key feature of the Deep State is that it makes decisions behind closed doors and the surface government simply ratifies or approves the decisions. A second key feature is that the Deep State decision-makers have access to an entire world of secret intelligence.
Here is an example from the late 1960s, when the mere existence of the National Security Agency (NSA) was a state secret. Though the Soviet Union made every effort to hide its failures in space, it was an ill-kept secret that a number of their manned flights failed in space and the astronauts died.
The NSA had tapped the main undersea cables, and may have already had other collection capabilities in place, for the U.S. intercepted a tearful phone call from Soviet Leader Brezhnev to the doomed astronauts, a call made once it had become clear there was no hope of their capsule returning to Earth.
Former congressional staff member Mike Lofgren described the Deep State in his recent essay Anatomy of the Deep State:
There is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.
The term “Deep State” was coined in Turkey and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized crime.
I use the term to mean a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.
I would say that only senior military or intelligence officers have any realistic grasp of the true scope, power and complexity of the Deep State and its Empire.Those with no grasp of military matters cannot possibly understand the Deep State. If you don’t have any real sense of the scope of the National Security State, you are in effect touching the foot of the elephant and declaring the creature is perhaps two feet tall.
The Deep State arose in World War II, as the mechanisms of electoral governance had failed to prepare the nation for global war. The goal of winning the war relegated the conventional electoral government to rubber-stamping Deep State decisions and policies.
After the war, the need to stabilize (if not “win”) the Cold War actually extended the Deep State. Now, the global war on terror (GWOT) is the justification.
One way to understand the Deep State is to trace the vectors of dependency. The Deep State needs the nation to survive, but the nation does not need the Deep State to survive (despite the groupthink within the Deep State that “we are the only thing keeping this thing together.”)
The nation would survive without the Federal Reserve, but the Federal Reserve would not survive without the Deep State. The Fed is not the Deep State; it is merely a tool of the Deep State.
This brings us to the U.S. dollar and the Deep State. The Deep State doesn’t really care about the signal noise of the economy–mortgage rates, minimum wages, unemployment, etc., any more that it cares about the political circus (“step right up to the Clinton sideshow, folks”) or the bickering over regulations by various camps.
What the Deep State cares about are the U.S. dollar, water, energy, minerals and access to those commodities (alliances, sea lanes, etc.). As I have mentioned before, consider the trade enabled by the reserve currency (the dollar): we print/create money out of thin air and exchange this for oil, commodities, electronics, etc.
If this isn’t the greatest trade on Earth–exchanging paper for real stuff– what is?While I am sympathetic to the strictly financial arguments that predict hyper-inflation and the destruction of the U.S. dollar, they are in effect touching the toe of the elephant.
The financial argument is this: we can print money but we can’t print more oil, coal, ground water, etc., and so eventually the claims on real wealth (i.e. dollars) will so far exceed the real wealth that the claims on wealth will collapse.
So far as this goes, it makes perfect sense. But let’s approach this from the geopolitical-strategic perspective of the Deep State: why would the Deep State allow policies that would bring about the destruction of its key global asset, the U.S. dollar?
There is simply no way the Deep State is going to support policies that would fatally weaken the dollar, or passively watch a subsidiary of the Deep State (the Fed) damage the Deep State itself.
The strictly financial arguments for hyper-inflation and the destruction of the U.S. dollar implicitly assume a system that operates like a line of dominoes: if the Fed prints money, that will inevitably start the dominoes falling, with the final domino being the reserve currency.
Setting aside the complexity of Triffin’s Paradox and other key dynamics within the reserve currency, we can safely predict that the Deep State will do whatever is necessary to maintain the dollar’s reserve status and purchasing power.
Understanding the “Exorbitant Privilege” of the U.S. Dollar (November 19, 2012)
What Will Benefit from Global Recession? The U.S. Dollar (October 9, 2012)
Recall Triffin’s primary point: countries like China that run trade surpluses cannot host reserve currencies, as that requires running large structural trade deficits.
In my view, the euro currency is a regional experiment in the “bancor” model,where a supra-national currency supposedly eliminates Triffin’s Paradox. It has failed, partly because supra-national currencies don’t resolve Triffin’s dilemma, they simply obfuscate it with sovereign credit imbalances that eventually moot the currency’s ability to function as intended.
Many people assume the corporatocracy rules the nation, but the corporatocracy is simply another tool of the Deep State. Many pundits declare that the Powers That Be want a weaker dollar to boost exports, but this sort of strictly financial concern is only of passing interest to the Deep State.
The corporatocracy (banking/financialization, etc.) has captured the machinery of regulation and governance, but these are surface effects of the electoral government that rubber-stamps policies set by the Deep State.
The corporatocracy is a useful global tool of the Deep State, but its lobbying of the visible government is mostly signal noise to the Deep State. The only sectors that matter are the defense, energy, agriculture and international financial sectors that supply the Imperial Project and project power.
What would best serve the Deep State is a dollar that increases in purchasing power and extends the Deep State’s power. It is widely assumed that the Fed creating a few trillion dollars has created a massive surplus of dollars that will guarantee a slide in the dollar’s purchasing power and its demise as the reserve currency.
Those who believe the Fed’s expansion of its balance sheet will weaken the dollar are forgetting that from the point of view of the outside world, the Fed’s actions are not so much expanding the supply of dollars as offsetting the contraction caused by deleveraging.
I would argue that the dollar will soon be scarce, and the simple but profound laws of supply and demand will push the dollar’s value not just higher but much higher. The problem going forward for exporting nations will be the scarcity of dollars.
If we consider the Fed’s policies (tapering, etc.) solely within the narrow confines of the corporatocracy or a strictly financial context, we are in effect touching the foot of the elephant and declaring the creature to be short and roundish. The elephant is the Deep State and its Imperial Project.
It’s not just that banks are no longer needed–they pose a needless and potentially catastrophic risk to the nation. To understand why, we need to understand the key characteristics of risk.
The entire banking sector is based on two illusions:
1. Thanks to modern portfolio management, bank debt is now riskless.
2. Technology only enhances banks’ tools to skim profits; it does not undermine the fundamental role of banks.
The global financial meltdown of 2008-09 definitively proved riskless bank debt is an illusion. If you want to understand why risk cannot eliminated, please read Benoit Mandelbrot’s book The (Mis)Behavior of Markets.
Technology does not just enable high-frequency trading; it enables capital and borrowers to bypass banks entirely. I addressed this yesterday in Banks Are Obsolete: The Entire Parasitic Sector Can Be Eliminated.
Unfortunately for banks, higher education, buggy whip manufacturers, etc., monopoly and propaganda are no match for technology. Just because a system worked in the past in a specific set of technological constraints does not mean it continues to be a practical solution when those technological constraints dissolve.
The current banking system is essentially based on two 19th century legacies. In that bygone era, banks were a repository of accounting expertise (keeping track of multitudes of accounts, interest, etc.) and risk assessment/management expertise (choosing the lowest-risk borrowers).
Both of these functions are now automated. The funny thing about technology is that those threatened by fundamental improvements in technology attempt to harness it to save their industry from extinction. For example, overpriced colleges now charge thousands of dollars for nearly costless massively open online courses (MOOCs) because they retain a monopoly on accreditation (diplomas). Once students are accredited directly–an advancement enabled by technology–colleges’ monopoly disappears and so does their raison d’etre.
The same is true of banks. Now that accounting and risk assessment are automated, and borrowers and owners of capital can exchange funds in transparent digital marketplaces, there is no need for banks. But according to banks, only they have the expertise to create riskless debt.
It’s not just that banks are no longer needed–they pose a needless and potentially catastrophic risk to the nation. To understand why, we need to understand the key characteristics of risk.
Moral hazard is what happens when people who make bad decisions suffer no consequences. Once decision-makers offload consequence onto others, they are free to make increasingly risky bets, knowing that they will personally suffer no losses if the bets go bad.
The current banking system is defined by moral hazard. “Too big to fail” also means “too big to jail:” no matter how criminal or risky the bank managements’ decisions, the decision-makers not only suffered no consequences, they walked away from the smouldering ruins with tens of millions of dollars in personal wealth.
Absent any consequence, the system created perverse incentives to pyramid risky bets and derivatives to increase profits–a substantial share of which flowed directly into the personal accounts of the managers.
The perfection of moral hazard in the current banking system can be illustrated by what happened to the last CEO of Lehman Brother, Richard Fuld: he walked away from the wreckage with $222 million. This is not an outlier; it is the direct result of a system based on moral hazard, too-big-to-jail and perverse incentives to increase systemic risk for personal gain.
And who picked up all the losses? The American taxpayer. Privatize profits, socialize losses: that’s the heart of moral hazard.
Concentrating the ability to leverage stupendous systemic bets in a few hands leads to a concentration of risk. Just before America’s financial sector imploded, banks had pyramided $2.5 trillion in dodgy mortgages into derivatives and exotic financial instruments with a face value of $35 trillion–14 times the underlying collateral and more than double the size of the U.S. economy.
In a web-enabled transparent exchange of borrowers bidding for capital, the risk is intrinsically dispersed over millions of participants. Not only is risk dispersed, but the consequences of bad decisions and bad bets fall solely to those who made the decision and the bet. This is the foundation of a sound, stable, fair financial system.
In a transparent marketplace of millions of participants, a handful of participants will be unable to acquire enough profit to capture the political process. The present banking system is not just a financial threat to the nation, it is a political threat because its outsized profits enable bankers to capture the regulatory and governance machinery.
chart courtesy of Market Daily Briefing
The problem with concentrating leverage and moral hazard is that risk is also concentrated. And when risk is concentrated rather than dispersed, it inevitably breaks out of the “riskless” corral. This is the foundation of my aphorism: Central planning perfects the power of threats to bypass the system’s defenses.
We can understand this dynamic with an analogy to bacteria and antibiotics. By attempting to eliminate the risk of infection by flooding the system with antibiotics, central planning actually perfects the search for bacteria that are immune to the antibiotics. These few bacteria will bypass the system’s defenses and destroy the system from within.
The banking/financial sector claims to be eliminating risk, but what it’s actually doing is perfecting the threats that will destroy the system from within. Another way to understand this is to look at what happened to home mortgages in the runup to the meltdown of 2008: the “safest” part of the financial sector ended up triggering the collapse of the entire pyramid of risk.
Once we concentrate risk and impose perverse incentives and moral hazard as the foundations of our financial/banking system, then we guarantee the risk will explode out of whatever sector is considered “safe.”
Once you eliminate the “risk” of weak bacteria, you perfect the threat that will kill the host.
The banking sector cannot be reformed, for its very nature is to concentrate systemic risk and moral hazard into breeding grounds of systemic collapse. The only way to eliminate the threat posed by banks is to eliminate the banks and replace them with transparent exchanges where borrowers and owners of capital openly bid for yield (interest rates) and capital.
Bankers (and their fellow financial parasites) will claim they are essential and the nation will collapse without them. But this is precisely opposite of reality: the very existence of banks threatens the nation and democracy.
One last happy thought: technology cannot be put back in the bottle. The financial/banking sector wants to use technology to increase its middleman skim, but the technology that is already out of the bottle will dismantle the sector as a function of what technology enables: faster, better, cheaper, with greater transparency, fairness and the proper distribution of risk.
There may well be a place for credit unions and community banks in the spectrum of exchanges, but these localized, decentralized enterprises would be unable to amass dangerous concentrations of risk and political influence in a truly transparent and decentralized system of exchanges.
Of related interest:
Certainty, Complex Systems, and Unintended Consequences (February 14, 2014)
Our Middleman-Skimming Economy (February 11, 2014)
The Devil pens a motivational letter to his minions in America.
Through means I am unable to disclose, I have obtained a copy of the Devil’s New Year’s missive to his minions in America. Though it appears He delivered his letter on January 1, it has taken me until after Lunar New Year to obtain a copy. The Devil’s gleeful anticipation of America’s ruination by 2015 should give us pause.
Though my minions have long sown festering seeds of hate and disharmony in that now-benighted land, only recently have my favored weapons of destruction–leverage, debt, half-truths and endless, preening justifications for self-aggrandizement, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, anger and gluttony–have been unleashed to worm their way into the stricken heart of that Republic.
My most treasured hopes of destitution and conflict in the U.S.A. are nearing fruition.
First, my minions in the Federal Reserve–such loyal servants!–and the Federal government have continued to flood the land with leverage and debt, spreading the seeds of destruction under the false guise of prosperity. What a delicious irony, that the fools doomed to eternal damnation in my Empire believe themselves prosperous as they absorb the poison of exponentially rising leverage, debt and phantom collateral.
They have made a mockery of the rule of law, openly flouting “no one is above the law” by letting financial crimes go not just unpunished but rewarded. There are two sets of laws and two sets of books now firmly in place, one for the financial Elites and their political toadies, and another one for the tax donkeys beneath them. This blatant injustice that roams the land like a foul, slobbering beast will eventually ignite the firestorm I seek.
American extravagance has surpassed even my highest expectations, as purveyors of luxury goods reap record profits, and the childish desire for instant gratification has become the unspoken ruler of the land. Convenience is now worshipped as a god, sitting triumphant beside entitlement, greed and willful ignorance.
Convenience is, as you all know, the name of a peculiarly slick slide into Hell.
One of my favorite sins, gluttony, is running amok, with half of the people groaning under their own weight, sickened and weakened. My loyal minions in the fast-food and packaged food industries have followed my plans to perfection, and my lackeys in the marketing and media have fueled the instant gratification and ignorance which insidiously undermine even the greatest empires.
Pride–oh, how the Americans excel at hubris and pride! The Federal Reserve chair, bless her doomed soul, has declared herself confident about an economy that is nothing but a confidence game. Oh, what joy to hear her lies spoken with such confidence!
The mere thought of the word greed cause me to chuckle delightedly, as the U.S. excels as a haven for greed without bounds, a greed so boundless that the entire universe would be insufficient to satisfy its bankers, hedge fund managers, high-frequency traders, Imperial factotums and politicians. How happy I am to see their greed grease their way into Hell.
I feel like dancing a jig when I hear the unbridled sense of entitlement which has poisoned the American spirit. Cloaking their greed and avarice with rationalizations–“I was promised,” “It’s my right,” “I deserve it”–brings them closer to me and my Domain with every bleated plea for more, more, more. It is wondrous indeed how my secret invention, “free money,” debilitates once-independent souls, and places them on a one-way street to servitude.
Anger is now overflowing everywhere, building my empire with every thoughtless word. Politicians rage against each other, the people rage against the politicians, and behind the scenes my servants in the political action committees feed the anger with billions of dollars in campaign donations. How amusing to see the politicos lay claim to noble ideals even as they scramble on their knees to collect the millions tossed at their feet to do my bidding.
Oh yes, my bidding, for their greed, pride and anger are my bidding. By all means, politicians, do my work: give tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy, let financial crimes go unpunished, allow the financial Elites’ looting to go unhindered, transfer the wealth earned by the citizens’ sweat to the Central State’s financial Elites when their trillion-dollar bets go bad–fuel the anger which will tear you from power, and tear the country apart.
I laughed with glee a few years ago when One Beholden To Me announced that he was doing “God’s work”–how I love twisting together irony and lies! He fooled no one, of course, for even the most deluded souls know he is doing My Work, not the Lord’s, but they are too distracted by games and ginned-up contests to care. Nothing has changed since the corrupt system tasted a whiff of what lies ahead in 2008; oh, how deliciously the lies and the debts are piling ever higher!
Not caring is doing my work, too, of course; in fact, it one of my favorite tools.
The nation bled itself for a decade with unwinnable wars, sacrificing its best youth on the altar of endless war–how can I not rejoice at this orgy of death, destruction and sowing of hate? The feeble liars at the nation’s helm print endless sums to fund war and to prop up vile tyrants, but offer nothing for libraries or literacy or the curing of malaria. How can I not rejoice at a nation which finds trillions for war and next to nothing to fight the diseases of the poor residents of former colonies, including that Prince of Disease, ignorance.
As for sloth–that millions are being paid to sit around watching television instead of being productive creates the perfect breeding ground for resentment, malice and envy. How perfect to pay people to sit at home and rot away, with only their discontent and despair for company.
As you know all too well, idle hands end up doing my piecework for free.
It was almost beyond my dreams to find the nation’s wealth and politics so dominated by a tiny handful of wealthy financial plutocrats–they are doing my bidding without hindrance, though I see by their troubled sleep that they know where their greed and rationalizations are taking them. To channel the nation’s wealth to a few hands–what better way to nurture envy and anger?
If ignorance were treasure, the American political class must be declared wealthier than Midas, for its ignorance has reached a pinnacle I can truly admire. Ensnared by their lust for power, blinded by their greed for fame and perquisites, they look no further than the next election cycle, dooming their nation to division, disharmony and the desolation of permanent conflict over the dwindling productive assets of this once-great nation.
The people cry out to be saved by the government, as if it was a Savior instead of a vast combine chewing through the wealth of the nation, “investing” it in corruption, parasitic financial Elites, military misadventures, Homeland “Security”–ha, isn’t that a jewel, as the nation withers from within–and the steady, unyielding oppression of the remaining productive members of society.
When the people cheer “We’re number One,” I cheer with them, for pride goeth before a fall. When they believe the half-truths, the illusions, the mispresentations, the misdirections and yes, the outright lies of the ruling class repeated by their toadies in the media, I can no longer restrain my delight, for lies and half-truths are my favored weapons of destruction. The leaders are themselves leaderless, blank, hollowed-out souls doing the bidding of their parasitic masters, focused only on keeping the corrupt and venal status quo together for a few more months, never looking out ten years.
Their worship of greed and self-aggandizement is worship of Me, and their frantic efforts to prop up pseudo-democracy and pseudo-free markets serve Me most effectively.
I delight in shortsightedness, an abject fear of change and transformation, the clinging to failure and pride, and the refusal to face reality.
For the U.S.A. is now an Empire of Debt and Lies, its fraudulent financial system built on misrepresentations of risk and value, and its “economy of confidence” a con game based on illusory wealth, parasitic skimming, government gaming and tax donkeys paying for their Financial Masters’ idiotic mistakes.
This adolescent desire to believe the lies, because in believing the lies then nothing need change–this might be my most powerful destructive tool.
A hunger for fantasy and illusion, a fear of adaptation, a childish demand for instant gratification–these are forces I can rely on to lead the once-great country to absolute ruin.
And here is the beautifully evil part, my minions–no external enemy is required.The Americans are destroying themselves with their reliance on leverage, debt, denial, half-truths and overflowing servings of the Seven Deadly Sins, all of which they have elevated to “assets” in their hopelessly twisted values. To be supremely unproductive, a churner of lies and financial trickery, is now the most rewarded and admired state in America.
The spiritual rot is now so deep and pervasive that the people no longer even recognize the decay –they have been lulled into a false belief that this culture of fraud, embezzlement, manipulations, propaganda and parasitic financial Elites has always held sway. This is precisely how a people act when they have lost their way, spiritually and morally: they elevate sins to virtues, and forget the lessons of their past.
And of course everyone claiming that there is no spiritual vacuum sucking the nation dry, that the status quo is simply “business as usual”–they are doing my work, too, for habituating to all that is corrupt and reprehensible, all that is lacking in integrity and honesty, this is doing my work most admirably.
Americans no longer hate me, they hate sacrifice and honest introspection, with a passion that enlivens my enthusiasm for their self-destruction.
How can I not be pleased this New Year? At long last, the destruction of the United States by its own citizens is close at hand. Give me two years, minions, no more than four, and I shall insure they will finally begin reaping what they have sown.
Ignorance, my poor dear Americans, will not save you, nor will your ceaseless pathetic bleatings of excuses, justifications and rationalizations save you from the rank harvest of what you have so assiduously sown for the past five years. Indeed, your excuses and rationalizations push My poisoned blade deeper into your nation’s heart with every lie, every excuse, every frantic justification for your own entitlement.
I await 2014 with high expectations, so crack on, My minions; our goal is within reach.
Most sincerely yours,
Monopoly power in all its forms–in our system, crony capitalism and its partner, the neofeudal state–enables theft on a systemic scale.
If a monopoly forces its customers to pay more for low-quality goods and services because they have no choice, how is that not theft?
If the Mafia raises the price of “protection” on small businesses (another case of monopoly and no other choice), how is that extortion not theft?
When a local government raises junk fees to fund its cronies’ excessive (i.e. non-market-rate) salaries and pensions, how is that monopoly power to extort more money from those with no other choice any different from Mafia extortion/theft?
If a pharmaceutical company extends a patent on a costly medication by changing the dosage slightly, how is that not theft via regulatory capture? If a government contractor charges the Pentagon $1,000 for a hammer (all those overhead charges, tsk-tsk–lobbying corrupt politicos costs a lot, you know), how is that not theft of taxpayers’ money?
When the Federal Reserve drops the yield on savings to near-zero to funnel all that stolen wealth to its cronies on Wall Street, how is that not theft?
Monopoly power in all its forms–in our system, crony capitalism and its partner, the neofeudal state–enables theft on a systemic scale. When crony capitalism and the state are essentially one system, the propaganda organs of the state and mainstream corporate media combine to persuade the stripmined populace that their theft is not theft, it’s “capitalism and democracy at work.” This is known as The Big Lie. What we have is systemic theft, predation and exploitation.
Calling things what they really are would upset the apple cart of systemic exploitation.Let’s Call Things What They Really Are in 2014 (January 15, 2014)
Correspondent Jeff W. explains that all this systemic theft is inherently deflationary:
All forms of stealing are deflationary. Stealing cuts into the average citizen’s disposable income, it reduces how much he can buy. Because there are now fewer dollars chasing more goods, deflation is the inevitable result. Stealing is actually worse than a zero-sum game. Society loses more than the thief takes. In addition to losses from theft, a victim often has to spend more on security measures. Theft also has a chilling effect on capital investment and commerce in general.Consider how many different kinds of theft the American citizen is exposed to: street crime, sickcare industry ripoffs, legal system ripoffs including huge fines for traffic violations, high taxes, interest earnings on his savings that amount to ZIRP, a corporatist state determined to suppress his wages by any means necessary, unending victimization at the hands of predators enabled and protected by the state. If he owns a small business, he has to deal with a corrupt regulatory state, higher taxes, and an enlarged menagerie of predators. Today there are thieves everywhere.
So one big deflation trend is theft. As theft increases, deflation increases. As society collapses and thieves start roaming freely all over the landscape, a deflationary collapse can be expected—absent a determined and persistent campaign of money printing.
Exhibit A for the case that stealing is deflationary is the Dark Ages.Stealing was rampant in the Dark Ages. How did people react to that? By “going medieval.” They wore clothing that made them look poor so as to avoid attracting the attention of thieves. Their dwellings looked poor for the same reason. If they had cash, they would bury it in the ground; no one could be trusted. Unless one was an insider who could get protection from the state, no one’s property was safe.
Capital investments were much too risky, and out of the question. What were the price characteristics of the Dark Ages? Wages were low. Real estate valuations low. Prices of manufactured items (such as they were) were low. Only food was expensive. People can cut back on clothing and shelter, but there is a limit to how much they can cut back on food. In the Dark Ages, people really hunkered down and just focused on basic survival.
Exhibit B is Detroit. Detroit for many years has been a high crime area, i.e. it had lots of thieves running around. What are the price characteristics of Detroit? Wages low. Real estate valuations low. There is very little manufacturing being done inside the city limits today because of high property taxes and crime. There is also very little capital investment for the same reasons.
There is a vicious circle at work here. 1) Thieves control the government; 2) Which results in increased stealing; 3) Deflation results from that; 4) Which gives the thieves a reason to print money and give it to themselves; 5) Which enriches the thieves some more; 6) Which gives them more resources they can use to consolidate their control of the government; 7) Back to step 1.
Many people seem confused about how there could be deflation in the paper (or digital) money era. If they would recognize how much stealing is going on, and if they understood the powerful deflationary effect of stealing, then perhaps they would not be so surprised to observe price decreases, particularly in wages and the prices of manufactured products.
Thank you, Jeff, for explaining the causal connection between systemic theft and deflation. To all those terrified of deflation (for example, central bankers and their cronies holding trillions of dollars in phantom assets and illusory collateral), the solution is obvious: get rid of systemic theft. But since those terrified of deflation are at the top of the monopoly-power thievery pyramid, that is asking the impossible: for the thieves to relinquish their power to steal.
Here’s the global financial crisis in a nutshell: access to easy credit can solve a temporary liquidity problem, but it can’t increase the value of collateral or generate income.
The Chinese culture has a wonderful vocabulary of colorful analogies and metaphors, and today’s title refers to the typhoon of liquidity (freely available credit) that has flooded the global economy for the past five years.
The source of the phrase is Liu Chuanzhi, the Chairman of Lenovo and the iconic figure of Chinese manufacturing. When asked a few years ago why 60% of Lenovo Group’s profit came from asset investment and only 40% came from manufacturing. He said “when the typhoons come, even a pig can fly in the sky. Everybody is profiteering from this. Why can’t we?”
The typhoon in this case is China’s credit/liquidity-driven real estate speculative frenzy, in which the only losers are those who don’t borrow to the hilt in the shadow banking system and buy, buy, buy empty flats in vacant buildings.
The critical distinction to make about typhoons of credit-driven speculation (in China, Japan, the U.S., Europe, etc.) is between liquidity and valuation.
Let’s take a household as an example to explain the difference. Say the household owns a $300,000 house with a $150,000 mortgage. The household has home equity of $150,000.
Let’s say one of the household loses their job and the sole remaining income is not enough to pay the monthly bills. This is a liquidity crisis. The household could borrow money based on the collateral of the home equity to tide them over until the second worker finds a new job.
A valuation crisis is different: let’s say the household decides to sell the house and discovers the market value is only $150,000–the same as the mortgage. After deducting the real estate transaction costs, the household has negative equity. So instead, the owners claim the house is worth $250,000 and try to get a home equity line of credit to solve their income/liquidity crisis.
Here’s the global financial crisis in a nutshell: access to easy credit can solve a temporary liquidity problem, but it can’t increase the value of collateral or generate income. The owner can misrepresent the value of the asset to borrow money based on phantom collateral, but that doesn’t change the market value of the underlying asset or increase the income needed to make loan payments.
Simply put, credit/liquidity cannot solve valuation/collateral crises. Correspondent J.B. recently addressed this issue:
“RE: accounting and real life. Sometimes they differ but over the long run they always synch up. For instance let’s say a bank has a lot of quality assets but a liquidity issue. It will take that good paper to the Fed to get liquidity for the bank to get through the hard time (no write down required and it works out). On the other hand if the bank has a bunch of bad assets, it now has a solvency issue and not a liquidity issue (i.e. not marking to market does not agree with reality). Sure if CRE goes bad it can postpone marking it to market for a while but soon it has no cashflow and accounting does not matter because it cannot pay its bills, payroll or redeem demand deposits. The failure to properly mark assets to market will not save it and ultimately accounting and reality will re-synch.”
The world’s central banks and governments have tried for the past five years to fix a valuation/collateral/income crisis with liquidity. No wonder they’ve failed–enabling insolvent owners to borrow more money doesn’t make the borrowers any less insolvent.
Once the liquidity typhoon dies down, the insolvent pigs will plummet back to earth. That’s what we’re seeing in the periphery economies and shadow banking systems around the world.