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When a country destroys its debts by inflation, it ruins its creditors. The proper progressive approach is to ruin them all equally–thus it is imperative that there be no avenue by which creditors might protect themselves. At the same time, the government wishes no doubt to have its citizens continue to honour its currency, worthless though it might be.
During the Wiemar hyperinflation, despite the frenzied printing, the sum total of foreign currency that could be purchased by all the marks in circulation fell precipitously. There is a Keynesian argument to be made that the Germans didn’t print quickly enough! Of course, having Germans individually destroying the currency in great amounts by putting it to such uses as cigarette rolling papers and firewood didn’t help either.
And consider this–using the currency in lieu of hard-to-locate toilet paper may clog pipes.
Canada recently unveiled polymer bills. Just the perfect cross between plastic and paper money. And the brilliant part is, they are perfect in a hyperinflationary environment.
Plastic. Not really suitable for use as cigarette wrappers or firewood. You wouldn’t want to be burning it indoors, anyway.
And as far as toilet paper–although it is a little uncomfortable, the microtexture on the bills does seem to be helpful for cleaning up the really tough spots. And although the bills have not been field-tested for flushability, the beauty of the polymer bills is that you can just wash them and reuse! Or spend, if you prefer.
The only problem the beta testers have reported is that the bills are a little small to be used comfortably.
A system doomed to fail
The second are systems which are characterized by disorganized complexity. These may consist of huge numbers of agents or variables, and their interactions cannot be described by simple equations; yet the overall system is well-described statistically through averages and can be described as being stochastic. Such systems are typically characterized by a stable equilibrium, provided there are no external shocks to the system. They are incapable of generating internal shocks or surprises. For example, you might consider the distribution of air molecules in a room. You may not be able to predict the motion of any particular air molecule, but you can be reasonable certain that the global population won’t do anything unexpected (like all move into one side of the room leaving a vacuum on the other side).
The third type of system is characterized by organized complexity. As the systems above, one may consist of many variables or agents, each of which is simple, but the system’s behaviour does not lend itself to statistical description because instead of the activities of each component dissolving into a background equilibrium, large-scale (even global scale) structure “emerges” instead of seething chaos. Along with these “emergent properties”, common features of such a system include multiple equilibria, adaptive behaviour, and feedbacks. There is no simple way to describe its behaviour, as much of the system’s history is bound up in its behaviour (what economists call “long memory”).
Complex systems, for all their unpredictability are remarkably resilient. The resilience arises from the way in which this type of system interacts with its environment–through the individual actions of its simple components, the system is able to gather information about its environment and modify its operations to adapt. Yet this adaptation and evolution all occur in the absence of central control.
The above descriptions–and characterizations of three types of systems–go back to 1948. Unfortunately it appears that Dr. Weaver was too optimistic when he recommended science develop an understanding of the third type of system “over the next 50 years”. Here we are 65 years later and we have made only basic improvements in our understanding of such systems.
What has gone wrong? I think it is partly due to the limitations of the Newtonian paradigm on which science has rested over the past few hundred years.
Back to Weaver. He asks,
How can currency be wisely and effectively stabilized? To what extent is it safe to depend on the free interplay of such forces as supply and demand? To what extent must systems of economic control be employed to prevent the wide swings from prosperity to depression? These are also obviously complex problems, and they too involve analyzing systems which are organic wholes, with their parts in close interrelation.
The Fed has answered.
Sixty-five years ago, economics was known to be a complex, organized system. Yet today, the Fed continues to set policy as if the economy were a stochastic system that could be sledgehammered into whatever equilibrium state is deemed politically expedient. I would further argue that the Fed has not managed to succeed even in hammering the economy into a desirable equilibrium, but rather has mastered the ability to create artificial statistics to “justify” its actions.
The system is doomed to fail, because the resilience of natural complex systems requires freedom of action for its individual components. We do not observe resilient complex systems with central control. Yet central control is the dominant ideology of our present political and economic systems. Total control, with a vanishingly thin veneer of democracy, ephemeral as the morning dew.
Economic policy and the price of gold
Then the rumour circulated that at night the Fed Governors neglected their sacrifices and prayers. A great depression seized everyone. One day the President said to the Fed Chief, “When will we celebrate the return of normal unemployment rates? I would like to make a journey and return in time for the feast. How long is it until the day of the feast?” The Fed Chief was embarrassed. It had been several days since she had looked at the moon and the stars. She had learned nothing more about their courses. The Fed Chief said, “Wait one more day and I will tell you.” The President said, “Thank you. Tomorrow I will come to see you again.”
The Fed Chief gathered the Fed Governors together and asked, “Which of you lately has observed the course of the stars?” None of Fed Governors answered, because they had all stayed to listen to the stories of Fiat-do-lar. The Fed Chief asked again, “Hasn’t even one of you observed the course of the stars and the position of the moon?”
— modified from The Ruin of Kasch
Economics isn’t a science. It is a mistake to think it would be so. Science does not have schools. Only philosophies have schools.
The difference between a science and a philosophy is the difference between seeking truth while honestly admitting you don’t know it and declaring that truth is something you define.
Ideally science is described by working hypotheses, which are constantly tested, and if falsified, replaced (unless pride is involved or money). In philosophy, you begin with axioms, which are untestable statements that are defined as being true. Each school of economics has its own set of axioms. From axioms, you apply rules of inference (logic) in order to generate new statements, which are also true. These generated statements are called theorems. Thus all theorems are true (within the school of philosophy) but not necessarily applicable to the real world!
In the early days of geology, there were competing schools: the Neptunists and thePlutonists being two that come to mind immediately. The Neptunists believed that all rocks formed in the sea, either as sediments, or by crystallization as salts (this was their central axiom). The Plutonists believed that all rocks formed from magma (as their central axiom). Debates between adherents of the two schools were rowdy, fruitless affairs, because the nature of philosophy is that it cannot be overturned by mere observations.
The distinction between science and philosophy with respect to economics is important because economists have an annoying ability to set policy–policy that affects the quality of your lives. It probably doesn’t matter much to you whether some geologists can’t decide among themselves whether a particular rock formed in the sea or on a volcano (or even on a volcano in the sea). But it does make a difference if some Fed official acts on her belief thatbankrupting the elderly eliminating interest on savings is a cure for unemployment.
Application of economic policy follows the axiomatic approach. Some high priest of an obscure caste
Recently, The World Complex presented the inverse correlation between the unemployment rate in the UK and its “confidence ratio” (dollar value of public debt divided by the dollar value of gold holdings). The idea was that a high ratio could only be supported if bondholders had high confidence that the debt would be properly serviced (forget about repayment). The flip side is that a high ratio could be interpreted as a measure of a country’s ruin.
In the article I had suggested that government economists might cheer a decline in the price of gold.
So today, we look at the same relationship for the United States.
Once again we see a strong inverse relationship between confidence ratio and unemployment.
One of the goals set out for the Federal Reserve is to manage the unemployment rate. Looking at this chart, the answer is clear–to reduce unemployment, increase the confidence. Confidence (as defined above) can be increased in three ways: 1) raise debt, 2) sell gold, 3) lower the gold price.
Of course we all know that correlation does not imply causation. But it doesn’t have to in order to impact on Fed policy. That’s the beauty of politics–reality and truth don’t really matter when there are elections to be won.
There was a comment that perhaps I have too much time on my hands. I’m not sure if the intent was to say that only someone with a lot of time on his hands would notice this relationship. The economists at the Fed have far more PhD’s and time on their hands than does this corner of webspace. So I’m sure they have already seen this.
So the question becomes–even if no causation can be established, can it be used to set policy? And what policies will be followed?
Raising debt is the old standby–but as we see in the clarified chart below, it doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
Since the 2001 peak (on September 10, perhaps?), the increasing debt has been more than compensated by the rising price of gold. Don’t be fooled into thinking the US is sinking into solvency–it is creating debt faster than any time in history. But the price of gold has been rising faster still (although we shall see about 2013).
It appears that policy #2, the sale of gold, is politically untenable. Officially at least. Selling gold is for lesser countries. So that leaves option #3–hope the price of gold falls. Perhaps they do more than hope.
. . . at first the story of Fiat-do-lar was like hashish when it makes wakefulness happy. Then the story was like hashish when it makes dreams delirious. Toward morning, Fiat-do-lar raised his voice. As the Nile rises in the hearts of men, so his words swelled. To some, his words brought serenity; to others, they were as terrifying as the appearance of Azrael, the angel of death. Happiness filled the spirits of some, horror the hearts of others. The closer morning came, the mightier that voice grew and the more it resounded within the people. The hearts of men rose up against one another like clouds in the sky on a stormy night. Flashes of wrath met thunderbolts of fury. When the sun rose, the tale of Fiat-do-lar reached its end. Ineffable wonder filled the confused minds of the people. For when the living looked around, their gaze fell upon the Fed Chief and Governors. They were stretched out on the ground, dead.
— modified from The Ruin of Kasch
- David Morgan explains the manipulation of the price of gold (marketsanity.com)
- Guest Post: Gold And The Four Words That Define Western Economic Policy (zerohedge.com)
- What You Need To Know About The Real Price of Gold (etfdailynews.com)
- What’s Affecting Gold Prices Today? (tradethenewsroom.com)