GE: The Story Of America

If you were to pick one company that symbolizes how America has changed and been changed over the last half century or so, it would be General Electric. The company founded by Thomas Edison is in many ways a microcosm of the American economy over the last century or more. It rose to become an industrial giant in the 20th century, the symbol of America manufacturing prowess. It then transformed into a giant of the new economy in the 1990’s, a symbol of the new America.

Today, General Electric is a company in decline. After a series of problems following the financial crisis of 2008, the company has steadily sold off assets and divisions in an effort to fix its financial problems. In 2019, Harry Markopolos, the guy who sniffed our Bernie Madoff, accused them of $38 billion in accounting fraud. The stock has been removed from the Dow Jones Industrial composite. Many now speculate that GE will end up in bankruptcy in order to reorganize.

For those interested in a longer discussion about the history of General Electric, Myth of the 20th Century did a podcast on the company. One aspect they did not cover is how General Electric transformed from a company that made things into a financial services company that owned divisions that made things. Like the American economy in the late 20th century, the company shifted its focus from making and creating things to the complex game of financializing those processes.

Like many companies in the late 20th century, General Electric found that their potential clients were not always able to come up with the cash to buy their products, so they came up with a way to finance those purchases. This is an age-old concept that has been with us since the dawn of time. Store credit is a way for the seller to profit from the cash poor in the market. He can both raise his price and also collect interest on the payments made by his customers relying on terms.

For American business, this simple idea turned into a highly complex process, involving tax avoidance strategies and the capitalization of the products and services formerly treated as business expenses. Commercial customers were no longer buying products and services, but instead leasing them in bundled services packages, financed at super-low interest rates and tax deductible. Whole areas of the supply chain shifted from traditional purchases to leased services.

For example, a local supplier of industrial goods used to own a warehouse to hold the products he supplied to clients. Inside would not only be the products, but material handling equipment like forklifts and shelving. Outside at the loading docks would be a fleet of big scary trucks used to deliver the products. Of course, to make it all work would be a staff of people loading and unloading trucks, moving product around the warehouse, making deliveries to clients and so on.

All of this would require a lot of money to acquire and maintain. That small local distributor would have millions tied up in assets. This is where the magic of cheap credit came into the economy. Companies like GE could go to these suppliers and unleash that capital tied up in those assets, by converting them into leased services. The trucks, for example, would no longer be purchased, but leased from a GE division that paid the taxes, did the repairs and provided spares in peak times.

As an aside, another aspect of this new leased economy is what happened with the people inside of it. That local supplier could not only lease his trucks and material handling equipment; he could lease his people. The building, the warehouse people, the administrative staff, the trucks, all of it, could be turned into a single lease payment for larger operators. This allowed the big players to muscle out the small players in just about every aspect of the supply chain.

What really made this new form of store credit work was both super-low borrowing rates for big players like GE, but also changes in the tax laws that allowed these lease payments to be treated like depreciation. The customer not only got the benefit of holding his cash he would normally use for asset acquisition; he could also get favorable tax treatment on the lease expense. To no one’s surprise, the big lobbyists for these changes in the tax laws were the financial services firms.

That is what GE became in the 1990’s. It was no longer a company that made stuff and financed it for select clients. It was a financial services firm that owned manufacturing facilities that supplied products it could finance. GE Capital became a massive commercial bank, not entirely regulated like a commercial bank and free to invent new financial services to meet its needs. They bought up manufacturing and commercial services companies, in order to monopolize their financing operations.

In the old economy, the credit system existed to serve the broader economy. In the new economy, the broader economy exists to serve the credit system. That which can be turned into a credit instrument increases in value, while that which cannot be bundled into a financial instrument loses value. Small players that provide specialized services lose value, while global players with easy access to credit increase in value. Everyone and everything serves the global credit system now.

This is what happened with General Electric as its credit empire grew. It was first and foremost a finance company. Since the flow of cheap credit was unlimited, the need to find new places for the credit became the point of GE. They bought companies in order to have new clients for their financing arm. They expanded the realm of that which could be leased and financed. By the end of the Jack Welch era, the point of General Electric was to grow bigger in order to supply more credit.

This financialization of the economy also allowed companies like General Electric to maintain implausible growth rates. This is where that credit machine at the heart of the company came into play. They could finance acquisitions with cheap credit. They could structure the purchase of a company in such a way as to realize its revenue now, while amortizing its debt and expenses. Suddenly that new division was wildly profitable through the miracle of off-balance sheet transactions.

The last financial crisis broke General Electric, by exposing a reality of the modern credit-based economy. Without new ways to move credit through the system, the credit system begins to seize up. Since the profit in this system is entirely through the skim, the slowing of credit means a collapse in profits. Once those profits disappear, the ability to make interest payments declines and that slows the system further. GE was close to insolvent within days of the mortgage crisis in 2008.

That is the real lesson of General Electric. The company became something like the old Mafia bust-outs. The whole point of the business was to squeeze every drop of value from clients and divisions. Instead of running up the credit lines and burning down the building for the insurance, General Electric turned the human capital of companies into lease and interest payments. They were not investing and creating, they were monetizing and consuming whatever it touched.

GE came close to collapse in the financial crisis, but they were bailed out. They stagger on, despite having lots of divisions that make high quality products. The cost of unwinding the company back into a normal company will be high, maybe too high for them to survive. The same can be said of the American economy. It will have to be unwound, but there will be no bailout. Instead, it will have to unwind quickly and painfully, in order to become a normal economy again.


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The Paradox Of The Market

An axiom of liberal democracy is that the more open the system the more choices there are within the system. A market for widgets, if it is an open market, will have the maximum number of widget makers and widget suppliers. The marketplace of ideas, if it is open to all, will have the full range of ideas. Similarly, as long as the demand side is unrestricted, the full spectrum of demand will be represented. Every widget buyer will have the chance to demand his type of widget.

This is the starting point for modern societies. It is no longer a point to be debated and certainly not questioned. This is obvious in the non-debate over tech censorship. Any effort to discuss what is going on with companies like Google and Twitter is met with a wall of sound about the sanctity of private firms operating in the market. “Build your own platform” has become the top single in the amen chorus. The marketplace is now a god that provides what the people need and deserve.

In theory, the chorus should be right. If everyone who wants to make widgets is allowed to make widgets, then there should be a widget maker for every type of widget demanded by the public, assuming the widget can be produced at a profit. Even people wanting free widgets could be supplied by charity. Outside of the extremes, if there is a way to make a profit by meeting even the most bizarre demands for a product or service, someone will find a way to meet that demand.

Something similar should happen in public discourse. If the public space is open, then everyone can present their ideas. If everyone is free to listen, or not listen, to those ideas being offered up, the marketplace should develop in the same way as it should with a product or a service. The insane ideas will have a small audience, while the sensible ideas will gain a larger audience. The marketplace of ideas will sort and stack the ideas on offer based on the preferences of the audience.

This is a bit redundant, but it is important to think about this axiom of liberal democracy while considering current reality. If the market place for goods and services functioned as believed, then we would have more than two mobile phone makers. There would be more than one search engine. We would have lots of small car makers, rather than a handful of global operators. In fact, General Motors should have gone out of business decades ago based on market principles.

In the realm of ideas, we should have a dozen political parties flourishing to one degree or another at the state and national level. For example, there is no obvious reason why there should not be political parties that operate just as the state level. According to the axioms of liberal democracy, there should be state parties that focus just on state and local issues, maybe operating as a feeder to a national party. Yet, we have just two parties that are really just two faces of a single party.

It is a paradox of markets that the internal dynamic of the market leads to fewer choices and maybe even no choice. Take the desktop computer market, for example. The only choice is the color and the label of the Chinese slave camp that produced it. Inside, the parts all come from the same source. Alternatives to the standard PC are fringe options that exist for hobbyists and weirdos. You see this everywhere you look around the marketplace. Our markets are oligopolies now.

It goes beyond market consolidation. Another aspect of this is that as some dominant players emerge, they begin to insulate themselves from demand. In fact, it is possible that the quest for market domination is actually an effort to insulate the supplier from the pressures of the marketplace. The players initially experiencing success shift from competing for clients to competing to wall off their share of demand in order to prevent others from competing for that market share.

You see this with sports. The NASCAR phenomenon is assumed to be driven by the edicts of this weird new religion that has gripped the great and good. That may be one aspect of it, maybe even the primary aspect, but there also seems to be a desire to get rid of their own audience. That is, NASCAR would be fine with not having a live crowd and depending entirely on television money. Then they no longer have to be responsive to the demands of the customers.

The temptation here is to say that the fans will not watch, but in the realm of television these days, ratings matter very little. ESPN, for example, gets the bulk of its revenue from mandatory cable fees. If you have a TV sub through the local cable monopoly or a service like Hulu, you pay ESPN eight dollars per month. It does not matter if you watch, you pay the fee. All cable channels work off this model. Once again, the glory of the market place is to result in a monopoly and no market.

This dynamic where the dominant suppliers seek to eradicate the demand side is evident in politics. Both faces of the uniparty are now onboard with vote by mail, for example, which eliminates the pesky demands of the voters. This form of voting makes for unlimited fraud, so we will end up with Stalin’s maxim. “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.” Since picking one party or the other has no effect on policy, voting will soon be entirely ceremonial.

It is always tempting to confuse a paradox with a contradiction. Critics of modern capitalism, for example, will claim that the oligarchs are not really capitalist in the free market sense. They are corrupting the system. Similarly, people will claim that the problem with politics is that a small group of highly corrupt people are subverting the democratic system. In other words, the axioms of the market place are true, it’s just that the current systems are not adhering to them.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is it suggests that the marketplace itself selects for the sorts of people who seek to subvert the marketplace. Everywhere we look, the great experiment in open markets has had the same result. Whether it is finance, technology, ideas or politics, the result is small club that controls everything, not only to their exclusive benefit, but to the detriment of the people they allegedly serve. It is almost as if the market selects for sadists who despise their customers.


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The Jelly Bean Man

Imagine one day you are snatched off the streets by a group of men, who throw you into a van and take you to some hideaway. They blindfold you and refuse to tell you why they have snatched you off the streets. At some point you’re drugged and you wake up in a mysterious coastal village. Everything about the village seems normal, except for the fact you are there, a place you have never been. Everyone seems to know you, as if you belong there. Naturally, you are completely disoriented.

Of course, you try to find a way out of the village. After several escape attempts which are thwarted by a giant balloon-like automaton. You realize that the village is not really a village, but a form of prison. It is bounded by the mountains and sea, in addition to various surveillance devices. In between your escape attempts, you are interrogated by the person that seems to be in charge of the place. He keeps asking your questions about your old life, but you cannot figure out what it is he wants.

After a while, the interrogations become conversations and then friendly conversations as you become habituated to your new life. In fact, you have grown to like the talks you have with the man in charge. The villagers are nice, but rather simple and incurious and they are oblivious to their situation. Number One, on the other hand, is fully aware of your situation and quite open about it. It becomes clear that you were not really kidnapped, but recruited in an unusual way to an unusual life.

In time, the man in charge offers you a position in the power structure of the village, as you are feeling quite at home. The village does not use normal money, but instead uses jelly beans. The different colored jelly beans have different values in relation to one another and are used like currency. The villagers carry them around in a sack like gold coin in the old days. The basic unit is the black bean, while the highest denomination is the white bean, which is five-thirds the black bean.

The arrangement works well enough, as the villagers with jobs are paid in jelly beans and those on the dole are paid with jelly beans. Everyone has some source of income, so everyone can use beans for transactions. In fact, it works so well that no one thinks it odd in the least. Even you have grown used to carrying around a sack of jelly beans to make your purchases. Now that you are working for Number One, you too get a fresh sack of beans every payday.

There are some problems. One is people occasionally eat their jelly beans, thus removing them from the economy. Because they are small, they can also be lost if someone drops them. Then there is the fact that they are a bit fragile and can be destroyed if not handled carefully. The result is there is a declining number of beans in the system. It also means certain villagers, who are more prudent, increase their stock of beans relative to everyone else in the village.

Your job with Number One is to figure out how to maintain the stock of beans in the village and keep anyone from hoarding the beans. Then there is the fact that new people show up in the village from time to time, just as you did, and they have to be stocked up with beans. Of course, people do try to run off from time to time and the giant balloon-like automaton will take them out. Your job as Head Keeper of Beans is to figure out how to manage the bean supply in the village.

You got the job because you have a head for numbers, so you first try to count the beans in the village on a regular basis. This proves to be impossible, as the villagers appreciate why you are doing it, but they can’t be bothered. The count is unreliable and you can’t trust it to make decisions about adding or subtracting beans. You then come up with a way to take a sample count and estimate the total from it, but you find that your estimates are lagging indicators. You’re always behind the curve.

After careful consideration, you land upon an idea. You realize that as any bean becomes scarcer, it will become more precious, so villagers will be less inclined to part with their stock of them. It means these beans will move around the village at a slower rate. If you can measure the bean flow on a regular basis, this will be a good measure the total number of beans and the balance of beans. More important, you’ll know in real time if there is a bean imbalance.

You also notice that the people who hoard beans are never the people who eat their beans as a snack. They value their beans more than anyone else in the village, so they are always looking to increase their stash as a good in itself. You figure out that like other types of loss, this is a constant. The solution is to add the hoarding rate to your other measures in order to increase the bean supply. In effect, the number of beans must always increase over the base line bean total.

It has taken a while, but you now have a set of measures you can use to manage the bean supply. Once you see bean flow drop in some area, you put more beans there to stimulate the movement of beans. If you see beans accumulating in one area, you change the mix of beans or add beans in a different part of the village to balance the bean total in the village. You even figure out how to maintain the mix of beans in the system, as the various colors have symbolic value beyond their face value.

Number One is so happy with your work as the head of the bean supply, he slowly increases your portfolio to manage other things related to beans. In fact, you started life in the village as Number Six, but have slowly ascended to the position of Number Two, but both you and Number One realize you’re partners now. He may control the giant balloon-like automaton and other weapons, but your control of the now highly complex bean system makes you an indispensable man.

What really keeps you up at night is not the fact that Number One still controls the giant balloon-like automaton or that you could be transported back to your old life. Sure, there is some possibility he will use his monopoly of force to undermine or even eliminate your position. What haunts you is the thought of the villagers suddenly realizing that their economy is based in candy. What if one day they all wake up and realize their economy is based on a made-up system of fake money?

This is the life of the central banker.


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Cui Bono?

Early in my working life, I found myself managing a few salesmen, along with some entry level managers. Since my area of responsibility only required three salesmen, it did not warrant a sales manager, so that duty was mine, as well as operations. It was a good training job for a young guy. One thing I learned from the sales guys is something that stuck with me forever. That is, no one cares about a deal more than the salesman working the deal. He’s the one that will make it happen.

You see, even in a big company, every salesman is like a small business. His expenses are his time and his revenue is his commission. The really good salesmen are shrewd in how they spend their time, never wasting a minute on a bad deal. They never fight the commission structure. If selling the crap product gets a bigger commission, then they sell the crap product. If the product is so crappy, they can’t sell it, they find a new job where they can hit their commission goals.

Since sales drives everything about business, it was a great lesson about the reality of business and bureaucracy. The managers have goals and they try to craft incentives so their people naturally work toward those goals. The trouble is, they often see the world through their own myopic eyes, rather than through the eyes of their people. Alternatively, they will foolishly think their people will make personal sacrifices on behalf of their goals. They think everyone cares about their deal as much as they do.

We are seeing this play out in the response to the pandemic. The people making the models and making predictions care about things that are important to them. It has always been assumed that they care most about being right, but as the models have failed and they are now “updated” on a daily basis, it turns out that accuracy really was never all that important to them. Marc Lipsitch, the guy largely responsible for the panic, was never all that concerned with being right.

Similarly, the people making public policy were always working their deals, rather than working your deal. By that I mean they were not issuing crack down orders on people because it was good for the public. They did it because it was good for them or at least they assumed it was good for them. It is why we had a race between states to see who could arrive at the most absurd policies. The nation lies dormant now because of a bizarre beauty pageant among the nation’s governors.

The response from our imperial rulers to this shuttering of the country is another deal that means everything to the people who passed it. Trump and Congress were really proud of themselves for having done the deal in such short time. It turns out though, that the deal was a great public relations stunt, but not much of a deal for the nation’s small business people. This post at the Federalist walks through the math of the Payroll Protection Act. Be prepared for breadlines this summer.

Of course, the most glaring example of this is the health care system. In response to a theoretical problem, it is in the process of creating real problems by faking death certificates and indefinitely postponing medical care for people with real diseases, in order to perpetuate the crisis atmosphere. The system is acting in the interest of the system, because the people at the top making the decisions care about their deal more than anything else. They closed the system to save it from the virus.

All of this should be a good reminder about the reality of anything that has the word “managed” in its label. Whether it is a managed health care system or a managed economy, the people doing the managing care more about their deal than anything else, thus the system they manage comes to reflect their interests. The stone-heads on our side cheering the crisis and demanding managed health care and a managed economy will soon find out what that really means. Enjoy the bread lines.

Of course, the stone-heads will argue that destroying the civil life of the country is the price to be paid for discrediting the current order. That may be true, but that does not mean the people cheering it will suddenly be vaulted to the top by the people being made to pay the price for this disaster. Again, those people at the top with the monopoly of force will surely take care of their deal before allowing anyone else to profit from the turmoil that is coming our way this summer.

The point of all this is even small organizations become very complicated in a hurry, because people have lots of priorities individually, which can coincide with and contradict their collective priorities. Fine tuning those while working your own deal is beyond the skill of most managers. It is why bureaucracies become self-serving and why managed anything is a fool’s errand. Whether it is managed economies or managed health care, eventually, the deal that matters most is the manager’s deal.

Circling back to those salesmen I managed, the second big lesson I learned in that job was from my boss. I complained to him that the commission structure I inherited worked against our interests because it was too complicated to manage. He told me to make it a flat commission on gross, but that I was responsible for the performance of every deal I signed off on going forward. It did not take long for the sales staff to know what was good business for me and what was a waste of their time.

That’s the lesson the stone-heads from the planned economy camp and the free market zealots never grasp. The choice is not between a system managed by angels or a system run by the invisible hand of magic. The choice is always between clarity and opacity. When the incentives are clear and individual interests are clear, everyone makes better decisions and demands more rational sacrifice. When those things are hidden, it is when our virtues are soon turned into vices.


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The Cost Of Profit

Every businessman understands that every dollar of revenue that comes in has with it a cost required to earn it. If the business provides a service, then the biggest cost of sales is the labor required to provide the service. If the business sells a physical item, then the cost of making or acquiring the item is the big driver. There are indirect costs like rents and administrative expenses, but the starting place for any business is the cost of sales, as that is what ultimately determines profits.

There is another cost that is important, sometimes the most important, that does not show up in the financials. That is the cost of profit. This is an intangible cost. What unpleasant things do you have to do in order to make a profit? Maybe you have to be terrible to your employees or tolerate nasty customers. You can make a nice living running a pawn shop, but most people don’t think it is worth having to deal with the sorts of people, who avail themselves of the pawn shop.

As a society, this concept is easier to quantify, or at the minimum articulate, as a society has a shared morality. There is an agreed upon set of things that a society wants to minimize and a set of things it promotes. It may be better for the economy to rely upon slave labor in certain kinds of agriculture, but the moral cost of slavery is too high to contemplate such a policy. One reason manufacturing was shipped abroad is the cost of the pollution and the aesthetics was too high for our rulers.

The point is that certain types of economic activity may be lucrative for the people in that business or for the economy as a whole, but the intangible cost is too high. It is not just the moral cost either. There is the cost of risk. To allow certain types of lending, for example, puts the credit system at risk, so we forbid it. The cost of profit can also be the long term risk it poses the society, which generally means the cost that will be imposed on future generations when those risks become real costs.

A good example is the very lucrative basis trade popular with hedge funds, where they buy US Treasuries, while selling equivalent derivatives contracts. There is a small difference in price between the two, but when done in volume and with cheap credit, the profit to the hedge fund can be enormous. This is great for the private investors in the hedge funds, but it has huge risks for the economy. The recent bailout by the Federal Reserve is a good example of socializing the cost of profit.

This is just one example of economic activity that is profitable to the people doing it and good for those GDP numbers. It’s also high risk and therefore has an unacceptable cost for the profit gained. Throughout the financial system we see high risk strategies that can be highly profitable and serve some important purpose, like lowering the cost of borrowing, but bring with them unacceptable risks to the system. Socializing the cost profit through bailouts does not make it go away.

Another example of how the cost of profit works in the financial system is this story from Reuters about Capital One. This is the bank that peddles high interest rate credit cards to poor people and non-whites. They can specialize in high risk borrowers, because they charge mafia-esque interest rates. That covers the cost of collecting from deadbeats and the inevitable defaults. It turns out another one of their activities was gambling in the commodities markets, namely the energy markets.

Now, the obvious question is why is a credit card company that preys on dumb people playing at the high stakes tables in the commodities casino? Betting commodities is like playing at the baccarat tables in Monte Carlo. Actually, the odds are better in the casino, as the odds of winning are just 1.23% lower than the odds of winning a hand. The answer, of course, is the potential profit for the bank was huge, just as long as energy process never fell below a certain level, like they have recently.

As American states lost the will to directly tax their people, especially their rich people, they turned to indirect ways to fund government. One is the legalization of gambling, especially state-owned casinos. Since every state is in the gambling racket, a new type of casino has evolved. This is one with a grand shopping mall and Potemkin town center attached, so people can dine and socialize. The idea is to get everyone under one roof in order to encourage more consumption.

This model is the symbol of modern America. Our economy is a massive shopping mall, an international bazaar operated by traders from around the globe. Attached to it is a massive casino called the financial system in which the profits from the bazaar are wagered on increasingly high stakes bets. It has become so unstable that the landlord, the Federal Reserve and central government, has to keep stepping in to keep everyone afloat. It is a high tech, high stakes palace economy.

This is very profitable for the nation’s rich people, which get to enjoy luxury unimaginable just a couple generations ago. Even Louis XIV could not have rode out a pandemic aboard his floating castle. Meanwhile, the cost of such luxury will be his fellow citizens (does he consider them his fellow citizens?) lining up for miles to get food distributed by the local food bank. The price of such profit in terms of risk and inequality is simply too high to tolerate much longer.

In times of want, people are forced to think hard about their priorities. The same is true of a people facing a crisis. The Great Madness over the plague is going to send the economy into a depression. The West in general, but America in particular, is going to have to decide if the cost of profit, the cost of this high stakes casino economy, is truly worth it. Is this how we want to live?  For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?


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Over Stimulated

The news brings word that Washington has agreed to an unprecedented economic package, estimated to top $6 trillion. This includes the $4 trillion in money the Federal Reserve will hand to rich people through various ways. The other money will go to different rich people in the form of tax rebates and cash payments. Some very small amount will go to everyone else in the form of unemployment checks, loans to small business and one time crazy checks randomly mailed to people.

The money in the stimulus bill is not all a waste. Bailing out the airline industry has a real benefit. Airlines are like a hybrid utility these days. They are technically private companies, but almost all of their actions are controlled by government. They operate through state owned airports and every aspect of their operations must be agreed to in advance by the federal government. We need the airlines to function, so bailing them out has some actual value to the rest of us.

As an aside, you’ll note what is not in this bill. If we are throwing trillions around, it would make sense to build a wall along the border or maybe fix up some roads. Perhaps we could draw back some overseas commitments and put those funds to work rebuilding the homeland. While the checkbook is open, maybe Trump could get something for his voters this time. Instead, you can be sure, tucked away in the details, will be money for more dirty barbarians to be settled in your town.

The stimulus bill is just the show. Its main purpose is to show the public that the actors and actresses hired by rich people to play the role of congressmen and senators really care about the people. The other carny folk post videos of themselves enjoying quarantine in their mansions. The carnies in DC pass stimulus bills. That may sound very cynical, but everyone in small business knows the score with these rescue packages passed by Washington during a crisis show.

The real mischief, however, is in the other money being handed to the nation’s desperate rich people. This is the stuff being done by the Federal Reserve, away from the TV cameras. Trillions of dollars will be poured into the financial markets, much of it through the direct purchase of assets, like bad debt, stocks, corporate bonds and the synthetic stuff no one really understands. The central bank is coming close to turning the global financial system into a palace economy.

A palace economy is a form of economic organization that was common in the Bronze Age societies of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. This is a system where a substantial share of the wealth flows to the rulers and is then distributed to the general population. The proceeds of farms, less what the farmers feed their families, goes to the king, who then feeds the people. The same holds for booty gained from conquest of neighbors or the mining of precious metals.

Now, the Federal Reserve is not taking these assets against the will of the current holders and then giving them to the rest of us. Instead, they are paying face value for assets that may or may not be worth what is claimed. The plan is to flood the system with cash in order to prevent cash hoarding. Theoretically, this keeps the banks lending and the credit system moving. In a system entirely based on leverage, any interruption in the credit system threatens the life of the system.

This reveals the big lie about modern economics. Small and mid-sized business are exposed to the dangers of the marketplace. If they make a mistake, they pay for it and possibly go under. In the major leagues, where the big boys play, there is no threat from market forces, as the Federal Reserve backstops everything. It is not a marketplace, but rather a highly complex casino, where the house stakes all of the players. Those that lose are simply given a loan from the house to keep playing.

A good example of this is something that started happening last fall, before anyone cared about the Chinese virus. This was back when the Fed mysteriously began to intervene in the repo market. No one had a good answer for why this was happening and the financial media was told not to ask too many questions. It turns out that it was a quiet rescue of hedge funds. They had over-leveraged themselves working a popular skim called the basis trade. The Fed jumped in to save them.

Just as democracy is a farce to conceal who is really calling the shots, free market capitalism is just a show to conceal the reality of the economic system. The response to the panic they have created shows just how little of the economy is actually a marketplace at all. The $6 trillion in stimulus is a quarter of the economy, on top of the mountain of regulations and trillions in normal government spending. In America, the “free market” is a fringe activity reserved for the little people.

It is tempting to think that this reality is some sort of perversion of our ancient economic traditions, but that’s just another pretty lie. In reality, the normal state of things is for the rulers to tightly control the economy of their territory. In was true in the palace economies of the ancient world. It was true throughout the middle ages. It has been true in the modern world since there has been a modern world. Like libertarianism and communism, the free market exists only in the mind.


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Knocking At The Door

One of the pitfalls of dissident politics is the temptation to succumb to despair, focusing only on the negative. Excessive cynicism is an escape, an indulgence, like libertarianism, where you get to pretend the sideline is the high ground. Cynicism is a cost free way of both participating in politics, but standing outside of it, as if you are above it all. It has been a feature of modern conservatism as a way of keeping the people from noticing that they are being scammed.

The truth is, politics at this level is not about elections or public policy. It is about effective social change, by changing the frame of reference. That’s a lot like steering a super tanker into port. A little nudge here. A little there. In the moment, you see little progress, but eventually, the tanker does move. That’s the point of dissident politics in the current age. It is moving things a little here and a little there in the effort to make our target audience aware of what’s happening to them.

An example of one of those tiny little bits of evidence that the ship is moving a little bit our way is this post from NRO, of all places. It is an interview with Oren Cass, who is the director of a new think tank in the Imperial Capital. The mission statement of American Compass says it is “to restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.” Put another way, they claim to oppose what we call marketism.

Another Washington think tank is hardly an inspiration to our side, but Oren Cass has gotten a lot of attention from influential people. This twitter thread spelled out the problem of worshiping economic data as an end in itself. More important, he did so in the language technocrats can understand. That is an important step, as it introduces dissident topics to people lacking the language and mental constructs to understand much of what is discussed on this side of the great divide.

A good example of this is the response from another NRO pod person to that Oren Cass twitter thread. Like so many in that hive, he clearly does not understand the concept of trade-offs. He certainly is clueless when it comes to concepts like social capital or community capital. He’s stuck at the place where knowing that the big number is more than the small number gets a gold star. Still, Cass is able to speak to him in language he can grasp, which is important.

Now, this does not signal a revolution of thought inside the Imperial Capital, but it does suggest some people inside are looking over the divide to this side. More important, instead of just assuming the people on this side of the great divide are evil or stupid, they are wondering why so many people are heading this way. The first step to legitimacy is often when the people in charge simply start taking their critics seriously, rather than treating them as a pestilence to be eliminated.

To be clear, Oren Cass is not “one of us” and never will be. In fact, if the inner party decides to round us up and ship us off to camps, he will be right there with them, as he is them and not us. The ruling class, along with their attendants, define themselves in opposition to us. Who they are is explicitly not us. They are the occupiers, the colonial pod people, ruling over the rest of us. Oren Cass and his project are simply a flicker of doubt, a sign that all is not well inside the walls.

A sober minded person would wonder why it has taken so long for anyone inside the walls to notice the problems outside the walls. After all, paleo-conservatives were predicting these sorts of problems forty years ago. Pat Buchanan ran on these issues, as well as Ross Perot. Trump is in the White House, in large part, because of the economic realities just dawning on people inside the walls. Heck, Bernie Sanders exists because of the things Cass identified in that thread.

It is the big tanker ship. A thing normal people cannot grasp is just how different the world inside the walls is compared to regular America. In the Imperial Capital, it is always a booming economy. Every day is Fat Tuesday, because tomorrow is always fat Tuesday as well. It’s always good times in the Washington for people who make their living in politics. Imagine a college campus the size of a city, but instead of students roaming about it is adult who work in politics.

This is why all past political reform efforts have failed. When the road goes on forever and the party never ends, reform sounds like ingratitude. From the Tea Party to the Bernie Bros, to the people inside, these movement strike the revelers as irrational ingratitude by people who don’t know how good they have it. But, the dissident right is knocking at the door and some people are starting to listen. It is a tiny example of how things are moving our way, ever so slowly, like that tanker ship.


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The Great Consolidation

One of the more important trends in post-Cold War America is the great consolidation that is going on all areas of life. This past Christmas shopping season, for example, was great for a small number of giant retailers. Amazon certainly had a good shopping season, as well as some giant operators like Walmart. For the small local retailers, Black Friday was not the start of their boom time, but a continuation of a decline that started in the 1990’s and continues unabated.

An adult in 1985 would probably have done business with a dozen different retailers during the season, in order to get the gifts and supplies he needed. He would have gone off to a mall to walk through dozens of shops. He would have hit the bigger retailers, of which there were many. That mall would have had two or three big stores, in addition to many small retail chains. Most people had access to two or three malls, in addition to small retailers operating in older strip malls.

This past Christmas, many people will have done all of their shopping on-line and some of those will have done their business with just one company. You can buy just about everything you want from Amazon. If they are not the direct seller, they are operating as a fulfillment company for others. They also operate storefronts for those who just a few years ago would have had their own web store. Amazon and Walmart are close to owning the entire on-line marketplace in the United States.

Consolidation is, of course, a feature of capitalism. An important thing libertarians always miss is that markets naturally seek to consolidate. No matter what set of rules are agreed upon in the market initially, dominant players will emerge and seek to consolidate their grip on the market. Eventually you end up with a few players that control the supply side of the market, thus turning the market into the modern version of the Bronze Age palace economies.

This tendency toward consolidation is not just turning up in the retail side of the American economy. It is occurring in the wholesale side as well. The industrial supply sector has seen a great consolidation in this age. Regional players have been backed by investment bankers toting unlimited credit money, so they can buy-up the smaller players. The supply chain has also seen a similar consolidation, where local operators are displaced by global operators.

The relentless drive toward consolidation is not just an economic trend but a cultural and political one as well. For the first time in a very long time, the children of middle-class Americans can expect a lower standard of living than their parents. One reason for that is the consolidation in the professional ranks. That great consolidation in the economy has meant relatively fewer jobs in the middle and upper management ranks of American business and in the professions.

That’s something that has gone completely unnoticed. In the 1980’s, going to a top-25 law school meant an upper-middle class life, even for the slacker. If you could not cut it at one of the elite firms, you were going to land in regional or local firm, where you could expect a comfortable life. There is a now a great consolidation in the law that will accelerate in this decade. Not only will the number of spots in the elite get smaller, but the next levels down will disappear entirely.

Another area where this will happen is higher education. In a way, higher education has been a relief valve for the children of the top-10%. Those unable to get into elite law schools or cut it in the law of finance, could land a comfortable life in a university either as an administrator or professor. The number of tenured professors and senior administrative staff continues to shrink relative to overall staffing. Of course, the college finance system is about shrink the whole system.

What we are seeing is something no one worried much over in the 20th century and that is the collapse of the upper-middle class. The focus was always on the working class and the great solid middle. While the working class has been obliterated as a social unit, the middle-class has struggled on. Where there is a crisis is in the upper middle, the class of people who served as the staff for the ruling class of American society in business, the professions and politics.

The great consolidation at the very top, is going to mean a great consolidation in the class that serves the top. In a world of ten thousand local guys like Jeff Bezos, there was demand for ten thousand top assistants. In a world of one Jeff Bezos, there is only one aid and maybe a support staff for that top man. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it reveals just how much damage consolidation at the top does to the next strata of society that exists to serve the elite.

There is another consequence to this great consolidation. The children of professionals, who are unable to find a spot in their class, tumble into the next class. This changes the that class. The radicalization of the white middle-class we see happening is due, in part, to this consolidation. All over in dissident politics are men who would have been in management tracks, partner tracks and tenure tracks. Instead they are working outside that system and exercising their minds in dissident politics.

This will have consequences. One way of viewing the revolutions set off by the Enlightenment is that they were the result of idle smart people. The American Revolution and the French Revolution were led by smart fractions. In a world of global oligarchs, where the smart fraction is coalescing outside the ruling fraction, the result will be increasing social unrest. The great populist revolt of the past decade is probably just an appetizer for what lies ahead in the new world order.


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Repo Men

There used to be a time when the mass media covered the Federal Reserve as if it was Hollywood or a professional sports league. Whenever the Fed acted or the Fed chairman made a statement, it was big news. That has not been the case for a long time, mostly due to the mortgage meltdown. Worshiping the money men was no longer good copy after they came close to blowing up the world. Halfway through the Trump tenure, the media barely mentions the Fed or Fed policy.

Still, the central banks remain the most important government institutions on earth and this is particularly true of the Federal Reserve. They control the global economy, because they control the supply of money and credit. This is why the massive intervention into the credit markets by the Federal Reserve recently should be front page news. Something very big is happening and no one seems to know why, but the Fed is responding to it with $500 billion in new money.

Now, they are not just printing up cash and throwing it out the window. Instead, they are intervening in the repo market to head-off a market crash. For those who don’t know, the repo market is not where repossessed items are sold. The word “repo” is slang for repurchase agreement¹. A repurchase agreement is a short-term funding mechanism where one party needing cash, sells an asset to a party for cash, with an agreement to repurchase the asset at an agreed upon price.

A repurchase agreement functions in effect as a short-term, collateral-backed, interest-bearing loan. Much of what happens in the world of investment banks is reliant on the repo market. In order for these entitles to function, there has to be enough cash available in the system for these transactions to occur. Otherwise, borrowing rates go up, which means the cost of doing business goes up. Taken to the extreme, no cash available means the credit markets lock up.

Since the financial system is like a watch with gears interlocking with gears, one gear seizing up has the potential to seize up all the other gears. A frozen repo market could result in a cash crunch for banks, which locks up business and retail lending. That locks up the Main Street economy and we’re looking at bread lines. The economy, as we understand it, relies on a steady supply of money and credit freely flowing through the system according to the rules established by central banks.

As an aside, if the repo market probably sounds a lot like a pawnshop to you. A pawn shop offers short-term, collateral based loans. You take the family silver into the pawnshop and they give you cash. You agree to come back with the cash, plus interest, to get the family silver out of hock. If you blow the cash on a sure thing and are unable to pay the pawnshop, they take ownership of your item and sell it for cash. So yes, the financial system is built on the logic of the pawnshop.

Now, this move by the Fed is very curious. Clearly, something has caused this problem in the repo market, but no one seems to know the cause. It’s serious enough that the Fed’s balance sheet, currently at $4.1 trillion, will surpass its all-time high of $4.5 trillion. For several years now the Fed has made clear its intent to shrink its balance sheet. Therefore, this problem is serious enough to cause the Federal Reserve to change course and blow up its balance sheet.

The question is, what’s going on?

One possible answer is bad rule making over the last decade that has rewarded banks for hoarding cash. Instead of lending to one another, they are sitting on cash reserves. The risk-reward is better than short term lending. This could be due to a combination of market factors created by Fed policy and regulations on banks regarding their cash reserves. In other words, the government has created a distorted short-term lending market, through regulation and Fed policy that discourages short-term lending.

Another, more worrisome cause is that central banks have built a low-interest rate trap for themselves that they cannot escape. In lowering rates and intervening so aggressively in the market to stave off collapse a decade ago, they have created a system that cannot exist without low rates and aggressive intervention. Efforts to restore rates to historic norms or attempts to shrink the balance sheets of central banks threatens the very existence of the global financial system.

In such a scenario, the system controlled by the central banks becomes increasing complex with every intervention. Currently, the Fed does not know why the repo market is broken. They are simply reacting to the short-term effects. Their actions, however, will be part of the problem to be solved, a problem they don’t fully grasp. By the time they do understand the issue, they may have been forced to make additional interventions that further change the complexity of the problem.

Of course, a world of permanently low interest rates and unlimited intervention by the central bank is not a world controlled by the central bank. Rather, the central bank is now controlled by the system it created. The main weapons the central bank has used in the past to address systemic failure are no longer available. Taken to its logical conclusion, the financial system is a run-a-way train. The Feds do what they can to keep it on the tracks, but eventually, the inevitable happens.

In the long run, the story of credit money may be that it is simply a complex way to pull forward the benefits of economic activity, for the benefit of a few. Eventually, all of the pain avoidance with low interest rates and central bank intervention consume all of the economy to pull forward. Those accrued costs are reversed out all at once and system collapse in the result. The resulting political fallout then topples over the liberal democratic order and we enter an entirely new age.

That may sound overly apocalyptic, but consider how political institutions must weather a crisis. The people must not only want to preserve those institutions, they must trust the people running them. A great systemic collapse of the economic order would need a lot of trust in the political order to avoid revolts. At no time in the West has the current political order be less trusted. It needs the good economy to survive. That sound a lot like a house of cards waiting for the wrong decision.

¹Short primer on repurchase agreements.


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The China Questions

The trade war with China is heating up, so the usual suspects are now turning up in the media to pronounce on the issue. There is the sense that many of the pundits are relieved to take a break from discussing the culture war that surrounds the Trump presidency and the Progressive response to it. Talking about trade and global economics feels like old times. Here is a longish post from David Goldman, the man behind Spengler of the Asia Times, addressing the trade war.

As is always the case in these matters, the Michael Crichton observation about the media should be kept in mind. The growing rift between China and the United States is a complicated matter by itself. The impact it will have on global trade, the US economy and geopolitics is even more complex. Even people paid to risk real money in these areas don’t have a firm grasp of all the moving pieces. The people posting in the media know even less. Often they know nothing at all.

That does not mean there is nothing we can know. The first question, in any heated trade dispute between two countries, is “who is buying and who is selling?” and the related question is, “What is being traded?” In this regard, trade disputes are not a lot different from disputes between customers and vendors. How they proceed and how the end is entirely controlled by the relationship and the products in question. That determines who has the most leverage in the dispute.

In this case, the relationship is easy to sort. U.S. imports from China totaled $539.5 billion in 2018. U.S. exports were $179.3 billion. That export total is about 7% of all U.S. exports for 2018. Put another way, the U.S. market is about 5% of the Chinese economy, assuming the fake Chinese economic numbers are even close to reality, which is surely not the case. The Chinese market is less than one percent of the U.S. economy in 2018. Imports are about 3% of the U.S. economy.

Right away, the relationship between China is the U.S. is not an equal one, in terms of dollars, but also in terms of impact. Then there is the nature of trade between the two countries. Almost all of the U.S. exports to China in 2018 were aircraft parts, electronic components and car parts. In many cases, these are either high precision items the Chinese cannot produce or they have intellectual property that the Chinese will try to steal, so they are made in the U. S. and sent to China.

This is why Trump is playing hardball. He believes he has far less to lose than the Chinese in a trade war. Even if all trade with China comes to an end, the cost to the U.S. economy is not going to be devastating. In fact, it will be hardly noticed. Much of that trade will be replaced with other cheap labor countries, as it is not really trade in the conventional sense. America’s economic relationship with China is about off-shoring manufacturing to dodge labor, tax and environmental laws.

This is a point that cannot be made enough. When American producers sell good to Canada, and Canadian producers sell good to America, that’s trade. When American producers move manufacturing to Mexico, then bring those goods back home under a tariff free regime, that’s not trade. China is not selling the world anything the world does not have or cannot make. What China is selling is a safe haven to avoid the labor, tax and environmental laws that exist in the West.

That does not mean there can be no impact. That’s the other set of questions that can be examined from the outside. China can play a long game, as the Chinese leaders are not facing annual elections and endless media scrutiny. The West, particularly Trump, are in an endless election cycle. Any little blip in the economy is magnified by the media and then fed into the political calculus. While this trade war will inflict more pain on China, they have a much higher pain threshold than Trump.

That’s the theory. It is not all that clear just how much pain Trump will suffer from this standoff with China. The timing actually works in his favor. The slow buildup not only gives American business time to adjust, it gives the political class time to cast it as the typical good guy versus bad guy story. Xi Jinping is not exactly a lovable Jackie Chan type of guy, so casting him as a villain will be easy. In other words, Trump may be trading a little economic capital for a lot of political capital.

Then there is the question of just how much pain China can take and for how long. It is just assumed by Western analysts that the Chinese can absorb any amount of suffering for as long as it takes. After all, China weathered the Cultural Revolution without a mass revolt by the people. Mao had to die before the party moved to end the madness. Why would the Chinese people revolt over a slight down turn in the economy? Why would the party move against Xi Jinping, if the trade war contracts her economy?

No one can know this, but we do know that wealthy people are far more sensitive to small changes in the economy than poor people. We see this in the West. A small down turn has the middle class turning against their party, but a generation long depression in coal country has not caused a revolt. That same reality may be true in China. There are a lot of people living bourgeois lifestyles along the Chinese coast, all financed by one-sided trade with the United States and her allies.

While all of this economic 4-D chess will occupy the pundits, there may be a simple answer to what is going on with China. It could simply be that China has become a liability to the West. The benefits of moving manufacturing to China has been consumed at this point. What’s left is the liability, which is currency manipulation, IP theft, espionage and financial shenanigans. China is running out of friends in Western capitals. The appetite for tolerating this stuff may be waning.


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