Oct 272017
 
 October 27, 2017  Posted by at 1:09 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Salvador Dalí White calm 1936

 

It’s been a while since we last heard from longtime friend of the Automatic Earth Dr. Nelson Lebo III, New Englander living in Wanganui, New Zealand. Nelson has written a fine collection of articles on this site through the years.

Of course I thought, when I first saw this piece in my mailbox, that he would have written about New Zealand’s new prime minister, Labour’s 37-year-young Jacinda Ardern, whose first action in her new job will be to prevent foreigners from buying existing homes in her country. It’ll be interesting to see how she intends to do so while remaining inside the Trans Pacific Partnership -TPP- agreement.

Radio New Zealand has a portrait in which she says ‘I Want The Government … To Bring Kindness Back’. And obviously my first thought was: wait till you meet Donald Trump. But it would be misleading to put the lack of kindness in politics on his shoulders. There’s too much blood on too many hands.

But Nelson didn’t address her this time. I hope he will soon. Instead, and I should have known, he writes about Koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance. When I wrote The Koyaanisqatsi Economy a month ago, he said he had been thinking of the same theme.

Nelson named his article “Pura Vida trumps Koyaanisqatsi”, but I thought his emphasis on volatility is too important to not be the headline. Especially given that volatility in financial markets is at a -near- record low, while it appears blatantly obvious that this not reflect the ‘real world’ at all.

Nelson’s summary of the real world: “..hurricanes, mass shootings, hurricanes, opioid epidemics, hurricanes, people sleeping in cars, hurricanes, rising suicide rates, hurricanes, and children dying from cold damp homes..”

If that doesn’t spell volatility, what does? Forget about financial markets reflecting anything real anymore. Thanks to central banks, markets are fiddling while Rome burns.

Heeeeeere’s … Nelson:

 

 

Dr. Nelson Lebo III: Volatility is the new normal – that’s the message I gave a local Rotary Club when I spoke to members four or five years ago. I had been told beforehand the group was “worldly” and specifically instructed in the invitation to challenge them with my presentation. As a weekly columnist in the city’s paper – the Wanganui Chronicle – I was widely known for my positions on wealth inequality, climate change, and debt, as well as a wide range of practical approaches to address these issues.

Around that time it was clear that a post-GFC new normal was functioning worldwide and many writers were using the term. By then The Spirit Level (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2009) had been widely read and widely praised for its documentation of the relationship between wealth and income inequality and social problems. Additionally, peer reviewed research based on decades worth of data had shown there was a quantitatively measurable increase in extreme weather events: more big storms and more big droughts.

I thought my audience would be well on board.

Judging from the response that day, however, the brief I had been given was misguided and most club members were neither expecting nor wanting a presentation that challenged the dominant paradigm of infinite growth without consequences no matter how factual. As a mid-week midday meeting with New Zealand ‘fush ‘n chups’ on the menu the message that the-world-as-you-know-it-has-changed-forever was a bit heavy for people on their lunch break.

The response that day was, of course, perfectly ‘normal’. Almost no adult human seeks out new and different worldviews. On the contrary, we are far more inclined to cling to outdated ones, à la “Make America Great Again” than to acknowledge changing realities.

Social media allows us to reverberate in echo chambers of our own beliefs where we know we’re right because the echo told us so. Social science researchers have told us this for decades. The Internet just makes it worse and more obvious.

I’ve been writing about Trump, doubling-down and the post-truth world for two years now, and if anything I am more certain of the point I’ve been trying to make: most people are irrational. Seems there’s now a Nobel Laureate who has been arguing the same for decades. Behavioral economist Richard Thaler was recently awarded a Nobel for his study of the psychology of economics, which seeks to understand how we are irrational and the impact on traditional economic theories that have failed time and again (think 2008 Global Financial Crisis) because they don’t sufficiently incorporate human factors. (Remember Greenspan’s admission?)

In no way do I intend to single out the Wanganui Rotarians, but rather use this example as illustrative for what my community, nation, and the entire world face: volatility made worse by inertia. In other words, the longer we choose to ignore inconvenient truths the greater will be their negative impacts.

This situation usually manifests in the form of tipping points . Malcolm Gladwell defined a tipping point in his debut book of the same name as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” Everything looks fine with the economy and the climate…until it’s not. And by ‘not fine’ we are talking really NOT FINE à la Greece, Puerto Rico, Houston, etc.

Tipping points is volatility on steroids. Brace yourselves.

Well-informed leaders from President Obama to Pope Francis agree the greatest threats facing humanity are climate change and wealth inequality. I’ve written extensively about both for many years yet neither appears to get much traction locally or globally. Our ‘leaders’ ignore these issues at all of our peril because the result of each is increasing volatility in many forms: social, economic, financial, political, and an increasing incidence of extreme weather events.

Volatility is not good for social order, and where I live is a perfect example of the canary in the coalmine: a coastal, river city with high levels of inequality. It’s a tipping point waiting to happen.

Some readers may remember the 1982 film by Godfrey Reggio called Koyaanisqatsi, named using a Hopi term meaning “chaotic life” or “life out of balance.” The film is unnerving, as is much of what comes via news media these days: hurricanes, mass shootings, hurricanes, opioid epidemics, hurricanes, people sleeping in cars, hurricanes, rising suicide rates, hurricanes, and children dying from cold damp homes. And then there’s Myanmar: When Buddhists become the aggressors, you know the world is well and truly out of balance.

Okay, so the world is out of balance. What can be done about it?

Our solution to imbalance, as any regular reader of our blog knows, is called “Eco-Thrifty.” This approach to design and to life is about living better on less. Seems we have good company along these lines in the form of Costa Rica, the small Central American nation that regularly tops the Happy Planet Index published by the New Economics Foundation.

Despite per capita income one quarter that of New Zealand (ranked 38th of 140) and one fifth that of the US (108th of 140) Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian countries in terms of equality, wellbeing, life expectancy and ecological impact.

As Jason Hickel of the Guardian recently put it, “Costa Rica proves that rich countries could theoretically ease their consumption by half or more while maintaining or even increasing their human development indicators.”

“The opposite of growth isn’t austerity, or depression, or voluntary poverty. It is sharing what we already have, so we won’t need to plunder the earth for more.”

Sharing is at the heart of the permaculture ethics, where it is joined by caring for the environment and caring for people. Although we practice permaculture on our farm and in our community, we’re not dogmatic about it. What drives the eco-thrifty bus is resilience accompanied by regeneration.

Resilience, in this context, is the ability to withstand a pulse. It does not happen by accident. It can be designed, built and managed. Resilience only matters 0.0001% of the time, but when it matters it really matters. Resilient homes stand up to earthquakes and hurricanes. Resilient farms stand up to major rain events and extended droughts. Resilient communities withstand economic downturns and ‘natural disasters’.

Regeneration, in this context, is about getting better, stronger, more resilient over time. Regenerative farms grow food while building soil fertility, reducing erosion, storing carbon, managing storm water, and increasing biological diversity. Regenerative communities reduce crime, domestic violence, drug abuse, and suicide rates while keeping wealth and resources circulating locally. They improve quality of life while shrinking energy use, pollution and wealth inequality.

From these perspectives Costa Rica is a good, albeit imperfect, case study. It is, however, about the best example we can find and has the data to show long-term consistently high quality of life.

Pura Vida trumps Koyaanisqatsi.

 

 

Sep 282017
 
 September 28, 2017  Posted by at 1:52 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Koyaanisqatsi

 

The film Koyaanisqatsi was released in 1982. The title means ‘life out of balance’ in the language of the Hopi, a Native American tribe who live(d) mainly in what is now north-east Arizona. It is directed by Godfrey Reggio with music by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. There are no actors, and no dialogue. Philip Glass’s music underlies a series of film fragments that contrast the beauty of American nature with the noise and pollution mankind has added to it. Wikipedia:

The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. Reggio explained the lack of dialogue by stating “it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.”

Due to its initial success, Reggio and Glass made two sequels to the film, Powaqqatsi (1988), meaning “parasitic way of life” or “life in transition”, and Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war”, “civilized violence” and “a life of killing each other”. If you haven’t seen them, they come highly recommended.

 

 

Koyaanisqatsi is an fitting term to describe not only our world in general, but also our economies. They are severely out of balance, and getting more so every day. But economies, like nature, need at least a minimum in balance. If that disappears, this lack of balance will tip them over. It is somewhat strange that this is not being recognized, and not even discussed.

It’s as if people think that when almost all wealth goes to a select very few, an economy can still continue to function. It can’t. The rich getting continually richer means the poor getting poorer (as overall growth is slow or non-existent), until the latter reach a point where they can no longer afford even basic necessities. That’s when parts of an economy will start dying, in the same vein that parts of a living body, an organism, die off when the supply of blood, nutrients and oxygen is cut off.

For an economy to function, it needs money to flow through it the same way a body needs blood to flow. If all the money gets increasingly concentrated in just a small area, the economy stagnates. We measure the flow of money as velocity:

 

 

If that graph would describe a human body, it would be in an ambulance on the way to ER. The only times velocity of money have been as low as today was during a Great Depression and a World War.

The ever richer rich cannot spend enough to keep things moving. They can buy stocks and bonds and houses, but they can’t buy all the groceries and clothing that the poor and middle class no longer can. But it’s those things that keep the economy humming along.

An economy as unbalanced as the one we presently have is bound to perish. The rich are killing their own economies by trying to get richer all the time. And they have no idea that’s what happens. It’s sort of baked into their understanding of what capitalism is. Or neo-liberalism if you want.

We should look upon, and handle, our economies and societies as living, and vibrant, systems, but we’re miles away from any such understanding. Our education systems are gross failures when it comes to this, and our media, owned by the rich, support anything that will make them richer. Even though that is suicidal for everyone involved. We are a tragic species in many more ways than one.

This has nothing to do with political views, with socialism or communism or any ism, it’s a simple empirical observation. It’s not about ‘everyone deserves their fair share’, but about if they don’t get their share, no economy will be left to hand out any shares even to the rich. If the rich want to get richer, they will need a functioning economy to get there.

In other words, someone will have to call a halt, or at least a pause, to the pace at which they’re getting richer, or their quest for riches will become self-defeating. Literally every single human being can grasp this, but hardly anyone even considers it. At their peril.

Here’s just a small example from CNBC, there are thousands just like it:

The Top 1% Of Americans Now Control 38% Of The Wealth

America’s top 1% now control 38.6% of the nation’s wealth, a historic high, according to a new Federal Reserve Report. The Federal Reserve’s Surveys of Consumer Finance shows that Americans throughout the income and wealth ladder posted gains between 2013 and 2016. But the wealthy gained the most, driven largely by gains in the stock market and asset values. The top 1% saw their share of wealth rise to 38.6% in 2016 from 36.3% in 2013.

The next highest 9% of families fell slightly, and the share of wealth held by the bottom 90% of Americans has been falling steadily for 25 years, hitting 22.8% in 2016 from 33.2% in 1989. The top income earners also saw the biggest gains. The top 1% saw their share of income rise to a new high of 23.8% from 20.3% in 2013. The income shares of the bottom 90% fell to 49.7% in 2016.

Now, you may think: 38%, how bad is that?, and you may be forgiven for thinking that way. After all, you’re in a majority there. To understand the severity of what’s happening, you need to look at the trends:

 

 

This one from the New York Times, annotated by Charles Hugh Smith, is very revealing too. What happens is that just as we find ourselves in a stagnating/shrinking economy, the rich get richer fast. They can do that because central banks are releasing trillions of dollars in QE, but also because the system is geared towards eviscerating the poor, and increasingly the middle class as well:

 

 

And this is amplified by the ultra-low rates policies central banks have been pushing over the past decade. They allow for the ever poorer to keep up appearances of wealth by plunging into debt ever deeper, but they don’t allow for their living conditions, their jobs, their savings, their pensions, to recover. They do the exact opposite. As this graph from Mike Lebowitz, one of many to show the same trendline, goes to show:

 

 

This is not an American phenomenon, though it’s more pronounced stateside. And Trump’s tax reform plans promise to only make it worse. It looks like Bernie Sanders might be the only politician in the US to stop it, but what are the odds of that? We live in a system that is warranting economic suicide for everyone including its own proponents, and we’re blindly following it like so many lemmings.

The Koyaanisqatsi film doesn’t have a happy Hollywood ending, and it makes no pretense of it. Our Koyaanisqatsi economy will not end with ‘they lived happily ever after’ either. The protagonists wouldn’t know how to achieve that. They don’t understand what makes an economy run, and keeps it running.

And they don’t want to understand, because they think it’ll make them less rich. Nobody gives balance a second’s thought. Presumably because they think the system, like nature, will eventually balance itself. And they’re right in that. They just haven’t considered what that balancing act might mean for them personally.

if you’re rich, good on you. But don’t forget what made it possible for you to gather your riches, or you’ll lose them, and probably a lot more too.