Oct 092018
 
 October 9, 2018  Posted by at 1:03 pm Primers Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  


Pieter Bruegel the Elder Two monkeys 1562

 

And there we go again. Another IPCC report, and they all keep getting more alarming than the previous one. And then nothing substantial happens. Until the next report is issued and makes everybody’s headlines for a day, or two. Rinse, spin and repeat. “Now we really have to do something!”. “World leaders have a moral obligation to act!”.

Oh boy. To start with that last bit, world leaders don’t act because of moral obligations. They act to stay in, or get in, power. And they all know that to achieve that goal they must keep their people happy, even if dictators do this differently from ‘democratically elected’ leaders.

The first tool they have for this is control of the media, control of the narratives that define -or seem to- their societies. If a society is in bad shape, they will control the media to show that it is doing fine. if it’s actually doing fine, they will make sure all the praise for this is theirs and theirs alone.

So what makes their people happy? One thing far ahead of anything else is material comfort. If leaders can’t convince people that they’re comfortable, their power is in danger. Once enough people are miserable or hungry, a process is set in motion that threatens to push leaders aside in favor of someone who promises to make things better. There’s never a shortage of those.

 

Leaders, politicians, think short-term. They may see further into the future than the next election, but that is not useful information. If they enact measures aimed at 10 years from today or more, they risk being voted out in 2 years, or 4. It’s not even their fault, it’s how the system works. It is different for dictators, but not even that much.

The general notion is clear. But that means we can’t rely on our leaders to act against the climate change the IPCC keeps warning of. because is has a -much- longer time window than the next elections -or the next coup in dictator terms. Even if every IPCC report depicts a shorter window than the last one, it’s still not inside those 4-year election cycles (numbers vary slightly, 4 is typical).

A typical ‘response’ to the climate threat are the COP meetings and agreements. I have fulminated plenty against COP21, the Paris accord, even named it CON21. Because that was signed by those very leaders tied down in their election cycles. Completely useless. That most of the other signees were business leaders who represent oil companies, airlines and Big Tech with huge server parks seals the reality of the deal.

These are not the people who will solve the problems. They have too much interest in not doing so. The CEO’s have their profits to think about, the politicians their elections. They should be kept out of the decision-making process. But they’re the only ones who are in it.

I still think the issue was never better epitomized than in the December 2016 piece in the Guardian by Michael Bloomberg and Mark Carney entitled “How To Make A Profit From Defeating Climate Change” , about which I said at the time:

These fine gents probably actually believe that this is perfectly in line with our knowledge of, say, human history, of evolution, of the laws of physics, and of -mass- psychology. All of which undoubtedly indicate to them that we can and will defeat the problems we have created -and still are-, literally with the same tools and ideas -money and profit- that we use to create them with. Nothing ever made more sense.

That these problems originated in the same relentless quest for profit that they now claim will help us get rid of them, is likely a step too far for them; must have been a class they missed. “We destroyed it for profit” apparently does not in their eyes contradict “we’ll fix it for profit too”. Not one bit. It does, though. It’s indeed the very core of what is going wrong.

Profit, or money in general, is all these people live for, it’s their altar. That’s why they are successful in this world. It’s also why the world is doomed. Is there any chance I could persuade you to dwell on that for a few seconds? That, say, Bloomberg and Carney, and all they represent, are the problem dressed up as the solution?

This week’s IPCC report says the efforts to keep warming at acceptable levels (1.5ºC) will cost many trillions of dollars every year. But a billionaire publisher and a central bank head want to make a profit?! Hey, perhaps they can, as long as you and I pay… But they won’t solve a thing. if only because not doing that will be too profitable. Still, while they’re at it, maybe they can do us a favor.

You see, what is hardly ever mentioned, let alone acknowledged, is that we have more than one major existential problem, and they exist in such a form of symbiosis that solving only one doesn’t make much difference.

We have a changing climate, we have accelerating species extinction, we have plastics in our fish, and we have a global economy that’s about to topple over. The common thread in all these is an overkill in energy use and therefore an overkill in waste. Thermodynamics, 2nd law. Waste kills. By raising temperatures, finishing off wildlife, plugging rivers and oceans with plastics, making increasing amounts of people economically miserable.

But as I wrote a while ago, our economies exist to produce waste, it’s not just a by-product -anymore-. If we stop making things we don’t need, and things that do harm to our world and our lives, our economies will collapse. We must continue on our path or see our lifetstyles plummet. They will anyway, we’re just delaying the inevitable, but we’re stuck.

And politicians are utterly useless and utterly unfit in situations like this. But ask yourself: are you any better? If you were told that in order to ‘save the planet’, you’d have to cut your energy use in half, which would take away many of your comforts and luxuries, would you do it?

A better question yet is, if you would agree to do that, and then see that your neighbor does not, would you still cut your driving and flying and electricity? That’s hard enough on an individual level, but how about if one nation does, while another refuses? Or when nations that have much lower per capita energy consumption tell the West: you go first?

 

What do you think the odds are that we’ll find a global solution, approach, before the 2030 cutoff date the IPCC provides in its latest report? While the likes of Bloomberg and Carney still talk about climate change as a profit opportunity? I know what I think.

The report says we need to drastically ‘reform’ our economies and lifestyles. Cutting our energy use in the West in half won’t be enough, if only because billions of people demand more energy at their disposal. Will you cut into your lifestyle, will your children, when they see their neighbors increasing their energy use, when they see entire nations increase theirs?

We don’t have ‘leaders’ that can stop species extinction or a warming planet or an economic collapse, because they either are clueless or they will be voted out of power if they tell the truth. Extend and pretend is a term that’s used to describe economic policies a lot, but it actually paints an accurate picture of everything we do.

“Free”, surplus, energy can come in the shape of sugar in a petri dish full of bacteria, or of stored carbon on planet earth. In both cases, the outcome is as predictable as can be. Can we, with our billions of cars and billions of miles flown every year, and billions of phones and computers, return to the energy use of only 100 years ago? Don’t think so.

On the contrary, we’re constantly increasing our energy consumption. Just like the bacteria do in the petri dish. Until they no longer can, until reality, physics, thermodynamics, sets a limit. One of my favorite themes is that we are the most tragic species ever because we can see ourselves doing things that we know are harmful to us, but we can’t stop ourselves from continuing.

The best we can hope for is that tomorrow morning everything will be the same again as where we started today. But no, that’s not sufficient, either, many of the things we’ve unleashed have 20+ year runtimes, and they’re already baked into the cake of our futures. We can’t start afresh every morning, no Groundhog Day for us. Every morning the alarm goes off things have gotten worse. And we can’t stop that.

 

 

Jul 282015
 
 July 28, 2015  Posted by at 6:38 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


Jack Delano Chicago & North Western Railroad locomotive shops 1942

As the “Varoufakis Files” provide everyone interested in the Greek tragi-comedy with an additional million pages of intriguing fodder -we all really needed that added layer of murky conspiracy, re: the Watergate tapes-, a different question has been playing in my head. Again. That is: Why are economists discussing politics?

Why are the now 6 month long Greece vs Troika discussions being conducted by the people who conduct them? All parties involved are apparently free to send to the table whoever they want, and while that seems nice and democratic, it doesn’t necessarily make it the best possible idea. To, in our view, put it mildly.

For perspective, please allow me to go back to something I wrote 3,5 months ago, May 12 2015:

Greece Is Now Just A Political Issue

[..] the EU/troika anno 2010 decided to bail out German and French and Wall Street banks (I know there’s an overlap) – instead of restructuring the debts they incurred with insane bets on Greece and its EU membership- and put the costs squarely on the shoulders of the Greek population.

This, as I said many times before, was not an economic decision; it was always entirely political. It’s also, by the way, therefore a decision the ECB should have fiercely protested, since it’s independent and a-political and it can’t afford to be dragged into such situations. But the ECB didn’t protest. [..]

The troika wants the Syriza government to execute things that run counter to their election promises. No matter how many people point out the failures of austerity measures as they are currently being implemented in various countries, the troika insists on more austerity. Even as they know full well Syriza can’t give them that because of its mandate. Let alone its morals.

It’s a power game. It’s a political game. It always was. But still it has invariably been presented by both the –international- press and the troika as an economic problem. Which has us wondering why this statement by ECB member and Austrian central bank head Ewald Nowotny yesterday, hasn’t invited more attention and scrutiny:

ECB’s Nowotny: Greece’s Problem Isn’t Economic

The Greek problem is more a political question than an economic one, a member of the European Central Bank said Monday. Discussions with political parties such as Greece’s left-wing Syriza and Spain’s Podemos may be refreshing by bringing in new ideas, “but at the end of the day, they must [end in] results,” ECB member Ewald Nowotny said, adding discussions are “not about playing games.”

The central banker declined to speculate on how to solve Greece’s financial problem saying the issue “is much more a political question than an economic question.” Mr. Nowotny also doesn’t see the ECB’s role as creating a federalized financial government inside the euro zone. “We cannot substitute the political sphere,” he said.

That seems, from where we’re located, to change the discussion quite a bit. Starting with the role of the ECB itself. Because, for one thing, and this doesn’t seem to be clear yet, if the Greek problem is all politics, as the central bank member himself says, there is no role for a central bank in the discussions. If Greece is a political question, the ECB should take its hands off the whole Greek issue, because as a central bank, it’s independent and that means it’s a-political.

The ECB should provide money for Greece when it asks for it, since there is no other central bank to provide the lender of last resort function for the country. Until perhaps Brussels calls a stop to this, but that in itself is problematic because it would be a political decision forced on an independent central bank once again. It would be better if the ‘union’, i.e. the other members, would make available what Greece needs, but they -seem to- think they’re just not that much of a union.

In their view, they’re a union only when times are good. And/or when all major banks have been bailed out; the people can then fight over the leftover scraps.

The IMF has stated they don’t want to be part of a third Greek bailout. Hardly anyone seems to notice anymore, but that makes the IMF a party to political decisions too. Lagarde et al claim they can’t loan to countries that don’t take the ‘right’ measures, but who decides which measures are the right ones? [..] Moreover, if we take Mr. Nowotny on his word, why are there still finance ministers and economists involved in the Greek issue negotiations? Doesn’t that only simply lead to confusion and delay?

It seemed crystal clear to me then, and does even more so today, but nothing has really changed, other than Greece having replaced one economist with another as finance minister. Which never really could help discussions in the eurogroup alone, because, as Ian Parker writes in his long must read “V” (for Vendetta) portrait, the rest of them are still not economists, and therefore have no appetite for discussing matters from that angle:

The Greek Warrior

At the level of the Eurogroup, Varoufakis told me, the conversation was “all about the rules.” It was not a forum in which to discuss debt unsustainability, or the rarity of economic growth under austerity conditions. Varoufakis told me that he was “accused of talking about economics.” Once, Varoufakis was asked what Greece’s target surplus should be, if not 4.5% of GDP. He “had to give a lecture” about the variables that made the question unanswerable in that form. “They’re not economists,” Varoufakis said. “Most of them are lawyers.”

At a certain point, it’s hard to escape the idea that it’s all like if you have a politically volatile discussion about building an airport, or ‘just’ a runway (commonplace issues), and the entire discussion is controlled by architects, or builders, instead of politicians. It makes no sense, and it can only possibly lead to undesirable outcomes. Because you got the wrong people in the wrong venue.

Moreover, unlike architecture, economics has huge credibility issues to begin with. Which is why politicians need to provide very specific instructions to their economists, or the entire exercise risks being watered down in no time to a battle between one economic stream of faith vs another. Keynes vs Mises, that kind of thing.

If we can agree with Nowotny (and I very much do) that this is a political issue, it’s the politicians who should make the decisions, on political grounds, and the economists should fill in the specifics after the fact.

Economists, and eventually lawyers, should fill in the details, but lawyers and economists posing as finance ministers should not be left in charge of the political decisions.

And no, here’s looking at Athens, naming an economist as finance minister does not make him a politician. Nor should it. An economist has his/her own place in the proceedings. But then, that’s where we hit upon the major conundrum: what makes a body a politician?

Turns out, that’s a hard one to answer. Because anyone can pretend to be a politician, and many do pretend just that. But how then, when we can agree that a certain issue is a political rather than an economical one, do we select the proper people to make decisions on the issue?

The simplest bit of deduction teaches us that putting economist Yanis Varoufakis on opposite ends of the same table with eurogroup finance ministers who are lawyers and don’t know diddly-squat about economics, doesn’t work. All a lawyer knows how to do is point to pre-conceived rules and regulations. It’s what lawyers do, it’s what enabled them to get their law degree.

But you might as well put a Chinese farmer and a West Virginia gun dealer together. They don’t speak the same language. Other then perhaps possibly that of compassion, but that’s the one quality lawyers are sure to lack once they get to be finance ministers.

Still, once you acknowledge that something is a political issue, you must make sure that only political arguments drive the talks, not economic ones, not even legal ones. And that’s what seems to be the little big 800-pound thingy, doesn’t it? They all just choose to pretend they speak the same language even if they know they don’t.

So all the eurogroup only possibly can do is to vent as little flexibility as possible. If they veer even an inch off the prescribed path, they would be instantly lost. Lawyers…

But that also, and very much so, means we need to wonder why Syriza insisted on prolonging the eurogroup talks all this time. The eurogroup, whatever it may be, and whatever we may think of it, is not a political forum. It’s evidently not an economic one, either, but that’s another story altogether.

Why did Varoufakis go back into that forum time after time, even after Nowotny said what he did? He must have known from that moment, and long before, that as an economist he had nothing to gain there. He might as well have sent his cleaning lady. And she might have come up with a better result to boot.

Why did Syriza never insist that the people involved be changed, and the venue, to be limited to Merkel and Hollande and Tsipras?

The question that lingers is why these talks are set up the way they are, where failure is all but certain. Is that intentional, as in where the lawyers are sent in because they are supposed to halt all sensible discussion no matter what?

Or, arguably more interesting, is it that when it comes to purely political issues, nobody really knows who to put forward? Who can really discuss exclusively political issues other than actual political leaders?

Well, we know it’s not economists, and we can count out cleaning ladies (though we could get lucky). We also know we shouldn’t let lawyers do the trick. They’re too narrow in their range. So who? I would almost say there’s no-one, but that automatically leads to the only possible option: the highest political ‘functionaries’.

Which in the case of the Troika vs Greece means Merkel, Hollande, perhaps Renzi, and Tsipras. The people who’ve been elected (or quasi) to be their nations’ top-notch political leaders. No Dijsselbloem, or Schäuble, or any of those guys. No Varoufakis either.

The ECB is both a participant in the talks and a creditor, a stakeholder. That pushes it painfully close to being a political participant, something a central bank should never ever be.

But the breaching of red lines and grey areas has become so ubiquitous in the whole ‘discussion’ that nobody seems to notice anymore, or wants to notice, for that matter.

The same goes for the role of the IMF. What do they think they’re doing? The Fund should stay far away from any political discussion, or it loses its credibility.

Both the ECB and the IMF try to keep up the illusion that their decisions are a-political and within their respective mandates, but that idea can only be maintained if and when the Greece issue were an economical one. We’ve already seen it’s not.

We end up concluding that the entire process has been a disaster, unless one’s aim from the get-go was to gut the Greek economy even more, and the outcome is -therefore- a disaster too.

But it’s still economists who keep holding the talks. The “technical experts” from the Troika that re-enter Athens as we speak may be a bit more knowledgeable when it comes to economics that the EU finance ministers, but still, they are loaded with their own issues.

If I were Tsipras I’d refuse to have any of my people talk to any Troika ‘negotiators’ from here on in, and insist on direct talks with Merkel and Hollande only (I’d have done that a long time ago, too). See what the real intentions are amongst those that have real power, and only after that, have staff, like economists and lawyers, discuss specifics and fill in details.

Things have been moving the 180º other way around now, and it could never even possibly have led to a positive result. You can’t start with the details.

Here’s still wondering why they all insist on doing things that way. Isn’t it obvious? Or has the whole thing simply been intentional all along?

Oh, and before I forget, most commentaries on the Greek issue in the media also come from economists. Some of those are palatable, even smart. But at the same time, they haven’t yet gotten the message either: it’s all about politics. If it were just economics, Greece would be solved in 2 seconds flat.

But it’s not. And there’s a reason for that which lies way beyond economics.

Dec 142014
 
 December 14, 2014  Posted by at 9:33 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


DPC Mott Street, Chinatown, New York 1900

Where are you going, America?

I don’t like to discuss politics too much. There are not enough smart, kind and honest people in politics wherever I look in the world for me to want to have anything to do with that game. I’d just spend all my time wondering what kind of mindset it takes to want to tell other people what to do, and be in control of the millions, billions and trillions of dollars that are taken from these people on a daily, yearly, basis.

Not that all of them politicians are bad, but those who have genuinely good intentions get drowned out, within seconds, by the ones for whom the need to have power over others is more important than anything else. And as I said, on the whole they’re not very smart. It’s for instance a very bad idea to let you countries’ economic policies be decided by the very people who make the decisions today.

They have no clue what they’re talking about. So they get advisors who they feel do know, and these advisors all come from the same small niche of society that steer everybody’s hard-earned cash towards that same small niche of society. 99% of economists are religious nuts who do even the Roman Catholic church one better because they chart graphs to ‘prove’ their beliefs are true -or even provable-.

They adapt the world to their theories, not the other way around, as physicists do. They pretend their field is a science, but, other than the graphs, it has none of the characteristics of a science. Falsifiability is not a term one can let loose on economics; within minutes, there’d be nothing left.

The other advisors politicians have when it comes to economic policies are bankers, who are convinced banks are the most important institutions and edifices in the world, just like priests and vicars would have described their churches and cathedrals not long ago. That is why last week we saw a spending bill being shoved through US Congress and Senate that includes parts openly written by Citigroup lobbyists, and which puts the risk of over $300 trillion in derivatives on American taxpayers’ shoulders.

America is a democracy in name only. And I often ask myself why Americans take that lying down. Why they think they don’t have to fight for their rights and their freedoms the way the founders did. Do they think they’re special, are they so full of themselves, and full of ‘it’, that they think it’s okay to let their rights being taken away from them, and their children, the same rights so many Americans died for in earlier days?

When you try and see things that way, what else do present day US citizens deserve than what’s coming to them? You can’t have freedom, and you can’t have rights, if you’re not willing to fight for them. And that doesn’t mean sending a bunch of your low-down poorest young people to some faraway desert, it means keeping in touch with what’s happening in your own town and county and state and country. And raising your voice if you don’t like what you see.

There’s a Senate report – many years too late – that confirms the CIA and other parties tortured often innocent people in the name of the United States, and that means you, in incredibly cruel ways reminiscent perhaps most of Medieval times or even before that, before man allegedly became civilized, but for which, by the looks of it, nobody will to be prosecuted in the US.

Letting people die of torture, and then afterwards finding out it was just another case of mistaken identity, has become acceptable in America. Congratulations. We’ve come a long way.

There’s the incredible story of the Ukraine, in which the Senate just days ago called for more economic sanctions vs Russia, and full-blown lethal military aid for Ukraine, where US patsies have taken over even more government positions by being handed hundreds of millions of dollars and fresh Kiev passports, and where now Russia will be forced to counteract, against its will.

Why do Americans allow for that to happen in their name? Don’t they care what other people in the world, in which they’re hugely outnumbered, since less than 1 in 20 is American, think about them? Don’t they care about the effect of harassing others incessantly for the purpose of enriching US companies?

Or do Americans think their superior weaponry allows them to do whatever they want to whoever they want to do it to? Somehow, that, too, is reminiscent of the Middle Ages. America hasn’t won an actual war since 1945, because bigger armies don’t win wars anymore. Having the biggest guns doesn’t either. Nuclear weapons are too destructive for that.

Ron Paul seems to be the only US politician who has any idea of what the US should stand for, who understands that empire building is a really bad idea with all the nukes around, and that coalition building and friendship with other peoples and nations is a much better way to keep Americans safe and -relatively – prosperous. And Ron Paul is getting on; who’ll stand up in his place?

But the biggest issues for Americans are not abroad, they’re right at home. As evidenced by Ferguson, by Eric Garner, and by the mass demonstrations in the past days. The problem is, since the 1960s people have turned their focus so much towards money and so far away from their personal rights and freedoms, and those of others, that one or two or ten demonstrations won’t make a difference anymore.

I was watching something on the 1964 Klan killing of three civil rights workers in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi the other day, of Dr. King’s role, of how the entire town knew who was guilty but shut up. And I wondered what exactly America has achieved since then, what has changed and what is better 50 years on.

And sure enough I found my answer, in a graph of all places. It this doesn’t hurt your sense of justice, and your sense of pride to be an American, I don’t know what would. Nor do I understand, if you choose to keep silent, where you think this will lead in the future. What can you possibly say when you let these numbers sink in?