Apr 052018
 
 April 5, 2018  Posted by at 12:11 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  


Herbert Ponting Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, Antarctica 1911

 

Something must be terribly wrong with the world. A few days ago Elizabeth Warren agreed with Trump on China, now Bernie Sanders agrees with him about Amazon. What’s happening?

 

Bernie Sanders Agrees With Trump: Amazon Has Too Much Power

Independent Vermont senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders echoed President Donald Trump in expressing concern about retail giant Amazon. Sanders said that he felt Amazon had gotten too big on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, and added that Amazon’s place in society should be examined.

“And I think this is, look, this is an issue that has got to be looked at. What we are seeing all over this country is the decline in retail. We’re seeing this incredibly large company getting involved in almost every area of commerce. And I think it is important to take a look at the power and influence that Amazon has,” said Sanders.

A backlash against Facebook, a backlash against Amazon. Are these things connected? Actually, yes, they are connected. But not in a way that either Trump or Sanders has clued in to. Someone who has, a for now lone voice, is David Stockman. Here’s what he wrote last week.

 

The Donald’s Blind Squirrel Nails An Acorn

It is said that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn, and so it goes with the Donald. Banging on his Twitter keyboard in the morning darkness, he drilled Jeff Bezos a new one – or at least that’s what most people would call having their net worth lightened by about $2 billion:

“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election. Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state & local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous loss to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!” You can’t get more accurate than that. Amazon is a monstrous predator enabled by the state, but Amazon’s outrageous postal subsidy – a $1.46 gift card from the USPS stabled on each box – isn’t the half of it.

The real crime here is that Amazon has been exempted from making a profit, and the culprit is the Federal Reserve’s malignant regime of Bubble Finance. The latter has destroyed financial discipline entirely and turned the stock market into the greatest den of speculation in human history. That’s why Bezos can kill established businesses with impunity.

The casino allows him to run a pernicious business model based on “price to destroy”, rather than price for profit and a return on capital. Needless to say, under a regime of sound money and honest capital markets Amazon would be a far more benign economic creature. That’s because no real investors would value AMZN’s money-loosing e-Commerce business at $540 billion – nor even a small fraction of that after 25-years of profitless growth.

The bubble economy, the everything bubble, that we have been forced into, with QE, ultra-low rates, central banks buying trillions in what at least used to be assets, and massive buybacks that allow companies to raise their ‘value’ into the stratosphere, has enabled a company like Amazon to kill off its competition, which consists of many thousands of retailers, that do have to run a profit.

It’s a money scheme that allows many of the most ‘valuable’ tech companies to elbow their way into our lives, in ways that may seem beneficial to us at first, but in reality will only leave us behind with much less choice, far less competition, and many, many fewer jobs. Once it’s done someone will mention ‘scorched earth’. But for now they are everybody’s darlings; they are, don’t you know, the tech giants, the brainchildren of the best that the best among us have to offer.

They don’t all work the exact same way, which may make it harder to recognize what they have in common. For some it’s easier to see than for others. It’s also difficult to list them all. Here’s a few: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google (Alphabet), Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, Monsanto. Let’s go through the list.

 

Apple ? Yes, Apple too. But they make real things! Yes, but just as Apple CEO Tim Cook seeks to distance his company from the likes of Facebook on morals and ethics, he can’t deny that Apple sells a zillion phones to a large extent because everybody uses them to look at Facebook and Alphabet apps until their faces are blue. If data ethics are the only problem Cook sees, he’s in trouble.

Silicon Valley infighting shows that the industry does have an idea what is going wrong, in ways that should have already led to many more pronounced worries and investigations.

 

Silicon Valley Rivals Take Shots At Facebook

Mr. Cook, who has long sought to differentiate Apple on privacy matters, contrasted its focus on selling devices with Facebook and Google’s ad-based businesses that are built on user data. Asked what he would do if he were Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Cook replied: “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

[..] Days earlier, François Chollet, an artificial intelligence engineer at Google, sought to draw a line between his company and Facebook. He tweeted that Google products like search and Gmail help users “to do more, to know more.” Facebook’s newsfeed, he wrote, “manipulates your worldview and seeks to maximally waste your time.”

[..] In January, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, whose company sells business software services, said that the addictive nature of social media means it should be regulated like a health issue.“I think that you do it exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry,” Mr. Benioff told CNBC when asked how Facebook should be regulated. Some of the most cutting rebukes have come from people who know Facebook well.

In November, Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, said that Facebook executives, including himself, were “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” by designing a platform built on social validation. Mr. Parker didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Facebook generally hasn’t responded to the criticism, but it did after sharp comments from its former vice president of growth, Chamath Palihapitiya. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” Mr. Palihapitiya said at a talk at Stanford University in November.

I would expect to hear a lot more of that sort of thing. Big Tech is changing the world in more ways than one. And spying on people Facebook-style is merely one of a long list of them. So yes, Apple certainly also belongs in that list. Facebook doesn’t build the devices people use to see what their friends had for breakfast, Apple does that. Moreover, Apple profits hugely from stock buybacks, so it fits in Stockman’s bubble finance definition of Amazon, too.

The failure of politics to investigate, and act against, those dopamine-driven feedback loops which exploit a vulnerability in human psychology in order to maximally waste your time and sell you product after product that you never (knew you) wanted is downright bizarre. Politicians only started talking about Facebook when a topic connected to Trump and Russia was linked to it.

 

Amazon: Trump can’t act fast enough on the tax situation and the US Postal deal. Not that that will solve the issue. Amazon, like all the companies on my list, can only be cut down to size if and when the everything bubble is. They are, after all, its children.

The most pernicious aspect of the Amazon ‘business model’, which all these firms share, and all are able to live by thanks to the central banks and the “greatest den of speculation in human history” they have created, is the prospect of world domination in their respective fields. They all hold in front of speculators the promise that they can crush all competition, or nearly all. Scorched earth, flat earth.

 

Facebook: their place in the list is obvious. What is it, 2.5 billion users? And what they don’t have is divvied up between them and Google when they buy up apps like Instagram. Officially competitors, but they have the exact same goals. And, like me, you may think: what’s the problem, just ban them from collecting all that data. Facebook has no reason to know, at least not one that serves us, where you were last Friday, and with whom. And just in case you missed that bit, they do.

But there their connection to the intelligence world comes in. Their platforms are better than anything the NSA has ever been able to develop. So we can say we don’t want Zuckerberg and Alphabet spying on us, but our own spies do want to do just that. That makes any kind of backlash much harder to succeed. And it doesn’t matter if you delete your Facebook account, they’ll find you anyway. Friend of a friend. We all have friends who are on Facebook, rinse and repeat.

The only hope there is, with Facebook as with the other companies, is for investors and speculators to dump their holdings in massive numbers. And that will only happen when the central bank Ponzi collapses. And it will, but by then we have a whole new set of problems.

 

Google: largely the same set of issues that Facebook has. Its tentacles are everywhere. Former CEO Eric Schmidt’s connections to the Pentagon should be really all you need to know. The EU may have issued all sorts of complaints and fines on competition grounds, but that makes no difference.

The one country with an effective response to Google and Facebook is China, that has largely banned both and built its own versions of their products. Which allows Beijing to ban people from boarding planes, buying homes etc., if their ‘social credit’ is deemed too low. If you want to be scared about where Big Tech’s powers can lead, look no further.

 

Tesla: Elon Musk has built a fantasy (and maybe I should put Paypal in this list too) on what everyone thinks must be done to ‘save the planet’ (yeah, build cars…) by grossly overstating the number of cars he can build, and financing his growth on not only speculation, but also on spectacular amounts of government subsidies (politicians want to save the planet, too).

And now he needs additional financing again. He will probably get it, again, but the Amazon backlash might have people take another look. One fine day… Fits David Stockman’s complaint to a t(ee), doesn’t have to make a profit. Musk has perfected that model.

 

Uber and Airbnb: why anyone anywhere would want to send money generated in their community, by renting out cars and apartments in that same community, to a bunch of people in Silicon Valley, is beyond me. Someone should set this up as an international effort that makes it easy for a community, a city etc., to provide this kind of service and make the profits benefit their own cities.

But like Amazon, they are free to run any competition into the ground because no profits are required until they have conquered the world. And then they can go nuts. It may look like a business model, but it isn’t. It’s a soon to be orphaned bubble child..

 

Monsanto: less obvious perhaps as an entry in the Big Tech list, but very much warranting a spot. And of course it stands for the entire chemical-seeds field. From Agent Orange to your children’s dinner plate. Monsanto has more lawyers and lobbyists on its payroll than it has scientists, but then its lofty goals outdo even those of Google or Amazon.

Facebook may focus on your addiction to human contact, but Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta et al have decided to make your food so addicted to their chemicals that they will in the future profit from every bite served on your table. How they will grow that food long term without any insects, bees or birds left is unclear, but they don’t seem to care much. As for profits? Monsanto seeks to rule the world, and for now care as little about profits as they do about insects.

 

Zuckerberg may claim that he only wants to improve Facebook’s service, but when that is done through for instance the 2012 so-called Transmission of Anger experiment in which the company tried to alter their users’ emotional states -and succeeded-, by manipulating their friends’ postings, that claim becomes pure ridicule. Selling off user data to scores of developers doesn’t help either. But do you see Congress tackling him in any serious way next week? Neither do I.

Because there’s one huge catch to the scenario that David Stockman -and I- painted, of the whole tech bubble collapsing when the financial bubble does. It is the links tech companies have built to intelligence. A group of Google employees wrote a letter to their CEO Sundar Pichai to protest the company’s involvement in “weaponized AI”, in the shape of Project Maven, a military surveillance engine to-be.

These people undoubtedly mean well, but they’re far too late. They will have to leave the “don’t be evil” company to actually not be evil. Because it’s not a big step from weaponized AI to killer robots. Microsoft is also part of the project, and Amazon is. If you work there and don’t want to be evil, you know what to do.

Yeah, it’s about our safety, and security, and political and military and economic power. But it’s also about spying on people, in even worse ways than Facebook does. So even as the central bank bubble, and the tech bubble, go poof, some of these companies may be saved by their military ties.

That sound you hear is George Orwell turning in his grave.

 

 

Aug 222017
 
 August 22, 2017  Posted by at 8:35 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  


Pierre Bonnard Nude in an Interior c1935

 

Periods Of Re-Pricing Are Usually Quick And Brutal (Roberts)
US House Price Bubbles 2.0 (Hanson)
QE Is Like Heroin, Says Former UK Treasury Official (G.)
UK Credit Card Lending Booms As Real Wages Fall (Ind.)
Cash is Not The Curse (Mark GB)
US Gross National Debt to Spike by $800 Billion in October? (WS)
Why Peter Costello Is Not Even Half Right On Housing (ND)
Diminishing Returns (Jim Kunstler)
What Would A US Civil War Look Like? (Copley)
Hate is the New Sex (Greer)
Greece Concerns Peak Amid Sudden Spike In Refugee Arrivals (K.)
US Farmers Confused By Monsanto Weed Killer’s Complex Instructions (R.)
UK Blasted Over ‘Shocking’ Export Of Deadly Weedkiller To Poorer Countries (G.)
The Blue Dogs of Mumbai (G.)

 

 

And the longer re-pricing is postponed, through QE etc., the steeper the fall will be.

Periods Of Re-Pricing Are Usually Quick And Brutal (Roberts)

1. Stock prices run in cycles. Periods of re-pricing are usually quick and powerful.

7. Your first loss will often be your best loss. No one is right all the time and you don’t have to be. There are market participants that are immensely profitable by being right only 30% of the time. It is good to have conviction in your investment thesis, but discipline should always trump conviction.

8. Optimism and pessimism in the stock market are contagious. Investor psychology often loses its logic and become emotional. The news media and the most recent price action play a particularly important role in developing moods of mass optimism or pessimism.

Read more …

Debt slaves.

US House Price Bubbles 2.0 (Hanson)

A big problem with house prices experiencing even a “moderate” correction of 10% to 20% — already underway in many of the most over-priced regions — is with between 40% and 50% of all house purchases for years being of the “less than 10% down” variety — and because it takes 8% to 10% equity to sell plus the 3% to 10% down payment on the new house — it doesn’t take much downside to swamp the nation in “NEGATIVE EQUITY” once again. And we know for certain that many homeowners rather pay their credit cards and car payments before their mortgage when they are underwater.

ITEM 1) Household income INCREASE needed to Buy the Median Priced House in Key Cities. Bottom Line: On a “national” basis the divergence isn’t too bad…6%. But, in the key cities that drive the US economy, Bubble 2.0 has blown large. This represents significant downside, especially in the sand states, just like in Bubble 1.0.

ITEM 2) DIVERGENCE between Actual Household Income & Income Needed to Buy the Median Priced House. Bottom Line: Here too, on a “national” basis the divergence isn’t too bad…-6%. But, in the key cities that drive the US economy, Bubble 2.0 has blown large.

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It’s worse, actually. Heroin cold turkey is doable though hard. QE cold turkey is definitely not.

QE Is Like Heroin, Says Former UK Treasury Official (G.)

A former senior Treasury mandarin has compared quantitative easing to heroin and called for an end to almost a decade of electronic money printing by central banks. Nick Macpherson was permanent secretary to the Treasury when Bank of England officials started buying UK government bonds to stimulate the economy following the financial crisis. On Monday, he said it was “time to move on” from QE, which is credited with helping Britain into recovery but remains in use nine years later amid concerns over Brexit. Threadneedle Street initially began pumping £200bn into the gilt market in 2009 to boost the economy, before expanding the programme to £435bn, including an extra £60bn following the EU referendum. The bond buying scheme is similar to massive stimulus packages used by other countries, such as the Fed’s $4.5tn of asset purchases (£3.5tn) and the ECB ’s €2.3tn (£2.1tn) plan.

Lord Macpherson’s call comes as pressure mounts on the world’s central bankers to give more clues about how they intend to exit QE in a process known as “normalisation” almost a decade on from the crash. Some indications could be given at a meeting of senior officials at Jackson Hole in the US later this week. Mario Draghi, the ECB governor, is expected to be the star turn at the event watched by global investors, although he is not thought to be preparing to announce the end of QE just yet. While QE is credited with lowering borrowing costs and helping banks to lend more to consumers and businesses, critics say such schemes inflate assets owned by the richest in society, while punishing savers without large amounts of wealth. Macpherson did not single out the specific bond-buying programme of a particular central bank. “QE like heroin: need ever increasing fixes to create a high. Meanwhile, negative side effects increase. Time to move on,” he wrote on Twitter.

Read more …

And after all the QE, people are poorer than before.

UK Credit Card Lending Booms As Real Wages Fall (Ind.)

UK consumers are increasingly purchasing goods on plastic with the number of transactions on credit and debit cards jumping 12% in the last year. The increase was the fastest annual rise in the number of card transactions since 2008 and comes after warnings from the Bank of England about the growth of personal debt. Shoppers spent 7.2% more on all types of cards in the year to the end of June, despite real wages falling over the period, data from industry body UK Finance showed. The total value of credit and charge card purchases increased 6.9% over the 12 months with credit card lending accelerating in April, May and June to an annual growth rate of 9%. During those three months, the number of people defaulting on their credit card bills and personal loans “increased significantly”, the Bank of England said in a recent report.

The rise comes as official figures show real earnings have declined. Average pay rose at an annual rate of 2.1% in the three months to June – well below the inflation rate of 2.6% in the year to the end of June. Overall consumer spending was up 1.3% in the year to July, the Office for National Statistics said in a separate release this month. Peter Tutton, head of policy at StepChange debt charity, expressed concern at the findings. “With our research estimating 3.2 million people are using credit cards to pay for everyday household expenses, the growing stock of credit card debt should focus attention on households in financial difficulties,” he said. Mr Tutton said the growth in credit card cash advances was particularly worrying. This type of borrowing is expensive and can be a warning sign that borrowers are facing financial difficulty.

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More on Ken Rogoff and Larry Summers’ crazy ideas of power over people’s money.

Cash is Not The Curse (Mark GB)

There’s a pub in the Welsh hills, not far from where I live, called ‘The Tylers Arms’ – pronounced ‘tillers’. The name originated, I believe, in the 18th century. The local villagers, who all worked on the land, would go there to pick up their wages in the form of ‘tyles’ – some of which would be immediately exchanged for beer, and thus returned to the landowner…who also owned the pub…and the local store. Thus, the ‘tyles’ circulated regularly, providing employment & cheap produce for the villagers, a steady and almost ‘captive’ profit for the landowner, and stability for the community. As the industrial revolution progressed some of the larger UK manufacturers adopted a similar system, but using fiat currency – e.g. there is a ‘village’ in Birmingham known as Bourneville, which was built by the Cadbury family.

Now before anyone thinks I’ve got unresolved baggage on feudalism, a ‘downer’ on capitalism, or a yearning for socialism…hold your horses please…this is about something far more serious than the ‘isms’. This is about who controls the money. The folks who do that…can, and do, call the tune for the rest of us. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

These days our monetary masters are much more sophisticated – our ‘tyles’ are pieces of paper backed by government fiat. You can work for pretty much whomever you like, and you can buy from whomever you like, but one way or another the government will take a cut of everything you earn and everything you spend. You can do the odd ‘swapsie’ with your pals but you can’t pay taxes with home grown tomatoes – the IRS don’t do vegetables – they can’t digitise them or create them with a keystroke so veggies would confuse the poor dears.

What happens next is technical and varies between territories, so let’s just deal with the ‘myth’: The taxman’s ‘cut’ is used to boost the economy on your behalf by spending it on useful things like building roads and bridges. It also includes an ever-growing list of things that you didn’t even realise you need, like cruise missiles & other stuff that goes ‘BANG’, along with other seemingly ‘essential’ services like bribing foreign governments and funding ‘moderate rebels’ to remove the foreign governments that can’t be bribed. Clearly we’ve come a long way from tyles, especially in the case of the dollar, which can used to bribe governments on seven continents. The chap who owned the Tillers never dreamt of such power – this is considered to be progress…

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Now that Goldman rules the White House, default risk is definitely down.

US Gross National Debt to Spike by $800 Billion in October? (WS)

“There is zero chance, no chance we won’t raise the debt ceiling,” swore Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) at an event in Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday. He who couldn’t get his Republican ducks all lined up in a row to get any major legislation passed this year was confident that the Senate would pass a bill that would raise the debt ceiling so that the government could continue to pay for things that Congress told the Government to pay for, and so that the government could service its debts, rather than default on them. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was there with him, pleading once again for a “clean” debt-ceiling increase, according to the Wall Street Journal. His “magic super Treasury powers” that allow the government to conserve cash to avoid having to issue more debt will expire at the end of September, he said.

“This is not about spending money,” he said. “This is about paying for what we’ve spent, and we cannot put the credit of the United States on the line.” The debt ceiling is just under $20 trillion. While the government can issue bonds to redeem maturing bonds – and it does this all the time – it cannot allow the gross national debt to go beyond the debt ceiling. But because it has to continue to pay for things that Congress mandated in its various spending bills over the years, the Treasury scrounges up the money from other government accounts, robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. For example it temporarily short-changes the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund. These “extraordinary measures,” as they’re called, or the “magic super Treasury powers,” as Mnuchin called it, run out after a while.

Mnuchin said in his last letter to Congress that the out-of-money-date is September 29. But as in the past, the real out-of-money date can probably be stretched into October. These shenanigans make the entire world shake its collective head and pray that Congress, after going through its charade, will for the umpteenth time raise the debt limit. The other option is a US default. Its global consequences are too ugly to even imagine. But this charade has some peculiar effects, beyond its entertainment value: for months on end, it covers up the true extent of US government debt, and the current surge of this debt. This chart shows the gross national debt going back to 2011, including the last two debt-ceiling fights. Note the long flat lines leading into October or November, followed each time by an enormous spike:

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A good example of exatly how stuck governments and central banks are after blowing housing bubbles. There was an Australian tycoon this week who said the Oz bubble won’t pop because people are too heavily invested in property…

Why Peter Costello Is Not Even Half Right On Housing (ND)

When former treasurer Peter Costello called on Monday for interest rates to be ‘normalised’ upwards to stop Australia’s credit bubble getting any larger, he was very nearly half right. As long as the Reserve Bank keeps the official cash rate at the record low of 1.5%, the economy will become increasingly “unbalanced”, as he put it. And although struggling families will protest that they can’t afford higher mortgage repayments, the other side of that coin is that each successive wave of first home owners is taking on even higher debts. The longer that super-low rates persist, the more debt the banks will be able to balance on the shoulders of new home buyers. That has already created huge property-based inequality. But Mr Costello’s comments weren’t focused on that imbalance – he’s worried about the impact that unstable house prices or teetering banks could have on economic growth more generally.

He told The Australian that “once [the price of] money returns to more normal levels” Australia could face a “big problem” with asset prices and the housing market. Quite right, but what could prevent that? A gradual increase in rates will not, in itself, ‘fix’ the housing market. To do that, two other abnormalities need to be addressed. The one mentioned most by Mr Costello’s side of politics is the availability of suitable dwellings – the ‘supply problem’. That is a wildly misunderstood problem, so I will look at it separately in coming days. But bigger than either low rates or the supposed ‘supply problem’ is the abnormality that Mr Costello himself created – tax laws that reward investors for making annual losses in the housing market, so as to reap lightly-taxed capital gains years down the track.

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“..an impenetrable smokescreen of legal blather in the service of racketeering.”

Diminishing Returns (Jim Kunstler)

These two words are the hinge that is swinging American life — and the advanced techno-industrial world, for that matter — toward darkness. They represent an infection in the critical operations of daily life, like a metabolic disease, driving us into disorder and failure. And they are so omnipresent that we’ve failed to even notice the growing failure all around us. Mostly, these diminishing returns are the results of our over-investments in making complex systems more complex, for instance the replacement of the 37-page Glass-Steagall Act that regulated American banking, with the 848 page Dodd-Frank Act, which was only an outline for over 22,000 pages of subsequent regulatory content — all of it cooked up by banking lobbyists, and none of which replaced the single most important rule in Glass-Steagall, which required the separation of commercial banking from trafficking in securities.

Dodd-Frank was a colossal act of misdirection of the public’s attention, an impenetrable smokescreen of legal blather in the service of racketeering. For Wall Street, Dodd-Frank aggravated the conditions that allow stock indexes to only move in one direction, up, for nine years. During the same period, the American economy of real people and real stuff only went steadily down, including the number of people out of the work force, the incomes of those who still had jobs, the number of people with full-time jobs, the number of people who were able to buy food without government help, or pay for a place to live, or send a kid to college. When that morbid tension finally snaps, as it must, it won’t only be the Hedge Funders of the Hamptons who get hurt. It will be the entire global financial system, especially currencies (dollars, Euros, Yen, Pounds, Renminbi) that undergo a swift and dire re-pricing, and all the other things of this world priced in them.

And when that happens, the world will awake to a new reality of steeply reduced possibilities for supporting 7-plus billion people. The same over-investments in complexity have produced the racketeering colossus of so-called health care (formerly “medicine”), in case you’re wondering why the waiting room of your doctor’s office now looks exactly like the motor vehicle bureau. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the citizens of this land have never been so uniformly unhealthy, even as they’re being swindled and blackmailed by their “providers.” The eventual result will be a chaotic process of simplification, as giant hospital corporations, insurance companies, and overgrown doctors’ practices collapse, and the braver practitioners coalesce into something resembling Third World clinics.

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“..such a conflict – physical or political – could, equally, lead to a victory for nationalism over globalism, and to the protection of currencies and values.”

What Would A US Civil War Look Like? (Copley)

There is little doubt that the US, despite the evidence that economic recovery is at hand, could spiral into a self-destructive descent of dysfunction, dystopia, and anomie. The path toward a “second civil war” has significant parallels with the causes of the first US Civil War (1861-65). Both events — the 19th Century event and a possible 21st Century one — saw the polarization of a fundamentally urban, abstract society against a fundamentally regional, traditional society. In some respects, it is a conflict between people with long memories (even if those memories are flawed and selective) and people to whom memories and history are irrelevant. Equally, it is a conflict between identity and materialism, with the abstract social groups (the urban populations) the most preoccupied with short-term material gain.

I have covered the US for 50 years, and my earliest view of it was, a half century ago, that its populations would inevitably polarize into protective islands of self-interest, surrounded by seas of unthinking locusts. What is ironic is that the present islands of wealth and power — the cities — have come to represent short-term materialism, as cities have throughout history. But what is interesting is that, despite the global attention on the political/geographic polarizations occurring in the US and other parts of the Western world, there has been a reversion in other parts of the world to a sense of Westphalian or pre-Westphalian nationalism. The fact that “the West” may have ring-fenced Iran, Russia, and so on, with sanctions and other forms of isolation may well be what ensures their enduring status.

They have avoided the contagion of globalism. Russia, indeed, recovered from the Soviet form of globalism in 1991. An urban globalist “victory” over Trump and Brexit would trigger that meltdown toward a form of civil societal collapse – civil war in some form or other – as the regions disavow the diktats of the cities. That would, in turn, bring about the global economic uncertainty which could impact the PRC and then the en-tire world. But such a conflict – physical or political – could, equally, lead to a victory for nationalism over globalism, and to the protection of currencies and values. We have seen this cycle repeated for millennia. It is the eternal battle.

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The Archdruid from a few weeks ago.

Hate is the New Sex (Greer)

It occurred to me the other day that there’s a curious disconnect between one of the most common assumptions most of us make about how to make the world better, on the one hand, and the results that this assumption has had when put into practice, on the other. It’s reminiscent of the realization that led James Hillman and Michael Ventura to title a once-notorious book of theirs We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy And The World’s Getting Worse. In this case as in that one, something that’s supposed to make things better doesn’t seem to be doing the trick—in fact, quite the opposite—and it’s time that we talked about that. You know the assumption I have in mind, dear reader. It’s the conviction that certain common human emotions are evil and harmful and wrong, and the way to make a better world is to get rid of them in one way or another.

That belief is taken for granted throughout the industrial societies of the modern West, and it’s been welded in place for a very long time, though—as we’ll see in a moment—the particular emotions so labeled have varied from time to time. Just now, of course, the emotion at the center of this particular rogue’s gallery is hate. These days hate has roughly the same role in popular culture that original sin has in traditional Christian theology. If you want to slap the worst imaginable label on an organization, you call it a hate group. If you want to push a category of discourse straight into the realm of the utterly unacceptable, you call it hate speech. If you’re speaking in public and you want to be sure that everyone in the crowd will beam approval at you, all you have to do is denounce hate.

At the far end of this sort of rhetoric, you get the meretricious slogan used by Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign last year: LOVE TRUMPS HATE. I hope that none of my readers are under the illusion that Clinton’s partisans were primarily motivated by love, except in the sense of Clinton’s love for power and the Democrats’ love for the privileges and payouts they could expect from four more years of control of the White House; and of course Trump and the Republicans were head over heels in love with the same things. The fact that Clinton’s marketing flacks and focus groups thought that the slogan just quoted would have an impact on the election, though, shows just how pervasive the assumption I’m discussing has become in our culture.

Now of course most people these days, when confronted with the sort of things I’ve just written, are likely to respond, “Wait, are you saying that hate is good?”—as though the only alternatives available are condemning something as absolutely bad or praising it as absolutely good. Let’s set that simplistic reaction to one side for the moment, and ask a different question: what happens when people decide that some common human emotion is evil and harmful and wrong, and decide that the way to make a better world is to get rid of it?

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Watch Erdogan. German elections coming up.

Greece Concerns Peak Amid Sudden Spike In Refugee Arrivals (K.)

A sudden spike in the number of undocumented migrants arriving from neighboring Turkey has led to concern on the part of Greek authorities, who expect the next few days to reveal whether the rapid increase is a random occurence or the beginning of a new trend. A total of 643 migrants who had set out from the Turkish coast landed on the islands of the eastern Aegean between Friday and Monday morning, according to government figures. Another 114 people arrived in two separate smuggling boats later on Monday, putting authorities on alert.

Early on Monday, a vessel belonging to the European Union’s border monitoring agency Frontex spotted a smuggling boat off the coast of Chios and intercepted the 53 migrants who had been aboard. Later in the day another 61 migrants were found in a boat that had reached Samos and were also detained. Tensions are already high in reception centers on several Aegean islands. Most of the facilities are at around twice their capacity as hundreds of migrants and refugees await the outcome of asylum applications or deportation orders. Tolerance has been tested in several island communities as dozens of migrants continue to arrive daily from nearby Turkish shores. There are currently more than 14,400 migrants living on camps on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros.

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Confused? The instructions are impossible to follow, not confusing.

US Farmers Confused By Monsanto Weed Killer’s Complex Instructions (R.)

With Monsanto’s latest flagship weed killer, dicamba, banned in Arkansas and under review by U.S. regulators over concerns it can drift in the wind, farmers and weed scientists are also complaining that confusing directions on the label make the product hard to use safely. Dicamba, sold under different brand names by BASF and DuPont, can vaporize under certain conditions and the wind can blow it into nearby crops and other plants. The herbicide can damage or even kill crops that have not been genetically engineered to resist it. To prevent that from happening, Monsanto created a 4,550-word label with detailed instructions. Its complexity is now being cited by farmers and critics of the product. It was even singled out in a lawsuit as evidence that Monsanto’s product may be virtually impossible to use properly.

At stake for Monsanto is the fate of Xtend soybeans, it largest ever biotech seed launch. Monsanto’s label, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewed and approved, instructs farmers to apply the company’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip on its latest genetically engineered soybeans only when winds are blowing at least 3 miles per hour, but not more than 15 mph. Growers must also spray it from no higher than 24 inches above the crops. They must adjust spraying equipment to produce larger droplets of the herbicide when temperatures creep above 91 degrees Fahrenheit. After using the product, they must rinse out spraying equipment. Three times. “The restriction on these labels is unlike anything that’s ever been seen before,” said Bob Hartzler, an agronomy professor and weed specialist at Iowa State University. The label instructions are also of interest to lawyers for farmers suing Monsanto, BASF and DuPont over damage they attribute to the potent weed killer moving off-target to nearby plants.

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It’s not ‘shocking’, it’s criminal.

UK Blasted Over ‘Shocking’ Export Of Deadly Weedkiller To Poorer Countries (G.)

Paraquat, a pesticide so lethal that a single sip can be fatal, has caused thousands of accidental deaths and suicides globally, and was outlawed by EU states in 2007. But Swiss pesticide manufacturer Syngenta is exporting thousands of tonnes of the substance to other parts of the world from an industrial plant in Huddersfield. Campaigners have condemned the practice as an “astonishing double standard”, while a UN expert said it was deeply disquieting that the human rights implications of producing a substance for export that is not authorised in the EU were being ignored. “The fact that the EU has decided to ban the pesticide for health and environmental reasons, but they still export it to countries with far weaker regulation and far weaker controls, is shocking to me,” said Baskut Tuncak, the UN special rapporteur on toxic wastes.

Syngenta is responsible for 95% of Europe’s exports of paraquat, which it sells under the brand name Gramoxone. The substance can be absorbed through the skin and has been linked with Parkinson’s disease. Syngenta has exported 122,831 tonnes of paraquat from the UK since 2015, an average of 41,000 tonnes a year, according to export licensing data analysed by the Swiss NGO Public Eye and shared with the Guardian. Since 2015, when a facility in Belgium stopped exporting paraquat, all EU exports of the pesticide have come from Syngenta’s UK base, according to Public Eye. Almost two-thirds of these exports by volume – 62% – go to poor countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Guatemala, Venezuela and India. A further 35% is exported to the US, where paraquat can only be applied by licensed users.

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We are a brilliant species.

The Blue Dogs of Mumbai (G.)

Authorities in Mumbai have shut down a manufacturing company after it was accused of dumping untreated industrial waste and dyes into a local river that resulted in 11 dogs turning blue. The group of strangely coloured canines was first spotted on 11 August, according to the Hindustan Times, prompting locals to complain to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board about dyes being dumped in the Kasadi river, where the animals often swim. Footage shows the animals roaming the streets with bright blue fur. “It was shocking to see how the dog’s white fur had turned completely blue,” said Arati Chauhan, head of the Navi Mumbai Animal Protection Cell, told the Times. “We have spotted almost five such dogs here and have asked the pollution control board to act against such industries.”

Chauhan had posted images of the blue dogs on the group’s Facebook page, saying the “pollutants from Taloja Industrial area not only ruining the water bodies affecting humans there but also affecting animals, birds, reptiles”. The board investigated, shutting down the company on Wednesday after confirming that canines were turning blue due to air and water pollution linked to the plant. An animal welfare agency managed to capture one of the dogs and wash some of the blue dye off. The group concluded that animal seemed unharmed in all other ways. The Kasadi River flows through an area with hundreds of factories.

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May 052017
 
 May 5, 2017  Posted by at 8:29 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  


Fred Stein Under the El New York 1949

 

Senate GOP to Snub House Obamacare Repeal Bill and Write Its Own (BBG)
Cost Of Interest On US Government Debt Tops Half A Trillion Dollars (ZH)
Oil Extends Slump Below $45 (BBG)
Emerging-Market Companies Binge On Dollar-Denominated Debt (BBG)
Chemchina Clinches Landmark $43 Billion Takeover of Syngenta (R.)
Brexit Talks Could Become ‘Impossible’: EU Council President Tusk (Ind.)
Italy’s Bankrupt National Airline Is Being Put Up For Sale (Ind.)
Italy’s Rescue Of Its Airline Comes At Great Cost To The Economy (BBG)
Baumol’s Cost Disease Explains A Lot About Our Economies (Vox)
Russia Set to Police Syria Safe Zones Backed by Iran, Turkey (BBG)
Syria Safe Zones To Be Shut For US, Coalition Planes (R.)
EU Wants China’s Help To Stop Boats Being Used By Migrants (R.)
EU Seeks to Ward Off New Refugee Crisis (Spiegel)
Tensions Boiling Over On Greece’s Chios Amid Absence Of Migrant Facility (K.)
Greece Paying Asylum Seekers To Reject Appeals (EUO)
Greece Says Has Done Its Bit, Now Wants Debt Relief (R.)
Greek Pensioners’ Network Lists 23 Cuts Inflicted On Benefits (K.)

 

 

This could take a while. And that’s a good thing.

Senate GOP to Snub House Obamacare Repeal Bill and Write Its Own (BBG)

Several key Senate Republicans said they will set aside the narrowly passed House health-care bill and write their own version instead, a sign of how difficult it will be to deliver on seven years of promises to repeal Obamacare. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate health committee, and Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership, both described the plan, even as the House was celebrating passing its repeal after weeks of back and forth. The decision will likely delay even further the prospect of any repeal bill reaching President Donald Trump’s desk. Hospital stocks dipped on the House vote, but quickly bounced back on the news the Senate would start over with its own version, with the BI North America Hospitals Index up 0.9% at 2:39 p.m. Hospitals fear the winding-down of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion will leave them with more customers who can’t afford to pay.

Trump celebrated the House vote with a news conference at the White House, standing alongside dozens of Republican lawmakers. “This has really brought the Republican Party together,” he said. But in the wake of the House’s razor-thin 217-213 vote, the Senate made clear it was going in a different direction. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who has been very critical of the House bill, said Thursday she hopes they start with “a clean slate” in the Senate. To get some kind of bill through his chamber, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will need to unite moderate and conservative wings of the party that want to pull the measure in entirely different directions. The GOP controls the chamber 52-48, meaning he can lose no more than two Republicans and still pass it, given the united Democratic opposition.

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At ZIRP.

Cost Of Interest On US Government Debt Tops Half A Trillion Dollars (ZH)

With debt ceilings, spending plans, and tax reforms focusing all eyes on Washington, we thought it notable that for the first time in US history, the cost of interest on US government debt has risen above half a trillion dollars… One wonders, given the grandiose spending plans, if we will ever get back below half a trillion dollars?

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We’ve been saying all along OPEC cuts were fantasy. US shale is a minor factor. Lack of demand is a major one.

Oil Extends Slump Below $45 (BBG)

Oil slid below $45 a barrel for the first time since OPEC agreed to cut output in November as U.S. shale confounds the producer group’s attempts to prop up prices. Futures have collapsed 11% this week, slumping to the lowest since Nov. 15 – two weeks before OPEC agreed to production curbs to boost prices and ease a global glut. The decline is being driven by expanding U.S. output that’s countering the group’s curbs. Energy companies in Asia slumped on Friday, after their American counterparts were hammered in the previous session. While news of OPEC’s cuts drove prices in early January to the highest since July 2015, that increase encouraged U.S. drillers to pump more.

The result has been 11 straight weeks of expansion in American production in the longest run of gains since 2012. Prices are still more than 50% below their peak in 2014, when surging shale output triggered crude’s biggest collapse in a generation and left rival producers such as Saudi Arabia scrambling to protect market share. “There’s disappointment that the production cuts we’ve seen from OPEC and others has not had any impact at this stage on global inventory levels,” said Ric Spooner, a chief market analyst at CMC Markets in Sydney. “The market seems to be much further away from a balanced situation than some had previously forecast. There is a possibility that oil could be headed to the low $40s range from here.”

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Expecting the dollar to fall. Doesn’t look all that wise.

Emerging-Market Companies Binge On Dollar-Denominated Debt (BBG)

Emerging-market companies are showing up to the U.S. debt market at the fastest pace ever, and finding plenty of appetite for their bonds. Sales of dollar-denominated notes have climbed to about $160 billion this year, more than double offerings at this point in 2016 and the fastest annual start on record, according to data compiled by Bloomberg going back to 1999. Emerging-market assets tanked after Donald Trump’s surprise election in November, but they’ve quickly recovered, with bonds returning 4% this year and outperforming U.S. investment-grade and high-yield debt. The deluge of issuance began when companies anticipating a surge in borrowing costs amid economic stimulus from Trump rushed to sell notes before his inauguration Jan. 20.

But the expected jump never materialized, extending the window for companies like Petroleo Brasileiro SA and Petroleos Mexicanos to pursue multi-billion-dollar deals. They found plenty of demand from investors keen to buy shorter-dated debt that’s better insulated against rising U.S. interest rates. Jean-Dominique Butikofer, the head of emerging markets for fixed income at Voya Investment Management in Atlanta, said he’s seen new interest in emerging markets from investors who already own U.S. high-yield bonds or emerging market sovereign debt that’s more vulnerable to rising interest rates. “You want to be less sensitive to U.S. rates, but you still want to diversify and you still want to play the EM catch-up growth story,” said Butikofer, whose firm manages $217 billion. “You’re going to gradually add emerging-market corporates.”

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There should never be something like a pesticides and seeds group. Break them up.

Chemchina Clinches Landmark $43 Billion Takeover of Syngenta (R.)

ChemChina has won more than enough support from Syngenta shareholders to clinch its $43 billion takeover of the Swiss pesticides and seeds group, the two companies said on Friday. The deal, announced in February 2016, was prompted by China’s desire to use Syngenta’s portfolio of top-tier chemicals and patent-protected seeds to improve domestic agricultural output. It is China’s biggest foreign takeover to date. It is one of several deals that are remaking the international market for agricultural chemicals, seeds and fertilisers. The other deals in the sector are a $130 billion proposed merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont, and Bayer’s plan to merge with Monsanto. The trend toward market consolidation has triggered fears among farmers that the pipeline for new herbicides and pesticides might slow.

Regulators have required some divestments as a condition for approving the Syngenta deal. Based on preliminary numbers, around 80.7% of Syngenta shares have been tendered, above the minimum threshold of 67% support, the partners said in a joint statement. [..] The transaction is set to close on May 18 after the start of an additional acceptance period for shareholders and payment of a special 5-franc dividend to holders of Swiss-listed shares on May 16. Holders of U.S.-listed depositor receipts will get the special dividend in July. Syngenta shares will be delisted from the Swiss bourse and its depository receipts from the New York Stock Exchange. Chief Executive Erik Fyrwald played down the transition from publicly listed group to becoming part of a Chinese state enterprise, stressing that Syngenta would remain a Swiss-based global company while under Chinese ownership.

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May has nothing, election or not. “..the 30-minute slot that we are going to devote to Brexit per week, for this week it’s up.”

Brexit Talks Could Become ‘Impossible’: EU Council President Tusk (Ind.)

The President of the EU’s ruling Council has intervened to calm Brexit tensions 24 hours after Theresa May launched a vicious attack on “Brussels bureaucrats” on the steps of No 10. Donald Tusk warned that talks would become “impossible” if emotions got out of hand between the UK and EU and called for “mutual respect” between the negotiating parties. The call for calm comes after Theresa May accused the EU’s bureaucracy of trying to influence the result of Britian’s general election by maliciously leaking the content of discussions to the media. In an aggressive speech on Wenesday she tore into officials, warning that her government would not let “the bureaucrats of Brussels run over us”.

The European Commission this morning reacted indignantly to Ms May’s conspiracy theory, with a spokesperson telling reporters that the organisation was “rather busy” and preoccupied with more important matters than trying to fix the poll. But Mr Tusk, a Polish national who represents the EU states’ heads of government in Brussels, said on Thursday afternoon: “Brexit talks [are] difficult enough. If emotions get out of hand, they’ll become impossible. Discretion, moderation and mutual respect needed. “At stake are the daily lives and interests of millions of people on both sides of the Channel.”

The call for calm contrasts with that of a Commission spokesperson earlier today, who said: “We are not naive, we know that there is an election taking place in the United Kingdom. People get excited whenever we have elections. “This election in the United Kingdom is mainly about Brexit. But we here in Brussels, we are very busy, rather busy, with our policy work. “We have too much to do on our plate. So, in a nutshell, we are very busy. And we will not Brexitise our work. “To put it in the words of an EU diplomat, the 30-minute slot that we are going to devote to Brexit per week, for this week it’s up.”

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10 years too late? 20?

Italy’s Bankrupt National Airline Is Being Put Up For Sale (Ind.)

Alitalia will be put up for sale in two weeks having earlier this week fallen into administration. In a radio interview cited by the Financial Times, Carlo Calenda, the country’s economic development minister, said that the priority is for the whole company to get bought. “Within 15 days the commissioners will be open to expressions of interest,” he said. On Tuesday, Alitalia started bankruptcy proceedings for the second time in a decade after employees rejected job cuts and concessions linked to a €2bn recapitalisation plan. Shareholders voted unanimously to file for special administration. According to the Financial Times, the government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has extended a bridge loan of €600m to keep Alitalia afloat for the next six months, but has ruled out nationalisation.

This loan should give the commissioners appointed by the government time to come up with a strategy that will ensure the airline’s fleet is not grounded. Speaking to the broadcaster, Mr Calenda said the €600m loan would be the “maximum” of state aid on offer. Speaking about possible buyers, Mr Calenda said “any idea is welcome”. He stressed, however, that “Alitalia needs an alliance with a big European group”. Alitalia, whose major shareholders are Abu-Dhabi based Etihad Airways and Italian banks, has about 12,500 employees. It has been struggling ever since a previous bankruptcy in 2008.

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Somone will buy it for pennies on the buck. China?

Italy’s Rescue Of Its Airline Comes At Great Cost To The Economy (BBG)

Given its rich history, Italy is rightly attached to its relics. Unfortunately, this affection for the past does not stop at the Colosseum: It applies to failing companies too. Take Alitalia, Italy’s loss-making flag carrier, which has survived for years thanks to a string of public and private rescues. On Tuesday, the airline went into administration, prompting the government to provide a fresh loan worth €600 million ($655 million) to guarantee another six months of operation. Surely the time has come for Italy to stop losses. Unless Alitalia can find a buyer, the government should allow it to go bust. Politically, that is a tall order, of course. Politicians want to protect workers, who stand to lose their jobs if a company shuts down. But every euro used in a bailout is one that can’t be spent elsewhere; what economists call “opportunity cost.” How many more jobs could have been created had the government invested €600 million into upgrading Italy’s digital infrastructure?

Keeping Alitalia alive is also a burden on productivity, since it takes resources that might be deployed by more efficient competitors. Last year, a study for the European Commission found that the misallocation of workers and capital in Italy has steadily worsened since 1995, accounting for a large fraction of Italy’s productivity slowdown. If the government is serious about Italy returning to sustainable growth, it should stop helping losers get in the way of productive companies. There are also questions of financial stability. Between 1974 and 2014, Italian taxpayers have spent €7.4 billion propping up Alitalia, according to Mediobanca. Italy’s addiction to helping companies in trouble has contributed to its huge government debt, which now stands at nearly 133% of GDP, exposing Rome to the risk of a financial crisis.

The same problem also applies to banks. From UniCredit to Intesa Sanpaolo, many of Italy’s big lenders have granted hundreds of millions in credit lines to Alitalia, only to see their loans go up in smoke. The list also includes Monte Dei Paschi di Siena, the troubled bank which in December had to apply for a multi-billion euro government bailout. The reason? It was struggling under the weight of non-performing loans, like those it provided to Alitalia. While European rules on state aid will make it difficult for Rome to help Alitalia beyond the initial six months, one should never underestimate the ability of the Italian government to find a way to stitch together another flawed rescue. But if Italy is to finally start focusing on future growth, it will have to stop dwelling on the ruins of the past.

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A great economist died.

Baumol’s Cost Disease Explains A Lot About Our Economies (Vox)

William Baumol — an economist who just died at the age of 95 — had a famous idea, commonly known as Baumol’s cost disease, that explains a lot about our modern world. It explains why barbers make more in San Francisco than in Cleveland and why services such as health care and education keep getting more expensive. And it provides a possible explanation for why rich countries like America are devoting more and more of their workforces to low-productivity services, dragging down the economy-wide rate of productivity growth. In the 1960s, Baumol was trying to understand the economics of the arts, and he noticed something surprising: Musicians weren’t getting any more productive — playing a piece written for a string quartet took four musicians the same amount of time in 1965 as it did in 1865 — yet musicians in 1965 made a lot more money than musicians in 1865.

The explanation wasn’t too hard to figure out. Rising worker productivity in other sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, was pushing up wages. An arts institution that insisted on paying musicians 1860s wages in a 1960s economy would find their musicians were constantly quitting to take other jobs. So arts institutions — at least those that could afford it — had to raise their wages in order to attract and retain the best musicians. The consequence is that rising productivity in the manufacturing sector of the economy inevitably pushes up the cost of labor-intensive services like live musical performances. Rising productivity allows factories to cut prices and raise wages at the same time. But when wages rise, music venues have no alternative but to raise ticket prices to cover the higher costs.

This became known as Baumol’s cost disease, and Baumol realized that it had implications far beyond the arts. It implies that in a world of rapid technological progress, we should expect the cost of manufactured goods — cars, smartphones, T-shirts, bananas, and so forth — to fall, while the cost of labor-intensive services — schooling, health care, child care, haircuts, fitness coaching, legal services, and so forth — to rise. And this is exactly what the data shows. Decade after decade, health care and education have gotten more expensive while the price of clothing, cars, furniture, toys, and other manufactured goods has gone down relative to the overall inflation rate — exactly the pattern Baumol predicted a half-century ago.

Baumol’s cost disease is a powerful tool for understanding the modern economic world. It suggests, for example, that the continually rising costs of education and health care isn’t necessarily a sign that anything has gone wrong with those sectors of the economy. At least until we invent robotic professors, teachers, doctors, and nurses, we should expect these low-productivity sectors of the economy to get more expensive. While some argue that prices keep rising because the government subsidizes health care through programs like Medicare and college educations through student loans and grants, you see the same basic pattern with services like summer camps, veterinary services, and Broadway shows that aren’t hamstrung by government regulations and subsidies.

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Putin keeps his enemies close.

Russia Set to Police Syria Safe Zones Backed by Iran, Turkey (BBG)

Russia said it’s ready to send peacekeepers to Syria as it won backing from Turkey and Iran for a plan to establish safe zones inside the war-torn country in an effort to shore up a shaky cease-fire brokered by the three powers. The three countries signed a memorandum on the creation of so-called de-escalation areas on Thursday after two days of talks in Kazakhstan that also included representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups. Opposition leaders distanced themselves from the plan, saying they can’t accept Iran as a guarantor of the truce and that they want “clear and tangible” guarantees the deal will be enforced. The U.S. also expressed doubts. “Russia is ready to send its observers” to help enforce the safe zones, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, told reporters in the Kazakh capital, Astana. “We believe the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through political methods.”

Putin said on Wednesday that he’d secured the backing of U.S. President Donald Trump for the proposal, which could include a ban on bombing raids. But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday that the U.S. has “concerns” about the accord, “including the involvement of Iran as a so-called “guarantor,”’ and said Russia should do more to stop violence. [..] The latest initiative would establish four zones patrolled by foreign forces – possibly including Russian ones – in the northwestern Idlib province, Homs province in the west, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and southern Syria. It will take a month to finalize the maps of the proposed safe zones, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari said. The United Nations’ Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who also attended the Astana talks, described the agreement as a “step in the right direction.”

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That’ll go down well with Wolfowitz et al.

Syria Safe Zones To Be Shut For US, Coalition Planes (R.)

The safe zones which are being created in Syria will be closed for warplanes of the United States and those of the U.S.-led coalition, Russian news agencies quoted Russian envoy at Syria peace talks Alexander Lavrentyev as saying on Friday. Turkey and Iran agreed on Thursday to Russia’s proposal for “de-escalation zones” in Syria, a move welcomed by the United Nations but met with scepticism from the United States.

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Stop selling rubber boats, problem solved!

EU Wants China’s Help To Stop Boats Being Used By Migrants (R.)

The European Union wants China to help prevent migrants and refugees using Chinese-made inflatable boats to get into the bloc by stopping the boats reaching them, the European Commissioner for Migration said on Thursday. Dimitris Avramopoulos, speaking to reporters in Beijing after meeting Chinese Minister for Public Security Guo Shengkun, said the rubber boats used by people smugglers were made in China. “The rubber boats used by the smuggler networks in the Mediterranean are fabricated somewhere in China, they are exported to the countries in Asia and they are used by them,” Avramopoulos said.

“So I requested the support and cooperation from the Chinese authorities in order to track down this business and dismantle it, because what they produce is not serving the common good of the country. It is a very dangerous tool in the hands of ruthless smugglers.” He gave no further details, but said he and Guo had not discussed the possibility of China taking any of the refugees or migrants. More than a million people sought asylum in Europe’s rich north in 2015, mostly in Germany but also in large numbers in Sweden, straining the capacity of countries to cope. A contentious deal with Turkey to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Greece and the overland route to Germany, in return for EU funds, has reduced flows to a trickle, though thousands of migrants still try to reach Europe from Libya via sea routes.

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Who cares about the law? “..a more restrictive interpretation of asylum rights..”

EU Seeks to Ward Off New Refugee Crisis (Spiegel)

Merkel has promised that the refugee crisis seen two years ago will not be repeated: Never again will Europe see an uncontrolled inflow of millions of people. The refugee deal with Turkey is working, we are repeatedly told, and the crisis is over. That, though, could turn out to be wrong. With German voters set to go to the polls on Sept. 24, Merkel’s re-election campaign hinges on there not being a repeat of the refugee crisis, even if it’s not as substantial as the 2015 influx. But west of the closed Balkan route, a new migrant stream has been growing since the beginning of the year. From Jan. 1 to April 23, 36,851 migrants have followed the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy. That represents a 45% increase over the same period last year, when a record 181,000 people crossed the Mediterranean on the route.

Even more concerning is the fact that summer hasn’t even begun. Experience has shown that most migrants only climb into the boats once the Mediterranean grows calmer. Italian authorities estimate that a quarter million people will arrive on its shores this year. “There are challenges ahead,” says a senior German security official. Berlin is particularly concerned because it’s not just Africans who are taking the Mediterranean route to Italy. An increasing number of South Asians are as well, which could mean that the route across the sea to Italy is now seen as a viable alternative to the defunct Balkan route. People from Bangladesh now represent the second largest group of migrants that have crossed over from Libya this year. From January to March 2016, by contrast, exactly one Bangladeshi was picked up on the route. Pakistanis have also chosen the Mediterranean route more often in recent months.

[..] The EU is currently working on an emergency plan in case a “serious crisis situation” develops. The discussions are focusing on a scenario under which more than 200,000 refugees would have to be redistributed each year. An unpublished report by Malta, which currently holds the rotating European Council presidency, calls for a more restrictive interpretation of asylum rights in such a case. In other words, should too many migrants begin arriving, the EU will increase efforts at deterrence. Controversial proposals for reception camps to be established in North Africa also remain under discussion. Most of those currently fleeing from countries like Nigeria, Guinea and the Ivory Coast are doing so to escape grinding poverty and in the hopes of finding better opportunities in Europe. Very few of them have much chance of being granted asylum. That reality has made redistribution within the EU even more difficult. According to current law, those with no chance at asylum are supposed to be sent back home as quickly as possible and not sent to other European countries.

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Now add a huge rise in arrival numbers.

Tensions Boiling Over On Greece’s Chios Amid Absence Of Migrant Facility (K.)

Tensions are rising on the eastern Aegean island of Chios, which is currently favored by human smugglers ferrying migrants over from neighboring Turkey, with an increasing number of brawls at overcrowded state reception centers and local residents’ tolerance wearing thin. Clashes between migrants of different ethnicities are an almost daily occurrence, residents said following a violent confrontation on Tuesday night between Afghan and Algerian nationals at the Vial reception facility. That incident started as a fight between two small groups throwing stones at each other and escalated into a full-blown brawl involving around 60 people. Riot police stationed nearby were eventually obliged to enter the facility and break up the fight.

According to sources at the Citizens’ Protection Ministry, migrants have been arriving in greater numbers on Chios as it still lacks a so-called pre-departure camp due to protests by local residents against the creation of new facilities on the island. As a result, migrants landing on Chios and deemed ineligible for asylum are not being deported to Turkey as foreseen in an agreement signed between Turkey and the EU in March last year. Around 200 migrants have arrived on Chios this week, according to government figures, compared to virtually none on other islands in the eastern Aegean. And, according to a top-ranking police official, the problem is unlikely to be resolved until a center is set up. “The message being sent to those deciding to make the journey is that if you get to Chios they won’t send you back,” he said.

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NGOs to be thrown off the islands this summer, Greek army and the Greek Red Cross to take over.

Greece Paying Asylum Seekers To Reject Appeals (EUO)

The Greek government is giving cash incentives for rejected asylum seekers on the islands to forgo their legal rights to appeal their cases. Some €1,000 and free plane tickets home are now part of a largely EU-financed package to send them packing as quickly as possible. “This is quite complicated and quite immoral,” a Greek lawyer working for Save the Children, an international NGO, told EUobserver on Tuesday (2 May). The move is part of a larger effort to return people to Turkey and free up administrative bottlenecks, but the plan has generated criticism from human rights defenders who say asylum seekers are being pushed into taking the money. People have five days to decide whether to take the cash, with reports emerging that even that short delay was not being respected by authorities. Previously, people were entitled to the assistance even if they appealed.

The scheme only applies to those in so-called eu hotspots on the Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos, and Samos islands, where arrivals are screened, given that Turkey does not accept people back from mainland Greece. Greek minister of migration Ioannis Mouzalas has said the financial bait was needed to prevent bogus claimants from abusing the asylum system. The new rules on excluding people who appeal their cases, imposed last month, also come after the European Commission pressured Athens into shortening its appeal process and removing administrative barriers to send more people home. The EU-Turkey deal last year was supposed to ensure that new asylum arrivals whose applications have been declared unfounded would be returned to the country. But only around 1,500 have been sent back since its launch, with the Greek appeals system consistently ruling in favour of initially rejected asylum seekers over broader concerns that Turkey was not safe.

[..] The whole appears to be part of bigger plan to squeeze asylum-seeker rights on the islands and get them out of Greece as fast as possible. It also comes on the heels of a new plan that aims to boot NGOs from the islands. “Many NGOs will longer be on the islands after July, it means there is going to be a lot less scrutiny and a lot less visibility on what is going on as well,” said Claire Whelan from the Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent humanitarian organisation. NGOs working in the medical field in the Vial hotspot in Chios island have already been replaced by the Greek army and the Greek Red Cross. All were informed earlier this year that DG ECHO, the EU Commission’s humanitarian branch, would no longer fund them. Instead, the money will be coming from the Commission’s interior and security department, DG Home. “One of the biggest gaps we see, that remains, is access to legal assistance and legal counseling. And I don’t know if that will be funded under DG Home and the government,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Whelan said.

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Europe doesn’t care what Greece wants.

Greece Says Has Done Its Bit, Now Wants Debt Relief (R.)

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called on Greece’s international lenders on Thursday to reach an agreement on easing its debt burden by May 22, when eurozone finance ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the country’s bailout progress. Athens and its creditors reached a long-awaited deal at staff-level this week on a series of bailout reforms Greece needs to unlock loans from its €86 billion rescue package, the country’s third since 2010. The EU and the IMF, which has yet to announce if it will participate in the bailout, have now started negotiations over Greece’s post-bailout fiscal targets, a key element for granting it further debt relief. Greece is being firm that it has done what was asked of it and now wants to see movement from the other side. “Medium-term debt relief measures must be clearly defined by the May 22 Eurogroup meeting,” Tsipras told his cabinet on Thursday.

“Greece has done its part and all parties must now fulfill their commitments.” The creditors have been not been quite as upbeat and there is no guarantee that the May 22 meeting will actually sign off on the new tranche of loans, let alone draft up debt relief. But Luxembourg Finance Minister Pierre Gramenga did cite progress when speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Luxembourg. “We’re one step closer. They [Greece] over-performed last year, they are on track this year, we have now an agreement looming that we will hopefully agree on in Eurogroup,” he said. “Those who have been pessimistic all the time have been proved wrong. I’m very pleased about that. The worst case is not always the scenario that plays out.” Greece’s economy and budget have improved markedly recently, although major problems of poverty and unemployment persist.

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Additional 18% cuts to come.

Greek Pensioners’ Network Lists 23 Cuts Inflicted On Benefits (K.)

At least 23 cuts have been inflicted on pensioners since 2010, with losses adding up to more than €50 billion. For some, their benefits have fallen by as much as 50%. The United Pensioners network has just added a 23rd cut to its list – the reduction of up to 18% of main and supplementary pensions agreed by the government this week. Network chief Nikos Hatzopoulos says the cuts have impoverished pensioners. The other 22 cuts on the list are as follows:

– In 2010, Christmas, Easter and holiday bonuses ended.

– In 2011, all pensioners under the age of 60 took a 6-10% cut.

– In the same year, pensioners were also slapped with a solidarity levy ranging from 3 to 13% for monthly pensions over €1,400. Also cuts to supplementary pensions started, from 3 to 10%.

– Main pensions to under-60s were slashed in 2011 and supplementary pensions of more than 150 euros a month fell by 15-30%.

– From January 2012, there were fresh cuts to any “high” pensions not affected until then.

– In 2012, monthly pensions over 1,000 euros were hit with a new cut.

– Summer 2014 saw a 5.2% cut to all supplementary pensions.

– In 2015, minimum pensions fell.

– In the same year, all early retirements incurred a 10% cut.

– From last May, all new pensioners were informed they would get up to 30% less.

– Some 250,000 supplementary pensions fell by up to 40%.

– The EKAS benefit to 160,000 low-income pensioners was ended.

– Civil servants’ share fund dividends were slashed 45%.

– High pensions took a retroactive cut from late 2016 to end-2018.

– Widows’ benefits fell and stricter criteria were introduced.

– The pensions of people with employment were slashed 60%.

– Early retirees took big cuts.

– Retirement lump sums shrank 15-20%.

– New disability pensions were slashed last May.

– The healthcare levy on main pensions rose.

– A similar 6% levy was imposed on supplementary pensions.

– Since January, 650,000 farmers have had to pay a 14% income levy.

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